Good old form, formula and faces
I rather enjoyed this franchise product: the tried and trusted JJ Abrams gives us, essentially, a re-run of A New Hope (that's the very first film, also known as Episode 4) and successfully limits the use of CGI, doing much work in-camera.
At the top of the zowee list is John Boyega. If we didn't know if he had silver screen heft from the grimy Attack The Block, we do now. The new droid BB-8 is surmounts the immediate legacy of Wall-E and various other anthropomorphic, cartoony kids characters with nicely-pitched panache. The former cast are terrific, particularly Harrison Ford, triumphing through sincerity. Irony is active, not smug and knowing. This is the director's doing and deserves it's own accolade. Oscar Isaac spans the establishment and the newbies with tremendous assurance.
Yet... I felt that Carrie Fisher's appearances were a little stilted. I was dreadfully disappointed by the usually gripping Adam Driver - was he cowed by the responsibility of the one genuinely novel character in such a freighted film? I was also bored by The Force Awakens for short periods as it went through inevitable motions of fight sequences and reversed back down the tracks of A New Hope.
There are some lovely cameos (Pip Torrens, he of 'we'll do this the old fashioned way' in Tomorrow Never Dies, and Harriet Walter were my favourites). There are one or two great reveals, nonchalant but thrilling. There's also the occasional emotional peak. It's comfortingly competent and often exciting. But not new. 6/10
Before Midnight (2013)
'Still there... it's still there...'
Another in the series, as it now it, of Richard Linklater's dramatised talking head films (based on his own European Brief Encounter of yesteryear). Like the previous encounters, Before Midnight is a series of 4-5 set pieces filmed in rarely broken takes. The cane-sweet investigative and flirtatious exchanges of the 1994 original have been replaced with a complicated, more muscular texture of tease-and-touché. As both Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Céline say, they have 'colonised' one another.
Céline seems rather more conflicted than Jesse, whose teenage charm has been replaced with dad-jokes. This all changes as the final evening of their (6 week) stay on a Greek island curdles to a bitter point. An amiable but veiled film suddenly shows its teeth - maybe a little late for me. Still, the acting is almost beyond criticism and Linklater stays disciplined in leaving it to them. 6.5/10
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
A touching period biopic on an extraordinary character
At first it looks like it might be a parody of what a camper-than-you- can-imagine showbiz romance between two men might be. Because that's what it is, with Michael Douglas playing the fey Liberace down while the sun-soaked lenses of Steven Soderbergh's camera ramp it up.
Quickly one becomes familiar with the film's rhythm though and a stock biopic/romance develops, just under the extraordinary circumstances of a flamboyantly gay showman taking everything from life. What's delightful about Michael Douglas' (and Richard LaGravenese's) Lee is that for all his excess and self-delusion, he is a sympathetic, likable man. Matt Damon's Scott adds to this 3-D portrait by not being a lover of extremes. Both men are unusual but not alien.
The costume design - that's to say not the exotic performance outfits! - is impressive and the detail in jewellery, furnishings, pianos and other props is part of the film's vernacular. It's a film that one can also enjoy for the trickle of small roles: Dan Aykroyd's manager (what a hair piece!); Rob Lowe's feline cosmetic surgeon; and Debbie Reynolds, an extraordinary presence whose natural charisma and beauty shines through this heavily prepped pageant to a hedonist's halcyon Hollywood like soft, sharp light. 7/10
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)
Hilarious if boxed-in
There were no belly-laughs for me in this Alan Partridge feature, though, line for line, the film must have a conspicuous density of jokes. It is a funny film which, like all the Alan Partridge franchise, pokes a great deal of fun at laughable parochialism without the out-and- out stab of urbane snobbery. Steve Coogan's observation of his own principal character is still right on the rails, an ego inflated beyond the reality of his circumstance, shown in small detail: the title sequence, Alan singing along to anonymous MOR on the way to work, is particularly funny as he wears driving gloves.
Many familiar characters also reappear. Felicity Montagu's Lynn has a truly extraordinary moment of transformation and Sean Pertwee's station- owner is a fine turn in grist to Alan's mill of self-importance. The ensemble is great, not least as Alan's humour is in response (even to his own malapropisms). However, the sketch origins of the show are rather plain in the number of picaresque moments which seem surplus to the narrative. All in all, an amiable matinée 5/10
Flushed Away (2006)
Laminated animation doesn't kill the fun
It's a film that's 10 years older than its spiritual time, the 1996 Europeans Football finals and the year that gave us New Labour's Cool Britannia. This is a knees-up-mother-Brown outing for the Aardman Animation team. The production takes the style and image of their famous clay stop-motion but render it in computer graphics. The story is about 2/3rds classic rescue drama with the rest chock-full of visual gags and references and wry asides that aren't just for accompanying adults. I lost count of the movie hat tips when I'd got past a dozen and the singing slugs never got dull.
The voicing is superb, although Kate Winslet plucky Rita gets out charisma-ed by almost everyone else. It's not a 'real' Aardman Animation film but once you've absorbed the fact it's a good matinée romp. 6.5/10
The Counselor (2013)
Writer Cormac McCarthy has tried to graft some Elmore Leonard onto his arm's-length existential character landscape. He seems to want a pulp thriller that is a panoply of nihilist vignettes. It doesn't come together. The small talk is stillborn; characters only really flesh out when they have weighty things to say. The actors are given good styling to help them develop something pointed, something potent - it tells us something though when the small and extra roles are as impressive as their named counterparts.
The acting occasionally flashes with the calibre one expects from reading the cast list: Fassbender is properly pummelled by the trajectory of the film; Cameron Diaz does a super job as an offbeat moll-with-nous; Penélope Cruz, Bruno Ganz and (in the only truly gold-standard scene of the film) Rubén Blades are excellent.
It is entirely likely that issues outside the production may have affected the film in the end. I was involved but disappointed that it couldn't have been better than it was. 6/10
A solid four star film in 2 dimensions, I have regularly been told that this is a film that becomes something truly special in 3D. This is hardly surprising: Gravity is 'filmed' as if in zero-gravity space, predicated on perpetual movement in all directions. The movement of the camera from within a helmet visor to its outside is the least in a roster of well-integrated, unfussy perspective shifts. It's a classy stylistic tour de force.
It's also a very exciting film, which unfolds (almost) in real time. The almost unimaginable scale of the locale, several miles off the surface of the earth, is carefully managed. The excitement comes from the familiar jeopardy given an extra twist, rather than totally novel situations that would be too incredible to process. There is an issue with trying to develop character in this place with limited interaction and next to no time for exposition or development but I think Sandra Bullock manages to maintain a level of intensity that manages to convince.
The end of the film is a coda that Kubrick would admire, Malick would envy and neatly ties up a thoroughly enjoyable film. 8/10
White House Down (2013)
I'm waiting for the first exploitation-rescue action thriller to be set in London Bridge as they will have to call it Die Shard. That's the legacy of Bruce Willis' greatest hit which is the inescapable template for this sort of ride, a ride I'm happy to take over and over again if it's this much fun.
Well, almost. I can do without the self-consciously up-to-date language, the stock emoting (that Dad-n-daughter dribble) which is a pox in modern Hollywood. I don't believe that Jamie Foxx is the President any more than I believe that a girl with a flag can force a providentially ordered air strike (if John McCain cannot stop a 747 landing with a flaming torch then lower thresholds really are nonsense).
However, Roland Emmerich is right on board with the preposterousness of the situation from frame one. Detail is a low priority to big guns and one-liners and the film benefits from it. 6/10
World War Z (2013)
Zombies = B movie. Can't avoid it.
I rather enjoyed the first couple of acts of this (surely unfinished) blockbuster. Marc Foster gets right on with it. All the stuff you've seen in the trailers seems to happen in the same span as the pre-titles of a Christopher Nolan flick. It's quite exciting and I was even a little spooked myself.
The film starts to get a little labored as Brad Pitt's indeterminate UN- type begins to guess a possible solution. This dawning idea seems to coincide with a truly extraordinary handbrake turn in the film; a flight out of apocalyptic Israel points Pitt towards Wales because it's cheap to film there - oh, sorry, no, because that's the nearest WHO research facility and suddenly the whole circus scales right down into a TV version of 24 Days Later. The film ends in much the same way as I Am Legend but without anything like the satisfactory arc prior to it. And credit where it's due - to the (apparently) uncredited Zombie in the WHO facility, the first to prove Gerry's theory right. 4/10
Furious 6 (2013)
Over-earnest and determined to shoehorn in the funny despite that, this latest instalment is a well-honed version of all the rest. Well done. I found the 'family guys' interpolations insufferable and - typically for all sequels, of course - the scowling seriousness is now infused with irony. These people smug at being paid to re-hash the formula. At least Police Academy tried to come up with jokes.
The big draw on this occasion is probably the location. We start in Moscow and then move to London for the first half of the film... in fact we start in London as well, as Lambeth Bridge seems to be doubling for an anonymous crossing of the Moskva. My favourite appropriation is when an aerial shot prepares us for the obligatory motor party & race. It seems to be heading for the Treasury... oh, it is, right in the centre of the Treasury! The consequent race spends at least four times as long on Lower Regent Street as is feasible at any speed and ends in Battersea. Loony. 4/10