The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2011)


The Cabin in the Woods

This is great fun, though I’m not sure it’s quite as brilliant as some of the reviews suggest – for fans of co-writer Joss Whedon, much of the ground has already been covered – in Buffy, Angel and even Dollhouse (though not really Firefly) even if the horror has been ramped up a little for a Cinematic “15” rating, compared to a pre-watershed TV release.

We start off in some kind of technological facility with three technocrats (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford and Amy Acker) discussing the pressure on them to perform, since international rivals can’t be relied on, and whether they’re taking their work sufficiently seriously. We are not told what their work entails, and who they work for remains mysterious.

Cut to a suburban house. Four students and their stoner friend are heading off for a weekend in the country – Dana (Kristen Connolly), just recovering from a break-up with her professor, Jules (Anna Hutchison) her friend, newly blonde and looking for fun, Curt (Chris Hemsworth) Jules’ athletic boyfriend, Holden (Jesse Williams), a serious and studious man who Jules is trying to fix up with Dana, and Marty (Fran Kranz) the clever, funny but wasted stoner. As they leave, mysterious observers report on their progress…

It’s been noted that the less you know about this in advance, the better since the movie relies heavily on its twist; this is probably true, and I won’t give the game away. Most people know already that, like Scream, this plays with genre clichés and, typically for Whedon, there is plenty of wit and cleverness in play. I have heard complaints that it’s not scary enough and that might be true – there were enough ‘yuk’ moments to make me squirm and there was certainly a sense of menace but I didn’t really get involved in the film until the reveal, when the characterisations came more to the fore.

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The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)


The Conformist

A really interesting film, this one, a really stylish movie, beautiful to look at and with a look and tone that reminds me very much of Once Upon A Time in America (and it could be that Leone deliberately echoed Bertolucci).

Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Marcello is recruited into the pre-war Italian Fascist secret service – or rather, he volunteers, with some help from a blind friend and party activist, Lino. Much of the film takes place in Paris, as Marcello accepts a gun and a mission to spy on his college professor, Quadri, and his daughter Anna (Dominique Sanda), left wing refugees from Mussolini’s thugs.

There are a number of flashbacks, as we see Marcello marry a lively (if rather simple) Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) in a seeming attempt to achieve some kind of normality, as he reveals in the required Catholic confession prior to his wedding; we also see some of his family and history, as some kind of explanation, or at least background, to his abnormality.

Once in Paris, Marcello’s orders change and he is ordered to assassinate Quadri and Anna, which task is complicated by his desire for her, and Anna’s desire for Giulia. Marcello, although he acts cool and controlled, is full of doubts and his handler, Manganiello, rightly identifies him as a coward. The film follows Marcello’s experiences so we see things largely from his point of view but we are not necessarily expected to sympathise with him much, and he is not the most likeable of leads.

Throughout the film, the cinematography is amazing, with fantastic and fantastical shots, with wonderful constructions of light, shade and colour. Occasionally, this tips over into silliness, when the camera, following a speeding car, tips left and then in the next shot tips right, in what could be a pastiche of fussy camerawork, or when the light in a room seems to be forming horizontal and vertical striped shadows on different walls in a way unfeasable in natural circumstances.

Still, there is much to like, both in style and substance.

Beggars of Life (William A. Wellman, 1928)


Beggars of Life

This, an offering of the Bradford International Film Festival and taking place in the Media Museum, is the second silent movie event I’ve seen accompanied by a live musical accompaniment and it really is the best way to see these films. Neil Brand, who makes a specialism of these things, was again on piano but this time the rest of the band was the Dodge Brothers, with film reviewer Mark Kermode on bass. There is a sense of occasion that comes with a live performance that really adds to the experience of visiting the cinema though, at £15 a ticket it will almost certainly remain a pretty niche way of seeing films, despite Kermode’s jokey challenge at the end “3D’s the past, silent cinema’s the future!”.

Before the band came out to accompany the main feature, we were treated to a short animation, with Daffy Duck being tormented by his animator playing tricks with his backgrounds, and with Daffy himself, an old favourite and a nice postmodernist touch to keep the idea of what film is in the foreground.

The Dodge Brothers’ Mike Hammond introduced Beggars of Life, with a little background into its making and why they’d chosen it to perform to – a skiffle band is not the first accompaniment you’d expect to cinema but this film’s western setting, with a heavy reliance on railroads, suited them nicely.

The story to the film is simple enough: Louise Brooks’ “Girl” (unnamed) is discovered by Richard Arlen’s down-on-his-luck “man” (likewise unnamed), having shot and killed her adopted father who was about to rape her. Facing almost certain capital punishment, she is helped escape by the young man, almost against his will since association with her will mean association with her crime and death for him also if they are caught together. Together they hop trains, coming to love one another and facing the threat posed by other hobos, especially “The Arizona Snake” and “Oklahoma Red” (Wallace Beery), rivals for the “kingship” of the hobos. Beery gets top billing and, for the first half of the film, this is somewhat surprising as the film is clearly a love story for Arlen and Brooks, but it does make sense later, as Beery’s surprisingly nuanced character grabs more screen time. Brooks, especially, has enormous screen presence and was understandably a star but Beery undoubtedly takes over this film.

Though there are some obviously dated techniques and styles on show, there are also some lovely special effects – early on there is footage of the girl telling her story overlaid on the footage of that story unfolding, a beautifully concise way of revealing story without the need for excessive text plates (although there are other places where these do intrude rather badly) – and a surprisingly complex morality. Well, it’s still “boy and girl fleeing injustice” but it’s got nice touches here and there that raise it above the insultingly simplistic.

One of the nicest touches is that Oklahoma Red plays Judge in a mock trial (at which point he is clearly the villain) but, later, the guise of judge is brought back in a much more symbolic and metaphorical way that pushes the story on and adds a little complexity to character.

A lovely little film and a wonderful occasion.

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Robin Ince’s ‘Happiness through Science’, Northern Ballet Leeds, 18 April 2012


Interesting event this. Not quite a comedy show (though funny), not a lecture (though informative) – more a fairly informal and friendly event. Robin Ince is mainly known to me through his podcasts Infinite Monkey Cage (with Professor Brian Cox) and Utter Shambles (with Josie Long) so I’m not completely unfamiliar with his style, though this is the first of his live shows I’ve seen.

Like the Lee and Herring Shows I’ve seen, this was a comic investigation around a theme – in this case, how science informs and improves our lives. Unlike them, it was not tightly structured, with a tendency to ramble and run down blind alleys, only to be pulled back to the main theme when he’d taken it too far away (a few times getting a bit ranty, a confusion I presume, with his other recent ‘Angry’ show). This should be taken as an observation rather than a criticism as these diversions were generally pretty interesting and funny and the whole event had a relaxed and friendly vibe to it that worked well.

Ince gets accused of being ‘smug’, mostly I presume, because he is a pro-science atheist and being unapologetically so is almost always knee-jerk dismissed as so but he was here reasonable and accommodating – not by pretending to believe, but simply by a recognition that most atheists and theists alike can live and let live perfectly well, and that we are all liable to hold unjustifiable beliefs on occasion. The talk covered some of the skeptical community’s heros – Richard Feynman, Bertrand Russell, with a little gentle mockery of Dawkins and Cox – and some more spirited (and deserved) mockery of its chief villains, Delingpole and Phillips, with telling quotes to illustrate the wider theme. His chief gripe was with the way science is reported in the media, and how the media in general tries to foster controversy in all fields, even when no such dissension genuinely exists, and how this confuses the public and leads to misinformation being given equal weight to solid fact.

I’m pretty well-versed in skeptical arguments but Ince still managed to find some arguments and slants that were new to me, and which I’ll integrate into my own. I’m not entirely sure that he would have managed to convince any doubters that scientific skepticism makes people happier but, here, he was ‘preaching to the converted’ and it was a thoroughly enjoyable sermon.

Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)


Captain America
When I was a kid, I was an avid reader of Marvel Comics but Captain America never really interested me since, unlike The Hulk, Spiderman, the X-Men, or even Thor, he never seemed to have much of an internal life. He did, however, have one of the best origin stories, with pathos and grandeur combined. Given that Marvel movies, like the comics of the main superheros themselves, always seem to kick off with the origin stories, I was pretty keen to see what they did with this, though I was unable to see it when it came out at the cinemas.

So, US soldiers in the Arctic find what looks like a spaceship half-buried in the ice. Investigating, they find, frozen in the ice an iconic shield and the discoverer refers to how long “this one” has been waiting. Cut back to 1942, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a weedy, unfit and unhealthy young man but with an indomitable spirit who wants to do his duty and fight for his country in WWII, but is repeatedly rejected. Spotted by a German refugee scientist Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci) at one of the many attempts to con his way into the army, his courage and simple goodness convince Erskine that Rogers is exactly the kind of character he needs for his ‘Super Soldier’ programme and Rogers is enrolled and put through basic army training under the tutelage of a sceptical Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). While unsurprisingly failing all the physical tests, Rogers excells at all the intellectual and moral ones, earning the respect of Peggy Carter and, once Phillips is reluctantly persuaded by Erskine, gets the ‘Super Soldier’ treatment ahead of the more obvious soldierly types.

Following the treatment, the Super Soldier programme is tragically cut short and Rogers is left with little to do, not allowed to fight, as he is the only remaining link to the serum that might be able to restart the programme, and he finds himself in the role of a costumed ‘performing monkey’, cheesily named “Captain America” and leading a chorus line in a travelling musical show helping to raise war bonds, until he is faced with actual soldiers in his audience, under the command of Phillips, and who are the survivors of an encounter with the recipient of a previous attempt at the Super Soldier serum, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) who, supported in his researches by scientist Dr Zola (Toby Jones), leads a fanatical and lunatic Nazi weapons-development sect called Hydra, and for whom the Nazis are simply a vehicle for his own plans of world domination. When Rogers learns that his childhood pal, ‘Bucky’ Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is a prisoner of Schmidt, Rogers enlists the help of Carter, with whom he has the beginnings of a romantic relationship, and of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to fly into the war zone so that Captain America can take on Hydra.

All of this is well done, though I thought Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci could perhaps have been better in each other’s roles as Jones looked a little incongruously comical and Tucci can do sinister better, and Hydra was rather blander and less obviously terrible than it should be -if you’re going to have an enemy that is supposed to be worse than the Nazis, you really need that enemy to be pretty terrifying. Nonethess, I was entertained and engaged throughout, as the film effectively set up the two big emotional moments that the comic-book story set up, as Captain America is brought from his World War 2 origins to modern day America (in the comics, a time lapse of twenty-something years, now about seventy).

And it blew it. Big style. Marvel has been compromising its big superhero films recently with clunky set-ups for the big “Avengers” film – Iron Man 2 was particularly poor, with Scarlett Johansson’s utterly superfluous appearance as Black Widow – but none was so devastatingly destructive as the way all the dramatic power of this film was sacrificed to make the end of it a trailer for the next film. After setting up the two big losses that Rogers had to suffer, the second being rather “A Matter of Life and Death” -ish, what should have been developed as a moving ‘man out of time’ realisation, as Captain America comes to terms with what has passed, was dismissed in an absurdly trite one-liner that pissed all over all the characterisation that we’d previously seen.

This is an object lesson in how to ruin a movie. The Avengers had better be fucking good.

The Hunger Games ( Gary Ross, 2012)


The Hunger Games

I’ve not read the books on which this is based, and I’ve not yet seen Battle Royale to which it is (often unfavourably) compared, so what I have to say on this might be more than usually ignorant.

Nevertheless…

The film opens with titles explaining how a future US dystopia comes about after a set of civil wars leaves a set of twelve impoverished districts having to give ‘tributes’ each year, in the form of one boy and girl to compete in the eponymous games, in a televised gladitorial fight to the death in an artificially recreated wilderness environment. The inhabitants of Districts 1 and 2 gladly volunteer, as they are trained for months in advance and the winner usually comes from their ranks, while the inhabitants of the outer Districts are usually little more than fodder for the brutal entertainments, greedily watched by the pampered, preening and effete inhabitants of the mega-city, and watched desparately by the inhabitants of the outer zones, who want the fleeting escapism from their poverty in the pride of seeing their representative do well, and their compatriot come back alive.

Katniss Everdene (Jennifer Lawrence) and her friend/boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) live in the outlying District 12, scraping a living by poaching, and living on the edge of the law, hoping to evade the “Peacekeepers”, fascistic guards who collect the “tribute” each year, and fantasising about a life free from the Hunger Games and the tyranny they represent. When Katniss’ young (and weak) sister, Prim (Willow Shields) is chosen, Katniss offers to take her place. She, and fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are taken to the city to be prepared (their mentors include Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz) before being launched into the games.

Firstly, I did enjoy the film; I feel I need to say that as the rest of my comments may seem a little niggardly. This film is a simple story, well told, and with a host of solid performances, not least from Lawrence herself, who seems to have taken her Winter’s Bone persona and given her some archery lessons. And it’s that sense of ‘nothing much new’ that is my main reservation about the movie. Even without Battle Royale, you can play ‘spot the influence’ here. There’s bits of Logan’s Run, bats of Lord of the Flies. A little of Rollerball, a bit more of The Truman Show; almost every dystopian sci-fi seems to have contributed a little. The ‘Peacekeepers’ even resembled the Federation guards from Blake’s Seven, though I’m sure that’s just a bizarre coincidence. The only ‘new’ thing seems to be the ‘structured reality’ slant that modern tv offers, and that the Games’ organisers here use, imposing a politically useful narrative on the slaughter. That lack of a strong original identity is not necessarily a killer problem but I wanted it to contribute something more itself. Perhaps, when the inevitable sequels get made, it will.

The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists (Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt, 2012)


The Pirates!

The latest from Aardman, this film incorporates some CGI with the claymation for which the studio is famed and, to my eyes at least, to wonderful effect. The story is simple, and silly, enough. A hapless pirate captain, who goes by the name ‘Pirate Captain’ (voiced by Hugh Grant), wants to win the “Pirate of the Year” competition, for which he must win more swag than his rivals. After numerous failures, he encounters the Beagle, whose then unknown occupant, Charles Darwin (David Tennant), is about to walk the plank in the pirate crew’s attempt to cheer their captain for yet another failure to find treasure, when he recognises that the pirate’s squat, ugly ship’s parrot is, in fact, the world’s last surviving dodo. Seeing the opportunity for scientific fame, Darwin persuades the Pirate Captain that untold treasures await in London on scientific presentation of the bird. But the pirates face certain, and unpleasant, death if they are discovered as Queen Victoria particularly loathes pirates…

There are idiosynchratic and utterly ahistorical portraits of historical figures galore here, from the wheedling, scheming Darwin to the acrobatic, ninja-fighting Queen Victoria, all drawn with a great sense of fun. I’ve seen some criticism that it isn’t as funny as Chicken Run or Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I haven’t seen the first, but I found much of the humour in Were-Rabbit a bit blunt for my taste and so the jokes here were more akin to the skewed and slightly odd that the earlier Wallace and Gromit, so were more to my taste. But what was even more beguiling was that it just looked so fantastic. The claymation and CGI were each so beautiful and so well-integrated, that the screen was glorious to look at and, as you’d expect from Aardman, there were jokes all over the place – this is definitely one for multiple viewings, to try to spot all the jokes that have been crammed in to the screen. I was stunned that so many people left as the credits rolled, because they too were full of jokes. It seemed such a waste to pay to see a movie and then leave when there was so much more on offer.

Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan geumjassi, 2005)


Lady Vengeance

Well, this wasn’t quite what I was expecting!

The third in a “Revenge Trilogy” (I hope not yet having watched the first two parts doesn’t mean I’ve missed deep and hidden meanings), I expected this to be dark and gritty and it was, intermittently. But it was also glossy, stylish and, very frequently, self-consciously ‘wacky’.

The plot: Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Lee) is released from prison, where she has served thirteen years for the kidnap and murder of a child. We are given to suspect that she has been set up and, gradually, her reasons for accepting the blame for the crime and her plans for revenge are revealed. Given almost superhuman powers of patience and organisation, Geum-ja is shown not to have been wasting her time inside, having worked her way into (benevolent) control of the inmates and cultivating contacts (each of whom is introduced with a subtitle) who will be useful to her later. She is also reunited with her daughter, a baby given up for adoption when Geum-ja was arrested and whose existance also has significance.

I’m really not sure about this film. Yes, it is made with great panache – some of the scenes are amazingly beautiful – and it was well acted (Yeong-ae Lee is terrific) and serious in intent; I don’t think it sets out to trivialise torture and mob-justice. And yet, with its odd and jarring changes in tone, it managed to distance me from what should have been a visceral experience. I may yet watch the other films in this trilogy but they’re not very high on my ‘watch’ list.

The Guard (John Michael McDonagh, 2011)


The Guard

Ok, I’d heard that this was good but I didn’t reckon on just how good it was going to be. Like a very black version of Father Ted, this sets up a sleepy, backward and corrupt Irish country town and its policeman, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) who, right from the opening sequence, is shown to be rather unenthusiastic about police procedure, and is later shown hiring prostitutes and helping to cover up some pretty major crimes – though in order to avoid larger problems.

This backwater is disturbed by a grisly murder with, at first, possible “serial killer” overtones, the disappearance of a young and enthusiastic collegue, recently arrived from Dublin, and then the appearance of the FBI, in the form of Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), working with the Irish authorities to intercept international drug dealers. Gerry’s world is becoming very dangerous indeed.

Gerry takes a great pleasure in playing up to the “Oirish thickie” stereotype, and some low-level racism, to wind Wendell up but, as they get to know one another, a grudging respect emerges. There is a clear “quirky cop / by-the-books cop buddy movie” being set up here but the whole thing is very charming and, despite some great laughs, Gerry’s character is kept just the right side of eccentric and corrupt to still be sympathetic. Even the villains have a little complexity, and some pretty funny lines (Mark Strong, particularly, is superb), although there is little to like about them. Wendell questions whether Gerry might be “the stupidest person I’ve ever encountered or the cleverest”, and we see enough of him, particularly in his relationship with his dying mother, to suggest it is the second.

This really is a lovely film, not a blockbuster, but (yet another!) small and interesting and, most of all, charming movie.

On the DVD we rented, there was a small extra feature, a short film shot cheaply on grainy film, and called “The Second Ghost”, featuring most of the same cast as The Guard (though not Gleeson or Cheadle) and also set in rural Ireland. This is also certainly worth a watch but not immediately after the main film as the tone is very different, being a superb little gothic chiller.

Wild Bill (Dexter Fletcher, 2010)


Wild Bill

Is it just me, or is the UK releasing a good number of decent, small and (most of all) interesting films at the moment? This debut film features Charlie Creed-Miles as the eponymous Bill, a small-time drug dealer and thug who has just finished a prison sentence and returns to his grotty London flat to find that his partner has run off to Spain leaving their two children to fend for themselves. They’re not pleased to see him, particularly the elder, Dean (Will Poulter), a fifteen year old who has been working in the black economy as a builder to keep him and his younger brother Jimmy (Sammy Williams) out of care, but who is now on the social services map due to Bill’s appearance.

Bill, who was previously known as “Wild Bill” for his extreme violence, has been changed by his prison experience and is determined to go straight and keep out of trouble. Whilst his erstwhile companions want him to rejoin their crew and give him some drugs and ply him with drink, depositing him unconscious with Dean and Jimmy, the police are going to put him back inside if he associates with them. Bill is caught in a dilemma, which he intends resolving by going to Scotland to work the oil rigs – but is blackmailed into staying and playing “happy families” until the social services are diverted away from Dean and Jimmy.

Bill’s old friend Terry, who now leads the local dealers, is not happy that Bill is going straight and takes the opportunity of recruiting young Jimmy into dealing. A “Clint Eastwood” style showdown is obviously coming but, since even Clint doesn’t always make it to the end of his films these days, it’s far from clear that Bill will win.

There is a lovely transformation throughout the film, as reluctant father and sons come to care for one another, not in a saccharine way, but in a manner fairly believable and I was entertained and engaged throughout. Nice little film.