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#94a: The Gruffalo’s Child (2011) March 9, 2012

Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Comedy, Fantasy, adaptations, 4 stars, British films, Short, 2010s, 2011 , add a comment

Johannes Weiland & Uwe Heidschötter | 26 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English | U

The Gruffalo's ChildShown on BBC One over Christmas, this animated adaptation of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s The Gruffalo’s Child is the sequel to the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s The Gruffalo (of course). For my money, it’s every bit as good as the first film.

Indeed, you could re-read my review of the first film and apply the same comments here. The pace is still considered — or, to be less polite, slow; but beautifully so. Though this time they’ve thrown some action sequences into the mix (yes, action sequences) to help round out the short picture book to a full half-hour film. Perhaps surprisingly, they work. The voice cast are the same, with the addition of Shirley Henderson as the titular girl-beast, and she fits in perfectly.

The CG animation retains the original’s “is it claymation?” feel, though the wintry setting allows the animators to really show off with some truly stunning snow. Most of the film goes for an appropriately cartoony style, but the various types of frozen water on display could pass for the real thing.

Lovely stuff, then, and thankfully every bit the equal of the first (which, in my opinion, the book isn’t). There was no nomination forthcoming at this year’s Oscars, but then with their complicatedly specific eligibility rules maybe it wasn’t released soon enough to qualify. Maybe next year.

4 out of 5

#97: Faintheart (2008) March 8, 2012

Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Romance, 2000s, 3 stars, British films, 2011 , add a comment

Vito Rocco | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12

FaintheartApparently MySpace had some hand in the creation of this movie. Remember MySpace? It’s what there was before Facebook. It was always rubbish, it just took a lot of people a long time to realise that. Anyway, some reviews seem to dwell on its involvement in the production of this movie — whole articles exist asking if it’s just a gimmick — but, looking at it as a finished film, I don’t know why: if you didn’t know (and, to be frank, even if you do) you’d never tell the end product had anything to do with that antiquated social network.

Faintheart isn’t about social networking… at least, not in any modern sense. It’s about battle re-enacters; or rather, it’s a Brit-rom-com that uses battle re-enacters as its USP. “Brit-rom-com” should give you a fair idea of the territory we’re in, although this has a geekier edge than most, which plays to the sensibilities of someone like me. One character owns a comic book store, for instance. It doesn’t play an overt part in the plot, but battle re-enacting stands in for any kind of niche pursuit. And it does make for a better-than-average climax. Swords always do.

Most of the cast is drawn from the pool marked “British character actors” — you may or may not know the names, but you’ll probably know most of the faces.Not-so-recognisable faces The lead is Eddie Marsan (Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes and A Game of Shadows; all sorts of other stuff, too much to even begin mentioning), his wife is Jessica Hynes (Spaced; all sorts), Ewen Bremner is his mate (Trainspotting; all sorts), Tim Healy (Auf Wiedersehen, Pet; all sorts), Anne Reid (dinnerladies; all sorts), Kevin Eldon (all sorts)… You may see a theme developing. And there are others, but they had even fewer things they were known for, or I didn’t recognise their names on the IMDb cast list.

Anyway.

Faintheart isn’t exceptional. Apparently it didn’t even get a theatrical release (though I remember someone coming on some chat show to promote it). Even if it was crowd-created through MySpace, that hasn’t made it something especially different, nor too stereotypical that it’s ruined. It’s not likely to be remembered in the never-ending pantheon of Brit-rom-coms, but for one with a slightly different edge I think it deserves better than it’s got.

3 out of 5

(I originally gave it four stars. Looking back, that felt generous. For once, I tweaked it. Guess I ought to go fiddle with my stats now…)

#88: RED (2010) March 5, 2012

Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Action, Thriller, adaptations, 4 stars, 2010s, 2011 , 3 comments

Robert Schwentke | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

REDRED here stands for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”, a description bestowed by the CIA on a group of former agents who, for reasons I won’t go into — because, quite frankly, I can’t remember — fight back against the Agency when someone starts trying to kill them.

RED is just one in a recent array of tongue-in-cheek action films; films that aren’t strictly comedies but aren’t wholly serious either, meaning they can push their action sequences to ludicrous extremes and get away with it. They’re also a lot of fun and I love them. I love a gritty and serious Bourne as much as your next man, or a traditional action film too, but there’s also room for films that are daft, fun, knowingly silly rather than just ridiculous. Films like The A-Team, Knight and Day and RED — and I’ve enjoyed all of them.

So (to slightly repeat myself) it’s all daft, but it’s all fun. The action is thoroughly OTT, but inventive with it. It manages to be very amusing as well as quite excitingly action-y. It even begins as a rom-com, which is an interesting tactic. It’s not what you’re expecting from an action movie, but surely no one is ever going to watch this and be fooled? Does anyone watch films completely unaware of what they are?

Mad MalkovichNaturally, considering the theme, the cast is made up of older actors — a neat twist on the usual action movie format of making people younger and younger. Expect this to spread, especially as anyone that could still just about be dubbed a movie star is ageing, replaced only by flash-in-the-pan teen idols. They’re all great because they’re all great actors. Well, Bruce Willis isn’t a Great Actor like Helen Mirren or Morgan Freeman, but he can do an action movie and he can do humour well enough. John Malkovich is as barmy as he always is, but here it works. Sometimes things just line up like that. Karl Urban also gives another solid supporting turn. I’m sure he’s had a few lead roles at this point, but maybe this autumn’s Dredd will finally cement him as a viable action leading man.

Stray thought: it’s set at Christmas, despite an autumnal release date. An extremely subtle Die Hard reference? There doesn’t seem to be any other reason for it.

If I have one criticism it’s that it’s perhaps too long. It begins to drag a little in places and is unable to sustain its own craziness throughout the third act. But until then it’s a lot of fun, and after decades of Very Serious action movies, isn’t it nice to be allowed to have fun?

4 out of 5

#99: Winnie the Pooh (2011) February 25, 2012

Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Comedy, Musical, Disney, adaptations, 4 stars, 2010s, 2011 , add a comment

Stephen J. Anderson & Don Hall | 63 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / G

Winnie the PoohWinnie the Pooh, as many reviews on its release were keen to point out, is for small children. It doesn’t have the attempts to placate adults with their own jokes that elevate/plague most American animation; it’s only an attention-span-friendly hour long; and it has a lovely, genial, friendly tone, with brightly coloured characters, plinky-plonky songs and heartwarming moral messages.

The thing is, I don’t hold that this makes it “just for ickle kiddies”. Sure, it can, and when it’s done poorly it most certainly does, but that’s not Winnie the Pooh. Look back to A.A. Milne’s original stories and you see the same thing: ostensibly it’s just for the kids, but there’s actually all kinds of wordplay and (admittedly, gentle) subversion that’s clearly targeted at the adult reading the book. This new film captures that same effect. Naturally this means it won’t work on the cynical or black-hearted viewer, or the Mature type whose favour isn’t even curried by the adult-targeted jokes in a Pixar film, but for the rest of us it can make it a delight.

In few other films would you see the characters interact with the narrator; see them scramble across the words in the pages of the book their story comes from; indeed, see the presence of those tangible letters help along the plot — I won’t spoil how. You don’t have to love Winnie the Pooh in an ironic still-a-child-at-heart kind of way, even if the presence of real-life Manic Dream Pixie Girl Zooey Deschanel on vocals suggests you might — it’s clever and witty enough to transcend that.

Interacting with lettersThe majority of the film’s other elements click into place nicely too. The traditional animation is gorgeously executed, the voices are the ones we surely all know from growing up alongside Disney’s Pooh output, particularly Jim Cummings pulling double time as both Pooh and Tigger, as he has for decades. The exception I’d make is Bud Luckey’s Eeyore. I don’t know if he’s always sounded like that and I’d forgotten, but his voice didn’t work for me. It’s not the only problem: the songs can be a bit insipid; equally, a couple transcend that to work beautifully; and there’s no denying that it is a bit short; but then it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and hey, Dumbo’s no longer.

The American Academy have overlooked Winnie the Pooh in their nominations this weekend (not to mention Tintin, and probably some other stuff I’ve forgotten), I imagine writing it off as “just for little kids”. And that’s a shame, because I don’t think it is. I certainly loved it more than Rango and it’s definitely better than Kung Fu Panda 2, to pick on the two nominees I’ve seen. I struggle to believe I’ll find Puss in Boots more endearing.

Nonetheless, as much as I would dearly love to give a new Winnie the Pooh film full marks, there are a few niggles that hold me back — the songs, Eeyore’s voice, the length. But it is ever so lovely, and it came ever so close.

4 out of 5

The 2012 Oscars are on Monday at 1:30am on Sky Movies Premiere.

Marching

#62: Ip Man (2008) February 23, 2012

Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Drama, 2000s, 4 stars, true stories, world cinema, Biography, Historical, 2011 , add a comment

aka Yip Man

Wilson Yip | 106 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong & China / Cantonese, Mandarin & Japanese | 15 / R

Ip ManI liked Ip Man, but as we know from experience there are times when I find myself with little to say about a film, or I fail to make any notes, and this was an example of both. So I’ve decided to try something a little different.

I’ve read several different reviews of the film, found by various means, and have compiled a selection of quotes from them below. These are all segments of those reviews that I agree with or found to be an interesting point — I’m not trying to accurately represent each reviewer’s opinion, but instead using their words to enlighten my own. Each quote is, of course, credited and linked, so if you want to know their full opinion you can click through.

They’re arranged in an order that I think makes sense, too — by which I mean, rather than just bundle a selection of quotes in any old order, I’ve sorted them so that if you read them through as presented they should form a structured (more or less) piece.

And so:

Biographical martial arts drama starring Donnie Yen. China in the 1930s: Ip Man’s reputation as a martial arts master has brought fame and fortune to the city of Foshan. But hard times are ahead, as the Japanese invasion brings the once prosperous city to its knees.

- Radio Times

Donnie Yen plays the eponymous Wing Chun master, who stove off hunger, poverty and half the Japanese army during China’s WW2 occupation – by kicking ass!

- Matt Giasby, Total Film

Though that’s an amusing thought, the film’s not quite that simplistic:

Donnie Yen

As he rallies his people to stand up for themselves, Ip Man becomes about how war pushes a peaceful man into action, but also how he tries to maintain his faith in what it means to be civilized.

- Noel Murray, AV Club

Ip’s transformation from diffident bourgeois to symbolic man of the people is rendered as compelling period melodrama

- Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com

There’s a pleasing playfulness about the opening scenes, which contrast… with the downbeat mood that follows during the occupation.

- Jamie Healy, Radio Times

Not everyone was so impressed:

In transforming a humble real-life martial artist into the type of the reluctant hero (and nationalist icon), screenwriter Edmond Wong has turned his subject not only into something that he was not, but also into an overfamiliar kung fu movie cliche. This is an impression not helped by the film’s desaturated period look (yet another cliche), and a drift in the second, war-set half towards melodrama

- Film4

a shameless hagiography that only bears a passing resemblance to history.

- Dan Jolin, Empire

To elucidate:

The presence of young Zhun [Ip Man’s son] suggests an eyewitness veracity to the events as portrayed on-screen — after all, Zhun himself, now a much older man and a wing chun master in his own right, served as a consultant on Ip Man. The film, however, does not hesitate to sacrifice the truth to the demands of dramatic entertainment.

- Film4

Everybody was kung fu fighting

almost none of what you see in Ip Man actually happened, and in some sense that’s too bad, because the real Ip sounds like a fascinating figure. He was a pre-revolutionary police officer, a reported opium addict, and a refugee who fled the Communist takeover in 1949 for a new life in British Hong Kong. But all those factors make him undesirable as the hero of a work of rousing nationalist agitprop. So instead we get Yen’s remarkable performance as a man of prodigious Buddhist-Confucian composure and tranquility, who goes from wealth to poverty to near-slave status, and finally must fight a public gladiatorial match against a sinister Japanese general

- Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com

disappointingly simplistic. Yip, Wong, and Yen never develop any real tension between Ip’s true story and the exaggerated myth-making of a martial-arts movie. But as an exaggerated, myth-making martial-arts movie, Ip Man is often thrilling.

- Noel Murray, AV Club

True-to-life or not, action star Donnie Yen largely shines in the lead role:

Donnie Yen delivers a charismatic portrayal of Ip Man, the martial arts master of the title.

- Derek Adams, Time Out

Man is the role Yen was made to play: a stoic tough guy that everybody in the community knows is the best

- Simon Abrams, New York Press

Yen’s performance is also a bit one-dimensional as the modest wing chun expert, but at least he gives a good account of himself in the finely composed and inventive close-combat scenes — an impressive highlight being when he wipes the floor with ten soldiers with methodical precision.

- Jamie Healy, Radio Times

Eleven on oneIndeed, fighting is still what the film does best:

As a showcase for the distinctive moves of Wing Chun, or more generally for some formalised (if largely wire-free) chopsocky, Ip Man is exemplary, thanks to the action choreography of cult Hong Kong star Sammo Hung.

- Film4

Hung’s fight choreography is clever and exciting, with sequences that have Ip felling a sword-wielding rival with a feather-duster, or holding off two men with a 10-foot pole.

- Noel Murray, AV Club

That final conflict between evil General Sanpo and Man — who of course still has to fight the biggest bad guy since the locals are too incompetent to even fight a group of disorganized bandits — is also curiously ruthless. Sanpo is likened to Man’s coat rack-like training apparatus, making the flurry of blows Man rains down on Sanpo’s head a vicious attack on a dehumanized piece of furniture. It’s a fittingly abstract and totally brutal finale.

- Simon Abrams, New York Press

There are definitely better kung-fu flicks in terms of pure action spectacle, but Ip Man delivers as tremendous entertainment even if you don’t much care about martial arts.

- Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com

It’s not all rosy:

The film was a box office hit in China… That may have had less to do with the excellent fight sequences, directed by Sammo Hung with the help of one of Mr. Ip’s sons, than with the appeals to nationalism and, particularly, the heavy-handed depiction of the occupying Japanese as giggling sadists or implacable killing machines.

- Mike Hale, New York Times

The Japanese themselves couldn’t be more stereotyped in their presentation, with the honourable-but-brutal general and his cackling, sadistic henchman

- Jamie Healy, Radio Times

a sinister Japanese generalOn the other hand, as that “sinister Japanese general”:

Hiroyuki Ikeuchi… imbues what could have been a cardboard villain role with dignity and grace

- Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com

To revisit Film4’s point about the “desaturated period look (yet another cliche)”:

Yip’s aesthetics are more muted and traditional than those of well-known florid imports Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yet such modesty is in tune with his soft-spoken protagonist, and also provides clean, sharp views of Yen’s awe-inspiring skills

- Nick Schager, The Village Voice

But in conclusion:

a throwback to those chopsocky Hong Kong films of the 1970s - a period piece filmed on obvious but eye-pleasing studio sets with wall-to-wall kung fu and a simplistic, philosophical message.

- G. Allen Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle

I’m not qualified to judge whether [Ip Man] belongs among the top martial-arts films ever made, an opinion that’s been gaining credence as the movie bounced around the world… But there can be no doubt that director Wilson Yip has crafted a gripping, rousing, beautifully structured yarn, built around a calm but charismatic star performance by Donnie Yen and magnificent action sequences choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung.

- Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com

4 out of 5

Consulted sources (including some unquoted)

#74: Glorious 39 (2009) February 7, 2012

Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Thriller, War, 2000s, 4 stars, British films, Mystery, films about films, 2011 , 1 comment so far

Stephen Poliakoff | 122 mins | TV (HD)* | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / R

Glorious 39“This year’s Atonement,” proclaims the poster, and DVD cover, and probably much more of the marketing for Stephen Poliakoff’s first venture into the cinema for 12 years, in the process probably explaining why he’s made (or “how he found the funding to make”) the return-jump from exalted TV auteur to cinematic hopeful: the titular “39″ means “1939″, the year World War II began. Throw in a plot that concerns the aristocracy and an ‘English rose’-type to stare thoughtfully open-mouthed into the distance on all the posters, and Poliakoff’s film is automatically lumped in the same ballpark as Joe Wright’s Ian McEwan adaptation. Only this one comes light on awards nominations.

I was going to add “light on star power” too, but whereas Atonement could only offer Keira Knightley and a still-rising James McAvoy, Glorious 39 offers a host of above-the-title names: trailing behind Atonement’s own Romola Garai we find Bill Nighy, Julie Christie, David Tennant, Jenny Agutter, Jeremy Northam and Christopher Lee, not to mention a host of other recognisable British faces. If the combined cult might of Mr.s Tennant and Lee wasn’t enough to make this a hit, nothing could be. Some quite critical reviews obviously didn’t help.

Duplicitous 39I, however, thought it was rather good. I can see what turned some people off though. It’s a thriller, but it moves leisurely, especially early on. It’s also quite elliptical at times, not so much requiring you to pay attention as put the pieces together yourself. Plus it lacks a grand finale in which the hero triumphs, or at least loses in dramatic style — it’s quieter than that. Yet I liked the ending, finding it triumphant in a whole other way. But I won’t go spoiling that here.

It’s very much a Poliakoff work, I think. Perhaps that catches some film critics unawares: as noted, he worked solely in TV for over a decade before this, albeit in an auteur mode, writing and directing his own TV movies and miniseries, and perhaps this means he passed them by. But then that’s just about managing expectations. It’s not a melodramatic epic love story like Atonement, nor is it a pacey wartime thriller like… no example comes readily to mind, actually. Can someone please make a pacey wartime thriller? Or tell me which I’ve missed/forgotten?

By taking its time it creates a mood of creeping terror and dread; of an oppressive conspiracy that our hero, who’s just a fairly ordinary girl, has no chance of overturning — if it’s even real, and if she can find details about it if it is. And, by extension, by taking its time it’s being A Bit Different, and that means you can never be sure where it’s going to go; never be sure who’s on the side of the angels and who of the devils; of who is reliable and what is really happening; of who will survive. Suspicious 39What’s better in a thriller than not actually knowing what will come? There should be twists in this genre — genuine twists when possible, not a stock array of “small character played by famous actor turns out to be vitally important” or ” good guy is actually bad guy” or what have you — and Glorious 39, with its balanced uncertainty, pulls some of those off.

It’s also well written, prettily shot, and expertly performed by that array of quality performers. I don’t recall a weak link.

Ignore the critics, ignore the comparisons to Atonement, and give Glorious 39 a chance on its own terms. I very much liked it.

4 out of 5

* I own Glorious 39 on DVD, but watched it on TV when it premiered because it was shown (and available on iPlayer) in HD. There is no UK Blu-ray of the film, but I believe one is available in America. Such a fate seems to have befallen several British films of late — Easy Virtue is another example that quickly comes to mind. ^

#86: Battle Los Angeles (2011) January 25, 2012

Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Sci-fi, War, 3 stars, 2010s, 2011 , 3 comments

aka Battle: Los Angeles

Jonathan Liebesman | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Battle Los AngelesBattle Los Angeles (on screen; Battle: Los Angeles on posters — c’mon, let’s have some consistency with punctuation! Punctuation matters) seemed to come in for a wall of criticism when it hit cinemas way back whenever. For my money, though, it wasn’t that bad.

Others have described it as “Independence Day meets Black Hawk Down“, and for once that formulaic “X meets Y” description is bang-on. Like ID4, there’s a worldwide alien invasion in progress by a superior species that dominates Earth’s forces pretty quickly. Unlike ID4 (and therefore more like Black Hawk Down) there’s no multiple perspectives or look at the command level; we just follow a small band of men on a very particular mission — head to a police station and extract civilians before the US Airforce bombs the area in three hours’ time — with only snatched glimpses of the wider conflict on news reports, Cloverfield style. It’s a different way of handling a military-focused big alien invasion movie, so that works.

For the most part, anyway. It’s thrown away at the end as our particular band of heroes wind up the only military presence left in LA and happen across the command & control centre of the enemy, promptly setting out to destroy it with laser-targeted missiles. Small scale “one force in a much larger battle” drama is exchanged for world-saving grandeur. Ah, America.

Somebody please think of the childrenThis kind of gung-ho militarism is laid on too thick. It seems fine for much of the film, but then as it heads into the second half and, especially, the third act, we have to suffer all manner of speeches and Emotional Moments that lack weight due to characterisation issues. The latter is badly handled for all kinds of reasons. All of the marines are entirely clichéd; so too are their story arcs; too much time is wasted trying to make us care about them — there are too many and they’re too shallowly drawn; things are worsened when a couple of civilians are added to the mix, who suffer from all the same problems… except they’re perhaps under- rather than over-developed. As we reach the third act, anything approaching plausible characterisation is jettisoned. Like the small-scale focus, what begins as naturalistic ends up with Big Speeches and all manner of Emotional Moments.

Where the film excels, however, is the other side of gung-ho militarism: action. I don’t hold with the criticism some levelled that it’s too reliant on ShakyCam, confusing the action to the point of incomprehensibility. Maybe that happened on the big screen, I couldn’t say, but while these aren’t the greatest or most clear sequences I’ve ever seen, they’re certainly not hard to follow. The film uses its gritty, handheld, Saving Private Ryan-borrowed style to good effect for much of its running time, Keep the home fires burningevoking the likes of the aforementioned as well as Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker in terms of conveyed realism. As I said, this is very effective for an alien invasion movie.

But, much like the early focus and characterisation, as things progress towards the climax this is slowly abandoned, showing a lack of the commitment to its world and story that Cloverfield or Monsters exhibited. There’s an increasing number of shots from the enemy’s perspective; the climax seems to abandon the earlier handheld style almost entirely for the sake of a grandstanding finale.

There is an even better film tucked away inside Battle Los Angeles. One brief dialogue scene discusses the similarities between the human soldiers and alien grunts, but the intriguing idea that they’re intelligent beings following orders just like us is sadly not built upon. There are obvious parallels with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but aside from the audience spotting shots that are reminiscent of news footage, the threads aren’t drawn out or commented on. Instead Battle LA does two things: military sycophancy, which is typically American and typically tiring or laughable (depending on your mood), and some stonkingly decent action sequences. The ending... and also the posterThey may take a little while to get to, but they’re relatively worth the wait.

What could have been a thought-provoking brain-switched-on commentary-on-the-world sci-fi film is instead a brain-switched-off gung-ho sci-fi action flick. I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse, but treated as blokey weekend-evening entertainment this is fine.

3 out of 5

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