Saturday, 26 January 2013

Review: MOVIE 43

Arriving with what must be the most absurdly starry cast of any recent comedy film, the enigmatic Movie 43 is a collection of sketches from big name directors hung together with the loosest of framing devices: these are all on… the… internet? At least that seems to be the idea. The weak linking device suggests some kids are looking up said movie and stumble across this stuff.

To call it a hit and miss affair is misleading; it is more of a shit and miss affair. There is not a single entry in the anthology that aims beyond taboo-transgressing rubbish. It is not aiming for satire. It is not even aiming for smart. Its only intention is to coax a begrudging laugh from you by fair means or foul.

And so, the initial joy of seeing the likes of Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Richard Gere, Gerard Butler, Uma Thurman or Naomi Watts appearing in material they would never normally be seen in soon passes. What you are left with after the initial dazzling is a series of skits that barely justify their running time and, with the exception of one or two, don’t know when, or how, to end.

The occasional concept shows a spark of perverted genius and the odd laugh is extorted by seeing just how far things can be pushed. On that front the sketch about a home-schooled child, which features Watts and Liev Schreiber as inappropriately hectoring parents, pushes the limits of taste and just about gets away with it. A sketch about a black basketball team in the 1950s receiving a stirring team talk from their coach (Terrence Howard) is also a highlight. A few are momentarily enlivened by good delivery or stoic performances, such as those from Gere, Curb Your Enthusiasm’s J.B. Smoove, Chloë Grace Moretz and Stephen Merchant.

Some start interestingly but go nowhere and end as abruptly as they began. Peter Farrelly’s skit featuring Winslet and Jackman on a blind date is a prime example. Others, like Farrelly’s skit featuring Merchant and Berry on a blind date, have the route and a punchline mapped out but lose steam along the way.

A few (featuring Emma Stone, Anna Faris, Seann William Scott, Jason Sudeikis, Justin Long, Kristen Bell and Johnny Knoxville among others) should have been left on the drawing board – or, more likely, whatever burger wrapper they were crudely scrawled on.

Its biggest saving grace comes in the middle of the end credits as a result of James Gunn’s genuinely innovative, very funny blend of live action and animation featuring Josh Duhamel and Elizabeth Banks (who also directs another segment) and a cartoon cat. It efficiently skewers the Garfield/Alvin and the Chipmunks mould with filthy enthusiasm as Duhamel’s cat Beezel grows jealous of his relationship with Banks.

It is weightless, nutritionless comedy that revels in its lowest common denominator status without even any of the hollow emotion of its more narrative siblings to get you on side with its crudeness. Every chuckle it elicits feels like a dagger in the heart of comedy but, as the film’s base raison d’être seems to validate, any laugh is still a laugh.


Friday, 25 January 2013


The Last Stand marks the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to leading man status in an action film. More tantalisingly, it marks the Hollywood debut of South Korean director Kim Jee-woon who previously made the ultra-stylish I Saw The Devil and The Good, The Bad, The Weird. So new blood meets the man responsible for most of the blood in cinema for two decades.

Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) is the sheriff of a sleepy town in Arizona about to receive a visit from an escaped Mexican drug lord (Eduardo Noriega) making a break for the border. With the only back-up left in town being the good (Jaimie Alexander, Zach Gilford), the bad (Rodrigo Santoro) and the weird (Johnny Knoxville, Luis Guzman), the past-his-prime Owens must form a line of defence which FBI honcho, Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), thinks is beyond him.

It is good to see Arnie back in this territory. It is arguably the only genre which has ever truly befitted him. It has been decked out with his trademark one-liners and there is not a trace of light and shade to his down-the-line lawman. The firepower, courtesy of Knoxville’s comedy gun nut, is fetishised as if the last decade of action cinema never happened. It has the feel of an age old tale of the frontier, tailored as a throwback to 1980s excess.

This is the occasional spark to the action scenes and the parts which don’t involve Arnold himself, such as nifty scenes involving a stolen supercar, are generally more successful. Although, when it comes down to a mano-a-mano fistfight it is a joy to see that the big man still has it in spades. While the odd bit of awkward lip service is paid to his advancing years, he is still characterised as every bit the Übermensch he always has been.

The real letdown is Kim Jee-woon who doesn’t display an ounce of the sophistication in his action scenes that he showed in his homeland. What that is down to is anyone’s guess but on this occasion it seems as if handling such an iconic comeback was too much for him – or out of his control.

Schwarzenegger certainly comes off better in his own spotlight than he has done in The Expendables films but there is the undeniable feeling that his brand of bulky, unsubtle action has lost the lustre it once held. Every pretender to his throne has been gradually chipping away at the Austrian Oak for the last decade and it is only a matter of time before the once proud icon is felled to make a comfortable retirement chair.

If this does represent the beginning of the last stand for the action career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, then it was silly and superfluous but plenty of fun.


Wednesday, 23 January 2013


When the lights go out at Litwak’s Arcade after a long day of grubby fingers jabbing buttons, the characters of its video game consoles can relax. One such character is Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the destructive behemoth from thirty-year-old arcade warhorse 'Fix-It Felix Jr'. Ralph is unhappy with his lot as mindless antagonist and longs for acceptance from Felix (30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer) and the disgruntled residents of the building he smashes up day-in, day-out. He attends a support group for similarly disgruntled bad guys but if he can’t find help there, there is always the frowned-upon possibility of going rogue and straying into another game to become the hero he longs to be.

Seeking to instil the same reference-hungry joy in kids as the movie pastiche jukeboxes of Tarantino do in adults, Wreck-It Ralph’s setting in the world of video games presumably also hopes to tap into the nostalgic mania for all things retro in adult gamers. It is crammed full of appearances from the virtual stars of games like the 'Super Mario' series, 'Pac-Man' and 'Street Fighter II' as well as clever, non-copyright-infringing imitations of other well-known properties.

It begins in economic, cameo-heavy fashion where it establishes the structure of the film’s world and that each game is connected via a commuter transport system. It initially has fun darting from game world to game world with consequent changes in the film’s entire look. The problem is that it soon exhausts that and drifts into a midsection that all-but forgets about video games – and dynamism.

While the world of alien shoot-‘em-up ‘Hero’s Duty’ is swathed in darkness pinpointed by eerie greens and angular landscapes, the setting for most of the film is ‘Sugar Rush’; a twee kart racing game filled with scrumptious pastel landscapes. As the characters enter this candy land, it has a similar effect on the film’s pacing; it begins to feel like wading through caramel. Director Rich Moore spends just too much time having fun with confectionary and nefariously shoehorning in brand names to get back to the spark of the opening act.

Reilly's titular character is a mopey delight. His hangdog expression is always at odds with the Day-Glo unreality of the worlds he inhabits but he is often outshone by the voice performances of Jane Lynch as a hard-bitten space marine and - once you can get over the fact she is playing a child - Sarah Silverman’s cutesy sidekick Vanellope von Schweetz is a sassy joy. Considering it is a film where the hero is ostensibly a reluctant villain it is lacking a real threatening force and the few there are get constantly thrown aside and forgotten about.

The artistry of creating multiple aesthetically different realms which blend together into a seamless whole is never in doubt. It looks stunning. There is a ring of authenticity to each game but it cleverly avoids the pitfalls of looking and feeling like a video game itself. From the 8-bitty score to variant tics in animation style its influences are clear but rarely overbearing.

There is the occasional inconsistency which comes as a result of pandering to audience expectations. It slightly grates that in Ralph's world, where everything has the slightest hint of pixelated edges (right down to food splatters), other characters move in an accurately herky-jerky fashion but somehow Ralph himself always has the smoothly rendered look of the CGI animated hero he is.

The Pixar influence of Walt Disney Animation Studios' Svengali, John Lasseter, is clear in the innovative idea and plotting but it is lacking in a clear message which might have helped define it. It really boils down to the tried-and-tested 'accept differences in others' and ‘find your place’ messages which run through nearly every recent animation from every studio.

There are times when it comes creepily close to bringing to mind dreaded terms like ‘brand synergy’ and you cannot help but feel the next step is for Disney to produce real-life versions of the in-film games as well as tie-in promotions with Nesquik and Oreos.

It takes a neat concept (which is, admittedly, just an electronic update of Toy Story) and for a while nearly comes close to wrecking it. It is not a total write-off but it as it progresses it loses focus and forgets about the possibilities that were presented in the set-up. It dwells too long in the same location and only comes together for a spectacular conclusion which innovatively draws from every aspect of the film.


Tuesday, 22 January 2013


Josh (Rafe Spall) and Nat (Rose Byrne) are newlyweds. In a break from romcom tradition their entire whirlwind courtship has already been presented to us by the time the opening credits have left the screen. This is a romcom about the post-golden period in a relationship when - as is made abundantly clear here - the rot sets in.

Minnie Driver and Jason Flemyng are there as Nat's sister and brother-in-law to show us just how that rot manifests. But that is about all their characters are there for. With Josh's ex Chloe (Anna Faris) and Nat's smooth new client, Guy (Simon Baker), around to provide temptation, all the elements are in place for a comedy of frayed tensions, relationship soul searching and badly timed exposure of male genitalia.

For all the impressive cast writer-director Dan Mazer has assembled, the only real comic highlights appear when Stephen Merchant is onscreen as Josh’s buffoonish mate and, somewhat predictably, giver of the de rigueur wedding-based-comedy inappropriate best man’s speech. The problem is that his character dips in and out of the film, only really appearing when it needs propped up by a bit of broad comedy. There is nothing new in Merchant's shtick (in fact, some of it is a direct crib of his mate Ricky Gervais' material on giving charity donations as gifts) but his delivery is inherently funny.

But that is really all the film is: a succession of comic actors 'doing a turn' for five minutes. Step forward Alex Macqueen's comedy vicar, Tim Key's comedy solicitor and Olivia Colman's comedy counsellor. Considering Mazer’s past, working up from producer of TV's The 11 O’Clock Show through most of Sacha Baron Cohen’s subsequent output, he doesn’t manage the singularity that he is so clearly capable of fostering elsewhere. This is entirely unsure whether it wants to be a bitter treatise on the inevitably of relationships floundering or a sweet natured romance about soulmates coming together.

For a romcom it is a rarely-fun, largely maudlin affair. It is clear to see that it is aiming to be some kind of an 'anti-romcom'; an antidote to some of the other more saccharine fare from the Working Title stable. The problem is that it isn't averse to adding a bit of artificial, carcinogenic sugar substitute in its place – but so much of it falls flat. Rafe Spall is fine as the everyman lead. His delivery consistently raises a smile in spite of some dull material about his habits. If he comes across as a slightly one-dimensional jokey blokey, that is still preferable to the abjectly awful characters he is surrounded by - not least Byrne’s horrendously shrewish new bride.

Anna Faris' Chloe is a warm presence among the vile acrimony of the rest of the coterie but her character is pretty much a rote blank canvas, whose only purpose is to provide a mirror to Byrne's lack of appeal. Likewise Baker’s Guy is the rich, successful diametric opposite of Josh and only there as a convenient plot point to absolve guilt from both sides of a potentially adulterous equation.

Twinkly romcom London is once again a wonderland of lush apartments and inordinately interesting careers, populated by Americans and people putting on English accents.

There is the odd cute observation about relationships nestled amongst the hackneyed plot and jockeying cameo appearances, but it sadly never gets much of an opportunity to develop those into anything meaningful. Learning to empty the bins or to embrace chaos is about as far as it gets.

I'd give it a miss.


Friday, 18 January 2013


Argento. Bava. Martino. Fulci. Lenzi. Not the names of directors that everyone will be instantly familiar with but among fans of their chosen genre, giallo, they are hugely respected. Giallo is a catch-all term for a certain type of pulpy Italian thriller that rose to prominence in the 1970s with highly stylised visuals and scenes of extreme violence.

Director Peter Strickland has chosen to set Berberian Sound Studio, his latest film following 2009’s Katalin Varga, in the world of those giallo films. Quite literally; it takes place in the 1970s at the eponymous post-production studio where Englishman abroad, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), has been drafted in as a sound engineer on just such a film.

Gilderoy is a buttoned-up, unimposing figure still living with his mother and used to working on pastoral British works. He is immediately at odds with the brash, glamourous Italians and more concerned with doggedly attempting to reclaim expenses than the bella signorina he is dealing with in order to. His fastidious work ethic clashes with Italian methods, not least from producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), and it begins to take its mental toll.

To call it an assault on the senses would be to do it a disservice. It is a sensory celebration and a sonic appreciation of film itself. The film fetishises vintage recording equipment in a series of extreme close-ups which run throughout the duration. Considering the subject matter it is no surprise that the sound design of the film is remarkable. Scenes of Jones carrying out Foley work (using objects to recreate sound effects required for a film) are a joy to observe. Using and abusing enough watermelons, cabbages, marrows and radishes to make a hideous stew, it is an occasionally comic insight into what goes into making scenes of horror above and beyond the visuals.

For cinephiles, the film is a dream with a focus on technical aspects that assumes a prior knowledge of the way films are made. It positively worships film lore in a way that might leave some feeling excluded. There is a crucial authenticity in its depiction and is helped by the creation of film-within-a-film that seems entirely plausible. While the film is a drama thick with artistry, there are times when it would make for an excellent behind the scenes extra on a DVD.

It is worth noting that Berberian Sound Studio itself is not a horror-thriller like those it depicts. There is barely anything in the film you would identify with the genre. It is even left to your imagination what the characters see on screen in the film they are working on. It is, however, a sublime psycho-drama which focuses on a character whose boundaries between reality and fiction are rapidly melting and decaying like the gruesome pits of rotten vegetables the film lingers on.

The key reference point for this film would be David Lynch’s Lost Highway (although a good knowledge of Italian gialli will reap dividends in being able to spot references to genre traits, such as black leather gloves). While the world it takes place in is very different, there is a structural similarity that upends the entire film in a similar way.

It is an enigmatic spectacle that conducts its scenes like a symphony. Enjoyment will be dependent on how open you are to seeing something with a resolution that doesn’t make conventional sense and will leave you more puzzled than instantly gratified.

There are enough twists and breakdowns to leave you chewing it over for days after, trying to unlock its mystery – and that is a good thing. It is refreshing to see something so cineliterate and compelling without giving you any easy answers as to what it was about it that grips you from start to finish.


The original version of this review was published at

Review: V/H/S

Like vinyl records before it, there is a growing wave of nostalgia for VHS tapes developing and this horror anthology attempts to tap into a yearning for the lost days of the video nasty. From nine different directors (including hot property in the genre, Ti West) across six films, V/H/S harks back to films like Creepshow and Cat’s Eye but adopts the current trend for found footage as a device; Tapes from the Crypt, if you will.

The advice when watching any portmanteau film also applies here: not every part will be good. It cuts back to one short as a buffer between films but there is no clear reason why that particular film should be the one. It is the least satisfying and if anything confuses things further. It could have done with something a bit more unifying hanging them together rather than just an aesthetic.

As far as the style of the film goes, enjoyment will largely be dependent on your tolerance levels for constantly dizzying camerawork that is always moving and spinning wildly. At the level it is applied here, it becomes headache inducing. The grainy first-person perspective, as ever, stretches credulity especially when faced with threatening situations but some parts do attempt to justify it.

The first proper story sets the bar very high as a group of obnoxious lads cross paths with a succubus. Think of it as a form of payback for Project X as a group of similarly misogynist yobs get their comeuppance. Ti West’s story is a more laid back affair which follows a couple’s journey down Route 66 where they attract the attentions of an unwanted visitor. It is creepily effective and strikes a balance between developed characters and jolt scares.

Other films attempt to do something a bit different including one which uses a webcam to hilarious effect. It is a shame that it was beaten to the punch slightly in this area by last year’s The Pact and Paranormal Activity 4 but it remains an innovate use of simultaneous point of view and reaction shots. Another goes all-out with a blistering haunted house film with remarkably good special effects. The only disappointing entry represents a dip in the middle of the film as it riffs on the ‘teenagers in the woods’ staple to no real effect.

The litmus test for any horror film though is whether or not it is scary and the answer here is unequivocally yes. The plentiful laughs and a nice visual gimmick are decoration - although it remains to be seen why it carries the title V/H/S when many of the films use a mix of far more up-to-date technology.

A few of the chapters can’t quite sustain their lengths, especially in this format, and it would have been helped by an ending which sought to tie it all together a bit more. Some might have been hoping for it to be transgressive, rather than the solid but unremarkable mix that it is, but as a loving tribute and innovative representation of the new wave, there’s no higher compliment than to say there are parts you will want to rewind and watch over. Now that surely makes it a film worth tracking.


The original version of this review was published at

Monday, 14 January 2013


Twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska are emerging as darlings of the low budget horror scene and it is their experience in the industry that analogously informs the plot of their second film as writer-directors, American Mary. Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle, of Ginger Snaps fame) is a medical student struggling with debt and trying to make ends meet. Through a fortunate chain of events involving a strip club, some ad-hoc surgery and a woman who looks like a living Betty Boop (Tristan Risk) she ends up engulfed in the body modification scene performing illegal surgery like tongue splits, horn insertion and genital sealing.

There is a truly excellent premise here. The world of underground surgery and body modification is a fertile area to set a horror film within - although this is more a bloody psychological thriller than out-and-out horror. One only has to think of backroom butchery and the types of people having these procedures to conjure up some fascinating and unnerving images.

Katherine Isabelle is astounding in the lead role. Her initial vulnerability gives way to unflinching determination and, unlike many horror film heroines, she seems pragmatic and not prone to screaming. She never appears less than collected on screen and the camera lingers on her every move.

The film looks great for the relatively limited budget but the real problem lies in the pacing and script. Predictable horror staples (such as obligatory sexual violence) are thrown in as shortcut devices to elicit sympathy for Mary and help us understand her later actions, but the problem is it has no bearing on the narrative as a whole. There is really no reason for that entire subplot and it could be lifted out without harming the film in any way.

Similarly, there doesn’t appear to be need for an extended slow motion dream sequence featuring Mary seductively dousing herself in blood just to illustrate that sometime love interest Billy (Antonio Cupo) fancies her, although there is surely an explanation that probably involves it being a comment on the male gaze in horror. It even goes on to try to replicate the same trick later on. It is excess for excess's sake in a film that already has plenty.

The arc that Mary's character is taken on just doesn't feel fully realised. After a protracted build-up she is suddenly committing escalating violent acts that take huge leaps from scene to scene and don't have a grounded impetus. Development is all well and good but the majority of Mary's seems to appear unexplained over a 15 minute period. Most of it is delivered via oh-so clever iPhone exposition with plot points covered by tapping away on a touchscreen or laptop. Once is fine but it happens nearly every time we need to be told something about Mary's state of mind or situation.

It is deliciously bloody although never particularly explicit. It stumbles most when it takes unnecessary tentative fumbles towards wacky comedy, such as a cameo from the directors as German twins, or from their father, again as a zany German.

The final third is a real drag. A police investigation (lead by a an actor using an unbearable English accent) hampers the pace and once we have seen the extent of what Mary is capable of in one outrageous scene, there s nowhere else for it to go. We are left at a cat and mouse scenario with the cops that is lacking in tension and an interesting, leftfield threat which appears too late and leaves too quickly.

There are real problems with the sound mix at times, which presumably comes as a result of the budget, but scenes are often overwhelmed by the background noise of passing cars or nightclub music. It is a minor problem but relatively frequent and does take you out of the film.

Crucially, it has a strong authorial voice and does feel like it has something to say. It is just a shame that what is does have to say is often crowded out by the need to satisfy genre fans with what they are presumed to want.

There is much to admire in the film's energy and there are some standout sequences, not least her early forays into this murky world. The Soska sisters are definitely a force to keep an eye on in horror but this is too flawed to consider more than just a substantial calling card.


Friday, 11 January 2013


Gangster Squad is the third film from Ruben Fleischer, director of Zombieland and 30 Minutes Or Less, and is a 113 minute game of dress-up. It is a stylish slice of forties-set pop mobster drama but, in terms of capturing the grim realities of the period in credible fashion, the characters might as well be clad in spandex.

Crime lord Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, under a wrinkly prosthetic forehead and lumpy nose) is feathering his nest in Los Angeles and the only recourse left to police chief Parker (Nick Nolte, under his own wrinkly forehead) is to go off-the-books with a bit of heavy-handed brute force. He recruits bullheaded Good Cop Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to put together a motley crew to bust heads and take down the Cohen operation. The team - Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Peña – are assembled with a minimum of fuss and few obstacles, which is exactly how the film itself plays out.

It is a straightforward tale, bordering on slight, and it doesn’t strive for an authentic, or even deep, look at post-war LA. Instead it checks the required boxes and has fun playing with the iconography while doing nothing new with it; sultry gangster’s moll Grace Faraday (Emma Stone, glammed-up and miles away from her usually wholesome screen persona); crooked cops; bust-ups in burlesque joints; the rat-a-tat of Tommy Guns; dapper suits and hats. Lots of hats.

While individual characters within the titular squad have mileage there isn’t much of a dynamic developed between them and that does nothing but harm the premise of it being about assembling a team. The actors are never given the opportunity to develop beyond when we first meet them. Gosling has a twinkle in his eye but that is all he is allowed to have. Brolin has muscular presence in fights but his impact elsewhere is less keenly felt.

Sean Penn is allowed the most fun and gives his depiction of a one-dimensional despot plenty of continuously-snarling menace – although the effect is that after a scene or two he is less of a coiled spring and more of a shot bolt.

Many of the action scenes are presented in the modern, slow-mo style that gives them the instant whizz-bang of a pop promo but makes them seem more concerned with looking slick than the impact of that action on the characters. This is particularly evident in the climactic shootout where slow-shattering baubles distract so much that you can barely pick people out among the pretty carnage.

The hand-to-hand combat scenes are altogether more impressive than their armed counterparts, rattling the screen with a series of juddering blows and heightened crunches. While there is about as much to it as your average superhero film, it is set apart from its family-friendly brethren by glibly violent splashes.

It is impressively taut and doesn’t feel padded. The period detail is neat if overtly flashy, which is quite fitting as the film is entirely about the aesthetic. It won’t try to confound you with plot twists or convince you about the moral dilemmas of its actions; it is fully content to simply entertain with its bombastic qualities and impeccably tailored sense of wish fulfilment.


Wednesday, 9 January 2013


Director Tom Hooper has already proven with The King's Speech that he has a knack for getting often maligned demographics watching in droves. Last time it was fervent royalists and fans of old-style character drama but now he turns his attention to a paragon of hugely popular musical theatre and the sizeable following it has garnered in its three decades on stage.

This is a musical, although not one in which our heroes go about their business as normal but burst into song at regular intervals. There are no intervals, just as there is not a shred of dialogue between the songs and there is certainly no dancing to accompany them. It’s all songs, all the time and it takes a degree of adjustment to get used to the sung-through style, as it is technically known - even more so because nearly every other aspect of this period drama is played deadly straight. However, if you are familiar with the stage musical, rather than Victor Hugo’s original novel, you will have known to expect exactly that.

France, 1815: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is introduced as a prisoner doing hard labour where he is presided over by the officious, commanding Javert (Russell Crowe). Upon release, Valjean asserts he will start anew and that is when we see him again in 1823 where he is a prosperous merchant under an assumed name but still living in fear of discovery by the dogged Javert.

In tandem with Valjean’s story, we meet Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a lowly worker in his employ who has troubles of her own. She is in need of money and working to support her daughter Cosette, who is looked after by the unscrupulous Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Tragedy begets tragedy and characters’ lives cross paths, impacting on each other as they go. All the while the gathering storm of the Paris Uprising of 1832 looms ever-ominously on the horizon.

While the musical genre might suggest sweetness and light, this is authentically grotty. The Hollywood good looks of the actors are buried beneath browning teeth, blotchy skin and unflattering hairstyles. The set design of an impoverished Paris is a meisterwerk of dilapidated beauty and Hooper shows that his penchant for chipped paintwork extends beyond just royal therapy rooms.

While none of the singing reaches a Pierce Brosnan level of awfulness, the commitment to hiring actors rather than singers is admirable but does not always pay off. The style of the film favours performance over musical talent, which is a blessing to those unfamiliar with musicals as no other leeway is given to help follow the threads of the plot. It is possible to discern the story from the powerhouse acting when it might be otherwise unattainable through song.

Hugh Jackman is a seasoned musical performer but even he looks silly trying to earnestly hold a grave conversation in back-and-forth warbles. Russell Crowe gives it some gusto but his towering voice fails to convince across the multiple, multi-character, multi-location numbers. The entire style is constantly jarring. What might look fine within the more obviously artificial confines of a stage sits ill at ease with the scope of film.

All the most successful musical moments occur during less complex one singer, one song scenes. The zenith of these occurs early on as Anne Hathaway performs a tearful, single take rendition of the musical's most famous song, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. It is filmed in a tight, face-framing close-up, which immediately recalls the music video for Sinéad O'Connor's ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. It is dripping with raw emotion and goes some way to vindicate the decision to favour acting performance over the ability to hold a note or belt out a pin-sharp duet.

That said, the jaunty but incongruous ‘Master of the House’, performed by Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter, is a joy to behold. Both characters are grotesques and make the most of it, leering and grimacing their way through every double entendre and theatrical pratfall. Bonham Carter almost exactly reprises her role from Sweeney Todd while Baron Cohen’s ridiculously Gallic vocal turn begs the question why he is the only one who seems to be trying to appear remotely French.

What begins as a small-scale personal tale of injustice and persecution is undercut by the film’s exhausting timeframe spanning countless characters and seventeen years, plus back-story. Two thirds of the way through it completely shifts focus and expects us to care about the blossoming love between a grown-up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), two characters we have barely been introduced to let alone seen interact with each other in any meaningful way. It is such a volte face that it dramatically lessens Valjean's plight just at the point when his arc should be building to a climax. There is so much to fit in that minor characters suffer. Both Cosette and the Thénardiers’ daughter Éponine (Samantha Barks) are underused and fail to make an impact in an undercooked love triangle.

The sweep of it is grand but the effect is stultifying. It just about holds its intensity amongst the narrative disarray of the overlong second half but is blighted by the need to satisfy fans of the musical by keeping in as much from the source as possible at the expense of a streamlined plot.

Unless you get pleasure from holding a lilting conversation about the finer points of the 19th Century French judicial system, the songs are not tuneful or simple enough to sing along to (except, of course, if you already know them back-to-front). The style of this particular musical is an acquired taste but the gritty, epic look of it is worthy compensation.

Hooper is a director who knows his audience and crafts a much-loved phenomenon into something rousing but flawed. He might not be the most revolutionary director but his use of minimal gimmickry to let emotion rule the story when required is groundbreaking in a film of this scale. The restraint he shows is unfortunately front-loaded in the narrative and the whole is visually stunning but at risk of being suffocated by excess.


Saturday, 5 January 2013


Forcefully casting the Michael Bay-produced remake and its prequel to the side and lopping off the disappointing sequels, this new instalment makes Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre the only canonical entry in the series and seeks to follow it up.

An excellent idea, one would think.

Using footage from the original as set-up over the opening credits, the film begins with a refreshing period prologue that takes place immediately after the events of that film. Further building on the notion of family that runs through Hooper’s film, it neatly establishes the unhinged Sawyer clan’s mythic cult-like status.

However, with that short introduction out of the way, director John Luessenhop and the film’s four credited writers lead us to the present day with crushing inevitability. We meet our protagonist Heather Miller (Alexandra Daddario), who is predictably dressed in the flesh-baring attire of a horror film heroine, as she discovers she has inherited a house in rural Texas from her biological family. She decides to visit the place with her disposable group of friends and a mysterious hitchhiker. Suffice to say, anyone who hasn’t already realised what type of film this is based on its title alone will soon be is a position to find out.

What follows is generic stalk-and-slash fodder as the group are picked off one by one and the secrets of Heather's new abode are revealed. It’s executed without any verve and once again features Leatherface, the series’ human-skin-masked, hulking serial killer who savagely dispatches his victims, like so many cattle at an abattoir, using the titular implement.

The first nagging doubt about this entry doesn’t take long to emerge. If this is set now (as the use of smartphones would attest), and it has already established it takes place in the same world as that of the original 1974 film, would this not then be taking place nearly forty years later? Yes it would. Would Leatherface not be an old man barely able to outrun buff and/or nubile teens? Yes he would.

If it is the case that this is set after all these years, why do characters established in the prologue appear to have barely aged or, in the case of our protagonist, have definitely not reached the age of nearly forty? It completely defies belief. There's the sense that the filmmakers also realised this and have sought to retcon the history but it's done in such a cack-handed way (simply leaving the year off every time the date of the events of the original film are mentioned) that it always jars. Should these kind of niggles be there to bother us in a film about a man killing people with a power tool? Probably not.

This is the biggest glaring flaw in the set-up but it barely matters because everything else is handled so ineptly anyway. There's no pace, no logic and no tension. Leatherface is no longer a hidden secret; the chilling masked figure with little explanation and even less remorse. Everyone locally knows who he is, which makes the sight of him running amok at a packed carnival with no fatalities all the sillier.

There’s something so aggressively cynical about every aspect of the film that it’s difficult to decide whether it’s the botched job that’s been made of restarting the franchise, or the lip service paid to the original genre classic, that is more egregious. By the time it asks us to view one of cinema’s most iconically violent villains as sympathetic, there’s no coming back.

There's something fittingly brutal in the way it excises any of the sequels and tries to streamline the mythology to start afresh, but the central core of family bonds and bloody grudges just doesn't wash. There's barely a visceral thrill to be had and it plays out in banal fashion without a modicum of the sense of unease the franchise was initially built upon.

Using footage from Tobe Hooper's sun-scorched original just serves to remind how sub-par and without atmosphere this is in comparison.