Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street is ruffling feathers with its no holds barred depiction of stock-broker douchebags behaving very badly in 90s Long Island.

Martin Scorsese’s picture is an overlong smorgasbord of drug-taking, hookers and frat-boy misadventure, inspired by real crimes against working Americans.

It's a comedy that asks you to bring your own moral judgement to the party, by leaving those views off the screen.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, who was convicted of stock-market fraud in 1998, after his company, Stratton Oakmont defrauded investors on a massive scale, running the type of testosterone driven outfit that inspired the movie Boiler Room (2000). Belfort’s merry band of poorly educated brokers work the phones to aggressively sell penny shares (sometimes extracting a few thousand dollars from duped victims) for companies that are going no-where fast.

Early on, in a brief cameo, Matthew McConaughey's elder broker explains his concept of how Wall Street works, "the name of the game is moving money from the client's pocket to your pocket." But we always try and make the client money, no? Jordan retorts. "No." McConaughey gives an entertaining non-verbal speech about the “woozy, wazy” nature of the business and we get the idea.

As Stratton expands, with millions of dollars raised but not returned, their office parties start to resemble fraternity house orgies, with streams of strippers, champagne, dwarf tossing and random couplings. The mayhem is orchestrated with the flair you expect from Scorsese.

These white-collar criminals never kill anyone, yet they seem grubbier and far less appealing than any of Scorsese’s Goodfellas; these guys are just schmucks on the take. Perfectly illustrated by Jonah Hill’s character Donnie Azoff, who convinces as Belfort’s slow-witted number two. Yes, this is Jonah Hill masturbating in a party scene. Yet it’s not a Judd Apatow comedy and he has been Oscar nominated for it. To be fair, Hill is pitch perfect (and hilarious) as the sort of dimwit who could make their name in a boiler room. The dialogue sprinkles zingers and quotable lines throughout. The mansions looks great, the helicopters, the yachts. Rob Reiner even turns up as Jordan’s Dad, in a foul-mouthed angry turn that will delight long standing Reiner fans.

Holding it all together is DiCaprio, who has the unenviable task of breathing life into a really unpleasant character. He does the gusto, and the psuedo-religious speechifying of Belfort extremely well. We never see any redeeming sides to him though, nothing to suggest how Belfort could come to be a reformed character, as he supposedly is since incarceration.

In the end, Wolf of Wall Street is a lavish, expensive comedy, that doesn’t justify the near 3-hour run time. Brutally effective and well played, it shines a light on behaviour we already understood.

As originally published for: The Void Magazine

Thursday, 1 August 2013

This is what Hollywood does now

Summer movies have become an endless recycling of huge, planet-shaking special effects fests, powered by comic books and remake fever. Directed by Vadzim Khudabets, this montage of trailers, called ETERNA skillfully combines many of the big franchises - and they all blend seamlessly into one.

Is this how film critics feel having been sat in front of these for the last few years?

Thanks to Mashable for the link

Sunday, 2 December 2012

On Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook has a poster festooned with critical praise and at least one actor who is a red hot favourite for an Oscar. 

David O’Russell’s movie slips between catergories and wrestles with the depiction of mental illness in an honest way, while also trying to deliver a meet-cute romantic drama. It shouldn’t work but it does, thanks to good old fashioned star power from Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and, whisper it, Robert Deniro – back on some sort of form.

Cooper plays a former teacher, diagnosed as bi-polar, who has been hospitalised for his condition and is now released into the care of his parents. His superstitious bookie dad is played by DeNiro. Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman in the neighbourhood whose policeman husband has been killed in the line of duty.

Both characters are damaged, and harming either themselves or the people around them– can they help each other and will they get together?

On the credit side, the two leads are given plenty of scope to deliver warm, complex and interesting characters. It is a breakthrough role for Bradley Cooper, who up until now has been used as a blue-eyed smoothy in the likes of The A-Team and The Hangover series. He shows here he has the acting chops to follow George Clooney into the handsome-lead-turned interesting-club. 

We should caveat his character though; it is a hollywood version of mental illness that is not a million miles away from kooky. 

He speaks the truth all the time, like Jack Nicholson from As Good As it Gets! He goes jogging wearing a bin liner!

Jennifer Lawrence will surely continue her meteoric rise with this. We first saw her just two years ago in the incredibly bleak sort-of Western, Winter’s Bone. The 22 year old is just a magnetic screen presence. Yes, she has an old fashioned Hollywood glamour but she is also a natural. The camera loves her and this is a great role for her. Audiences will fall for her character, who is so vulnerable, yet with a steely determination to turn things around. In a way, this is her movie because she breathes life into a character who is not written with any wild traits or histrionics. Tiffany is just a young girl is a tough spot. It's a down to Earth role in contrast with her action hero Katniss in The Hunger Games.  

And Deniro returns. There is a lot of pleasure in watching his character quietly implode at the antics of his out of control son. He does his acting in that face of his,without (much) of the trademark gurn as well. For much of the early part of the movie, it is almost a comedic turn but, to his credit, Deniro delivers a speech and you understand the pain behind this father-son relationship. Bittersweet and funny, without the usual side order of ham we’re used to from him of late.

On the downside, Silver Linings at times feels indulgent. The free-form jazz type screenplay that allows the actors to breathe, also feels a bit random. Situations feel truthful without always being plausible. People keep walking into rooms they shouldn’t walk into.

If you are the kind of viewer who cannot stand kooky, then this may rub you up the wrong way.

For star power alone though and for actors in rooms giving you a frisson; it’s worth watching.   

Notes: Chris Tucker is in this. Remember him, the screechy one from The Fifth Element and Rush Hour? He's good in this, and he's not annoying for one second of his screen time.

Worth booking a babysitter for: yes, if you can handle kooky.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Looper (*****)

Looper might just be the best time travel picture since Back to the Future. It is the year's best and purest science-fiction release, not in 3D, not based on previous material; just built on story and some nifty makeup.

We’re in Kansas, 2044. A decrepit, lawless world where kids are blown away on the street, trying to steal something to eat from their fellow citizens. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a ‘Looper’, an assassin who murders and incinerates victims who have been sent back from 30 years in the future. It’s an elegant piece of action from which the time-travel conundrums unfold. Shady crime syndicate cannot dispose of bodies in 2074. Shady crime syndicate sticks a hood over their enemies head. Using outlawed technology they send him back 30 years with a bounty strapped to his body. The very second he arrives your looper is waiting to end him with a shot-gun blast and collect the spoils.

A nice little earner for bachelor Joe, until he comes face to face with his next mark - his own future self, played by Bruce Willis. Pause. You see the syndicate want to erase knowledge of all this in their timeline (2074, keep up), effectively giving all their loopers one final payoff and a life sentence of 30 years, ‘closing their loop’. Confused? If you are, it is probably my fault and you should get on with booking tickets; writer/director Rian Johnson will take you through it in great style.

What you get is a movie that teases out its concept into new and interesting directions, without getting bogged down in exposition. Looper riffs on fate and inevitability without ever getting heavy. The Bruce Willis factor helps. Bruce is at his most Bruce Willisy, (smirk, clothing, lashings of ultraviolence), in a supporting role that is much lighter than the similarly themed 12 Monkeys. And one of the joys here is seeing Joseph G-L with a Willis make-over, including eye-brows, nose, lips and apparently three hours of prosthetics as the actors didn't really look alike. He's spot on with the older man's drawl and the kind of gait which suggests he's pissed off with every person, every room he walks into.

It is the paradox that caused Marty McFly so much grief, what happens if you meet your time-travelling self? They have lots of fun with it and just when you think science and the rules of the situation might be a problem, old Joe tells his younger self, "I don't want to talk about time travel shit," bullet dodged for the writers. Jeff Daniels also shows up to prove that casting softly spoken actors from weepie dramas as hammer wielding crime bosses, tends to work.

And just when you reckon you've got Looper sussed, Emily Blunt arrives as a feisty farmer with problems of her own, a strand of the story best left for discovery.

Director Rian Johnson marked his card with the arch and over stylised, Brick back in 2005, which gave Levitt the role that set him on the path to today's hugeness. This is a much tighter film although it retains Johnson's ear for retro lingo, gatts and blunderbusses are the weapons of choice. Casting Willis, who is an icon on his own, our schlubby John Wayne, and because the story is emotionally satisfying as well as smart, Looper knocks it out the park, as unashamed sci-fi. You'll be looped back to the start for second and third viewings.

Looper is out 28 September 2012.

Worth booking a babysitter for: YES.

In a nutshell: Twelve Monkeys meets Run Lola Run.

Deets: Starring - Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels. Run time - 118 mins.

See also: Source Code, Things to do in Denver when you're dead

Friday, 20 July 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

The force of geek expectation for this Batman finale was already so strong it needed no hyping. You'll find no spoilers here: only the set-up is fair game for a story kept so tightly under wraps by the credited writers, Christopher Nolan, his brother Jonathan and David Goyer.

It is eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, when Batman took the fall for the corrupted ex-district attorney Harvey Dent, fled into hiding and allowed tough new laws to pass which put pretty much all of Gotham’s organised criminals behind bars.

Gotham seemingly at peace, Batman effectively retired, Bruce Wayne at a loss.

The millionaire orphan, still played with intensity by Christian Bale, lost his loved one, Rachel as well and now he languishes out of the public eye, with aching joints and no sense of purpose. Even Wayne Enterprises philanthropic endeavours have gone to pot.

Butler Alfred is as droopy eyed and concerned as ever, the emotional crux of this story set up by Michael Caine delivering some rousing dialogue about how he sees Bruce Wayne almost looking for his own destruction. Does he seek a reason to don the cape again, serving Gotham one last time to find oblivion?

Gotham’s oblivion has a name. He is a mercenary called Bane, a hulking, masked brute of mysterious origin who arrives in town (after a gratuitously IMAX-designed prologue sequence) with an underground army intent on………what exactly?

Fetish and latex

Throw into the mix a new catalyst, one Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway). She is a cat burglar, who can disable a room of assailants with swanky moves, has seriously dangerous connections and the chutzpah to rob Wayne manor when we first meet her. Flashing into your imagination should be Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfeiffer and, umm, Halle Berry. This is the Nolan-verse though, so she's an ambiguous character who plays all ends against each other, and whose relationship to Wayne/Batman is complicated.

Fetish fans should note that Nolan has always been less interested in latex on the human body than the fetishisation of cars and military hardware. That said, there is a great one liner about stilettos. And actually, Anne Hathaway does a great job with the character. She kicks butt convincingly, is sexy, funny and her Selena chicanes in and out of the story just about the right amount - for a new arrival.

Anchoring all of this, you still have actors of the calibre of Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman in roles that in previous Batman films you’d have to hit IMDB to find out who played them. They are joined by newcomers, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake, and Marion Cotillard as Miranda. Levitt's honest cop in particular is a strong addition to the story. Both are superbly woven into the narrative.

Like Requiem for a Dream for superheroes

What they all help achieve is a film that holds its nerve and builds on the tension and brooding atmosphere of the second chapter. Yes, it does take its time but it is setting up character and plot payoffs for a final act that is stronger than The Dark Knight's. And if you thought the last one was bleak, well this is like Requiem for a Dream, for superheroes.

That’s not to say you can take your eyes off it. The action sequences are panoramic and make great use of thousands of extras – Nolan likes his practical effects and old school epic film-making. However, one quibble that remains is that certain action sequences seem muddled; it is hard to figure out exactly what is happening in the space it is happening in. Another is the use of a particular explosive McGuffin, but these are quibbles that are quickly overshadowed by narrative goodies.

The Dark Knight Rises is peculiar, in that it is a tale of revolutionary terrorists that features the city almost as a character, with explicit nods to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities including an quote line. That doesn't make it is some sort of sociology text but, for me, it shows that Nolan's trilogy has nods to influences outside comic books. Just like he used Michael Mann's Heat as a template for The Dark Knight. He also shows things happening to an American city which obviously nod to anxieties about terrorism. This doesn't make him a genius but adds to the texture.

At the same time, it has the tech, the vehicles, the fight scenes and the booming Hans Zimmer score to keep you involved through the 164 minute run time. As with all the director’s other films, it retains his usual interests; stories within stories, doubles, call-backs and the type of sleight of hand which his magicians from The Prestige would enjoy.

The Joker still remains the best villain in the Batman canon in my view, with his sense of anarchy and the charisma of Heath Ledger. I’m not sold yet on this Bane. He is a curious villain, he looks a thug who can punch through walls (and Batman) but he talks like a Russian aristocrat with the robotic modulation of his mask. After complaints from viewers of the early trailers, it seems they have cleaned up his voice. Not only does Hardy have to do the accent but he talks through the mask as well. You still can’t make every word. At times it is like the voice comes separately to the man. Tom Hardy remains an extraordinary presence, his gestures and physical menace serve as an immovable object for Batman. Perhaps this particular villain is less important in this chapter, he’s there as a cipher to shape Wayne’s ultimate journey.

From today people will be rushing to see the movie. They'll be seeing a genre film you have to pay attention to until the last frame, with a mythology built on smart storytelling. Hurrah for all of that.

The Dark Knight Rises is out 20 July 2012

[TDKR has one hour of IMAX-specific footage which was not seen at the time of this review]

Friday, 1 June 2012

Prometheus (Imax 3D) verdict

The titan Prometheus had his liver pecked out every day by an eagle, though he didn’t have to wait 16 years for The Phantom Menace.

Ridley Scott resumes his own sci-fi career after a similar hiatus with this visually epic extra-terrestrial fable that shares more than DNA with Alien.

Prometheus isn’t an official prequel, Scott has been adamant about that and you can’t blame him when (Aliens and Alien 3 aside) the quality of the follow up movies to his 1979 space-horror has been so variable. But he won’t be able to avoid comparisons and the pressure of anticipation built up by one of the best marketing campaigns in years. Can he deliver? Yes, mostly. Mostly by design that is.

We’re in 2093 and the set-up looks much better than it reads. Scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discovers some 35,000 year old cave paintings in the Isle of Skye which seem to support a theory that mankind has alien forefathers who could be our god-like progenitors. Luckily, she has a corporate paymaster in the form of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) with a trillion dollars to spend on space exploration and an agenda of his own. So she joins her fellow scientist, Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), assorted crew members, company badass, Vickers (Charlize Theron), Captain Janek (Idris Elba) and the synthetic robot David (Michael Fassbender) on an exploratory trip to planet LV-223 to meet their makers.

Of course, as soon as you see a space crew with various members who aren’t played by famous actors you’re naturally waiting for their eviscerations. You won’t be disappointed. Nor you will be surprised to hear that the plot, even though it has been finessed by Lost script-writer Damon Lindelof, is basically ‘when organisms go bad’. What the production seems to be trying for is an epic fable which goes beyond the space-slasher. At times it gets there but the overall mythology is not as satisfying as the setup. There is your Lost connection folks.

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to enjoy and appreciate. The strong female characters, which have long been a feature of Ridley Scott’s catalogue since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, come out well. Rapace is feisty and her character features in at least one humdinger of a scene. Charlize Theron’s Vickers is underwritten, but she portrays her tough as nails company honcho really well and she looks great; in that her physique is part of her characterisation.

For posterity though, it may well be Michael Fassbender’s David who steals the show. With his blonde rinse and slightly Hal-9000 intonation, he gives David an intensely creepy, original air. We know he is a robot and we know he’s a corporate creature, so followers of all Alien films will already suspect he knows more than his human crew mates and has dark designs. Let’s be honest though: Michael Fassbender has a visual appeal that the camera loves. His aesthetics could have been designed with the rest of the furnishings, cool space-helmets and sleek medical pods; all cheekbones and blue-eyes. Note the direct reference to an actor with similar characteristics (and voice) from the past.

The production design, by Arthur Max and cinematography, by Darius Wolski is as good as you would expect on a Ridley Scott show – and that is very good indeed, you get epic scale and wide-shots, brilliantly lit and realised. Psychoanalysis fans will also ponder the continuing influence of HR Giger with his creature designs that are often described as vaginal – analyse that!

Viewing it on an IMAX screen, I have to confess while the scale was great, I found the 3D slightly fuzzy. The was definite ghosting around titles and certain scenes. Strangely, the 3D effect seemed better on preview footage shown some weeks earlier. The film is visually gob-smacking enough that it may need a non-3D viewing to get the most out of it, especially with plenty of gloomy scenes not helped by the darkening effect of 3D glasses.

In the end how does Prometheus tally up after high expectations? It is a brilliantly designed, epic-feeling movie that has enough going for it to place it above many sequels, reboots and recent blockbusters. That said, the script is surprisingly poor in terms of character behaviour and implausibility, even within its own terms. For that reason it falls well short of the greatness its visual sheen and constituent talents promised.

My review as it originally appeared

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Director's cut: How Eugene Levy was almost in The West Wing

We spoke to comedy legend Eugene Levy recently and, in the first of a new series for Dial M for Movies, here is an outtake from the interview that didn't quite make the finished article. I had heard a rumour that Levy, who has made his name in comedy roles such as Jim's dad in the American pie series, and numerous brilliant turns in films like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, was very close to playing the iconic role of Toby Ziegler in TVs The West Wing, which of course actually went to the peerless Richard Schiff.

[Dial M for movies] We would have loved to have seen you as Toby Ziegler in the West Wing, is there any truth in the rumours you auditioned for it?

[Eugene Levy] Well there was just two of us in the room in the final audition and ultimately I think they didn’t lose any sleep over the choice because I think he is really interesting and a great actor. My take was completely different, I remember my first audition. I remember that I was getting laughs and although, I had that as part of my character, I was thinking this is not going to work- this isn’t a comedy!

Then they talked to me after, as I was walking out and they were going, ‘that’s fantastic we want you to come back.’ I came back and that was it. I think there was two ways to go; one was this way and the other was a lighter approach. The other character, not the president [Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford] had a lighter approach to this character and, my own thing is maybe they thought Bradley and Richard Schiff [who played the part for the show’s entire seven year run] fit in better. Whatever, he got the part.

[Dial M] Well at least we didn’t lose you from comedy as a result.

[EL] You know what, to be honest, if I had got that I wouldn’t be here today because I wouldn’t have been able to do American Pie.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Marvel Avengers Assemble

Marvel Studio's monster mash has earned one billion dollars already, along with great reviews from critics and punters alike.

Avengers Assemble is a Hulk smash of a silly, pixel-pushing, joyous beat ‘em up. If these films can be done either tongue-in-cheek or straight (like Bond), then this is Roger Moore to the Dark Knight’s Daniel Craig.

Director Joss Whedon delivers a hugely entertaining romp that manages to give each of the heroes their due and deliver a satisfying story, while giving fans at least three or four moments that can only be described as geek pay offs. Whedon, the self-confessed fanboy knows his material and has been given the biggest toy box in the world, in no way drops the ball.

Check out my full Avengers Assemble review over at

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Prometheus to polish your eye-balls in 3D

20th Century Fox unleashed around 13 minutes of 3D footage for the upcoming Prometheus, Sir Ridley Scott's return to science fiction and one of the most anticipated films of 2012.

I was in an audience that just about managed pick its collective jaws off the floor in time for director Ridley Scott with his actors, Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron, who all popped into the Vue Leicester Square for a Q&A.

Colour me impressed

Whereas the mechanical hardware bits in Avatar were good before you were sent down uncanny valley by Smurfs, Prometheus smacks you in the gob, and you stay hit. We saw the set-up, starting in the Isle of Skye, where scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discovers carvings in an ancient cave that reveal (non-spoiler alert) an alien civilisation has visited Earth and left an ‘invitation’. The establishing wide shots of landscape and the photography in the cave are cinematically beautiful; this is non-gratuitous depth-giving 3D as seen in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

In space, no one can hear you scream

Shading in some scenes that have been suggested in trailers so far, we next see Charlize Theron’s character, Meredith Vickers doing push-ups on board the Prometheus space-ship. She is a real 'Meredith', a company person, sinewy and tough looking; she’s on the mission to make sure everyone tows the corporate Weyland line. It’s a nice introduction, the crew are still in hypersleep yet she is ‘up’ early to do exercises and get her arse-kicking mojo on. She looks an interesting character.

The general look and feel of both the 'habitable moon' (geeks: it's LV 223) and the ship's architecture was best in show. Imagine the sleek stylings of a Ridley Scott picture, retooled with depth and scale enhanced. It's actually hard to convey how good it looks; there are a few shots with an on-board pool table in the foreground with Michael Fassbender's David moving through the room as the ship is docking (?) that just looks really cool - conveying movement and scale. I've made it sound dull but your eyes will be in little warm jacuzzi baths of joy.

But more promising that the visuals is something Ridley (don't call him Sir Ridley) said in response to a question about how you do anything new in a science fiction film:

"Every type of spacesuit is used up, every type of spacecraft is vaguely familiar, the corridors are similar and the planets are similar. So what you try to do is lean more heavily on the story and on the characters, to make that really, to give you lift-off".

Fingers crossed.

A question explained and a spoiler

Look away now if you don't want to know anything about anything. I wanted to ask about the chest-burster scene that was in the original Alien, where the actors didn't know what was going to happen to poor John Hurt.

Fassbender and Theron didn't really get what I was saying, my fault obviously. Here is the little sequence which ends with pseudo SPOILER:

Dial M for Movies: Question for the actors. Given what Ridley did to his poor actors on the original ‘Alien’. I’m thinking of a particular scene that was 'in 3D' shall we say; were you constantly living in fear everyday on set? And did you make any special preparations to join Ridley’s crew?

Michael Fassbender: What was the fear?

Dial M: The scene in the original ‘Alien’ where the actors were surprised by something bursting out of the actor’s chest. Was there an extra level of anxiety that that brought to you?

Dial M: I never knew that! So, no I was living in bliss, ignorance and bliss.

Ridley Scott: There is a scene that could be called the equivalent of that in this film. But that was private, no one witnessed that. It’s your scene [points to Noomi]. But we can’t say what it is.

Dial M: Which one was that?

Noomi Rapace: But I did! I dreamt nightmares for two weeks. I had these weird fucked up images in my head, so yes it did affect us.

So just how dark will Prometheus be?

Ridley Scott means business. He isn’t concerned what certificate the movie gets as long as it finds its audience. In no uncertain terms:

“I want certification for this film that allows me to make as large a box office as possible! No, I’ll tell you what, the studios wrestle constantly with these ridiculous adjustments to whether it’s PG13, PG15, you know, R, double R and it does, to a certain extent, affect the box office, which is arithmetic, which is not a cash register, it’s how they get their money back. And if studios don’t get their money back we don’t have any movies.”

David, Michael Fassbender’s android is something of an enigma, there will be some comedic moments with him and the actor watched Dirk Bogarde in The Servant, Laurence of Arabia and The Man Who fell to Earth to tune up his performance.

Ridley is chuffed with his cameraman Dariusz Wolski and the RED cameras they have used. He doesn’t stand on ceremony when it comes to 3D:

“So anyone who says, ‘Oh, you’ve got to add sixteen weeks’ means they don’t know what the bloody hell they’re doing! ‘There’s a lot to it’. No, it’s dead simple, straight forward. That [holds up finger] could be hanging in the foreground, and you can have a forty five minute discussion about something hanging in the foreground. Say ‘I hate it; get rid of it’ or ‘I love it; fuck off!’ It’s that simple!”

Refreshingly blunt he may have been, but SRS knows what he is doing. He's given science fiction fans (and wider audiences too) enough of a glimpse now to keep this title at the top of the anticipation list. Especially with the 1979 classic in its DNA.

"I must have thought about it for three or four years and thought in all of the [Alien] films nobody had asked a very simple question which was - who is the big guy in the chair, who was fondly after ‘Alien’ called The Space Jockey. I don’t know how the hell he got that name; there was this big boned creature who seemed to be nine feet tall sitting in this chair and I went in to Fox with four questions. Who are they? Why are they there? Why that cargo and where were they going or had they in fact had a forced landing?"

Prometheus is released June 1 2012

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

I posted the first online review for Josh Whedon's genre distorting horror movie over at

Completely spoiler free, which is a huge deal for this very clever, very sly movie that looks set to be one of the best surprises of 2012...

Horror twisted into an entirely new shape.

The Cabin in the Woods is the enemy of the film critic. To describe almost anything that happens in it is to pin the butterfly in the wing. To spoiler reduces it to sand – so what’s left to say is how much you need to see this movie if you are interested in horror in any way, shape or form.

Let’s talk about Joss Whedon, who co-writes with Drew Goddard. The genre-bending, narrative tweaking pixie likes you to know he knows the rules of the game, in this case: the horror movie. Youth slasher to be precise. Remember what he did with Buffy and think about what you hope he will do with The Avengers this summer.

Here's the basic set-up. Five college age friends decide to have a naughty, bong-fuelled weekend, pack up the winnebeago and head for the remote building of the film’s title. Bad things happen. Very bad. The group are assembled by cliché. You have the jock, the promiscuous girl, the nerd, the responsible girl and the romantic nice guy who’s not just out for sex (well, he says). Except this is Joss Whedon we are talking about so the jock is actually a sociology major played by Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth.

And something entirely different is going on that you will have to see for yourself.

There is misfortune in them there woods and dark forces are marshalled by the co-writers to offer up a highly original and riotously bold thrill ride. Directed by Drew Goddard (who has a cult following for his writing on Buffy season seven), the humour is black hole dark and served up with a healthy disdain for the contemporary horror scene. And thankfully, this is a story that is hermetically sealed, so it's hard to imagine it could ever be turned into a sequel. It is a stand-alone, devilish treat. Hard to compare to other movies - safely for preview - you could say it's like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of horror. Go see the movie and you'll know what I'm getting at there.

I can reveal there is gore – some of it off screen, some of it very much on. Two excellent character actors appear in the cast: Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. Enjoy them. The Cabin in the Woods is hilarious and chilling by turns. Does it play fair by its own rules all the way through? Maybe not, but enough of the run time feels as original as this genre has been in recent years. Queue up.

The Cabin in the Woods is released Friday 13th April

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Ridley Scott's clever marketing: a TED Talk from 2023

How do you generate buzz for a film these days? Ridley Scott's team have come up with a great viral for his much anticipated Prometheus, released 1st June 2012. You will remember Weyland Yutani was the shadowy corporate entity that stalked behind the scenes in the Alien films. Now, Mr Scott is not branding Prometheus as an official prequel to that series but as a story that operates 'in the same universe'. What better way to suggest that than this TED Talks clip from the future starring a certain Peter Weyland.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Miss Piggy will go to the Oscars!

Everyone's been worried about it, from Billy Crystal to Gonzo the Great. Will Miss Piggy and her on/off partner Kermit be attending the Academy Awards in 2012? The ultimate diva and star of The Muppets, whipped up a storm of controversy in tinsel town when she rallied against perceived prejudice against non-human actors at the Oscars.

I caught up with her during her promotional round for The Muppets and asked her if, with talk of an Oscar nomination for Uggie the dog from The Artist, it was time for other species than humans to be eligible for nomination?

Since January the felt-princess has reconsidered and, as I understand from my sources, she will be attending tonight at the annual gathering of Hollywood's great, and Mel Gibson. This is great news as she will be promoting her movie's best original song nomination, for the really rather wonderful 'Man or Muppet'. For who hasn't asked themselves the question at one time or another "Am I a man or a muppet?". Especially the presenters of last year's Oscars, James Franco and Anne Hathaway.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

How War Horse Chose Steven Spielberg

My feature article on War Horse, in conversation with director Steven Spielberg.
Published Friday 13th January 2012.

What do you make next if you are Steven Spielberg, director of so many esteemed and diverse films from the last 40 years? He chose War Horse (out now on DVD and download), the First World War story of a young Devon lad and the bond he shares with his equine friend, just as the Great War is dawning in Europe. We caught up with the director of Schindler’s List, Jaws and E.T. and he discussed bringing Michael Murpurgo’s novel to the screen, coping with downsides of Hollywood and why making this particular film was so important in the Jewish director’s family.

War Horse isn’t quite like Spielberg’s earlier historical films, which have seen the tragedy and loss of life in conflict portrayed honestly but too graphically for young children. He describes it as a combination of themes, “I don’t often mix my metaphors. What makes this unique is that it is a story of love and a story of war. I don’t see this as an epic war story, this isn’t Saving Private Ryan, this isn’t Band of Brothers – not the typical war film. If you look at the movie there is only really twelve or fifteen minutes of actual combat; from the cavalry charge to the fighting in the Somme.”

The production doesn’t shy away from horror but presents it in a way the director feels can help it reach a wider audience: “I wanted families to see this picture together. There is hardly any blood in this movie at all, unlike Saving Private Ryan where I was trying to acquit the actual testimonies of the young men who fought in France on D-Day.”

War and history

Why then does he keep returning to war as a theme, in between the flying saucers, dinosaurs and Tintin style adventures — is history in the blood? “I love history, it was the only thing I did well at in school. I am not ashamed to admit I was not a good student but I was great at history.” He was also spurred on by anecdotes from this own father, Arnold a World War Two veteran who fought in Burma and who turns 95 this month. So enthused was the young Spielberg that he rushed to his cine-camera, aged just 13; ‘my first 8mm movies were mostly WWII movies!’
Family is a recurrent subject for Spielberg in person — incidentally everything you expect in the flesh: plain black director’s cap, tidy silver beard and kind eyes.

His own daughter was instrumental urging him towards making the film, even before he was able to see the National Theatre’s astonishing puppet horses. “I have seven children and my daughter, Destry had a lot to do with me directing War Horse. She is 15 now and she has been competitively riding for 11 years and we live with horses. I don’t ride but I certainly know how to muck a stable!”

Aside from his daughter’s urgings, is there a grand plan behind how he chooses which films get the green light?
“How I choose my movies? They choose me. That sounds glib but it is true. I don’t go through a torturous intellectual process to decide what to direct. I know whether I’m going to direct the second I read something or hear a story. I just know when it grabs me in a certain way I want to direct it and then I spend the next four to six months trying to talk myself out of it!”
He didn’t succeed with this one project obviously, filmed entirely in the UK, with location work in Devon and Castle Combe. He describes it as his ‘most British film’, joking about the beautiful skylines that most people think the film company ‘painted them’ in as special effects. They did not.

Happy with his lot and with his film, are there any downsides to being one of the most influential men in his chosen career?
“Just managing my time and not feeling that I have enough time for my family and my friends. You can put that in the ‘personal life category’ but it is all one category because I have to balance my family. The downs in my life are when my career gets me in a chokehold to the point where I cannot essential see one of my kid’s Soccer games or go to one of my daughter’s horse shows. And that really depresses me. Usually it happens when I am away and I can’t physically get there because I am in the process of shooting. But those are the real downs, everything else you just learn to take with a grain of salt.”


And finally, the Alex Ferguson question: as a 65 year old, is he ready to call time on his career, perhaps after his next film about Abraham Lincoln?
“I have no plans to quit, I have always said. Clint Eastwood is one of my best friends, I’ve known Clint for 40 years and we have an almost jokey relationship about retirement. Clint is like 81 now and I say: “Okay Clint, are you ready to retire this year?” “No, are you?” And I say “No!”

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Oscar noms – nostalgia and a bit with a dog

You sit there in the cinema waiting for dialogue. For what seems like an eternity, sure he’s expressive you think so WHY ISN’T HE TALKING? But enough about George Smiley in Tinker, Taylor, Soldier Spy, this year everyone loves The Artist.

The Artist is lovely. Lovingly crafted, lovingly scored, lovingly acted and the reason it will win everything from the Regional Critics Film Awards (yes, I got to vote) to the Oscars is because it is a paean to classic Hollywood (1930s in particular). It’s not just nostalgia though, it is a beautifully told story that fits its silent format perfectly. And it is as light as a silk cummerbund; it's not trying to bash you over the head with themes, or multiple Oscar nominees gurning about their disabilities. I’m not jaded.

Released on Friday in the UK, The Descendants is another big hitter with a best picture nomination. Again, it is a contrast film. It seems to move at its own stately pace, picking up observations and little moments as it winds its way around Hawaii. It’s another gem from Alexander Payne, whose catalogue is redoubtable after Election, About Schmidt and of course Sideways. George Clooney? We know he is a movie star, recently we’ve see more and more of his acting chops. In Descendants, he reins himself in, it is a small performance without pyrotechnics but he shows you sadness, he shows you regret, whilst also giving flashes of charm. His character Matt King is very ordinary in many ways. A Jimmy Stewart sort of guy, muddling through and trying to do the best he can.

For best actor it will be a race between Clooney and French comedian Jean Dujardin. The feeling would be that Clooney’s popularity in the American film business will win through for him, though both are equally good. It is great to see Gary Oldman get his dues as well. He took on Smiley and made the role his own, even though Sir Alec's TV version was sublime.

Feeling all nice and warm? Okay then: M-A-R-G-A-R-E-T T-H-A-T-C-H-E-R. There won't be a consensus on The Iron Lady - a rather hagiographic light-weight take on Maggie - so it's missed out on best picture but has landed Meryl Streep a 17th acting nomination. She is Hollywood's go-to gal nearly every year it seems although her losing streak stretches back since her last win for Sophie's Choice in 1983.

I think she will win because The Iron Lady is all about Meryl as Maggie - and Hollywood loves a biopic and Thatcher won't be the divisive figure over there by the pool in Los Angeles.

For best supporting actor, Christopher Plummer is great and 82, so a win for Beginners seems set - a film which also has the benefit of right-on politics. Max Sydow is also 82 but hasn't been a factor up till now for his film.

Best director? A heavy-weight list indeed: Alexander Payne, Scorsese, Woody Allen and Terence Malick. None of them made The Artist though so my tip here is one they cannot pronounce (yet!) Michel Hazanavicius.

The really terribly dull surprise of how many flicks would make best picture yielded this list:

The Descendants - Second favourite.
The Artist - Everyone's favourite.
Warhorse - Nope.
Moneyball - Nope
The Tree of Life - Left field.
Midnight in Paris - Good to see.
The Help - Filler.
Hugo - Interesting.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - as yet unseen it has Tom Hanks and a 9/11 theme.

Nine films but only two have any chance of winning and nine films but no room for Tinker, Taylor or Senna; well we have to be upset about something don't we?

Friday, 23 December 2011

Prometheus trailer

It's been a week of massive trailers. First up was The Dark Knight Rises second trailer, then The Hobbit, a full year before release - both well received by excited fans. It looks like Ridley Scott may have trumped both of those with a first full trailer for his new space epic, Prometheus. Now Scott is probably one of the best visual stylists in mainstream cinema, so a return to sci-fi, and to the same universe of Alien and Aliens is quite a prospect, even in a year as jam-packed with genuine blockbusters as 2012.

How about that for editing? Who says the art of trailer cutting is dead. Love the reappearance of the Space Jockey, the mysterious giant statues of humanoid faces, and the deadly gas attack on a space suited victim. Just love the look of this movie, apart from Michael Fassbender's blonde rinse.

And what can we guess of the plot from Greek mythology? Well apparently Prometheus was a champion of mankind who stole fire from Zeus. And in revenge he was tied to a rock and condemned to have a giant eagle eat his liver every day. Nice. The key part I believe is Promy was meant to have played a 'pivotal role' in the early history of mankind. Some sort of DNA seeding, mixed with a terrible biological weapon?

Sign us up Ridley, we'll be there.

Prometheus is released 1st June 2012 in the UK.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Poe update: The Raven (2012)

It seems Hollywood is now inspired by theatrical events in Stoke Newington.
Gird yourselves for John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe himself in a new version of The Raven coming in March 2012. The trailer seems to suggest this is Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, meets The Three Muscateers meets a moustache-twirling Seven. It is actually directed by James McTiegue, of the nearly good V for Vendetta.

Behold: CGI Ravens! Behold: Poe gets hot blonde action! Behold: scarily bewigged Cusack runs, rides horses and shoots; all the while denying he's a serial killer reenacting his own short stories. He's just a writer! But he runs, shoots and charges around like Robert Downey Junior.

If you are a Poe fan (Poface?) you can still get down to the excellent Poe: Macabre Resurrections until Sunday night in Stokey. Meanwhile:

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Poe: Macabre Resurrections

Prepare to be chilled to the marrow. Poe: Macabre Resurrections is a theatrical piece currently being performed at St Mary's Old Church in Stoke Newington, North London. Fans of the macabre and the dark soul of Edgar Allan Poe need to get themselves to this before December 4th - it is so damn good: a) it warrants a non-film entry b) I'm going to use the wanky term coup de theatre for it.

Local group Second Skin theatre has mounted six adaptations of Poe short stories and quite brilliantly matched them to the Old Church setting. As the audience, you are seated in Victorian box pews, in the gothic gloom as if waiting for a sermon. Which is exactly how proceedings begin, with the ministrations of The Preacher. Played with wit and and dark charm by Stephen Gonnery Brown, his character is your compere for the evening; a sort of Vincent Price of the pulpit who literally leads the audience through the various locations of the scenes. I don't want to ruin any surprises but the shadowy recesses of this quite ancient Church are used to full effect, starting with the twisted two-hander The Cask of Amontillado which felt almost like audience participation, so close were we to the seductress with evil intent, nicely played by Sarah Scott.

Two monologues were chillingly delivered in near darkness. An audacious adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum referenced contemporary anxieties of torture during the war on terror. Prijank Morjaria sustains a magnetic presence for a full twenty-five minutes across four different characters. The Black Cat is introduced with a flourish on the organ. Adapted by Mike Carter with poetry and poise, Mia Zara plays the widow in this feline tale of murder and despair. It's a performance of physicality and fine cadence - really moving.

Elsewhere I don't want to reveal the setting of Premature Burial until people have had a chance to see it, inspired as it was. And the closing fun with The Masque of the Red Death, reminded me of a certain Stanley Kubrick film and had me grinning from ear to ear. I'll say more after the run is over.

Before then, Londoners please try and get to see this, it is something really special. For £12-£14 it is one of most unique theatrical experiences I've been to in recent years.

You can purchase tickets for Poe: Macabre Resurrections here

Check out Christopher Lee reading Poe's The Raven

Monday, 31 October 2011

In Time review

Justin Timberlake stars in this sci-fi actioner where everyone is permanently frozen at 25 years old, like living with Hugh Hefner.

We’re transported into this high-concept world by writer-director Andrew Niccol, who brought us the dystopias of Gattaca and The Truman Show. This is one of his lesser works but the premise is still juicy. In a genetically engineered future, humans are programmed for that quarter century, after which you only have one year to live, indicated by a fluorescent count-down timer embedded in your arm. Now you can pay for extra living time, hence a satirical vision of society where the rich accumulate thousands of years and are immortally frozen as they looked at 25. And the poor…die. A sudden jolt in your chest where your timer runs down, you ‘time out’.

The Timberlake is Will Salas, a grafter in the ghetto permanently living hand-to-mouth with never more than a day of life on the clock. His mother is played by Olivia Wilde, which is a good gag as the actress is 27 and Justin is himself 30 now. Life in the ghetto is squalid, with people dying in the street when their time comes; a junkland of pawn shops and gangsters that is ruled over by time keepers, led by Cillian Murphy’s Raymond.

Yes just like in Gattaca everyone is fab looking.

Talking of which, the story really kicks off where Salas busts out of the ghetto after a man with a hundred years to spare (and on the clock) mysteriously decides he wants to die and transfers his time to Salas. Arriving in New Greenwich (time gag!) where the rich live in ivory towers, Will bumps into beautiful heiress Sylvia, played by Amanda Seyfried of those huge saucer-like eyes.

He takes her hostage and her Daddy is an evil industrialist with millions of years stored in his vault. Played with blue-blooded superciliousness by Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser, it’s a nice bit of casting; the baby faced actor portraying a man with over a hundred years experience.

And that’s pretty much it. There is lots of running and shooting and chasing around in vintage cars. Do you think Sylvia will get a bit saucy with Will even though she hates him at the start? What happens with In time is the interesting set-up becomes repetitive and what you get a sort of grungy science-fiction Bonnie and Clyde, with lashings of Robin Hood.

It is entertaining stuff, particularly at the start when you have lots of time gags, like 99 Second stores and people moaning about the price of living: “4 mins for a cup of coffee!” Hey, time is money. It also feels like a film that could have been made on a huge budget but hasn’t been, which in a way is no bad thing. The only real special effects are the embedded time clocks, giving rise to an especially decisive version of arm wrestling, where you can literally squeeze your opponent’s life away - nice.

In the end though, ironically for a script about time, it starts to drag in the middle and you glance at your own watch, not pondering life-minutes eking away (that would be overstating it) but glancing nonetheless.

In time is released on November 1st 2011 (1.11.11)

Sunday, 30 October 2011

LFF 2011: The Ides of March review

George Clooney’s political thriller boasts a great cast and snappy dialogue. However an under-powered script suggests people are getting carried away with praise, pre Oscar season.

Any fan of The West Wing will tell you that campaign politics are all about backroom deals and handsome strategy wonks ping-ponging dialogue over 20 hour working days. George Clooney’s adaptation of Beau Willimon’s play Faragut North spins the theme into a satisfying politico-thriller that doesn’t quite have the depth its Champions League cast deserves.

Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Myers, a campaign operative on the rise, with a brilliant line on manipulating the media and spinning the polls in favour of his paymaster. In this case, he’s trying to get Democrat hopeful Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) the nomination on a ticket of vaguely Obama-style progressive politics. Also on Team Morris is Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Paul Zara, a more senior spin-meister who has seen it all before. As it’s Hoffman, you watch him quietly sizing people up in his opening scenes and wait for him to explode with invective when his buttons get pressed.

There are no Republicans here, we're all about the Primaries and the Democrat scramble for the nomination. On the competing side of the drama is Paul Giamatti's slightly darker, ever more manipulative huckster, with a candidate of his own and an eye on recruiting the wonderboy Myers.

You can also throw in Marisa Tomei, as a journalist with the inside track and actors of the caliber of Jeffrey Wright and Gregory Itzin (he was the Nixon-style bad president in 24).

The trouble is, with all that talent, and with Clooney's proven eye for the material after Good Night and Good Luck, the story is down-shifted by a sexual peccadillo involving a pretty intern on the campaign (Evan Rachel Wood as seen in Mildred Pierce). The reversals in fortune that drive the movie are mundane and don't leave enough room for some of the depth or fireworks you might expect.

Don't get me wrong, it is still a classy drama with passages to enjoy in it. Clooney himself gives an onscreen performance that is two parts charm and one part menace, when the serious business has to be done. Ryan Gosling makes his character play by hinting at intelligence and steel even when the script doesn't necessarily give him the ammunition to back this up. With three films in the multiplex right now, he seems to have a mystique around him. Whether he plays hit-man, lothario or political grifter, he's giving off some Steve Macqueen, crossed with some Edward Norton - a potent combination.

In the end, The Ides of March pales compared to series six and seven of The West Wing, which cover the same ground in far more depth, so if you haven't seen those episodes you might get more out it. Either way, it is still an engaging thriller with efficient melodrama at its heart.

Monday, 24 October 2011

LFF 2011: Shame

Michael Fassbender continues his unstoppable rise in Shame, an art film that is both hypnotic and brave even when it seems to dare you to look away. You'll come out wanting to scrub yourself with hand-gel but not in a Contagion way.

In director Steve McQueen’s second feature, Fassbender plays Brandon a young executive in New York. He is sharply dressed, handsome and seemingly successful at work; clinching deals in boardrooms with backslaps and shit-eating grins. He is also a sex addict.

If we smirked at celebrities who have claimed this addiction in the past, Shame shows you what that really means, day to day. For Brandon, it’s all chat rooms, fuck-cams, and anonymous shags in back alleys. He cannot get through the working day without digitally relieving himself in a toilet cubicle and his office computer is crammed full of porn (he somehow gets away with that one).

We quickly understand the sex is the outward expression of a terrible loneliness and sense of alienation he feels. The arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) brings this into sharp relief. She’s a session singer whose life is a mess. She needs her brother and the last thing he can do is relate to her and offer a shoulder to cry on. When she rocks up at his apartment, she invades his space and fuels his self-loathing. How can he continue his ordered life of porn, masturbation and microwave dinners with his sister just feet away from him? Between the siblings there is a hint of – well, incest is too strong a word – fraught intimacy.

It seems that Sissy being young and sexually active, and also wanting to hug her brother becomes an exquisite torture for him. It brings out violent tendencies and sends him into the streets of New York. In an memorable scene Sissy takes Brandon’s boss back to the apartment for sex and her brother is spewed out into Manhattan; as the camera follows his long-stride jogging for what seems like an extraordinarily long tracking shot through several NY blocks. Steve McQueen’s fluid camera move captures the moment beautifully, with the eye of an artist who work has included experimental films and sculpture.

Both actors are extraordinary. Fassbender delivers a performance that is alarmingly raw. He strips his character literally bare as Brandon gazes for what seems like an eternity into Steve McQueen’s cameras, in various stages of sexual release – and sadness. You cannot imagine a non-European actor, like contemporary rising star Ryan Gosling, taking on this role. Carey Mulligan also has that skill of revealing emotion on film and making it appear effortless. Both actors’ commitment to their craft includes frank nudity but these instances are true to the material and not glamourised in any sense. I mentioned this was an art film. By that I mean it felt true to life and hard to watch as opposed to reassuring. It is certainly not erotic and, for me anyway, seemed more revealing of its characters inner emotions than Michael Winterbottom's blow-jobs and concerts film, 9 Songs.

Shame seems to scratch away at some darkness in contemporary times, of people locked away in apartments in front of laptops, webcams and mobile phones, grinding away in despair. However, Steve MacQueen’s film has a formal beauty that demands to be seen, like Taxi Driver but in a different palette, different era.