Friday, 4 July 2014

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014 Round-Up Part II


While Fohn was enjoying her, what had become, habitual lie-in, early bird Martin headed off to catch Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnes), the final film shown in the Agnès Varda retrospective. Delightful and moving as ever, we were only disappointed that Varda herself was not in attendance.
Tuesday’s morning proved to be a very French one as we moved from Les Plages d’Agnès to La Cour de Babel (School of Babel), Julie Bertuccelli’s year in the life of a class for young immigrants in Paris. While the setup (a year in the life of a small class with a dynamic teacher) invites comparisons with Nicolas Philibert’s Etre et Avoir, Bertuccelli manages to tap into a universality that makes even the most ordinary of moments potentially heartbreaking or breathtaking. A triumph!

On a high, we then settled in for An Honest Liar - a look at the life of magician-turned-debunker “The Amazing Randi”, who wowed audiences for decades with Houdini-style tricks, before making it his life’s mission to expose psychics, illusionist, magicians and any other tricksters using their powers for evil - or monetary gain. There’s enough here to engage you for 90 minutes, but in comparison to all the films we had seen at Doc/Fest up to that point, An Honest Liar came up a little short. We respect the fact that Randi is an “honest liar”, but a little more captivating “honest lying” and a little less Uri Geller and his well-documented spoon-bending ways would have been nice.
We ended the evening at Dogwoof’s “Guilty Pleasures” night - one of the many events staged by the festival organisers. We were out and about at a few of them, but this was, undoubtedly, the best of the bunch.
On our final day of the festival we caught up with Julie Bertuccelli to discuss School of Babel (our interview will appear here in the near future!), and we, obviously, watched a couple of films.

First up it was the BBC-produced The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins – an interesting doc which recalled 2011’s Project Nim. Unfortunately somewhat limited in scope - difficult to avoid in an hour-long made-for-TV doc - it is nevertheless a well put-together film looking at an extraordinary story. Extra points for Jeff Bridges’s contribution, and for the infectious enthusiasm of the commissioning editor.
Finally, it was all about The Dog. The story behind and beyond Dog Day Afternoon, this doc is barmy, baffling and often hilarious. Moments of acute pathos pepper this rich concoction, so unbelievable that it must be (mostly) true. Recounted by the man himself, the sort of force-of-nature character who keeps your eyes glued to the screen, even when you know that everything he says needs to be taken with a wheelbarrow of salt. The director and producer offered some wonderful anecdotes from their ten-year journey to bring this to the screen, and expressed their joy at finding such a subject, at being able to tell these stories. A fitting end to the festival, rounding off another excellent year of docs. We might have missed Scorsese, and the range of screenings organised out in Derbyshire, but we had an amazing time all the same!
MP & FG

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014 Round-Up Part I


Another year, another Sheffield Doc/Fest, and we cats were back in town to chow down, party and, most importantly, watch a few good docs.

After a Pulp opening the night before, we opted for a lie-in the following day before rearing our ugly morning heads for our first doc of the festival, Going to the Dogs.


Directed by Penny Woolcock - with a little help from some familiar friends - Going to the Dogs explores the blood sport of dog fighting as well as a man’s relationship with his dog. Featuring ring leaders, historians, pheasant hunters and the filmmakers themselves, Dogs is a highly engaging, informative and often funny deconstruction of a world that we knew little about. It may not be everyone’s cup of the tea, but it made us sit up and think before passing judgement.

Life Itself came next (no rest for the felines) - Steve (Hoop Dreams) James's insightful, open and pleasingly non-hagiographic doc about the life and death of renowned film critic Roger Ebert. James's personal connection with Ebert (who was an early supporter of his work) makes for an engaging film, and the warts-and-all aspect builds a satisfyingly real picture of him. Two thumbs up! Fohn sat down for an interview with the director after the screening to discuss the making of the documentary.

Following 2012 festival-closer Bones Brigade, this year’s skating doc All This Mayhem painted an altogether darker picture of the sport. In this tale of Tas and Ben Pappas - self-confessed 'bogan' brothers from Melbourne who rose to become world champions - the glorious rise is depicted as being indivisible from the agonising fall. Tas and the director were present at the festival, and Martin spoke to them about bringing this dark, personal story to the screen.

We finished day one on a secret note, more on which anon. Suffice to say, we have a whole new iTunes shopping list!

Monday started with the aerial spectacle Born to Fly. Following Elizabeth Streb’s dance troupe from its work “lab” in New York to its Olympic show in London, Born to Fly made Fohn, for about 82 minutes, want to step away from the ol’ Fohnhouse and become one of Streb’s “action heroes”!


While Fohn was off enjoying the “pop action” in the above documentary, and catching the charming festival opener Happiness - about a little boy who’s sent to the local monastery - Martin was off interviewing Charlie Lyne, about his debut feature Beyond Clueless, after which, he headed back into the dark for Derby Crazy Love: a short but engaging introduction to the oestrogen-charged sport of roller derby. While not a work of great depth, directors Maya Gallus and Justine Pimlott offer up a thoughtful and enjoyable glimpse at a sport fast becoming part of the mainstream. Given some of the subjects' responses, it appears that this might well represent a fossilised glimpse at the unspoilt, sponsorship-free glory days of the sport.


Fohn's final solo outing of the days was to catch Dogwoof’s 112 Weddings, in which director Doug Black revisits couples from the 112 weddings he has shot over the years (because filmmaking doesn’t make us all millionaires!). Funny, poignant and a great idea, 112 Weddings was Fohn’s favourite film of the day. She thinks. It had generally been a great day for documentaries. 

Our last film of the day was The 50 Year Argument - an interesting retrospective on the last fifty years of the New York Review of Books, filled with informative interviews. A celebratory sift through a star-studded archive, but nothing groundbreaking. It could have done with the inclusion of an element of print versus online, such as enlivened Page One back in the day. At Saturday's premiere screening, Scorsese himself popped up via Skype, but we cats were either on a bus journeying up to doc mecca, or catching up on sleep. You snooze, you lose!

Stay tuned for part two.

FG & MP

Monday, 30 June 2014

Charlie Lyne Interview

We sat down in Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Big Yellow Bus to speak with Charlie Lyne, director and writer of Beyond Clueless.

Image: Martin/Fohnhouse

In the end credits, you mention Not Another Teen Movie as an inspiration for this whole project – I really like this film…

As all right-minded people do! I organised this teen movie film festival at a cinema in Hackney, and eventually we dug up the original premiere print of Not Another Teen Movie. I think it holds up perfectly. We did get a review in Time Out where someone said that we were showing everything from the sublime (Election) to the unspeakably awful (Not Another Teen Movie). Clearly it’s still an acquired taste…

In its way, like your film, Not Another Teen Movie is a sort of coalescence of what a teen movie is.

You’re absolutely right. I honestly think the closest thing to my film, before my film existed, was absolutely Not Another Teen Movie: this film that completely tore apart the teen genre but also clearly had huge affection for it. We wanted that balance of affection and criticism. If our film could be half as good, I would be very pleased…which in many people’s eyes is not a high bar to reach for! ‘I want to be half as good as one of the worst reviewed movies of the last fifteen years!’

You are a critic yourself – what was it that spurred you on to make a film, and was this a difficult transition?

Well, it originally started around the time that I was putting on that festival, so I was rewatching a lot of those teen movies that I had loved as a teenager. I knew I wanted to do something about them, some work of criticism around them. I realised how dangerous it was walking the line between analysing this genre and taking the piss out of it. I was thinking, how can I display my ample affection for this genre while analysing it? The best way to do that seemed to be to put forward what is, in effect, a teen movie, as well as a work of criticism. It felt quite organic, but of course there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and fucking up in that organic process!

Could you outline how you went about funding the film?

I feel ridiculously spoilt getting to say this, given the funding horror stories you hear at a documentary festival, but as this idea was coming together, Kickstarter launched in the UK. Within half a month we had our project up, and a month later we had the funding. It was ridiculously smooth as a process, but I think we were lucky that we were tackling a subject that people have a real connection to already. I had no background as a filmmaker. It would have probably been very hard to convince people were it not for the fact that we could say, ‘you already have a connection to this material’. At the end of the day we were just very lucky that people were into it.  

Did your position as a well-known critic help?

Undoubtedly. People always say about Kickstarter, the second you’re over that hump, the first 10% or whatever, then it’s much more smooth sailing. Had I not had Twitter and everything like that, and people who’d read my work and liked it, and the same with Summer Camp who did the score, if they hadn’t had the Twitter following that we could use to push the project, I don’t know what would have happened. That people were willing to trust that just because they liked my writing they might also like the film was very flattering.

The choice of clips was quite surprising to me – it often seems like you are analysing horror films and their process.

The funny thing is that everyone has their own specific thing that they don’t think is a teen movie, and no-one seems to agree on what that is – we had a very basic rule of thumb, which was ‘is it about the process of adolescence? Is it about the sense of growing up?’. So sometimes that would mean films like Mean Girls, which are unequivocally teen movies, and sometimes that would be something like Jeepers Creepers or Bubble Boy, which people are more reluctant to think of as teen movies, even though they are about teenagers in these processes of transformation.

The Dreamers?

You know what, I’ll concede that The Dreamers is a borderline case, but it gets at a sense of adolescent discovery, so I felt justified in putting it in there. We knew we’d upset some people with some of the choices, for sure, but you would be missing such a vast part of it to not include them.

I loved the moment when the title appeared over a shot from Ginger Snaps

Well, if you’ve not seen Ginger Snaps, and Ginger Snaps Back and Ginger Snaps Unleashed…they’re incredible! One of the main things I love about teen movies – and this reoccurs again and again in the film, hopefully – is that sense of these frothy things actually getting at much bigger issues. Teen horror, especially, is a goldmine for that sort of stuff.

You don’t have a clip from Heathers, but you do have Happy Campers

We had that dilemma going in as to how wide an area to cover, historically. I didn’t want to set up any hard-and-fast rules, but we did want to stick within a certain period, just so that it wasn’t jarring to suddenly go between Clueless and Rebel Without A Cause. The earliest film that we did use in the end was ’93, I think. It’s no comment on Heathers, which I love!
Apart from anything else, these were all the teen movies that I grew up with, the ones I feel close to. There is already a glut of writing and analysis of John Hughes movies, and we wanted to tackle something a bit less analysed.

What about the narration – how did you get Fairuza Balk involved?

We realised, because we had so little money, that we were going to have to pretty much make the film, and then take it to people and say ‘what do you think of this, would you like to be involved?’. It wouldn’t have been practical to get anyone involved from the beginning. Obviously, with the kind of film we were making, we had the luxury of doing that. All through this process that was about ten, eleven months, we’d had this list pinned up on my wall, our narration dream choices. Number one was, absolutely, Fairuza Balk. I remember the day that someone suggested that, and thinking ‘oh my god, that’s perfect!’. I don’t know if it was the best idea having her pinned up there for months, because we started to hear the film in her voice. We were just really fortunate that she said yes!

Her voice is idiosyncratic, maybe not what we immediately think of as the voice of teen movies. It’s not Molly Ringwald…

She has that brilliant duality of feeling completely at home in that world, but also feeling like a bit of an outsider. We wanted that sense that we were absolutely inside this world, being shown around by someone who’s part of it, not a distant observer, and yet someone who has that sardonic edge that her voice conjures.

What about your collaboration with Summer Camp?

That was literally the first thing, when the film felt real to me. I’d been a massive fan for years, so I was already giddy at the idea of even pitching it to them. They are very Americana-influenced, and their first album has explicit references to teen movies. So I knew it would be not a million miles from their sensibility, but it was really fortunate that they were totally up for it. They were there from day one. They were creating music even before we had anything cut. They were writers and editors and directors as much as they were composers.

As a critic, having made this film, where do you think the teen movie stands now?

It’s something we consciously chose not to talk about in the film itself, because we wanted it to be about the world, not the money or the business or the history of it. Towards the end of the movie, there’s that section on Spiderman, which to me is emblematic of what happened with the teen movie around that time. Something like Transformers would have been unimaginable ten years prior, because a big tent-pole action movie would have had a man in it, not Shia Laboeuf, a teenager who makes jokes about wanking in the middle of these big set-piece monster scenes.

These movies became so huge that there wasn’t really room for teen movies around them. Then when that fell out of favour there was this down period without any teen movies. Now I feel like it’s coming back, a new wave is coming through. A good litmus test for whether the teen genre is in good health is whether adults are getting upset about it. When Project X came out, when there were all those outraged articles about that movie, I thought ‘oh good! This has made 100 million dollars because teenagers have actually gone and seen it’, as opposed to these so-called ‘return of the teen movie’ films where all the adults go and remember how great their youth was. I just though ‘yeah! Teens are getting their own genre again!’.

Would there be any advice you would give to somebody who wanted to follow your footsteps and make their own film?
In a pragmatic sense, Kickstarter is completely brilliant, if you have an idea that is strong enough that people will be interested in it, regardless of who you are or what you’ve done. Obviously it depends if it’s a movie that can be made on as small a budget as ours has been. This is a movie that could barely have existed ten years ago – there are new worlds opening up every moment. This kind of movie is everywhere – but normally they’re on YouTube and people are just calling them ‘supercuts’ or whatever, and not thinking of them as actual artistic creations. There’s a whole wide world of people making films like this, and they need to stand up for what they’ve made and not think of it as a throwaway thing.

If you feel like you can answer this question, do you have a favourite teen movie?


I feel like everyone’s favourite teen movie is not the best teen movie; it’s the one that, for some odd reason, they cottoned on to when they were at that perfect, impressionable age. If our film gets anything, it’s the idea that those films stay with you, but they come to mean very different things as you mature and turn into a different person. The one for me is, as you may have guessed from watching the film, Eurotrip. It just meant a very specific thing to me when I was 15, and it means a very specific thing to me now, and between the two it has meant the world. I think I will always cherish it, even though, like Not Another Teen Movie, people malign it unfairly!

MP

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Steve James Interview

Image: Indiewire

Hoop Dreams director Steve James was in town for the premiere of his new film Life Itself at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, and we sat down to chat with him about his latest documentary and its subject Roger Ebert.
Were you aware that Roger Ebert would no longer be with us by the time the film was finished?
No. When I started the film I had no idea that he would be gone. That did not become a possibility until we had been filming a while, then it became a distinct possibility when he said that his cancer had returned and that he did not expect to be alive when the film was done. Then it became a distinct possibility and then he came to pass.
When I started out I wasn’t determined to make a film about the death of a famous, prominent film critic, but it ended up being that. But it’s not just about death, you know. It has many aspects to it, and it does end up being a film about how one dies with grace and courage, and I think he did that. That’s what is inspiring and sad.
Being so close to that, did it make you evaluate your own life, as these types of films tend to make us reflect?
Well, I think what I was struck by towards the end was, what I said a moment ago, his grace and courage in the face of it, and the way he maintained his sense of humour to the end. But I think the real lesson of the film, to me, in a way, was just the exuberant way in which Roger embraced life, and it’s something that I try to capture in this film – this sense of a life well lived. You know, he didn’t title his memoir “Life in Films”, he titled his memoir “Life Itself”, and I think that’s significant because he loved movies, of course, but he also loved life apart from movies. And his life apart from movies informed his love of movies.
And you see this in the part where he talks about meeting his wife, Chaz…
Oh my god, yes. I think he had many achievements, but I think Chaz was the most, maybe, life-changing chapter of his life. He found this incredible love. They were married for 22 years, so even though they found each other relatively late in life, they still had a significant life together, and it was pretty remarkable. Roger was someone who, at different stages of his life, managed to reinvent himself. But not reinvent him like Madonna reinvents herself, where you wonder if it’s the real Madonna or not. He managed to reinvent himself in ways that helped him grow and change in really wonderful ways. He reinvented himself when he left small-town Illinois, Chicago as a writer, and he reinvented himself as a film critic, and then he reinvented himself as an iconic celebrity film critic, and then, with the cancer, he became an inspiration for many people about how you cope with cancer. He reinvented himself when he met Chaz because he went from being a kind of confirmed bachelor to an extremely happy family man. His life was full of amazing turns and that’s what really, ultimately, made me want to make this movie.
And even when he realised his life was coming to an end, his spirit wasn’t broken and he was very accepting of it…
Yeah, and he said, “I’ve had a great life.” He realised that. Some people come to that realisation as life comes to an end and they get a different perspective and they look back. Many people don’t. But I think Roger didn’t have to get to the end of his life to realise what an extraordinary life he had. He lived it and he revelled in it.
Was Chaz opposed to the idea of the film, given its sensitive nature?
I think she was, absolutely, more protective of him because she was used to playing that role. He’s a famous guy but, by nature, very unguarded, and she loved him and wanted to protect him. I think that was a very wonderful trait for her, but I think when it came to the film, Roger was going to be Roger, and I think she came around to understanding that.
You mentioned in the Q&A after the screening that it was actually Gene Siskel and Ebert’s review of Hoop Dreams that put the film on the map and propelled it to the top at Sundance that year. Was that one of the things that led you to direct this film?
Well, i’m sure if you had asked Roger there were more names on the list, but I was fortunate enough to get the call. He really prized my work and prized the honesty of the work i’ve done, and so I certainly appreciated that. But I wouldn’t have made the film if all that interested me about him was that he was a great film critic and that he had been an important support in my career. I might have felt some obligation, like maybe I should do it, but I wouldn’t have done it. I had to read his memoir and see everything we’ve been talking about. That’s what really made me what to direct this movie.
Is there something that you want to say about the film that hasn’t already been said?
Well, it’s not like I haven’t said this, but often times when people interview me, they are fascinated with the cancer and they’re fascinated with the candour of how he dealt with that, so we spend a lot of time talking about that, which is great because I think it’s an important part of the film. I think sometimes what gets lost is just how entertaining and funny the film is. It’s a film that has a great deal of humour and it’s because his life was full of humour and full of funny situations, and his relationship with Gene Siskel was both intense and rather entertaining, and so I just want people to be reminded, when they read about it, that it’s not just a film about a courageous man suffering through cancer and dying, but that it is a pretty entertaining ride of a life story.
Obviously we’re here at Sheffield Doc/Fest and you’ve had a chance to watch a few films yourself… Does watching other documentaries inspire you much or do you already have an idea of where you’re going to go next?
I draw lots of inspiration from watching other films. When I was just starting the Ebert film I saw a film at IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam), a film made in Scotland called I Am Breathing. I thought it was a terrific film. It got the wheels turning. Here’s a man who’s dying… and at that time Roger wasn’t dying, but he was going through illness and coping with it, and I planned to film him dealing with it, and I wanted to deal with that and his past, and that’s a film that goes back between his present and his past, and that was great. I thought it was a beautifully sensitive, intimate portrait, you know, and I just really loved it. And so that was a great film, for example, for me to see, that really informed my process on the film I made, and that happens consistently.
FG

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014: Pulp

Sheffield Doc/Fest began on Saturday with the return of local legends Pulp, gathered to present Florian Habicht's doc Pulp: A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets

This opening, taking place at Sheffield's City Hall, was a joyous occasion, full of local wit. Idiosyncratic national treasure frontman Jarvis Cocker entertained public and press outside with his dry humour, with extra atmosphere provided by the acapella choir.


While the film itself was not as in-depth as we would have liked, the event was still a touching celebration of both the power of documentary - with the well-chosen archive footage accurately capturing the passion and beauty of Pulp's era - and Sheffield, this medium-sized Northern city which produced such magic. 

An impressive opening, with a parallel screening also going on in last year's hot spot, the Devil's Arse in Castleton. 

MP

Friday, 30 May 2014

Maleficent (2014)


Maleficent, according to Disney execs and the cast of this fairytale, gives us the backstory of Sleeping Beauty’s villain and takes us to the heart of what makes her maleficent. While this is partly true, the house of eternal happiness has also taken the opportunity to turn an old Beauty on its head somewhat, and give us a tale unlike anything we’ve known.

Focusing on the titular character, Maleficent takes us on a journey of the Moors and recounts how a once magical land - that was once home to an innocent winged fairy - is threatened by the ambitious King Stefan, ruler of the human kingdom. Wanting to avenge a wrongdoing, Maleficent casts a familiar spell on his baby daughter, Aurora, which causes the King and Maleficent to regret the day the curse was born.

Starring Angelina Jolie as the villainess, this Disney fantasy soars when she’s on screen. In a role made for her, Jolie is spellbinding and shines in almost every scene she’s in. Elle fanning is also well cast as the innocent Sleeping Beauty. She and Jolie have a great chemistry and their scenes are pleasing to watch. Less successful, however, is the pairing of Jolie and Sharlto Copley, who plays the King and the love interest. Superb in District 9, Copley, sadly, is no match for Jolie and it’s oddly evident at first sight. 

Altogether the film is a mixed bag, but generally falters - or we are less forgiving - when Jolie’s not on screen. It also appears as though the producers have simply relied on Jolie's charisma alone to power a movie that is otherwise mediocre and quite incoherent. We’d still recommend it, though, because, in addition to possessing a great lead actress, it’s also visually magnificent.

3.5/5

FG

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)


Fourteen years after the first X-Men movie hit our screens, original director Brian Singer is back at the helm (to the delight of comic-book fans), and seemingly eager to get this franchise firmly back on track in the only way he and the writing team know how: a 1970s trip back to the future. Sounds groovy, right? But the real question is, does Singer succeed in getting us to dance to his new tune?

Seventh in the X-Men movie line, Days of Future Past introduces us to a world years from now (2023 to be exact), in which robots called Sentinels are wiping out every mutant in sight. In order to stop their impending extinction, fan favourite Wolverine must go back in time - to a world of roll-necks, bell-bottoms and flower prints - to try to rewrite the future so that humanity (in all its forms), can continue to flourish under the watchful eye of Professor X. Tough job, but Wolvie is clawing for it.

As the almighty Sentinels and mutants go head-to-head en route for the final showdown, it’s evident early on that we’re in for a tale of two halves featuring cast members old and new. Having heard the plans for an all-star, packed shindig, I did wonder how Singer would manage to juggle so many balls. X-Men: First Class boasted a rejuvenated cast and was a resounding success that breathed much-needed life back into a dwindling franchise, while adventures after X2 relied too heavily on Wolverine, neglected other key players, and suffered with subpar screenplays. What Singer has opted for here, then, is a sequel and a prequel, wheeling out the Seniors, led by Patrick Stewart, for the future dilemma, and calling upon the First Class (and Wolverine), controlled by James McAvoy's Xavier, to ultimately sort it. Unsurprisingly, Singer handles it all beautifully - like John Travolta under a glitter ball, jive talkin’ and stayin’ alive.

Apart from Wolverine who’s busy bridging the gap (with the aid of Kitty Pryde), the other character in full focus is Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Since her first outing in a lighter shade of blue, Lawrence has won an Oscar, been nominated for another, and taken centre stage as the heroine in The Hunger Games trilogy, so it’s no wonder a lot of the weight of this instalment was thrown onto her shoulders. I must confess that Rebecca Romijn is my favourite of the two blue ladies (dude, where’s her cameo?), but Lawrence handles all the ass-kicking action sequences with aplomb, and is a worthy young and impressionable predecessor.

Alongside Mystique - actually trying to stop her from killing the villain (Peter Dinklage, of Games of Thrones fame) - we also have Nicholas Hoult, reprising his role as Beast, McAvoy (who starts off proceedings in a real funk), and Michael Fassbender, who excels as mini-Magneto. More time with Ian McKellen and Stewart would have been nice. Little attention is paid to the newer X-Men of the future, and the two minutes spent with Halle Berry’s Storm are two minutes too much; their combined screen time could have been given to these two great Brits.

Additionally, while it’s important to set the scene and emphasise what’s at stake, the flashbacks to the apocalyptic future eventually do start to annoy and distract, and only end up accentuating the kinks in the Seniors’ armour. 

But, overall, these faults do not stop Days of Future Past from being another Singer success. With fantastic set-pieces (shout out in particular to Evan Peters’s Quicksilver), a stellar cast, and a strong script, this is a magnificent number seven, and right up there with X2.

4/5

(for Fortean Times)

FG

Friday, 16 May 2014

Godzilla (2014)


After the success of his first feature film (Monsters), which saw an alien invasion throughout the American border, Gareth Edwards is back with a bigger budget, and an even bigger monster.

Since the 1954 version, the big screen has seen numerous adaptations of the giant Japanese monster, and since then, the story hasn’t changed much: Godzilla is still cruising around town feeding off of the planet’s radiation, while the rest of the world, including scientists Brian Cranston, Sally Hawkins, and Ken Watanabe, try to figure out a way to tame the beast, and a couple of other Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (M.U.T.O.s).

With a budget that eclipses that of Monsters ($160 million compared to a modest $200,000), this film only feels slightly more cinematic than Edwards’ first. This is not to say that it wasn’t money well spent; on the contrary, it actually feels very much like a Gareth Edwards movie, which is quite an achievement considering it’s only his second film.

What impressed me the most in Monsters was the cinematography and how a landscape could look so beautiful in ruins. As an ex-cat once wrote of Monsters, “he’s made something that looks like what a National Geographic alien invasion film might look like.” And the same is true here. This is a battlefield I’d visit if it existed. While buildings tumble, humans scramble to safety, and creatures fight in the night sky, Edwards' camera remains calm and graceful in order to capture the perfect mood. He does, however, appear to want to knock Hans Zimmer off his podium with an overly dramatic score at times, but sound is muted where it's really necessary, and he lets the M.U.T.O.s do the talking - and some more dancing. He really does seem to be in his comfort zone here.

Less successful, however, is his character development. Still riding high from his Breaking Bad days (and perhaps, like Edwards, still not wanting to put down the boiler suits and gas masks just yet), Cranston provides great, reminiscent entertainment for a while (accompanied by on-screen wife Juliette Binoche), but as soon as the parents leave the party and leave the kids (son Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and his wife, played by Elizabeth Olsen) to their own devices, one starts to feel like he/she should have left with them, as these two young stars fare less well on their own

Taylor-Johnson brings the blue eyes and the beef (he’s been working out!), but, sadly, his presence doesn’t command that much attention, and his character isn’t all that interesting. Equally, Olsen, who is a Fohnhouse favourite, has left the indie road and crossed over to the big-budget highway with an underdeveloped, stereotypical mother/nurse role. This wouldn’t be too bad if Edwards had decided to spend more time on the striking creatures he has created (the movie is called Godzilla after all), but instead he has gone for a human-character driven story, when the humans in the main act have little to offer. 

Fortunately, though, all the action does build up to a worthy fight sequence between M.U.T.O.s, but, if not for these scenes, this would have been a disaster movie with no titular god-like creature in sight, as Godzilla spends an awful lot of time with his head buried in the ocean (maybe he's camera shy!). Thankfully, though, as I said, the movie does redeem itself by the end, and we’re left with an enjoyable blockbuster, teaching us not to mess with the natural order, and to just let nature do its thing. Like that’s ever going to happen!

3.5/5

FG

Monday, 5 May 2014

Bomber's Moon

Image: Park Theatre

In the last month or so I have been to the Park Theatre three times, each time to see a radically different production. The Park Theatre is a relatively new venue close to Finsbury Park Station and has two performing spaces. In addition there is a bistro-type café-restaurant that serves interesting and competitively priced food.
The play in the Park200 space at present is William Ivory’s Bomber’s Moon. The play is a two person production, starring James Bolam – well known for his long career on television and stage – and Steve John Shepherd, who is (for me at least) a newcomer. The play is centred on the relationship between Jimmy (James Bolam), who is a curmudgeonly, sick pensioner in a care home, and his new carer, David. They seem to get off on the wrong foot, but a relationship of friendship between the two develops. As Jimmy comes closer to his end – a sensation which he describes as strange, knowing that one has little time left – he has flashbacks to his time as a rear gunner on operations in a Lancaster Bomber. He tells David about the fears that these men in the airforce experienced and talks also of his friends and the ways in which they used to amuse themselves in between missions. Jimmy obviously resents the aging process. Eventually he tells David of his lucky survival when his plane crashes on a mission. Both men have their own secrets and want in some ways to keep face. When the two men argue, Jimmy has a heart attack and is taken to hospital. David’s life begins to unravel even further in a surprising way.
The twist in the tale comes close to the end – but this is no place for a spoiler!
James Bolam is a consummate actor whose sense of comic timing is used to great effect here. Here, Bolam is also able to use that grumpy bastard persona at which he is so good, and he uses it to great effect. Shepherd is by no means eclipsed by Bolam’s extremely good performance. To act with an actor of Bolam’s experience must be daunting, especially when Bolam can hold the stage as he does, speaking at times very quietly. The audience warms to the old gunner and has a great deal of sympathy for him, but it took longer for me to warm to the David character. The scenery is interestingly put together and the sound and lighting were exceptionally well done. Since the audience sits on 3 sides of the ‘stage’ area, it cannot be the easiest space to play, but I congratulate the cast and the production team, as well as the director, on this wonderful production. While I am of an age that was used as a child to meeting World War II (and World War I) veterans, who were friends and contemporaries of my parents (and grandparents), I noted that quite a few of the audience were relatively young – and this can only be a good thing, that younger people are coming to venues of this type that are still prepared to put on productions that are not necessarily the Theatreland mainstream plays. That being said, I think this play would hold up well in a bigger venue.
All in all, this is a play that I would recommend highly and, as I said above, I would congratulate the entire team on the production of a play that made for a gripping evening’s theatre.
5/5
Maria Way

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Image: Marvel

Three years ago Marvel Studios unleashed the poodle that was Captain America: The First Avenger. Gentle, loyal, sophisticated but a bit of bore, The First Avenger proved to be the weakest among the studios’ top dogs. Thor’s hammer produced a hit, we couldn’t get enough of Iron Man, and records were broken when the Avengers assembled, and so, naturally, The Captain had some catching up to do. Fast forward a few years, a tepid Thor (The Dark World) and a mediocre Iron Man 3 and we have Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s strongest foray since The Avengers.

Picking up after The Avengers, The Winter Soldier follows Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he continues to adapt to life in modern America. However, it’s not long before he’s back doing what he does best as he finds himself on the hunt for a masked soldier and answers to questions about S.H.I.E.L.D..

While the capabilities of Rogers haven’t changed much: he’s still, ultimately, a regular guy with artificially enhanced biceps, strength and speed, just running around with a star-spangled shield, the action sequences move much faster in this instalment and the effects do give The Captain a Spidey-like quality as he leaps and swings from tall buildings and takes out bad guys with his fists.

Evans is joined on his mission by Scarlett Johansson, whose Black Widow adds sparkle to a previously dull franchise and proves that, in this case, a partnership is so much better than none as she spars nicely with her leading man and helps give his character some depth and a heart that we actually care about. Anthony Mackie is also on hand to help fight evil as Hancock ex-paratrooper-turned-superhero The Falcon. His presence isn't felt as strongly as Johansson's, but he does good work in his silver suit, and it's pleasant and fitting to see Captain America represent America.

Up until now, audiences (or I) have wondered what makes this man the leader of such a gifted pack, but a solid, mature and entertaining script (although predictable), great performances from the cast, and the ideologies behind the war front demonstrate why The Captain could emerge, surprisingly, to be the superior of them all.

4/5

FG