Thursday, 23 August 2012

Book: How I Killed Margaret Thatcher

Anthony Cartwright’s novel boasts an attention grabbing title but it’s the attention to detail that really impresses. His narrator Sean tells the story of his childhood in Dudley during which his family struggle to cope with Margaret Thatcher’s cut-backs. As the lay-offs and closures escalate, young Sean observes how her actions directly worsen the lives of his parents, grandparents, and his uncle John. He grows increasingly puzzled by the lack of direct action taken against the prime minister until he finally decides to take matters into his own hands.

The narrative switches between the perspectives of Sean as a child and as an adult which Cartwright uses to expertly ramp up the sense of impending doom. The Sean of the present who lives and works in a pub in the same area is all too aware that things do not get better, no matter what he remembers the adults telling him. While it’s relatively brief at just under 250 pages, Cartwright creates a wonderfully vivid sense of time and place. Sean’s home town is a fully realised world of well-drawn characters and vivid locations, with the danger signs surrounding the crumbling masonry a clear sign that things are coming to a boil. If the dialogue may occasionally come a little close to hammering his point home, for the most part it rings completely true.

The novel is not just a diatribe against Thatcher’s policies; it’s an excellent portrayal of a gradual disintegration of a family seen through the eyes of a child. How I Killed Margaret Thatcher is an engrossing read that shows the reader the warmth of a close-knit, well-rendered family life that is insidiously poisoned by the actions of a woman who is seen and heard on the television but whose actions are felt right at the heart of their home.



Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Expendables 2 (2012)

Image: Lionsgate

Having enjoyed the minion-decimating antics of Stallone and his aging buddies back in 2010, we were looking forward to a similar kind of mindless retro action fun in this sequel. With the promise of more cameos and extended appearances from Bruce and Arnie, can The Expendables 2 deliver?

Barney Ross (Stallone) and his gang of mercenaries are forced by CIA agent Church (Bruce Willis) to find a downed plane in Albania and retrieve its cargo. But when the villainous Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) kills one of their team and makes off with the package, the job becomes a personal revenge mission.

If you weren’t convinced by The Expendables it’s probably safe to assume you won’t have much time for this either. If you’re hoping for more of the same then The Expendables 2 delivers just that, with an extra dose of self-aware humour. Stallone may have given up the director’s chair to action veteran Simon West (Con Air, The Mechanic) but for the most part it’s business as usual, with only Mickey Rourke declining to return.

Plot-wise, it’s about as elaborate as you’d expect from a film with a villain named Vilain (played with the appropriate level of ham by Van Damme) as its villain. Barney’s nemesis is digging under a Balkan village for hidden Russian plutonium which allows our heroes both the Rambo-esque privilege of liberating a downtrodden people from their evil oppressors, as well as being a big enough threat to warrant the overblown finale with those bigger-name cameos dropping in with all guns blazing. For the most part it’s completely, knowingly daft, with Arnie, Bruce, and Chuck’s dialogue sounding like it was written by teenage action fans (direct quotes from their films and Chuck Norris jokes all appear).

Oddly, the filmmakers attempt to counter-balance this self-aware silliness with a bit of dramatic heft, which frankly doesn’t work. Stallone proved with Rocky Balboa that he’s more than capable of giving a moving performance as an over-the-hill lug with one last thing to prove, but po-faced monologues about the capriciousness of fate and how we cope with death don’t fit in a film this ridiculous. Don’t expect too strong of a female presence here, with new recruit Maggie (Nan Yu) still obliged to fawn over Sly, and our heroes having to rescue a town that, thanks to the baddies, is exclusively populated by women and children.

But the main requirement for the fans will be decent action set-pieces. Thankfully, there seems to be have been a decision made to ramp these up, and the film benefits from some well-choreographed shoot-outs and punch-ups that make the most of the cast’s different skill-sets. Jet Li makes an impression early on with a kitchen fight, Jason Statham gets to show off how flexible he is as knife-man Lee Christmas, and Stallone does his well-trodden but still impressive aging brick shithouse routine.

To be honest, The Expendables 2 is exactly what you’d expect. It’s over the top, there are intentional and unintentional laughs, the action’s good, and the stars look like they’re having a great time.

Even sillier than its predecessor but just as entertaining, The Expendables 2 won’t win any new recruits but it’s a big, fun, dumb Friday night movie.



Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Interview: Pixar's Mark Andrews & Katherine Sarafian

Image: Lester Cohen/Getty Images

As the new Pixar animation Brave shoots into cinemas this week, Fohnhouse got to sit down with its director and producer, Mark Andrews and Katherine Sarafian respectively, to talk about the fairy tale, setting high standards, industry advice, and the late, great Steve Jobs.

How do you manage to keep raising the bar visually and reinventing yourselves?

MA: I don’t know if we know how we do it. When we approach the next film we really don’t think about what has come before and go, ‘we’ve got to top that’, or look at what’s being done after because several films are in production at any one time at Pixar. We just put our heads down and want to tell the best story we possibly can. A lot of the look of this one, the design of this film in particular, came out of the requirements of the story. We’re setting it in an actually place, and although we didn’t want to use actual environments or places like Loch Ness or Glen Affric, we wanted to have the feel and authenticity of the place, not the accuracy of it actually being shot in The Caledonian Forest or something like that. The backdrop is a character in and of itself for these people. The land is part of what makes you you, and to have the story take place in that land that evokes mystery and enchantment was just a natural choice, so the look came out of that. There’s so much texture and variation and we needed to get that. Then, all of a sudden, visually, that raises the bar.

KS: We also build our knowledge on every film before: we learned something on Monsters, Inc. about fur; we learned something on The Incredibles about human animation or about hair, with violet, and we build on that and learn technologically how to approach something and how to approach a different technology problem. But, like Mark is saying, in terms of the look and topping ourselves visually, that has more to do with how each story is so different and has different requirements, so the next film out of Pixar, or the film after that, may look nothing like Brave and may actually go back to a more graphic or simplistic look because that story is not set in a tactile, luscious, Scottish landscape. We may have the ability to do more technically that we could do before, but the looks will continue to be all over the map based on what the stories are and who’s telling them.

This is your first fairy tale, did Disney influence that decision?

MA: No, Disney’s not looking over our shoulder or dictating what we need to do and not do. The appealing thing about the story to Pixar is that there are a lot of elements in it that we hadn’t done before like the parent-child bond. The story of that dynamic, especially when that child is a teenager and growing up and becoming mature. That has a lot of heart and as a storyteller that’s just fertile ground for exploring that journey. We’ve also never set a story in Scotland, so there are a lot of new things that are appealing and at the end of the day, every Pixar film is a new thing that we haven’t done before. Nobody can pin us down and go, ‘they’ll never do fairy tale, they’ll never do story about an old man whose house flies with balloons to tepuis, they’re never going to do a rat that learns how to cook or a superhero movie’. We just want to make the films we want to make, and if we’re covering ground that’s traditionally been Disney’s ground, fine. But we’re going to do it a totally different way.

It’s a lot darker anyway.

KS: Yeah, I think we wanted to go to that darker place. We were very influence by stories we grew up with - the dark tales of The Brothers Grimm - and we wanted to show real consequences to this young lady’s actions. She really makes some mistakes and messes up and creates a real rift with her family. If I make a mistake and tear a tapestry in my mum’s house maybe I get sent to my room or grounded, but I’m not a princess, and Merida’s action have huge repercussions that will impact the entire kingdom. She puts the peace of the kingdom on the line and jeopardises her mother’s life and we needed to show real stakes and real intensity so, yes, we go to some scarier moments and that bear is a real threat, the kingdom truly could be at war, so we wanted to go to that dark place so that it would resonate with people. We wanted to do it as a cautionary tale just like the old, dark tales we grew up with.

Could you give one fundamental tip as an illustrator or producer for people trying to make it in the industry?

MA: Draw, draw, draw and then draw some more. You learn more by doing it so if you’re a writer, write, if you want to direct you’ve got to start directing, if you want to be an illustrator you’ve got to start drawing.

KS: Yeah, it sounds obvious what he’s saying but you wouldn’t believe the number of people who come to us and say, ‘I really want to write, I really want to animate, I really want to blah, blah’, and they talk about it but the truth is you’ve got to do it. The people who are driven to direct films don’t wait for Pixar to call them and say, ‘come and be a director’, they start directing films. Even if they have no money and they’re doing it in their garage with stick figures, they do it. If you really want to do it you have to do it yourself. And that’s how you create a reel and a resume based on experience. Even producers… I remember people will say, ‘I can’t get a job in the industry’, well, go and work for free. I had to volunteer at a zillion places and get no money in order to learn the things that I know now in order to do my job, so you have to just do it; don’t wait for anybody’s permission.

MA: Yeah, people are at the bottom of the ladder and they’re looking for the magic bullet to get them to the top of the ladder where they’re done, but it’s climbing the ladder that gets you there. It’s that simple… you’ve just got to do it.

Finally, there’s a dedication to Steve Jobs at the end of the film, were you guys able to meet him and, if so, what impression has he left you with?

KS: We both worked with him. He’s one of the founders of Pixar so we worked with him for many years. We miss him a lot and his influence is felt in this movie very much: his desire to make everything beautiful and of the highest quality and heartfelt. He spoke of Brave because he saw it. Unfortunately he never saw it finished but in the early stages he was delighted that it was a family story – as a family man that was meaningful to him – and we hope he would’ve loved the final version of it.

MA: Yeah, his philosophy of, ‘don’t just make it great, make it insanely great’. Constantly push yourself, challenge yourself and be your own harshest critic. That really resonates with the people at Pixar.

KS: He changed our fate. Knowing him, working with him and having Pixar built up by him… he changed our lives.


Friday, 10 August 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)

Image: Artificial Eye

We tend to sneer a bit at the idea of artists as political commentators, and we will freely admit that the bulk of our social media time is spent discussing movies or talking about what we had for dinner. This film is a timely reminder that it is often the job of the artist to speak their mind about the society in which they live, and just how far social networks can reach.

The outspoken Ai Weiwei is one of the most famous artists in China today. He’s also constantly lobbying for greater transparency in the Chinese government. Alison Klayman’s documentary shows how, from the Sichwan earthquake onwards, Ai Weiwei has used Twitter to expose how the government and the police can bully citizens and conceal facts from the population, and how that has put him in danger.

Ai Weiwei is a fascinating figure, a man whose reputation in the art world is actually matched by his reputation for activism, and the two clearly overlap frequently. In the past his work has included a Han dynasty vase that he painted over with the Coca-Cola logo and photographs of him giving the finger to historical buildings. After the Chinese government refused to release the full number of deaths in the Sichuan earthquake, he made a documentary about the disaster focusing on the shocking number of children who had died due to so-called “tofu-skin” construction. But for someone who clearly has so much anger and purpose, he’s outwardly a very calm person who’s philosophical about the chances he’s taking.

Klayman does show some of his development as an artist, with discussion of his work in New York as a young man to his return to Beijing, where he became a figurehead of Chinese modern art. Some of his contemporaries are interviewed, who clearly hold him in the highest regard. Perhaps more impressively, we see how he has reached a legion of young fans and admirers through Twitter, organising flash events (in this documentary they’re mostly dinners) that are often swiftly cracked down on. He does remain something of an enigma. His personal life is discussed briefly and there’s some touching footage of him with his family and his baby son.

It’s also often tense, with the key moment coming when police officers enter his hotel room at night. One officer struck Ai Weiwei, who recorded the event and tweeted as it happened, as well as the operation he had to have not long after as a result of the blow to his head.

The film never really gets under the skin of its subject but Klayman’s more interested in following and observing. He’s a totally magnetic figure, this calm, witty artist who provokes so much trouble.

An engrossing, entertaining documentary about an enigmatic but passionate man.



Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Ted (2012)

Image: Universal

Love it or hate it, there’s no ignoring the sheer size of Family Guy’s fan base. When it was announced that creator Seth MacFarlane would be making the leap from 20 minute animation to a full-length live-action movie, we were interested to see if he could pull it off.

As a lonely 10 year old boy, John Bennett’s wish for his teddy bear to come to life comes true. Now in his thirties, John (Mark Wahlberg) still lives with Ted (MacFarlane), as well as his beautiful, patient girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). But can John really grow up when all he does is get drunk and stoned with his teddy bear?

Despite not being the biggest fans of Family Guy, we’re happy to report that MacFarlane’s first film is a definite success. The idea of putting a high-concept spin on the “slacker buddy holds our hero back” genre staple is actually quite effective. While the film makes the most of the shock value that comes from having a drunken, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed, womanising teddy bear spitting out disgusting zingers, it’s nicely balanced by the fact that both Ted and John really care about each other. The scenes in which they realise they have to move on and grow as people are actually quite sweet, which is in turn countered by the shockingly funny scenes of regression and bad behaviour. MacFarlane fans won’t be surprised that it’s also heavy on the pop culture references and although a few do fall flat, they mostly work very well. There are also several celebrity cameos which we won’t spoil here.

Things do peak around the halfway point as John struggles to keep his promise to grow up in the face of spectacular temptation. Ted starts to drag a little towards the final third, although this part of the film boasts a spectacular fist fight that left us struggling to breathe. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with the plotline of John and Lori’s relationship, MacFarlane struggles to keep it interesting. It’s not the fault of the performers. As a Family Guy cast member it’s not surprising that Kunis is game for some toilet humour, and she has good chemistry with Wahlberg. The problem is that, given that the film packs so many big surprises, the scenes in which their relationship flounders never really offer anything unexpected. However, these are fairly minor complaints.

Ted owes much of its success to Mark Wahlberg. He’s endearingly wide-eyed and well-intentioned, he’s up for the nerdier humour, and he completely sells the concept of a guy getting hammered with a teddy bear. There’s also an solid supporting cast including veteran scene-stealers Joel McHale (Community) as Laurie’s sleazy boss, Giovanni Ribisi as a creepy Ted fan, and Patrick Warburton (Family Guy, Seinfeld) as John’s sexually baffled colleague.

There are some pacing issues and it’s occasionally a little too happy to follow the “three’s a crowd” comedy rules, but Ted is a definite success. It’s funny, it’s often surprising, and Wahlberg is brilliant.

Family Guy fans will obviously love it but it’s also a hilarious comedy with some fantastic surprises that we’d recommend to everyone.