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3D Cinema Review: Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s first foray into 3D and children’s cinema has produced a mixed bag of a film that will leave you equal parts charmed, touched, disappointed and surprised.

I have always associated the name “Hugo” with the unexpected. At my primary school a boy of that name, as naked as a newborn baby, burst into the classroom one day to ask the teacher if we were required to wear pants for PE. I haven’t encountered a Hugo since with sufficient charisma to banish that hilarious and utterly strange memory. And Scorsese’s Hugo doesn’t quite manage it either, despite some magical moments.

For me these whiffs of cinematic fairy dust can be found mostly at the beginning of the film. Scorsese introduces us to the world of Parisian orphan Hugo Cabret, who maintains the clocks clandestinely at a train station all by himself, in startling, unforgettable fashion. At first we hover over a sparkly skyline with the Eiffel Tower at its heart, descending gently through marvellously lifelike 3D snowflakes. Then the camera plunges dramatically towards the station that is Hugo’s home, zooming along the tracks and in between the vivid crowds. This shot has incredible depth and uses 3D, as well as traditional set design, to astonishing effect. All our senses feel completely immersed and submerged in the setting of Scorsese’s story.

Unfortunately Hugo’s Achilles heel is its overwhelming lack of a story. The whole movie looks and feels fantastic and there are some exciting set pieces that make excellent use of the spot on period detail. But Hugo is all setup and no payoff. Scorsese sets the scene so perfectly in the opening shots that he needn’t delay steaming on towards the meat of the plot. By the end it becomes clear that the story is nothing but the framework for a lecture and certain sections of the audience, particularly children after a gripping seasonal tale, might well feel cheated.

Scorsese’s lecture is about the worth and wonder of early cinema. There are all the elements of normal children’s films to begin with, including Sacha Baron Cohen’s bumbling slapstick as the station inspector, but then there is a sudden and random transition to the history of the movies. The shift is executed via some sledgehammer dialogue, totally lacking in subtlety or relevance to the back story. The mystery of the clockwork mannequin left behind by Hugo’s dead father (Jude Law) is connected to the movies and is, at least initially, rather flimsy and uninspiring.

However Hugo ultimately delivers an innocent, personal journey not on offer to children elsewhere. It may be disjointed but great performances from the young leads, coupled with Scorsese’s skill and passion for cinema tackling truths of the human condition like purpose and loneliness, makes this lecture more moving and awe inspiring than anything on offer on campus.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Awakening

Originally published at X-Media Online

There’s an infant poltergeist on the loose in a boarding school. There’s been a death. And worst of all the posh parents are feeling disgruntled enough to contemplate complaining. Who you gonna call? If you’re the debut director of The Awakening Nick Murphy, it’s Rebecca Hall, for her first starring role as ghost buster Florence Cathcart.

A schoolboy’s death from what may or may not have been an unfortunate asthma attack is far too grave a matter for Dominic West’s battle scarred teacher Robert Mallory to convey via telephone, telegram or text however. Being a respectable 1920s gent he hotfoots it to London to beseech Miss Cathcart in person. Whilst reluctant to take the case, as these deductive geniuses always are, she of course accepts and accompanies Mr Mallory to mysteriously sinister rural Cumbria.

In many ways this is a traditional tale that plays out in typical surroundings. There’s a big house with a groaning staircase and rooms full of dusty echoes. There are a handful of characters that might be suspects or allies, each with a secret. There are also the standard back story elements which occasionally add emotional depth but mostly lose the film marks for being clunky, convoluted and cliché.

Indeed many critics have treated The Awakening firmly, claiming that it’s haunted by classics of the genre and ends up being an inexpert imitation, squandering its good points by succumbing to the modern trend of climactic twists. I’d argue these reviewers are looking at the film in the wrong way. There are far more positives than negatives on show from a production that cannot easily be categorised despite its familiar trappings.

Besides being a chiller about a haunted house, The Awakening is also a lovingly drawn period drama, complete with grandeur and detail and an
arresting atmosphere. It addresses serious themes with surprising depth,
touching on tough topics such as shell shock, scepticism of the supernatural,
love and loss. As a result there are passages of dialogue rich in emotional and
intellectual meat for the actors to devour. Perhaps the most pleasing strength
of The Awakening is the sight of Hall and West excelling on centre stage, just
as they have always done in supporting roles.

The Awakening begins as a unique superhero story, with Cathcart unmasking charlatans and battling demons, both society’s and her own, at breakneck speed. Its concluding twist, whilst a little disappointing, works far better than most critics have suggested and does not spoil a good film. Spooky, intelligent and gripping, The Awakening is fine storytelling, inspired, not haunted, by horror classics. And yes I was scared. Out of my seat at times.

My rating: 4 stars out of 5

Talking Trailers: Episode 1

Originally published at X-Media Online

Talking Trailers kicks off with rape, porn and cross dressing, but not necessarily in that order…

First up then is veteran Academy Award nominee Glenn Close in the role she was surely born to play. That’s right she’s a chap, not called Glenn, but Albert Nobbs.

This trailer is very traditional and the perfect start for this feature. It begins with a voiceover and ends with glowing quotes from reviews adorning the screen. It takes us through the film in a standard chronological manner, with accompanying highs and lows in tone. There’s a rather crude joke amongst some house maids setting a high, before melancholic music sets in to coincide with glimpses of the consequences of Alfred’s double life. Then there’s another funny moment, signalling the start of an uplifting climb to the trailer’s romantic climax.

Albert Nobbs may have a conventional trailer, with ingredients so commonplace we don’t notice them, but that’s no bad thing. This trailer plays to its film’s strengths, emphasising the impressive cast and touching story.

Whereas the Albert Nobbs trailer clearly sketches out a narrative, the trailer for Angelina Jolie’s first film as a writer/director, In the Land of Blood and Honey, is all about setting various moods. The opening switches back and forth between a frenetic battle scene and an intense close up of lovers. Comparisons are drawn between the passion and energy of war and love, as well as there being contrasts of violence and tenderness. The chunks of dialogue are less self explanatory than those used for Albert Nobbs, requiring the audience to infer and think more. Eventually controversial themes such as rape, imprisonment, trust and racism emerge. There are also a number of striking visuals of landscapes and action scenes, which are perhaps more prominent than usual to prove Jolie’s capable direction skills.

And finally the porn. Man of the moment Michael Fassbender stars alongside wanted woman Carey Mulligan in Steve McQueen’s Hunger follow up, Shame. Set in New York the film follows a man addicted to sex and therefore the trailer, predictably, features a lot of it. Written after extensive research by McQueen and creator of BBC series The Hour, Abi Morgan, Shame has garnered praise from all corners for its examination of modern lust gone wrong.

It’s the most experimental and exciting of these trailers, resembling a piece of art independent of the film it promotes but also saying a lot about it. Fassbender’s breathing whilst jogging playing in the background gives the entire trailer structure, rhythm and sexual charge. The jogging image also ties into the title and the idea of the protagonist running from the shame of his addiction.

Talking Trailers Introduction

Originally published at X-Media Online

Trailers used to be really bad. I mean painfully bad. They could reduce cinematic classics, such as Casablanca (
), into muddled and ridiculous messes. They would go on for far too long, revealing far too much about a film. They were almost always garnished with
clichéd subtitles or voiceover.

As a result trailers weren’t very important. In the early days of cinema arty posters were the most creative aspect of a film’s promotion. However these days they are inescapable and the key tool in any movie’s marketing campaign. Entire companies are devoted to composing original music for trailers. A trailer’s success or failure can make or break a production’s box office success.

Some might miss going to watch a movie having never seen a single snippet of it; others may rant against the annoyance of a succession of trailers preceding the film they’ve paid to see. A persuasive argument can still be made, in some cases, that it’s a travesty to cut the best bits from a masterpiece and mash them together. It wouldn’t be acceptable to butcher Michelangelo’s David and parade the best body part around Italy to tempt customers to the main attraction in Florence.

But in my view those of you that still find trailers an unnecessary irritant are making a mistake. Rather than diminishing the cinematic experience, I believe they enhance it. They help generate anticipation. With modern editing techniques shoddy composition can largely be avoided. It’s possible to shape something that stands apart from the film itself and goes beyond advertising.

Mediocre action films can be made to look utterly engrossing. Mild, poor quality melodrama can become suffused with irresistibly powerful emotion. It’s still true, of course, that a poor trailer can fail to do a great film justice but that’s all part of the fun. Trailers require skill, originality and risk taking, like any form of art.  I never skip the trailers on a DVD or Blu-Ray because I admire the acknowledged soul that condensed the peaks and troughs of a two hour long film into 120 seconds of intelligible and affecting story.

In this new feature, with the suitably cliché title of “Talking Trailers”, I’ll be trying to share the enjoyment, excitement and excellence of new trailers for upcoming films. I’ll also, no doubt, be pointing out some turkeys. Hopefully I can convert some indifference into enthusiasm.

The Ides of March

Originally published at X-Media Online

The Ides of March delivers exactly what you would expect, whilst shying away from surprises, in a way that is somehow both disappointing and irresistibly satisfying.

Stephen Meyers, played by 2011’s rising star Ryan Gosling, is an idealistic PR man for wannabe Democratic Presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney). He begins the film with strong but adaptable principles that allow him to twist the truth everyday for a greater good, whilst never really dirtying his hands in the muddiest pools of the political swamp. However by the end he’s discovered why the cynics are so disillusioned with the transformative power of politics and learnt that a detached and destructive ruthlessness is vital to climbing this particular career ladder.

The plot changes direction a number of times but is mostly predictable and heavily reliant on an ever building intrigue. Indeed it’s the narrative content of The Ides of March that is a letdown. Clooney delayed the film in the wake of post-Obama political optimism in America, choosing to wait for the inevitable onset of apathy and scepticism. At times it feels as though the creative team behind the project believe that they are exposing the dark, hidden underbelly of the American system, which is in actual fact a familiar and unremarkable mixture of sexual scandal, greed, deceit and privilege.

But at others the filmmakers seem to recognise that the story they’re telling is far from groundbreaking. Instead the focus is on letting great actors play with themes like betrayal, jealousy and ambition. This is when The Ides of March is at its best; when Clooney’s extensive experience in front of the camera enables actor friendly direction from behind it.

It’s fashionable to salivate and drool over Ryan Gosling. Women want to be with him, men want to be him. Film critics of either gender, not content with praising him to the skies, seem to desire an encounter in a hotel room that doesn’t involve an interview. However in my view the older master of seduction, George Clooney, along with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, outshines the young hotshot.

The film is based on a play written by a political insider, which adds authenticity, if not a shockingly enlightening level of truth. The theatrical source material also gives the likes of Clooney, Hoffman and Giamatti the chance to flex their muscles in some solitary speeches, on loyalty or legacies, to Gosling’s character. Clooney is genuinely convincing and attractive Presidential material, who sells policy with inspirational idealism and charm.

A slightly unpredictable ending and the outstanding calibre of pure acting on show ensures that The Ides of March does more than pander to critics, even if its story does lack substance.

Will Bond 23 rob 007 of his licence to thrill?

Daniel Craig’s third outing as 007, rumoured to be named “Skyfall”, could be considerably thinner in the action department, according to The Express. The paper claims that director Sam Mendes wants to focus his adventure on “characterful performances” instead of the franchise’s usual action set pieces. Most strikingly of all the director, with his background in quality theatre, reportedly wants to use this focus on the talents of the cast to bag some weighty Oscar nominations for a Bond film.

In the past any award wins for the films have been limited to the technical departments instrumental to the creation of unique and groundbreaking stunts. But Mendes appears to be setting his sights higher, which raises all sorts of questions for fans of 007. An Oscar contender would surely need to be a different kind of film altogether to the usual romp packed with sexy women, car chases and fight scenes?

The real danger is that by aiming to be something it’s not, Bond 23 could end up being both a bad film and a bad Bond film, lacking both depth and excitement. However the tabloid bleating shouldn’t worry Bond traditionalists too much. Leading 007 fan site confirms that the new film will have a smaller budget than previous instalments but is normally a more trusted source of information than the papers. They are yet to support or criticise the source cited in The Express.

With acting calibre as strong as Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes signed up for Bond 23 there may well be opportunities for award nominations at the very least, if the script is good enough. A story with a deeper plot, along with secrets and twists, could also make for a more interesting film, without necessarily losing all the required Bondian elements.

But could a film called Skyfall ever conceivably win an Oscar?

Angelina Jolie’s The Land of Blood and Honey gets its first trailer

We’ve all known for a while Angelina Jolie has been directing a film about the Bosnian conflict. It’s been a project plagued not just by her immense fame but by considerable controversy. She has been denied permission to film in various areas for a number of reasons. The subject matter of her film has attracted urgent and passionate criticism.

The story reportedly followed a Bosnian rape victim who fell in love with her Serbian captor and rapist. When the news broke Jolie’s politically aware, humanitarian record seemed certain to take a battering. The President of the Bosnian Women Victims of War Association spoke out against the female half of Hollywood’s biggest couple, denouncing her debut as a filmmaker as something that aimed to “falsify historical truth”.

We film critics and cinemagoers had less pressing concerns about the quality of the storytelling. Would Jolie turn out to be another Madonna, simply making something controversial for the sake of something new to do? Personally I thought the film would be a syrupy, over political mess.

The trailer confirms the divisive Stockholm syndrome element of the story. But it also springs a surprise; the film looks worth seeing. As a writer Jolie appears to have produced some interesting snippets of dialogue at the very least, and as a director, if the mood of the trailer is anything to go by, she’s conjured a wartime drama with passion and affecting human weight.

Watch the trailer below and tell us your thoughts. Are you as pleasantly surprised as I am?

The Debt

Originally published at X-Media Online

Helen Mirren leads an all star cast in The Debt, a traditional thriller that manages to be a little more than just solidly entertaining, but ultimately concludes unsatisfactorily.

The story is an amalgamation of historical and cinematic influences, that jumps backwards and forwards in time. The villain, Dieter Vogel, is a cross between famous Nazis Adolf Eichmann, caught and tried in the 1960s, and Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”, who evaded capture for his sick experiments on thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Vogel is plausibly, powerfully and repulsively played by Jesper Christensen, already well versed on portraying baddies after his decent turns as Mr White in the last two James Bond films.

The action starts in Tel Aviv in 1997 at a book launch, before slipping back into 1960s East Berlin for most of the runtime. Despite the calibre of Tom Wilkinson, Helen Mirren and Ciaran Hinds, the modern day sections pale in comparison to the drama playing out at the symbolic epicentre of the Cold War. Largely this is down to the plot. Three young Mossad agents attempting to snatch a Nazi and smuggle him over the border is far more exciting than three golden oldies, even recognisable ones, bickering and looking over their shoulders for unveiled secrets.

However the younger performers must also take some credit for giving their narrative greater energy. Sam Worthington gives perhaps his best performance to date as David, a man robbed of his entire family by the war and who draws the short straw in the film’s love triangle. Marton Csokas is a convincing leader of the secret trio, oozing arrogance and then panic as their plans unravel. Best of all is the beautiful Jessica Chastain, who outshines Mirren as her older self. She gets the meatier scenes, physically in brutal fights and emotionally in the romantic subplot.

The Debt borrows heavily from countless Cold War espionage flicks as the Mossad operatives plan their kidnap. Whilst reasonably engrossing it’s after the scheme inevitably goes wrong that things step up a notch in quality. Determined to be better human beings than their prisoner the Jewish agents are forced to keep him alive at their safe house, providing him food and living alongside a monster that murdered and disfigured family members and friends. The most chilling aspect of Christensen’s performance is his familiarity; he has been living quite easily as an ordinary doctor.

Tensions escalate and obviously boil over, so that the spies return to Israel as heroes, but carrying a heavy burden of a secret. The Debt carries some considerable intellectual and emotive force by asking interesting questions about living a lie and the nature of justice in extreme circumstances. But the plot’s multiple strands fail to come together, perhaps because of a very unconvincing ending.

My rating: 3 stars out of 5

The Lost World (1925) with John Garden’s new score

Originally published at X-Media Online

Composer John Garden’s electronic reimagining of the 1925 silent film classic, The Lost World, provided a raw, unique and truly cinematic experience at Exeter’s Phoenix theatre.

Why do we bother with the cinema anymore? In the age of Blu-Ray what’s stopping us from sitting comfortably at home, without the irritants of various strangers and the overpriced tickets, to enjoy a hassle free and personal movie experience? In the build up to The Lost World last Thursday I was reminded why I do make the effort to see films the way they were meant to be watched.

Firstly the Phoenix exuded a great deal more charm than the average multiplex. Secondly, and most importantly, the people that walked in were an extraordinarily eclectic and eccentric bunch. They were spearheaded by a loud elderly lady, asking questions to anyone that would listen and leaving various items accidentally in the reception area. Other audience members that stood out from my vantage point in the front row included a bubbly child dressed as Batman, a grey haired chap who resembled a decaying professor and the spitting image of One Day writer David Nicholls.

It really did feel as though I was a part of a wonderfully interesting cross section of society, gathered in one place, lured by the appeal of a very different evening of entertainment. And it certainly was different. A message on the screen informed us beforehand that this was the fullest version of the 1925 film possible, which seemed a daunting way of saying “this is going to be long”.

Length was definitely the principle problem with this version of The Lost World. By the end the yawn factor had infected me at least and I’d shifted position in my seat several times. The other main problem was John Garden’s modern music, which ranged from the incredibly dramatic and haunting, to the repetitive and out of place.

I don’t know anything about music. But at times the combination of synthesisers and electric guitar just did not seem to match the scene. Sometimes the flow of the film benefited from consistency and recurring themes, whilst elsewhere the drama was nullified by the same old tune. Despite being just a few feet away from a talented musician I could not help craving a more traditional orchestral accompaniment.

The film itself has aged remarkably well. I expected to find the effects cringe worthy but instead particular movements of dinosaur tails seemed more impressive than the CGI in many modern blockbusters. The team behind the effects here would go onto wider recognition with King Kong.

The acting, for the most part, is terribly dated but this is perhaps unavoidable. Special praise must go to Lewis Stone for his performance as Sir John Roxton. Somehow, without words, he delivers a performance that would not look too out of place today.

Despite its flaws The Lost World was a vibrant example of historical silent cinema, to which Spielberg’s Jurassic Park owes and enormous debt.

My rating: 3 stars out of 5

Page and Screen: Woody Allen is right to have fun with classic literary figures in Midnight in Paris

For the arty cinemagoer, after something more substantial than the resurrection of Rowan Atkinson’s clownish spy Jonny English, there was a choice to make this week. Accomplished actor Paddy Considine’s directorial debut Tyrannosaur faced screen legend Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, in a battle for Britain’s “alternative” vote at posh theatres and screening rooms.

Considine’s story, which stars Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman and revolves around domestic abuse, has been praised to the rooftops by a range of critics. Allen’s film too has garnered praise so that whispers about a comeback have grown into audible chatter. But even though Midnight in Paris has been hailed his best film in years, Allen’s recent track record has been so woeful that all this effectively means is that it’s passably entertaining and perceptive. It’s not great art or great cinema.

It is, however, based on fantastical encounters with some of the greatest creative types in history. Owen Wilson’s disillusioned scriptwriter Gil magically and mysteriously meets the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, TS Elliot and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He doesn’t just meet them either. He interacts with them, whining about his artistic insecurities and the unsatisfactory nature of existence.

We’re often told not to meet our heroes. Our expectations are too high, too inflated by impossibly perfect ideals, for the reality of a flesh and blood human being to match. However Gil, as usual the character Woody would’ve once played himself, is somehow not disappointed by the literary greats he encounters on his midnight Parisian strolls. And he has good reason to feel letdown.

The instantly recognisable authors and artists are charming enough but they are comprised almost entirely of clichés. Scott Fitzgerald says “old sport” a lot, as his most famous creation Jay Gatsby is prone to do. Hemingway’s conversational style is blunt and stripped of convention, much like his economical and observational prose. Dali is reduced to a series of surreal catchphrases about a rhino.

In short these are cardboard cut-out versions of such famous faces. We are left with neither a believable representation of their brilliance or a more human, accessible character that we can “know”. Tom Hiddleston and others are simply fooling around in their roles.

But Midnight in Paris is a fantasy and there’s nothing wrong with the actors evidently enjoying themselves. In fact the tone of the entire film is extremely refreshing. It never takes itself too seriously and doesn’t become dependent on pretentious in-jokes. And it never stops asking intriguing questions about the past, art and the way we live either.

This column is often too focused on the great weight placed on the shoulders of anyone trying to adapt something from the page to the screen, rather than how much fun the intermingling between literature and cinema can be. There’s no doubt that the whole business of adaptation can become too serious a slog. By creating something original but also dabbling lightly in the best literature has to offer for influences, Allen has written and directed a film that is at once thoughtful, bookish and full of fun.

P.S Just because Allen had the easier sell, don’t neglect Tyrannosaur, which looks like a superb, if brutal, example of pioneering British filmmaking.