Pride (2014)

PrideIt’s 1984, and Mark (Ben Schnetzer), Mike (Joseph Gilgun), Steph (Faye Marsay), Jeff (Freddie Fox) and Joe (George Mckay) have descended on London for Gay Pride. From their base of operations at Gethin (Andrew Scott) and Jonathan’s (Dominic West) LGBT book shop, they decide to this year campaign not for themselves but for the striking miners in Wales. Naming themselves Lesbians and Gays Support Miners, they set out in search of a community willing to accept their support. Having made arrangements with Dai (Paddy Considine), they head west to Onllwyn to meet some of the people worst hit by Thatcher’s Tory government. While the town council — including Hefina (Imelda Staunton), Cliff (Bill Nighy) and Sian (Jessica Gunning) — are happy to see them, however, they have a harder time convincing the miners to accept their offer of not just assistance but friendship.

There have been many unlikely political pairings in British history — the current coalition government for one, and the Green Party’s recent alliance with the Scottish Yes campaign for another — but easily the most unexpected has to be the real-life alliance of gay activists with the Welsh mining unions. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the story of Mark Ashton and his 80s cause — Lesbians and Gays Support Minors — is not that it happened but that we’re only hearing about it now. Now largely forgotten, the relationship nevertheless had wide-reaching consequences for both sides, changing the lives of not only the individuals involved but contributing to a larger change as well. This is a film about solidarity, about collaboration and putting others before yourself. And it couldn’t be more timely.

Of course, being a British film with home-grown “issues” at its heart, there was every chance that Matthew Warchus’ film could have been unbearable. It might easily have been patronising, preachy, or sentimental, and ran the very real risk of alienating people on both sides — not just homosexuals and blue-collar workers, but the Welsh and the English too. As it happens, however, Pride does no such thing. It’s fun and funny, but not at the expense of the drama, while the film manages to address HIV and media-lead hate campaigns without letting them unbalance the narrative or compromise the tone. After a surprisingly successful evening at the local working men’s club, a man is asked by his wife if he was really expecting there to be a scene: “sometimes”, he admits, “people surprise you”. As does British cinema.

The cast are flawless throughout — thesps and newcomers alike are clearly determined to do the incredible story justice. Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy (the latter reviving his accent from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) bring incredible warmth and dignity to the town council, while Jessica Gunning almost runs away with the movie as their newest no-nonsense member, Sian. Each has their own comic moments, but you are never invited to laugh at them because they are Welsh, though their language’s lack of vowels isn’t above comment. Even then, however, the Welsh language is behind one of the film’s most emotional scenes, as exiled Welsh expat Gethin is wished Merry Christmas in his native tongue for the first time in years. Andrew Scott, like everyone else, is excellent.

The characters with the most pronounced arcs, however, hail from London — or, in the case of leader Mark, from Ireland. Dominic West’s Jonathan has become disillusioned with activism, Faye Marsay’s Steph is caught between causes and George McKay’s Joe is in the closet and lying to his parents. It’s another impressive performance from McKay, who has already made something of a name for himself as a daring actor with diverse turns in last year’s hat-trick of How I Live Now, For Those In Peril and Sunshine on Leith. There are some great supporting performances too, from Harry Potter‘s Jessie Cave and The Three Musketeers‘ Freddie Fox. The film ultimately belongs to Ben Schnetzer, however, last seen as Max Vandenburg in The Book Thief, though you’ll never recognise him as the same actor. He’s effervescent, and when he disappears somewhat abruptly in the third act the film is poorer for it.

Pride isn’t perfect; it’s a little long, there are maybe too many characters and does lack a consistent pace but the story is so compelling that you forgive it the occasional lull. Released within days of the Scottish referendum, the film should give everyone an opportunity to celebrate the United Kingdom and its remarkable shared history while they still can.



I, Frankenstein (2014)

I FrankensteinHaving been created and then rejected by Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Aden Young), Frankenstein’s monster (Aaron Eckhart) kills his master’s wife (Virginie Le Brun) and leads the man himself into a blizzard where he eventually freezes to death. An anomaly in nature, the creature is sought after by both the forces of heaven and hell, represented on Earth by gargoyles and demons. Sick of being hunted, however, it — named Adam by the gargoyle queen — goes on the offensive, hunting down Naberius (Bill Nighy), a demon-prince masquerading as a businessman who is trying to recreate Frankenstein’s success with the help of scientist Terra Wade (Yvonne Strahovski), with the aim of reanimating hosts for his demon hordes.

Everything about I, Frankenstein is preposterous; the story of a corpse not only resurrected but made immortal by electric eels, it only gets more ridiculous as good gargoyles and bad businessmonsters battle it out for the future of a city that seems to have a population of about four. Eckhart has clearly taken acting tips from his The Dark Knight co-star, Christian Bale, as he too drolls on in a wearying monotone supposedly indicative of gravitas, this time about how he is a composite of a dozen parts and eight bodies, despite looking for all the world exactly like a bedraggled Harvey Dent. If anything, he seems to have healed a bit since his run in with the Joker.

Billed as being from the producers of Underworld, I, Frankenstein certainly seems to follow in the footsteps of Len Wiseman’s series. Whereas the Underworld franchise had some novelty value (the first film was released years before “vs.” movies became ubiquitous), and featured both Kate Beckinsale in a leather catsuit and some of the best werewolf designs in recent memory, Stuart Beattie’s adaptation of Kevin Grevioux’s graphic novel of the same name feels like an unofficial and unwanted spin-off. Substitute vampires for gargoyles, werewolves for demons and Scott Speedman for Aaron Eckhart, and you have I, Frankenstein. What’s more, it even features Bill Nighy in the same role, only with slightly different prosthetics.

And yet, while the acting might be dire, the story absurd and the script humourless, there is the merest trace of a pulse to be found during the action sequences. The CGI is weightless yet workable, and though the practical effects may look like something out of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (circa 1997) the computer-generated elements are almost impressive. A second act attack on the gargoyle’s monastery is surprisingly engaging, with A Good Day To Die Hard‘s Jai Courtney (and an uncanny stone likeness) leading the defense. The souls of slain gargoyles — did I mention how silly the film is? — flare into the clouds, while “descended” demons emit giant fireballs which carry their essence back to hell. Ignore the dialogue and it’s almost entertaining.

I, Frankenstein is not a good movie; it’s dreary, idiotic and derivative, and fails to convince — let alone impress — on any level. Eckhart — who is at times referred to as Frankenstein, to the irritation of anyone even remotely familiar with Mary Shelley’s novel — brings nothing of interest to one of the most fascinating characters in fiction, and looks almost as bored as the audience he is supposed to be engaging with.


Total Recall (2012)

Plagued by nightmares of a mysterious woman (Jessica Biel), Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) feels that there is something missing from the life he shares with wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), discontent with his job working on synthetic soldiers for the UFB. Talked into visiting Rekall by one of his co-workers, Quaid asks to be implanted with the memories of a secret agent in order to sate his thirst for adventure. When the procedure is interrupted by a squad of armed agents, Quaid flees the scene in a sudden display of physical prowess. Met at home not by a loving wife but a sleeper agent claiming everything he knows to be untrue, Quaid is rescued by the woman from his dreams as they go in search of answers relating to his true identity. Read more of this post

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

In exile with his son as anonymous fishermen after defeating the Kraken, Perseus (Sam Worthington) refuses to aid his father Zeus (Liam Neeson) in the Godly battle to keep the escaping prisoners of Tartarus at bay. When a mutiny at the hands of Ares (Édgar Ramírez), God of War, sees the Gods either killed or imprisoned, however, Perseus has no choice but to travel to the underworld in order to free his father and prevent Hades (Ralph Fiennes) from releasing the nigh-unstoppable Kronos from his dormancy. Knowing that only the combined might of Zeus’ Thunderbolt, Hades’ Pitchfork, and Poseidon’s Trident – combined to make the Spear of Triam – has ever proved effective in stopping Kronos, Perseus seeks the weapons’ creator, Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), along with Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike, for pity’s sake) and Agenor (Toby Kebbell), the demigod son of Poseidon.

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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)

In an extended prologue, the audience is introduced to assorted retirees forced to face the realities of their old age. Evelyn (Judi Dench) has inherited substantial debts from her deceased husband, a man to whom she was married for most of her life; Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) are touring potential care homes to patronising effect; Muriel (Maggie Smith) is trying to track down an English doctor who can replace her hip in this lifetime; Madge (Celia Imrie – who you might have missed in Phantom Menace 3D) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) are independently searching for love; and Graham (Tom Wilkinson), now an ex-lawyer, is seeking to return to India in search of  the love of  his life. When Soony’s (Dev Patel) heavily photoshopped Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is found to be in a similar state of disrepair, however, it quickly becomes clear that Jaipur might not be to everyone’s tastes.

Director John Madden skews older in this unconventional romantic comedy, an ensemble Britcom which might as well be titled Retirement, Actually for all of its interwoven subplots and criss-crossing character arcs. Adapted from Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things by Ol Parker, the real pull of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is undoubtedly its monopoly on national treasures, boasting as it does M, Professor McGonagall and Davey Jones as they seek out sunnier pastures for one last adventure.

It is easy to criticise fish-out-of-water comedies for their oversimplistic treatment of the cultures that they seek to send up. Less an issue for the likes of The Inbetweeners Movie (largely by virtue of the characters indifference towards Malia itself), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel risks going full stereotype, as it is forced to paint India in the broadest of brush strokes. Unlike such recent international relations disasters as Sex and the City 2, however, the film’s setting is never the butt of the joke, with the country’s impact on our varying explorers instead generating most of the comedy. Yes this might be India through the eyes of food, textile and animal stylists, but is a perfectly harmless approximation that falls short of insensitive.

After all, with the likes of Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson chewing up scenery, Jaipur itself was always going to struggle to make much of an impression. Armed with a lively script and effortless dynamic, the ensemble breathes new life into the wisened voice over, the holiday romance and the last minute declaration of love, showing all that has gone before precisely how its done. Wilkinson’s conflicted lover (“more in theory than in practice these days”) arguably makes the biggest impression, although it is Smith who undoubtedly makes the biggest transformation – Muriel’s transition from racist curmudgeon to India’s best friend potentially jarring in anyone else’s hands.

Poor Dev Patel doesn’t even stand a chance, his own struggle mere soap operatics compared to the film’s other subplots, even if it is just Evelyn explaining how to dunk a biscuit or Douglas attempting to fix a leaky tap. Like all British comedy, there is a shambolic air as the poignancy and dignity brought to proceedings by the Thespian element is undermined by incongruous bouts of slapstic and stupidity. While the result is generally charming, there are moments that simply don’t ring true, the climax in particular, while the film’s considerable length does little to frame its many assets.

Genial, charming and endlessly endearing, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel showcases the best of British against a truly joyous and vibrant Indian backdrop. Though structurally it could still use some work, it is easy to overlook the odd wrinkle when the cast is this much fun.

Arthur Christmas (2011)

With Christmas having been progressively militarised by Steven Claus (Hugh Laurie) in his figurehead father’s (Jim Broadbent) growing laziness, the magic of Christmas is under threat as presents are dispassionately delivered by diligent, absailing elves aboard a giant aircraft instead of by Santa in his trusty sleigh. When a child is missed and left presentless, lost in the operation’s margin of error, the forever festive Arthur Claus (James McAvoy) takes matters into his own hands, recruiting the elderly Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and endeavouring to deliver the child’s present using the old man’s archaic sled, Evie, along with one of his sole remaining reindeer and gift-wrapper extraordinaire Bryony (Ashley Jensen). Unfortunately, their crude equipment and the lateness of the hour leads to a number of sightings and their mission is mistaken by for an alien invasion. With the world’s armed forces in hot pursuit, Steven and Clause Senior must put aside their dispute about the future of the Santa brand and help Arthur before it is too late.

Following last year’s Finnish tale of feral Santamen who slay reindeer and punish naughty children, it is a bit of a relief to return to more traditional fare with an animated comedy about a good-natured misfit who just wants a perfect Christmas for all. The first CGI film from Aardman, Arthur Christmas treats the Santa myth with mock seriousness as it tries to put a decidedly British spin on a character who has to date largely been played by Americans. A note perfect voice over from Outnumbered‘s Ramona Marquez sets the scene beautifully as her character enquires as to Santa’s means of accomodating population growth and why his headquarters do not appear on Google Earth, hinting at the Aardman’s own quality that we are about to enjoy.

The voice cast is quite simply sublime, with the dulcet tones of Imelda Staunton, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Palin, Eva Longoria,  Andy Serkis, Dominic West and Joan Cusack filling out an ensemble that prove just as effective as the Claus’ they support. It is the unbeatable combination of Bill Nighy’s senile curmudgeon, Jim Broadbent’s out-of-touch has-been, Hugh Laurie’s ambitious commander and Ashley Jensen’s rookie elf that ultimately steals the show, however, with only McAvoy struggling to keep the eponymous Arthur on just the right side of annoying.

Like any Aardman production, however, it is the attention to detail and keen wit that sets the movie a Wallace and Gromit apart from the competition. With the exception of a clunky extra-terrestrial subplot, the film rattles along at an astounding pace as the visuals delight and the wordplay engages, both parents and children able to enjoy the jokes as equals. Gently mocking everything from Toronto, to alien-fearing Americans, to Christmas itself, the gags come thick and fast as the studio’s genius is put to reliably good use. The film’s message about the sterility of technology, however, might have been more effective had this not marked Aardman’s controversial embrace of computer generated 3D.

Although some may miss the nostalgic thumb-prints, there is no denying that this isn’t classic Aardman at its best.  Though the narrative may lose its way towards the film’s bloated mid-section, all involved regroup with such gusto for the inspired resolution that any earlier fumblings couldn’t be further from your mind. Witty, clever, and yet wonderfully absurd, Arthur Christmas is a very welcome addition to the Christmas film cannon.

Chalet Girl (2011)

Robbed of both her mother and skateboarding prowess in a tragic car accident, Kim Matthews (Felicity Jones) is watching life pass her by from behind the counter of some nameless burger bar, winning bread – and beans – for her apparently incapable father (Bill Bailey). Offered the chance to work as a chalet girl in the Austrian Alps for twice the money – a role that basically requires that she house-sit and occasionally wait on the resident billionaires – Kim is thrown into a world of pretence, caviare and leisurely helicopter rides as she endeavours to complete the four month contract. With her eye set firmly on engaged client Jonny (Ed Westwick), and her ex-skateboarding skills putting her in good stead for winning the local snowboarding championship, the stage is set for the usual succession of gags and pratfalls in anticipation of our requisite happy ever after.

Phill Triall really knows how to sabotage his own movies. Now with two films under his belt, the director hasn’t a single passable piece of marketing to show for either of them. Famously derided for his utterly abysmal directorial début, the has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed All About Steve for which Sandra Bullock personally collected her Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress, shoddy poster-work is thankfully all Chalet Girl has in common with its disastrous forebear.

For while Chalet Girl may be a generic slice of predictability, lining up a series of increasingly tired stereotypes for each of their requisite pratfalls and hijinx, it is a relatively harmless slice of genre romance which thankfully chooses charm over quirk in its battle for audience investment. The film’s success is largely thanks to the endlessly compelling efforts of its leading lady, Cemetery Junction’s delightful Felicity Jones, who single handedly elevates proceedings beyond the adequacy of such other recent romantic failures as Just Go With It and The Dilemma.

Boasting a refreshingly restrained performance from Bill Nighy, and a slew of familiar faces from such similar fare as St. Trinians and Wild Child (Georgia King is quite simply brilliant), Chalet Girl is a decidedly mixed bag that is mercifully more than the sum of its parts. Jones is an absolute revelation, whose charm offensive somehow offsets the grim realisation that we are simply watching the same succession of plot devices unfold on cue, only in a slightly novel setting (untapped since 2010′s practically prehistoric Hot Tub Time Machine). Far more relatable than Carrie Bradshaw or an obsessive Sandra Bullock, Jones uses a witty – but by no means laugh out loud – script to her advantage as she goes about bedding a Gossip Guy, rediscovering her skate/snowboarding talent and making peace with her mother’s memory.

While you may resist at first, Chalet Girl will invariably have you’re cockles warmed and spirits heightened by the film’s happily ever after. A functionable slice of romantic comedy, Chalet Girl is a far better movie that its promotional campaign might imply. Charming, spirited and witty, by Phill Triall’s standards this is a unmitigated success.

Rango (2011)

Accidentally stranded in the Mojave Desert, an unnamed pet chameleon (Johnny Depp)  is put to the test as he is left to fend for himself in difficult circumstances. Chased by a hawk, plagued by surreal nightmares and mocked by a band of owl mariachi, our hero finds refuge in the isolated town of Dirt after garnering directions from fellow lizard Baked Beans (Isla Fisher). Promoted to sheriff after being encouraged to reinvent himself as the courageous Rango, Depp is left to investigate the town’s sudden drought and a mysterious conspiracy which may or may not incriminate Dirt’s mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty), all the while avoiding Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) and his gatling gun tail.

Rango is a revelation, living proof that you don’t need an overpriced pair of gimmicky glasses to appreciate beautifully rendered characters and an immersive, three dimensional (in the traditional sense) computer generated environment. Rango is intricately animated, Johnny Depp’s jittery chameleon an absolute pleasure as he exudes as much personality in action as he conveys through speech. Growing before the audience’s eyes, the character develops at the same pace as the plot, with each change in direction simultaneously reflecting in Rango‘s self-concept.

Not one to frequent the western genre, I tend to find it one of the most clichéd and repetitive film categories there is. A steady slew of Stetsons, bandits and Mexican standoffs. Whether it’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Wild Wild West or True Grit, I often find my mind wandering as soon as a gruffled stranger first halters his revolver, abreast his trusty steed. It takes something quite out of the ordinary – Back to the Future III, Brokeback Mountain or Joss Whedon’s Firefly – to induce a sufficient feeling of novelty to sustain my interests beyond the ten minute point. Rango, then, strikes just the right balance between convention and creation, its casting of desert animals in the roles often filled with moustached squinters adding a new dimension to this increasingly stagnant genre.

Director Gore Verbinski brings the same endless imagination to Rango that he once did to Pirates of the Caribbean, reinvigorating his subject matter with infectious aplomb. Reunited with Depp, the two conspire to create one of the most layered and consistent movies of the year, one which just happens to be animated and populated with lizards and amphibians. Rango is as incompetent a hero as Jack Sparrow could ever hope to be, just one thing this film has in common with his previous trilogy. Rattlesnake Jake’s replacement tale and a Tyrannosaurus hawk prove particular highlights, the creative team’s decision to depart from the usual doe-eyed critters, in preference of a truly hideous ensemble, yet another aspect to be praised.

Rango is a truly unique beast, a children’s 2D animation that hands out nightmares with the same propensity with which it dispatches jokes, and a reverence for the western genre that isn’t allowed to pollute the atmosphere and hinder the outstanding creativity on show here. Rango is simply superb, a film which, by all means, isn’t really for anyone. Odd, quirky and utterly insane, Rango is everything 2009’s 9 failed to be.