Tag Archives: film

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.

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.

The Woman in Black


Daniel Radcliffe takes some unexpectedly large strides towards banishing the ghost of the Potter franchise from his CV, with this taut and traditional thriller from horror studio Hammer. The Woman in Black is absorbing, atmospheric and absolutely terrifying.

I looked at the trailer for The Woman in Black for X-Media Online last year. Aside from assaulting Radcliffe’s new project with pathetic Potter puns, I decided that, on the basis of the conventional trailer, cinemagoers were unlikely to be falling off their seats in terror on its release. How wrong I was. There is a chunk of The Woman in Black’s running time, perhaps half an hour in length, which consists of nothing but back to back scares in a big haunted house. I’m not sure precisely how long this section of the film was because I was writhing in my seat, reduced to a nervous wreck by the tension.

The trailer was so underwhelming because the story seemed so familiar. The empty house with ghosts lurking in the shadows has been done to death (pardon the pun). It’s impressive then that The Woman in Black hits all the right scary notes. Other reviews have argued that the film is ‘jumpy’ rather than frightening. There are certainly shocks aplenty via the usual tricks of reflections and whatnot, but these moments are elevated beyond a mere ‘jump’ by the quality of the execution and the intrigue of the story.

Gradually Radcliffe’s character, a lawyer called Kipps fighting for his job, begins to piece together the web of betrayal in the past of Eel Marsh house, eerily cut off from the nearest village by a causeway. Strange and tragic goings on start to connect around one woman’s dark and depressing life, as hysteria and hostility towards Kipps escalates in the village. The chilling scares are so unsettling because of their power to disturb as well as shock. The opening scene of the film hones in on creepy period details, like the faces of dolls, before three little girls do something inexplicable.

It’s perhaps not surprising that The Woman in Black doesn’t disappoint with its gripping story, given its pedigree on the page and stage. It’s a reminder that a simple tale, well told, can be cinematic gold, with the film comfortably beating The Muppets to top the box office. You could argue that Radcliffe has little to do, besides run around and look confused. But he does what’s required of him well and surprisingly convinces as a father (to an impossibly cute child actor). At the climax of the film we care about their fate and feel satisfyingly high on horror.

Why New Year’s Eve is not the worst film of all time…


What did you get up to on New Year’s Eve? Fireworks are standard fare on the 31st of December and I bet you at least heard a few, even if you were trying to avoid the garish explosions of tinsel in the sky. Booze is another requirement of the occasion; so that even those staying in alone to watch Big Ben on the telly end up cracking open the wine. Talking of Big Ben, there’s the countdown, which for 60 seconds binds us all together in dreary and slurred chanting. And of course there’s the kiss, or lack of, which makes or breaks your evening and sets the tone for the year ahead.

How many of you went to see New Year’s Eve on New Year’s Eve? I’d be surprised if any of you did and even more shocked if you’d heard some snippet of positive press to tempt you to the theatre. A carbon copy of his previous ensemble effort Valentine’s Day, Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall’s film follows the intersecting lives of a clutch of Hollywood’s biggest stars in New York City. It’s packed full of product placement, cheesy messages of hope and not a lot else, which has led to a unanimous selection of one star reviews relegating it to the lower leagues at the box office.

Critical legend Roger Ebert calls the film a “dreary plod” and bemoans its shameless commercialization, which even goes so far as to advertise other films, namely Sherlock Holmes 2, in the final shot. Robbie Collin describes the “utter ghastliness” of seeing New Year’s Eve, whilst Peter Bradshaw rants that post screening his colleagues had to wrestle a razor from his throat. On Rotten Tomatoes it appears to have done well to muster its measly 7% rating.

I don’t disagree with the charges levelled against New Year’s Eve. The big names on show, from Robert De Niro to Katherine Heigl, are clearly on uninterested autopilot. Zac Efron’s plotline seems to exist purely to showcase the wonders of New York to the world and suggest that life is better there, regardless of income or background. The dialogue is atrociously bad and the whole concept painfully predictable. New Year’s Eve is guilty as charged. But Xan Brooks of the Guardian and others have dared to label New Year’s Eve the worst film ever made.

Here I do disagree. I saw New Year’s Eve earlier this week with subterranean expectations. I emerged feeling confused and pleasantly surprised. Let me be clear, I’m absolutely not saying that New Year’s Eve is a good film in any way, shape or form. It is undoubtedly utter rubbish. But whilst it is the worst kind of junk food, sensibly plastered with serious health warnings, it can also be strangely satisfying. New Year’s Eve made me feel something. It tapped into personal memories of mine to provoke an emotional response.

This does not mean there is the slightest sprinkling of quality in the film and I’m aware I’ve been duped into sentimentality by a money making juggernaut. Some might say I should have resisted in order to combat the disgusting Hollywood culture of our time. I feel just as passionately as many of this country’s finest critics who have slammed the film that new voices ought to be heard in cinema, as opposed to this formulaic soup designed to generate dollar signs.

However I think critics that lazily label New Year’s Eve as the worst film ever are being dishonest. Some may genuinely have never disliked a film quite as much. Others must surely be snobbishly concealing their own emotional reactions or at least remaining ignorant of their audience’s views. Yes point out a film’s flaws, yes make the case for more worthwhile productions in future. But do not take a blinkered, negative view for fear of raising your head above the parapet and admitting that yes, actually, I did like something about New Year’s Eve.

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

DVD Review: Neds


Fresh back from the warped taster of Scottish society that is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I settled down to watch Neds, the tale of a bright young lad from a rough Glasgow family in the 1970s directed by Peter Mullan. Neds stands for “Non Educated Delinquents” and refers ironically (it should be “uneducated”) to the thuggish and feral characters that John McGill tries to avoid.

John thinks of himself as different to the low life underachievers around him wasting their lives on alcohol and ignorant quarrels between rival gangs. He has lofty ambitions of university and journalism in his sights as he leaves primary school a focused, intelligent boy, a book glued permanently to his hand. In other words he’s more likely to end up representing Scotland as an arty type in Edinburgh’s cultured crowds than as a menacing rioter. Oh wait that’s actually an English problem…

Anyway Neds begins promisingly. The ten year old John McGill is brilliantly played by Greg Forrest. He is fearful as he starts at “big school” that he will be bullied because he is smart. And of course he is right to worry. But his attitude doesn’t help, as he demands a meeting with the Headmaster after being put in the second best class, rather than the top one. He works hard in the opening months to gain promotion to the Premiership and temporarily silences the bullies by setting his criminally inclined elder brother on them.

Then though, with his grades consistently outstanding, particularly in Latin, things change in the course of a summer. Conor McCarron is now playing John as a beefed up pubescent two or three years older. He’s moving from the “annex” of the school to the main building. He’s still in the top class as his last term at the annex ends and his teacher warns him to keep busy during the summer months.

But after being shunned by his middle class private school friend and his family, and a confrontation in a playground with a gang that only respected him because of his big brother’s reputation, John goes off the rails. Tempted by popularity and peer pressure he starts slacking off. He talks back at teachers. He embraces forbidden fun. And he realises there’s nothing worthwhile they can do to stop him.

The problem I had with Neds was the nature of this transition. We barely see any of the six-week holiday period that transforms John. He goes from a lover of Latin dictionaries to a loathsome little dickhead in the blink of an eye. Clearly he was humiliated by the rejection of his posh best mate. He also has a drunken father and an anxious, all but absent mother at home to contend with. But his spiral from the escape of school work to the distraction of yobbish behaviour is not properly explored.

Of course I’m aware I might be missing the point. These things can happen quicker than you can say “gimme all yer money wee man o’ I’ll stab ye guts oot”. It might just be that the beginning of Neds resonated more with me personally. Being picked on for a lack of cool credentials and a tendency to get the right answer too often is far more familiar to me than the harsh realities of a deprived Glaswegian area.

Nevertheless John’s sudden degeneration limits where Neds can go at times. It doesn’t chronicle his suspenseful slide into failure and criminality because he falls rapidly from grace; face first into a whole load of shit he had previously dodged by burying his head in the musky pages of a book’s embrace. Redemption always looks unlikely and as a viewer your hopes are repeatedly dashed and downgraded. I was reduced to praying that he did not slip to an ever lower rung of grim despair.

Talking of prayer and redemption, Neds contains a drug fuelled fight scene with Jesus, along with a lot of other considerably more delicate religious references. Not many films can claim to contain a fight with the son of God and I’m not sure why Neds does. It’s certainly not a good scene but one worth mentioning I’m sure you’ll agree.

The Jesus bashing scene takes place in a disjointed final third erratically looking for a suitable endpoint. Director Peter Mullan, an instantly recognisable actor, chooses to give himself the role of John’s father and it’s towards the end of the film he becomes a thicker strand of the plot. But their relationship has zero setup and the father as a character is so two dimensional he is almost redundant.

Neds does have its good points. Its period detail is so spot on that the film doesn’t look like a modern production but as though it were made at the time. The acting from most of cast is faultless and the portrayal of school life is vivid. But as I’ve said the film’s major flaw is its narrative pacing and progression. John has already fallen so far by the end that there’s nowhere for the story to go and discretely wrap up satisfactorily.

Arrietty


I knew very little about Japan’s prestigious Studio Ghibli prior to being asked to see Arrietty for Flickering Myth. For the uninitiated the Pixar comparison is helpful, if not altogether accurate. Like Pixar, Studio Ghibli makes successful and aesthetically stunning films, with strong storylines. In their respective
spheres both are admired for being at the cutting edge of animation. Both are
loved by critics and ordinary cinemagoers alike. Both have a reputation for
quality and crafting tales for children that will also delight adults. Both
know how to tug at the heartstrings of all ages.

However Studio Ghibli are the real artisans. As Pixar embraces new technologies for its summer release Cars 2, Arrietty is a showcase for breathtaking but traditional hand drawn animation. As Pixar was consumed by Disney and became increasingly mainstream, Studio Ghibli continued to ignore trivial concerns like profit and loss, in favour of meaning and beauty. Their attentions are always solely concentrated on the art of what they are doing. They have no
departments dedicated to marketing or merchandise. They plough everything,
including the financial security of the company, into every film they make.
They literally pour their hearts and souls into their stories, to say new and
surprising things with trusted techniques.

In the case of Arrietty, adapted from The Borrowers by Mary Norton (which has been transformed several times for British viewers), the messages are as adult as always. Perhaps the strong artistic integrity of the company is down to the fact that founder Hayao Miyazaki is still at the helm and his ideas shape Arrietty. According to the production notes he thought that the subject of borrowing “fits perfectly with the way things are today” and that the “era of mass consumption is coming to a close”.With the global recession combining with the effects of declining natural resources, pollution and global warming, “the idea of borrowing instead of buying shows very well the direction things are headed”.

There are also passages of dialogue in the film that reflect on
mortality and the extinction of wonderful species in their entirety. The Borrowers, essentially mini versions of ourselves, are clearly meant to enhance our feelings of empathy for creatures buffeted and threatened by the sheer scale of mankind.

Arrietty herself is a strong female protagonist, whose feminine and
childlike tendencies begin as weaknesses exposing her family’s secret
existence, but end the film as vindicated strengths. There are also firmly
implied sexual undertones to the friendship that develops between 14 year old Arrietty and the human boy that comes to live in the house The Borrowers shelter within. Unfortunately even to have a strong feminine lead remains bold by Hollywood standards, let alone tackling themes like extinction and the sexual development of childhood.

Aside from the serious substance weaved into the narrative though,
Arrietty is also simply a well executed and mesmerising 94 minutes. From the opening scene rich and vivid visuals combine with enchanting sounds to create a fairy tale world that anyone can enjoy, despite the doses of sobering realism. The posters plastered all over the Tube rightly hail this film as a “magical” experience. And it’s not often that word is accurate or justified when referring to anything other than the Harry Potter series.

Arrietty lives with her mother and father in their home beneath a large house in the suburbs of Tokyo, with a lush, green and overgrown garden sprawling all around it. They take what the human occupants of the house will not miss in order to live. A young boy (Sho) instructed to rest due to illness, is sent to live with his relative at the house, and her housekeeper Haru. Arrietty’s father takes her for her first borrowing early in the film, as she must soon learn how to fend for herself. However after successfully procuring a sugar cube, Arrietty
is seen by Sho in his bed and she drops it. Her family’s existence is plunged
into a state of constant apprehension because at least one human now knows
about them.

As well as drawing (haha) on a British story for inspiration, Arrietty also has a strong cast of British vocal talent for its UK release. Mark
Strong’s
distinctive voice gives life to Arrietty’s brave but conservative father Pod, even if his performance consists of little more than a series of wise, speculative or knowing grunts. He is a convincing mentor and it’s refreshing to see (or hear) him as something other than a sinister baddie. Elsewhere there are terrific comedic performances, considerably helped by the expressive animation, from Peep Show’s Olivia Colman as Arrietty’s
mother and Geraldine McEwan as anti-Borrower housekeeper Haru. Rising star of Atonement and Hanna Saoirse Ronan does a fantastic job
voicing Arrietty herself.

There is something British about Arrietty that goes beyond the source material or the vocal talent. Perhaps it’s the focus on the garden that accounts for the familiar but seductive flavour. The colours and textures are so wonderfully realised at times that you feel as if you are watching an exhibition of acclaimed paintings rather than a movie. The soundtrack to the film is touching, tapping in
sentimentally to the fantasy, and the sound effects too are superb, bringing
things back to reality with lifelike downpours of rain a sensual feast for the
ears as well as the eyes.

I stop a considerable way short of calling Arrietty a perfect film or even perfect animation. At times its art house leanings slow the pace to such an extent in the name of beauty that interest inevitably wanes despite the loveliness and splendour. Equally its high minded goals of making political points leads to some of the weakest and forced, as well as some of the strongest and deep, dialogue. Even in terms of originality it is lacking, given how dependent it is on a story already an entrenched part of British culture.

However overall Arrietty is a beguiling and beautiful film, with both a mind and a soul. Despite my reservations it was not pretentious or lecturing but enjoyable, engaging and yes, magical. No other film, animated or otherwise, will better capture the complex simplicity of childhood this year.

Page and Screen: In Praise of Rupert Grint


With the all conquering Harry Potter franchise drawing to a
close after a decade of record breaking box office figures and immeasurable
sales of merchandise and DVDs, reams are being written attempting to sum up the reasons for the worldwide phenomenon. Recipes for success are being compiled and suggested as Warner Brothers and other studios look for the “next Potter” to lure audiences consistently to cinemas on a huge scale. Children’s authors are being assessed and targeted as execs wonder where to find the next J.K. Rowling. Meanwhile the super rich writer has launched a new website to continue the Potter brand, “Pottermore”, and has revealed that she has waited, perhaps wisely, until after the last film to publish several projects she’s been working on for some time since finishing The Deathly Hallows.

Some say that Rowling’s immense imagination and wonderful
writing accounts for the success of the films. The sheer detail of the books
helped create a wizarding universe that went beyond the plots. However up and
down the country it’s easy to find English teachers, experts and ordinary
readers that will think little of Rowling’s talent. Of course she clearly has
an ability to create worlds and engaging plots but she is also reliant on
influences and is far from a genius writer. Whilst I was sucked in by the books
after reading them, unlike my school friends I only embraced The Philosopher’s
Stone after seeing the film version, which convinced me Harry Potter wasn’t as
childish as it sounded.

Perhaps the fact that Warner Brothers conceded artistic
control to British based Heyman Productions ensured the appealing flavour of
the series? There are no doubt many different reasons for the spellbinding
effect Hogwarts has had on box offices internationally, but as someone who has
grown up in the eye of a decade long magical storm, the Harry Potter films
transcend the usual critical criteria. As rankings of the films appear all over
the web, I have found myself reflecting on the franchise as a whole.

If I had to pick out one key reason for its success it would be the way the films have matured with their audience. Those behind the films deserve some credit for this but if anything they haven’t lived up to the darker depths of the books, until the final film if you believe the early reports from critics. It was Rowling’s
masterstroke to pen seven stories that evolved in tone as well as plot. However
watching the films has delivered the genuinely unique experience of seeing three
child actors grow into young and talented adults, which mirrors the maturing
mood of the stories.

Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson tend to hog the headlines.
He has become a leading man and she has gone from prissy bookworm to stunning, sexy and intelligent model, capable of juggling a demanding degree from a top university with filming and an increasingly diverse career. Recently though, as Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 premiered in Trafalgar Square, the newspapers reserved special mention for the huge cheer that greeted Rupert Grint.

Grint has always been more than the long suffering ginger
one. In the early films, when Radcliffe was excruciatingly awful at times in
the lead role, Grint provided much needed comic relief and more, with a skill
beyond his years. Respected film veteran John Hurt dubbed him a “born actor”
and allegedly directors beyond Potter, such as Martin Scorsese, have predicted
a bright future for him. In this early screen test, Grint is the clearly the
most expressive of the famous trio, inhabiting his role even when he doesn’t
have lines to read, unlike the blank faced Radcliffe and two dimensional
Watson: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDMm4NQPEgs&feature=player_detailpage#t=477s

But then a combination of the stresses of the lifestyle change and scripts that let his character down reduced Grint to a predictable and subdued comic presence during the films in the middle of the series. Radcliffe and Watson both grew in
confidence to take on more integral and convincing roles in the drama. The
final film ought to have plenty of opportunities for Grint to go out with a
bang big enough to showcase his true talent though, with the
will-they-won’t-they romantic chemistry between Ron and Hermione finally coming to a head and several dramatic moments to sink his acting chops into. Grint has certainly demonstrated his promise elsewhere with performances in Driving Lessons alongside Julie Walters and wild teen drama Cherrybomb.

We’ve been through a lot with Harry, Hermione and Ron and
got to know not only them, but a little of the actors that portray them, on the
way to their final showdown with Lord Voldemort. Harry Potter will always be a
great deal more than just a shadow hanging over the careers of Radcliffe,
Watson and Grint. They will all try to shake it off and it will be remarkable
if any of them completely succeed. I for one though have a feeling that out of
all of them it is Rupert Grint we are still yet to see the best of. He was a
lovable Ron but as someone else we haven’t heard of yet he is going to blow us
away.

Carmen – The Restored Edition


I know absolutely nothing about opera. I dabble amateurishly
in appreciating classical music because my curiosity was stirred by my love of
soundtracks and film scores. This is the only thin claim I can make towards
even an ounce of musical sophistication. I am also embarrassingly partial to
the odd musical. But like most men I find it impossible to suppress irritation
and disbelief at spontaneous outbursts of song, particularly when such musical
numbers contain the clumsy lyrics of ordinary conversation.

Within the first twenty minutes of watching this
“extensively restored” 1984 Francesco Rosi adaptation of Carmen, I was annoyed numerous times by the ridiculous, operatic
belting out of phrases like “I shall come back when the relief guard replaces
the old guard”. There is something more laughable than usual about it when it’s
all spelled out in subtitles.

Having said this I also recognised two iconic songs and
pieces of music that transcend the opera they are a part of in the first twenty
minutes. These sequences were enjoyable with their catchy melodies, powerful
voices and at times, more suitably poetic lyrics.

Gradually the plot of Carmen began to take shape independently of the occasionally uninteresting and irritating piece of music. It did grab me at times, if not all the time, especially when Carmen herself,
played by Julia Migenes, was onscreen. It’s the story of Carmen, the beautiful girl from the local tobacco factory, who is “free with her love”, and seduces the officer Don Jose at Seville’s nearby garrison to fall in love with her. He sacrifices everything for his all consuming unrequited love for her, only for her to choose another.

Written by Frenchman Georges Bizet Carmen premiered in Paris way back in 1875, to atrocious reviews and takings. Apparently it was divisive because it combined elements of serious opera, without dialogue in between, and comic opera, which had light hearted conversational speech dotted throughout. According to IMDb this was the first film version to use spoken dialogue as Bizet intended.

Bizet wouldn’t live to see the popularity of Carmen’s serious themes, so he
certainly wouldn’t have foreseen a cultural philistine like me humming along to
a variety of identifiable tunes throughout, without realising that they had come
from his work. He surely couldn’t have imagined the scale and vivid colour of
this restored edition either, playing loudly and sensually in the comfort of
living rooms for Carmen and Coldplay fans alike.

Perhaps Carmen would not be my usual cup of tea but it was a sporadically enjoyable slice of culture. It explores the forever universal theme of unrequited love, with some extremely emotionally affecting moments, despite an abundance of implausible and distracting ones. There are far too many overly dramatic reversals on the whole for me though.

But for opera fans it is almost certainly a must. My gripes
lie not with the production but with my ignorance of the art form. This
restored version comes complete with an expensive looking case and over an hour of special features, including a peak behind the scenes of the set and detailed interviews with cast and crew.

Page and Screen: Libraries vs. Cinemas in Fahrenheit 451


In 1966 England won the World Cup. And firemen stopped
putting out flames with water, to start them with kerosene to burn books.

Francois Truffaut’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s classic
20th century novel Fahrenheit 451 was released in 1966. It starred
Julie Christie in a dual role and Oskar Werner as main character Montag.
According to IMDb, Truffaut wanted Terence Stamp for the lead role but the
British screen legend was uneasy about being overshadowed by his former lover
Christie. Truffaut and Werner, with his thick Austrian accent on an English
production, had fiery differences about the film’s interpretation of Montag’s
character. It’s not surprising that there was passion on set because there was
a great deal within the pages of the book.

Bradbury’s book is the tale of Montag, a fireman whose job
it is to burn books. In the world of Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which
book paper catches fire) the state has banned the owning and reading of books.
Indeed in the film Werner is shown “reading” a newspaper or story consisting
entirely of images, without even speech bubbles. Why the ban? Books are “the
source of all discord and unhappiness”. Materialism, based on equality, is
encouraged, as opposed to the competing lies and raised expectations sold by
authors. Montag’s wife is reliant on state sponsored drugs and spends her days
in front of state television. She barely speaks to him and all are ignorant of
impending war.

Bradbury was a master of science fiction and he churned out volumes of beautiful and imaginative short stories, as part of collections like The Martian Chronicles. But Fahrenheit 451 merely has elements of sci-fi. For the most part its world is uncomfortably close to our own.

Truffaut’s adaptation has a fairy tale quality, and indeed
the novel is somehow magical. It is an incredibly intelligent book, packed with
literary references and joining the likes of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous
Huxley’s Brave New World, as one of the great prophetic dystopias with powerful
warnings about society. But it is not at all patronising and far more uplifting
than both of these books. It lays out its moral arguments more passionately and
poetically and tells a breathtakingly absorbing and thrilling tale, laced with
beautiful metaphors. Orwell and Huxley’s books were urgent and thought
provoking but lack the vibrant colour given by Bradbury’s imagery of flames.
Bradbury could also be funny rather than drab and his ideas were grounded in the realities of modern culture.

In short then, Truffaut had an enormous task to match a book
which simultaneously had pace, power, poetry and passion. I was therefore
surprised by how much I enjoyed his adaptation. It lacks the book’s excitement
and indeed many of its qualities but its opening scene, six minutes
uninterrupted by dialogue, is suitably atmospheric. The film as a whole evokes
the experience of reading and the worth of literature through the relatively
new medium of cinema: not an easy achievement. By quoting from great works as Bradbury often does the film benefits from some of the novel’s rhythm and can show the mesmerising effects of fire, leaving pages “blackened and changed”, shrivelling up like dying flowers.

All in all it was an entertaining watch, faithful to the book’s message, even if it was not “the most skilfully drawn of all science fiction’s conformist hells”, as Kingsley Amis described the novel. It was inventively shot and hauntingly scored. And its wonderful final scene got me thinking.

In it the “book people” are wandering in the woods by a lake. They are all reciting or learning a book. The book people commit a book to memory and become that book. So when Montag meets a pair of brothers, one is introduced as Pride and Prejudice Part 1 and the other as Part 2, a woman is Plato’s Republic and a shabbily dressed man Machiavelli’s Prince and so on. In effect the community of peaceful outsiders are a human library.

But aren’t we all libraries really? We may not have devoted
our lives to the word for word memorisation of our favourite books but our
opinions and outlook on the world are shaped by them. The impressions and
traces of good and great books we read can truly change us, inform us and
enlighten us, as well as entertain us.

Equally us film lovers are archives of all the movies we’ve
ever seen. Some of them will be forgettable but should we get a jolt to remind
us memories of even the poorest film will come flooding back. Others made us
stretch new emotional muscles or were so terrifically dramatic we had never
felt so alive and full of possibility.

The copy of Fahrenheit 451 that I own contains an
introduction written by Ray Bradbury for the 50th anniversary
edition in 2003. He describes how he wrote the novel on a typewriter in the
basement of a library, darting up the stairs now and then to do rapid research
and pick randomly inspirational quotes to sprinkle into the narrative. His love
of libraries is evident and he calls himself a lifelong “library person”. I
couldn’t help but think that a cinema or movie theatre could never give birth
to a work of art or vital piece of culture in quite the same diverse and
autonomous way.

Of course some fantastic films have their beginnings in
great directors being inspired by other great directors in a darkened cinema.
Last year Christopher Nolan’s Inception was seen and adored by millions, with
the director freely admitting influences as varied as James Bond, Stanley
Kubrick and the Matrix trilogy. There’s no doubt that I would prefer to spend
an afternoon in my local cinema than my local library. Both are arenas of
escapism but both are changing.

At the cinema 3D may or may not breakthrough as the next big
wow factor for audiences. Box office figures continue to remain high and
records were broken throughout the global recession. People will always flock
to the multiplex to give themselves up to the immediacy of film. They want to
be transported to another world in moments.

Libraries are undoubtedly in decline. In the UK local
libraries are understaffed, underfunded and short on stock. The coalition
government is happy to snatch away even more support for them for tiny savings, despite promises about getting more children to read from Education Secretary Michael Gove. Children’s author Patrick Ness used his Carnegie medal acceptance speech to launch a stinging attack on the policy.

As a child I got into reading because of the ease and
assistance of a library. Its poor range of choice wasn’t good enough as I got
older but I might still use it now if it were better equipped. In any case
libraries are a vital stepping stone into independent reading and education for
youngsters. The grander buildings full of history and knowledge have the
potential to be truly magical gateways to new novels, screenplays, election
campaigns or God knows what. Libraries empower the imagination and the
intellect. But so do cinemas, just in a different way. Both can keep us
entertained and thinking, as Fahrenheit 451 proves. Both deserve to thrive.