Wednesday 31 July 2013

On demand: "Fire in the Night"

On the 6th July 1988, a fire ripped through the Piper Alpha oil rig off the north-eastern coast of Scotland, killing 167 men - roughly four-fifths of the crew - in two hours. Fire in the Night, Anthony Wonke's documentary account of the disaster, is initially distinguished by its editorial restraint, allowing information films on oil rig construction to play out almost at length - the better to set this particular tragedy, the worst in rigging history, in its full and proper context. The Alpha was meant as a super-platform, combining and processing the output of two smaller, adjacent rigs; it offered good food (one archive clip picks up on a basket full of Wagon Wheels - back when they were an acceptable size - at the heart of a generous refectory spread) and better-than-average accommodation.

Gradually, though, the testimony of the surviving crewmen clues us in as to the noise and dirt and risk involved aboard the rig on even ordinary days: if not quite the extremes faced by Stellan Skarsgard and colleagues in von Trier's Breaking the Waves, then still, clearly, a haphazard and dangerous business. (Look sharp for the clip of a grapplehook almost decapitating one employee during a storm.) The blaze was caused when the rig's operators Occidental elected to carry out maintenance while continuing production: this was lethal overreach, a fatal instance of multitasking. At 10pm on the night in question, a pump in the process of being upgraded was switched on, encircling the rig in a vast fireball; within an hour, both pipelines had exploded, compounding the error and making the rescue mission doubly fraught.

Faced with the challenge of making what was a complicated logistical failure accessible to the layperson, Wonke has focused on those variables that are in some ways human and graspable: the immediate aftermath of the explosion is presented as a matter of sticking your hand into an inferno in the vain hope of pulling somebody out alive. This wasn't possible for most, and the USP here is the (almost real-time) commentaries of interviewees who, approaching 25 years on, are still reliving this tragedy in their heads - in part because they're still not certain about what it was they saw or did that night, and why it is they lived to tell this tale where others, often standing only a matter of feet away from them, did not. (If you want to know something of what it is to live in the moment, tune in: these guys have been inhabiting a permanent moment for a quarter of a century now, and it's far from an especially healthy place to be.)

Wonke locates their younger selves very specifically, using reconstructions and moving dots on a blueprint of the Alpha, so we can grasp how these men were scattered in the wake of the initial blast, cut off from the lifeboats in some cases, forced to jump 175ft from the helipad into the foaming waters below in others; the fear and pain evident even today in these once-hardened roughnecks' eyes comes to tell its own story. You're reminded of the non-choice faced by those caught in the World Trade Center on September 11: do you stay put and await your rescuers, no matter that they may not be able to get to you, and you may fry in the meantime, or take a deep breath and leap into the unknown - towards, if not certain death in this case, then the scarcely more inviting cold of the North Sea?

The men speak plainly, using unfussy, everyday terms, which proves to be a descriptive boon. The heat was apparently like being "under a grill", such that, while bobbing in the water under the platform, you could feel your own scalp cooking; the noise like that of a blowtorch, turned up a thousandfold. Of course, as you're sitting watching the film, or merely reading this review, a gas main could rupture beneath your feet and blow you, too, towards the next life. While Fire in the Night stands as a foursquare memorial to those who lost their lives on and around Piper Alpha, and a wholly sincere tribute to the courage and tenacity of those who survived it (and its hellish memories), it also comes as another vivid reminder of how much life is mostly a matter of incalculable, unfathomable dumb luck. As a helicopter pilot involved in the rescue mission, helplessly observing another fireball tearing through the already stricken platform, is heard to put it via radio: "There's not a lot we can do".

Fire in the Night is available on DVD through Soda Pictures, and to view online free here until Friday.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Thin ice: "The Frozen Ground"

The Frozen Ground did the barest minimum to make the UK's Top 10 films last weekend, and - in truth - it does the barest minimum to bring its lipsmacking true story - the pursuit and eventual arrest of Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen - shuffling and shrugging onto the screen. It's saddled itself with now cut-price stars electing to go down the self-effacing character actor route, to the detriment of any wider, more compelling drama: Nicolas Cage, as the detective driven to reopen Hansen's dormant file against the wishes of the local PD, falls back on the frowny sincerity last tried around the time of 1999's 8MM, while John Cusack, whose sweaty scuzzball in the recent The Paperboy suggested a new and semi-intriguing career path, makes the not unintelligent but limiting choice of bland anonymity to play Hansen, the supermarket manager and family man who maintained a fondness for keeping teenage prostitutes chained up in his basement for weeks at a time.

With not much going on front and centre, you'd hope for some life among the supporting cast, but instead we find Radha Mitchell salvaging whatever she can from the cutting-room floor in the non-role of Cage's missus, producer Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson further devaluing his own brand in Jar Jar Binks dreadlocks as - surprise! - a thuggish pimp, and the usually very funny Kurt Fuller stuck behind a beige desk as the Alaskan D.A.. The one performer who comes close to owning their own strand, somewhat unexpectedly, is Vanessa Hudgens, who in the space of just two movies - and The Frozen Ground at least gives her more to play with (and wear) than April's Spring Breakers - appears to have comprehensively trashed her erstwhile Disney starlet image. As Cindy Paulson, the one crack-huffing stripper who survived Hansen's attentions, she's credibly tough and bruised, working through the kind of breakdown many of this actress's contemporaries have played out off-screen.

It's just a pity her performance should be at the mercy of such a shoddily structured script, which tosses Cindy around not just between Hansen and the cops, but between these factions and every other nefarious or otherwise letchy male on screen, in an attempt to raise some terminally low stakes. Rarely better than functional on either a visual or narrative level, and often just plain insensitive in its handling of Hansen's crimes, this is exactly the sort of blunt, cursory, shoulda-gone-straight-to-DVD venture one might reach for to illustrate how US cinema is presently lagging some distance behind its engaged and committed televisual equivalent. A late Thursday evening premiere on 5USA - after the CSI reruns, if just ahead of the cage-fighting - surely awaits it.

The Frozen Ground is in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 27 July 2013

From the archive: "RED"

This one could and probably should have been better. A sort of Grumpy Old Spies - the title's an acronym for Retired and Extremely Dangerous - RED is held back from achieving anything the altogether more sincere Sneakers or Space Cowboys managed by its relentless flipness of tone. From the opening shot of an alarm clock belonging to Bruce Willis's weary ex-agent Frank Moses ticking round to 6am to the mid-film shootout in a container yard, the material - adapted from a graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer - doesn't so much subvert cliches as present them with a mitigating smirk and a shrug of some already slackened shoulders.

A lot will depend on your feelings for the assembled performers, and whether or not you can bear to watch them in even screenfilling, in-flight nonsense such as this. Willis's low-key, unforced cool is enough to make one wish he'd push himself more often; John Malkovich doing wacko - even within the PG-13 straitjacket RED is obliged to wear - is always fun, to some degree; and I believe my thoughts regarding Mary-Louise Parker have long been a matter of public record, and quite possibly of some concern for the actress's legal team. (Again, though, I sensed the movies undervaluing her drollness; that she's too good for tagalong klutz roles like the one she's landed here.)

The casting of Helen "The Queen" Mirren as a dead-eyed assassin - letting out one of her now-trademark "bugger"s (cf. State of Play) whenever she gets shot at - is about the level RED is operating at, although among its thespian clutter, you'll also find amusing-ish one-or-two-scene bits for Ernest Borgnine as "The Recordskeeper", Brian Cox as a bibulous Russian contact, and Rebecca Pidgeon as a stiff CIA chief in the inevitable trenchcoat. It's an end-of-season Hollywood pantomime, in effect: everyone present is cruising along with the blithe air that none of this really matters - that this is just temporary, make-believe, a flick - and that that in itself can and will excuse any amount of incoherence and implausibility. Morgan Freeman appears to die twice, and come back; dragged with each new frame from her Kansas City home towards Washington, then New Orleans, Parker winds up wondering "How did we end up in New York?", and you do kinda know how she feels.

Arriving barely months after the very similar, if not entirely interchangeable Knight and Day, and mere weeks before The Tourist, it may chiefly be of note for announcing a new (or revised) model of mainstream American filmmaking for our present age of austerity: one that finds a vast talent base flying in for presumably reduced paycheques and a couple of days' shooting here and there on projects overseen by rent-a-hacks (if you can winkle out any thematic link between Robert Schwentke's work on Tattoo, The Time Traveller's Wife and this, you're a better critic than I), committing to no theme or idea in particular, but content to whip an audience along for the ride. I guess there are worse ways to kill a couple of hours, but if the characters refuse to stick around and burrow down in our subconscious, how on earth do you expect the movie to?

(February 2011)

RED is available on DVD through Entertainment One, and screens on Film4 this Thursday night at 9pm. A sequel, RED 2, opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office           
for the weekend of July 19-21, 2013: 
1 (1) Monsters University (U) **
2 (new) The World's End (15) ****
3 (2) Despicable Me 2 (U) ***
4 (3) Pacific Rim (12A) **
5 (4) Now You See Me (12A)
6 (6) World War Z (12A) **  
7 (5) The Internship (12A)  
8 (7) Man of Steel (12A) ***
9 (new) The Frozen Ground (15)
10 (8) This is the End (15) *** 

My top five:                        
1. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks    
2. Blackfish
3. The World's End  
4. Roman Holiday  
5. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser      

Top Ten DVD rentals: 
1 (1) Life of Pi (12) ***  
2 (3) Les Miserables (12) *
3 (10) Robot & Frank (12) **** 
4 (7) Arbitrage (15) ****
5 (4) Oz the Great and Powerful (PG) ** 
6 (5) Django Unchained (18) **
7 (2) Parker (15)
8 (6) Safe Haven (12A)
9 (8) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12) *** 
10 (9) Flight (15) **
My top five:                          
1. A Late Quartet
2. In the House  
3. White Elephant  
4. The Returned  
5. Beware of Mr. Baker

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                     
1. Con Air [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 10.30pm)
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
3. The Dirty Dozen (Saturday, five, 12.55pm)
4. Trading Places (Saturday, C4, 12.10am)
5. Animal Kingdom (Sunday, C4, 11.45pm)

Thursday 25 July 2013

1,001 Films: "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" (1965)

Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is one of those semi-legendary B-features that feels as though it should have been shot in cash-in 3D, even if it wasn't ultimately - such is the way in which its weird, fetishistic energies pop out of the screen at you. At its centre: a trio of mocking, cackling go-go dancers, perfectly content to spend their downtime burning off any remaining energies (and gas) in driving round and round the desert in cars with gleaming, deadly curves that seem like extensions of their own bodies. (For those unfamiliar with the Meyer oeuvre, let me phrase it euphemistically: these models come complete with their own twin airbags.) 

On one hand - and Meyer's films have perennially risked accusations of being one-handed - it's pure, possibly titillating exploitation. Yet on the other, it's a resurrection of the kind of tough broad who'd been absent from the screen during the Doris Day era: these women are placed very firmly in the driver's seat, and given the plot they eventually veer into (involving a missing girl, a reclusive, wheelchair-bound millionaire and his musclebound lunk son) is sunbleached noir, they come to resemble 40s femme fatales (kill! kill!) as pumped up for the more permissive Sixties.

The timid framing suggests that, at this stage, this director was still (understandably) terrified of asking his actresses to let it all hang out for him, and it's limited by performers who operate in one note or less - I don't think Meyer was really listening - but Faster, Pussycat! arrives at a strange vision simply by smashing together wild extremes of masculinity and femininity: there's a rare kind of artistry in the way Meyer keeps finding exactly the right camera angle to make head go-go girl Tura Satana's cleavage appear simultaneously as impressive and as insurmountable as Mount Rushmore.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is available on DVD through Films Sans Frontiers.

Saturday 20 July 2013

1,001 Films: "Juliet of the Spirits/Giulietta degli Spiriti" (1965)

Sounds funny to voice it, but there is an argument to be made that the 145-minute fantasia Juliet of the Spirits - coming hot on the heels of the 138-minute 8 1/2, and the 180-minute La Dolce Vita - marked the last point before Fellini spiralled off into absolute self-indulgence, and began sticking his own name before (and in) the titles (Fellini's Roma, Fellini's Casanova) of films in which he was chiefly dramatising his more perverse and wayward desires. This one's Giulietta in Wonderland, essentially: a psychedelic fairytale constructed around the director's wife and muse Giulietta Masina, much as those earlier works were organised (if that's the right word) around Marcello Mastroianni. 

While her blithe, possibly philandering hubby goes off to the office for days and weeks, the bored Giulietta shuffles out into the world on a quest for personal fulfilment, and quickly finds herself surrounded by the kind of kooks, cranks and grotesques audiences were by this point expecting to find in a Fellini movie. The first wave of these - including, forsooth, a medium - shows up around the five-minute mark, and thereafter the leading actress is all but carried away on a torrential stream of consciousness that sometimes resembles Fellini doing a Scary Movie on the cinema around him: there are images lifted directly from Lola Montès and The Seventh Seal, vast Technicolor sets to rival anything in the Jerry Lewis canon, and an attempt to get at the heroine's troubled psychology that feels very much like a riff on Marnie. Most crucially of all, perhaps, it comes to regard a failing marriage as an occasion for a party, rather than, as Antonioni saw it, cause for a wake or post-mortem.

Fellini compensates for the near-total absence of plot development with staggering, striking or simply funny set-pieces (the school play halted by parental intervention, a trip to a treehouse stuffed with silly hats) and by hanging it all around the dainty shoulders of Masina, a performer who - simply by presenting her face to the camera - could carry an audience anywhere. The fact the flashbacks reveal the extent to which Giulietta and her predecessors were under the yoke of the men in their lives marks the film out as second only to Nights of Cabiria as the most properly feminist work in this eternally lusting and fantasising director's filmography: you could see the heroine as a continental sister to all those bored Californian housewives in the American movies of the 1960s and 70s, reaching out for New Agey curatives and longing for liberation of a kind. It really is spirited - more happening than film - and its suggestion we should throw the doors open and let life flood in whenever we hit troubled waters in love leads me to believe it comprises one of the all-time great post-breakup movies.

Juliet of the Spirits is available on DVD through Nouveaux.

Friday 19 July 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office         
for the weekend of July 12-14, 2013: 
1 (new) Monsters University (U) **
2 (1) Despicable Me 2 (U) ***
3 (new) Pacific Rim (12A) **
4 (2) Now You See Me (12A)
5 (3) The Internship (12A)
6 (4) World War Z (12A) **
7 (5) Man of Steel (12A) ***
8 (6) This is the End (15) ***
9 (new) Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (12A)
10 (7) The Bling Ring (15) ***

My top five:                    
1. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks  
2. The World's End
3. Roman Holiday
4. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser  
5. Lootera    

Top Ten DVD rentals: 
1 (1) Life of Pi (12) ***
2 (new) Parker (15)
3 (new) Les Miserables (12) *
4 (7) Oz the Great and Powerful (PG) ** 
5 (2) Django Unchained (18) **
6 (new) Safe Haven (12A)
7 (new) Arbitrage (15) ****
8 (4) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12) ***
9 (5) Flight (15) **
10 (new) Robot & Frank (12) **** 
My top five:                        
1. In the House
2. White Elephant
3. The Returned
4. Arbitrage  
5. Robot & Frank

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                   
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 6.30pm)
2. Hue and Cry (Tuesday, BBC2, 12.35pm)
3. Synecdoche, New York (Tuesday, BBC1, 12.30am)
4. Carry On Up The Khyber (Thursday, C4, 1.25pm)
5. Dumb and Dumber (Sunday, five, 10pm)

On DVD: "The Returned/Les Revenants"

The screenwriter Robin Campillo has come to prominence in recent years for his collaborations with Laurent Cantet - he co-wrote 2008's outstanding The Class - but he made his own confident stab at directing back in 2004 with the remarkably well-sustained philosophical chiller Les Revenants, which is being released on DVD this Monday under the title of the hit TV series it subsequently inspired: The Returned. Campillo here treats the undead as a sociological phenomenon, his low-key yet admirably precise intentions signalled early on with a cut from the film's "zombies" pouring out of the cemetery to a council meeting in full progress: the emphasis from here on in is not on what they might do to us, but what we might do with them if they did, indeed, come back.

Glassy-eyed, "they" are, and slow on the uptake, too, but since they display no immediate signs of blood/brainlust, they've been ruled by the UN to have their own human-ish rights, returning them to their earlier homes and jobs - and forcing those left behind, who mourned their passing first time around, into coming to terms with some occasionally unhappy memories. Suspicion, however, persists among the wider community: a shared concern about where these houseguests go at night obliges the council to fork out for surveillance cameras attached to balloons.

Again, we see how Campillo has come to flip the genre on its head: the issue in Les Revenants isn't bloody population decrease, but sudden and seemingly incontrovertible population increase - thus making the film a thousand times more relevant to a society growing older and more crowded by the day. 65% of the 70 million undead revived here are, we're told, upwards of sixty years old, which puts a stop to any thoughts of sexy zombies, while setting up the perennially fruitful themes of integration and adaptation: the focus is held firmly on those mental and physical processes that allow us to forgive and forget, to connect and reconnect, in any case to get on with life.

What's scary about these so-called antagonists is their apparent inability to love as they once did; they really are zombies in this respect, going unfeelingly through the same old motions, unable to change or conceive of anything worth building. "Their thoughts and memories go crowding into darkness" is the somewhat poetic diagnosis one Red Cross worker offers; indeed, these returned appear more depressed than they do feral, which again allows Campillo and the film to raise the question of proper treatment. 

It could seem drippy or bloodless - flirting with romantic drama in places, which might send more seasoned gorehounds hurtling to the exits - were it not astonishingly acted (or, rather, non-acted) by its revenant ensemble, who numb their emotions and somehow manage to locate previously unexplored tensions in the notion of zombies who just want to get back to normality. Stripping back some of the gory excess allows the film to be eerie and haunting in whole new ways, and for Campillo to redefine what, in fact, the zombie movie might serve as: a conduit for asking wider questions of society, and how, at times of stress, we both do and don't relate to one another.

The Returned is available on DVD through Arrow Films from Monday.

"Suspension of Disbelief" (Metro 19/07/13)

Suspension of Disbelief (15) 112 mins **

This jazzy doodle is on one level a conventional murder-mystery, with Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) as a screenwriter spooked when the twin sister of his recently deceased lover (Lotte Verbeek, times two) shows up on his North London doorstep. Yet director Mike Figgis keeps throwing hefty quotation marks around what we’re watching, whether by cutting away to the storytelling classes Koch is teaching, flashing up textbook headings (“CHARACTER IS PLOT”) at key intervals, or folding in scenes from the autobiographical drama the writer is involved with. The result doesn’t so much flirt with pretension as hole up with it in a cheap motel for two hours, where Figgis’s typically bold imagemaking and amusing poison-pen portraits of industry hangers-on have to be set against uncomfortable-looking leads and an insistently academic air. It’s less a movie than a series of seminar notes.

Suspension of Disbelief opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday 18 July 2013

From the archive: "Hot Fuzz"

With the hit comedy Shaun of the Dead, the team behind TV's Spaced - writer/director Edgar Wright, writer/star Simon Pegg and the latter's regular sidekick Nick Frost - made a serious bid to dislodge Aardman as the most fondly regarded creative team presently working within the British film industry - and Wright's films aren't made out of plasticine. In their generally amusing follow-up Hot Fuzz, Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a big-city top cop whose arrest record is such he gets relocated to the countryside because he's making his superiors look bad. Winding up in the quiet Gloucestershire village of Sandford, this driven, humourless over-achiever is partnered with the tubby, dim bobby Danny Butterman (Frost), a drooling, wide-eyed lump all too easily dazzled by the Chuck Norris films available in a DVD bargain bin. Butterman's philosophy - "nothing's going on" - is countered by Angel's insistence that "something's always going on", and never more so than when a spate of bloody murders suddenly disrupts the general air of calm, the early suspicion falling on a suave supermarket manager (Timothy Dalton) whose prices, at least, are criminal.

What strikes you first about Hot Fuzz is how it gets right everything that last week's Epic Movie got spectacularly wrong. There are references to other films here - to Point Break and Bad Boys II (which Butterman, naturally, prefers to the original) and even beyond action movies to the likes of The Shining and even 80s cartoon He-Man - but they're integrated in ways that don't preclude story, a mystery to get caught up in, or characters you come to like. Pegg and Wright have clearly watched these films closely - they're very much of the DVD generation, skipping and pausing to get a detail just so - and this manifests itself here in an am-dram version of Romeo and Juliet so carefully modelled on the Baz Luhrmann film that its leading lady struggles to pull off Claire Danes's angel wings and it ends with a Cockney knees-up arrangement of The Cardigans' "Lovefool". Held over from Shaun is a gorehound streak that leads to a nasty, Omen-like squelching in a graveyard, and a running joke about Cornettos that must be a great way for the filmmakers to get their hands on free ice cream. 

As a director, Wright appears to have been schooled in using whatever comes to hand, more often than not inventively: there's a shoot-out in a Somerfield, an instance where product-placement is endearing rather than annoying. (It could have been another bloody Tesco.) To wear my grumpy critic's hat for a minute, Wright's trademark whipcrack editing style has become something of a cliche surprisingly early in his directorial career, there's not much room for women in this world, and - though it doesn't hurt the laugh rate especially - Pegg isn't allowed to be funny for much of the movie, though Angel's relationship with his unlikely new partner is established in such a way as for their subsequent tiffs and betrayals to matter more than they might elsewhere. Narratively, we might also wonder why suspicion for the murders doesn't fall on Nicholas Angel himself. But every other line is a winner, every other face a hero of British comedy or drama, and the result manages to satirise middle England in much the same manner as last year's The Hills Have Eyes redo had things to say about redneck America. Shaun of the Dead observed how terribly awkward it would be if zombies took over North London, but Hot Fuzz recognises there's a fine line between cleaning up the streets and what a crossword clue planted early on in the film identifies as fascism. If only Midsomer Murders were this sharp...

(February 2007)

Hot Fuzz is available on DVD through Universal Pictures Video. A third film in this collaboration, The World's End, opens in cinemas nationwide from tomorrow, and is reviewed here.

From the archive: "Shaun of the Dead"

With Shaun of the Dead, a self-styled "romantic comedy with zombies", the team behind TV's Spaced have made a very enjoyable big-screen debut. Electrical retailer Shaun (Simon Pegg) and his flatmate Ed (Nick Frost) are slackers on the verge of turning thirty who, while working out petty squabbles and girlfriend trouble, somehow fail to notice a mounting global crisis until it encroaches upon their own backyard; even then, they just suppose the stumbling, murmuring representative of the undead they're confronted with is a listless drunk making unseemly advances towards them.

Director Edgar Wright's whipcrack style was always going to be too kinetic to be contained by television - he made his cinema debut back in 1995, aged just 20, with the super-cheap spaghetti western spoof A Fistful of Fingers - and here charts a credible descent into zombiedom with undeniable pace and more than a little flair. An opening joke has commuters shuffling along like reanimated corpses, yawning and obsessively checking their mobiles, even before the worst happens and a GM crop virus spreads across North London, leaving Shaun and Ed to fend off the infected with the former's vinyl record collection. "The Stone Roses?," Ed suggests. "Nah," Shaun insists. ""The Second Coming?" "I like it," comes the defensive response.

Wright and Pegg's script has a way with recurring detail and dialogue ("You've got red on you"), even as it continues Spaced's project of squirrelling away pop-cultural references that feel organic rather than forced or overly showy. Just as it's claimed some football fans wear their team's shirts to the ground each Saturday in the vain hope they'll get pulled from the sidelines should a player become injured, Shaun of the Dead should provide encouragement of sorts for all those twentysomething slackers currently inseparable from their next-generation consoles, secretly preparing for the day the dead walk the earth and they're forced to put down their joypads and pick up actual shotguns and shovels.

There are some terrific gags along the way. At the heart of the film is a scene in which, lost in North London suburbia, Shaun and his motley band of survivors - Ed, Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), her flatmates David and Di (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis) and Shaun's mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton) - encounter another, almost identically dressed gang of six heading in the exact opposite direction. It's a funny encounter in itself, but even more so when you clock the actors in this second gang - Jessica Stevenson, Martin Freeman, Reece Shearsmith, Tamsin Greig, Matt Lucas - and realise that the screen at this moment contains at least one representative from pretty much every British TV comedy of note since the turn of the millennium. Very few British big-screen comedies establish one convincing reality to pursue, let alone a second - the possibility of a different film, with a different, but no less skilled, set of performers - going off somewhere else.

Wright and Pegg have managed not just a funny idea, with funny jokes, but they even manage a very funny punchline: extending the underlying assumption that we are all now zombified to some extent to an acknowledgement that the entertainment industry's default tendency to make or keep us that way would result in any zombie invasion meaning business as usual in certain sectors. Most American films in this subgenre posit how terrible and terrifying it would be should events like this come to pass, but Wright and Pegg adopt a typically English tack, and suggest how terribly embarrassing and inconvenient it would be if, say, you were forced to beat your stepdad's brains in with a cricket bat. In this world, the heroes gather their armoury in a washbasket and relax with Cornettos, and their local pub, with its lock-ins, Breville sandwich toaster and generous supply of alcoholic beverages, becomes seemingly the safest of all possible havens.

(March 2004)

Shaun of the Dead is available on DVD through Universal Pictures UK.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Flunkin': "Monsters University"

If there was any pressing creative reason for a follow-up to 2001's Monsters, Inc., it would surely have emerged earlier than it has. After all, it took Pixar only four years to progress from Toy Story to Toy Story 2, which seemed long at a time when the company was bursting with ideas and energy, but perhaps processor chips weren't running as fast back then as they do today. It's taken twelve years to get from Monsters, Inc. to Monsters University, and here we find the series actually going backwards - into prequel territory - to the extent that its closing scenes seem specifically designed to send very young audiences out of the auditorium pestering their parents and keepers to buy them the DVD of the first movie. Previous Pixar films were born of the company playroom; this one - like Cars 2 before it, and most likely the upcoming Nemo sequel Finding Dory - comes right out of the boardroom. The company has grown up, and comprehensively lost its innocence.

The main narrative business here concerns how walking eyeball Mike (again voiced by Billy Crystal) and furry Sully (John Goodman) first met, at the eponymous institution: the former then a nerdy outcast with braces, the latter, a very big man on campus, trading with increasing desperation on an apparently illustrious family name. (Neither Crystal nor Goodman bother to pitch their voices an octave or two higher to fit the characters' youthfulness, but New Pixar presumes we won't care about such details.) Yet where the original created a world and came up with an occasionally affecting story to work through, MU trades lazily on its target audience's desire to pal around with these characters again, committing only to the kind of skitty, riffy set-pieces you see in every other animated feature these days.

The university's participation in the annual Scare Games cues more 3D-"enhanced" running about, and the film promptly rushes past its own better ideas. Where MI knew it could spend its entire third act within its own lovingly sketched universe of bedroom doors, MU shows us a maze from above, then skitters off in another direction entirely, hoping attention-deficient cinemagoers will follow. Throughout, director Dan Scanlon and his co-writers studiously avoid anything that might resemble the human touch that could be discerned in the work of their illustrious predecessors Lasseter, Stanton, Docter and Bird, deferring wherever possible to the algorithm and the core processor: everything has been formulated and sped through, the better to cram in more screenings per day.

The degree to which these digimations have saturated the marketplace and started treading on one another's tails is apparent from an early joke involving a late-running snail: it's a nice try, but it's already been spoiled by the trailer for DreamWorks' upcoming mollusc-centred Turbo, currently playing before Monsters University. That gag isn't the only thing here to have been stamped on, corrupted or otherwise devalued. Back in 2001, the casting of Crystal and Goodman as a wisecracking double-act could still be considered a coup; since then, Crystal has been reduced to the likes of Parental Guidance, while Goodman has taken on so many anything-goes gigs (Flight, The Hangover Part III, The Internship) that it's become difficult to discern which ones his heart is genuinely in.

There remain signs in Monsters University that if Pixar tried - if they were really pushed by a marketplace (and an audience) that didn't automatically turn every last heavily marketed animation into a billion-dollar megahit - they could still scrape together something worthwhile from their dwindling creative reserves. I liked certain notes in the characterisation (Helen Mirren as a dragonfly dean going under the inspired name of Hardscrabble, a many-eyed soccer mom who reveals her passion for death metal in the one joke here worthy of Old Pixar), and the busy, textured recreation of a college football stadium, its crowds, and the turf. But these are less objects of rapture than happy accidents, straws you cling to within what's most often an indistinct and nondescript blur of colour and movement with less to amuse accompanying adults than the only moderately witty Despicable Me 2.

I was never completely sold on Monsters, Inc. - in either its 2D or retrofitted 3D incarnations - a state of affairs that might have had something to do with its subtext extolling the joys of the factory line. This far along the conveyor belt, Mike and Sully really have become monsters, corporate avatars touting their cuddliness in order to deprive parents of hard-earned leisure time and whatever money they might have left after paying the bills, and in so doing helping to turn our dreams and nightmares into the stuff of grim contractual obligation. Their reteaming has been positioned very professionally - on the side of every bus, and at the very heart of pop culture - as the pre-eminent multiplex option for killing a couple of hours of your offspring's summer holiday. But might we not ask for more from our children's entertainments than to be this obviously mercenary?

Monsters University is in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 13 July 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office       
for the weekend of July 5-7, 2013: 
1 (1) Despicable Me 2 (U) ***
2 (new) Now You See Me (12A)
3 (new) The Internship (12A)  
4 (3) World War Z (12A) **
5 (2) Man of Steel (12A) ***
6 (4) This is the End (15) ***
7 (new) The Bling Ring (15) ***
8 (new) Lootera (12A) ****
9 (new) Singam 2 (12A)
10 (6) Behind the Candelabra (15) ***

My top five:              
1. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
2. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
3. Lootera
4. Paradise: Faith
5. Akira
Top Ten DVD rentals: 
1 (new) Life of Pi (12) ***  
2 (4) Django Unchained (18) **  
3 (new) Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (15)  
4 (1) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12) ***   
5 (3) Flight (15) **   
6 (2) Argo (15) ***  
7 (new) Oz the Great and Powerful (PG) **  
8 (new) Broken City (15) **  
9 (6) Wreck-It Ralph (PG) ***   
10 (new) Warm Bodies (12) ***     
My top five:                      
1. Arbitrage
2. Robot & Frank
3. Village at the End of the World
4. Cloud Atlas
5. Broken

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                 
1. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure [above] (Saturday, ITV1, 2.25pm)
2. Gladiator (Friday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
3. Dirty Pretty Things (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.35pm)
4. Enemy of the State (Saturday, BBC1, 10.50pm)
5. Hot Fuzz (Saturday, ITV1, 10.50pm)