Archive for November, 2011

In a nutshell: Bizarre but brilliant.

Popcorn rating: 4.5/5

Bill Bailey doesn’t do much in the way of social comedy – but maybe he should.  The Prime Minister and the Pope were among those in his firing line during brief interludes between his random observations and musical wizardry.  He had the huge crowd at Liverpool Echo Arena in stitches when he mocked David Cameron for saying ‘we’re all in this together’ when he and his Cabinet chums live in luxury.

Bill also didn’t shy away from controversy when he lampooned the Pope for criticising British society when the same man has been accused of failing to act against a paedophile priest.

The rest of the show saw Bill in more familiar territory by twisting our perceptions on modern music.  Hip hop artist Akon’s misogynistic lyrics in ‘Smack That’ were analysed line-by-line before being given a West Country style makeover to eye-watering effect.  Then James Blunt’s wet and whimsical brand of guitar music had the same misfortune when Bill attempted to write a song for him.

For long fans of Bill Bailey, there have been moments of frustration in previous tours as he has been known to recycle old gags.  But the new tour, Dandelion Mind, was refreshing, featuring completely new material.

One of the best moments was actually when Bill broke down into a fit of giggles when he realised how absurd his ‘job’ is.  At the time he was playing Enter Sandman by Metallica on horns. It was bizarre but quite brilliant.

Reviewer: DavidMorgan

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In a nutshell: Eternal youth for the rich, death for the poor. Great concept marred by poor execution.

Popcorn rating: 2.5/5

Robin Hood meets sci fi might sound like a recipe for disaster. But writer and director Andrew Niccol almost manages to pull off this story of a dystopia in which time is literally money.

No doubt inspired by the work of Philip K Dick, In Time shows a world in which people stop aging at 25 but are genetically engineered to live just one more year. This is unless they can ‘buy their way out’ – the rich and successful basically have eternal youth. On each person’s arm are glowing digits which morbidly show how much time they have left to live. It is also like a cash machine as people can simply touch each other to transfer ‘time’.

Niccol messes with your head from the outset – to give you an example, you meet the protagonist Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) and then his mum Rachel (Olivia Wilde from House) – in physical terms they are the same age but Rachel is 50. Salas lives day-by-day struggling to survive – quite literally – but when he saves Henry Hamilton, who has a century on the clock, his life completely changes.

Salas is accused of murder and from almost out of nowhere, he recruits a disillusioned rich man’s daughter Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried). The pair set out on a Robin Hood adventure to crash the living, breathing market and give everyone the chance of a full life. Hot on their heels are the time keepers (I kid you not) led by Cillian Murphy, in a rather dull and disappointing role.

In Time proves to be a flawed but interesting concept. Despite the audience being offered no explanation about why the world is like this, the film is intriguing – as well as a terrifying take on our obsession with mortality and the evolution of capitalism.

In the film, people live in ‘time zones’ which separate the rich and poor. It’s all too familiar – think about Britain’s poor estates and leafty mansions. Unfortunately, it’s the unconvincing story and execution which lets it down. Sylvia betrays her family and her whole way of life seemingly on a whim. In one scene the picturesque pair also ram raid a bank which is made entirely out of glass and has its safe wide open. Seriously, who made this bank?

All in all, watching In Time won’t be a complete waste of time, just don’t expect any real surprises as the final seconds tick down.

Reviewer: DavidMorgan

In a nutshell: Ghouls and boys come out to play…

Popcorn rating: 4/5

November’s the perfect month for ghost stories. An eerie mist hangs in the air, trees clutch skeletally at their last dying leaves, darkness creeps up on us ever earlier each night… it’s all conducive to being gleefully scared shitless. And The Awakening, released in cinemas last weekend, does exactly that.

The Awakening is a proper, old-fashioned ghost story set in 1921, with an emphasis on atmosphere, suggestion, beautifully haunting cinematography and well-timed shocks rather than gore and effects. Rebecca Hall is likeable as bluestocking Florence Cathcart, who could easily have been insufferable in the hands of a lesser actor; Dominic West turns in a typically convincing performance as a teacher battling shellshock, and Imelda Staunton is perfectly cast as a maternal school matron. Pale, doe-eyed whippersnapper Isaac Hempstead Wright is also impressive as boarding school misfit Tom.

I won’t claim The Awakening is groundbreaking. The twists are clever, but hardly revolutionary, and much of the creepiness comes from fairly standard devices – ghostly images in old photos, spectral children, secret passages and vaguely sinister objects appearing in odd places. However, this doesn’t make them any less unsettling, and there are original touches scattered throughout too – one particular scene with a dolls’ house made my skin crawl.

Moreover, the references to the First World War are well-placed: as well as the ghostly child purported to be haunting a remote boarding school, the universal spectre of the war hovers over everyone. There’s schoolteacher Mallory, with his survivor’s guilt and his residual stammer. There’s Florence, emotionally crippled by the death of her ex-fiancé. There’s even handyman Judd, rendered bitter and resentful by his own cowardice. Lest we forget, indeed.

As the nerve-shredding chills in the final third of the film build to a climax, it might be fair to say that things are a wee bit drawn out and overblown. But frankly, I didn’t care. The Awakening isn’t quite The Others, but it’s got great performances, a strong script and enough jump-out-of-your-seat moments to keep you thoroughly entertained on a dark evening. According to Peter Ackroyd’s recent book, The English Ghost, the English produce more ghost stories than any other nation in the world, and The Awakening – a BBC Films production – does a fine job of upholding that tradition.

Reviewer: JoSheppard

In a nutshell: Freezing time, talking cats…and everyday life

Popcorn rating: 3.5/5

The Future may feature a cat that can talk and man who can freeze time and chat to the moon. But believe it or not, Miranda July’s second film isn’t that detached from reality.

Despite the supernatural elements, this story is really about common problems, like being scared of commitment and lacking ambition and direction. At one time or another, we’ve all been guilty of avoiding our problems or swerving around them. July takes these components of everyday life and magnifies them before giving them a twist – but you can still relate to it…sort of.

Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are an oddball couple who decide to they are ready to adopt a stray cat called Paw-Paw, who is also voiced by July. But the cat has an injured paw and the pair have a month to wait until he is in a fit state before they can take him home.

With just 30 days of ‘freedom’ remaining, Sophie and Jason decide to quit their jobs, as a dance instructor for kids and IT help desk man, to fulfil their dreams. Jason attempts to save the world one tree at a time and Sophie ends up in the arms of another man.

Meanwhile, Paw-Paw shares his thoughts with the audience on his lonely existence in a cage and dreams of a life with company and comfort. It is a delight for feline fans but obviously this is incredibly quirky and weird and not for everyone. It is also a lot more sad than anticipated.

And what of stopping time? To say more would be to give too much away but the scene is the most bizarre yet somehow touching and poignant. It will remind you of all those moments you wished you could freeze a moment.

Reviewer: DavidMorgan

In a nutshell: a peek into the abyss – don’t stand too close to the edge when you’re reaching for your peanuts.

Popcorn rating: 4/5

Like De Niro in his heyday, and more recently Christian Bale, Javier Bardem is an actor prepared to suffer for his art: in No Country For Old Men he sported an outrageously bad pudding-basin haircut and in Biutiful he’s got the kind of mullet Jason Donovan would have died for (and which probably still haunts his dreams). He even gets to wear it in a ponytail. But for Bardem’s character in Biutiful the suffering doesn’t end there.

The film’s narrative is more or less a descent into hell for Uxbal, the middle-aged hustler played by Bardem. Set in a Barcelona that is far from the sophisticated European destination of the average mini-break, it’s a stark depiction of an illegal immigrant underclass, for which Uxbal brokers various forms of employment, and of one man’s life spiralling out of control even as it begins to end. Early on Uxbal is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer (cue grim scenes of bloody urine and incontinence) and the film documents his decline as he attempts to shore up his children’s security and deal with the lingering aftermath of his failed marriage while staging scenes of mounting dissipation and, ultimately, tragedy.

Written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Biutiful is a combination of fragmentary narrative and dirty realism, with a spiritual thread running through it. There’s no easy redemption on offer here though, and the film is emotionally draining but oddly rewarding. Not perhaps the best Sunday evening in – it left me with a nagging, school-on-Monday sense of melancholia – but raw and watchable all the same.

Reviewer: TomRidge

In a nutshell: Slick and political, Clooney on the campaign trail.

Popcorn rating: 4/5

George Clooney is no stranger to politics. The silver-haired Hollywood A-lister became a prominent supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy during the 2008 US election. His father Nick even ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress some years ago.

But Clooney confessed earlier this year that a career in politics could never be a reality for him due to his colourful past. He made it clear, he would not be following in the footsteps of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan and thereby instigating a media frenzy, with the press constantly digging up the skeletons in his closet. Perhaps, rather than run for office, the actor-turned-director has decided to make his point by making politically charged films instead –  a worthy diversion from his impossible ambitions.

Whatever the reason, The Ides of March shows a director on top form, supported by an actor who is sure to be propelled into the echelons of the film elite. Following on from his star turn in Drive, Ryan Gosling is superb as the smooth, slick campaign manager Stephen Meyers who is helping Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) to win a Democratic primary election.

Mirroring Obama’s campaign, Morris is seemingly a symbol of hope in a world of lies, corruption and belt tightening. Naturally, all is not as well as it seems. Soon it’s exposed that Meyers secretly meets – albeit for fairly innocent reasons – rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti, always comfortable in a villain’s role). Then, when Meyers learns that Morris has a very dirty secret indeed, it’s a ruthless scrabble as each man uses their bargaining chips to get on top.

The Ides of March proves to be excellent as a thriller, if not particularly convincing as real life. Meyers seems shocked at the lengths his rivals and supposed friends will go to ruin him – this is despite his age and the fact he’s supposed to be very experienced, an asset, the jewel in Morris’s crown. It’s hard to believe this is the first time he realises politics is a dirty game.

If you can get over this hurdle, the rest of the package is slick and immersive but you probably need at least a passing interest in politics to get into it.

Reviewer: DavidMorgan

In a nutshell: Robots wars, with a little bit of family bonding.

Popcorn rating: 3/5

Fighting robots. Big crashing metal hulks slamming each other, pounding hydraulic fists into steel chest plates, squeezing skulls, ripping and crushing and smashing each other to bits. Seriously, what’s not to love about Real Steel? The game that is. The imagined World Robot Boxing (WRB) championships, set in a not too distant future where 10ftish robots kick the sh*t out of each other in front of a packed stadium.

Real Steel the film, in which said championship games mark a zenith, isn’t quite as must see as Real Steel the game, but, to be honest, it’s actually not half bad. Based, in part, on the 1956 short story ‘Steel’ by Richard Matheson, Real Steel is set in 2020, a world very similar to today with a few small exceptions – humans have been replaced in the boxing ring by robots, operated by high tech hand held devices or, in some cases, by voice control or “shadowing”. Robot boxing is big business in 2020 and, on the fringes of the sport, is former boxer Wolverine (or rather Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton). Kenton earns a crust pitting his old, washed up robots against, well, pretty much anything, until one day he finds himself in a predicament – forced to spend the summer babysitting his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), a boy he doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to. Fortunately, the kid takes to the robot boxing game like a duck to water and soon pop and Max are pitting their tired old robot Atom against the big boys.

And that’s where Real Steel shines. See it on the big screen. The biggest screen you can find, with the biggest audio system and the biggest seats with a bucket of popcorn and a gallon of soda. And enjoy.  Cos this is telly’s little Robot Wars gone Hollywood. Robot battles, no, robot annihilations, are what you want. And that’s exactly what you get, from the opening mechanoid versus raging bull to something that looks like a Disney version of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. For mechs.

Aside from the steely fist fights, it’s all rather humdrum in a pleasing enough sort of way. Goyo is a cute kid with a little bit of attitude and a pleasing lack of sacharrine (thankfully sugar king Spielberg doesn’t have his muddy paws on this one). Then there’s the evil baddies with their sharp bones and funny accents. They’re Russian and Japanese btw, for added nasty. Anyone for a harmless love interest? A Dead mum? A random twist forcing daddy and son unhappily together to bond? Tick, tick, tick. Oh, and of course. There’s Wolverine. With his top off. If you like that sort of thing.

Is Jackman a brilliant actor? Well no, probably not, but that doesn’t really matter because there’s just something so damn likable about him, and he suits this kind of role. Sure, Kenton is a bit shifty, you wouldn’t want to loan him any money for one, but you just can’t help  rooting for him and his shoddy fly-by-night antics. And Jackman isn’t overstated here, he doesn’t ham it up (which I know he can. I’ve seen The Prestige). He’s just well, himself, with a slightly funny accent. And it works. It really does.

Real Steel is an old school family yarn. There are so many cliches (bad boy comes good, wise beyond his years kid, underdog wins etc etc) you kinda get bored counting, but that’s okay. Sometimes you just want to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the usual old schmaltz, happy in the knowledge it’ll all come good in the end.

Action junkie little uns will love this movie, they’ll probably want their own 10ft robot for Christmas (hey, who wouldn’t?). For the adults, there isn’t quite as much on offer, the dialogue is a little clunky, everything slots too easily into place, but come on – this film has massive f**k off robots ripping each other to shreds for your entertainment. What’s not to like?

Reviewer: CurlyShirley