In a nutshell: Hammer horror goes ghostly in style

Pocorn rating: 4/5

A Hammer fan since the age of 13, I was hugely excited to learn that the iconic British film company was adapting Susan Hill’s shudderingly creepy classic ghost story, The Woman In Black. Then I heard they’d cast Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role, and I was nervous. Not that I have anything against the lovely eager-faced Potterboy, but surely this film was for grown-ups? And knowing it had a 12A rating didn’t help. Any film that under 12s can watch provided they’re with their mum* just couldn’t be that scary, I thought.

HA! How wrong was I?

The Woman In Black, like the best of Hammer’s early output, is a lushly atmospheric Victorian Gothic period piece that, during the showing I attended, had half the audience yelping in fear and saw popcorn liberally be-scattered about the aisles where hapless young wusses had literally jumped out of their seats. Moreover, Radcliffe is really rather good as a young widower trying to do the best by his little boy, and turns in a thoroughly convincing and sympathetic performance throughout.

Much as Hammer used to take substantial liberties with Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley in their golden years, they’ve done away with plenty of Susan Hill’s plot here: The Woman In Black diverges considerably from the book, and it doesn’t really have the understated feel of the novel. What it does have is imaginatively-staged scares by the spadeful and a nice line in gloomy Gothic melodrama as this traditional haunted house tale gradually unfurls before us. There’s almost no gore, hence the 12A rating, but it’s still deeply gruesome in tone, relentlessly spooky, and full of serious make-you-jump moments. Plus, there are some genuine shocks – if you’re confident that cute kids in jeopardy always escape the worst in horror films, think again.

Subtlety isn’t the film’s strongest point – there are only so many times you can be shown a creepy clockwork Victorian monkey toy before you just want to giggle – but there are moments of quirky humour that work remarkably well, and the film overall is well-executed and beautifully shot – bleak estuary marshes, dank mists and all. Plus, like all the greatest Hammer films, it has a fine supporting cast of stalwart English character actors and even one of those brilliant scenes where a cheery young chap enters a local village pub and finds that something is clearly Not Quite Right.

All in all, great spooky fun, and you’ll never look at a rocking chair in the same light again. But really, don’t be fooled by the rating: avoid taking your nine-year-old unless you actively want them to be wetting the bed and sleeping with the lights on into their mid-teens.

*In fairness, I actually went to see it with my mum, and I’m 36.

Reviewer: Jo Sheppard

In a nutshell: Silence really is golden

Popcorn rating: 4/5

If you ever need any proof about the magic of cinema, look no further than The Artist. Imagine someone telling you a year ago that a black and white silent movie would be a big hit in 2012, you would have probably laughed. And yet here we are in the wake of the film’s success at the Golden Globes scooping three accolades for best comedy, lead actor and score.

Remarkably, viewers have gone in their millions to watch a story unfold that uses filming techniques which are almost a century old. This was a whimsical time when the silver screen was accompanied by a full orchestra that would chronicle every moment with music.

Director Michel Hazanavicius’ first mainstream feature is a love letter to classic films in its purest form. As much a history lesson as it is a love story or comedy, The Artist tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). He is a legend of the silent movie business and a polished professional who is able to work the crowd and the press into a frenzy with ease.

But then everything changes. The 1930s sees the decline of silent movies as ‘talkies’ begin to dominate. Proud George struggles to cope with the reality of his diminishing fame while Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who starts as an extra in one of his films, shoots to success.

Except for a few clever flourishes, The Artist is lovingly recreated as a replica from the 1920s. You will rediscover how powerful something as simple as an expression can be. Mention also has to be made to George’s jack russell Uggie who almost steals the show infusing each of his scenes with charm and comedy.

To see something like go head-to-head with the likes of Mission Impossible in the nation’s multiplexes is a delight. Silence really is golden.

Reviewer: David Morgan

In a nutshell: camp, ridiculous but very watchable

Popcorn rating: 3/5

You may think you know Roman Polanski from such films as Chinatown and The Pianist. If you do, then watching Bitter Moon will fill you with a growing sense of disbelief – what on earth was he thinking? Bitter Moon is a puzzle: did Polanski intentionally set out to make such a complete howler – a thoroughly camp riposte to arthouse fare such as Last Tango In Paris and The Night Porter; or did the material simply get the better of him – did he want out to make a dark tale of amour fou only to have it blow up in his face?

A young English couple, Nigel and Fiona meet the wheelchair-bound American writer, Oscar, and his voluptuous young, French wife Mimi on a cruise. With a plot reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, Nigel and Fiona get increasingly sucked into Oscar and Mimi’s dark, sado-masochistic world, ultimately with tragic results. The general narrative tone is all over the place: one minute Peter Coyote as Oscar is wistfully recounting his move to Paris, the next he’s Benny Hill on crystal meth, a leering caricature of middle-aged lust. Meanwhile Mimi, played by Emmanuelle Seigner, frantically munches the scenery like Jessica Rabbit channelling Zola’s Therese Raquin. As Fiona, Kristin Scott-Thomas manages to retain a level of dignity conspicuously lacking elsewhere in the film, but Hugh Grant’s Nigel is simply a reminder that it’s taken the Leveson Enquiry to finally move his public profile on from the kind of bumbling stereotype he so effortlessly displays here.

Some of the scenes are a hoot: there’s an ‘erotic’ breakfast encounter between Oscar and Mimi that has to be seen to be believed, with a pop-up toaster punchline reminiscent of Morcambe & Wise; and the climactic New Year’s Eve party on the cruise ship is more like a tawdry office do, with Mimi’s expressive dancing-in-a-circle turn rivalling David Brent’s for its banality. In fact the whole setting of the cruise is suspect, as it more closely resembles some grim, extended North Sea ferry-crossing than a luxury excursion.

This is all so comprehensively wrong that it exerts a kind of magnetic pull – you can’t help but stay glued to it to see what horrors Polanski can come up with next. The imminent UK release of Carnage suggests that he’s actually perfectly at home doing comedy, but with Bitter Moon you’re never certain of his intentions, and whether or not they match the outcome. It might well be his all time career blip (personal issues aside), but it’s worth a punt for its sheer, perverse entertainment value.

Reviewer: Tom Ridge

In a nutshell: Not bad, but not as good as the first.

Popcorn rating: 3.5/5

Okay, here goes, I’m just going to say it. I quite like Guy Ritchie’s work. I mean, he’s no Martin Scorcese, no Paul Thomas Anderson, but his films are kind of fun. Usually. Sure, sometimes they’re clichéd, a bit too much of the old Cockney gangster. And 2002’s Swept Away? Well, I’d happily see it swept away into the Dungeon of Heinous Movies, never to be released. But generally, you know, I kind of like a Guy Ritchie movie. Lock, Stock; Snatch, Rock’n’Rolla and, yip, Sherlock Holmes. They’re kinda good. Even if it’s not cool to say so.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect back in 2009, when I heard that Ritchie had reinvented Holmes with Hollywood wild child Robert Downey Junior as the eponymous hero and pretty boy Jude Law as avuncular sidekick Dr Watson.  I did know, however, that I wasn’t expecting much so it was a pleasant surprise when Ritchie’s first Holmes outing proved to be a good, old, rip roaring adventure set in a picture perfect imagining of Victorian London. It was fun, it was engaging and it was action packed, something I had never quite associated with the Deerstalker sporting sleuth of old. Even the Downey Jr/Law pairing worked well with Downey suitably wild eyed and sizzlingly smart and Law giving us a new, more military and less chubby take on the beloved sidekick (as is fitting and correct).

Hollywood’s mantra for sequels has always been ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and Ritchie, up to a point, has followed this with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows – another contemporary take on the classic. Holmes and Watson are back, bickering and battling and beating the bad guys by sheer force of intellect. Lots of old faces return too, Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), Watson’s beloved fiancée, Mary (Kelly Reilly) and even Gladstone the dog. And, as with the first, the sets show off a wonderful, smoky, industrial London on the rise as a world power.  Importantly, Ritchie has also retained that smattering of humour which made the first film so light hearted, amidst all that dry detective work.

There are a few welcome changes too. This time the plot takes the duo dashing across Europe (why do sequels always take their characters abroad?) in the fight against Holmes’ greatest nemesis – Professor James Moriarty (played with sheer relish by Jared Harris). Other notable new faces include Stephen Fry as Sherlock’s big bro Mycroft and Noomi Rapace as Madame Simza, a gypsy woman searching for her missing brother. Oh, and the scene where our ragtag group are running through the forest is a new touch and exceptionally well done, a beautiful piece of cinema.

Sadly, not everything  works as well as it should. Holmes thinking out each fight beforehand, an interesting addition in the first film, proves monotonous this time around. There are a also few glaring plot holes and omissions which niggle a bit. In fact, the overall story is unnecessarily convoluted for what turns out to be quite a simple plot, by Moriarty, to make some bucks. There is also an air of Ritchie trying to shove a little too much into the film, showing off  just because he can. Fry is perfectly cast as Mycroft, for example, but he doesn’t seem particularly necessary. Similarly, Holmes’ new camouflage technique is neither humorous nor believable.

All in all, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows isn’t a masterpiece, nor is it as good as the first film. It is, however, a harmless bit of fun, a picturesque “romp”, if you will, and joy of joys, the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” continues to be absent (in keeping with the original texts). Cut a good 20 minutes off A Game of Shadows and it’d be a tighter, better movie, but it has already made enough at the Box Office to ensure a third film is likely and that’s no bad thing. So long as it doesn’t turn out to be another Pirates of the Caribbean style turkey.

Reviewer: CurlyShirley

In a nutshell: Ding dong, the witch is – oh. Still alive. Damn.

Popcorn rating: 2.5/5

I’m not Margaret Thatcher’s biggest fan. By that, I mean of course that she’s a vicious old vulture who ripped bleeding flesh off the country’s dying corpse with one claw while pressing its face into the dirt with the other. So I was prepared for the The Iron Lady to present a more balanced picture of the former PM than the one in my head (in which she’s usually kicking away a child’s crutches).

However, it’s a disturbingly sentimental portrait by any standards, right down to speeches about the Falklands backed by hideous stirring music. Jumping between the past and the present, in which an elderly Thatcher  (a remarkably unrecognisable Meryl Streep) talks to her late husband Denis (an unremarkably recognisable Jim Broadbent), The Iron Lady suggests Thatcher’s only real transgression was being impatient with Geoffrey Howe over poll tax.

Surely even the most ardent Thatcherite would have to admit that she was divisive figure, but that’s glossed over here: for instance, the order to sink the Belgrano is covered in about five seconds.

Setting aside such qualms, I’m interested in the politics of this period, so I thought there would still be much for me to enjoy in the film. But sadly, Thatcher’s career is covered as just a succession of events with no feel for what links them, and very little substance. Airey Neave is blown up in front of Thatcher’s eyes by an Irish National Liberation Army car bomb, but there’s no insight into how this might have influenced her destructively stubborn stance on Northern Ireland. We see the plucky young grocer’s daughter stick it to the sexist Tory toffs on a candidate selection panel, but there’s nothing on her failure to give a toss about gender equality once in power.

Instead, we get endless scenes of Thatcher today, confused and frail, but as I can’t say Maggie ever cared about the elderly, sick or mentally ill when she was slashing NHS budgets and throwing psychiatric patients on to the street, it’s odd that I’m suddenly expected to equate her with, say, my nan (who in any case would have put her fag out in Thatcher’s eye if they’d ever met).

Everything you’ve heard about Meryl Streep’s performance is true: she is astonishingly good. And once you get the hang of a lot of very familiar people pretending to be other very familiar people, the supporting cast is splendid too. But not even a staggering turn by Streep and fine efforts from a who’s who of Britain’s finest character actors can save this one.

Reviewer: Jo Sheppard

In a nutshell: Fassbender puts the phwoarr into addiction.

Popcorn rating: 4/5

Warning: I have just come back from watching Shame. And I’m not quite sure I’m back to myself yet. Cold flannel anyone? Anyway, on with the review. Let me begin by saying that Shame, written and directed by the award winning Steve McQueen (who also made the excellent Hunger), is groundbreaking on many levels. First off, this movie shows off a lot of, well, appendages, of the male variety, which is surely a first for Holly”wood”.

Yes, ladies and gents, make yourself comfortable because you’re soon going to find yourself becoming very acquainted, up close and personal in fact, with Irish stallion, ahem, I mean err, rising star Michael Fassbender’s family jewels (he’s a healthy lad young Fassbanger and, speaking as an Irishman myself, entirely indicative of the rest of us.)

Aside from Fassbender’s prowess, the movie also focuses on sex addiction, as personified by thirty-something New Yorker Brandon (Fassbender once again proving he is one of the best actors of his generation), emotional neediness (Brandon’s annoying, needy sister Cissy, played by Carey Mulligan) and then there’s Fassbender’s annoying, hyper-active boss. With his sister no living with him, Brandon founds himself ever more caged in, needing to break free in ever more extreme ways.

Once you get to meet Brandon’s boss and sister you soon understand why he does what he does. Both on their own are bad, having no concept of the term personal “boundaries” and personal “space”, but together these two are bloody insufferable. No wonder the poor b*****d ends up with a sex addiction.

Anyway, explicitness aside, Shame is a compelling, unflinching movie which explores the wretchedness of sex addiction. Definitely worth a watch. I recommend, and if that’s not enough, the great Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times named it his second best film of 2011. So, go on, off you go to the cinema.

Reviewer: TJ McCabe

Looking for more? Check out the trailer and cast interviews on our Shame storify: http://sfy.co/Uqw

In a nutshell: Hollywood’s take on Larsson’s dark masterpiece

Popcorn rating: 4/5

Who would have thought a series of novels by a late Swedish author could have caused such a stir?  More than 20 million people have read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and the original films proved to be among Sweden’s most successful.

Now it’s Hollywood’s turn at the girl with that tattoo, with David Fincher in the director’s chair.

Many have questioned the purpose of remaking The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  The 2009 original directed by Niels Arden Oplev was critically acclaimed and of its place . The remake will therefore no doubt spark a debate about our reluctance to read subtitles.

Nevertheless, Fincher is a perfect fit for the dark yet captivating subject matter, channelling his experience from his previous thrillers like Seven and Zodiac.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo tells the story of disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he investigates the disappearance of a teenager some forty years ago.  He is aided by the enigmatic computer-hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) in the seach to uncover secrets which will ultimately threaten their lives.

A word of advice is needed for those new to the Millennium story – be prepared.  The core of the film is a classic ‘whodunnit’ but there’s a darker edge to the film with many scenes of sexual violence. This is an important addition, helping to shape the plot and characters, but it is graphic and abhorrent.

Indeed, the original name for the story is Men Who Hate Women and the book’s themes were inspired when a teenage Larsson witnessed a rape and was too frightened to intervene.

But this should not put anyone off because the film features redemption on many levels, particularly for anti-hero Lisbeth.  The character, one of cinema’s most interesting in years, is played almost perfectly by newcomer Rooney Mara.  It is almost on a par with Noomi Rapace’s groundbreaking portrayal in the Swedish versions.

Mara introduces a vulnerable side to Lisbeth – a welcome new dimension to the damaged character. Daniel Craig also works hard to hang up his 007 tuxedo to play an everyman.

Although it’s a little jarring and confusing to see Americans playing Swedish characters it’s worth suspending your disbelief as this is worthy adaptation.

Reviewer: DavidMorgan