Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Zookeeper (2011)

Kevin James learns how to talk to animals and girls.

Image: Sony Pictures

Griffin (James) is the best zookeeper the animals at the Franklin Park Zoo have ever had. But when Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), the girl who broke his heart years ago, comes back into the picture, he considers leaving the zoo. Desperate to keep him, the animals reveal that they can talk, and offer him advice on how to win her back. 

James (Hitch, Grown Ups) is the kind of likeable comic actor that can draw some good-willed chuckles out of the worst material, and to his credit he fully commits himself here. While this isn’t the worst material he’s committed himself to, it’s still a disappointment. 

The talking animals plot plays out like a mash-up between Dr. Doolittle and Night at the Museum. The voice cast is a starry mix, boasting Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow, Maya Rudolph, Jon Favreau, Cher, and Sylvester Stallone among others. There’s also a reclusive gorilla voiced by Nick Nolte, who Griffin takes to TGI Fridays in a slightly awkward attempt by the filmmakers to crowbar a male bonding sequence into a kids’ movie. In a grown up comedy, this scene would be at a bar with the two getting riotously drunk, rather than eating ribs and playing guitar. Admittedly, Nolte’s gravelly tones do get a couple of laughs.

The rest of the film plays out pretty much exactly how you would expect it to. There’s the usual toilet humour and slapstick as Griffin employs animal tactics to win Stephanie back. More troubling is the fact that the “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” play actually works with her. Then there’s the under-used Rosario Dawson (Clerks 2, Death Proof) as Kate, the eagle expert who has a crush on Griffin, although he’s not realised it. Will Griffin realise that he doesn’t need to change who he is to be happy? Will he realise that Stephanie is actually a pretty horrible person? And will he realise that Kate is the girl of his dreams? 

James is likeable enough and he has a gift for physical comedy, but there’s nothing here that's particularly inventive or original, or funny for that matter. Dawson and Bibb (Iron Man, Wristcutters) are fine but it’s difficult to imagine that younger audiences won’t get bored waiting for the romantic plot to end so they can get back to the animals. 

Verdict: Zookeeper attempts to pitch to both parents and kids but fails to bring anything new to the table. 

2/5

JH

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

After the undeniable and surprising success of Thor and X-Men First Class, the final Marvel movie of the summer is finally here. It’s also the last pre-Avengers film. No pressure, then.

It’s 1942 and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is desperate to enlist. Unfortunately his bravery and essential goodness are at odds with his weak and tiny body. He’s selected for a top secret military experiment to give him the physique to match his spirit. But will it be enough to combat the dastardly Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who is harnessing the power of the gods to bring destruction to the world?

Captain America aims squarely for that old fashioned, boy’s own kind of comic book movie. There’s none of X-Men’s political consciousness, nor much of Thor’s winking sense of humour (though it does have some very funny moments, possibly courtesy of Joss Whedon, who reportedly gave the script a re-write). What director Joe Johnston delivers is the essence, the beating heart of the character. Captain America is not complex, he’s just heroic. Steve doesn’t question the gift that he is given. He’s desperate for the chance to take on the villains and looks for ways to get into the fight. In the classic Marvel tradition, his character arc is that of the bullied kid who can finally stand tall. 

In its depiction of 1940s New York and London, Captain America is very much a comic book come to life. Then there are the laboratories, complete with fluctuating dials and ominous levers. One even has an elaborate self-destruct sequence. When you settle in, the first hour is a steady build of character and plot. It’s made up of very familiar elements but is no less enjoyable for it. 

The film stumbles a bit as it moves into its second hour. Perhaps aware that the film has been a little light on the action, Johnston tries to cram as much as possible into the second half. There’s clearly a certain amount that the film needs to get through before the final confrontation, so we’re hurriedly introduced to Cap’s team. Steve’s relationship with the tough but comely Agent Carter (Haley Atwell) has the typical ups and downs, and there are some hastily edited battles that seem to have all been filmed in the same forest.

The cast is very strong. Evans is pitch-perfect as Steve, allaying any fears of a wise-cracking, modern Captain America with an endearingly earnest, straight-faced performance. Atwell (Brideshead Revisited) could have done with a little more screen time, while Weaving is great fun as Red Skull (and apparently channelling Werner Herzog) as the villainous Red Skull. The supporting cast is loaded with talent, boasting Tommy Lee Jones (as the tough Colonel Phillips), Stanley Tucci (kindly German scientist Dr. Erskine), and Toby Jones (Red Skull’s evil scientist Dr. Zola). 

While it doesn’t quite match Thor or X-Men: First Class, Captain America is a big, bright comic book movie and it’s comfortably better than Green Lantern.  Some pacing issues aside, it’s tremendously fun family entertainment.

Verdict: Captain America is no masterpiece but it’s highly entertaining and Chris Evans is perfect.

3/5

JH

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Stake Land (2011)

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

After garnering a lot of positive buzz from festivals, Jim Mickle’s vampire apocalypse movie has hit UK screens. We’ve seen a lot of post-apocalyptic landscapes recently, not to mention fanged monsters, so we were curious to see if Stake Land would live up to the hype.

Teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) has been travelling North across America with the gruff Mister (Nick Damici) since his parents were killed by vampires. But as they move through the wasteland America has become, the biggest threat is quickly revealed to be a crazed Christian cult that believes the vampire plague is heaven sent.

Although it’s made up of familiar elements, Jim Mickle and star/co-writer Damici have managed to give their film an identity all of its own. It owes a big debt to
The Road, which is often a result of the similar landscape that the characters pass through, as well as other postapocalypticas. It has a definite air of a Western about it when the characters go to a saloon run by art-house horror figurehead Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter), who also serves as the film’s producer. And, perhaps most of all, it’s indebted to George A. Romero, as it’s easy to forget that the monsters are vampires, not zombies.

But
Stake Land manages to forge its own little niche in the genre. There’s a pervasive air of melancholy as Martin and Mister move from town to town, knowing that whatever normality they find is not going to last. The filmmakers didn’t have much of a budget to work with but they’ve made the most of what they had. The locations are well-chosen and the photography is excellent. There are a couple of slight missteps early on but Mickle quickly hits a good rhythm. He’s also a dab hand with set-pieces, as the sound of traps jangling sets us on edge as much as the characters.

The lack of familiar faces helps get us into
Stake Land. Paolo and Damici have a good chemistry as the former learns to face hardship and the latter slowly lowers his guard. Kelly McGillis (where has she been since Top Gun and The Accused?), Danielle Harris (who’s appeared in four Halloween movies), and Sean Nelson (The Taking of Pelham 123) are solid as a motherly nun, a friendly mother-to be, and an ex-marine respectively.

When
Stake Land leans too hard on the evil Christian cult subplot things start to wobble. But when it moves at its own pace, and lets its characters develop, this horror road movie proves to be a wholly worthwhile endeavour. It’ll be too bloody for the mainstream but it’s a breath of fresh air for horror fans.

Verdict: A melancholy, slow-burning new take on a well-trodden subgenre.

4/5

JH

Friday, 22 July 2011

Beginners (2011)

It’s never too late to start

Image: Universal

We often hear that a film is “deeply personal” to the filmmaker. It’s almost like they’re trying to put a stamp of quality on a film before it’s even released. Beginners is not only deeply personal, it’s semi-autobiographical.

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is packing up his recently deceased father’s house. He explains in voice-over how his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) waited until Oliver’s mother died to reveal that he was gay and wanted to fully explore his sexuality. Shortly afterwards, Hal discovers that he has cancer. The film is split between Hal’s last few months and Oliver’s budding relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress. But both Oliver and Anna are dealing with inherited intimacy and trust issues.

It’s the autobiographical parts of the film, namely the scenes between Oliver and Hal, that are the most successful. As Hal squeezes as much joy as he can out of the time he has left, Oliver is forced to reconsider his childhood and his personality, which are slowly explained through very effective flashbacks (with the excellent Mary Page Kelly his unhappy mother). There are no big scenes in Beginners; it’s an accumulation of brief but important moments. Then there’s Oliver’s relationship with Anna. While their scenes together aren’t as effective as those between Oliver and Hal, the two actors work very well together. Laurent isn’t given as much to work with as McGregor or Plummer, but we learn enough about Anna to establish that they’ve got a lot in common when it comes to unresolved childhood issues that make them unable to commit.

McGregor is on top form, giving an understated performance as the fragile Oliver, while Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) stays just the right side of Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Plummer is superb as a man who is revelling in the joy of finally being himself. He shares everything with his son, calling him up in the middle of the night (“I don’t care if I woke you!”). Hal is a gift of a character and the veteran thespian knows it. And in a big surprise, ER’s Doctor Kovac himself, Goran Visnjic, is terrific as Hal’s immature but doting lover Andy.

Mills is occasionally a little too prone to repeating visual quirks. The photo montages and illustrations are used once or twice too often, and his decision to not rush Oliver and Anna’s relationship is admirable but it does lead to a couple of overlong scenes. However, Mills finds a tone that is both optimistic and realistic. While some problems are solved, others are left to fester. Oliver’s prolonged grief is touching and believable, as is his confused but committed supportiveness of his father’s self-discovery.

Verdict: It’s occasionally a little too leisurely and quirky for its own good, but Beginners is a wonderfully performed, funny, touching film.

4/5

JH

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Super (2011)

Bringing a wrench down on the head of crime.

Image: Studio Canal

If the basic plot of Super sounds familiar it’s probably because you saw last year’s cult hit Kick Ass. A dark comedy about an ordinary guy deciding to fight crime? Could this low-budget comedy offer anything different?
   
After his drug addict wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for sleazy local crime boss Jacques (Kevin Bacon), Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is distraught. Praying for guidance, he has a vision which inspires him to become The Crimson Bolt, a costumed vigilante who fights crime with a wrench. As he works his way up the crime ladder towards Jacques, comic book store employee Libby (Ellen Page) joins him as “kid sidekick” Boltie.

It becomes clear quite quickly that writer-director James Gunn (Slither) isn’t interested in his audience sitting comfortably. The tone of Super is constantly shifting. The start of the film seems somewhat mean-spirited, as it is made clear that Frank is clearly mentally disturbed and suffers heartbreak and beatings at the hands of Jacques’ goons. After Frank has his tentacle-delivered, anime-inspired divine intervention, the slapstick is brutally gory and the humour is pitch black. The Crimson Bolt goes after everyone from child molesters to people who butt in line at the movies with his trusty wrench. The violence is shocking, brutal and unflinching, and not always played for laughs.

This refusal to settle on a tone means that the film does feel a bit scattershot. It’s to Gunn’s credit that we’re never sure whether we’re supposed to laugh at Frank, feel sorry for him, or be repulsed by his actions. It’s almost certainly all three, something that Wilson (The Office US) accomplishes perfectly. Page (Juno) is also excellent as the psychotic Libby, who shares Frank’s desire to punish evil but none of his Christian morals. She’s foulmouthed, hyperactive, and utterly deranged. The two share a great chemistry and the film is at its best when they are together on screen.

The supporting cast is an interesting mix. Tyler breaks type but doesn’t have much to do, Bacon is predictably hilarious and character actor stalwarts (and Slither stars) Michael Rooker and Gregg Henry do good work. Then there are cameos from Nathan Fillion as Christian superhero The Holy Avenger, Linda Cardellini (ER) as a pet shop employee, and Rob Zombie as the voice of God.

When it comes down to it, a lot of the film doesn’t work as well as it should. The carefully considered slapdash approach makes it interesting and occasionally inspired as well as inaccessible and inconsistent. Finally, the moral questions posed are answered in a way that will almost certainly upset some audiences. And that’s probably the point.

Verdict: Dark, nasty, and harsh, it’s got brilliant parts, especially when Wilson and Page share the screen. But it’s all over the place. For all its faults it will almost certainly find a cult following on DVD.

3/5

JH

Monday, 18 July 2011

Game of Thrones Season 1: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

Thanks to the wonder that is Sky Atlantic (for UK audiences), HBO fanatics were able to watch the fantasy series Games of Thrones simultaneously as it was airing on the American network. Based on the first book from George R. R. Martin’s best-selling novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones centres on the seven kingdoms of the fictional world of Westeros and the fight for the Iron Throne (the man on the Iron Throne rules all seven kingdoms).

Understandably so, anticipation for the series was high. Hardcore fans were eager to see if an adequate adaptation had been made, while the rest of us (Fohnhouse included) were simply intrigued by the premise, and the promise of combat, conspiracy, sex, stallions (horse and man kind) and loads of birds (ravens and, if you refer to them as such, women). 10 episodes later, one season in the bag - with a season two pick-up – and a 3 million strong army of viewers behind it, was Game of Thrones worth all the fuss? The long answer: some of it. But sadly, while there was some good, there was also some bad and, unfortunately, some downright ugly.

THE GOOD

The cast. When we heard way back in 2009 that loveable rogue Sean Bean had been cast to play one of the key characters, Ned Stark, in addition to the likes of Mark Addy, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage and Jason Momoa, who play Robert Bartheon, Cersei Lannister, Tyrion Lannister and Khal Drogo respectively, we knew the series would be one to watch. And while there are many niggling issues with the series as a whole, the cast is not one of them, and it succeeds in making Game of Thrones watchable and moderately enjoyable in spite of its failings. Kit Harington (Jon Snow) and Dinklage’s characters are particularly noticeable in a big crowd of solid players, although by the end of the season it’s only the sharp tongue of Dinklage’s Tyrion that is remembered, as well as the words of a wise witch.

The sets and costumes are also remarkable and enable you to journey effortlessly into this fantasy world.

THE BAD

The script. The inconsistencies. From as early as the second episode, it’s evident that Games of Thrones is going for quantity and not quality: we’re endlessly forced to accept new characters and story arches which aren’t developed (making it nearly impossible for you to really care or route for any character); lines are repetitive (“A Lannister always pays his debts”); storylines are baffling and improbable (the barbaric Khal Drogo is rendered completely powerless by the “eye contact” of wife Daenerys, who needs lessons on how to “please” a Khal who seems more than happy in the standard Game of Thrones sexual position; the Dothraki tribe of unbeaten, hairy warlords is turned on its head in a matter of seconds by a female foreigner; Daenerys, although given to Drogo by her brother in exchange for help regaining the Iron Throne, appears to explain the term “throne’ to a bemused, hot-but-dim Khal), and the writers seem to have lapses of memory quite often (there are 6 Stark children but you may frequently think there are only 5, and prostitutes give lessons in the art of seduction while clearly lacking the ability themselves). Every storyline is swiftly executed and it’s all just a bit clumsy, and exceedingly overloaded.

THE UGLY

The nudity. The porn parody. Now, we haven’t read the books, but an adaptation is exactly that, so every page of the 800-page book doesn't need to be brought to life, and we shouldn't need to have read the book to enjoy the show, which is a separate entity. It’s slightly disturbing to see that in this medieval time, women are only useful if they’re breast feeding, flashing their vaginas, seducing other women or assuming the position (on all fours). Oh, but we shouldn’t forget... there are also a couple of naked men for our viewing pleasure, including a pale, bald, chubby man who randomly pops up (no pun intended) in the woods. Go figure!

We’re not saying that we didn't enjoy Games of Thrones or that it hasn’t got potential, but if it wants to be inducted into the HBO hall of fame, the show’s creators have got a bit of work to do.

FG

Friday, 15 July 2011

Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)

More like Bobby Fischer against Bobby Fischer.

Image: Dogwoof

Bobby Fischer Against the World charts the life of a man many regard as the greatest chess player of all time. From becoming the youngest Grand Master at the tender age of 15 to his rise to the top, culminating in Fischer winning the "Match of the Century” to become the 11th World Chess Champion, to his shocking withdrawal from the spotlight, battle with mental illness and life in exile, Fischer’s story is nothing if not remarkable and compelling.

Charismatic, dedicated, obsessed and inexplicably clever, the late Bobby Fischer was a genius who has been immortalised skilfully and poignantly on-screen by director Liz Garbus. A worthwhile watch.

4/5

FG

Fields of Gold

Image: FG/Fohnhouse

Check out this cornfield in the village of Long Melford in Suffolk (a village made famous by the TV series Lovejoy). Not a bad sight to see when you open the door first thing in the morning. But more to the point, what is it with cornfields and the thriller/horror genre? Signs, Children of the Corn, The Green Mile. When did a cornfield become synonymous with melancholy and doom?

FG

The Tree of Life (2011)

In the beginning....

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

When Terence Malick puts a film out, everyone pays attention. The writer/director gave us Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line. The Tree of Life won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, the first American film to take home that honour since Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. But has the director’s reach exceeded his grasp?

The majority of the film is made up of Jack’s (Sean Penn) memories of his childhood in 1950s Texas with his beautiful, angelic mother (Jessica Chastain) and his strict, terse father (Brad Pitt). The mother intones early on in voice-over that we can pursue nature, with its needs and anguish, or the calmer path of grace. 

First of all, The Tree of Life looks absolutely stunning. The film opens with the mother receiving a letter informing her of her son’s death. We watch the parents deal with their grief as Malick introduces us to the swooping, diving style of camera work. Both are clearly devastated, and while we watch the tears flow down Mother’s face, Father struggles to keep a sense of propriety. 

Then Malick pulls us back from this intense intimacy. All the way back. Right back to the big bang, in fact, before he charts the course of evolution. And it’s at this point that the litmus test of the film begins. While the photography and the special effects are stunning as we move slowly, accompanied by gorgeous classical music, through the course of existence, it’s undeniably self-indulgent. There are those who are of the opinion that this sequence shows the audience nothing they haven’t seen in an advert or a screensaver. While this may be the case, it’s an audacious sequence that is undeniably a treat for the eyes, even as your patience is being tested. This isn’t helped by an inconsistent voice-over that veers between poetry and pretentious nonsense.

We then return to Waco, Texas, and the course of young Jack’s childhood. Hunter McCracken’s performance as Young Jack is superb, perfectly capturing the repressed rage and confusion of the start of adolescence. It’s in these family scenes that The Tree of Life really connects with the audience. Pitt is at his very best as Mr. O’Brien, who’s unable to properly express his love for his family and letting his frustration turn to harshness. Chastain, who resembles a young Sissy Spacek, is less well-served. While both characters are archetypes, with the father representing nature and the mother representing grace, Mr O’Brien is much more developed. Chastain is perfect as the ethereal, idealised mother of childhood but Malick seems to have no interest in exploring the character beyond that. 

As Jack moves (slowly) through the various trials that growing up present him with, the film never stops being a wonder to look at. The performances are good enough that, along with the camera work, there’s more than enough to compensate for the leisurely pace.  The issues presented are often overly familiar but Malick is aiming for universal themes, which is one of the biggest problems with The Tree of Life. The style and pace specify a small target audience but Malick is talking about the struggles we all go through. However, it’s not really saying anything that we’ve not heard before. It’s all about love, we’re told. Which would be fine were it not for an astonishingly clunky coda which is one step too far. 

This isn’t the masterpiece that Malick was reaching for but it’s gorgeous and moving despite its excesses and self-importance. Finally it succeeds more often than it fails, and when it succeeds it succeeds beautifully. A must-see.

3/5

JH

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Dark Knight Rises Again

With the release, yesterday, of a teaser poster for The Dark Knight Rises, as well as the general excitement and buzz surrounding Christopher Nolan's third and final foray in Gotham City, Fohnhouse couldn't help but reminisce about the good ol' Dark Knight days and the poster/artwork our chief Wandercat created in honour of The Joker. Walk with us down memory lane...

Image: Warner Bros.

Or alternatively:

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

FG

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye.

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

After 7 films, in which we’ve watched the infamous Potter grow from a boy to man, and 10 years of not-so-bewitching hocus-pocus, the time has finally come for Harry to face-off against his arch-nemesis, Lord Voldemort, and bring an end to the war of the wizards and this much-loved, billion-dollar franchise. Now, we here at Fohnhouse admit we’ve not been the biggest supporters of the boy wonder and his famous friends: the previous outings with Harry and co. were rather long and overall lacked the magic ingredient needed to make us believe that the specs-wearing wizard warranted all the fuss. However, while we’re still not entirely convinced, it has to be said that the franchise bows out in spectacular fashion, with a movie good enough to make us forgive and forgot previous sins.

Picking up from where Part 1 left off, the gang are still on the hunt for the remaining Horcruxes (having already disposed of one), which they must find and destroy in order to defeat Voldemort. With the existence of wizard and muggle-kind on the line, Harry soon realises he's the one who may have to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the wizard and Muggle worlds.

After a quick recap, the film immediately gets going and it’s not long before we’re treated to everything the previous films failed to deliver enough of: dragons, snakes, wand-offs, stone soldiers, rollercoasters, excitement, adventure, Death Eaters in abundance, and pretty much every trick in the Hogwarts magic book.

Having helmed some of the more watchable films from the series, director David Yates does an excellent job tying up all the loose ends, and has created a fitting finale for fanatics who have read the books and been with Harry ever step of the way.

While the screenwriters haven’t necessarily given the three main protagonists (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) the material needed to make audiences remember them for their acting ability (the dialogue is unchallenging and they never really say or do anything worthy of any prestigious accolades), they've dedicated years of their lives to playing these characters and have ably brought them to life for fans worldwide, so for that they will always be remembered.

But, like with most of the films, it's the fantastic ensemble cast (including Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham Carter) that ultimately makes The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 a worthwhile watch. Though screen time for each individual is limited, the sheer calibre of talent involved and the time restraints make you forgive what can often only be described as cameo appearances.

As leader of the Death Eaters, Lord Voldemort a.k.a. Ralph Fiennes has ample screen time and Fiennes is devilishly superb in his role; along with his deathly clan, he brings the large dose of evil that's necessary to make us understand and see why they're all at war. And it’s this equal balance of good and evil that creates the tension and sense of urgency that we haven't previously seen and that propels Part 2 past its predecessors to new heights.

Barring one or two niggles, the Harry Potter team has, without a doubt, saved the best for last. Packed full of action and stunning effects, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 will leave hardcore fans satisfied and maybe even with tears in their eyes. For all other folk, it’s solid entertainment and redeems an otherwise weak (but profitable) franchise. And remarkably, for all of you who haven’t even seen one Potter movie, just by watching this one you’ll be able to understand everything that has happened in the past 10 years without having to watch any of the previous films. It doesn't get much better than that!

4/5

FG

Friday, 8 July 2011

Senna (2011)

Image: Universal Pictures

Formula 1 racing is not something we at Fohnhouse know much about. In fact, we’d even go as far as to say we know next to nothing about it. So it was with somewhat mixed feelings that we went off to watch a documentary about one of the greatest drivers who ever lived. Yes, we’d heard great things, but would it really be able to hold the interest of F1 novices like us?

Well, yes. It absolutely could. Telling the story of Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna from his first Formula 1 race up until his death, it’s a powerful and compelling film. It has two very important assets. The first is the incredible footage that director Asif Kapadia has managed to assemble. There are personal home videos featuring Senna and his family as well as behind the scenes recordings of the driver’s pre-race meetings, giving us a glimpse into the pressures and politics that come with such a high profile and lucrative sport.

The second asset is the subject himself. Senna was not shy about making his feelings known and bemoaned the money and politics that got in the way of making himself a better driver. His primary goal was to keep pushing the boundaries of his talent. He also cared deeply about his national identity and the film makes clear just how deeply his country felt about him. The documentary involves us so deeply with Senna that his triumphs are wonderfully uplifting and his defeats are crushing.

Unfortunately this involvement comes at the expense of any balance. It’s hard to believe that Senna’s rival Alain Prost is quite as evil as the film depicts him here, a scheming cunning man with the President of the racing federation in his back pocket. Meanwhile, Ayrton himself gets a free pass. 

But it’s an utterly compelling documentary that shows us a man who was both outspoken and enigmatic and who was constantly looking for the next challenge. This film makes it clear just why Ayrton Senna is so revered, respected and beloved. 

If you’re an F1 fan, you’ve probably seen this already. If you’re not, we’d urge you to check it out anyway. It may not convert you, but it’ll certainly plunge you into that world for 100 minutes.

4/5

JH

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Bridesmaids (2011)

The much-hyped comedy is here...and it’s very good.

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

There’s been a lot of discussion about the cultural significance of Bridesmaids. Many said it was proof that women could do a gross out comedy as well as men, while others felt that proof was never really needed. But the discussions would all be irrelevant if it wasn’t funny.

Annie (Kristen Wiig) is a mess. She’s in a purely sexual relationship with a man who’s a complete tool (Jon Hamm) and lost all her money when her bakery failed. When her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces that she’s getting married, Annie agrees to be the maid of honour. However, as the pressure builds Annie can’t seem to put a foot right, especially compared to Lillian’s psychotically perfect new friend Helen (Rose Byrne).

Bridesmaids is a well-written, wonderfully performed comedy. Wiig (Paul) has deserved a big showcase for a long time and this shows that she is quite capable of carrying a movie on her shoulders. The script (by Wiig and Annie Mumulo) takes its time to build the characters, rendering Annie believable and sympathetic. While the film has several big slapstick moments (the much-discussed dress fitting scene is a disgusting highlight though not as graphic as reported), Bridesmaids' biggest success is the characters.

Director Paul Feig (creator of cult classic TV series Freaks and Geeks) keeps things relatively simple, giving his actors room to improvise and riff off each other. Wiig and Rudolph (Away We Go) worked together for several years on Saturday Night Live and are obviously very comfortable working with each other. Byrne (Insidious) is hilariously conniving as rich control freak Helen and Melissa McCarthy (The Nines) gets big laughs as unpredictable and sexually aggressive bridesmaid Megan. Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd) makes a surprisingly charming romantic interest as well as sparking nicely off Wiig while Hamm is wonderfully obnoxious as the boorish Ted.

Bridesmaids doesn’t exactly break with formula rules, but what it does is approach the genre in which it sits with intelligence and excellent performances. There are the gross-out bits, friends fall out and reconcile, and things generally go as you expect them to. But you know what? It’s very, very funny.

Kristen Wiig finally gets the platform she deserves and brings us a hilarious comedy.

4/5

JH

Monday, 4 July 2011

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

Is your Dad home?

Image: AIP

Long before she was Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster had another life entirely. She won plaudits for her role as a child prostitute in Taxi Driver and sang her little heart out as Tallulah in the bizarre but essential viewing children’s gangster flick Bugsy Malone. Rather less famously, she appeared as a brave little girl defending her house against intruding adults in The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane.
This is one of those films where any plot information is going to spoil the experience, so I shall be brief. Foster plays Rynn, a resourceful young girl who just wants to be left alone and get on with her life. Hindering her in this are a friendly local policeman and the landlady of the house she lives in, both of whom are suspicious about the absence of her parents, and the landlady’s son, who takes rather too much interest in Rynn. The mysteries of what is actually going on in the film are not particularly difficult to guess at, but it makes the film all the more enjoyable if you don’t know them before you start.
For enjoyable this film is! An undiscovered gem (alright, undiscovered by the masses, the rest of us sing its praises constantly), it feels remarkably fresh even as it celebrates its 35th birthday this year. It features yet another excellent performance from young Foster, and one which prefigures the subtle juxtaposition of fragility and toughness which would make her the perfect foil for Buffalo Bill. But I’m getting ahead of myself...Here she makes for an engaging heroine and, while we don’t know exactly what she is up to much of the time, we invariably want her to succeed.
Scott Jacoby provides some excellent support as the young magician with a limp who ends up helping Foster out. Their relationship is complex, frankly depicted and, most importantly, very believable. These two are not ‘movie kids’ but genuine people who react with genuine emotions. Jacoby had already essayed the role of the lone child struggling to defend his home to great acclaim in the well-regarded American TV Movie Bad Ronald, and it’s lovely to see him back on familiar ground here. It is truly a great shame that he never went on to bigger things, as both here and there he exhibits a genuine star quality.
Despite the marvellous central performances, the highlight of the film is Martin Sheen. Playing the paedophile son of Foster’s nosey landlady, his performance is a master class in creepy, from the very first scene where he strokes Foster’s wrists. Whether explaining Halloween traditions to a terrified Rynn or throwing crippled children across rooms, he is immaculately terrifying, all the more so when he isn’t actually being overtly threatening: his quiet air of menace defines chilling.
The rest of the cast all put in fine performances too, with even the minor characters coming across as unusually nuanced and real. The last words of praise must go to the people behind the camera, especially director Nicolas Gessner, who manages to make a script which could easily be a stage play feel effortlessly cinematic. This is not to diminish the power of the screenplay, with Laird Koenig adapting from his own novel, which never feels contrived despite certain aspects of the plot which could potentially have been laughable. The crisp cinematography of René Verzier is a perfect match for the vision of director and writer, subtle and occasionally painterly.
Verdict: Dark, creepy and beautiful, this film is a tremendous thriller showcasing some brilliant performances.
4/5
MP