You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Saturday, 27 July 2013


I'll try and change this to say something a little more witty when I've had a bit more sleep and a bit more caffeine but till then, The Wolverine. Hold onto your hats, bub - here be ninjas.

Saturday, 20 July 2013


My, haven't we grown?

It's been six years since Hot Fuzz blasted onto our screen, John Woo-style, both guns blazing, and a further three since Shaun of the Dead introduced us to arguably the foremost British comedy duo in cinema today (sorry Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan). After a lengthy detour through the likes of Tintin and Cornetto-alike Paul, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are back for the last of the trilogy. And, for once, it's Pegg's turn to play the funny man.

If Shaun of the Dead was a zomcom about settling down and Hot Fuzz a comedy actioner about finding the work-life balance then  The World's End is sci-fomedy about rediscovering freedom as you approach middle age. Freedom is something that Simon Pegg's Gary has in abundance: he has no wife, no kids, no apparent job - he dresses the same way he did in his teens and drives the same car, all the way down to the mix tape in the deck. For a man seemingly without concern, however, one thing plagues Gary, namely the failure of him and his mates to complete their hometown's legendary Golden Mile pub crawl during their misspent youth. Gary, now well into a misspent adulthood, determines to get the band together and finish it... at any cost. Why it means so much to Gary isn't immediately evident - all we know is that things are going to get messy.

The World's End, more of an ensemble piece that its predecessors, features Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan as Gary's school friends - smooth Steven, oily Oliver, and pusillanimous Peter -, all of whom have very much moved on with their lives; in fact, they've barely talked in over a decade. There's a recurring joke about Gary not knowing the name of Peter's wife that stresses how out of touch they are with each other and also that Gary is, in fact, a bit of an arsehole. Such an arsehole, in fact, that Nick Frost's officious Andrew (cue end of alliteration) wants nothing to do with him. Gary is an obnoxious, juvenile loser, and its testament to Pegg's ability as an actor (comedy and dramatic) that, even as he pesters Rosamund Pike's Sam for a repeat of the bathroom quickie they shared twenty years before, you get a sense of how trapped he is, what a hash he's made of it all, of that toothy, desperate smile growing thin.

Though Gary and Co. are back to falling through fences (ala Shaun of the Dead), The World's End feels like a fitting culmination of the themes established in both Shaun and Fuzz. There's another oppressive rural village inhabited by a menacing force - though in this case it's pod people rather than the Village Green Preservation Society - and once again our survivors are making their way to a public house (twelve of them). The film cleverly manages to dovetail the twin plots of "pub crawl" and "alien invasion" together, often to surprisingly poignant effect, though having our protagonists growing increasingly bladdered as they romp towards the final act proves fairly effective on the comedy front. For an already packed genre mash-up, it certainly works in the drama, too.

Overall, The World's End probably isn't as good for as many laughs as its predecessors. The tone here, appropriately, is somewhat more mature, subdued even, despite Gary's callowness. Gary is a man with serious, likely unresolvable life issues and the schism between him and Frost's Andrew runs deep. There are humorous cameos by a whole range of recognisable faces (including Reece Shearsmith and Michael Smiley), among them a former Bond, but things have definitely changed since Fuzz. Probably the least quotable of the trilogy, too - "F**k off back to Legoland" aside -, End is still a whole lot of fun and probably all the better for a bit of depth. After all, a film that features a blue exploding doppelganger kick-punching a bunch of drunks was never gonna be Requiem for a Dream and, of course, it shouldn't aim to be.

With Pegg, Frost and director Edgar Wright all pushing forty, this feels like the right point to call a close to the Flavours series. Pegg'll soon be heading off to shoot the new Star Trek and Frost is teaming up with Olivia Colman (mega serious dramatic actress and former colleague of Mitchell & Webb) while Wright will be taking his cross-cutting montages with him into the Marvel playbox for his long-awaited Ant-Man. The Soup Dragons' "I'm Free" would seem to be Gary's unofficial anthem and The World's End poses the question, "At what cost?" Ultimately, though, it seems the better choice in a film that presents "freedom" and "conformity" in binary op  position - you're either a rebel and a screw-up or a Body Snatchers' victim. If this doesn't quite ring true, it's a forgivable flaw: not many films give you explicit permission to move on, and, as much as we all want more Spaced, after The World's End it's time to draw this chapter in the Pegg-Frost partnership to a close. Who knows, maybe it's not the end of the world after all.


Wednesday, 17 July 2013


"These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us."
-- William ShakespeareKing Lear, I:ii

Wind rustles the dry grass; in the distance the shriek of cannonade, the resounding boom of cannonballs in dirt. All this is behind us now, behind them. Far from the battlefield, a motley band of civil war deserters search for meaning and treasure in a field in England. Ben Wheatley's newest film is two parts acid trip to one part grisly morality play. Wheatley, never one to shy away from the esoteric, fully embraces the weirdness of this as his small, tightly-knit cast of types - four rogues to one gentleman - fight struggle against the brutality and meaningless of existence.

The de facto protagonist of the piece in Reece Shearsmith's Whitehead, practising alchemist and self-professed coward, sent on a mysterious mission by his unseen master. With him are Ryan Pope's belligerent Cutler, Richard Glover's Friend, an amiable simpleton, and Peter Ferdinando's inscrutable Jacob. It's not until the leering, devilish O'Neill, played by Michael Smiley, appears on-screen that the film acquires its purpose, though what that purpose is is never truly clear.

What is certain, however, is Wheatley's profound interest in the nature of suffering: Friend remarks at one point that he believes they shall sample a better quality of suffering in O'Neill's company. Indeed, all that can be hoped for in this turbulent era is to suffer well. Whitehead and his troupe (or should that be "O'Neill and his troupe", as they become) are denied even that. They dig, and beat, even shoot, each other. The pious Whitehead is subjected to unimaginable tortures in O'Neill's tent and emerges, gibbering, as a demented human bloodhound. The drama is simple, often theatrical - the troupe on occasion appear frozen in tableaux - and Jim Williams' wind and string soundtrack thrums with power.

Ultimately, though, the playing with life and death, the uncertainty surrounding reality and fantasy, lowers the stakes. If we cannot be sure what is real or what it means, how can any of it matter? One memorable sequence in A Field in England sees the cast pulling mightily on a rope, the other end of which we never see - a tug of war with the ineffable. That just about sums up the film as a whole. Though often elliptical and obscure, A Field in England is a film to be treasured. Amy Jump's script is rich and salty and Wheatley has a real feel for the British countryside, be it as the hunting ground for hitmen as in Kill List or home to Sightseers' homicidal caravaners.

Verdict: With its Jacobean setting and Shakespearean undertones, A Field in England feels like Lear on the blasted heath cursing at the storm (if Lear had been on shrooms at the time). Profound, disturbing, full of omens and body horror, A Field in England is not so much a film you watch as undergo. It's about as different as cinema gets from my most recent review, but there's a certain twisted nobility to its experimentation. 8.0/10

Monday, 15 July 2013



We're roughly half way through the summer season with Man of Steel and World War Z recently past and Elysium and The Wolverine shortly approaching (among others). As such, a little $190 blockbuster about giant robots vs. giant aliens could well pass under the radar: less superfluous than Disney's The Lone Ranger but by no means a guaranteed money-maker, it makes sense that fantasy horror legend Guillermo Del Toro would be asked to bring some much-needed credibility to the project. 

With a concept you could fit on the back of a postage stamp - more or less Godzilla meets Transformers -, GDT signed up to direct a week after his long-mooted, high-budget adaptation of H. P. Lovercraft's The Mountains of Madness was shelved. Given how different Pacific Rim is from his usual fare - he tends towards ghosts and goblins over sci-fi schtick -, you could almost think he acted rashly out of grief. That is were the end product not quite so entertaining.

Setting out to make the ultimate Kaiju (or monster) movie, GDT's choice of project seems less unusual when you consider the important role that creature design has played in all of his best known works: from Cronos to Hellboy via, of course, Pans Labyrinth, grotesque and fantastical beings have been at the fore of his overall aesthetic. Furthermore, his favourite video game - which he does consider an art form - is apparently Shadow of the Colossus, which involves the protagonist working to bring down a succession of mountainous beings.

In terms of scale, the only thing that doesn't fit GDT's repertoire are the robots, the so-called Jaegers, that are humanity's last defence against the alien aggressors. As if to compensate for this, he's assembled an impressive cast mostly best known for their work on the small screen, which includes Sons of Anarchy's Charlie Hunnam, the one and only Idris Elba (of The Wire and Luther fame), It's Always Sunny's Charlie Day and Torchwood's Burn Gorman, not to mention Rinko Kikuchi, the first Japanese actress to be Oscar nominated in fifty years for her role in 2006's Babel.

If you'll pardon the extended lead-in, there's not that much to say about the film itself. So, we have a Hong Kong military base populated with a bunch of lightly sketched character archetypes: Hunnam's washed-up Raleigh, Elba's deeply burdened commanding officer Pentecost, and Kikuchi's vulnerable yet resolved co-pilot Mako. Though Hunnam is ostensibly the hero and Kikuchi his love interest, it's very much an ensemble piece with Elba at its heart. The world they inhabit and the action sequences that take place are very much the body of Pacific Rim as the Jaegers go toe to claw with the Kaiju, swiping and clawing at each other on land or out at sea. 

The scale is phenomenal with monsters tearing through skyscrapers as though they were sand castles and robots blasting them with heavy, often unexpected ordinance. It's a testament to GDT's direction and the script by him and Travis Beacham that you never lose track of the human element -, such as the little girl wandering (albeit somewhat implausibly) amidst the wreckage of a devastated downtown - especially given that it's not the star attraction. These fistfights are grandstanding and percussive, and the use of 3D, though not entirely necessary, is arguably the most immersive since Avatar.

As such, it's disappointing that the elements that are least effective are the characteristics that GDT brings to the mix. Suspended in a fast-paced, no-nonsense blockbuster like Pacific Rim things that would usually be endearing, specifically the comic relief, prove an irritant in this context. Case and point are Day and Gorman's odd-couple scientists, Newt and Gottlieb, a wide-eyed "Kaiju groupie" and a fusty Brit. Though Day is certainly better served by the plot - he, at least, gets something that resembles an independent character objective -, but Gorman is given no space, and, as such, Gottlieb comes across as an irritating bundle of tics (he gesticulates wildly and walks with a limp).

Black marketeer Hannibal Chau, played by GDT stalwart Ron Perlman, is somewhat more successful: dressed in a floral-print suit and gold-tipped spats, he, at least, has the luxury of chewing scenery. For the most part, however, Pacific Rim squeezes out GDT's personality as a director, indeed as auteur - excuse my French - and that's a shame.

Nevertheless, Pacific Rim on the whole is serviceable - more than that, it's fun. It's fun in a way that few summer films achieve: breezy without being throwaway, big without being stupid. The closest film I can think of by way of comparison is Roland Emmerich's Independence Day all the way back in 1996 with Elba's "cancelling the apocalypse" speech standing in for Bill Pullman's rousing title dropping speech. It's ambitions may be more modest but Pacific Rim is what it intends to be - given which, the team behind the upcoming Godzilla reboot have got to be furious.

In any case, it slots in nicely with morally-tortured Man of Steel and the frantically jet-setting World War Z and, having made back almost have its budget in the first weekend alone, Pacific Rim should give GDT the cachet he needs to get on with some personal projects for a while. It's not quite in The Hobbit stakes - I, for one, am still mightily peeved we missed out on GDT's version of Smaug and got stuck with a not very good movie as part of the bargain -, but it shows there's hope yet for the original blockbuster movie - which has seemed to be in dire straits - and should provide a tonic for the sure-to-tank Lone Ranger (a Pacific Rim sequel's already in the works).

Context aside, bring on Hellboy 3! Pacific Rim gets a respectable 6.5/10.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013


With its overwhelming presence in our everyday lives, it's easy to forget that film - in fact, media in general - is a medium still in its infancy. It's been less than 120 years since the first motion picture was displayed before an audience. The Renaissance, for instance, lasted almost three times as long as cinema's been around. As such, any work of cinematic fiction that seeks to comment on this far older, more developed art form has to negotiate, however implicitly, this divide, comparable, perhaps, to the divide in years between father and son.

That uneasy segue takes us onto the subject of French auteur Gilles Bourdos' newest film, the relationship between Impressionist Auguste Renoir and his son, filmmaker Jean Renoir, both luminaries in their respective fields. Renoir, however, centers around an altogether different figure: that of one of the elder Renoir's models, Catherine Hessling, who arrived at his estate in Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1917 and remained with him till his death two years later. It wasn't until some months into her stay that Jean returned home, injured, from the war.

The film is a gentle, even pensive affair - Catherine, played with fiery intensity by Christa Theret, makes her first appearance cycling through the vibrant, verdant French Riviera. Mark Lee Ping Bin cinematography succeeds magnificently in capturing the outstanding natural beauty of the landscape, a palette of rich multi-hued greens, the watercolour sky. As a work of cinema, Renoir feels appropriately painterly, striving, perhaps, the match the work of the great man himself, whose amiably crotchety portrayal by Michael Bouquet is one of the film's delights.

As his father is contemplative, self-indulgent even, the younger Renoir, Jean, played with a boyish sort of reserve by Vincent Rotiers, is struggling to find his place in the world. Both he and Auguste have their wounds, literal and otherwise - the elder, wheelchair-bound, suffers from debilitating arthritis that requires his hands be bathed and swaddled; the younger, a wounded leg that demands the use of crutches -, but they are, nevertheless, remarkably similar in temperament. Catherine sparks something in both father and son, and indeed, the film, which sensually peruses her nude form, outstretched beneath the artist's canvas.

In that the events of Renoir precede his filmmaking career, we are denied an understanding of who Jean Renoir was as an artist, or, indeed, his presumably deep-felt motivations for making film his life's work. Catherine declares ambitions of being an actress - the role of muse chafes at her; she smashes a number of Auguste Renoir's hand-painted plates in a fit of pique - and, sequestered with Jean, the two of them admire a flickering projection. Given the medium, it's a shame that Jean's future career is given so little development except as a response to his father's dictums.

The film has a hazy, almost canicular feel to it, set in the eternal summer of Auguste's dying days. Jean longs to return to the front line; he picks a fight with a hawker who suggests there's a living to be made in recovering and repatriating the bodies of fallen soldiers. It takes Catherine and all her vivacity to make him appreciate his father's extolment of the virtues of the flesh, of art as an antidote to suffering. Auguste, whose eyes and hands, the tools of his trade, are failing him, is made the voice of authority; Jean has nothing to counter him but pragmatism.

Verdict: Renoir is a sumptuous, sun-drenched picture that harnesses the beauty and power of its subjects' work, but one that revels too much in the artistic, aesthetic qualities of the form. Lingering and occasionally soporific, a portait it captures all involved, but only ever in the shade of the figure of Auguste. As a landscape, though, capturing a time and a place, Renoir is often sublime. There's an undercurrent of drama to Renoir that rises to the surface like an aquifer whenever art meets life, but too often the forces are held apart. Despite this, if you're in a reflective and forgiving mood, there's a lot to admire here.

Thursday, 4 July 2013



I've always been slightly puzzled when people talk about the magic of cinema. Sure, cinema can amaze and enthral - Orson Welles called it a ribbon of dreams -, but, unlike magic, it needs to make sense. However much The Prestige went on about the final act, the denouement, being the most important, it only works if it feels like what's preceded has built up to it. Even the most experimental, arthouse film has to make sense on an abstract level. One plus one may not always equal three, but, if it doesn't, the film should at least clue you in on the equation.

That's why Now You See Me doesn't work.

You could almost forgive the underdone characterisation - Jesse Eisenberg plays a sardonic, anti-social wunderkind, always convinced he's the smartest guy in the room (think The Social Network without the dramatic purpose), Mark Ruffalo plays a dogged policeman -, if the film had only convinced in its purpose: to provide a seemingly unsolvable puzzle box that, at the end, resolves itself with perfect logic. Eisenberg's Daniel Atlas repeatedly promises that the more you think you see, the easier it'll be to fool you, but the truth is there's nothing underneath the dazzle.

Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco (James' younger brother) play a quartet of magicians known as The Four Horsemen. Brought together by a mysterious benefactor, they proceed, after much preparation, to carry out, a series of heists disguised as magic tricks. Fisher is bubbly, Franco is callow, Woody Harrelson is... Woody Harrelson. Michael Caine appears as their wealthy patron, Arthur Tressler, who, unbeknownst to him, is in for a surprise of his own, while Morgan Freeman provides retrospective exposition as a wry antagonistic "disillusionist".

As I noted earlier, these are all roles we've seen them play before, and, though it bills itself as more of an Ocean's 11 meets The Brother's Bloom, but, unlike either of those films, Now You See Me stacks the deck in its favor. If you pay close attention (despite Atlas' repeated mantra), it's possible to figure out the tricks as they're occurring, though the film hopes you wont. Tellingly, it never reveals the mechanism behind certain magical moments - such as Fisher's floating in a bubble above a Las Vegas stage - because they contradict the implicit premise that all of this is possible.

For all its prestidigitation, the film has to resort to cheap tricks: Harrelson's McKinney is a hypnotist and a mentalist, which essentially reduces the supporting cast to pawns. An introductory scene in which Harrelson blackmails a tourist for $200 in return for making his hypnotised wife forget about the affair she's just discovered he's having is cute, but, again, Now You See Me is less clever than it thinks it is (its very clever clever for a film that is, in fact, just, well, clever). Furthermore, its superficiality means its supposed social message ultimately falls flat.

You may ponder how they did it when the team redistribute a rich bastard's millions amongst the audience he fleeced, but ultimately the secret lies in the literal interpretation of a half-told anecdote. One character is not who they seem, but each of the characters is so thin they fold up under observation - Melanie Laurent's French Interpol agent, Alma Dray's, sole defining features are that she's a) French, b) a woman, and c) a weak if ostensible love interest for Ruffalo's cop. Again, this wouldn't be so jarring if the film didn't contradict it's own premise.

There's a certain irony that the principles of Now You See Me claim challenging a corrupt system when the film is itself such a cheat. Just as Atlas and Co. only carry out their self-styled Robin Hood act for their own selfish aims (they want to be members of an elite magicians club), script writers Ed Solomon (Bill & Ted..., Charlie's Angels), Boaz Yakin (Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Safe) and Edward Ricourt break the rules of satisfying twist ending. As heavily foreshadowed as the idea of a "twist" is, it comes out of nowhere and, as such, is hard to care about.

That's where I think the fundamental disconnect between cinema and magic lies. In cinema, even in the case of films like The Sixth Sense, the twist needs to be built into what's gone before, it needs to unfold organically. It's hard to imagine that Now You See Me will reward repeat viewings the same way because, simply put, there's nothing to spot, nothing up its sleeve. It's magic in that it comes from nowhere, less a revelation than an "a-ha!". Without giving you a chance to solve it, Now You See Me comes across as smug and self-satisfied, much like Eisenberg's "protagonist".

Verdict: Now You See Me is a frustrating failure of a film - all smoke and mirrors, obfuscatory and two-dimensional. Though stylish and supposedly fun, it leaves you feeling cheated, something that no good film (or magic trick) should ever do. You can't encourage audience members to use their brains then deny them the fruit of that faculty.There are lots of distractions, lots of abracadabra, but no crescendo, no alakazam. Louis Leterrier's direction is solid, but it can't redeem a concept this flawed. Now You See Me is built around an audacious conceit that just doesn't work, and, apart from which, there would be no other reason to recommend it. Given the lacklustre performance of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, maybe Hollywood should leave stage magic alone for a while. Now You See Me gets 4.5/10.