Review: Skyfall


Warning: Some Spoilers follow!

Let’s start by the bucking the trend of unanimous praise and addressing Skyfall’s major flaw. Is there a truly jaw dropping action sequence? Yes, many of you will sharply reply, have you not seen the pre-titles sequence? It’s certainly true that the early action in Istanbul is impressive, exotic and engaging. You cannot get more outrageous and dazzling than that digger sequence on the train. There is also plenty of variety, with the action hurtling along from shadowy apartment, to four wheeled and two wheeled pursuit, before crashing down onto the train tracks in breathless but effortlessly stylish fashion.

However, Sam Mendes (American BeautyRoad to Perdition) revealed in an interview with The Culture Show on BBC 2 that his benchmark for the opening action scene was Casino Royale’s free running crane extravaganza, which culminated in a bruising embassy shoot-out. For me, the Istanbul chase sequence in Skyfall does not come close to the action spectacle in Casino Royale. This may well be because almost all of the pre-titles sequence has been showcased in trailers or promotional footage, dampening its impact in the cinema. I would prefer to see less of the key action sequence in future, but the marketing clearly worked, given the takings at the box office. Nevertheless, Casino Royale also has the Miami airport scene, the stairwell fight at the hotel and the somewhat overblown climax of the sinking house in Venice. Skyfall, for the majority of its runtime, plays out at a much lower key in terms of action. Even Quantum of Solace, for all its faults, has action scenes that could arguably trump Skyfall’s. Its opening car chase and Siena based rooftop foot chase may feel like add ons to Casino Royale, with disappointingly Bourne-esque execution at times, but they remain excellent action set pieces.

Yet Skyfall is wowing critics, fans and ordinary cinemagoers at once. In the UK opening weekend and opening week box office records have been broken. How is it getting away with it? Surely Bond should be getting a grilling for failing to go bigger with the action, because bigger means better, right? Wrong. The reason for Skyfall’s success is that good storytelling tops mindless and meaningless action spectacle every time. Casino Royale had a convincing love story and the added thrill of seeing a newly qualified 007. This gave its action sequences more punch, along with a refreshing, new, gritty approach. Skyfall’s pre-titles sequence betters even Casino Royale in terms of drama though, and this is perhaps the most important ingredient in any action scene.

In many ways the pre-titles sequence of Skyfall sums up the entire film. It incorporates key elements of the plot by splitting the focus between Bond, Eve (Naomie Harris) and M’s office back in London. After an incredibly sophisticated and iconic opening few seconds to the film, in which Thomas Newman’s (The Shawshank Redemption) score and Roger Deakins’ (A Beautiful Mind) cinematography lusciously combine (and not for the last time), Bond is faced with a dying fellow agent. His immediate reaction is to help but M issues stern orders to leave him and pursue an assailant with top secret information. The tension between Bond’s operational instincts in the field and M’s merciless, increasingly desperate objectives in the MI6 boardroom is instantly evident, and the thematic spine to the film is established. Mendes then uses all his expertise, from the world of theatre as well as film, to juggle an action sequence with many layers (he has compared it to Russian dolls), setting up new characters, relationships and plot points as well as thrilling his audience.

So crucially the action in Skyfall is plot focused, and this plays a role in ensuring that this is a really good film full stop, not just a good Bond film. Many reviewers have played up the similarities to recent superhero epics, such as The Dark Knight, that thanks to Christopher Nolan’s (Memento,InceptionThe Dark Knight Rises) darker edged talents brought previously laughable villains and protagonists brilliantly into the modern world. However, any Bond fan will rigorously dispute the influence of these films. There are some noticeable similarities, with glimmers of Newman’s score resembling Hans Zimmer’s Bat themed work and certain lines of dialogue echoing Nolan’s trilogy, but most of these are coincidental. For the most part Newman’s score cleverly references the Bond canon created by John Barry, even if David Arnold perhaps understands the series better. And John Logan’s involvement with the script, originally drafted, as usual, by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, has produced some classic Bondian dialogue with a twist. The real invigorating influence at work, as Daniel Craig is the first to point out, is Ian Fleming’s original books.

Skyfall is a journey from Craig’s modern, gritty Bond back towards a traditional, but refreshed, 007 dynamic with his allies. Some have seen it as disjointed but those behind Skyfall knew exactly what they were doing. In creating a story that pays homage to some key moments and themes of James Bond’s 50 year cinematic history, the makers of Skyfall have allowed 007 to follow an arc that gradually restores humour and fun, along with some classic ingredients. All the while though a modern Bond is emerging, who is the best of the books and the films, and not at all dated.

The resurrection of some classic Bond allies is a very wise move that seems to have set up an exciting immediate future for Daniel Craig’s tenure, as well as a secure, longer term legacy for his successor. Ben Whishaw (The Hollow Crown) and Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus) are excellent additions, whilst Judi Dench (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is given room to deliver her best ever performance as M. Of course a considerable chunk of Bond’s character comes from his existence as a lone wolf but these moments that cast 007 as the solitary, wandering assassin are given greater weight in Skyfall because of his relationships with his friends, colleagues and employers. For example, my favourite action scene of the film is a shoot-out in Whitehall at an inquiry into M’s competence. The sight of so many quality actors involved in such a bullet ridden scene gave me goosebumps, even during my second viewing of the film. Indeed, Bond’s rush across London, which is mostly just him against the bad guy, with some fun touches from Whishaw’s youthful Q, is equally riveting because we know he cares about the people in danger at the other end. There’s also the thrill of watching a Bond film transform the tedium of the Tube into endless tunnels of possibility.

I haven’t even mentioned Javier Bardem’s (No Country for Old Men) blonde baddie, Silva. He provides the genuine threat that Quantum of Solace so seriously lacked. Only an actor of Bardem’s calibre could pull off some of the absurdities of his character. His eccentric fashion sense, his homoerotic taunts and his delightfully scripted anecdotes make him unforgettable from the first time you see him. But it’s his back story and his reasons for vengeance against M and MI6, physically embodied by his deformity, which makes him a great villain. From the moment we meet him Skyfall accelerates confidently into top gear with a burst of mad nitrous oxide into the tank. We’ve already been treated to the botched operation in Istanbul, Bond and MI6’s decline, and Bond’s partial reawakening in Shanghai and Macau’s casino by the time we meet Silva. Bond’s neon lit, stealthy approach of hired gun Patrice in Shanghai is a particular highlight, due to the gorgeousness of the visuals and the tension ramped up by the soundtrack. Bond’s flirty conversation with Severine in the casino, and his knowing insights about her background, is also a great moment. But Silva’s introduction takes us straight to the heart of the film.

In Skyfall we perhaps get closer to who James Bond is, and where he comes from, than ever before. Xan Brooks (of The Guardian) has criticised Skyfall for losing sight of what a James Bond film is and trying to do something too poignant, too clever. There will no doubt be those who agree with him. They will argue that taking the final third of the film to Bond’s ancestral home in Scotland is a step too far. I disagree. As I’ve already said, Skyfall is both a good film and a good James Bond film. The two things needn’t contradict each other. There are some conversations with emotional undertones, but they remain undertones. Bond never breaks down over the fact that he is an orphan. In fact his front of charm and bravery seems to thicken on home soil; it’s as if he’s returned home at last with a fine new suit to be proud of, and of course he’s staying strong for M. The Oedipal nature of Skyfall has been discussed by almost every reviewer and I certainly believe it’s been over hyped. Bond and M’s mutual respect, and underlying tenderness, is undoubtedly a central pillar of the plot though. In my view, Bond’s relationship with his family home and M gives Skyfall substance, and these relationships are handled perfectly by Mendes, who never undermines 007’s traditionally solid character.

The action sequences on the moors of Scotland are refreshingly unique in the Bond series. They also invert the normal dynamic of a Bond film; rather than the story ending in a villain’s lair, the villain comes home to Bond. Ultimately Skyfall’s real climax takes place back in London, with the unveiling of some new allies and Bond receiving a symbolic gift; a British bulldog. The bulldog represents a very British sense of endurance and perseverance, embodied in the character of 007. But it also perfectly summarises the ability of the James Bond franchise to evolve and reinvent itself, so that James Bond will always, always return.

Unbelievably stylish, with a great story and a fantastic cast, Skyfall sets the template for a new James Bond formula. Craig and Mendes simultaneously embrace and kill off the old, so that 007 can be reborn into a new era.

Parade’s End – Episode 1 – Review


Parade’s End has been billed as the television event of the autumn by those in the know. On paper it certainly boasts an impressive creative team, with acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard returning to television after an absence of over twenty years to pen a personal labour of love, an adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s four book series from the 1920s. Benedict Cumberbatch spearheads a remarkable cast, all of whom are finely decked out in period costume. Surely this expensive BBC and HBO co-production is ready made to replicate the mass market appeal of Downton Abbey? In theory yes, but Parade’s End has high brow, literary DNA that makes it an altogether different beast from Julian Fellowes and ITV’s aristocratic love child.

Cumberbatch’s character, Christopher Tietjens, is the heart of this sprawling Edwardian story. He is a government statistician, with a superhuman mind, and today such a figure would be replaced by a computer. According to reports Stoppard wanted Cumberbatch for the part, and no one else, from the very beginning of a long writing process that stretches back into the 1990s. Of course back then, pre-Sherlock, Cumberbatch was a relative nobody in the acting universe. But something about the actor’s ability to suppress emotion and project immense intelligence convinced Stoppard that he was the perfect fit for Tietjens. Yesterday in Edinburgh Sherlock co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss expressed similar sentiments about casting Cumberbatch as the world’s most famous detective; they only ever auditioned him for the part. Something appears to have clicked into place in an increasingly extraordinary acting career. Perhaps Cumberbatch is even more of a genius than the characters he plays.

Comparisons will be made between the characters of Christopher Tietjens and Sherlock Holmes, but they will mostly be misleading. Both possess brilliant minds and revel in acquiring seemingly dull details about anything and everything. Both hide a fragile emotional core from the world. However, arguably Sherlock keeps his emotions under wraps far better than Tietjens. Early reviews of the opening episode all touch on the climate of emotional repression in Edwardian society, and Tietjens’ resulting coldness, but I was surprised by his frequent vulnerability. On numerous occasions he refers to himself as “soft” and can scarcely disguise the pain in his face. He also loses his temper in public, with individuals and the establishment gossip they mindlessly pander to. Having said that he is a fiercely traditional and principled man, who lives his life by a set of values that seem increasingly out of date, both politically and socially. Contrast this with Sherlock who, in Conan Doyle’s books and particularly the new series, despises the flaws of the status quo.

Sherlock’s success is hard to match, but Cumberbatch could give the performance of his career in Parade’s End. The sheer depth of the material provides wonderful opportunities for all the actors involved. As author Julian Barnes writes in The Guardian, “the emotional level of the novel is high”. I have not read Ford’s book but its multi-layered power to absorb is clear from the obvious fascination that comes through in articles written by Barnes and others. Episode 1 of the adaptation also demonstrates the complexity and quality of the characterisation on show.

Tietjens is married to Sylvia, who is deliciously played by Rebecca Hall. In the opening scenes of Friday night’s series opener we flit between their first meeting (and subsequent romp) on a train and later, unhappier times, with Sylvia practically blackmailing Tietjens into marriage and then gallivanting around Europe with a lover, just to taunt him. In Sylvia, Hall is playing a character pleasingly out of her comfort zone, who oozes sex and seems to desire destruction out of nothing more than restlessness. In his Guardian piece Barnes describes Sylvia as the “most possessed evil character in 20th century fiction”. And yet there is something likeable about her. Despite her malice, or indeed because of it, she is tremendous fun to watch and she confesses that beneath her antics lies a frustrating affection for Tietjens, who has made all other men seem infantile and foolish to her.

For his part, Tietjens refuses to abandon the conventions of marriage and gentlemanly conduct. So he simply takes the sadistic betrayal Sylvia continually rubs in his face. He hardens himself to her games and is forced to take her back when she telegrams from Europe, fed up with her latest lover. When his friend and colleague, Macmaster (played by a refined version of Stephen Graham, of Pirates of the Caribbean and This is England fame) quotes love poetry at him, Tietjens harshly describes such talk as “congealed bacon fat”.

The psychology of this odd and manipulating marriage may be fascinating, but the episode really takes flight when Tietjens discovers there is hope for him to enjoy a real loving relationship. On a golfing trip with government figures two suffragettes raid the green, ambushing an MP and fleeing dramatically. The next day Tietjens realises he knows one of the charismatic pair, Valentine (played by Adelaide Clemens), as he breakfasts at the home of an amusingly mad vicar. She is clever and fiercely principled like him, and during a coach ride through the fog which ends in a symbolic collision between modernity and tradition, the two form an affectionate bond.

Suddenly Tietjens’ torment reaches a new level, with the knowledge of what he is missing. The episode ends with Cumberbatch sobbing into a horse in an empty field. The trajectory of a series that will encompass the First World War, the struggle for women’s rights and the personal lives of the characters is set, but where this rich parade will end is far from clear. I for one cannot wait to find out.

Are modern baddies running out of evil schemes?


Marvel’s Avengers Assemble opens this week to unexpectedly unanimous rave reviews. According to Flickering Myth’s very own five star assessment, Avengers Assemble (or simply The Avengers for our American cousins) “has everything”. Joss Whedon has managed to delight everyone from snobby critics to fearsomely devoted fan boys. Somehow he’s crammed several ego heavy superheroes, presumably played by ego heavy actors, into one movie and given them enough interesting things to do for 2 hours and 22 minutes. Which isn’t an easy feat in the modern cinematic universe.

However, critics being critics, the reviews have not been totally positive. The only negative that repeatedly crops up is a lack of threat. Henry Barnes of The Guardian describes Loki’s army, kept secret for so long, as a “horde of faceless, disposable allies” and concludes that “it’s hard to see how they put up much of a threat”. Now you can bet Whedon and his helpers at Marvel put plenty of time and effort into deciding upon a suitable nemesis for their team of superheroes. And crucially, the reviews are not critical of Loki or Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of the bitter god. Yes he appears to be a caricature and a bit camp and over the top like a pantomime villain, but he’s a delightfully menacing, old fashioned baddie. The problem is with his evil plan.

Avengers Assemble is a perfect example of a growing dilemma for modern movies, which is that the bad guys are running out of evil schemes. It’s just all been done before. Robbie Collin argues in The Telegraph that Avengers Assemble gets away with treading the same old ground because it does it so well, with flair and wit. But he still writes his whole review around the fact that Avengers Assemble says or does nothing new. In fact, the films it copies are relatively recent. Its set pieces, according to Collin, improve upon action we’ve already seen at the cinema in Battleship and Transformers.

The worrying thing is that The Avengers has a lot to work with compared to many movies, but has still failed to deliver anything resembling great originality in the department of villainy. Whedon had reams of source material to draw upon in the form of Marvel’s comics. The writer/director was under pressure to come up with something impressive, to warrant the launch of The Avengers initiative in the story, but had considerable flexibility to do so. With superhero films, the sky is literally the limit. The suspension of disbelief is already sufficient to allow for a farfetched plan to conquer the world.

More realistic stories are more limited. They might still depend on a believable adversary having a horrible plan. The evil scheme in Avengers Assemble is disappointing at worst and covered up by special effects, along with the film’s other attributes. Much of the interest lies with how the heroes compete with each other and overcome their differences. In films with one hero, the challenge presented by the villain can make or break the story. In films without super strength, practically invincible iron suits or The Incredible Hulk, the bad guy’s plan typically needs to be more complex, nuanced and mysterious to draw the audience in.

I first noticed this phenomenon back in December, when I saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in quick succession at my local multiplex. Both films fall back on a classic evil scheme, which has become harder and harder to pull off in recent years: world war. Nowadays a global conflict or a nuclear apocalypse seems like an alien possibility. We’re no longer defined by the Cold War going on around us and even the threat of terrorism has cooled in the last couple of years, especially since the death of Osama Bin Laden. A Game of Shadows was obviously set in the past, making the prospect of a European war spiralling out of control a little more realistic. But it had virtually no impact on me, probably because I’d seen the same thing countless times before. Also, the film was set prior to the First World War and seemed to think of itself as poignant for foreshadowing it. However, to me the inevitability of conflict merely rendered the entire plot pointless.

The saving grace for A Game of Shadows was that Robert Downey Jr. and Jared Harris shared a delicious onscreen chemistry (albeit not as fun as Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott’s in the BBC’s Sherlock). Any story involving Holmes and Moriarty is really about the battle of their intellects. Thankfully for the film, the actors gave ordinary lines of dialogue hidden depths and piled on the tension, as well as the wit, whenever the enemies shared the screen. Unfortunately for Ghost Protocol, it had neither a compelling scheme nor a charismatic villain. The bad guys are largely unseen. Initially, this adds to the drama. I was blown away to a land of excellent escapist entertainment by the action sequences in the Russian prison, the Kremlin and Dubai. Sadly the climax of the third act was a major disappointment. Not primarily because of the action, even if the car park showdown was less impressive than what had come before. But because Michael Nyqvist’s villain was an uninteresting enigma and his plan to spark nuclear war was just that: same old, same old.

Ghost Protocol remains a much better film than A Game of Shadows on the strength of its set pieces alone. Brad Bird’s vision, born in the limitless environment of animation, gave the Mission: Impossible franchise a much needed dose of creativity and imagination. However, if Bird’s film had an inventive evil scheme and villain to match its bold stunts, it would have been extraordinary, rather than just great entertainment. This is something that James Bond fans will be bearing in mind in the ongoing build up to the 23rd film in the franchise. Sam Mendes has a background in theatre and the plot details we know about, involving Bond’s family ancestry, seem to be there to give our suave hero some heart. Javier Bardem is a worthy opponent, capable of bringing to life truly menacing baddies, as he did No Country for Old Men. But what’s the story? What’s the evil plan?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first official Bond film, Dr. No. From the very beginning, the threats in the films have moved with the times. In 1962, Dr. No was disrupting American rocket launches, stirring up the Cold War. In 2002 the villain was a bitter North Korean soldier. In 2006, for Daniel Craig’s reboot, the writers reinvented Ian Fleming’s first Bond book to make the banker, Le Chiffre, someone who financed terrorists. In 2008’s Quantum of Solace, effectively a sequel to Casino Royale, the writers attempted to tap into unease about global resources, by having an evil organisation pretend to be after oil, but actually snapping up reserves of drinking water in barren countries. The story was a disappointment, again largely because the filmmakers failed to nail either the villain or the evil plot.

So whatever the evil scheme is in Skyfall, it will probably reflect the times that we live in. You could argue that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to think of evil schemes because the world is a better place today than it used to be. You could equally argue that the immorality in the modern world is simply harder to see and pushed behind closed doors. You could also say that there is something hilarious about the idea of bad guys running out of ideas. This is undoubtedly true, it is funny. Imagine Blofeld sitting around with nothing to do but feed his cat and watch The Voice on Saturday nights.

But it is also worrying. The lack of creativity when writing for villains may hint at deeper issues. There are always people with villains in their lives. Do we need to empathise more with these people, and make our stories more personal? Are we simply being complacent or deliberately ignorant about the problems in the world? We all need to a little drama in our lives to drive us forward and as societies we need challenges to overcome, goals to aim for. Perhaps more than anything else, we need good movies to fuel our imaginations. It’s about time filmmakers bucked their ideas up and gave us some 21st century villains, with 21st century ideas.

Shame on the censors for trying to cut McQueen and Fassbender’s masterpiece


Steve McQueen’s film about a sex addict in New York, played by Michael Fassbender, will not be shown in Singapore. Censors there have demanded that certain scenes be cut. In particular, a graphic threesome involving Fassbender’s protagonist Brandon Sullivan and two women offended the authorities. Even after these alterations, Shame would only have been shown to those aged 21 and over. Faced with the prospect of his original work being butchered, McQueen has decided not to release the film in Singapore.

To which I say, good for him. The issue of censorship often only raises its ugly head above the parapet because of films like The Human Centipede or The Human Centipede 2. Such films are designed to shock and give the censors a problem. Many of them aim to be banned or controversially released, which will fuel curiosity and word of mouth. The filmmakers behind such gruesome, low budget projects know that turning their movies into forbidden fruit is far more effective than any marketing campaign their funds could afford. This is why a large chunk of film critics always argue, in the inevitably heated debate that follows any act of censorship, that the disgusting films should be shown to an adult audience, unedited, at the cinema. Without the allure of a ban, the argument goes, the films will flop at the box office and demand for them will fizzle out.

There are flaws to this view but this is beside the point. Shame is not shocking for the sake of it. There is nothing gratuitous about the sex and nudity. Every shot of a bare buttock or a naked nipple contributes to the overarching theme that defines Brandon’s life. Rarely is the sex erotic, it is simply there, a necessary part of existence. Shame is a gripping study of addiction, which needs to show the audience the everyday reality of its main character’s all consuming compulsion. In other words, the shocking bits on the screen during Shame are a by-product of characterisation and storytelling. Unlike The Human Centipede and its infantile class mates, Shame is a grown up film, with bags of artistic merit.

It really isn’t an exaggeration to talk about Shame as though it were a work of art. Steve McQueen’s background as an artist shines through in the camerawork from the very start. But I’m talking about more than the beautifully long shots of New York (that jogging scene!). There’s a reason that Shame caused such excitable critical buzz and won itself nominations during awards season. The film works well as a whole, despite having standout moments that sear themselves into your memory, like Carey Mulligan’s sensual rendition of ‘New York, New York’ or Fassbender’s brooding stares on the subway.

It’s a poetically tragic story at times, even with its sordid subject matter, which tackles a contemporary issue in society that remains a genuine taboo. The film’s title is incredibly apt and the runtime is confidently concise. Not a single scene is wasted. Sadly, by taking on a real and current issue that is rarely addressed, Shame became too raw to win big awards like Oscars and Baftas. American voters for the Academy Awards didn’t like confronting the harmful sexualisation of their society. This is a terrible shame (pardon the pun) because it’s the choice of issue that gives the narrative its overwhelming force and worth.

Clearly I appreciate McQueen’s artistry behind the camera, as well as his work on the script with Abi Morgan. But for me the real crime of the awards season was that Michael Fassbender did not win anything notable for his performance in Shame. Jean Dujardin was excellent in The Artist and Gary Oldman deservedly captured the British imagination with his role in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. However, compared to what Fassbender does in Shame, these performances are mere imitation. Dujardin channels the spirit of silent cinema’s stars, whilst Oldman copies and slightly reworks Alec Guinness’ original interpretation of George Smiley. Ok, that’s harsh and inaccurate, but for me Fassbender trumps both of these outstanding examples of acting. He is the glue that holds all the masterful pieces of Shame together. His intensity is extraordinary, all the more so because of the way he offsets it with intimacy.

The best scene in the entire film, for me, is when Brandon tries and fails to be intimate. He whisks a work colleague away to a stunning penthouse on a whim. At first, he appears to be enjoying the fact that he knows this woman and they are not just meeting for sex. However, when she tries to make love to him, he cannot go through with it. He cannot cope with the eye contact, the kissing, the possibility of love.

To censor this scene would be utter madness. It would rob audiences of a sublime moment of cinema, a moment of truth, a moment of art. It is painful and awkward to watch, whilst also being captivatingly moving and real. Fassbender conveys frustration, vulnerability and dozens of other emotions, simply through glances, gestures and movements. The foreplay in this scene is so lifelike, playing out like a stumbling dance on the bed. For many, this will be the most erotic scene in Shame, because there is tenderness and seduction on offer, rather than a mere brutal release of pent up desire.

Shame should never be censored because everyone will have their own favourite scene. The ingredient that makes Shame feel more like art than an ordinary film is ambiguity. All art is ambiguous, open to multiple meanings and interpretations. Fassbender’s longing looks on buses and trains will be alluring to some, but repugnant to others. McQueen is right to deny the censors the chance to spoil any ambiguous component of his story. This film deserves and demands to be seen, but only as it was originally intended.

The Cabin in the Woods : Beware of the Hype as well as the Spoilers


The Cabin in the Woods has set sections of the internet ablaze with excited chatter. It’s been dubbed by many as a ‘game changer’, which chews up the horror film genre and spits out a deformed, witty and mind blowing analysis. Whilst it is an undoubtedly clever deconstruction of a genre, it is also very vulnerable to being overhyped, like a lot of modern movies.

Friends and colleagues left me in a state of feverish excitement before I saw the film. Their ranting and raving catapulted my expectations into the stratosphere. I was already aware of the positive critical buzz but it’s ultimately the endorsement of those that you trust that tips the balance. I spent the entire runtime of The Cabin in the Woods waiting for great things, which never quite materialised.

Ideally you should see the film without reading or hearing anything about it. However, for most of us, that simply isn’t realistic in today’s world. Before you decide to see a film you have to be convinced, by a trailer, a poster or a good old fashioned review. The trailer for The Cabin in the Woods drops a few huge hints towards its ‘game changing’ premise. I was assured by those who had seen it that the twists and turns still had tremendous impact. For me, they simply didn’t.

The Cabin the Woods is still a good film, stuffed with quality and interesting ideas. It begins by introducing us to a set of characters, all archetypes in their own way; there’s a geek, a jock, a stoner, a hot chick and a good girl. All of these characters are then fleshed out deftly, with unusual skill and some cracking dialogue. In fact most of the dialogue, from a script co-written by director Drew Goddard and Avengers chief Joss Whedon, is top notch. It’s refreshing to see a horror film in which characterisation is given so much care and attention. The problem is that the clever premise of the film, which I’m trying not to spoil, leads to a rapid unravelling of the plot without any great sense of peril.

Indeed, most reviews have pointed out that the key flaw of The Cabin in the Woods is the lack of genuine scares. The reason for this is obvious now that I’ve seen it; it is primarily a comedy in tone, not a horror. I laughed loudly and uncontrollably at several points, no doubt irritating those around me in the cinema trying to be frightened. Its entire structure and plot exposes the ridiculousness of the horror genre. The jaw dropping twist turned out to be ludicrous, simply reinforcing the point.

Whedon and Goddard describe the film as a ‘loving hate letter’ to horror movies and it is ultimately hate dressed up as love. The force of the narrative is limited by the grand in-joke. Had the horror been better paced and more arresting, The Cabin in the Woods would have edged closer to being great and compelling, rather than good and interesting.

The Football Failure Myth – a guest post from the Kid In The Front Row


Mrt’sblog hasn’t focused much on football for quite a while, which is a shame, because it’s been a superb season. The rise of Manchester City has threatened the established order of things and led to some significant changes. However, according to this guest post from the Kid In The Front Row, most clubs will always be limited by myths and mindsets from their history.

You can read the Kid In The Front Row’s imaginative and inspirational blog here.

Every team, apart from Manchester United, is doomed to failure. And it’s all because of the invisible myth that guides each team. The unwritten rule which is true every single time.

Take West Ham United. With them, it’s plain to see. The unwritten rule is that they will be relegated from the Premier League, spend a year or two floating around in the Championship, and then will not only gain promotion, but do so in such a euphoric way that everyone (at least within a 10 metre radius around Upton Park) is convinced they will become at least one of the greatest teams in all of East London (until Leyton Orient firmly put them in their place).

Liverpool, Spurs & Newcastle are all absolutely certain about their own glory and invincibility. The Tottenham way is to sign the greatest players around — Bale, Lineker, Hoddle; play some beautiful football, and fly towards success. This plan is always great until two months before the season ends, when they immediately and desperately try to get relegated.

Liverpool’s pattern is to threaten greatness occasionally, until settling for somewhere around 7th. This will be followed by Steven Gerrard announcing to the press that next year will be the year.

Newcastle won the league a couple of times back in the days when there were only about six teams (and most opponents only had four players). Aside from that, they once won the Texaco Cup and also smashed Basingstoke in a friendly. Newcastle United are, without doubt, one of the most underachieving teams in all of football. Yet remarkably, the fans are absolutely convinced that their team is the greatest team in the world and long overdue some major honours. It may surprise you to hear that I agree. Newcastle are long overdue some success, which is why I think they should arrange a friendly for next week, against Basingstoke.

Every team has their myth! Arsenal would have won the league, if not for injuries. Wolves will beat the league leaders 1-0 on a Wednesday evening in February. Everyone will forget that Wigan exist. Stoke will get a player sent off in the 79th minute. Fulham will finish 11th or 12th.

It’s all fixed!

Kid

 

DVD Review: Dream House


Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz are Hollywood’s latest power couple. Together they are more than capable of flying the flag for Britain in the vast cinematic universe. Iconic movies from recent years litter their CVs, from The Mummy to Casino Royale. Interestingly, and perhaps dangerously for their happiness, they will go head to head in 2012, both critically and at the box office, when Weisz stars in The Bourne Legacy and Craig returns as James Bond in Skyfall. Every aspect of this super spy battle will play out under a media spotlight, but their real life relationship began on the set of a film that would turn out to be an unnoticed flop, in every department, despite the A-list names attached.

Dream House is a film ripe for critical clichés. It suffers from a severe identity crisis. Marketed as a horror and psychological thriller, it succeeds at being neither. It is telling that the cover of the DVD is adorned with a vague quote, “scary thrills”, from a publication as prestigious as The Daily Star. The movie has a mere 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and most reviewers only throw out the odd crumb of kindness because they feel sorry for the talented stars, mired by the mess. Ironically though, the terrible reception for Dream House at the tail end of 2011 may be its saving grace on DVD.

Dream House was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting it to be. The slightest bit of research into the film will expose its dodgy development and crisis ridden path to release. Scenes were hastily reshot at the last minute and there were huge creative differences. The trailer reveals the major twist, stripping the narrative naked so that there is no interest or excitement left to be discovered when you sit down to watch the film itself. In any case the story is an uninspiring creature, which simply mimics much better films from the horror and thriller genres.

For what it’s worth, Craig and Weisz play Will and Libby, a happy couple settling down in their dream home in the country. Will has left his job at a publishing company to write his own book. Libby doesn’t seem to be doing much, so clearly this couple are as financially comfortable as Craig and Weisz in the real world. Their kids require little effort and are just great fun. But then things start going bump outside and the neighbour (Naomi Watts) is acting “mysteriously” by refusing to answer Will’s questions. Eventually the family discover that a murder took place in their beloved new home.

If you manage to forget the precise nature of the twist, despite the trailer’s best efforts, there are some surprises left in Dream House.  I remembered the twist about a quarter of the way through the film, after some pretty obvious clues refreshed my memory. Rather than having an excruciating wait until the end, I was shocked to find that Dream House proudly unveils its big secret half way through its short 88 minute runtime. Initially I saw this as a bold move. It completely wrong footed me, and I presumed it meant that there was a real, even more satisfying reveal to come.

Perhaps my lowered expectations were going to allow me to enjoy Dream House. Or perhaps not. There were a couple of ounces of plot left to add to the mix, but the final ingredients took forever to fall into the pot. This is where the identity crisis comes in. Once the twist jumps out on us, Daniel Craig takes centre stage. Most of the awful attempts at horror stop and Craig is left to convince us that the twist was plausible, and that its impact is emotionally horrific for his character. In fairness to the film, you do get the satisfaction of saying to yourself “oh that’s why she said that earlier”. Everything before the twist fits and makes sense. But pretty much everything after the twist is an anti-climax.

There are aspects to Dream House that will almost make you like it. It’s nice to watch a film that doesn’t fall back on the ridiculously supernatural to be unsettling. The simple fact that there was a murder in your house is never really exploited to its fullest though, and by the end the film is as ludicrous as any other disappointing horror. Its structure is all over the place. It is neither scary, nor jumpy, nor thrilling. Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts give atrocious performances, after being given very little to work with by the script. Daniel Craig is left to the carry the film, and whilst he is not bad, he is also far from his best. Having said all this, Dream House is an acceptable DVD rental that will get you talking with whoever you choose to watch it with.

 

DVD Review: Sensation


The opening minutes of Sensation are not a stimulating thrill ride or a feast for the senses. In fact, they could be described as bleak. I’m going to be careful not to mislead you here; I don’t want the word bleak to imply that the early scenes are moving, or interestingly dark. Instead, I mean bleak as in “without hope or expectation of success or improvement”. The world of central character Donal is defined by its dullness and the fact that it is never likely to change. His uneventful life has left him numb, and so emotionless that when he discovers his father dead on the stair lift, he uses the remote to bring the cold corpse slowly down, rather than rushing up.

You may find that, as I did, the start of Sensation will induce that “where have I seen him before?” feeling. This was the most pressing thing about the film for its first quarter of an hour, that nagging frustration that is impossible to shake.  So I paused the film, utilised a well known internet search engine and discovered that lead actor Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Donal, also played Bill Weasley in the last few Harry Potter films. Cue the knowing nod that accompanies the phrase “I knew I recognised him!”. Curiosity quenched, I could now begin to concentrate on the film itself.

Following the funeral of Donal’s father we watch a young man shuffle through a very lonely existence. The really disheartening thing about Donal’s grief is that it is so minimal. He had clearly been expecting his father’s death and we do not really witness any sadness relating to it. It’s also clear that Donal’s loneliness goes back far, far further than the eventual demise of his sick dad. His best friend Karl, who lives in a caravan on Donal’s farm land, suggests that the funds freed up by his father’s death might be the making of Donal. But Donal has no idea how to use the cash wisely in the nothingness of the Irish countryside. His only half plan is to move to Dublin.

This complicated, but essentially sympathetic portrayal of Donal, is offset by hints towards a darker side of his character. That initial moment where he waits for the stair lift’s grim and personal cargo to descend is both shocking and repulsive. It’s symbolic of Donal’s laziness, lack of drive and dangerous naivety.  Whilst Donal’s problems are real and capable of inspiring sympathy, his only solace is sordid and shameful. Ignorant of girls and relationships, Donal is fascinated by sex. However, his perception of sex is skewed by the internet. His only experience of it comes from the online world, where he sports the nickname of “Sweetdick” in a chat room. He masturbates furiously, in a way that seems to be a brutal release. He seems to have little awareness of intimacy, although a dim desire for it grows once he has satisfied his raw lust.

Suddenly not lacking in cash after receiving a sizeable inheritance, Donal’s first port of call is a website advertising escorts. One of them, called Courtney, has been recommended to him by an online chat room buddy. At first, he tentatively asks for an hour with her, only to be persuaded over the phone that the “full girlfriend experience” will be worth his while (and hers, financially). They meet in a restaurant, where she is surprised that he actually wants to eat. She reassures him that seduction is not necessary, but Donal orders a chicken kiev anyway. That’s where the civilized behaviour stops though. Back at his farm, Donal rapidly enjoys what he’s paid for. As Courtney says later, this is not Pretty Woman.

But the parallels are certainly there. Donal has money, albeit not on the scale of Richard Gere’s millionaire, but enough to make him of use to Courtney, whose real name is Kim. When events ensure that Kim and Donal get to know each other personally, they begin to form an ambiguous bond. Their feelings are tested and disguised because of the shadowy, theatrical business of the sex trade. Donal starts out wanting to help Kim rescue herself. He then falls for her, before ending up seeing her as a commodity.

Boiled down to its basics, Sensation is a simple story about two very different, lonely people crossing paths. It stands above this classic blueprint because of the strength of its characterisation and acting. Donal is volatile and unpredictable because of his troubled youth, and Kim is determined and twisted because of her profession. You’re never quite sure where their true loyalties lie. In this way Sensation is realistic, with its incorporation of modern themes and the lack of trust between a group of people who have recently joined forces in a backstabbing industry. However, Sensation also has many weak points. Its fringe characters are less well acted and unconvincingly drawn. The ending is rushed and more than a little predictable, and sections of the film drag. In my view, this is an excellent effort from writer/director Tom Hall. It is occasionally funny, although not to the point of laughter, and ultimately touching, despite a difficult subject matter.

DVD Review: The Deep Blue Sea


Think of post-war Britain and an archive of stock images springs to mind. There was the tyranny of the rationing card and the pile of rubble down the road that used to be a neighbour’s house. There were widows, orphans and military veterans. Cigarettes were a stylish release from the everyday gloom, rather than a health risk. Pubs were indispensable social hubs full of heart warming camaraderie and spontaneous singing.

Life in Britain after the eventual triumph of 1945 then, trudged on as if viewed through a sepia lens. In short, all was brown. Dresses, walls, shirts, cars, pubs, drinks, underwear, sheets, food, packaging and carpets, were all various shades of drab. Surely, despite the truth underlining it, this clichéd view of how things were then must be a gross simplification? Apparently no, according to director Terence Davies, that was just how it was. Speaking in an interview from The Deep Blue Sea’s special features, he claims that you only ever saw primary colours on particular sweet wrappers, along with the occasional glimpse of red when someone got engaged.

Davies has been widely praised for his total understanding of post-war Britain. He lived through it in his formative years and talks about personal memories in the interview on the DVD. He has also expressed his knowledge of the subject numerous times on film, in fictitious and factual form. Despite The Deep Blue Sea being an adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play, Davies’ own independent influences are evident throughout. At times these directorial flights of fancy give the film a lift, but at others they feel like thoroughly artificial flourishes that deflate the drama.

Much of The Deep Blue Sea is told in flashback as its protagonist, Rachel Weisz’s Hester Collyer, recovers from an attempted suicide attempt. Initially we are wrapped up in the mood of the story and Davies does appear to have a masterful command over the details of the period. Quickly though, the background to Hester’s affair with Tom Hiddleston’s pilot Freddie Page becomes extremely tiresome. There is the odd interesting flashpoint, such as a quietly dramatic dinner with Hester’s mother-in-law. Here, Hester is lectured on the downsides of passion, whilst her husband, Simon Russell Beale’s much older judge, looks on passively. Hester defiantly stands her ground, convinced of the importance of excitement in such a dull world. She does not hate her husband; in fact they mostly get on well and share platonic affection. But Hester craves something more in her life.

That something more turns out to be a younger man, and perhaps the sex such a man can supply on demand. Hiddleston is handsome and charming, pulling off a decent impression of a restless RAF chap. It’s easy enough to see why Weisz jumps for him over Russell Beale. However, the supposed passion of their affair never really comes across. This might be because of the sensibilities of the time. Or it might be because of what happens in the final part of the film.

I was very tempted to write off The Deep Blue Sea as tasteful melodrama until its climax. For all the praise heaped on the performances of Weisz and Hiddleston, they appeared to be sporadically brilliant, but more often ridiculous. Hiddleston’s pompous pilot was 90% impersonation, 10% acting. Weisz’s Hester was beautiful but unrealistically pathetic. Then a shouting match outside a pub saves The Deep Blue Sea from drowning in its period features. The argument between the lovers is so loud and fierce that it makes up for many of the terrible lines in the script. This is not just because we finally see some drama in drab 50s London, but also because the narrative finally gets an injection of believable characterisation.

Page and Screen: Thinking about kids? Don’t read We Need To Talk About Kevin this Mother’s Day


Mother’s Day (or Mothering Sunday, according to my traditionalist Dad) is when we celebrate the unsung heroes of society. Mothers are the underappreciated glue holding together such fundamentals of everyday life as law, order and excessive cleanliness. There is no higher calling than motherhood. Political leaders, from Stalin to Cameron, have recognised that a good mother, providing a solid foundation for a good family, is the perfect platform for a great nation. Who do men beg for in their darkest hour? Not their wives, but their mothers. Whose betrayal pushes Hamlet to the brink of madness? His mother’s. And who saved the day in the last Doctor Who Christmas special? You guessed it, the mum.

In the build up to Mother’s Day, the commercialised clutter clogging up the high streets is physical evidence of the cult of motherhood. The perception is that this is the one day of the year that we openly show our gratitude to the women who brought us into the world. Lionel Shriver’s now well known book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is bold enough to suggest that mothers are often showered with too much praise and attention. In fact, it is largely about the way society continually worships its mums and the burden this places on ordinary women who don’t fall completely in love with the role. The novel has a controversial reputation and this is just one of the big ideas within its pages with the potential to shock.

I’m yet to see Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Shriver’s novel and would be interested to hear your thoughts below readers, because inevitably the hype around the book has focused on the high school shooting that the narrative grows towards. I feel that the themes relating to the violence raised by the story are secondary to other issues Shriver illuminates with her writing. For me the most convincing parts of the book, where both Shriver’s style and substance were at their best, was early on, as central character Eva contemplates having a child and then finds the experience of birth and early motherhood underwhelming and depressing. In an article for The Guardian last year, Shriver claims to be happy with Ramsay’s “thematically loyal” version of her book. But the marketing has focused on Ezra Miller’s angry and angst ridden adolescent, rather than Tilda Swinton’s struggle with motherhood, and one of my friends was horrified that ordinary looking John C. Reilly was chosen to play handsome husband Franklin.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is at its most horrifying when Eva feels totally trapped by her son. She is certain that her bawling infant harbours feelings of resentment and hatred towards her. The book actually becomes less and less frightening as we get closer to the shooting itself. Teenage Kevin is brooding, spiteful and distant, and his mother has come to accept their detachment somewhat. The preceding enforced attachment is far more chilling. In general the characters and ideas are more engaging and powerful early on; in fact the book runs out of steam as we slide towards the atrocity, with the twist at the end not proving revelatory enough to make up for this.

Shriver’s phrasing, imagery and dialogue are all exemplary at times, but occasionally the format, of letters to her absent husband, feels artificial and forced, leading to clumsy writing lacking in subtlety. I was fascinated by Eva as a career woman, gripped by the debate she had with herself about becoming a mother. Perhaps Shriver is at her best during these sections of the novel because juggling a successful career is what she knows well. Eva was pressured into motherhood and it’s appalling to witness her regrets and pure disgust at herself for feeling nothing towards her own offspring. How many mothers feel compelled to have kids because it’s normal, because of peer pressure? How many find themselves chronically disappointed afterwards? The book concedes its originality when it loses sight of this disturbing observation, resorting to painting Kevin as some sort of evil, devil child, ought to wreck his mother’s life.

I am essentially saying that the scariest idea in We Need To Talk About Kevin is not emotionless kids and teenagers suddenly killing their classmates with arrows. It is in fact the notion of something you have great expectations for turning out to be crushingly disappointing. What if that first kiss is just an awkward clash of tongues and intermingling saliva? What if the FA Cup final ends 0-0? What if the sex on your honeymoon is someway short of ecstasy filled spiritual union? As film fans, we perhaps know this fear better than most. Imagine watching Raging Bull or Citizen Kane and thinking nothing more than “meh”. With adaptations, the fear is especially acute. What if, when I finally see Ramsay’s adaptation, she has failed to capture all the things I’ve mentioned above that I liked about this book? But this fear is perhaps a vital part of the thrill of watching adaptations, and life in general. The knowledge that you might be disappointed just makes it so much better when you’re not.