Archive | September, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

25 Sep

 

Director: Lasse Hallström

Writers: Simon Beaufoy, Paul Torday (novel)

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Amr Waked

Motion Picture Rating: 12A

Runtime: 107 minutes

 

 

There was a time, not that long ago, when I went out of my way to miss films that featured Ewan McGregor. He thoroughly annoyed me. Wooden, half-arsed acting, that peculiar grin of his and yet he still landed good roles. I didn’t understand it and instantly took a dim view of those three Star Wars episodes and the likes of Big Fish and The Island. However, I am altering my position and this film is a part of the process that started with The Ghost and then included Beginners and Perfect Sense (both reviewed here on SSR). McGregor is winning me over.

In this film McGregor nicely inhabits the role of an old before his time government fisheries expert. As Dr Alfred Jones he wears natty shirt, tie and cardigan combinations and is stiff and off-hand with his colleagues. At home he has a sober, but passionless and faltering marriage. McGregor retains his natural Scottish accent for the role and layers on a rather dour and sarcastic personality to great effect (all rather Gordon Brown). Dr Jones’ uneventful life changes when a representative of a sheikh approaches him with a project to develop salmon fishing in the Yemen that is seized upon by a UK government spin doctor looking for positive middle eastern news. He tries to resist the sheikh’s “theoretically possible” pet project, but is forced to participate.

Along with McGregor there is the hard working, but always fresh Emily Blunt supporting the sheikh and Kristin Scott Thomas as the interfering government PR wonk. It is a nice ensemble with Amr Waked equally effective as Sheikh Muhammed. Scott Thomas channels a bit of Malcolm Tucker so her scenes have a nice touch of The Thick of It about them. Apart from the odd bit of twee spiritual twaddle coming from the sheikh, it is difficult to fault the film. It has that nice, slow and lazy Sunday afternoon feel to it and that’s not such a bad thing. McGregor and Blunt are charming together and for once director Lasse Hallstrom keeps it tight and refrains from over sentimentality.

Wild Bill

22 Sep

 

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Writers: Danny King, Dexter Fletcher

Stars: Charlie Creed-Miles, Will Poulter and Sammy Williams

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 98 minutes

 

 

Legacy was the buzzword of the 2012 London Olympics that mainly took place in the east end borough of Newham. That word and the vision were crucial to winning the bid and understandably so as Newham is a poor borough dotted with council estates and limited youth opportunities. Now Wild Bill is not a polemic about the games, legacy, and / or inner-city hardships, but it is set in Newham in 2010 and under the shadow of the rising Olympic stadium. As such it is hard to miss the potential local impact that the games could have. Wild Bill is a heart-warming family drama, but like many families in Newham today life is not easy and too frequently affected by crime.

Wild Bill is Bill Hayward, a paroled convict out after serving 8 years for various drug related activities and back in the east end of London. He returns to his tower block flat to find his sons, Dean aged 15 and Jimmy aged 11, living on their own after their mum skipped out 9 months back. The boys are getting by, but it’s tough. Kids without parents can get by, but they are not adults. Bill, bargaining with the extremely mature Dean, agrees to stick around to stop child services putting the boys into care. He tries to build bridges to Dean and Jimmy, but does not know them. His presence puts them off their stride and also stirs up animosities with the local villains that have continued to deal drugs in and around the estate.

The themes of Wild Bill are serious, and very well managed, but it is an uplifting film. Bill’s journey from selfish, ignorant and wasteful to straight and proud dad of two genuinely warms the heart. And there is a lot humour along the way. The script is good, the acting is excellent – especially Charlie Creed-Miles as Bill and Will Poulter as Dean – and it is entertaining stuff. I thoroughly enjoyed this and kudos to first time director Dexter Fletcher for pulling it together. He is clearly a fan of westerns and we get the High Noon finale with Bill fronting up the local heavies to protect his family. That’s a fitting and hopeful ending and timely with the Olympics over and legacy work now at hand.

Dark Shadows

19 Sep

 

 

Director: Tim Burton

Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith (screenplay), John August (story)

Stars: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Eva Green

Motion Picture Rating: 12A

Run time: 113 minutes

 

Dark Shadows is another weird, gothic, humorous and oddball drama from Tim Burton based on existing material. In the last 12 years he has updated Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland. Those were more recognisable sources, but Dark Shadows, based on a late 1960’s TV show, follows closely on their heels. Tim, it seems, likes to keep busy and loves his updates. Burton is a bit like the Coen Brothers these days, but sadly that’s not the compliment that it once was. Whilst inside jokes, recurring cast members and signature shots can make Burton and Coen movies really fly, we are seeing too much output from both with diminishing returns.

This film is close in tone to Burton’s earlier films Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands whilst also borrowing from The Addams Family. It is gothic, the humour is dark and most of the characters are over the top cuckoo. Depp stars, as back-from-the grave vampire Barnabas Collins, Burton’s wife Bonham Carter is a drunken psychiatrist and the original music is by long-time Burton collaborator Danny Elfman. The other main players are Eva Green as resident town mogul / witch Angelique and Michelle Pfeiffer as matriarch Elizabeth Collins. She is the 1972 head of the Collins family and hence a modern relation of the returning Barnabas (who was buried alive by Angelique in 1772). The 1970’s Collins clan also includes Jonny Lee Miller (Roger) and Chloe Grace Moretz (Carolyn).

The 1970’s nostalgia here is nicely handled, but we know Burton can do kitsch. The set-up has a lot of potential and the cast is strong. Unfortunately the comedy of Dark Shadows is weak with only a few good jokes. The best one, that has Barnabas urging the back of the TV set to reveal its “tiny songstress”, mines the fish-out-of-water status of Depp’s reborn character, but that seam is not mined hard enough. Better done is the Barnabas and Angelique love/ hate relationship. However, Eva Green dials it up to 11 whilst Depp stays at 7 throughout. If ever there was an indication of how underwhelming the movie is, it is Depp’s low energy performance. This film feels rushed, actually rather unloved and the ending is awful.

Goon

15 Sep

 

Director: Michael Dowse

Writers: Jay Baruchel (screenplay), Evan Goldberg (screenplay)

Stars: Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel and Alison Pill

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 92 minutes

 

Goon maybe based on a true story (the career of Doug Smith), but it’s hardly original and I am sure that it could apply to any number of lower league ice hockey players in the 1970’s and early ‘80’s. During that period the joke about going to a fight and seeing a hockey game break out was made frequently. Hockey bore similarities to today’s UFC type entertainment and each team had at least one ‘enforcer’ who’s skills lay firmly in punching other players’ lights out as opposed to skating. In homage Paul Newman starred in the 1977 comedy Slap Shot about how a losing ice hockey team changes fortunes and finds success in constant fighting.

This film follows two ice hockey enforcers, one on his way out of the game and the other just coming in. Seann William Scott (as Doug ‘the thug’ Glatt) is the young gun whilst Liev Schreiber (as Ross Rhea) is the retiring warhorse. Doug’s journey from a barroom bouncer to second division ice hockey ‘player’ is the backbone of Goon as his over balanced brawn to brain ratio finally starts to pay dividends. Doug is a warrior and very much a team player. He is naïve and a gentleman as shown by his sheepish pursuit of local Halifax girl Eva (nicely played by Alison Pill). He has a lot to learn and gets an education of sorts from Ross Rhea who describes their shared skills as akin to being a front-line soldier feted only whilst capable of taking down enemies.

The parallel stories of Doug and Ross intersect as their hockey teams’ seasons play out, but it’s clear that both will face off and go mano-a-mano at the end. This is a highly macho film. The many fight scenes are brutal, the swearing is near incessant when Doug’s juvenile friend Pat (Jay Baruchel, one of the writers) is on the screen and there are plenty of borderline offensive gay jokes. This is definitely a film for the lads, but it’s a pity that it is lazily one-dimensional as Scott plays nice but dim endearingly well and Schreiber is very good. This is OK entertainment, but it made me nostalgic for the original and better film Slap Shot.

This Means War

12 Sep

 

Director: McG

Writers: Timothy Dowling (screenplay), Simon Kinberg (screenplay)

Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy

Motion Picture Rating: 12A

Runtime: 97 minutes

 

 

I knew that this would be an underwhelming film when I caught Tom Hardy looking very uncomfortable promoting it on a UK chat show about 5 months ago. His explanation at that time was that after a lot of ‘serious’ or ‘complex’ films he wanted to do something that was ‘light’ and ‘full of action’. He fidgeted in his seat and only calmed when quickly moving on to talk about playing Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and playing Forrest Bondurant in Lawless. That he was directed in those better films by Christopher Nolan and John Hillcoat respectively no doubt swelled his pride as This Means War is directed by serial offender and ludicrously named McG.

The director McG helmed the highly unoriginal Charlie’s Angels films and the highly derivative Terminator Salvation. His directorial style through those films and into This Means War is one based on fakery and polish, pumping action, lots of noise and zero soul. Of course he can only work with the scripts and cast provided, but there is something very lazy, false and patronizing about the way that McG goes about his work. You can see it from the start of this film and during the 100 minute run the glibness rubs off on the cast, big stars all 3 of them, so that they get lazy and phone it in. No wonder Tom Hardy struggled to sell it on that chat show.

The story has Tom Hardy and Chris Pine as best friends and spies who fall for the same civilian girl, Reece Witherspoon, and then battle it out for her heart. It is a high concept / popcorn movie. Hardy and Pine get to do secret agent action stuff whilst also trying comedy in their attempts to spy on and to sabotage each other’s dates with Witherspoon. The plot, clearly, is ridiculous. The action is similarly so and the comedy mostly miss-timed and / or miss-judged. It is not funny, but creepy to watch the paramours apply surveillance tactics on nice girl Witherspoon. There is something a little Mr. & Mrs. Smith about the premise here, but This Means War is poorer. It is soulless, joyless, far from exciting and a film that Tom Hardy will regret for a long time.

The Hunger Games

8 Sep

 

 

Director: Gary Ross

Writers: Gary Ross (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (screenplay)

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 142 minutes

 

The author Suzanne Collins claims her inspiration for the trilogy of books opening with The Hunger Games to be Greek mythology. That is evident in the gladiatorial combat forced upon the young game participants and in the divisions between rich and poor and between Capitol city folk and those living in the outlying districts (who supply the combatants and then watch the games on TV). As such President Snow sits god like at the top of Capitol city’s hierarchy. Snow, played by Donald Sutherland, understands how the annual games help maintain the totalitarian regime via entertaining, threatening and at turns dehumanizing the populace.

Suzanne Collins claims that she had not heard of Battle Royale whilst writing The Hunger Games. Really? That seems odd to me. The story of THG is incredibly close to that of the controversial Japanese book, film and comic (where a class of stranded school kids are forced to fight to the death by a totalitarian regime). Collins may or may not have been inspired by that cult classic, but she must have been influenced by William Golding’s book Lord of the Flies and by Stephen King’s The Running Man. For me The Hunger Games mashes up all of those whilst mining the zeitgeist of our modern obsession with reality TV.

The 24 combatants forced to enter the annual hunger games are selected by lottery so that each of Capitol city’s 12 districts put forward one boy and one girl. Those tributes, aged 12 – 18, are then paraded, trained and made over inside the capital before entering the arena to fight to the death. The story focuses on the female tribute from district 12, Katniss Everdeen, and her journey into and through the games. Katniss enters with Peeta Mellark, similarly young, humble and backwoods, but with less impressive survival instincts. Katniss and Peeta are underdogs, but capture the attention of the TV viewers (to the great displeasure of President Snow).

Whilst The Hunger Games was published as young adult fiction, it is not typical teenage fodder. This is very effective entertainment. Mashing up Greek mythology, dystopian sci-fi cityscapes and modern references to reality TV and politics proves to be a potent mix. The story is exciting and the film moves along quickly and with energy and suspense. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss powers the whole thing with a sensational performance. There are some weaknesses – such as the PG-13 avoidance of real bloodshed and the basic lunacy of pitting 12 year old girls versus 18 year old boys – However, this film delivers. And I for one am looking forward to the next instalment.

Young Adult

5 Sep

 

Director: Jason Reitman

Writer: Diablo Cody

Stars: Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson and Patton Oswalt

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 94 minutes

 

 

I can honestly say that I haven’t seen any fictional character on film, certainly not the lead character, like Mavis Gary. She is such an uncomfortable and unlovable character to watch. Why Diablo Cody (writer) and Jason Reitman (director), previous collaborators on Juno, brought her into this world I am unsure. Mavis is self-obsessed, immature, highly dramatic, completely lacking in empathy and a fantasist. A fifteen year old girl might be given some leeway for these personality disorders, but Mavis is 37.

Mavis Gary, played to perfection by an unblinking Charlize Theron, and completely trouncing Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher, is the high school mean girl that never grew up. This former prom queen failed to move on from her glory days and is returning to her small town to win back her high school jock boyfriend. That he is married with a new born baby is beside the point. As Mavis sees it, the small town and small family lifestyle must be like “living as a hostage”.

Whilst back in town Mavis starts up an odd friendship with Matt Freehauf (the splendid Patton Oswalt), another ex-high school peer. Matt, labelling himself a “fat geek”, has also struggled to move on, but his issues are rather more substantial in that he was crippled at high school by rampaging jocks – ironically in the same woods where Mavis regularly entertained the boys. Mavis and Matt form an unlikely alliance and it’s their relationship that is the best of this film. This is bold story-telling with Cody and Reitman cleverly showing us just how sad, lonely and angry the high school prom queens and tubby geeks can be 20 years after graduation.

There are no big laughs in this movie and the dialogue is less sassy than in Juno. Mavis Gary is a deeply troubled character and her journey home is awkward and sad. There is humour, but it is very dark. At the same time Mavis and Matt share some great scenes and there is something very real about them that demand your attention. How and why this film got made, by a big studio like Paramount, I have no idea but I am glad that it did. Many will see few redeeming qualities in Mavis or the film, but I applaud the film-makers and Theron for being so mean and so dark.

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