Monday, 31 October 2011

'Paranormal Activity 3' Review

'Paranormal Activity 3' (dir/s: Henry Joost/Ariel Schulman, 2011) Cert: 15

The 'Paranormal Activity' franchise has made millions from 'terrifying' audiences with banging cupboards, possessed women staring at a bedside and YouTube-style jump-scares. In fact, by this third instalment; directed by the supremely talented and utterly misused Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman - the pair behind the sublime 'Catfish' (2010), the wheels have fallen off so dramatically that it is basically an 84 minute version of this 15 second German energy drink commercial...

 This film presents audiences with how the 'activity' began surrounding the two central females, Kristi and Katie. Here the pair are young girls and one of them seems to have an aggressive imaginary friend called 'Toby' who enjoys nothing more than reeking havoc upon the family home and consequently causing Wedding video maker Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) to place video cameras all over their home to see what goes bump in the night. Sound familiar? 

 'Parasnormal Inactivity the Third' offers viewers nothing new, nothing unforeseen or remotely chilling - sure it has some nice touches including some falling dust that sort of looks like a figure and a spooky sheet but all these really do is just shout "LOOK! WE HAVE MONEY NOW! HOW COOL WAS THAT?! DID YOU SEE?! WELL, DID YA!?" - The novelty wears off incredible quickly and soon the film shows it's true colours. The first movie was made on a shoe-string budget, lacked many effects and opted for camera trickery and in doing so felt far more authentic and eerie than this mega-money CGI-laden sucker-punch.

Still from 'Paranormal Activity 3' (dir/s: Henry Joost/Ariel Schulman, 2011)

 Although the world, his wife and his dog do not want to believe it, there is simply nothing more the 'Paranormal Activity' franchise can do - it has lost it's bearings and run out of steam. If the only thing you can mention when leaving a film was a scene with a moving bed, you know things are getting sour. Yes, this film is moderately better than the second and it isn't totally boring but that is no great achievement and it worries me that a fourth film is around the corner, because this is quite simply our fault - all the while audiences are happy to buy into this franchise, Paramount will review and grant another picture. It's a vicious and sadly predictable cycle.

 The film also has the gift of an obscenely false trailer - this picture contains no burning house, not many sequences of bodies being dragged by the ghost and it's 'Bloody Mary' scene is entirely different but to an extent, this is a good thing because the bathroom encounter is probably the picture's strongest moment.

 It's also sad to see Joost and Schulman sell out like this too - of course they were right to take the job and they will make millions because of it, but these two gifted documentarians have lost a lot of what made them special and that's a true blow to the genre.

 'Paranormal Activity 3' also gives audiences the dumbest and most ridiculous ending too - by the third act, everyone involved in the movie knows just how bad it is so the only thing to do is....(I won't actually reveal what happens). This is merely a barrier to shield viewers from the movie's inner mediocrity; the team know people will talk about the ending and thus forget about the god-awful 75 minutes they have endured to get to this point, and it is a real shame that so many have proven them right and fallen right into this corporate bear-trap.

 This isn't the worst movie of the year but I've simply had enough now - if the inevitable fourth picture happens, you'll have to drag me kicking and screaming to see it

Please, for the love of God, make it stop.

By Chris Haydon

Saturday, 29 October 2011

I'm in the New Code of Conduct...

Mark Kermode blogged about creating a new Code of Conduct for cinema-goers but this time the theme was positive rather than negative. During the selection process, my choice was picked. Plus he knocked my username (21cwh04) - I thought moulding my birthday and initials was smart. I guess not... 

 Anyway, my suggestion is around the 3:35 mark.

'Chronicle' - You Haven't Heard of It? You Soon Will.

I went to the 'In Time' press screening last night in Soho's impeccably beautiful Charlotte Street Hotel which was way too posh for me - Molton Brown soaps in the toilets and everything. And a merry Michael Fassbender outside. Anyway, before the movie started we press were treated to some trailers and one of them was for 'Chronicle'.

 This is without doubt the most exciting and intriguing trailer of the year and it's March 2012 release date cannot come quickly enough. View this beauty below and prepare to put your 'Dark Knight Rises' fever on hold...

 My review for 'In Time' will be published over at The Upcoming so make sure you check it out!

Friday, 28 October 2011

'Sket' Review

'Sket' (dir: Nirpal Bhogal, 2011) Cert: 15

Debut writer/director Nirpal Bhogal brings audiences his UK urban crime drama ‘Sket’ in quite possibly the toughest week of the year. The film will be fighting with Clooney’s latest ‘The Ides of March’, Emma Stone in ‘The Help’ and Spielberg’s ‘Tintin’; all of which are fabulous films, but just because ‘Sket’ is an underdog does not mean it isn’t worth your time.

 After her elder sister and carer is brutally murdered by evil crime lord Trey (Ashley Walters), Kayla (Aimee Kelly); the new girl on the block decides to take revenge on this mindless thug, but she needs help with fulfilling this task and soon finds herself involved in a tough all-female gang who know the only way to survive is to “become like them”.

With low-budget pictures depicting troubled inner city youth on the rise, it must certainly be a challenge to overcome the norms of this hybrid genre and present audiences with a visceral, fresh and affecting experience; and with a great sigh of relief, ‘Sket’ manages to deliver these goods. Rather than exploiting social stereotypes about youth crime, Bhogal’s script and direction helps viewers to emphasise with his mob of female hoodlums; they have a specific reason for their behaviour and although they act unlawfully, their scenarios leave them little choice.

 This creates an unnerving and deeply realistic atmosphere and tone to the 83 minute whirlwind that snaps, spits and barks in the face of misogyny and ill treatment to women. Rough-and-tumble Danielle (or ‘Daze’) played by Emma Hartley-Miller is the psychical evidence of this - she sports a tough exterior and explodes with short but freak bursts of violence when she sees a young woman harassed or potentially in danger. This is how she and her troop meet Kayla who comes from Newcastle to live in London with her sister after the death of her mother.

Still from 'Sket' (dir: Nirpal Bhogal, 2011)
 Bhogal’s sense of knowing allows viewers to see the repugnant violence that ensues without constantly dwelling on it. The feature is more violent in attitude, language and substance than shocking or gory scenes. For what it’s worth, ‘Sket’ only features two/three sequences of ‘strong’ violence which is why the BBFC (British Board of Classification) have granted the picture a rightful 15 certificate. 

 Much like every other London teen-crime movie, ‘Sket’ boasts a thumping soundtrack of grime, drum ‘n’ bass and dubstep along with manic strobe lighting which warrants a epilepsy warning prior to the picture’s opening, but despite this it would seem unfair to just call this movie a female ‘Kidulthood’ (2006) or ‘Shank’ (2010) because it provides a strong emotional core, an impressively handled screenplay and a collection of incredibly talented newcomers.

 The performances are engaging and powerful all round - Lily Loveless (‘Skins’) is great as Hannah, the unforgiving and unsympathetic member who does not warm to Kayla. Kelly’s debut performance, which earned her a nomination for the London Film Festival’s awards, is an impressive and bold move for her new career. She is able to achieve the balance between timid and ferocious, and it is difficult to tell how she acts in each given situation. Also very strong are Hartley-Miller’s exquisite ‘Daze’ and Rhian Steele’s performance as ‘Shaks’ – the running girl for the hateful Trey (Ashley Walters); she has a feisty yet brilliant subtle persona that mirrors her conflicting behaviours.

'Sket’ is a bold, gritty and energetic endurance test that holds its viewers in a headlock – as far as independent British movies go this year, it’s a huge highlight.

By Chris Haydon

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Get Ready to Smile...

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last 6 months, you'll be aware that every film critic in the world is bouncing with excitement over 'The Muppets' due for release in February here in the UK. You will also know that a series of spoof trailers have been released which are all hilarious and quirky but none compare to this beauty. Prepare to laugh and join the giddy folks who cannot wait for this movie.

"Shame, Shame on You-S-A"

Once again the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) have shown their stupidity and ignorance when classifying certain features and Steve McQueen's masterpiece 'Shame' is the latest picture to have been slapped with the dreaded 'NC-17' rating.

The US classification agency have given the film this certificate due to "some explicit sexual content" - emphasis on the 'some'. The BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) however have granted the picture it's rightful and deserved 18 rating. 

 One can hardly say it's shocking the Yanks have done this, but it just seems ridiculous. 'Shame' is a depiction of self-harm and addiction; it presents audiences with a honest and moving account of someone suffering in silence. If it was about drugs, it would have been rated 'R', if it was about alcohol, it would have been rated 'R' but because it's about sex, the Americans cannot comprehend and thus run a mile. 

 The film does feature reasonably graphic sex (it's hardly pornographic but it's noticeable enough) and the film does feature nudity but who really in this day-and-age is that fazed or offended by the sight of genitalia? Every single human being will be naked pretty much every day but most human beings do not indulge in heroin and absinthe on a daily basis, so why do the censors have such difficultly with naturalism? It's beyond me.

 Granted sex addition is a risqué subject but 'Shame' is much more about character development and emotions than about some bloke obsessed with prostitutes and online porn. McQueen spoke frankly about sexual imagery at the film's press conference earlier this month and also questioned why so many are bothered by depictions of sex and nudity. Personally, it seems so contradictory - America produces some of the most obscene sexual content and most of it is screened all day long; advertisements, music videos, television shows, plus they are the country who agreed with Britney Spears that her track 'If You Seek Amy' was not about sex. Jesus Christ.

 The only good thing in all this cinematic hoo-hah is that US distributors Fox Searchlight are not willing to liaise with McQueen about cutting the film for a 'R' rating. The film is perfect the way it is and certainly does not need Hollywood mittens tampering with it just so it fits Christian sensibilities or the young mothers who have no filmic knowledge at all yet they select what certificate a feature gets. The MPAA really need to wake up and smell the coffee - follow us Brits and you will have many more happy movie-going experiences.

 'Shame' is one of the year's best films and if you haven't seen it already, check out the trailer below and prepare to feel the wrath of that score - I still can't shake it from my mind and I saw it a month ago.

 And yes, if you too though my title was witty, I cannot stop singing that darn song now so here's the video for that too. I may watch 'The Killer Inside Me' ...

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

'The Ides of March' Review

'The Ides of March' (dir: George Clooney, 2011) Cert: 15

George Clooney is no stranger to the director's chair nor is directing himself unfamiliar territory, but his latest picture, the political thriller 'The Ides of March' is the star's first film with a present day setting. I attended a press conference for this movie where he joked about how much easier this project was but it is clear he has done some dramatic research. Clooney is also credited as co-writer and producer of this film so it is obviously a project very close to him and he has brought an incredible cast along with him for the ride.

 Steven Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a determined junior campaign manager for presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney). Along with their senior manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the team are attempting to enlist the state of Ohio and rapidly gain more supporters. However, Morris' rival camp headed by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) is closing in on a deal of a lifetime which could damage Morris' campaign - 
plus Duffy is desperate to get his hands on Steven too. With New York Times reporter Ida (Marisa Tomei) constantly keeping a close eye on the campaign's drama, the group cannot afford a set-back but this being the world of politics, nothing is ever truly safe or secure.

 Political thrillers often get a bad reputation rather unnecessarily and that is usually because the screenplay is weighed down by jargon which many have trouble understanding or keeping up with. Thankfully 'The Ides of March' breaks this sour tradition and presents viewers with an easily understood but incredibly punchy and performed script. The dialogue exchanges are magnetic - every line feels polished and sculpted; if a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination isn't around the corner then one would be deeply shocked.

 The film is also beautifully captured - Clooney's knowledge of filmic space and mise-en-scene is undeniable and his flair with the camera enables him to craft some dizzyingly good angles and effects. This is his project, his work and he has certainly made the most of it. At times the film has the feel of a Noir - smoky, dim lit bars and ambient offices and at other times it thrives in it's extravagance - the campaign scenes are certainly mirrored from the Obama campaigns; even the posters and flyers are similar. Because of the film's unsettled scene structure, it makes everything projected on-screen supremely interesting and elegantly formed.

Still from 'The Ides of March' (dir: George Clooney, 2011)
 It will not be long before people will call this 'Oscar Bait' and to an extent they will be right - this film has everything the Academy love so dearly; realism, performers, American values and ideals, but one believes labelling this picture is doing it a great disservice because Clooney's 'Ides' is a bitter yet sumptuous portion of cinema. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is that it features no true protagonist or antagonist - everyone involved is a bad as each other, yet they believe in doing wrong, they are making a bigger, universal right. It's great to see ethics tampered with in this manner and the results are powerful and engaging. 

 'The Ides of March' is also the film that puts a certain global argument to rest - politics is dirty business. The movie shows how campaign staff and indeed candidates are happy to step on anybody's toes if it makes them just a little closer to succeeding. It has taken a long time for a picture to be this bold with it's content and it's wonderful to see it executed and performed with such skill and understanding.

 Every performance is incredible, no matter how big or small - Gosling is the man of the year and he seems untouchable currently. Steven is a beautifully complex and greatly troubled young man carrying the credentials of someone twice his age. Gosling always seems so comfortable in whatever role he selects and that same acting ethos applies here. In fact, he is such a great actor, not at one point did I think about him stomping on someone's head like he did in 'Drive' which is one of the year's best entries and was released only a month ago here in the UK.

 Clooney is also stunning in a surprising supporting role. Morris is a believable presidential candidate that is methodical, dimensional and damaged. George brings all his charm and personality to the role making Morris a dynamic force which is impossible to ignore. Seymour Hoffman and Giamatti are both sensational in their rival roles. The pair know the ropes like the backs of their hands and are able to manipulate and control those who still have integrity in this vicious game. Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright are also fantastic and make a great impact to the narrative progression and help shape fellow character developments.

 'The Ides of March' is a gritty and unsettled thriller which bursts with visual flair, flowing dialogue and some of the year's strongest performances. This is a fast-paced white-knuckle ride to the White House which will excite, inform and play on your mind long after you leave the theatre. 

Clooney's vision of politics is a cool and calculated and an informative and engaging affair that sits amongst the year's best offerings.

By Chris Haydon

'The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn' Review

'The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn' Review - Cert: PG

Before his passing in 1983, Hergé said that if any filmmaker was to adapt his collection of timeless tales following the adventures of a Belgian reporter to the big screen, Steven Spielberg was the only man for the job, and after two decades of trial and error, the cinematic version of ‘Tintin’ has finally reached our screens with the desired director at its helm. Alongside Spielberg sits ‘Lord of the Rings’ (2001-2003) maestro Peter Jackson as producer and three of Britain’s brightest writers (Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish) have that almost impossible task of translating the stories from comic strips to 35mm. This 3D motion-capture and CGI extravaganza combines three of Tintin’s most beloved outings; ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’, ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’ and hits UK multiplexes during the school half-term.

After discovering a elegant model of the Unicorn ship at a marketplace, Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) and his loyal dog Snowy are intrigued as to why so many desire it and comment on the secrets it holds. After the model is stolen and more information begins to surface, the pair set out to discover the truth and team up with the boisterous and drunkard Captain Haddock (voiced by Andy Serkis) after a surprise meeting. The group’s adventure spans the globe and with each destination comes more danger and that crucial step closer towards unravelling the secrets.

 From the moment the picture opens, the film’s tone and mood is set – mystery and adventure merged with fun and frolics. The classy hand-drawn animated titles use the signature silhouette imagery with style and sophistication making the wit and wonder evident even before audiences has graced their eyes on the monumental motion-capture work.

 In a rather lacklustre animated year, the only true blossom of beauty has been Studio Ghibli’s impeccable ‘Arrietty’ but thankfully Spielberg’s latest ends this dry-run with a picture that explodes with vibrancy, craftsmanship and realism. This is not like the Robert Zemeckis motion-capture entries (‘The Polar Express’ [2004] and ‘A Christmas Carol’ [2009]), ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ is an entirely different bunch of blistering blue barnacles – every frame enforces impeccable detail and naturalism, and like the best animated pictures, viewers will forget they are watching digitalised representations in no time. Whether the visuals are mind-blowing like in the all-important action sequences or brilliantly subtle like the redness and clammy sweat resting on Tintin and Haddock’s cheeks and brow as the trek through the desert, this film is a clear example of just how magnificent technology is in this day and age. Without a shadow of a doubt this is the year’s finest animated entry – expect an Oscar nomination and a deserved win.

 As well as its tremendous visual flair, the feature’s script is a revelation; beautifully written and whimsical dialogue that is frequently hilarious and manages to merge the three classic tales so seamlessly. Considering Hergé’s stories are separate volumes, the typing trio behind this movie are able to make a sensible structure with the texts making the film flow as gracefully as its perfect imagery. As well as the laughs, the script provides great character development for those new to the world of Tintin but fails to insult audiences by giving them an hour lesson about those involved. Young children will have no trouble picking up who’s who in the early stages before enduring the incredible rollercoaster ride through the second and climatic act.

Still from 'The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn' (dir: Steven Spielberg, 2011)
 Action fans will gain greatness from this movie too; expect high octane chases, pirate swordplay and more bullets than a Sylvester Stallone entry, just a lot less gore and swearing. In fact although ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ is action-packed, it’s PG certificate is justified and one cannot recall anything remotely damaging or frightening for young eyes so parents have nothing to fear with this when deciding on their half-term picture.

 The film also sees the much needed return of composer John Williams who provides yet another dazzling and effective score. The music captures the essence of the film in an instant and compliments it throughout.

 The voice casting is collectively brilliant with Bell and Serkis being the obvious standouts. Bell’s inquisitive tone and frequent high pitch bursts mirror the speech bubbles Tintin utters in the comic panels. When reading a Hergé story, this is exactly how the character sounds in your mind. Serkis steals the show as Captain Haddock and is given splendid dialogue to growl through bitter Scottish chords. Haddock’s often stupid remarks and forgetfulness is beautifully represented through the animated character and indeed the verbal counterpart. Daniel Craig is also fantastic as the less than trustworthy Ivanovich Sakharine and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are side-splitting as the loveable policing dunces Thomson and Thompson. Plus Snowy is absolutely wonderful.

 There is no doubt in one’s mind that Spielberg’s adaptation will be top of the box-office upon release and I wish it all the success in the world, but I sincerely hope those new to Tintin are influenced to re-visit the books and television shows of yesteryear after seeing the movie and become more involved with one of the century’s most beloved and important literary creations.

 ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ is quintessentially the perfect family film and has plenty to offer all audiences of all ages. This is an incredibly joyous, thrilling and comically genius adventure that I cannot wait to experience all over again. Hergé was onto a winner with his thoughts towards Spielberg and he can rest easy now knowing his tales have been faithfully and beautifully translated into a cinematic masterwork. Great Snakes it’s good.

Beautiful, creative and loving to the source material, Spielberg's 'Tintin' is a tour-de-force in movie-making.

By Chris Haydon

Review originally sourced and printed for The Upcoming 

Sunday, 23 October 2011

'The Artist' Review

'The Artist' (dir: Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) Cert: PG

For those who didn't know, I've been trying to see Michel Hazanavicius' latest picture for months. I have constantly missed press screenings and never thought I would get to see it until the year is out, but by the skin of my teeth, I managed to grab a seat to a matinee screening in London this week, so I can now finally document my thoughts rather than my hopes.

Hollywood, the late 1920s; Silent film sensation George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is soon threatened along with many other actors, by the immersion of the 'Talkies' which dawned late in 1929. After a surprise meeting with a beautiful fan Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), George lands her a dancing spot in one of his features. Soon enough, Miller is the new Hollywood sweetheart and is stealing all of Valentin's thunder. His director Al Zimmer (John Goodman) wants him to 'get with the times' and perform in talking pictures but George is not interested. His world is turned upside down and George quickly realises that he may have let go of his dream job altogether, but there is one person who has not given up on him - Peppy.

 'The Artist' has recently secured UK distribution thanks to The Weinstein Company and the picture is due for a limited release from 30th December. If you are lucky enough to live near a cinema that screens it, do yourself a single favour and go see it. Forget New Year's Eve fireworks and drinks, this film provides as much sparkle and energy as any celebration and it is the single perfect way to end the year. 

 Hazanavicius deserves to be greatly praised for being this bold and brave in an era filled with ghastly 3D box-office gobblers and multiple remakes and sequels. 'The Artist' captures the true essence of Hollywood's 'Golden Age' by being made in perfect black and white, and being a silent film, only aided by spell-bindingly beautiful score - the only thing that could have made it more authentic is if a live orchestra was playing to the screen. It's also astonishing to expect modern day audiences to be engaged, humoured and moved by a silent film lasting 100 minutes - one is sure the sound of that is greatly off-putting to many but those who do see it can thank me later. This is without a shadow of a doubt my favourite film of the year and I would happily watch it again right this instant. 

Still from 'The Artist' (dir: Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)
 Everything Hazanavicius has done screams with realism and filmic knowledge - every scene is intrinsically detailed, every building looks the part and the clothing is simply gorgeous. It may surprise many just how expensive it is to replicate the past and film in black and white, but the money has been spent perfectly. In fact, even the film's titles and projection makes it seem like it a restored piece from the twenties. Expect dialogue cards, classic fades and screen-wipes; the works.

 Perhaps the most magical thing about 'The Artist' is that it truly speaks to it's audience and shows viewers why so many love cinema. This is a film about film for film fans - simple as that. It would not be wrong to call it 'the 'Singin' in the Rain' for the 21st Century'. The film's narrative is a fundamentally a timeless love story but it is built around the world of movie-making, fame, power and great sorrow causing it to be a storytelling masterclass. It would not surprise me to see teachers and lecturers screening this to their film students in the near future because it really is the full package when trying to understand movies and how they work.

 The film is an American production funded by French investment so expect to see plenty of famous faces throughout - the incredibly brief cameo from Malcolm McDowell was a personal favourite. However the film's stars are French and Argentinian but this being silent, there are no subtitles. For fans of old silent films, the most obviously noticeable theme is the acting and how psychical the performances are. They obviously could not use dialogue to explain emotions, ideas and meanings so their bodies do the talking without 'over-acting' and being too melodramatic. To find a modern actor who can replicate this so seamlessly must have been an excruciating and lengthy task but Hazanavicius has clearly found the two most capable actors in the world. 

 Dujardin is simply astonishing as George - to an extent his previous roles have boasted strong uses of body language but here he slips back in time and manages with the restraints so effortlessly. His performance is frequently side-splitting and often extremely upsetting. I generally do not think there was a dry eye in the house during one particular scene. He won the Best Actor award at this year's Festival de Cannes and it is so obvious why. Amongst the year's best performances. 

 Bejo is also mesmerising as Peppy - she's a wonderfully diverse character who charms, smiles and dazzles her new-found audience. Much like Dujardin, Bejo seems so comfortable in her surroundings and performs with sheer beauty, elegance and skill. The two of them together are the present day Astaire and Rogers. Plus the film features the funniest, sweetest and most heroic dog you will encounter on the big screen this year - he is marvellous. I sincerely hope both Dujardin and Bejo are nominated for awards when the season comes around and Hazanavicius certainly deserves one too.

 It's a sweeping and often untrue statement to say a film is flawless, but one generally cannot think of a single thing wrong with 'The Artist' - it is the most joyous, celebratory and sensational picture of the year and one can only pray that mainstream audiences do go and see it and respond to it. My screening ended with a 10 minute standing ovation and I would have happily clapped for a further 10. This movie embodies why I adore cinema and why so many others do too. "They don't make them like they used to!" I hear you cry, well, "They do now!"

My favourite film of the year - 'The Artist' is simply a masterpiece and everyone should experience it.

By Chris Haydon

Monday, 10 October 2011

'Contagion' Review

'Contagion' (dir: Steven Soderbergh, 2011) Cert: 12A

He brought back Danny Ocean, he made a film star out of Sasha Grey and he shared Che Guevara's incredible story with the world but now cinematic mastermind Steven Soderbergh is killing the planet's population in 'Contagion' and he has brought an ensemble cast along with him for the immensely uncomfortable journey. With promising reviews from the US with some critics placing it on their Top 10 of 2011 lists and Oscar buzz surrounding certain performances, it will be unsurprising if the film is a big hit here in the UK. Well I've now seen it and here's my verdict - but first I need to disinfect my keyboard...

 From seemingly out of nowhere, a horrific and undetectable virus begins to infect innocent civilians across the globe. The CDC (Centre for Disease Control) sends out their best doctors and scientists including Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) to try to discover the origins of the virus and create a vaccine before the globe's population is eradicated. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) seems to be immune to the virus but his priorities lie in protecting his family whilst renegade blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) believes the CDC and the Government are holding back crucial information from the public. As the infection spreads, paths interweave leading towards dramatic consequences. 

 'Contagion' is the horror event film of 2011 even though it does not fall into that genre - Soderbergh's outbreak picture is infectious viewing that seeps into your psyche and makes audiences question their daily routine and certainly their cleanliness. The reason this film is so affecting and so powerful is because of the sheer realism and weight it presents; there is no zombies or no known enemy - this is simply human nature gone haywire and the results are disastrous. Soderbergh's direction is at times pseudo-documentary as unstable camera angles and ruthless imagery hold the audience hostage. The film makes no secret in the untold death and destruction the virus causes and we see multiple people meet their demise throughout. 

 The virus is passed from person to person by touching your face. Winslet's Dr. Mears gives us a quick biology lesson saying we touch our faces on average 3 to 5 times every waking minute and in between that we are touching doorknobs, counters, each other and many other things. It's clear to see why this virus spreads so rapidly - an infected person coughs into their hands before opening a door, another person grabs the same door handle before touching their face, 24/48 hours later and they are both dead - Simple as that.

 The film takes place over the first few months of the breakout so the narrative shifts from multiple locations frequently. We see a man cough, splutter and die on a bus in Hong Kong before flying across to London to see a young lady sweat buckets and gasp for breath in the back of a taxi. The primary storyline is based in the USA but audiences will globe-trot and see the devastation of this unknown disease worldwide. However underneath the virus plot lies a multi-layered and superbly designed feature that's part procedural drama, part psychological thriller and part character study. The film's tone and atmosphere may always stay tense and unnerving but it's story is constantly evolving and the results are sensational.

Still from 'Contagion' (dir: Steven Soderbergh, 2011)
 'Contagion' provides viewers with an authentic portrait of a virus-ridden world - soon any human rights and ethics go out the window and it's 'every man for himself'. Then the masses turn to violence, looting and arson as they parade the desolate and decrepit streets searching for medication. In the process, cars are stolen, homes are invaded and depravity escalates. The Government are desperate to withhold information from the media to avoid mass hysteria whilst the health officials are concerned about a vaccine and how many will die before one is created - time is as much the enemy to all as well as the deadly virus. 

 It's surprising 'Contagion' has been granted a 12A by the BBFC in all honesty - although there is very little blood or gore, the sheer menace and untold threat that surrounds everything and everyone in this film creates a difficult and frightening view which could quite easily warrant a 15 certificate. 

 The film sports a fantastic screenplay from Scott Z. Burns that presents exquisite dialogue exchanges and character developments, a moody and often ambient score that helps to mould the sour atmosphere that consumes the world of the film and fast-paced and pin-pointed editing that races as quick as Soderbergh's mad camera. 

 Some have made slightly negative comments about the individual characters' stories which I think is rather strange. The film is about a malicious and unstoppable virus that's murdering the masses - it doesn't care whether you are a Hollywood movie star or a wheelie-bin cleaner; if you fall into it's path or interact with anyone who has it, you are history. Soderbergh makes everything feel all the more real by leading viewers to believe his all-star cast are just a bunch of regulars facing an impossible threat alongside everyone else. It's brave, honourable and quite frankly brilliant filmmaking. But for those thinking "How many get killed off in the first 5 minutes?" simply do not worry - this is not 'Scream' (1996).

 The Oscar buzz surrounding the movie is certainly fair and not just because of the performances - a nomination for the screenplay, direction and score would be completely justified, but all the acting talent involved here are tremendous, no matter how big or small their role may be. Damon is sensational as Mitch; a desperate father who becomes overprotective and dominant, Winslet is incredible as Dr. Mears who heads the search to discover the truth behind the virus and Fishburne is also excellent as Dr. Cheever - the man many look up to but he may not be as noble as he seems. 

 But the film's brightest stars are Law and Cotillard who control each and every scene they appear in. Law's Alan Krumwiede is a brilliant defined and portrayed character who almost sparks a revolution as he stands up to the CDC and demands 'the truth' although he perhaps isn't the most honest of men, and Cotillard's Dr. Orantes is amazingly established as the brains behind the operation who is sent to Hong Kong to work with scientists about the malevolence of the virus and the primary contamination.  

 Viewers will not feel happiness after 'Contagion' - in fact you won't want to feel anything and will probably have your hands buried in your pockets for the next hour, but what the film will offer you is the most realistic, gripping and emotionally involving screen experience of the year as well as showcase superior talent from some of the globe's finest actors, and incredibly assured direction from a master of his craft. It's completely understandable why this movie will be featuring on many a Top 10 list and it will have a spot on mine too. Now time to stock up on hand sanitizer...

Supremely unsettling, unbearably terrifying and above all else, truly remarkable. 'Contagion' is a knock-out.

By Chris Haydon

'Johnny English Reborn' Review

'Johnny English Reborn' (dir: Oliver Parker, 2011) Cert: PG

After the incredible financial success of Johnny English's first outing, 'St. Trinian's' (2007) reviver Oliver Parker has bagged the Rowan Atkinson spoof spy sequel. To say 'Johnny English Reborn' has been a critical success would be a fairly dramatic lie, but will Mr. Bean's 007 be able to bring in the masses again 8 years later?

Once he has finished hiding out and training hard in Tibet, Johnny English (Atkinson) is invited back to London to reinstate his position as a secret agent for MI7. English is haunted by demons of his past but is persistent and determined to impress the British Intelligence and his new boss Pamela/'Pegasus' (Gillian Anderson). English is sent out with new agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya) to stop an international terrorist organisation from killing the Chinese premier but this is no easy task and unfortunately for Johnny, wherever he goes, trouble follows him. 

 Perhaps the most striking thing about this picture is it's authenticity which comes at a pretty hefty price - considering the entire point of the 'Johnny English' franchise is to spoof and mock secret agent films, this film looks almost too much like one. The gadgets are brilliantly presented as well as rather silly and much like in James Bond's outings, English travels the globe to glitzy destinations, expensive casinos and drives flash cars. Parker's sequel has a staggering budget and the money has clearly been well spent. If Parker had kicked Atkinson out and cast Daniel Craig, we'd have 'Bond 23' finally.

 But everyone will enter this movie after one thing - stupid humour, and they will get it. Despite having a perhaps more 'serious' narrative theme, 'Johnny English Reborn' sticks to it's predecessors' roots and plies on the stupidity and quite often hilarity. Granted the film is formulaic and some jokes you can see coming from a mile off, but Atkinson's beautifully brilliant facial expressions and body language enable all the obviousness to still be amusing. The film is well-scripted and certainly strong is direction as well as providing what audiences desired so why moan about it? No 'Johnny English Reborn' is not original and littered with clichés, but it's characters are fully-fleshed and developed, plus it's a hugely enjoyable and incredibly dumb 101 minutes that viewers will lap up and rush to the multiplex to endure. 

Still from 'Johnny English Reborn' (dir: Oliver Parker, 2011)
 The cast are all comfortable but work well - Atkinson as we know is perfect as English and he provides all the rubber-faced magic we adore so greatly. His comic timing and delivery is as fresh as ever and he clearly has a ball playing the comedy spy. Dominic West plays Simon Ambrose; English's old friend and partner who has some of his own demons too. West is a strong actor and he is clearly just having a laugh here but good for him. Rosamund Pike hovers about as Kate - a human psychologist who English becomes attached to, whilst Anderson is adequate as the MI7 leading lady. 

 But perhaps the brightest bulb in the tanning bed is Kaluuya - Tucker is a funny, vibrant and likeable character who has to deal with English's immense stupidity as well as survive amongst the terrorist threat. He is best known for his TV roles in 'Psychoville', 'Skins' and the new BBC Three show 'The Fades' but his big-screen performance is as impressive as his home-screen CV.

 This sequel will certainly be a financial success and it would not surprise me if it overtook the original - partly because ticket prices have increased greatly since 2003 but more so because this is a good old slice of British humour that will crack a laugh-a-minute and put a silly childish smile across your face. It simply does what is says on the tin, and it does that with great confidence.

Frequently funny, visually ambitious and proof that you should not fix what isn't broken.

By Chris Haydon

Saturday, 8 October 2011

'Midnight in Paris' Review

'Midnight in Paris' (dir: Woody Allen, 2011) Cert: 12A

For those who do not already know, Woody Allen is one's favourite filmmaker of all-time and with each new release every year I cannot help but become filled with excitement and wonder. As a fan of the much-panned 'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger' last year, I become infinitely more anxious for the release of 'Midnight in Paris' when it was selected to open this year's Festival de Cannes and since then has had universal praise as well as being Allen's highest grossing film ever making a staggering $107,100,000 in the USA alone, so my expectations were extremely high upon entering the picture, but did it deliver?

Gil (Owen Wilson) travels with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) to Paris where her family is out on business. Gil is a successful but unhappy Hollywood screenwriter who wants to trade heartless scripts for rich and intelligent novels and he hopes the French capital can inspire his new line of work. After a long and tiring day spent with Inez's pretentious friends Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), Gil decides to leave the group for the night and stroll the beautiful Parisian streets after dark. As the clock strikes midnight, everything around him changes as he is whisked off in a strange car and begins a second life in a different reality and timeline - 1920s Paris; the golden age of art, literature and culture. 

 For those familiar with Allen's work, his latest offering will beckon sweet memories of his masterful 'The Purple Rose of Cairo' (1985) with it's crossing narrative paths between reality and fantasy but thankfully the similarity does not feel cheap or overused but rather fresh, contemporary and extremely original, and the primary reason behind this is because Allen has managed to make that perfectly balanced film that reaches out and touches fans whilst embracing new audiences. This is his most 'mainstream' entry to date as well as being the typical Woody many adore so greatly. 

 'Midnight in Paris' pours blissfully onto the screen absorbing every inch with impeccable beauty and staggering Parisian imagery which at times feels as equal as a love letter to a tourist promotional video. Allen's European trips have been a fairly mixed bag but much like the sublime 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona', this picture understands it's audience and attracts them deeply with it's sumptuous depictions of a certain city as well as being incredibly coherent and knowledgeable. The viewer becomes immersed in the Paris setting but learns a thing or two about the 'City of Love' along the way.

Still from 'Midnight in Paris' (dir: Woody Allen, 2011)
 But it's not just the cinematography or Allen's eye for intrinsic detail which deserves praise because the true genius behind this film lies in it's flawless script and casting. This picture sports the best original screenplay of the year so far and rightly deserves an Oscar nomination for this achievement. The dialogue is hilarious, witty and interesting as well as offering ideals about Paris and the people the city attracts. At many points the film could have fallen inside it's own humour and actually have started to feel pretentious and upper-class but thankfully Allen has his tongue pressed firmly in his cheek and pokes fun at the stereotypes surrounding art, fashion and high maintenance culture without mocking too greatly and being 'offensive'. This is best demonstrated through Michael Sheen's Paul; a typical 'know-it-all' who uses his intellectualism to attract women. During one of his showing-off moments whilst studying a Picasso painting and explaining what it signifies and presents, Gil gleefully proves him wrong; we as the audience know Gil is correct but of course the group think he is mad and just trying to annoy Paul - it's a lovely and hugely amusing moment.

 Now one does not want to spoil anything about this movie but be prepared to laugh your socks off at the amount of famous faces Gil encounters and how fantastically each performer captures them. The only one I will mention is Salvador Dali played eccentrically and perfectly by Adrien Brody. 

 A key plot theme throughout is the idea of nostalgia and how it's comfort for those unhappy with the present; Gil believes the 1920s is the greatest time period so once he becomes transported there, he feels complete. However for those living in the 1920s, they believe the 1880s is the richest period of time and they suffer the same emotions he feels living in 2010. It's a side-splitting and true feeling that many possess and Allen's writing accentuates it with ease and effortless charm.

 The performances are a knock-out with Wilson shining brighter than the stars that float peacefully above the moonlight streets of the French capital. He is playing the 'Woody Allen' character that bursts with ironic humour and feels weighted under his romantic ideals but thankfully he is not doing the 'Woody Allen' impression that so many leading men in his features have done. Gil is a rounded, immensely likeable and incredibly funny character whose passion and desire oozes from every pore as he whimsically prances through the thriving city. I've always been a big fan of Wilson even though many disagree but I believe all audiences will become wrapped up in him as well as his new-found world. 

 McAdams is also great as the rather uninterested and selfish Inez who blurts out feisty one-liners and makes her presence known. McAdams is a fine actress and this performance can be added to her giant bill of hits. Marion Cotillard is sensational as Adriana; the mystery woman who Gil becomes entranced by when he spends time in the past. She is the former lover of Picasso and she now has her heart set on a humble Hollywood screenwriter. Cotillard's irrevocable beauty aids her heart-warming and satisfying performance making her one of the year's most intriguing character creations and as previously mentioned, Sheen is wonderful as the annoying and self-obsessed Paul. Kathy Bates, Kurt Fuller, Carla Bruni and many more also feature and all feel right at home in Allen's idea of Paris.

 This is without question the most joyous, feel-good and heart-felt picture I have seen this year and it's certainly amongst 2011's best cinematic offerings. Fans of Allen, newcomers and those who have just popped to the cinema on a Friday night will feel nothing but happiness and wonder as you sit through a 94 minute journey of expression, hilarity and that good old Woody magic.

Undoubtedly, unquestionably and unequivocally brilliant - 'Midnight in Paris' is simply classic Allen.  

By Chris Haydon

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

'Melancholia' Review

'Melancholia' (dir: Lars von Trier, 2011) Cert: 15

The world's favourite cinematic scamp Lars von Trier is back with another film about his specialist subject - depression. After making an idiot out of himself by being made a "persona non grata" at this year's Festival de Cannes for joking about being a Nazi, 'Melancholia' has had an unsettled atmosphere surrounding it and considering it is being labelled as a companion piece to his sadistically brilliant but audience-dividing 'Antichrist' (2009), will his latest spark those same reactions that he enjoys so much?

As the picture opens, viewers are greeted by Melancholia; a enormous and newly discovered planet that has forced it's way through the cosmos and makes full contact with the Earth causing the end of the world. A few days before the disaster, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) have just married and are heading to their reception party organised by Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). However, Justine's wedding day is far from conventional and happy as she soon spirals into a endless pit of depression and as the threatening planet gets closer to civilization, things are not about to get brighter.

 Considering a fundamental theme in this picture is the earth's apocalypse, this is amongst von Trier's kinder works but much like 'Antichrist' and 'Dogville' (2003) and 'Dancer in the Dark' (2000) and 'Breaking the Waves' (1996) and pretty much any other film in his filmography, 'Melancholia' is about a woman in an extraordinarily cruel position in life and her means about getting past it or coming to terms with it. As a companion piece to his last feature, this film sits comfortably alongside it and shows two sides to the world we live in and the menace it creates. Both films are also greatly similar in style, tone and construction. They both open with a horrific event caught in slow motion and aided by classical music, they both are separated into 'chapters' and they both feature Charlotte Gainsbourg, but don't fret, her genitals stay in tact here and her character does not meet a talking fox.

 Lars' latest is a blend of beauty, chaos and awkwardness which translates magically onto the screen. He takes the audience on a mysterious and damaged journey lasting a breathtaking 136 minutes which seems to disappear one moment and then become so apparent the next. Bearing in mind that the only location used in this picture besides a few shots of space is Claire and John's home which is more of a palace with an 18 hole golf course than a three bedroom semi-detached, it feels awfully long at points and one is certain that many editors would have cut about 30 minutes out, but this being said, this is an arthouse movie which audiences expect to be slow and in fact I'm glad von Trier and his team have not hacked it to bits. The film is soaked with stunning cinematography, plush foliage and expertly designed sets which mirror the marvel of his assured direction and the feature's length allows audiences to spend valuable time amongst all this. 

Still from 'Melancholia' (dir: Lars von Trier, 2011)
 Many have dubbed 'Melancholia' as a Sci-Fi which one finds terribly strange. Admittedly, space is a big part in one sense and this film does plays out like 'Festen' (1998) meets 'Deep Impact' (1998) but underneath the ever emerging threat of the planet lies a greatly detailed and deeply affecting character drama which studies the human psyche and enables audiences to understand what it's like for somebody dealing with depression, and more importantly how it affects those around them and the world in which they are a part of. It's fairly obvious that Melancholia is not meant to be a gastronomical space atom wanting to see the world burn, it's merely a metaphor for Justine's dizzying sadness which consumes her. Justine's depression is causing the end of the world because the world she lives in is unhappy with itself too.

 There's a beautiful moment where she lays down in front of the starry night and the glowing from Melancholia and almost pulls the planet closer to her - it's like the only thing that understands her suffering and thus she wants it to be in 'her' atmosphere. It's bold and brave writing and direction from the Dane and it's executed with tremendous style and substance. 

 Lars is infamous for getting stunning performances from his cast and his team provide the goods here - Dunst, who picked up the Best Actress award at Cannes this year (after von Trier had been thrown out) is simply sublime. It's amazing to think this is the girl from 'Bring It On' (2000 - which one is actually quite a fan of) - she has turned into a stunning actress and her role as the bruised and emotionally tormented Justine is by far her finest performance to date. If this film wasn't so avant-garde, she would most probably gain an Oscar nomination. Still, she might do as there is still plenty of time.

 Gainsbourg is brilliant too and seems to be becoming a crucial cog in von Trier's works - Claire is a compassionate if what inquisitive woman who is terrified for her sister's well-being and the potential threat from Melancholia. John Hurt makes a brief but great performance as the sister's father, Skarsgard is also extremely capable and assured as Michael who has a pretty rough time at his wedding and Charlotte Rampling pops up as the spiteful and loathing Gaby; the girls' unsympathetic mother. But the best performance alongside Dunst is Sutherland's portrayal of John; a kind man with a stern edge, sarcastic wit and an obsession with outer space. His constant reminders to Justine about money and how much effort went into her reception provides some brief comic relief but most importantly defines his character. Sutherland gives an amazing performance indeed.

 'Melancholia' is a tremendously haunting, audacious and elegant work from a filmmaker who may be a pain in society, but is a spiritualist behind the camera. It will not appeal to everyone and that's exactly what von Trier sets out to do, but for those who enjoy melodic and melodramatic features, this will capture and dazzle. It's become apparent that von Trier himself isn't entirely satisfied with the film and he is wrong for those thoughts. Both 'Antichrist' and 'Melancholia' are stunning entries and proof that no matter how dark or distressed the subject matter may be, there is beauty at the end of the tunnel.

Lars' latest is a meditation of depression and self-loathing that's drenched in visceral and emotional wonder. A tremendous achievement.

By Chris Haydon