Friday 31 December 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of December 17-19, 2010:

1 (new) Tron: Legacy (PG) *
2 (1) The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (PG)
3 (2) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (12A) **
4 (3) The Tourist (12A) **
5 (4) Megamind (PG) ***
6 (new) Burlesque (12A)
7 (new) Animals United (U) **
8 (new) Fred: The Movie (12A) **
9 (5) Unstoppable (12A) ***
10 (6) Due Date (15)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. The Big Sleep [above]
2. Monsters
3. Catfish
4. The Shop Around the Corner
5. Of Gods and Men

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (1) Salt (12) **
2 (7) The Expendables (15) **
3 (2) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
4 (3) The Sorcerer's Apprentice (12) ***
5 (5) The Karate Kid (PG) ***
6 (4) Shrek Forever After (U) ***
7 (new) The Last Airbender (PG) *
8 (8) Iron Man 2 (12) ***
9 (9) How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ****
10 (10) The Ghost (15) **


My top five:
1. White Material
2. The Last Exorcism
3. Piranha
4. Inception
5. The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. The Searchers (New Year's Day, five, 3.55pm)
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Wednesday, BBC1, 8.10pm)
3. WALL-E (New Year's Day, BBC1, 3pm)
4. High Society (New Year's Day, five, 10.20am)
5. Independence Day (New Year's Day, C4, 6.20pm)

Thursday 23 December 2010

"Arthur and the Great Adventure" (The Scotsman 24/12/10)

Arthur and the Great Adventure (PG) **
Directed by: Luc Besson
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Mia Farrow

Even those generous enough to have rescued 2007’s part-animated Arthur and the Invisibles from a DVD bargain bin would likely concede there wasn’t much call for a sequel. Here’s one, anyway, intended as the centre part of a trilogy – already, you can see the dust settling on the box-set. Highmore’s Arthur receives another missive from the troll-like Minimoys, alerting him to renewed danger: old nemesis Maltazard has plans to manifest in the “real” world. Warning: the latter’s adopted human face – think Vincent Price with leprosy – might well disturb sensitive parents, let alone children.

While the live-action evokes Besson’s usual faux-Americana, the animation plumps for manic spectacle, voiced by credibility-shedding musicians on the hunt for easy money. Aboard the bandwagon this time: Iggy Pop (as a grunting henchman), and Fergie, in the unlikely event anybody needed more Black Eyed Peas in their life. Most dismaying for some will be hearing Lou Reed as the voice of Maltazard, mouthing such apposite lines as “I was once a warrior… Now look at me – a ghost of my former self.” That Leonard Cohen/Wiggles collaboration can now only be a matter of time.

Arthur and the Great Adventure opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

Stroll on: "The Way Back"

Release dates are a funny business. The distributors of Peter Weir's latest The Way Back are convinced that, come Boxing Day 2010, the British public will have spent so long trekking through the snow to spend dismaying hours at a time with in-laws and other relatives that a drama about a true-life escape from a Siberian gulag might count as enticing light relief. Perhaps the publicity department's idea was to evoke fond memories of such bank-holiday perennials as The Great Escape; and while the film - Weir's first since Master and Commander in 2003 - is intended as substantially more serious than that, it doesn't stop it from being the sort of thing you could well imagine nodding off to in front of the the telly after one turkey sandwich too many.

As its principals hike south across the frozen wastes, into Mongolia and then onwards onto Tibet, a closer point of comparison would be 2008's Defiance, only with more snow, and the vaguest hint of spiritual enlightenment at the end of it. You can see why the project might have caught the discerning and selective Weir's eye: it has obvious epic scope, and - within that - offers a consideration of man's place within his environment, a recurring concern of this director's ever since 1977's eco-thriller The Last Wave (or, indeed, Picnic at Hanging Rock before it), lent further clout here by the appearance of National Geographic among the new film's numerous producers.

Whatever went on before the cameras started rolling, however, the finished work feels disappointingly disjointed, even compromised. Maybe we should have expected the usual co-production halfway house of acting styles. Jim Sturgess and Mark Strong, as Polish POWs, speak their lines in English with heavily Slar-vikked accents; Ed Harris fares slightly better in his own tongue as the hard-as-granite American Mr. Smith; so, too, does Colin Farrell, who actually gets to flash a few words of authentic Russian as a rough, tough criminal prepared to stab a man for his sweater. (The Farrellian patina of grime - that tacit understanding the actor probably reeks of cigarettes, and that his fingernails would be in a right old state - is here put to its exact proper employ.)

The escapees' battle to survive is rendered in a series of varyingly obvious episodes - one freezes to death in a forest clearing overnight, another joins the wolves in devouring a bloody animal carcass - dotted with hallucinations and nightmares that serve as the latest manifestations of Weir's long-evident mystic streak. Few of these add up to anything much, however, and the threat facing the characters is limited to the vague and shifting one of Nature. We're given no sense these prisoners were pursued by the authorities, and though we're told early on that a bounty has been placed on the heads of all those who try to escape the gulag's clutches, those few locals the group encounter seem only too willing to help with such gifts as homemade mosquito repellent. (When the most tangible menace facing your characters is a plague of gnats, you know you're in trouble.)

The story, like the film, devolves into no more than an endurance test, bereft of the vision, energy and immediacy Danny Boyle grants to the upcoming 127 Hours. Weir and co-writer Keith Clarke have taken as their source Slavomir Rawicz's novel The Long Walk, and that's exactly what The Way Back is: a film not of a book, nor really of history, but of an exceptionally, tryingly long walk. By the time a parched Harris, Sturgess and co. reach the desert - picking up Saoirse Ronan en route as the screen's least intoxicating, least convincing gypsy woman - one cannot help but be reminded of those adverts for a certain brand of lager; and it's all you can do not to wake with a start and a brisk inquiry of "Are we there yet?"

The Way Back opens in cinemas nationwide on Boxing Day.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Review of 2010 (ST 19/12/10)

2010, an altogether topsy-turvy year in cinema, began with Kathryn Bigelow’s bruising combat drama The Hurt Locker beating Avatar to the top Oscar, thus becoming the least seen Best Picture winner in history. For much of the year, indeed, Hollywood would sell fewer tickets for greater reward – a consequence of charging extra for stereoscopic spectacles. The movies remained recession-proof, their business model more efficient than ever. Yet the promised 3D revolution seemed ill-served by the flatness of Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans; the new format’s possibilities would find themselves another worthy showcase only in late August – with the Avatar special edition.

Signs of crisis appeared over the summer. Megabuck producers were scraping together bargain-basement items: Jerry Top Gun Bruckheimer with Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Joel Lethal Weapon Silver with the self-reviewing The Losers. Star power demonstrably dwindled (Knight and Day). Even Sex and the City 2, which sold out its first weekends, proved so generally disliked it succeeded only in putting paid to its own franchise. Bucking the trend was Christopher Nolan’s dream-film Inception, which got lost in its own dizzying cleverness, but showed halfway intelligent event movies could still find large audiences.

Europe carried on regardless, offering fine roles for its actresses: Isabelle Huppert in White Material, Kristin Scott Thomas in Leaving, Tilda Swinton in I Am Love. And while the British industry was stunned by the sudden axe taken to the UK Film Council, there remained reasons to be cheerful. To Mike Leigh’s autumnal triumph Another Year, we can add a rich harvest of discoveries: artist Clio Barnard, whose The Arbor brought recent social history back to vivid life; Ben Wheatley, graduating from BBC3’s Ideal to the leftfield Down Terrace; and effects whizz Gareth Edwards, whose Monsters stands among the most palpably human creature features of all time.

2010’s real story, though, was animation. So golden a year was this I feel compelled to limit the all-conquering Toy Story 3 to a passing mention, in order to highlight the no less exceptional work being done elsewhere. Tearducts of all ages were troubled by the droll Australian claymation Mary & Max, by Chico & Rita’s heady, turbulent passions, and by a fading magician’s plight in Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist. Best of all was the Belgian delight A Town Called Panic, a truly riotous feature-length extension of the stopmotion aesthetic employed in those milk ads involving toy cows and time-travelling fridges.

Among the year’s other highlights: Mia Hansen-Løve’s Father of My Children, a study of human adaptability in the face of tragedy that doubles as a frankly gorgeous expression of cinephilia; the Thai Palme d’Or-winner Uncle Boonmee…, proving it’s still possible to inspire wonder with relatively minimal effects; and David Fincher’s The Social Network – a clear frontrunner for 2011’s Best Picture Oscar – which, in Jesse Eisenberg’s Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, gave us the kind of odd hero 2010 rather deserved. Enjoy their singularity, as Hollywood reverts to comforting type next year: 2011 is sequels as far as the eye can see.

For what it's worth: 2010 Awards special (Part 2)

Best Director

1. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
An artist, a mystic, a magician - there's no-one else quite like him working in cinema. You need to put yourself in the same room as this truly remarkable film to see exactly why - but he deserves recognition at the very least for making a sex scene between a human princess and a talking catfish more charmingly persuasive, and less laughable, than it really ought to be.

2. Sylvain Chomet, The Illusionist
A very different kind of artist - an artist in the more traditional sense, acutely aware of the subtleties of light, mood and movement - here adding an extra human dimension to his already considerable portfolio. Chomet's animated interpretation of Edinburgh at sundown is more evocative than many live-action directors have managed.

3. Li Chuan, City of Life and Death
For putting us in the very middle of the Rape of Nanking, and forcing our eyes open - to witness not just the inevitable horrors, but the flickers of hope and humanity that somehow survived these atrocities.

4. Marco Bellocchio, Vincere
No film was more prominently DIRECTED this year - and Bellocchio's boldness of form was crucial to our understanding of the imposition of will central to the Mussolini regime.

5. Xavier Beauvois, Of Gods and Men
A suitably disciplined, minimalist approach that pays off in the final "Last Supper" sequence.

Best British Director

1. Mike Leigh, Another Year
Wiser in his storytelling than ever before - and for once, the generosity he traditionally extends to his actors didn't get in the way of his generosity towards his characters. A beautifully observed and structured work.

2. Gareth Edwards, Monsters
An astonishing achievement on a limited budget, yes - but also a great act of exploration for a young director to have made, and it's this sense of wonder at the world that lifts the film far beyond its humble creature-feature origins.

3. Danny Boyle, 127 Hours
Not all Boyle's choices pay off in his relentless pursuit of all-action, all-American adrenalin junkie Aron Ralston, but you can't fault the energy he channels into what becomes a tale of extreme stasis. A welcome return to something like wisened form after the slapdash naivety of Slumdog Millionaire.

4. Philip Ridley, Heartless
Still one of our most underrated filmmakers - his photographer's eye, his way with mood, and his ability to inject even the most outlandish of conceits with real human emotion make this much more than just standard genre fare.

5. Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
The connoisseur's choice - although Hooper's fondness for unusual angles lends what might have been conventional costume-drama awards bait a wholly fresh perspective.


1. Mia Hansen-Løve, Father of My Children
For loving all the right things: people and movies, in precisely that order. The film is so delicate, so subtly dramatised, you scarcely notice such things watching it, but she really wants her characters to make the right connections and move forward, and is willing to forgive them the odd human indiscretion in the pursuit of the great art and/or fulfilling relationships they seek to create.

2. Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
Because it gets it. And for granting every last one of its characters their reasons.

3. David Seidler, The King's Speech
Amazing to think something so probing and critical came from the man whose previous credits include The Magic Sword: Quest for Camelot and Whose Child Is This? The War for Baby Jessica - but, then again, imagine what a terminal arse-lick the movie would have been as written by Julian Fellowes.

4. Sebastian Silva, The Maid
One of those scripts notable for what it
doesn't do. Silva sees a very funny idea - domestic goes vaguely nutzoid - through to its proper low-key conclusion, without melodrama or preaching or a disproportionate bodycount. (A grazed elbow is the worst that happens, which is a very funny idea in itself.)

5. Bert V. Royal, Easy A
This throwback to the teen-lit cycle of the late 90s was probably the most cherishable revival of the year: smart while open-minded about adolescent sexual mores, and consistently wry with it. A script too good to be left to teenagers.

Young British Performer

1. Eros Vlahos, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang
2. Thomas Turgoose, The Scouting Book for Boys
3. Kyle Ward, A Boy Called Dad
4. Chloe Jayne Wilkinson, In Our Name
5. Asa Butterfield, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang

Not - to these eyes - an especially competitive field this year, and it strikes me the London Film Critics Circle would do better replacing the category with one recognising the truly thriving fields of animation or documentary instead. (Which would also have the secondary merit of allowing the young nominees we've been inviting along to the ceremony all these years to get to bed at a decent hour of a school night.)

British Breakthrough Filmmaker:

1. Gareth Edwards, Monsters
(See Best British Director.)

2. Nick Whitfield, Skeletons
A film that really did tickle me, taking an inventively singular conceit and seeing it through with sensitivity and a real eye for the English countryside - and the pathos that lurks therein.

3. Clio Barnard, The Arbor
Another one of a kind, vividly returning the life and works of playwright Andrea Dunbar to our consciousness, at a moment when the scrappy single mothers the writer was dramatising face an even greater fight to get by. Barnard gives us both a work of artistry, and a punch in the face - and you suspect her subject wouldn't have had it any other way.

4. Ben Wheatley, Down Terrace
Not technically a breakthrough, as those of us in the know have for years been championing Wheatley's fine work in helping BBC3's Johnny Vegas sitcom Ideal remain the repository of wild comic invention it has been. Nevertheless, a fine, untroubled transfer of the Wheatley eye to a bigger canvas - and a darkly funny addition to the ranks of British crime pictures.

5. Jez Lewis, Shed Your Tears and Walk Away
As with The Arbor, a pertinent story - growing rates of drinking and depression among the residents of picturesque Hebden Bridge - handled with genuine sensitivity. Lewis achieves the documentarist's ultimate objective: you can't easily forget these individuals.

Saturday 18 December 2010

For what it's worth: 2010 Awards special (Part 1)

Best Actor

1. Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network [above]
For managing to reconcile a character who, in certain scenes, appears no more than a snivelling little shit with the idea that Mark Zuckerberg might just be (a, granted, far richer version of) Someone Like Us - and incidentally doing more for the wearing of dressing gowns at inappropriate hours of the day than perhaps any actor since Bridges in The Big Lebowski.

2. Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Father of My Children
A towering demonstration of old-school screen charisma, offering an embodiment of wracked cinephilia while hinting at vast reserves of paternal compassion. And he's only in half the movie!

3. Andre Dussolier, Wild Grass
Easily the funniest performance of the year - funny ha-ha
and funny-strange, a barometer for this description-defying movie itself.

4. Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
Finally shucking off the "gormless idiot" tag that's stuck to him ever since he showed up in that Norman Wisdom-style flat cap in
The Notebook - displaying flickers of real, cocky charm in the flashbacks, and making something human and tragic out of a generally useless husband in the present day scenes.

5. Edgar Ramirez, Carlos
Ramirez turns the Jackal into a movie star rehearsing for a variety of roles - bulking up or slimming down as required, forever striking the first pose that comes into his head. Unlike the generally sensational Mesrine movies, Carlos realises from the off that its hero might have been a bit of a himbo prat - the story lies in how he got away with it for so long.

Best British Actor

1. Colin Firth, The King's Speech
gets better with every year - or, at least, seeks out ever more challenging variations on his essential English stiffness. Some indication of how successful this performance in particular is: at no point during the movie do you start to think of Morris Minor and the Majors.

2. Jim Broadbent, Another Year
For basically sitting back in comfy jumpers and allowing his female co-stars to steal away with the film. Even so: clock his tremendously expressive double-act with a cafetiere around the halfway mark.

3. Jim Sturgess, Heartless
After Gosling, another pretty boy made good - this (much underrated and underseen) film wouldn't have the emotional sting it does if Sturgess hadn't been forced to raise his game as he does here.

4. Robert Hill, Down Terrace
A performance no-one - save perhaps the family Hill, and Ideal director Ben Wheatley - could have seen coming: both hilarious and chilling as Brighton's most inept crimeboss.

5. Christian Cooke, Cemetery Junction
For making something heroic out of the twin adjectives "nice" and "sensible".

Best Actress

1. Isabelle Huppert, White Material
Probably as tiny and vulnerable as the actress has ever been made in the frame - yet her Maria, stranded behind enemy lines in the middle of a civil war, actually comes to seem the very model of an action heroine, motoring around on scooters and waving away the helicopters sent to rescue her. A beacon of independence, and the most vivid element in a constantly shifting drama, focusing the viewer's attentions whenever the direction gets too Denis-y.

2. Catalina Saavedra, The Maid
Priceless - her triumph is to get us to cheer her reign of mild, passive-aggressive terror against allcomers all the way through.

3. Noomi Rapace, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Later instalments would betray the character of Lisbeth Salander one way or another, but Rapace here created something indelible, striking, truly kick-ass - and if there were a prize for cheekbones of the year, she'd probably win that, too.

4. Monica del Carmen, Leap Year
For further attempting to dismantle the dappy Bridget Jones myth of the female singleton: a yearning, full body-and-soul turn that retains your sympathy even as the film strays into discomforting territory.

Emma Stone, Easy A
And lo, a star was born. The pity's that nobody knew how to market her.

Best British Actress

1. Lesley Manville, Another Year
A whirlwind. But one you believe with your own eyes.

2. Kristin Scott Thomas, Leaving
A Madame Bovary for the era of Robert Peston - and a suitably angular figurehead for this most pointed and provocative of dramas.

3. Ruth Sheen, Another Year
"Life's not always kind," her Gerri says, and we see exactly what she means in her eyes - a subtler turn than Manville's, certainly, but one no less affecting for that.

4. Sally Hawkins, Made in Dagenham
I'm going to be generous and suggest it's a sign of Ms. Hawkins' versatility that she could give such variable performances in the course of one year - compare and contrast her supremely winning presence here with her role in, erm, Happy Ever Afters.

5. Manjinder Virk, The Arbor
The abiding conceit means she doesn't have a single line of her own to speak as the on-screen embodiment of Lorraine, much-abused daughter of playwright Andrea Dunbar, but her mournful eyes and general air of defensiveness have seared themselves into my consciousness - it's an object lesson in acting without words.

Best British Supporting Actor

1. Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
The heart of the matter - providing Fincher and Sorkin with someone graspable to cut to whenever Zuckerberg retreated into himself, or Sean Parker got too flash.

2. Ralph Fiennes, Cemetery Junction
In some ways, the biggest revelation on this list - who, save perhaps Messrs. Gervais and Merchant, could be certain that an actor hardly renowned for his on-screen sense of humour would get the joke? His speech at the company retirement party is a consummate bit of timing - like seeing Leonard Rossiter reborn before our very eyes.

3. Eddie Marsan, Heartless
Quick and effective scene-stealing from a master at his trade.

4. Rhys Ifans, Greenberg
One of a small number of likable things in an otherwise determinedly irksome experience, shambling onto the set as casual as anyone might like - as though the film weren't just a hipster wind-up.

5. David Thewlis, Mr. Nice and London Boulevard
Adding rare character to otherwise middling enterprises - no-one does ratty better than Thewlis, and his Monica Bellucci line in Boulevard remains one of the year's more unexpected comedy highlights.

Best British Supporting Actress

1. Emily Watson, Cemetery Junction
...and while Fiennes held down the comedy end, Watson did superlative work in barely a handful of scenes as someone who knew exactly what kind of joylessness lay in wait for the film's representatives of the next generation if they didn't take the urgent action the narrative required of them. A cautionary performance, tempered by this actress's usual innate kindness.

2. Karina Fernandez, Another Year
For the best scarf-work since Malcolm McDowell in The Company.

3. Natalie Gavin, The Arbor
Sparky and authentic as "The Girl" bringing Andrea Dunbar's first play back to life.

4. Charlotte Rampling, Life During Wartime
She was rather fun this year as the classical dance instructor in StreetDance 3D - but she's rarely been more terrifying than as the cougar from hell in just a few minutes of Todd Solondz's generally conciliatory drama of modern mores - a woman who manages to put the wind up even a convicted paedophile.

5. Rosamund Pike, Made in Dagenham
Our most classical-seeming (and looking) of actresses - you could imagine her in almost any film from the 1940s - yet to find a worthy lead role, but here doing more than anyone to ensure the film's hands-across-the-classes subplot was invested with some degree of subtlety and credibility.

(Tomorrow: Directors, Screenwriters and Newcomers.)

Friday 17 December 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of December 10-12, 2010:

1 (new) The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (PG) [above]
2 (1) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (12A) **
3 (new) The Tourist (12A) **
4 (2) Megamind (PG) ***
5 (3) Unstoppable (12A) ***
6 (4) Due Date (15)
7 (5) Monsters (12A) ****
8 (new) Somewhere (15) ***
9 (new) No Problem (12A)
10 (6) The American (15) ***

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Monsters
2. Catfish
3. The Shop Around the Corner
4. Of Gods and Men
5. Boudu Saved From Drowning

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (new) Salt (12) **
2 (2) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
3 (new) The Sorcerer's Apprentice (12) ***
4 (new) Shrek Forever After (U) ***
5 (1) The Karate Kid (PG) ***
6 (new) Eclipse (12) ***
7 (new) The Expendables (15) **
8 (4) Iron Man 2 (12) ***
9 (3) How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ****
10 (8) The Ghost (15) **


My top five:
1. White Material
2. Inception
3. The Sorcerer's Apprentice
4. Erasing David
5. Eclipse

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Tuesday, BBC2, 12.40pm)
2. Miracle on 34th Street [1947 version] (Thursday, C4, 2.20pm)
3. Spirited Away (Tuesday, BBC2, 10.40am)
4. Miracle on 34th Street [1994 version] (Christmas Eve, ITV1, 12.55pm)
5. Scrooge (Christmas Eve, five, 4pm)

"Catfish" (Metro 17/12/10)

Catfish (12A) 86 mins ****

Everything The Social Network seemed to prophesy about our brave/scary new online world, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s genuinely edgy documentary bears out. In 2008, photographer Nev Schulman – the director’s brother – struck up a Facebook friendship with Abby, an eight-year-old from Michigan apparently responsible for some remarkable paintings based on his work. A friend request followed from Abby’s mother, and Nev even entered into flirty instant messaging with the girl’s half-sister Megan, an aspirant performer too blonde and lissom to be true. Sure enough, the nature of these relationships began shifting in troubling fashion: ominous wall postings and misattributed MP3s are just the start of it.

The gripping slice of American cyber-Gothic that follows prompts perhaps the year’s highest rate of squirms-per-minute. The filmmakers hardly endear themselves in flaunting risqué texts and descending on Abby’s given address en masse; by the end, they’ve achieved a kind of parity with their subjects, but left a tangled, very contemporary ethical nightmare in their wake. You’ll emerge arguing everything from camera angles to which participants most need their heads examining, but it feels like a conversation worth having at a moment where we’re still trying to work out our boundaries. See it, and you’ll think twice before poking anyone again.

Catfish opens in selected cinemas today.

"Animals United" (The Scotsman 17/12/10)

Animals United (U) **
Directed by: Reinhard Klooss, Holger Tappe
Animation with the voices of: James Corden, Stephen Fry, Dawn French

Nobody’s yet thought to issue a Madagascar sequel in the new 3D format, so this English-language redub of an animated German success – and yes, it’s exactly that promising – is at least filling a gap in the market. Adapting Erich Kästner’s The Animal Conference, it offers a Day After Tomorrow-like enviro-primer for youngsters: faced with dwindling water supplies, a world league of species – African meerkats, giraffes and elephants, a gassy Tasmanian Devil, plus a displaced polar bear and a French cockerel – migrate towards a global climate-change summit to share their own experiences in the field.

There’s evidence of background artistry in the frequent gags of scale, but what dooms it to ordinariness are the animals themselves, so lacking in memorable characteristics that parents will most likely spend the ninety minutes guessing the celebrity voice artists earning themselves a nice Christmas bonus. Fry was probably a shoo-in as wise lion Sophocles, but casting Vanessa Redgrave as a 700-year-old tortoise seems vaguely disrespectful, and anyone who thinks a meerkat voiced by James Corden is going to replace Alexander what’s-his-name as the nation’s favourite is, shall we say, simples in the head.

Animals United opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Abort, retry, epic fail: "Tron: Legacy" (ST 19/12/10)

Tron: Legacy (PG) 125 mins *

You remember 1982’s Tron, don’t you? One of the first Hollywood films to engage with virtual realities, it boasted what were then state-of-the-art effects, the young Jeff Bridges, and not all that much else besides. At best, the film perhaps merited a five-minute retrospective on an I Love the 80s clipshow; instead, a decision has been taken to update its source code – at great expense – in the hope of tapping any false nostalgia still lingering after July’s A-Team movie. The result is almost unbelievably soulless product – a sapping series of deceptions and disappointments packaged as a top-of-the-range 3D Christmas gift. Sorry folks, no refunds.

Tron 2.0 feigns sticking it to The Man, even as its other hand sets about crushing anybody who even thinks of streaming it online. Hero Sam Flynn (walking, smirking haircut Garrett Hedlund) is striving to keep in the public domain software first designed by his father – Bridges’ Kevin – and since co-opted by an Evil Corporation that, you know, cares more about stock prices than it does about what the kids want. (Unlike backers Disney, of course.) To do this, he must pass into the cyberworld itself, where he undergoes several Rollerball-like challenges to earn his freedom and (yawn) his pappy’s respect, virtual or otherwise.

Director Joseph Kosinski hails from advertising, and it shows: he tires of narrative coherence within ninety seconds, and thereafter prefers posing models to actual actors. Michael Sheen’s lively hamming as a cane-swishing nightclub owner merely underlines how impersonal – how inhuman – much else here is. One of the in-game Bridges is rendered as his twentysomething self from the first movie, and given the choice between a creaseless, computer-generated Bridges and a grizzled, lived-in Bridges, I know where I’d put my money: True Grit opens in cinemas next month.

These effects, supposedly game-changing, instead conspire to sink Legacy something rotten. Avatar, with its liberated depth of field and rapturous responses to nature, felt like a world worth escaping into, whichever story was told therein. Tron’s 3D has been spent on something grey and dreary, heavy on vectors and algorithms, light on romance, humour and adventure. It’s an enterprise designed by committee, built by robots, and watching it feels like being stuck in a boardroom for the holidays, with only a relentless PowerPoint presentation to make up for being denied fresh air, good company, or indeed a life.

Tron: Legacy opens nationwide today.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Hobo heaven: "Boudu Saved From Drowning"

Competing with The Shop Around the Corner and the upcoming The Big Sleep for the title of most welcome seasonal revival is a restored print of Jean Renoir's 1932 comedy Boudu Saved From Drowning. The set-up is as simple as that of any early sound picture. A well-to-do Parisian bookseller, Lestingois (Charles Granval), dives into the Seine to rescue Boudu (Michel Simon), a hobo driven to attempt self-sacrifice after the loss of his beloved canine companion. Lestingois brings him back to his apartment, dries him off, and - in a show of the best liberal intentions - invites him to make himself at home, without realising that a free spirit with little grasp of social mores isn't the ideal houseguest when you're trying to hide your affair with one of the friskier domestics from your dear darling wife. (The plot was updated by the farceur Paul Mazursky for 1986's Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which had the foresight to cast Nick Nolte as the dishevelled interloper.)

Though the restoration is first rate - these are as sharp as I can remember seeing these particular images - the film itself might now seem a little antiquated to newcomers, all too evidently based on a stage play (by René Fauchois) designed to épater le bourgeois without unduly alienating that audience that went to the theatre or picture palace of the time. (The humanist Renoir - steering his camera towards genteel recreation in parks - likes his characters too much to go too savagely for their throats; the cinema would have to wait a few decades for Buñuel's late 1960s output to truly tear into the middle-classes.) Boudu's reputation thus more or less rests entirely on Simon's towering performance as one of the movies' very greatest tramps: scratchy and bearded and crotchety, giving the impression of someone who's genuinely turned up on set half-cut, while never once suggesting a major star of stage and screen - as he was at this moment - slumming it. He's having a ball, treating his new home in much the same way Belmondo (surely the actor's rightful heir) did the South of France in Pierrot le Fou - as his own personal playground, which is perhaps why the film remains such good, solid, mildly naughty fun.

Boudu Saved From Drowning opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Sunday 12 December 2010

From the archive: "The Gigolos"

The best new movies presently on release weren't even made in the past twelve months. Last week we had Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha, completed in 2002 and remaining remarkably fresh despite sitting on the shelf for all that time; this week, we have The Gigolos, a disarming debut from co-writer/director Richard Bracewell, completed in 2004. This comedy-drama centres on a small business operating out of the Park Lane/Mayfair area. Male escort Sacha (Sacha Tarter) and his pimp Trevor (Trevor Sather) spend their days and nights arranging dinner, dancing, drinks and other after-dark activities for high-class women like the Duchess of Cirencester, but Bracewell keeps subverting the viewer's expectations, steering matters away from the lurid details of these paid-for couplings ("it's not really to do with 'downstairs'", as Sacha puts it) - though Anna Massey, Susannah York and Sian Phillips come through with vivid characterisations in what amount to cameos.

No, the emphasis rests on a well-written and well-played male relationship that is amusingly and touchingly dependent, never more so than when the well-groomed, garrulous Sacha breaks his foot in a workplace accident and has to coach the dowdy Trevor in the ways of the man-whore. The Gigolos is interested in the admin that goes into being a gigolo, in the same way The Good Shepherd concerned itself with the deskwork necessary for a spy: there's a more than faintly pedantic quibble over the time a bottle of sherry should be brought to table. Yet Bracewell forever does interesting things with London as a melancholy, faded, past-its-prime location, and among several musical gags, there's an inspired use of Ian Dury's "Clever Trever" as both a commentary on the action and exactly the type of track an unprepossessing pimp might put onto his iPod to psych himself up.

(March 2007)

The Gigolos screens on BBC2 this Friday at 12.05am.

From the archive: "Isolation"

Isolation is one of the first horror films to tackle the controversy surrounding GM/Frankenfoods without becoming completely hysterical or risible - some feat, given that its subject is genetically mutated cows. On a remote Irish farm, farmer John Lynch has hired out his prize heifer to a Government scientific program intended to increase fertility in cattle. The problem is that the mutation is "too quick", as chief scientist Marcel Iures puts it, something that becomes all too apparent when the cow spawns a creature with a deadly bite that is itself pregnant with foetuses whose entire genetic structures have been altered. Sensitive viewers should look away now.

Writer-director Billy O'Brien is careful in his approach - aware, perhaps, that his raw materials could easily tip over into bovine, Orca the Killer Whale nonsense - keeping his gristly, scuttling backbone monsters offscreen for almost half the film, and letting some heavyweight performers carry the film. Vet Essie Davis gets the toughest gig, having to put her hand up a cow's backside twice within the first twenty minutes (close-ups suggest she wasn't faking, either), but the middle section has some convincing interplay between traveller Sean Harris and his runaway bride Ruth Negga, and Lynch is nicely agonised as a decent, struggling working man who's only just realised what he's allowed to happen.

Only in the final half-hour does it give way to the generic, with one or two scenes too many cribbed from Alien, and a coda you can see coming a (country) mile off; altogether more distinctive is a terrific/horrific set-piece that finds Lynch stuck on a tractor in a pit of slurry, just as we've learnt the mutants have developed major sub-aquatic skills. Quite the least of the film's achievements is that it can make a herd of lowing cattle seem ineffably spooky, and O'Brien mines unexpected tensions from such relatively routine agricultural activity as the business of calving, autopsies, and putting an animal down.

(June 2007)

Isolation screens on Channel 4 this Wednesday at 12.50am.

Saturday 11 December 2010

Give me a break: "The Tourist"

In The Tourist, what sometimes seems like the twenty-seventh post-Bourne hare around Europe, an outrageously overdressed Angelina Jolie, exercising Anglicised consonants last heard emerging from the mouth of Madonna circa 2001, plays a woman being pursued by the authorities through Paris and Venice for what she knows about an elusive masterthief. Your initial thoughts are: if you were trying to cross the continent undetected, it would probably be a boon if you didn't so closely resemble the Sphinx of our age, and if you weren't so inclined to strut about everywhere in heels like Naomi Campbell modelling the Balenciaga winter collection.

But that's the nature of this especially daft beast, which similarly asks us to buy Johnny Depp - warming up for Jack Sparrow in straggly hair and grungy beard - as the maths teacher from Wisconsin Jolie's Elise Clifton-Ward (!) comes to hook up with on her travels, and to accept that the director behind 2007's The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, might be remotely interested in any of the above for any reason other than a super-large American paycheque. Depp is first introduced leafing through a tattered paperback, and the plot of The Tourist - which the credits assure me was cooked up by von Donnersmarck with Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) - might as well have been cribbed directly from its pages.

Except this isn't straight pulp, but knowing, postmodern pulp - because, with the exception of her appearance in Michael Winterbottom's underseen A Mighty Heart, Jolie has proven herself incapable of turning up anywhere without putting smirking quotation marks as wide and as fulsome as her celebrated lips around the whole. The Tourist is a marked improvement on Jolie's own Mr. & Mrs. Smith, because it's pastiche Hitchcock rather than pastiche Michael Bay, and because von Donnersmarck, turning it in at a leanish 107 minutes, doesn't stick around to take a crap in your head. It may even be mildly preferable to the summer's starry flop Knight & Day, because there's a kind of amused chemistry between the leads. If Jolie comes across as as unknowable as ever, we at least get the minor privilege of the first Depp performance for some years not to descend completely into lazy, hyper-accessorised pantomime.

By anybody's reckoning, however, The Tourist is a mediocre effort from a filmmaker whose first feature promised so much; even as glossy escapism, it functions only up to a point. You can see why A-listers keep being drawn to these sorts of surveillance charades - films in which they're watched everywhere they go, as must so often be the case in their off-screen lives: it's telling that Elise, like Jason Bourne and Tom Cruise's Roy Miller before her, only checks into those cities and resorts where film folk go to festivals and premieres. The occasion affords the now-standard fetishising of international hotel suites (see also: Somewhere): Jolie undoes a lace bow on her closet to reveal an apparently complimentary rack of designer dresses, and a safe fair spilling over with jewellery. ("They think of everything, don't they?," she coos, and it's true this beats the minikettle and shortbread rounds on offer at the Venetian Travelodge.)

Yet the script defaults entirely when it comes to romance. The idea is that Elise, despite her controlling demeanour, invariably falls in love "with any man she spends longer than a train ride with" - a characteristic that might understandably have appealed to a director whose previous film posited that the affection shared by a writer and an actress might warm the heart of even the chilliest Stasi operative. Jolie's alpha side is having none of this, of course. Her Elise fell for the mastermind only after he demonstrated the nous to keep her in high heels and tchotchkes for life, while Depp's Frank - clad for long stretches in the squarest pyjamas seen outside those old R. Whites commercials - only begins to turn his companion on after he drives a motorboat over one assailant's head. The movies used to prescribe a little high peril as something to take us out of ourselves, a bumpy detour on the road to becoming better people. The Tourist, by contrast, stands as a monument to the notion love will make something grasping and brutal of us all.

The Tourist is in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 10 December 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of December 3-5, 2010:

1 (1) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (12A) **
2 (new) Megamind (PG) ***
3 (2) Unstoppable (12A) ***
4 (4) Due Date (15)
5 (new) Monsters (12A) ****
6 (5) The American (15) ***
7 (3) London Boulevard (18) ***
8 (6) Despicable Me (U)
9 (7) The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (15) **
10 (new) The Warrior's Way (15)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Monsters
2. The Shop Around the Corner
3. Of Gods and Men
4. Somewhere
5. Enemies of the People

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (4) The Karate Kid (PG) ***
2 (new) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
3 (9) How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ****
4 (1) Iron Man 2 (12) ***
5 (2) Disney's A Christmas Carol (PG) **
6 (3) Heartbreaker (PG) **
7 (5) The Blind Side (12) **
8 (6) The Ghost (15) **
9 (8) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12) **
10 (re) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***


My top five:
1. White Material
2. Inception
3. The Sorcerer's Apprentice
4. Erasing David
5. Eclipse

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. Falling Down (Wednesday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
2. The Gigolos (Friday, BBC2, 12.05am)
3. Gilda [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 1.20am)
4. Liar Liar (Saturday, ITV1, 4pm)
5. Isolation (Wednesday, C4, 12.50am)

Are you being served?: "The Shop Around the Corner"

There remains something intriguingly tremulous and hesitant about Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 piece The Shop Around the Corner, this year's festive treat re-release from the BFI. In a Budapest department store where the fittings and newspapers are in Magyar but everybody speaks fluent English, we find Jimmy Stewart - his voice cracking as ever, his screen persona not yet set in stone - employed as a lovelorn clerk exchanging letters with the thus far anonymous girl of his dreams, oblivious to the fact she is in fact his new colleague Klara (Margaret Sullavan), with whom he's already had several run-ins in person.

The tremulousness perhaps filters down from the leading man: Stewart's Kralik is a gentle, upstanding, yet mildly bland romantic hero - the kind of role the actor might well have found himself stuck with for life had he been handed average contract-player material around this particular moment in his career. He speaks the lines with no great feeling for what makes them funny, and though Kralik assumes the reins in the central relationship - he learns Klara's his secret Santa long before she does - for much of the film, the character remains a doleful, melancholy presence, a man very much at the mercy of market forces.

Don't go expecting another His Girl Friday or The Philadelphia Story (a better showcase for Stewart the comedian), far frothier confections from the same year; this one was made to sit heavier on the stomach, and you're struck by how grown-up - how thoroughly serious - its two lovers are. What they're involved in, however, is exactly the sort of (contrived) mistaken identity plot that would have all or most of its charm, elegance, its innocence beaten out of it today - you'd only need to look at the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan remake You've Got Mail to see that, or any of the dozen or so romcoms since that that haven't cared to acknowledge their inspiration.

These latter films have generally treated their backdrops - the coffee shops, flower shops and pet shops - as (pardon the pun) window-dressing. Lubitsch, on the other hand - as you'd expect of any studio director who went to the trouble and expense of getting these sets built - displays a genuine interest in the department store as a living, breathing working environment, an ideal of both customer service and romantic comportment (by the end, Kralik is literally pulling his garters up), albeit one frequently undermined by office politics and personality clashes. Consider the poignancy directed into Kralik's firing - his handing over of his clerk's notebook and pencils afforded the same cosmic seriousness as all those later scenes in police procedurals where good detectives are obliged to part with their gun and shield - or indeed that of the insert in which Klara, for once, fails to find a billet doux in her postbox.

All this is not to say The Shop Around the Corner isn't funny, but its humour is all the more memorable for being so damn bittersweet, coming as it does in dispatches, like the deft cutaways to the flunky who disappears upstairs whenever his boss, the fearsome Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan, a year after Oz), demands an honest opinion of his employees. Lubitsch preserves the original setting of Nikolaus Laszlo's play enough so that it - ahem - registers, but the film wears its (Eastern) Europeanness lightly, in the form of a beardy psychoanalyist, drafted in for one scene, and a couple of instances of good Jewish humour, such as the employee worried he'll have to pay a call-out charge to the doctor on the one day of the year his hypochondriac wife doesn't feel unwell. In truth, everyone's nerves are on edge here, anyhow. To mark the Yuletide setting, there's a decorated tree in the store window and the promise of more snow to come, but the threat of personal and professional redundancy lingers over these characters - making it an inspired revival at the present moment - and they're all a hair's breadth away from a breakdown or a fainting fit. (Unlike in screwball, the film sees absolutely nothing funny in this.)

I think there's something else in the air beyond the scent of pine needles. After a spell in the forces, Stewart would end WW2 making It's a Wonderful Life and those bleak Hitchcock and Anthony Mann vehicles that similarly saw the depths to which humanity can sometimes sink. The Shop Around the Corner was clearly intended as propaganda for love and Christmas, not American military involvement in a mounting global conflict. Yet in its portrait of a small community whose individuals are eminently worth saving, whose values are worth buying into, is it not possible to glimpse something else around the corner for Budapest, and the Klaras and Kraliks of this world - something far worse than two star-crossed lovers not realising their destiny, something that would knock all the jollity and romance out of Eastern Europe as a movie location until Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy took up temporary residence there in Before Sunrise some half a century later?

The Shop Around the Corner returns to selected cinemas today.