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

Posts tagged film

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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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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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Introducing… Luis Buñuel


The father of surrealist cinema, and widely considered to be one of the most original directors in film history. 

That’s quite a big claim…

True, but not an unsubstantiated one.  Take his first short film, Un Chien Andalou (which you can watch in its entirety here.  Isn’t the internet amazing?  Can you imagine just a few years ago being able to watch an 80 year old film without having some serious contacts working in film archives?  Anyway).  Made in 1929 with Salvador Dali, it opens with a man sharpening his razor while watching clouds scud across the moon.  We then see a woman being held, and the razor slicing open her eyeball.  A different woman pokes a severed hand, and gets run over.  Books turn into guns.  There’s some dead donkeys on a piano, some magical travelling armpit hair… 

There’s some magical travelling armpit hair?

At about 14 minutes in, if you’re inclined to jump straight to that bit.  Everyone will judge you for it though.

But what’s the story?

There is no story.  Every single image has been analysed and interpreted from every psychological standpoint imaginable, but the only rule for Buñueland Dali (according to Buñuel’s autobiography, My Last Sigh) was that “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.”  The eye slicing came from a dream Buñuelhad.According to him, the meaning was that there was no meaning. 

That’s what S Club 7 should have said when Smash Hits and the like would ask them what the ‘S’ stood for, and they would just reply that it meant whatever you wanted it to mean.

That’s an incredibly outdated reference, but this absolutely relevant and not at all forced mention of music does provide the once in a lifetime opportunity to segue from S Club 7 to The Pixies: the lyrics to Debaser are based on Un Chien AndalouAccording to Black Francis: I wish Buñuel was still alive. He made this film about nothing in particular. The title itself is a nonsense. With my stupid, pseudo-scholar, naive, enthusiast, avant-garde-ish, amateurish way to watch Un Chien Andalou (twice), I thought: ‘Yeah, I will make a song about it.’ [He sings:] “Un chien andalou”… It sounds too French, so I will sing “un chien andalusia”, it sounds good, no?’

Any more Buñuelian bits of trivia that I can amaze and astound my friends with?

Woody Allen was a huge fan of Buñuel, and according to My Last Sigh offered him $30,000 to appear in this great scene in Annie Hall.  Buñuel was unable to do it, so instead media theorist Marshall McLuhan makes a cameo to shut up the loudmouth film bore that Annie and Alvie get stuck in the movie queue with. (NB a film bore is nothing at all like a person wanting to amaze and astound his friends with his film trivia knowledge.)

So Woody Allen didn’t get to collaborate with Buñuel?

Not in real life, but a fictional Buñuel does appear in Midnight in Paris.  Owen Wilson’s character, Gil, suggests the plot of The Exterminating Angel – the guests of an upper-class dinner party find themselves unable to leave – to Buñuel decades before he would make the film.  The joke is that Allen’s version of Buñuel is unable to understand why the guests can’t just go home.  In The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie (now back in cinemas – review here) Buñuel would reverse this plot as the characters are continually interrupted in their attempts to have a meal together.

All these references to food are making me quite hungry.  Can we just stop with no explanation and pretend it’s a surrealist flourish?

Insert a link to the Bill Bailey surrealist ramble joke and sneak away, no one will notice.

Filed under film Bunuel Introducing Woody Allen S Club 7 The Pixies Debaser Annie Hall Un Chien Andalou Luis Bunuel trivia Marshall McLuhan Midnight In Paris Owen Wilson The Exterminating Angel surrealism Salvador Dali Black Francis Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie Bill Bailey

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The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie ****

Fans of linear narrative turn away now, this is no place for you.  Reflecting on Buñuel’s classic The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie feels a lot like thinking about a dream.  The harder you reach for a clear chronology and a simple meaning the more elusive they become.

Six friends, our not particularly discreet and only superficially charming bourgeoisie, repeatedly fail to have dinner together for increasingly strange reasons.  First they show up at the host’s house only to find that they have the wrong day, and he is not there.  They go out to eat at a restaurant, but quickly lose their appetites when they find a wake for the proprietor being held in an adjoining room.  On another occasion they are interrupted by the army on manoeuvres, and on yet another occasion the curtains of the room draw back to reveal an audience – they are part of a stage play but none of them know the lines.

The theatre scene turns out to be part of a dream.  Actually, a dream within a dream, as a couple of characters wake up as the film progresses.  (I was going to say ‘as the story progresses’, but there’s not really a plot as such to speak of).  There are dream sequences, and fantasies, and characters telling stories about their dreams, with no sign of a spinning top totem to reassure you that what you’re watching is real.  Well, whatever reality is in this film anyway.

It seems a little redundant to say that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is strange considering it is made by Buñuel, the godfather of surreal cinema.  This is the most accessible of his works (it won the 1972 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film), but that does not guarantee you won’t be left slightly bemused by the end.  Watch the bizarre trailer for a taster of the tone (though don’t get tricked into thinking that this is some sort of arty sex romp – they managed to shoehorn every grope into the trailer.  But of course we don’t believe in European stereotypes.) 

Is it social satire, commenting on the inconsequential lives of the middle classes?  Is it a Freudian analysis of dreams?  Is it Buñuel playing with the audience’s need to find meaning in the art they consume?  The potential for interpretation is great.  The special feature on the DVD, a half hour critical analysis by Peter William Evans, is incredibly interesting and definitely worth a watch, if only to reveal even more possibilities.

There is a scene repeated throughout the film of the group of six walking along a country road.  We never find out why they are walking, or what their destination is.  In the scene, and the film as a whole, there is no standard narrative, it’s just a series of events that lead ultimately to nothing.  No answers are forthcoming.  But, as in life, perhaps that’s what makes it interesting.  

The newly restored The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie is back in cinemas on 29 June, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on 16 July


Filed under 4 Stars Bunuel Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie dreams film review surrealism French

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Rather looking forward to the release of Anna Karenina.  Joe Wright seems to have some magical touch with Keira Knightley that makes her really quite good (Atonement is a great film) rather than really quite annoying.  Here’s hoping for once that the adaptation is not too faithful to the book though - I don’t really fancy an interminable section on agricultural methods.

Filed under Anna Karenina trailer Keira Knightley Joe Wright Film

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A Royal Affair ****

What does the average non-Danish person know about Danish history? Aside from there having once been something rotten in the state of Denmark, and assuming we are not allowed to include the events of The Little Mermaid, the answer is quite possibly - well - nothing. But with A Royal Affair, the latest offering from Nikolaj Arcel (director of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), that ignorance can change, as we are introduced to a gripping chapter of the eighteenth century involving intrigue, betrayal, and forbidden love.

We open with a beautiful young woman (rising star Alicia Vikander) writing to her mysteriously absent son. In flashback we learn that she is Caroline Mathilde, a princess who was shipped off from England to Denmark as a teenager to marry the, at first glance, cold, obnoxious, and ever so slightly bonkers King Christian VII.

Mads Mikkelsen (whose rather wonderful face you may recognise from Casino Royale) plays Dr Johann Struensee, a man of the Enlightenment who is brought into court as a personal physician to the King. They bond over their shared knowledge of Hamlet quotations. (Perhaps had that scene lasted a little longer they could have sung Under the Sea together too.) Struensee uses his position to influence the King, not for his own gain but for the good of Denmark. In him the Queen sees a kindred spirit. They both love Voltaire and long to bring freedom and political liberalism to a country bound by the shackles of the court. And, naturally, they fall in love and things get complicated.

The story is structured around the Queen, but it is the two ambiguous men in her life who are the film’s real draw. The King is not a one-dimensional baddie or lunatic, but is simply a child in a King’s body. He has to be the centre of attention, gets angry when he does not get his own way, but in the end is just a pawn in the court’s game, being manipulated with ease. In Struensee he feels like he has found a friend, perhaps for the first time in his life. Likewise, Struensee is not a straightforward hero. As his power increases so do his levels of manipulation, and his liberal ideals are challenged when the freedoms he brings to the country begin to affect him personally. The battle between the Enlightenment ideas of social justice and mankind’s natural self-interest is fought on both a national and personal level.

Thoughtful and moving, it is depth of character that ultimately raises this film out of the darkness of your standard period romp. This is much more than a sumptuously shot history lesson.


Filed under 4 stars Danish Film Mads Mikkelsen period drama review