Saturday, 5 June 2010

Moving Site

CBD8948C-4032-4B99-97A2-C495C05B4C21.jpg
This will be my last blog post.

On this site.

Any new posts I write will be at http://observealot.wordpress.com. The new site will also contain all my old posts and any comments people made on this blogspot site, so it should just be a case of updating your bookmarks and RSS Feeds appropriately.

Speaking of RSS Feeds the new one is http://observealot.wordpress.com/feed/ . If you don't use an RSS Feed, then the easiest way to keep up with me is to follow me on Twitter (http://twitter.com/markdavo) where any new posts I publish are always tweeted about. If you don't use Feeds or Twitter then you'll just have to keep checking the new site manually to see if there's any updates.

For those of you wondering why I'm making this change, it's for two fairly simple reasons:

1) I like the new simplified design I've chosen on wordpress better.

2) I now have a URL that fits the title of the site, since "Those who are dumber" was a relic of an even older blog I never really got round to taking off the ground.

So thanks very much for joining me on this site, and I very much look forward to writing for you over at:

http://observealot.wordpress.com

Friday, 4 June 2010

Films of Shame: Taxi Driver

Films of Shame has seen me watch and review five movies I should have seen but had not. So far, I've managed to cross off Citizen Kane, The Shining, The Godfather Part II, and Annie Hall. Taxi Driver's the last on my list.

21C00487-D64F-4B11-B4CF-9CBCAF59C7B7.jpgTaxi Driver is the film which cemented both de Niro and Scorcese in mainstream cinema: a place neither have strayed far from in the 35 years since its release.

It's a film most famous for de Niro's performance, as he plays the introverted Travis, a young man unsure of his place in a world he sees largely through the windows and mirrors of his taxi.

The film does a remarkable job of showing both the internal and external facets of one's nature. The person we choose to show other people versus the person we are on our own.

We see our young protagonist in a city he feels is falling apart, but with no clue how to respond to it. He makes decisions in the movie that are at times noble, at times naive, and at times morally questionable.

For me the most heartbreaking scene in the movie is when he asks one of his older colleagues advice about how to get by, and his colleague is unable to offer anything other that 'just get on with it'. It's obvious that for Travis that is not enough, and the decisions that follow show that he is someone determined not to just transport people here and there, but actually change the world he inhabits.

All of this makes Travis one of the most brilliantly drawn characters put on screen. There is an incredible depth to every action and line in the movie, and you can't help but join the lead character in solving the mystery of who he is and how he fits into everything that goes on around him.

Finally, the film's depiction of New York is incredibly rich in detail and scope. Parts of the movie simply focus in on Travis as he drives through the city, the camera picking up on small details, as relaxing but seedy jazz music accompanies each trip.

At various points through out the film, the camera shows us water gushing out of hydrants clearing all the dirt on the road away. It reminds us of Travis' words early in the story "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets." As Taxi Driver reaches its climax it's obvious Travis sees himself as the one to do the washing. And the way he goes about that, makes the film's ending brilliantly engaging, exciting and emotional.

Taxi Driver has aged beautifully. The issues Travis sees in the 70s, prostitution; drugs; and politicians we find difficult to trust; never seem to go away. Most of all, however, it's a masterclass in the creation of a character: someone who can be viewed in so many different ways, both by himself and the viewer.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Edinburgh International Film Festival - My Top Five Picks

Yesterday the schedule for The Edinburgh International Film Festival was announced. We already knew The Illusionist, from the creators of Belleville Rendez-vous, was going to open the event and that Toy Story 3 would play in Edinburgh the day after its world premiere on 18th June.

However, yesterday was the day we found out about the other 131 movies that will feature at this year's festival. Tickets go on sale on 3rd June at 12 noon. I've picked out five I think you should look out for:

Mr Nice
Directed by Bernard Rose

Based on Howard Marks' autobigraphy, Mr Nice tells the tale of the Oxford graduate turned drugs smuggler, played by Rhys Ifans. Along the way he gets involved with the IRA, Mafia and wanted by the DEA. Expect a mix of comedy and action as we see the enigmatic Marks talk his way in and out of perilous situations:


Mr Nice Trailer

The Secret in Their Eyes
Directed by Juan José Campanella

El Secreto de Sus Ojos 02.JPGFrom Argentina comes the winner of this year's "Best Foreign Language Film" at the oscars. It's set in 1999, but features flashbacks to 25 years earlier, as our protagonist tries to piece together a case that has haunted him for decades: the rape and murder of a young woman in 1974. Pitched as part murder-mystery, part romance, this one is definitely a must see for any film aficionado.


My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
Directed by Werner Herzog

"Produced by David Lynch and Directed by Werner Herzog" should be enough to convince most film fans to go and see this one. Marketed as "Inspired by a true story" (the most misleading statement known to man BTW - what film is not inspired by at least one true story?), Herzog describes it as "a horror film without the blood, chainsaws and gore". Although certainly from the trailer, it looks more like a psychological thriller than a fright-fest....


My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done Trailer


The Extra Man
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

extra man 04.jpgPossibly the most star-studded of this year's films, The Extra Man sees Paul Dano, John C. Reilly, Katie Holmes and Kevin Kline join directors Berman and Pulicini (American Splendour) for a film that sees Kline take young playwright Dano under his wing. It seems this has the type of indie sense of humour one might associate with Wes Anderson, and its unsurprising that this made its debut at Sundance: a festival renowned for such quirky indie hits. I for one am a huge fan of movies of this ilk, and can't wait to see Dano in a role supposedly markedly different from both There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine.


Third Star
Directed by Hattie Dalton

THIRD STAR.jpgRounding off this year's fest comes Third Star, a British bromance/road-trip movie. Combining the type of comedy and emotion of something like Cemetery Junction, it features four friends going on what they hope will be a relaxing trip away, but practical difficulties and emotional revelations inevitably get in the way of such notions. The festival has put a lot of confidence in the movie by putting putting it in as the closing night gala, here's hoping its World Premiere doesn't disappoint.

The Edinburgh Film Festival runs from 16th until 27th June. Tickets can be booked in advance on the website: http://www.edfilmfest.org.uk/

Sunday, 30 May 2010

What I've Been Watching: Lost - Final Thoughts

88063A59-6A1A-43E7-99DC-A6A9C96BB8F7.jpg"The longest single story ever told on television" Whatever else Lost was, it was surely that. Perhaps only Battlestar Galactica has come close to telling such a long, extraordinary tale. Unlike most television, which tells a new story each episode (CSI, House, etc.) or each season (The Wire, Buffy, and so on...), Lost's story lasted six seasons, with a clear beginning, middle and end.

As such, it frustrated and engaged fans in equal measure; as they debated the meaning of numbers, four-toed statues, smoke monsters and polar bears. Of course, the reality is most of these questions were answered in the final season. And even the most hardcore of fan cannot have expected every single thread to be tied up in its final episode.

However, this was the show that took its fans and its mythology incredibly seriously. The final season showed just how much the writers had invested in the show. Time and again we saw things that had happened 5+ years ago being referenced, and it's a testament to the show's ability to create memorable moments and mysteries that we were able to remember precisely what it is they were referring to.


Season 6 Review
(SPOILERS FOR THE FINAL SEASON AHEAD)

The final season was based around Jacob and NotLocke: the two brothers who had been bringing and testing people on the island for at least 150 years. After Jacob's death at the end of season 5, the island needed a new protector, and so 'the candidates' emerged.

The battle between the brothers provided the backdrop to the season, as we saw how they're differing opinions on humanity influenced their relationships with those who were washed ashore.

Jacob's final revelation that the reason for them being there was because their lives needed direction made surprisingly perfect sense of the events of the last six seasons. This was underlined by the reunions of all the characters in the FlashSideways (or perhaps more accurately, FlashUpwards) which were by far the highlight of the finale. More than once I had tears in my eyes as Charlie and Claire, Sawyer and Juliette, and so on were reunited. Hurley's understated remark to Ben that 'he was a good number two' likewise provided a surprisingly poignant moment.

If Lost's finale said anything, it was that the show was not primarily about the island and its mythology but rather the relationships the Losties made there. Relationships that allowed each individual to put all their worries and concerns to one side in the alternate reality and enjoy life again.

My only 'theory' about the ending is that when each Lostie died, instead of being reborn again, they went straight to boarding Oceanic Flight 815 - any memories they had being false ones based on memories of their real lives.

The reason I think this, is because it is clear the flight was supposed to be the most significant event in their lives, and it makes perfect sense their brain would go straight there to relive it. So as soon as they die, they go straight onto the flight in order to reach their final destination with the people who were most important to them.

CAC4E4A4-0F21-48EF-8070-B8AC9289359E.jpgAlthough Christian Shepherd's revelation in the final fifteen minutes kind of came of the blue, upon reflection I think it makes perfect sense. At my most cynical I could say limbo was just an excuse to bring all the old cast members back, and their reasoning behind not having Shannon on the plane makes zero sense.

However, the season certainly set-up these religious themes: the epic battle between good and evil; finding one's destiny; and earning one's redemption. In the context of these themes, introducing limbo or heaven into the equation I have no real problem with.

Fan Reaction

Finally, it's interesting to consider fans reaction to the finale. A reaction which it seems has been somewhat mixed. Perhaps the weakness of doing one story over six seasons is that fans have so much invested in the show, and have come up with so many theories about the island and the overall story the show is trying to tell, that they'll inevitably be disappointed when the show diverges from their own interpretation.

However, as I mentioned in my television review of the decade, the appeal of Lost to me has always be always been it's ability to surprise, and as such I should give the show credit for continuing to bring me with it for six years without ever really feeling cheated when new concepts like buttons, time travel, or alternate realities were introduced. Normally, shows would only introduce these type of things for one episode, with any plot holes, being easily ignored for the sake of that week's story. Lost meticulously established such grand concepts into the show's mythology, and for this it should be given a lot of credit.

I think when fans reflect back over the six seasons, they'll see a truly unique story that was unprecedented in its scope and ambition. Unlike Battlestar Galactica which 'Jumped The Starbuck', I don't think Lost has such a singular moment where fans gave up on the show. As such I think those disappointed by the finale will soon forgive the show as they reflect and re-watch the story in its entirety in years to come.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Edinburgh Film Festival - Here I Come

EIFF logo black mono.jpgI recently received an email confirming that I've been accepted as a member of the press for the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

This is great news since it'll mean I'm able to see and review lots of fantastic films before they get their national release, as well as attending some press conferences, and potentially getting exclusive interviews with the cast and crew of this year's most exciting movies.

Obviously, you'll hear about exactly what I've seen or who I've met on this very site. As such, expect updates on a daily basis during the festival which runs from the 16th-27th June.

The programme is released on the 1st June, so I'll do my best to pick out the highlights before the box office for the festival opens on the 3rd June.

In the meantime, you can check out the trailer for the festival at http://www.edfilmfest.org.uk/gallery/videos/eiff-tv/120


Monday, 24 May 2010

What I've Been Watching: Robin Hood & Hot Tub Time Machine

B6116532-8C24-4DDC-B4FC-FB1B3EBBD37F.jpgRobin Hood

From the team that brought you Gladiator, comes Robin Hood, Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe's attempt to do for The Prince of Thieves what Batman Begins did for The Dark Knight.

The film has been marketed as 'The untold story of the man behind the legend'. The premise is that Robin has returned from the crusades to find King John on the throne, who's country is bankrupt after an ill-conceived campaign in the Middle East (As as side note, aren't you glad to see things have changed a lot in Britain since the 13th Century...?)

There's also a bit about Robin Hood impersonating one of the king's knights. However, the only purpose it seems to serve is that said knight was married to Maid Marion: cue lots of awkward exchanges as they have to pretend to like each other to everyone else, while trying to hide their true feelings from each other. Apparently Ridley Scott thought this twist on the Robin Hood tale made the whole thing worth watching. It doesn't.

It's dull. Really dull. And it has no reason to be. Everything about this movie is brilliantly executed. The actors are well chosen, it's funny when it needs to be, the attention to detail in the world is spot on. What they forget to do was actually make Robin Hood an interesting character.

Perhaps it's worth considering at this point what makes a good origin story. If we think about Batman Begins, Casino Royale or even Spiderman, a big part of what makes them interesting is seeing them grow and develop into the legends we know they'll become.

So it's fairly common in these types of stories to see them say and do things we would never expect Batman/James Bond/Spiderman to do later on in their lives. For example, letting a robber get away with stolen money in Spiderman or giving up the secret service for a woman in Casino Royale

In Robin Hood, when we meet the title character, it may as well be at anytime in his story. He stands up for what's right, speaks his mind and has no problem with questioning authority. He makes no mistakes in the entire movie, and not once does he make a decision we would ever think to question. It's all very noble. And very boring.

I came out of the movie very disappointed since I really wanted to like it. It's not that any of parts are shoddy in any way, it's just that when you arrange it all together it's just a Volkswagen - it should have been a Porsche.

63BF0FA7-717A-433F-B58B-04A2D3C7C072.jpgHot Tub Time Machine

It's rare that a movie can so aptly describe/sell itself with just its title. Taking a leaf out of Snakes on a Plane, Hot Tub Time Machine feels like a movie where someone came up with a title and then started putting all the pieces together. They must have spelt out '1980'.

There's a great sense that the creative forces behind the movie love the 80s without feeling the need to apologise for it. "The 80s was a sucky decade, but it was our sucky decade" to misquote one of the movie's lines.

Unfortunately the film is quite a mess. At one point, as the characters partake in some male bonding, Lou declares Haven't you even seen Wild Hogs? This is a film that is doing its utmost not to go down the sappy, we all learn a lesson story of Travolta and co's movie. Yet it seems to be inexplicably drawn to it at the same time.

Characters do learn lessons: about taking risks, about standing up for themselves, and about taking responsibility for their lives. And in between we get jokes about sex, drugs and the 80s. None of which are that funny or that memorable.

The plot also makes no sense. At the beginning of the movie, it's well established that all their lives suck. And they get away for the weekend together to try and forget that fact. They get to the past, and spend most of the movie making sure they change nothing so it can all be the same. Why?

Most of this movie is frustrating, because at its best it knows exactly how ridiculous the premise is, and pokes fun at it at various points. Snake on a Plane had a concept, knew it was crazy, but stuck with it. Hot Tub Time Machine had a concept, but then couldn't decide if it wanted to be a Judd Apatow movie or Wild Hogs. As it is, it was neither. A rude, crude movie with a pointlessly tacked on message where people solve all their problems by changing one thing about themselves. All in all it ends up feeling just like the 80s: best left forgotten.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Best Worst Movie? Troll 2 vs The Room

A0CB4247-14ED-4322-BB1F-A84E2A654128.jpgThe crown of the "Worst Movie Ever" or "Best Worst Movie" is one no director should ever be proud to wear. However, there can be many benefits to achieving such cult status. Stars of the movies The Room and Troll 2 are treated like demi-gods by those who attend screenings for their movies.

This phenomenon was deemed interesting enough that Michael Stephenson, who plays the ten year-old Joshua in Troll 2, decided to make a documentary titled Best Worst Movie, regarding the fan base that has built up around Troll 2.

The Room, on the other hand, has elevated its writer, producer and star, Tommy Wiseau to the kind of cult status one normally only associates with Adam West or Bruce Campbell. Fans queue for hours to attend screenings where he's present: cheering every time his name comes on the screen in the opening credits.

Given the intense cult following for both these movies, I thought it'd be interesting to compare them. So without further ado, let battle commence:

A69D24C8-B28F-4187-91D6-A38C684778A1.jpgThe Room

I saw The Room in a packed midnight showing at The Cameo in Edinburgh. Literally 200+ people had come out, armed with plastic spoons, to cheer, chant and throw American footballs during the screening of a movie most seemed to have an intensely intimate knowledge of.

For example, in the film all the paintings in the apartment contain spoons. Anytime any of these paintings can be seen in the shot, movie-goers would shout "Spoons" as hundreds of plastic spoons would rain down upon the theatre.

Add to that, phrases such as "Who Are You?" when characters get randomly introduced then disposed of; cheering when the mother-in-law declares "she has cancer" then never mentions, or even alludes to, this again for the rest of the movie; and joining in with the ever-so-dramatically delivered line "You're tearing me apart Lisa!". This was a movie-going-experience like none I had ever experienced.

The movie itself is terrible, not so much in terms of its cinematography or even acting, but its dialogue and story. Characters come and go as they please; lines are repeated again and again ('He's your best friend'; 'You're about to get married', etc.); and a drug dealer appears for no apparent reason.

This is a movie that was clearly a labour of love for its director. It's like he's tried to put everything he's ever experienced in one movie, without actually considering how all the pieces will fit together. Kind of like what happens when you mix all your watercolours together in the hope of getting some new super-colour: It ends up looking like poo.

Despite all this there is a charm to the movie that's difficult to describe. It's easy to tell that Wiseau believes absolutely in what he's doing, and perhaps that's why the movie has built up such a following. Like Eddie the Eagle or Tim Henman, it's difficult to dislike someone who's obviously trying their best but just lacks the talent to succeed.

075FCFF1-00AC-4650-89FE-526CECAF979C.jpgTroll 2

Don't be fooled by the title, Troll 2 has nothing to do with Trolls, its bad guys are actually goblins and never called 'trolls' at any point in the movie. Neither is it a sequel to the little known horror movie, Troll: In the sense that it contains none of the same characters, story or mythology as that movie.

Instead, the movie was thought to be such a stinker by its distributors, they hoped to capitalise on the modest success of Troll by pretending this was a sequel to it.

Troll 2 tells the story of a family's vacation to 'Nilbog' (Try spelling it backwards). There the locals seem strangely keen to make them eat the exclusively vegetarian cuisine. In another universe Troll 2 would have been created by the manufacturers of processed meat, as it does its best to discredit the healthy benefits of vegetables, instead choosing to promote the merits of a 'Double Decker Bologna Sandwich'.

The acting is possibly the worst you will ever see. Lines are learnt and executed with the type of delivery normally reserved for a child's Nativity Play. In one instance the mother's delivery felt so forced that by the time she gets to the end of her little speech, you'll feel like bursting into applause: she made it!

Also for a town intent on getting visitors to eat their food, you think they could make it a little more appetizing. Instead, it's all covered in this strange green goo that makes even the most innocent of foods look radioactive.

It's also worth noting that for goblins that can choose to take any form, it's surprising that would choose the types of faces one is used to seeing next to headlines such as "The Nation's Most Dangerous Sex Offenders".

Troll 2, like The Room is difficult to hate since it's just so ridiculous. Perhaps it's best summed up by its very own Grandma Seth: a slightly crazy, creepy but ultimately harmless film. And like Grandpa Seth, having died a death a long time ago, it's now come back: bigger stronger and with the inexplicable power to stop time at will.

Best Worst Movie?

So having reviewed both movies, one question remains: which is the best? Or worst? Or best worst? Well, horrible as The Room is, I still think the title can only belong to Troll 2. On some level, it is possible to see the narrative The Room was trying to create, and it at least knows how to create a dramatic ending. Troll 2, on the other hand, is just a big bunch of crazy. With little that gives any indication that anyone involved has ever seen a movie before.

It's often said Orson Welles recreated cinema by ripping up the rules on Citizen Kane. I think it's fair to say Troll 2 did this as well. It's perhaps no coincidence that both are two of the most unique movies ever made. And if anyone finds a finer Best Worst Movie than Troll 2 out there, I'll eat a goblin. Backwards.

As an added treat, here's possibly the best worst delivered line ever:


Monday, 17 May 2010

What I've Been Watching: DVD - Awaydays & American History X

2205C33C-574B-4F20-B972-B5322A331AB4.jpgAwaydays

Football Hooligan movies fill with me with a certain amount of dread. As a teacher I know the impact such films can have on young impressionable teens. Regardless of their attempts to show the consequences of such violence, there is still a level of style given to the riots between rival football fans that I feel filmmakers should take more responsibility for.

Awaydays does nothing to alleviate such fears. It features skinny teenagers taking on gangs of much older men and coming out with barely a scratch.

Despite this, it may not be the type of movie that would appeal to boys of that certain age. The story centres on the relationship between the main character, Catry, and Elvis. The latter appearing to have feelings that go beyond friendship towards the former.

The problem with the movie is not just that the characters are not particularly likeable, it's that they're also pretty difficult to sympathise with. Whether it's one trying to get the adrenaline rush of being in a brawl, another looking for the satisfaction of love that can never happen, or another trying to hold onto his youth by commanding a company of teens, I care little about their plight.

It's not that the film lacks ambition or has nothing to say. It's just that theyway the story is presented gives us little reason to care. Is this a story about the appeal and dangers of hooliganism? Is it about finding your place in the world? Is it about allowing other people to see the person you really are?

The problem then is not its stylishly shot scenes of hooliganism, neither its unsympathetic characters, but that Awayday's story lacks anything to hang onto - instead, it's as random and pointless as the violence it so readily depicts.


A9BC164B-E305-4F67-8C10-8CE2E2C02C0B.jpgAmerican History X

Another movie which readily depicts violence is American History X, a movie about the relationship between two brothers, the older of whom ends up in jail after a racially motivated attack.

Unlike Awaydays, however, this movie has no problems telling its story, even though it does so in a much more complicated, and hence interesting, manner.

Split between flashbacks in black and white, and the colourful world of the present day, both brothers are forced to face up to the actions that have got them to the place they are at now. The plot being propelled by the younger's assignment to write a paper about how the older one ended up doing time.

Where it excels in my opinion, is in its depiction of family. A family which, although dysfunctional, has little in common with The Tenenbaums nor The Simpsons.Instead they're a family broken apart by grief and resentment for an incident in their past.

Few movies manage to capture so well the many facets that make us who we are as a result of our upbringing and parental environment.

308D6EFE-89B9-41F8-8104-514EB88F7232.jpgYet as we dig deeper into what made Edward Norton's character become leader of a white supremacist group, we understand how such an intelligent youth could get it so badly wrong.

We also see how he becomes a father figure to his younger brother, and that Danny's need to follow in his footsteps can only have dire consequences for everyone involved.

Unlike in the world of procedurals like CSI and Without a Trace, the solving of a murder does little to bring closure to such a life-defining event and the consequences of seeing a loved one be killed will live with those closest to them forever.

There are many other aspects to American History X. However, upon first viewing this is the one that stuck out most. It could also be praised for its depiction of race relations, which felt incredibly refreshing - presenting few easy solutions to such a long-standing problem. Never mind Norton's outstanding performance, the narrative structure, the writing or the cinematography. Perhaps it's just best you see it for yourself...


Saturday, 15 May 2010

My Totally Rad Show Moment

I've already mentioned on this blog that one of my favourite web shows is The Totally Rad Show. For those of you who don't know it's a show hosted by three self-confessed geeks who review movies, computer games, television, and comics.

For the past few months they've been asking for fans to submit lyrics to their intro, which normally features photoshopped versions of them in the plot of a movie.

Knowing they were going to review Iron Man this week, I thought I'd give it a shot, and so with the help of rhymezone I created the following and emailed it in:

Three rad men
In Afghanistan
Were captured and taken
To a secret den

They're forced to plan
Rad shows for Taliban
With Spidey's Uncle Ben
And an old modem

So they sneakily pen
Iron suits for men
That fly just like hens
And have an app - or ten!

Soaring free again
They become changed men
Vowing to spread zen
On the Totally Rad Show


Having received no reply to the email, I assumed nothing had come of it, but tuned in nevertheless in the vague hope my lyrics would appear. Upon hearing "Three Rad Men in Afghanistan" my heart almost stopped. And upon hearing the end of the lyric, I rewound to make sure I hadn't misheard. THOSE WERE MY LYRICS!

Anyway I've edited the show down to two minutes, so you can my moment of internet fame in all its glory. It includes the shout-out to me where they 'hilariously' forget my name, then once they remember it all say it in unison so the whole world can hear. Finally Jeff tells the viewers to 'Be Like Mark Davidson....". Sage advice indeed. I think I can die happy. :)


Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Films of Shame: Annie Hall

F06D1C00-0068-4D18-8C98-A2023A6C5BD5.jpgFilms of Shame chronicles my impressions of movies I should have seen before now, but haven't. I've already taken Citizen Kane, The Shining and The Godfather Part II off my list. My final film on the list will be Taxi Driver.

Annie Hall holds a place in oscar history as the last comedy to win Best Picture at the academy awards. It's interesting to consider why. Perhaps one reason is that where as most comedies paint in broad strokes - with observations that hit home with as many people as possible, Woody Allen's film has an incredibly personal feel to it.

As Alvy breaks the fourth wall, and speaks directly to camera, it's difficult to tell where he ends and Woody Allen begins. In addition, the title character was also based on Diane Keaton, whose real name is Diane Hall, and nickname is 'Annie'.

This personal nature of the film fits incredibly snugly next to its theme of relationships - why we choose to put ourselves through the highs and lows of love despite our lack of success in the field to date.

The narrative structure is such that Annie Hall flits back and forth between the present day and the time the two lead characters met. In doing so we explore what works and what doesn't about their relationship. The little things that become bigger things later, the way the two of them want the other to change, without them losing what it is they were attracted to in the first place.

03176567-1D32-4C41-8CF9-7699F2656173.jpgAs Alvy narrates over his own movie, his own relationship, it mirrors our own ability to narrate our own lives, and in particular our own relationships. We often assume a certain moment meant this, or a certain phrase meant that, but we can never be sure precisely what this meant to the other person.

Annie Hall, unlike most comedies, has something to say. It captures the joy and humour of meeting someone you love, as well as the confusion and isolation of trying to make your two lives and personalities mesh together.

Alvy starts the movie with a line from Groucho Marx: "I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.". By the end of the movie, we're left pondering what it is within us that gives us that desire to compromise, share, and love with another person. Why is it that, above so many other things, many of us seek the most?

Saturday, 8 May 2010

What I've Been Watching: Date Night & The Disappearance of Alice Creed

6DABEDA9-FB32-46F5-AC43-8A4EE6B87755.jpgDate Night
I've got a feeling...

30 Rock and The American Office have been two of the most successful, creative US comedies of recent years. They've deservedly made household names of their two stars: Steve Carrell and Tina Fey. So when I saw them on the poster for Date Night, my immediate reaction was: why hasn't anyone thought of this before?

This 'natural pairing' translates very well onto the screen as Fey and Carrell are asked to portray The Fosters, a married couple whose busy working/family lives mean they no longer have the energy to put effort into their relationship

The opening scenes to the movie almost come from another film, as the Fosters find out two of their best friends are getting divorced. Why? "They're just roommates. Really good roommates".

In an effort to spice things up a little, the Fosters decide to go to Manhattan for a night out. What follows is a case of mistaken identity which results in 'wacky shenanigans' for the next hour or so.

6828A81A-EAD0-4978-8D93-95088F9615E2.jpgThe film's strengths lie in the central relationship between Fey's and Carrell's respective characters. It shines when they're not figuring out where it is they need to be next, and instead just talking... (Yes talking, because if Annie Hall has taught us anything it's that a movie with people just... you know... talking can actually be entertaining). This 'talking' really felt like the kind of unique, smart comedy the two stars are known for.

To put it another way, I guess it's kind of like going to see a stand-up and instead of doing comedy, they decide to spend the hour juggling. It's not that their juggling is bad... I mean they had knives and flames and stuff... it's just that they're comedians... I wanted some funny.

So it is with Fey and Carrell, they're smart comedians, where's the smart comedy? Instead we got car chases, Tina Fey bumping into things, and pole dancing...

Despite all these set-backs, I was still entertained. It's easy to be won over by these two stars and the excellent supporting cast. I just wish the journey could have been as interesting as the company...

78FD469D-587D-4E68-B2C4-C48264A90CE2.jpgThe Disappearance of Alice Creed
Alice, Alice, Where the *bleep* is Alice?

There aren't many films that can sustain an interesting story with just three characters. Rear Window comes to mind as the type of movie that used just a few speaking characters to create over two hours of almost faultless suspense.

The first fifteen minutes of The Disappearance of Alice Creed would have you believing this movie is more of the torture-porn genre (e.g. Saw, Hostel) than the suspenseful thriller it later becomes.

In it, we see the two kidnappers, one in his forties, the other in their twenties meticulously set-up the flat they wish to keep Alice locked in. They sound-proof the walls, build the bed, and get all the supplies they'll need to carry out the crime. All without speaking. We then get a fairly disturbing piece of cinema, as Alice is captured, tied to the bed, stripped naked and photographed.

18330768-71D2-486E-9571-1645CF67DF87.jpgWhat follows, without giving anything away about the actual plot, is entirely different in tone. The movie chooses to concentrate on the characters, and the relationships that develop between the three of them. As a result it is much more like the tense and suspenseful Rear Window than the gory and disturbing Saw.

For a movie to work with just three characters, you need an excellent script and excellent actors. The movie has both. And although not perfect (perhaps the last act could have given us a little more), it's a very rewarding and exciting film to watch. It has a purity and innocence to its story that is very refreshing.

Unlike Date Night, which clearly had three or four creative forces all wanting different things, Alice Creed feels like one man's creative vision perfectly realised on the screen. Thoroughly recommended.

Monday, 3 May 2010

What I've Been Watching: Cemetery Junction & Iron Man 2

E4E92DB8-3F77-440D-8292-D1D838045F58.jpgCemetery Junction
A.K.A. Dead End

Mark Kermode, on his blog, posted a piece about whether a comedy needed to be funny to be described as such. He argued that despite Cemetery Junction's lack of laughs, it was still a good comedy because it was a good film. I would disagree with this argument. Cemetery Junction is simply not a comedy.

Given the involvement of Gervais and Merchant (The Office, Extras, The Invention of Lying) I can understand some critics' need to classify it as such. However, trying to cram it into that genre by redefining what a comedy is, seems to be completely missing the point.

Anyone who's seen the final episodes of The Office or Extras will know that these two writers know, not only how bring comedy out of the most excruciating of circumstances, but also how to build to great character moments. For example, when Dawn finds Tim's picture on her way to the airport in The Office or in Extras, when Andy launches a tirade on reality TV, while at the same time making a heartfelt apology to Maggie live from the Big Brother house.

15C763EE-68CE-4E74-BB63-9D5D78BA2874.jpgCemetery Junction essentially turns the comedy vs drama tables on us: being primarily concerned with these the latter, and only giving us little nuggets of funny in between. This was always going to be a risky move for these two writers, however, I think it's paid off pretty well.

Instead of the story moving in a direction that creates the most awkward, cringeworthy moments possible, we instead get a very tight, well-constructed plot about four people in the twenties trying to make something of their lives.

The characters, whether major or minor, are all incredibly well written and cast, with nearly all of them having moments that make you believe in their real, three-dimensional personas.

One other thing to look at is the significance of gifts in the movie, in particular, the manner in which they are given and received. Nearly all the important moments in the movie are when one character gives another things like a cup of tea, a beer, or a crystal bowl. Perhaps this best sums up the style of writing in the movie, where big things are said through little gestures.

Cemetery Junction then succeeds as a coming-of-age drama with a great heart and well developed character arts. If, however, you're expecting something with the comedic tone of Gervais' earlier works, I'd recommend re-watching your Office/Extras boxsets.

08572EC8-4D8F-43E3-B4F9-F7D5A074300F.jpgIron Man 2
He Came. He Saw. He Ironed.

When Iron Man was released in 2008 it was almost greeted as the second coming by some movie geeks. Its combination of snappy dialogue, a well constructed world, and a perfectly cast Robert Downey Jr leading some to question whether The Dark Knight, released a few months later, could surpass it for entertainment value. Needless to say, Nolan's Batman movie, is now considered the pinnacle of the genre. However, perhaps it's a little unfair to put the original on that high a pedestal.

You see, Iron Man is a film much like its main character: loud, brash, and cocky while at the same time wanting to do something worthwhile.

At the end of the first movie, it was incredibly refreshing to see a superhero finally 'come out' and admit to his secret identity. This dynamic is nicely used through out the sequel, as people are forced to believe in the man Tony Stark, as oppose to his alter-ego Iron Man.

Compare this to every other superhero movie, where the main character must decide what it is they stand for when they're dressed in their capes and cowls, and the impact this has on the normal people around them.

At the end of the first act of the movie Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) targets Stark, and declares he has won because he made him bleed, he made him fallible. Arguably this resulting conversation is the high point of the movie. With the nature of Stark's new role in "privatising world peace" rightly questioned by this new enemy.

5A311444-B0D9-444F-BB33-DDC3E5113167.jpgUnfortunately, like the first it quickly descends into action movie territory in the final third, with all the interesting stuff put to one side in favour of more robots hitting each other. And we all know Transformers has cornered the market on that.

My only other complaint is the inclusion of The Avengers which will only really make sense to fans of Marvel comics. It still hasn't been clearly established why Nick Fury's S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation is so important, or what the threat it is they're dealing with. As such, the inclusion of these scenes in the middle of the movie made little sense in terms of the story of Iron Man 2. As well as causing it to suffer from Spiderman 3 syndrome as we were introduced to yet more characters.

Don't get me wrong I'm as excited as anyone at seeing Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, et al on the screen together in one movie, but I feel like more justification needs to be given to seeing Samuel L. Jackson pop up in the middle of each of Marvel's flagship titles.

Iron Man 2 is a movie that brought me with it for the first third, but seemed to run out of things to say by about half way. I never felt any real threat towards the characters, what it was Tony Stark was really fighting for, or what his dilemma in the movie was. As such, while entertaining, I don't think it holds up well when compared to the emotional heart of similar sequels like Spiderman 2, X-Men 2 or indeed The Dark Knight.


Reviews of Date Night and The Disappearance of Alice Creed will be published later this week.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Films of Shame: The Godfather Part II

101F25FC-450D-4DB7-86B1-157CF16833EF.jpgFilms of Shame chronicles my impressions of movies I should have seen before now, but haven't. I've already taken Citizen Kane and The Shining off my list. Next will be Annie Hall, and I'll round off the series with Taxi Driver.

The Godfather Part II is one of only two movie sequels to have won the Best Picture oscar. (Bonus points if you can name the other). Although it could equally described as a prequel, since a good part of the movie is spent in the company of the early life of Vito Corleone, played by Robert di Niro. The rest of the movie is spent with his youngest son Michael Corleone as he attempts to follow is his father's footsteps as the new Godfather.

It's been about six/seven years, since I saw The Godfather, and I chose not to watch it before seeing what is considered to be one of the greatest sequels, if not movies, of all time. As an eighteen year-old, I remember thinking the original was good but felt a little bulky in places, such as when Michael goes off to hide in Sicily. Perhaps my views would best be summed up by this clip:



It's fair to say my movie tastes have changed a lot since then, since there was nothing bulky about the sequel, and if I had the chance I would probably give my eighteen year old self a slap across the head and tell him to watch what's really happening.

52178869-C265-4CCB-B95C-97727701EDE3.jpgPerhaps my favourite scene in the movie was when Di Niro in is early days as Don Carleone is asked by an old widow if he would speak to her landlord about her recent eviction. De Niro then asks, in the nicest way possible if the landlord would reconsider. He refuses initially, but after speaking to some of the locals, he returns the next day, clearly shaking with fear about the mistake he almost made.

The scene perfectly sums up the world The Godfather inhabits, and the disconnect between his persona, and the myths and legends that surround him.

It also perhaps sums up the difference between Vito and his successor, Michael, who while feared and respected, perhaps lacks the glint in his eye his father had.

The great thing about The Godfather is that there's so many scenes that will probably be favourites for lots of other people. Scenes that say so much with so little. Since, it's the smiles, raising of an eyebrow, or significant look that all speak way more than the dialogue ever attempts to.

Like all my favourite stories, I think it succeeds because of its ability to force the viewer to lean in and investigate the world further. We become a member of the Corleone family, as we're forced to learn the language they speak and the what words, phrases and gestures really mean. If like me you haven't seen all 390 minutes of the first two Godfathers, then surely that's an offer you can no longer refuse...

Friday, 23 April 2010

What I've Been Watching: Television

A8C0C7D7-2C8C-4572-99DF-7DC5FFAAF7CE.jpgSarah Connor Chronicles: Season 2
The Mother of All Destiny

The Terminator franchise has had a somewhat turmultious history. Terminator and Terminator 2 are considered to be among the best sci-fi movies of all time, containing the performances Arnold Schwarzenegger will be remembered for. Terminator 3 was considered to be a fairly insignificant sequel, just about staying on the right side of average. Finally, Terminator: Salvation was generally considered the biggest disappointment of last year's blockbusters. Having few new ideas or stories to convince us the story Post-Judgment Day is worth telling.

Sarah Connor Chronicles sees the title character's battle to bring up and protect her teenage son, John. He has the unenviable task of leading the humans rebellion against their machine overlords in the future. They have the help of Cameron, a machine FutureJohn has reprogrammed to protect TeenageJohn. Confused? Try not to think about it too much...

Where as season one saw our happy family try to hide and destroy anything that could bring about the rise of the machines, season two sees them more accepting of humanity's fate.

The season is patchy in parts. At its worst, episodes are remakes of the original movies: with our heroes trying to escape a robot sent from the future. Also references to religion were completely misjudged and patronising. With one character being chosen to teach a machine morals purely because of his faith. The subsequent 'theological' conversations failing miserably to hit the depth I feel the writers should have been going for. Evidently, they hadn't seen The Two Cathedrals.

At its best, it compared the struggle to that of seasoned war veterans, who find it difficult to keep going with all the pain and suffering they've endured. Sarah's ongoing struggle to both protect her son, but allow him to become the man he needs to be providing an excellent undercurrent to all the series' events. The two extra protagonists they added, Riley and Jesse, proved to have the most interesting this season. Perhaps the reason they worked so well is that unlike the other characters, they don't have the baggage of the film's canon looming over them.

So a fairly uneven season, that did have some interesting things to say, although I feel the franchise it was based on actually proved to be a hindrance as oppose to a help. Sometimes I wasn't sure the type of show it wanted to be, and too often it would default back to slow motion shots of Terminators unceremoniously taking out an innocent bystander. This lack of forward momentum meant I found it difficult to engage with the storylines at points, and meant I wasn't as engrossed as I could have been.


Sarah Connor Chronicles: Seasons 1 & 2 are both available on DVD right now.

967896E7-F3B4-4899-A86B-7DE7951F5113.jpgMad Men: Season 3
Selling Your Soul

Mad Men has just finished its run on BBC4 and remains just as strong as ever. Set in the sixties it tells the story of an advertising agency in Manhattan.

In a story-telling form similar to The Wire, events take a while to get going, with little appearing to happen from episode to episode. However, since the show is based around on its characterisation, small events or comments can have huge significance later on.

Where the show succeeded most this season was in its amalgamation of its characters and real events from the sixties. In particular the way it handles (SPOILER for real life coming up) the assassination of JFK was a complete triumph. Masterfully combining both a realistic portrayal of how the news came out with possibly the most engaging character moments of the season.

In common with shows like Friday Night Lights and The West Wing (At least Seasons 1 to 4) it's difficult to separate this season's events from previous seasons. This isn't a show you can just pick up at some random point, but rather have to watch from the beginning. It has the philosophy that stories shouldn't explain everything to their audience, but should instead force them to lean in and engage beyond what is merely happening from scene to scene. As such fans of The Wire can rejoice, here's a show that at least comes close to matching its quality, patience and vision.

Mad Men Season 3 is released on DVD this Monday, 26th April in the UK/Ireland

6B7463B7-9BF2-43D5-A441-E033E1E6718E.jpgBeing Human: Season 2
Wanna Watch The Real Hustle?

Being Human has solidified its place among Great British Sci-Fi with its second season. Taking a leaf out of Buffy's book, it does a great job of allowing characters to grow and develop in response to the evil they're fighting.

Having survived a first season, it felt as though the writers had a very clear idea of where they wanted the characters to go this time around.

In particular, the way each episode opened with a flashblack to a character's past really did a great job of extending the world and mythology of the show beyond that of present day Bristol.

The villains for this season were religious fundamentalists. Being Human has dealt with religious themes before. In particular a quote from 1 Corinithians helping convince George to make a significant decision at the end of season one. However, despite some efforts to give a fair representation of religion, they failed: in the world of Being Human, religion is merely used to brainwash characters into unquestionably doing things they wouldn't do otherwise. Instead the villains of the piece were used to support a clear theme of Being Human: that the people we associate ourselves will end up defining us.

There was a great irony to this season, as the more our heroes were told they were less than human, the more they were pushed and attacked, the more monstrous they became. Violence and hatred breeding nothing but the same in return.

This led to a sense of brokenness and despair at the end of the season that had a uniquely British feel to it. Like Torchwood, the world created by the writers is one in which saving the day often comes at a price beyond that which the characters were willing to pay. I'll certainly be watching when the third season returns next year, this time with our characters relocated to Cardiff. Torchwood/Being Human crossover anyone?

Being Human seasons 1 and 2 are both available on DVD right now. (Region 2 only)

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Joss Whedon's Avengers - 5 Reasons To Get Excited

9524BEDF-7AA5-456F-A40F-14964C79D987.jpgThis week came the news that Joss Whedon is in final negotiations to direct The Avengers movie. For those of you who don't know, The Avengers is the name given to Marvel's flagship team. Originally this was Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Ant-Man, Wasp and Thor. Although part of the success of the series has been its ever-changing roster, so characters like Spiderman and Wolverine have also been Avengers at various points in time.

For those of you who don't know who Joss Whedon is, he's the creator of the TV series Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse as well as the internet musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog.

Excited yet?

5CC3D523-A91F-4447-8B1C-453CB64BA650.jpgHere's Five Reasons I think you should be:

1) Dialogue.

Possibly what fans will most closely associate him with. Whedon is the master at one liners and pop culture references. Expect both of these, as the superheroes make fun of one another abilities and try to balance the importance of what they're doing (inevitably, saving the world) with the ludicrously of having characters called "Captain America" and "Ant-Man".

2) It's an ensemble piece

What do Firefly, Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse all have in common? People with various skills joining up to keep evil at bay. Well, that's a coincidence, because that's exactly who the Avengers are. The joy of his shows for me has always been spending time with characters that get on so well and feel like a family. Hopefully he'll be able to create that sense of community in the two hours he'll have for this movie.

3) It'll be camp one minute then break your heart the next.

If we know anything about Joss Whedon's stories, it's that:

a) They can be quite camp: For example, characters breaking into song, characters with names like Buffy, and characters with incredibly tight pants.

b) They'll break your heart: Whedon shows never end well. I won't list the characters that have died, but those of us who've seen the finales to his shows know that the relationships and characters we treasure most are inevitably the ones he chooses to take away.

For an example of something that does both, look no further than Dr Horrible, although be warned: You may laugh and cry uncontrollably as a result.

So don't be at all surprised if one of the more minor characters in the Marvel world is dead by the end of the Avengers movie.

4) Joss Whedon knows his comics.

He did a run on Astonishing X-Men which is considered among fans to be one of the best written stories in its forty year history. He's also a self-confessed comic geek, who has been linked to movies like X-Men and Wonder Woman in the past. This is the chance he's been waiting his whole career for.

5) It'll be epic.

This is the first time a movie like this has ever happened on this scale. We're going to get up to five movies which introduce us to all these characters, then one big one where they join forces to kick ass together. What's not to love?

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

What I've Been Watching: DVD

D1F21E11-1A54-4F7D-AE90-CD7FCEC1D44F.jpgVera Drake
Anyone fancy a cup of tea?

Probably the most well known of Mike Leigh's films, Vera Drake is about a woman who carries out back street abortions without the knowledge of her family. Set in the 1950s, it explores attitudes to sex, families and gender roles/identities.

As I mentioned when I reviewed another of his films, Meantime, Mike Leigh has a very individual way of writing and directing his movies. He starts out with character descriptions which he gives to each character, and dialogue is improvised based on how conversations proceed.

Vera Drake however, is probably the most clearly constructed of his films. There are the same dramatic rise and falls we associate with most mainstream films, as well as character arcs with clear beginnings and endings. The dialogue, however, remains just as realistic and insightful as one has come to expect from Leigh. With short sentences, and characters revealing so much with so little. For example, Vera Drake, speaking of her secret life tells another character:

"I help out young girls"

A4E2DB31-F85A-44D6-9D38-59D336D84044.jpgFrom this we see both Vera's attitude and motivation for what she does. As well as the fact she is unwilling to explicitly spell out she is terminating an embryo, whether for fear of judgement, or because she is unwilling to confront it herself.

Lines like this are littered through out Vera Drake, as characters attempt to say things without upsetting social norms, to give an appearance contrary to the reality of the situation.

The issue of abortion itself is handled in an interesting way. The women Vera meets have both understandable and more selfish reasons for approaching her. However, it is clear Vera wants to give them all the same opportunity, and does not see it as her place to deny someone this choice. If the movie does have a message about abortion, it is perhaps that women should have the right to choose it according to their own circumstances and conscience.

Regardless of whether you agree with that opinion, the movie is still worth watching, as the performances and dialogue are all brilliantly executed. If you took just a random ten minute sample of this movie, I reckon there'd be more insight and depth in that segment than most films manage in their entire runtime.

EA9E8473-7BC1-4F6D-B245-832A52482A86.jpgTo Sleep With Anger
The Trouble With Harry

After watching Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing for my film course, my lecturer recommended this movie as an alternative piece of black cinema. Where as most in this category concentrate on race relations or gangster culture, this movie is a much more sedate look at everyday family life.

The premise is a black middle-class family gets a knock on the door from Harry (Danny Glover), an old friend they haven't seen in years. He gets invited to stay, but soon his differing morals and attitudes cause tensions within the house.

The movie does a great job of slowly introducing us to Harry's true nature, from a friendly, charming stranger, to a much more vindictive and seductive force. It also subtly interweaves plenty of interesting themes: religion, civil rights, and family values.

The narrative should also be given credit for not wasting any scenes or lines. Each one having significance later on, as characters become engulfed in events without quite realising how they got there.

Overall then, this is a movie with a lot of depth, and a great performance from Danny Glover. A simple, but refreshing look at family life and values.

CBC4C65F-393A-4C17-963B-1BE97077F94F.jpgSkeleton Man
If it hadn't been for Cotton-Mouth Joe....

An old tradition in cinema is that of a 'short' being shown before the main feature. I have fond memories of watching a short Mickey Mouse story before re-released Disney classics like The Jungle Book and Cinderella. I assume this was done back in the day because those classics are only eighty as oppose to ninety minutes long.

In an effort to bring back said fond memories, some friends introduced me to B.O.I.D., a ten minute short they had made in their teens. The movie had a surprising amount in common with our main feature of the night, Skeleton Man. Both had barely comprehensible plots, antagonists with skulls that were obviously just masks, and killers with no clear motivation.

The difference of course was that Skeleton Man cost millions of dollars to make, and B.O.I.D. merely the price of the petrol used in one of the best chase scenes ever to be put to screen (where the serial killer, B.O.I.D., brakes to get over a speed ramp safely).

F70DFA4C-03B9-4AD4-934D-FA7938095036.jpgThe other difference is that Skeleton Man has explosions. Lots of them. Possibly more than all of Michael Bay's back catalogue put together. In the opening scene, a scientist is collecting artefacts from an Ancient Indian Burial Ground (never a good idea). Skeleton Man (aka Cotton Mouth Joe) comes in and kills our scientist and takes one of the skulls for his collection. He then decides to blow up the joint, including large parts of his ancestor's heritage you think he might be interested in protecting.

Likewise: lorries, cars, helicopters, power plants and chemical plants all meet similar fates. If it can be put on fire, the movies gonna blow it up.

Of course the irony of seeing such a train wreck is that you get much more enjoyment from predicting deaths, methods and plot twists than you could from an altogether more serious affair. Like the early rounds of Britain's Got Talent , there's something incredibly compelling about watching a perfect storm of dreadfulness.

Such are the obscurity of both To Sleep With Anger and Skeleton Man, I had to add in a plot synopsis to wikipedia for both of them. If you're interested you can read them here, although bear in mind there will be spoilers (although in the case of Skeleton Man, I'm not sure knowing the plot would impact the viewing experience in the slightest):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skeleton_Man
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_sleep_with_anger

Monday, 12 April 2010

"The Gift" - Is this the next District 9?

Those of you who have seen District 9 will know what an awesome, original sci-fi movie it is. What you may not know is that it was based on a short-film called Alive in Joburg. Which Peter Jackson was so impressed with, he agreed to fund a feature length film based on its ideas.

Coming in a similar vein is The Gift, a short film which cost $150,000 to make, and its rumoured has since been picked up to made into a full-length movie entitled Small.

Probably one of the most breath-taking short films I've ever seen. I'm really hoping the movie lives up to this promise:

Films of Shame: The Shining

A8E5E0B0-B296-4972-ADEB-4BA88708AF1B.jpgFilms of Shame chronicles my impressions of movies I should have seen before now, but haven't. I've already covered Citizen Kane and aim to watch Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver and Annie Hall after that.

So, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining then. I had the enormous pleasure of catching this film in blu-ray, which is surely the only way to see the visual delights of things like wavs of e blood pouring down to engulf a corridor of The Overlook Hotel, or the amazing tracking shots that take the viewer through the picturesque garden maze at both the beginning and end of the movie. Stunning

The plot, for those of you who haven't seen the appropriate Simpson's Halloween Special, concerns Jack Nicholson taking on the job of a caretaker with his family at an isolated hotel. The snow means Nicholson and his family are in complete isolation for five months, with nothing but the hotel and its dark memories to keep them company. Oh and his son is psychic (or has 'the shining'), and much more aware of the hotel and its ghosts than his parents are.

Movies work best when they are able to evoke the same emotions the characters are feeling. Whether that's the joy of finding your true love in a romantic comedy, the pain of losing someone close to you in a tragedy, or the fear of being victimised in a horror film.

43A39C08-7D8D-4CDC-9FC2-F974676874AD.jpgFitting firmly into the latter category, The Shining is not just effective in its ability to scare you, but crucially in the feeling of insanity it instills. When we meet our protagonist, Jack Torrance, he is what we would expect from a Jack Nicholson character: relaxed, sharp witted, and full of life. However, the more time he spends in the hotel, the more he begins to change. His temper flares up, he becomes more distant and begins to see and speak to things that aren't there.

All of this is deeply unsettling. Not least because the film really takes its time in setting up this feeling. For example, at the start of a new day, the screen will go black and 'Wednesday' will flash up. Then in the next scene we'll see 'Monday'. Is this the following Monday? Is it a Monday two months later? Does it even matter?

Another piece of set-up comes straight after telling us which day it is: with Daniel, the son, riding around on his tricycle around the corridors on the hotel. Through this, we get a sense of the vast space within the place they're staying, and also the isolation one can feel there. Add to that ghosts, dead bodies, and strange voices and you really begin to feel on edge, despite the fact no one has yet been harmed.

It's interesting to note that most of the action and famous scenes in the film (what Jack's novel is about, him with the axe, running around the maze) come in the last half hour. However, knowing these scenes were coming only unsettled me more. Having a crazy character go on a rampage at the start of the movie is one thing. Seeing his slow descent into madness is quite another. In fact, I can think of few movies so patient in their set-up and clinical in their execution as this one.

So The Shining is one of the most unsettling movies you're likely to see. The set design of the hotel and its grounds are a joy to behold, and you can see the care taken with each and every shot of the movie. While the world the camera captures is closing in on itself, the stillness of the frame only serves to highlight the madness you are seeing more. It's quite a remarkable film which deserves not only to be seen, but to be watched again and again.


Saturday, 10 April 2010

What I've Been Watching: Kick-Ass & Whip It

A16EE108-1268-4FAB-AF93-25A6AE15EE26.jpgKick-Ass
With No Power Comes No Responsibility

When footage from this movie was shown at comic-con, it sent shockwaves through the internet. Bloggers, fanboys, and 'proper' journalists were all raging about how good the movie looked, and in particular the character of 'Hit-Girl', an 11-year-old assassin.

It's perhaps no surprise that director Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Layer Cake) had trouble getting funding for this movie. Like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, he ended up phoning in a few favours and got funding independently. As a result what we see on the screen feels like the fresh, inventive, and compromise-free movie this turn-of-events allowed him to create.

It opens with Dave, a 'typical' high-school teenager wondering why no one has ever become a superhero before. He decides the rectify this, and invents his new alter-ego Kick-Ass. After becoming a youtube phenomenon, he gets contacted by Big Daddy and Hit Girl, and father and daughter combo determined to take down the local mafia boss.

The film works for many reasons. The first is the obvious thought put into the world of Kick-Ass. His costume - He buys on-line, his first confrontation - ends with six months in the hospital. His attention leads him to making enemies with a mafia boss. As Kick-Ass points out "The real world may not have heroes, but it still has villains."

75B6720E-476E-49CF-AB57-90106C010167.jpgThis attention to detail makes the world and its characters very easy to buy into. Their motivations for doing what they do are all very clear. It's easy to sympathise with their plight. The story develops at a very natural pace, as Kick-Ass gets more and more in over his head.

It's also worth pointing out, that despite the obvious implausibility of seeing a young girl be so violent, the relationship between her and Nicholas Cage's Big Daddy is incredibly well written and portrayed.

Before finishing this review, it's important to mention the violence, which although extreme, is no more so than plenty of other movies of similar ilk. For example Sin City, Kill Bill, or 300. Perhaps what makes the violence more shocking is that a large proportion of it is being done by an 11-year-old girl. She slices, dices, and shoots her way through guys twice her height and three times her size with relative ease. Her swearing is also done with similar finesse and lethal precision.

Despite this controversial portrayal, the film does have a moral message of sorts. A stand-out line is when Kick-Ass says, and I'm paraphrasing here:

"What's wrong with me? You three guys are about to kill this one dude, while they just record it on their phones. What's wrong with me?! What's wrong with you?"

Interweaved through out the movie is the way people respond to both real-life violence in front of them, and as shown on the internet. One of the questions the movie seems to ask is has the internet created a world of observers, more likely to record something tragic than prevent it?

Overall, this is a very enjoyable, well made movie that will most definitely become a cult hit. In fact I think it will probably sum up something of this generation when we look back upon it in ten or twenty years time. As such it may be one of the most important movies to come out this year.

D65336CA-E9ED-4C61-9633-9B0BFC194A1E.jpgWhip It
The shoes are a gateway drug.

For me my memories are very closely linked to music and movies. I can catalogue my life's timeline fairly well by my favourite movie/band at the time. For example, I remember the first time I really fell in love with a movie when I was five (Home Alone), or the first band I ever saw live and the impact it had on me(Radiohead).

Strangely, both these experiences were recalled in the movie, with Marv from Home Alone playing Ellen Page's father, and the soundtrack featuring Radiohead, along with some other favourite bands of mine - Kings of Leon, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Go Team, and MGMT.

Add to that Maeby from Arrested Development, Zoe Bell from Death Proof (the poster for which is on my wall), and of course Ellen Page (Juno), who is fast becoming my favourite person in the world right now. In many ways it feels like someone's looked inside my brain, sucked out my memories and added roller skates to them.

The story is of a girl, Bliss, who's sick of doing pageants at her Mom's bequest, so comes across the roller derby, and decides to give it a shot instead. The roller derby is essentially speed skating meets American Football. One person has to skate as fast as they can, while their teammates block and pummel the opposition skaters. This being a teen movie, she does it without her parent's knowledge. And she meets a boy.

F55CCD79-4818-4251-9C5F-AA8923D758B3.jpgThe plot itself is probably the weakest part of the movie, with few diversions that will surprise the audience. What did surprise me was my attachment to the characters, who all feel like real people, and react in very well-rounded ways to everything that happens. All have well constructed motivations and relationships with enough depth that they never feel like slaves to the story.

In particular the relationship between Ellen Page's character and her mother is incredibly well written and performed. Like the best drama, the joy comes from knowing that both parties have correct points of view, and I became very invested in their relationship as the movie drew to its conclusion.

I'm willing to admit that the combination of an awesome soundtrack, Marv from Home Alone, and Ellen Page meant I had a lot of sympathy for this movie to start with. However, I do feel like there is a genuine quality here that fans of coming-of-age movies like Juno and An Education will appreciate.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

New Treme Trailer (From Creators of The Wire)

A few months ago I featured the teaser trailer for Treme, the new show based in New Orleans, from the creators of The Wire.

Since then, they've released this trailer, which gives us a much better idea of what to expect from the show:



You'll notice in the trailer, we get John Goodman bookending the footage, talking about what's great about New Orleans: the music, the food, the people.

It seems like this show will do for that city, what The Wire did for Baltimore. Although, the trailer at least, makes it seem more like a love letter than The Wire's warts and all depiction of The City That Bleeds. Nevertheless, given David Simon's history of creating realistic depictions of people, places and events, I don't think the show will match this tone as it progresses.

The characters are what we'd expect from the talent involved. Wendell Pierce (aka Bunk) is a talented but drunken musician , Steve Zahn is loveable mess of a DJ, Clarke Peters (aka Lester) is a stubborn man, determined to live in what remains of his house.

Finally, it's clear that the gap between the federal government's aid and what the people actually need will be a clear theme in the first season. A stand-out line for me was:

"Still got a lot of water?"
"Oh not much... less than a foot."

That and the 'foreign' interviewer implication that New Orleans is no longer a great city, no longer a city worth saving seems to be the lens through which this story will be told.

Treme debuts on HBO in America this Sunday 11th April . No word yet on any UK networks buying the show.

Monday, 5 April 2010

What I've Been Watching: Cinema

BBB07D0F-FC3A-4E6B-8A1F-F63363F46070.jpgShutter Island
Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?

Scorsese is a director known for hard-hitting films that never stray far from violence. In many ways, Shutter Island lives up to this reputation. The main character, Teddy, in his determination to find out the truth about what's happening on the island, won't let anyone get in his way. He is a man filled with regret and anger.

Part of this anger comes from losing his wife, who frequently appears to him in dreams as the movie continues. I've mentioned before that I don't especially like movies with mysteries. And Shutter Island's weakest point is undoubtedly this element. In fact, the obviousness of the 'twist' here, leads me to wonder whether Scorsese wanted us to consider the other, stronger elements of the narrative.

Those elements deal with the reaction of war - Teddy is harbouring guilt over an act committed towards defenceless NAZI soldiers. Part of this delves into the nature of memory: and whether it is better to deal with things that have happened or try to repress them completely.

The superbly ambiguous nature of the protagonist's choice at the end of the movie, in addition to the underlying themes give the movie a depth which can be easily missed. In fact, I wonder how much better it would have been if the audience knew the twist from the beginning and were left to ask the interesting questions the story raises from the start. I also wonder if this is a movie, like Polanski's Chinatown that may hold up very well on repeat viewings, as the true story is allowed to take precedence over the fairly unambitious mystery elements.

7E382CFC-095F-412C-A082-CFB62CFAAA3D.jpgGreen Zone
Don't be so naive

Movies about the times we live in are always difficult to make. Whether they're an accurate representation or not can surely only be judged a few more years down the line. For example, Wall Street, with its tagline "Greed is Good" stands up not only as a depiction of the 80s, but also as the philosophy which led to The Great Recession we now find ourselves in.

You see Green Zone has been widely slated by critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a rating of 54%. Given that Greengrass' other four movies all get 80%+ on the same site, one has to question how a director could fail to woo the critics so spectacularly?

Technically, this film is just as spectacular as the others. Greengrass' now trademark 'shaky-cam' continues to be used with prowess, as always giving you a sense of being there right among the action. The opening scene with a sniper, and the closing chase scene, sit comfortably alongside the best of Bourne.

Nevertheless, in Bloody Sunday, United 93 and Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum, the director brought us somewhere we had never been before. Whether the streets of Derry on that infamous day; a plane on 9/11; or in the shoes of a rogue CIA agent, each was a unique experience that felt very different to anything we had seen on screen before.

The Iraq War, however, is a different beast altogether. I think it's fair to say this has been the most widely covered war ever. News crews have been on the ground since day zero, we've known every operation, every strategy, and in time, every lie. So creating a fictionalised tale about the real events of the war seems a little superfluous. Regardless of the truth of the more unlikely events in the movie, we are left questioning them because we know so much.

In addition the clear message of the movie: "there were never any WMDs" is much like making a film about Tiger Woods with the message "he had lots of affairs". i.e. Entirely Pointless. For me the interesting thing will be to see how this movie is looked back upon in ten/twenty years time. Will it be seen as the definitive account of this generation's Vietnam? Or will movies like The Hurt Locker or The Valley of Elah be used to sum up the most significant of wars this generation.

3F6738A6-3CFC-42CA-9501-0E65DF49BD4E.jpgHow To Train Your Dragon
What are you going to do now?
Something Crazy!


Another week, another 3D film. The more I see them, the more I agree with Mark Kermode's view that it's a gimmick. After a few minutes, I'd forgotten about the extra dimension before me. Instead I was left captivated by a simple, but surprisingly effective tale about a boy and his dragon. Maybe 3-D should just be used for movies that would otherwise bore the viewer.

Among the remarkable things about this Dreamworks animation is the cinematography, and in particular the opening scene. As the movie opens the camera sweeps through the small town our hero 'Hiccup' inhabits, and introduces us to all of the characters we'll be spending the next 90+ minutes with. As he's making the introductions, the town's being attacked my dragons. The energy and low, shaky camera reminded me a lot of one of the best opening scenes of all time: Saving Private Ryan.

Aside from this 'live-action' cinematography, the film itself kept me engaged throughout. It felt fresh and new, with great dialogue, pacing and had a well-fleshed out message about understanding those different from us. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay How to Train your Dragon is that if someone told Pixar had made it, I wouldn't have blinked an eyelid.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Top 5 Time Travellers

B2E5BE13-8D5C-4CC0-8B48-54AE5221169B.jpgToday (Saturday) sees the return of Doctor Who, complete with new Tardis, new assistant and a new Doctor, played by Matt Smith. Time travelling as a concept, was arguably popularised by H.G. Wells Time Machine. Certainly the common notion of having a vehicle/device to transport you through time can be linked back to this story. In celebration of this most paradoxical of plot-devices I've devised the following list:

Top 5 Time Travellers

5. Bill & Ted
Every time I think about the plot of this movie, I wonder if I got it right. Bill & Ted get taken on a trip through time so they can pass their history class, otherwise Ted will be shipped to military school, and the Wyld Stallyns will never make the music that forms the utopian society of the future with its very simple philosophy:

Be Excellent to each other. And Party on Dudes!

It's strange that I was first introduced to Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln through this movie (and possibly also the short-lived animated series) but there you go. In fact, growing up most of my knowledge of non-British history comes from films/shows like Forest Gump, Animaniacs, etc. It makes me wonder how many kids nowadays were first introduced to Shakespeare and Dickens through their appearance in Doctor Who? Or whose primary knowledge of the past is through the excellent Horrible Histories series? Anyway back to matters at hand:


0E965B5A-3357-4E0B-AD18-5A34D568B34F.jpg4. Donnie Darko
Perhaps a less obvious time-traveller than all the others. However, his conversations with the bunny rabbit, following of worm holes, and so on have definitely earned him a place. Without spoiling anything, its surprising that his decision at the end of the movie hasn't been considered more often by time travellers. It and It's a Wonderful Life would make a brilliantly murky double bill.


3. Hiro (Heroes)
Say what you want about Heroes, in its prime you couldn't help but smile as Hiro got to grips with controlling time and space. His determination to follow a hero's arc, based on superheroes he has read about, feels like a very noughties concept. I often felt sorry for his character as he went on all these ridiculous journeys in later seasons, why couldn't his adventures be as cool as his role-models like Superman or Spiderman?

2. The Terminator
Come with me if you want to live.
There's a lot of great things about the first two Terminator movies. Perhaps the most obvious is the fact that Arnie has only ever been believable in his role as an almost indestructible being. He truly was born to play a robot.

Beyond that, I think the idea of a mother being told her son is destined for greatness is a very powerful one. And Sarah's arc in doing her utmost to protect and develop her son has a surprising amount of depth in it.

Finally the time travel in the movie exists essentially without rules. It's never really established how the technology came about, or whether its creators know whether it's even possible to change the past. It's probably the only movie about time travel where the concept is of little importance to the characters involved.

69116E14-3AA6-47BC-BE6F-277BB70CC455.jpg1. Marty McFly
Marty McFly almost sums up the 80s for me, or at least teen movie stars in the 80s. He's wise-cracking, slick, and confident; he's the guy all the geeks in 80s movies wanted to be. As a child my favourite scene was always the climax of him playing "Johnny Be Good" to get his parents together. Although the brilliantly played scene when he ends up being seduced in his mother's bedroom has probably overtaken it since then.

It's influence on me is such that the rules established in this movie about setting things right for the future, and not seeing your future self are the rules for time travelling. And I always have a deep suspicion for any story where claims to the contrary are made. Example of the types of conversations that go on in my head: "He's meeting his former self - why isn't the universe imploding?! I've never seen something so ridiculous in all my life! Don't they know ANYTHING about time travelling?"

Over to you now: What are you favourite time travellers? Is there any movie/television show whose time travel rules you consider absolutely definitive?