I watch things and write about them. Or screen them for quality, if you will. See, clever.

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Quartet ****

It would be easy to dismiss a film like Quartet on hearing a brief synopsis: pensioners try to save their retirement home by putting on a show.  It’s a bit like the most recent Muppets movie, but swap Kermit the Frog for Tom Courtenay and Miss Piggy for Maggie Smith.  But to consider it as fluffy Sunday afternoon ‘senior citizen cinema’ would be to do it a great disservice.

Cissy (Pauline Collins), Wilf (Billy Connolly), and Reg (Tom Courtenay), once members of an operatic quartet, now live at a retirement home for the musically gifted.  When the world-renowned fourth member of the group, Jean (Maggie Smith), moves to the home old rivalries are stirred up, old wounds are reopened, and a big question is raised: will Jean rejoin the quartet and sing Rigoletto at the gala concert?  My goodness the tension is unbearable.

The main plot is a bit hokey, and certainly nothing new, but when the film is considered as a whole, the central storyline is not important at all.  What makes this, Dustin Hoffman’s first outing as a director, remarkable, are the performances, and the incredible heart behind them.

Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay are thoroughly convincing as old flames Jean and Reg, with the years of unspoken bitterness and regret painted on both of their faces as they are reunited for the first time in years.  Maggie Smith of course attained legend status as Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey,and though she may not get as many caustic one-liners to deliver in Quartet, she certainly retains the punch and force of will from that character.

Billy Connolly is a class act, managing to keep sex-obsessed Wilf on the side of funny rather than sleazy, but it is Pauline Collins who gives the standout performance as Cissy.  At first she just seems a bit dizzy, but the forgetfulness and confusion progress in increasingly heartbreaking scenes.

The themes of lost love, of family, of self doubt, pride, and of trying to come to terms with one’s place in the world carry across the generations, and to be able to pull all this off while also being very funny is quite an achievement.  In addition to this, the rosta of stars from the classical music and theatre worlds is quite remarkable (make sure to stay for the credits for more information on the supporting cast), and the music is, as to be expected, wonderful.

Sweet without being saccharine, and moving without being manipulative,Quartet is a really lovely film.  Now go and hug a pensioner, and maybe take them to the opera to say thank you.

PS. Don’t judge it by the awful trailer.  It makes it look like the lame cheesy film you probably expect it to be.


Filed under film 4 Stars Quartet Maggie Smith Tom Courtenay opera Billy Connolly Pauline Collins

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360 **

Peter Morgan, writer of many excellent films including Frost/Nixon, The Damned United, and probably most famously, The Queen, has a lot to say in his screenplay for 360, touching on the interconnectedness of our lives, on destiny, on how sometimes seemingly small decisions can have an unknowingly large impact on people we may never even meet.  Trouble is, on this occasion he doesn’t say it particularly well.

We’re presented with purportedly ordinary people making their way in the world (a world we see a fair amount of through the course of 360 - locations include Vienna, Paris, London, and Colorado).  Jude Law is an unhappy businessman in Vienna who hires a prostitute, changing his mind at the last minute when one of his associates sees him.  Rachel Weisz is his wife back home in London, who is having a lovely time having break up sex with her Brazilian photographer bit on the side.  Brazilian photographer has a girlfriend who finds out about the affair and promptly hops on a plane back home, where she meets Anthony Hopkins, a grieving man searching for his missing daughter.  Their connecting flight gets grounded because of snow, and while they’re waiting at one of the many airports featured in the film, Brazilian girl unknowingly takes a shine to a newly released sex offender.  Add into the daisy chain of lives a French dentist, a Russian mafia member and his driver, and the pimp of Jude Law’s prostitute, and it’s safe to say that the chain of ordinary people features some fairly far fetched characters.  I mean, a French dentist, come on.

Director Fernando Meirelles brings some nice flourishes with his camerawork, and undoubtedly the cast would not have been quite so star studded had the man behind City of God not been involved, but with such a gathering of talented people, expectations are naturally high.  Disappointingly they do not even come close to being met.

The characters are sketched too shallowly, always a risk in large ensemble pieces of this kind.  There are some decent performances - Anthony Hopkins delivers a powerful monologue after his life has been affected by the chain, and the section with Ben Foster as a sex offender just out of prison and the Brazilian girl who likes the look of him is quite touching, despite sounding faintly ridiculous - but in the end it’s just a stretch too far to take any of the characters, and therefore the film and it’s butterfly effect philosophy, seriously.

Since we ultimately come the full 360 degrees and end where we began, it’s probably not worth starting in  the first place.

DVD extras: cast and crew interviews.  Interesting, but not particularly indepth.

360 is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 14 January


Filed under film 2 stars subtitles Jude Law Rachel Weisz Anthony Hopkins Ben Foster Peter Morgan Fernando Meirelles DVD Fate 360

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Chernobyl Diaries *

Chernobyl Diaries, or Dumb Americans Tour Europe (ft. Zombies), starts off as a home movie of a holiday.  Waving in front of the Eiffel Tower!  Waving in front of the Tower of London!  Waving in front of the Danube!  So obviously the next place they would want to tick off waving in front of is… the Chernobyl nuclear power plant!  And, in keeping with all movies of other people’s holidays, it’s really boring.

It seems impossible that a zombie film inspired by the Chernobyl disaster, concerns about taste aside, could be dull.  Chernobyl Diaires just never seems to get started.  The idea is promising: group of annoying Americans go on an ‘extreme tour’ of Prypiat, where the nuclear workers lived in the shadow of the Chernobyl plant, still a ghost town with dangerously high levels of radiation almost 20 years after it was evacuated.  There’s even a Simpsons-esque radioactive fish.  But nothing cool happens with the fish.  Why have a radioactive mutant fish when all you do with it is have it nibble someone’s leg?  You might as well have a horror movie featuring those feet-nibbling fish you get in shopping centres.

 Chernobyl 2

The title is misleading given that the home movie/diary style stops after the first five minutes or so.  This is quite surprising given that this would be the perfect subject to join the ‘found footage’ group of horror films.  Instead we are given a series of horror clichés, none of which manage to ramp up any tension whatsoever.  Uh oh, the van won’t start so they’re stuck in the ghost town and it’s about to get dark.  Uh oh, no one seems to have a phone even though I’m sure someone uses one as a torch at one point.  Uh oh, there’s a creepy kitchen bit where a zombie’s sneaking around and it’s really quiet AND THEN REALLY LOUD.  Uh oh, small child with its back to us, who could this be?

Remember the dwarf tunnels in Knightmare?  They used to utterly terrify me, and I suspect still would.  I’m not desensitised at all to scares.  But near the end of the film, when we’re running about in tunnels under the city, I just wished I was watching a children’s TV programme so I could be a bit more frightened.  

When a history lesson is more horrifying than a horror film based on the subject, there’s definitely a problem.DVD Extras: an OK alternate ending, an unfunny extreme tours infomercial, the trailer that features most of the ‘scary’ bits anyway, and a Chernobyl conspiracy video, reinforcing the fact that the truth is far more chilling than the film was.

When a history lesson is more horrifying than a horror film based on the subject, there’s definitely a problem.

DVD Extras: an OK alternate ending, an unfunny extreme tours infomercial, the trailer that features most of the ‘scary’ bits anyway, and a Chernobyl conspiracy video, reinforcing the fact that the truth is far more chilling than the film was.

Filed under 1 star film horror Knightmare zombies nuclear Chernobyl found footage radiation review fish

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STAGED: Radio Times - Oxford Playhouse, 25-29 September

It is the midst of the Blitz and morale needs boosting.  Where better to look than the Variety Bandwagon, a light entertainment radio show recorded live in front of a theatre audience, where troubles are packed away?  Radio Times follows them for one evening, as their show is broadcast live to America for the first time.

For one week only the Oxford Playhouse is transformed into the London Criterion Theatre, where for part of the show the audience acts out its normal role, watching the ‘reality’ of the play as the cast fall in and out of love and make their backstage preparations, and for the rest of the show we form the audience of the Variety Bandwagon, treated to non-stop double entendres, plenty of 1940s close harmony singing, and a Foley artist (Christian Edwards) instructing us when to applaud and almost stealing the show on many occasions.

Gary Wilmot was clearly having a whale of a time as Sammy Shaw, the star of the show, bantering with the audience – whether it was ad-libbed or scripted I simply couldn’t tell, it was so slick.  Also slick were the musical numbers, with Run Rabbit Run, sounding rather different to the Elmer Fudd version, being a particular highlight.

The show’s jokes were old fashioned and some of the puns groan-inducingly dreadful, but it is more than aware of this fact, one of characters describing Variety Bandwagon as being made up of “old jokes, poor puns, and cheap characters”.  The constant barrage of jokes does however mean that when the play attempts to take a serious turn after one of the characters has been outside and experienced the bombing, he says “Let me give you my impression” and it’s surprising that he doesn’t launch into a James Stewart impersonation.

Aside from this abrupt shift in tone, Radio Times is a charming, undemanding evening out, and a must for 1940s music fans.  If your morale needs a boost this is the place to be.


Filed under Theatre Gary Wilmot Blitz Musical 1940s Run Rabbit Run Sara Crowe Staged Oxford Playhouse

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Corpo Celeste ***

Confirmation seems a time full of coming-of-age potential for the artier European filmmaker.  Last year’s Love Like Poison explored the nascent sexuality of its 13 year old protagonist, and now in Corpo Celeste the approach of confirmation also marks the approach of adulthood for our heroine as she tries to find a place in this strange world for religion, and for herself.

Twelve year old Marta, her moody older sister, and their kind but exhausted mother, have moved back to Reggio Calabria, in the back waters of southern Italy, after ten years in Switzerland.  There is some implied tragedy as to why they have returned, but it is never spelt out.

We are introduced to this alien land along with Marta by way of a religious procession.  The situation is faintly ridiculous: the Madonna is protected from the rain by a sheet of tarpaulin, the priest’s phone rings after he has announced that they will wait in respectful silence for the Bishop, and the entire thing is being held on a derelict industrial site next to an underpass.  Religion was once the thing that kept communities like this together, whereas now its pitiful state can be acknowledged only by Marta the outsider, forever observing the world, never taking part.

Her family send her to confirmation classes where she doesn’t make any friends and the absurdity of the state of religion is reinforced.  The priest is politicking in the hope of being transferred to a bigger and better parish, and when she asks for a foreign phrase from the catechism to be explained to her she is simply told that there is no time for understanding, all that is important is that she memorise it.

The DVD extras include an interview with the director and producer of the film, and on the wall of the room is a poster for Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.  It is unclear whether the placing of the poster was intentional, but the way director Alice Rohrwacher’s documentary-making roots show through, plus the bleakness of both tone and cinematography, make Corpo Celeste quite reminiscent of Arnold’s Fish Tank.  

Whilst perhaps not as powerful as Fish Tank, it will nevertheless be interesting to watch as Rohrwacher comes of age as a fiction film director.  The quality of Corpo Celeste suggests that what comes next will certainly be worth watching


Filed under Corpo Celeste Italian subtitles 3 stars religion Fish Tank Love Like Poison coming of age confirmation outsider

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The Fifth Element: A Look Back

Its plot holes are as big as the gaps between Milla Jovovich’s modesty covering ‘thermal bandages‘.  It’s brash, and overblown, and wouldn’t recognise the word subtlety if it sat down next to it in a quiet, non-obvious manner.  But for big, dumb, mind-blowingly stylish fun, you can’t do much better than The Fifth Element.

We begin in an Egyptian temple in 1914, with Beverley Hills 90210 heartthrob Luke Perry and Vicar of Dibley slightly-less-of-a-heartthrob Frank Pickle (yes really) trying to decipher some hieroglyphics about a Great Evil that tries to destroy the Earth every five thousand years.  Some nice aliens called Mondoshawans, who look a bit like ducks would if they were to stand upright and grow arms and have metal on the outside instead of feathers, come to the temple to pick up the only weapon that can defeat the Great Evil, which they will protect until the world needs saving.

Fifth 1

Fast forward four thousand years and it is world-saving time.  The metal duck aliens don’t actually do that great a job of looking after the weapon, and their ship gets shot down by some Mangalores (hornless alien rhinos).  These alien rhinos are working for Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (a spectacularly unhinged Gary Oldman) who in turn is working for the Great Evil (a planet-sized ball of fire).  At one point Zorg and the Great Evil talk on the phone.  Presumably if you’re a goodness gracious Great Evil ball of fire you can hire someone to dial a number for you, but how you would hold a telephone receiver is a mystery perhaps as great as the universe itself.  Or as great as the mystery of what exactly Zorg is hoping to gain from his employment.  He is supposed to be the wealthiest and most powerful person on Earth, motivated entirely by greed.  However if the Earth is annihilated his wealth and power – and perhaps most crucially, his life – go with it.  But why worry about that when every single set looks so ridiculously cool?

Fifth 2Talking of cool, what is an action film without Bruce Willis?  He is in charge of getting the five elements of the Great Evil-defeating weapon back together, and he’s wearing a vest so we know he means business.  The fifth element, newly human-formed Leeloo (the stunningly-outfitted Milla Jovovich) drops out of the sky and into his taxi.  He has to take her on a space cruise to reunite her with the other four elements (some rather less sexy stones).

The first time I watched The Fifth Element I thought that the scene of Leeloo fighting the alien rhinos intercut with a big blue tube-y alien singing a trance opera song was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.  I can pretend that my tastes are more sophisticated now (who am I kidding, just thinking about it makes me tingle slightly) but it definitely set up a weakness within me for the musically accompanied fight scene: the Blade vampire rave fight, anything in The Matrix, the bit in The Big Lebowski where John Goodman hits the nihilist over the head with his own ghetto blaster.

Never taking itself too seriously, The Fifth Element feels like a live action cartoon.  And herein perhaps lies both its success and failure.  It moves so fast and is so exuberant that you can’t help but get carried away by the campy spectacle.  But can something quite so willfully over the top ever be respected as a sci-fi film, even with such stunning production design?  It may not have as much to say philosophically as Blade Runner, or, frankly, Tom and Jerry, but it could definitely hold its own in a hi-octane Prodigy-accompanied dance fight.

Filed under Fifth Element Bruce Willis Milla Jovovich Gary Oldman film dance fight The Prodigy Blade The Big Lebowski The Matrix Plavalaguna Frank Pickle Mondoshawan Great Evil Mangalore action film sci fi Leeloo Zorg trance opera

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Fresh from his other sky fall with the Queen on Friday, James Bond has taken off his parachute and is back in this new and highly anticipated trailer. Bond and the Queen or Bond and Judi Dench, it’s a tough call as to which is the more exciting pairing.

Lovely Judi has made a mistake. Actually, two mistakes. She has lost a drive containing the identity of every agent embedded in terrorist organisations across the globe. She’s also done something to really annoy Javier Bardem, who if possible looks even more unattractive in this than he did in No Country for Old Men.

Winner of the hair competition is Ben Whishaw as Q, whose fringe looks particularly lustrous as he shows Bond his new palm-recognising gun, though Bérénice Marlohe only loses out because her hair gets wet in the shower. Bond doesn’t seem to mind.

So the ladies fall for Bond’s charms while he falls off bridges and doesn’t fall off trains and runs around underground stations not falling over. Bond is back in business, and he knows it.  Check out that wink.

Skyfall is released in UK cinemas on 26 October 2012.


Filed under James Bond Skyfall trailer Daniel Craig Ben Whishaw Javier Bardem hair fall film Judi Dench Queen Berenice Marlohe

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Woman in a Dressing Gown ****

Coming just before the British New Wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s, J. Lee Thompson’s Woman in a Dressing Gown is a heart-wrenching drama, not of an ‘angry young man’ but a sad, trapped middle-aged woman.

Amy (Silver Bear winning Yvonne Mitchell) is a domestic drudge, her life’s work being to look after her husband and son and to create a homely idyll.  Trouble is she’s really not very good at it.  Her house is a tip, she burns the breakfast, she’s brash and loud and listens to music turned up to top volume because she’s afraid of the silence.  Jimbo, husband of 20 years, finds her ordinary, especially when compared to his beautiful secretary, Georgie.  Amy wears her dressing gown all day, it’s useful: it can double up as a cloth or a tea towel, and she rarely leaves the flat so why bother getting changed?  Georgie on the other hand is immaculate, and you know that if she owns a dressing gown it is certainly not for wiping the breakfast dishes with.

Jimbo decides he is going to leave Amy for Georgie.  In Georgie’s eyes he’s wonderful, and they feel madly in love.  She calls him by his surname, Preston, and makes him feel like things are possible, that he could get a better job, and live a life free from drudgery.  She feels that she is saving him so that they can live happily ever after.  Amy and Jimbo’s relationship however shows how naïve this thinking is, and what happily ever after means in real life.

Gown 1

The claustrophobic camera work is very effective, with cluttered scenes shot from the shelves and from inside the airing cupboard capturing how Amy is trapped by her domestic surroundings.  This also makes the scene when she actually leaves the confines of her flat all the more heartbreaking.  She goes out to get her hair done in the hope of winning Jimbo back.  She has to borrow from her son and pawn her engagement ring because she has no money of her own.  As soon as she steps from the salon with her nice new hair it starts raining, she can’t get on the bus, people won’t let her shelter from the storm anywhere, and we watch her hopes get washed down the drain with her hairspray.

When the three come face to face Amy says to Georgie, “You know a thousand things about him?  I know a million.  That’s what being married means: to know a man inside out and still love him.”  The way that our sympathies shift from woman to woman as they express their love for this fairly unremarkable, but never demonized, man is masterfully handled.

Sad and downbeat, this probably isn’t a film to watch if you’re about to get married and are imagining 40 years of bliss.  It believes in love, but it also does not shy away from the sacrifice and relentless ordinariness of a long term relationship.  Woman in a Dressing Gown may be over 50 years old, but it is much more modern and truthful than the majority of relationship-based films released today.

Woman in a Dressing Gown is released in cinemas on 27 July, and will be available on DVD for the first time on 13 August.  Sylvia Syms will be saying a few words in introduction to a screening at the Curzon Mayfair on Sunday 29 July, with tickets available here.

Filed under Woman in a Dressing Gown 4 Stars Yvonne Mitchell Sylvia Syms J. Lee Thompson kitchen sink drama British New Wave domestic drama marriage review dressing gown angry young man Silver Bear film drudgery relationships

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I went to see The Amazing Spider-Man the other day.  It was pretty good:  Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are great, I liked the slightly more complex bad guy/good guy relationship, it was entertaining enough.  It wasn’t amazing though.  Was it because I didn’t see the need to reboot the franchise so soon after the last one?  Maybe, but that doesn’t bother me so much.  Was it because it was really cheesy in places?  Also maybe, but a superhero movie without cheese is surely the equivalent of a superhero movie without spandex.  No, I think the problem was that I was made aware of the above video, and nothing could ever compare.  The high kicks, the hallowe’en party cobweb spidey-silk, the 70s porno music, the special effect spidey-scampering.  Now that’s amazing.

Filed under Amazing Spider-Man clip Andrew Garfield Emma Stone superhero spandex

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STAGED: Educating Rita, Oxford Playhouse, 9-13 July 2012

Educating Rita, or, as it should henceforth be known, the play of the thousand cardigans, brings its towering bookshelves to the Oxford Playhouse this week.

Twinkly-eyed Matthew Kelly plays Frank, a disillusioned literature professor who can only get through the day with the company of the whiskey that he stashes behind his copies of Dickens and Blake. Even more twinkly-eyed is Claire Sweeney as Rita, the feisty Liverpudlian hairdresser who longs to escape her old life and her old self through education. She ends up with Frank as her Open University tutor, and they each have a profound effect on the other.

Rita is kicking against the inevitability of her life. She wants to know. To know what? Everything. Frank feels that he does know everything, but Rita’s hunger and vitality remind him of the joy of sharing this knowledge. This joy does not last long however, as the power balance in their relationship begins to shift, and Rita ascends as Frank’s authority begins to wane.

Matthew Kelly is good as Frank, but that Stars in Their Eyes twinkliness does mean that his despair never feels particularly intense, despite his character’s rampant alcoholism. Claire Sweeney, though now probably better known as a TV personality than an actor, was excellent as Rita. She was instantly likeable, and her blossoming is thoroughly convincing.

The story, set solely in Frank’s office, takes place over the course of a year. The only signifiers of the passage of time are the silhouette of a tree outside the study window, and the aforementioned parade of knitwear cunningly stashed around the set. It is a simple story, simply told – there was no feeling of being shut out, as Rita felt before she started her studies. The gentle humour hit the mark with the audience, and though I felt the set up/punch line jokes were fairly standard and a little old fashioned on occasion, I was very much in the minority.

It doesn’t seem like a great compliment to describe a play as ‘nice’, but that was the overriding feeling I experienced on leaving the theatre. Educating Rita is very endearing and sweet. It leaves you with a very warm feeling. Much like a cardigan.


Filed under Cardigan Claire Sweeney Literature Matthew Kelly Oxford Playhouse Theatre Staged