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Radio Ga Ga

Tuesday September 8, 2009 in 2009 cinema |

Possibly it was the high altitude, or maybe just because I was trapped on a plane, but I managed to sit through Richard Curtis’s The Boat That Rocked in its entirety. Although the film takes a point in recent history that’s so fascinating that you may find it incredible that the idea isn’t already taken, the film manages to make a complete fudge of depicting pirate radio in the 1960s.

Curtis employs a couple of his usual regulars, Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans, and adds Philip Seymour Hoffman in what should have been inspired casting. Familiar faces also include Nick Frost, the brilliant Ralph Brown (from Withnail and I) and two stars of The IT Crowd who play their usual gormless selves. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson also appear again the the same cast, although they don’t get to meet onscreen. All the actors do their best but this is a film that only barely reaches Carry On credibility; skilled performers reduced to delivering their usual turns (specifically with Nighy and Ifans). Imagine the call:

Oh hi Bill, it’s Richard here. Yeah, not so bad thanks. I was wondering – could you turn up for a few days filming please and do your usual? Yes, it’ll be a full Bill Nighy turn. Insoucience, slightly camp etc. Okay, speak later – need to call Rhys and get him to repeat his Peter Cook impersonation.

The Boat That Rocked is set in 1966, the year before pirate radio was brought to an abrupt halt. Branagh and Jack Davenport play nasty men from the ministry who, by hook or by crook, plot the end of the seafaring DJs. As you might typically expect, the film includes a rich soundtrack from the era, although the music doesn’t appear to be confined to ’66 and resembles the soundtrack to Heartbeat with its anything from the 60s will do approach. Similarly, fashion and decor looks suitable from the era although just as little research probably went into styling the film.

What’s ultimately irritating about this movie is its sheer laziness of script and characterisation. The pirate radio stars don’t come across as stars at all, just a bunch of stupid idiots, which too many frankly embarrassing scenes where the repetition of the word ‘lesbian’ just isn’t amusing. The dialogue remains embarrassingly sexist throughout and Curtis seems unable, or unwilling, to write substantial female characters. The appreciation of pirate radio by the British public goes little further than shots of people at home or at work, generally going about their business, stopping and enjoying the hilarious radio sounds. Similar in fact to the Radio 2 tv ads from a couple of years back.

The Boat That Rocked isn’t terrible, just disappointing. It’s a bit of a waste of time, although it isn’t a crime against cinema. That award goes to the new Terminator movie…

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Let the Right One In

Thursday August 13, 2009 in 2009 cinema | horror

Lina Leandersson in Let the Right One InWhat does a filmmaker with a thirst for the vampire movie do when audiences are dulled by the Twilight franchise?

Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In provides an answer. This is a beautifully shot and thoughtful film that is part coming of age love story and part horror movie. The Swedish director takes aspects of the vampire legend and moves them to early 1980s Stockholm, where tower apartments are eerily lit by bright, white, virgin snow.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a sensitive twelve-year old boy tormented by his peers who befriends the unarguably odd Eli (Lina Leandersson). This is a girl who lurks around in dark corners to prey on the unsuspecting, so it’s in Oskar’s favour when the lonely lad finds some affinity with her. They form a friendship, of sorts, that appears to lead to something stronger. The most unusual of cinema’s adolescent love affairs as Eli is something quite unwordly.

Although this is essentially a horror film, and an at times unsettling one, Alfredson mainly concentrates on Oskar’s loneliness; his bullying and the seperation of his parents. Eli acts as a catalyst for Oskar to stand up against his enemies, and the story works best when exploring his journey there. And once he does arrive, the film is unambiguous as to whether he is actually any better off after sealing his fate with Eli. It’s an unusual movie, and describing it as bleak and depressing failed to set any of my friends alight with enthusiasm. I hope they don’t wait for the impending Hollywood remake, which may pointlessly turn it into another boring teen vampire movie (and they have already messed up by renaming it Let Me In). However bleak and depressing it is, Alfredson’s film certainly isn’t dull.

Let the Right One In has plenty of disturbingly effective scenes that you’d expect from a horror film. There’s the best use of cats in the genre since The Uncanny, where a flat full of the sensitive creatures take a unanimous dislike to a newly infected vampire. The film also makes a memorable and spectacular use of a swimming pool setting, where Eli proves her attachment to Oskar. Kind of. And there’s a very touching although certainly offbeat ending too. Although I admit that my taste in cinema is often odd, I found this a refreshing film. It’s challenging and consequently very rewarding. The leads were particularly superb, especially Leandersson, who just needs to learn the finer points of napkin etiquette.

Incidentally this is based on the 1994 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, which in turn took part of its inspiration from a 1988 Morrissey song Let the Right One Slip In. Those immersed in vampire folklore will be aware that the undead cannot enter your home until invited, although I think this is only a minor comfort. Like Oskar, we may suddenly and unexpectedly meet our own Eli.


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Thursday July 23, 2009 in 2009 cinema | children

The latest instalment in the Harry Potter series is the best so far. It’s a film of great quality, lovingly made by director David Yates and featuring the level of excellence that you would expect in acting, script and, most impressively, set design. As usual, the familiar cast return, and whilst regulars Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith appear only to have gained a wrinkle or two, youngsters Radcliffe, Grint, Watson and all their Hogwarts classmates have indeed – as us oldies are want to remark – shot up. The cast also gains a brilliant addition in the great Jim Broadbent, outstanding as the doddery yet potentially dangerous Professor Slughorn.

Jim Broadbent and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceAt two and a half hours, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince takes its time to unfold, and whilst the more talky sections may give the younger viewer reason to fidget, I found the gentle progression of the film most welcome. Following a great visual opening scene it soon settles into the character development of our three leads. Easily outgrowing their Hogwarts gowns (there’s a scene where Harry and Ron in their pyjamea doesn’t really wash), they are seen busy discovering their emotions and hormones; Ron is pursued by the dopey Lavender Brown whilst Harry begins to fall for Ginny. Hermione, of course, begins to develop feelings for Ron. It’s all handled very well, and with great humour, although again possibly of little interest to the younger fan.

What’s best though is the wonderful visual sweep of the film, where it remains something quite beautiful to look at from beginning to end. Fred and George’s dream come true of an amazing joke shop, the inevitable game of Quidditch, Harry’s journeys into the pensieve, Slughorn’s classroom of strange vials and potions, the Weasley home of many strange angles – all are brilliantly constructed scenes. The Half-Blood Prince is made with care and is forever intricate, a film full of deliberate and satisfying detail.

The actors, and especially Broadbent, shine more here than ever before. Thankfully we lose the irritating Durlsey scenes, and many quality actors, for example Timothy Spall and David Thewlis, are reduced to little more than glorified cameos. But again, in a film of such quality, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance of Timothy Spall can be afforded. If I have one criticism it is that Michael Gambon doesn’t quite hit the spot for me as Dumbledore. There’s a hint of Irish in his voice, possibly a nod to the late Richard Harris, and it’s a shame that Harris didn’t live on to continue his run as Albus, as I found him superb in the earlier outings.

But what of the plot? Unlike most Potters, which tend to build up to the return of Voldemort in some shape or form (most memorably personified by Ralph Fiennes), this chapter falls back to the early life of the Dark Lord. I always found the novels frustrating in that, over seven increasingly longer volumes, they didn’t reveal nearly enough about him. This film is equally teasing, and non-Potter fans will no doubt comment that it’s inconsequential. But a counter argument is that it’s a different kind of cinema, a series of interlinked films that defy idly dipping in and out of. The ending, just like the book, is particularly downbeat. Don’t expect to come away with all of the answers.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a 12A, a certificate I would agree with as my ten year old daughter did find some of the scenes quite terrifying. In particular, where Harry and Dumbledore cross a dark cavernous lake to begin the quest for Voldermort’s horcruxes. It made me, and the strapping bloke in the seat behind me, jump for our lives.

So I have come away from the latest Harry Potter loving it because, in many ways, it has become – like Doctor Who – something almost beyond too much criticism. Skilfully made, enjoyable, popular culture. And if I compare this to the films made for children in the 70s there is no comparison. It certainly sets the standard very high.



Sunday May 17, 2009 in 2009 cinema | neil gaiman

It’s official. The beauty of Neil Gaiman’s imagination has at last been realised in Coraline. The film is visually stunning, witty and most of all strangely moving; I haven’t enjoyed a film for children this much in a long time.

What worried me was that the young audience I was part of were not so appreciative. This isn’t a film for the very young, and maybe not even for the impatient adult (as I left the cinema I overheard a child asking her mother what long winded meant). Although only 100 minutes in length Coraline did appear as quite long (I think animated films are just more exhausting), and the ten year old film critic that accompanied me appeared oddly deflated. Perhaps it was the element of scare in the movie. Perhaps I had built it up too much. Perhaps Neil Gaiman is a matter of acquired taste.

still from Coraline

But I loved it. Coraline is visually breathtaking, perhaps the best animated film I have ever seen. It isn’t just the level of technology; I found the effects weren’t just there to be showy and always complimented the story perfectly. Because Coraline is essentially a fairy tale, there’s a fairy tale logic to everything that happens. It’s very tight, and for all my scrutiny I could find no holes in the plot. Director Henry Selick (responsible for the vaguely similar James and the Giant Peach) does a very accomplished job. Probably both in 2D and 3D – the 3D version of the film we saw today doesn’t, I suspect, add too much. It’s just a great experience without the extra bells and whistles.

Those familiar with Gaiman’s work will already know the story of Coraline. A girl who briefly escapes her dull new home, where her parents spend most of their waking hours with their backs turned, to visit a half dreamlike alternative world where her mum and dad appear exciting and, most importantly, interested in her. Appear is the key world here, as the people in this “other” world have buttons for eyes. Something isn’t quite right because, quite rightly, buttons for eyes are the stuff of nightmares.

So unfolds the brilliant fairy tale. The animation realises it superbly, from button shadows covering the moon, to performing mice, a very wise cat and an eerie tunnel between the two worlds (pictured) that brought back the worst memories of Hellraiser from the corners of my memory. Best of all is how Coraline slowly realises that horror is around her and that she must act. Dakota Fanning (from Charlotte’s Web) is fantastic in the role, totally believable throughout. As I’ve said, it’s also moving; especially the scene when Coraline loses her real mum and dad and creates her own pair of button parents to prop beside her in the empty double bed.

The rest of the cast are also wonderful. Teri Hatcher is very impressive as both of Coraline’s mothers, Ian McShane plays an eccentric neighbour and Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders turn up as two rather odd sisters to provide some humour. Unlike many animated films, however, Coraline never knowingly assumes it can go over young heads, although the trade off I suspect is the very young, who just aren’t ready yet for this sort of sophistication. Unwittingly, this film may be just too advanced for much of its intended audience.

My pals on Twitter will already know that I’ve given this a nine out of ten. I’m sticking with that, but I feel that there was so much in this film that I need to see it again. It’s so lovingly made, and that’s a rarity these days in children’s cinema. This is quality, real quality. So hats off to this film, and even a bow; the best film I’ve seen this year.

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Slumdog Millionaire

Monday January 26, 2009 in 2009 cinema |

Next to The Weakest Link, Who Wants to be a Millionaire is probably the most recognisable of game shows, although I’d never have put money on using the familiarity of either of them for the basis of a film. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire cleverly weaves a story into the Who Wants to be a Millionaire format and shifts the setting to India. Here a teenager from the slums of Mumbai takes part in the game show, proceeds to the highest level of the contest and is arrested under suspicion of cheating. During interrogation we learn how he knew all of the answers, which unfolds as the result of a combination of personal tragedy and sheer luck.

Slumdog Millionaire has received some criticism for an unrealistic depiction of Indian poverty, and the film certainly contains many of Danny Boyle’s mannerisms. He’s a brilliant visual director but is sometimes lazy with characterisation, and his adrenalin fuelled style of direction can often be tiring. He isn’t a naturalistic film maker, and if his portrait of India is wrong, I wouldn’t think it was any more wrong than the world of Edinburgh drug addicts he presented in Trainspotting. For me, his most convincing film to date is 28 Days Later, a zombie movie.

Nevertheless, Danny Boyle is a director who knows how to engage his audience, possibly more than any other to emerge from the British Isles in the last twenty years. Slumdog Millionaire is being hailed as the feelgood movie of the decade, an oft used tagline that does for once ring true. And Boyle manages to add a little more substance to his feelgood factor, this film is at times uncomfortable and gruesome. Realistic or not, it does show a horrible world from which the audience desperately want its hero to escape from. And this is what makes good cinema.

Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor in Slumdog Millionaire

It’s difficult to give away any more a plot than I have already without spoiling the film. In custody, Jamal (Dev Patel) is roughed up by the police but does not confess himself to be a cheat. Having calmed down a little, the sweaty cops play a video of the Millionaire show, setting up the flow of the film which switches between the settings of interrogation room, last night’s quiz show and Jamal’s life. Jamal, his brother Salim and their friend Latika are each played by three different actors as they whizz through childhood to early adulthood. It’s a device that works well visually, although apart from Patel as Jamil I found there was little time to really get to grips with any of them beyond broad sketches. Indeed, the best actor in the film is Anil Kapoor as the smarmy game show host Prem Kumar, a nasty glint in his eye behind the affable exterior, much more Anne Robinson that Chris Tarrant.

Boyle plays with the Millionaire format very well, the ask the audience and the 50/50 choices played as skilfully as they should be in the game itself; we await the phone a friend segment hoping that it will form a memorable part of the climax to the story – Doyle doesn’t disappoint. Whilst reaction to the fairytale ending may be divided (depending on your definition of feelgood) I found the stories behind the Q and As of the game show clever and absorbing, and the scene in the washroom with Jamal and Kumar so simply effective it’s become one of my favourite scenes in recent cinema. Although not perhaps the ten out of ten I’d been led to believe, Slumdog Millionaire is certainly a good nine. And that’s my final answer.

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