Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Remember when Slumdog Millionaire was dubbed the feel-good film of the year? Obviously it wasn't: orphans had their eyes gouged out with hot spoons. Well, here comes along another British film set in Mumbai and starring Dev Patel which can make a similar claim.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, like the run-down hotel itself run by manager Sonny (Dev Patel), is held together with optimism and it's-never-too-late charm.

It tells the story of seven mismatched senior citizens who sign-up for a retirement home in Mumbai. The gang are a collection of types: the widow hoping to start a new life (Judi Dench), the retired bloke looking to rediscover the past (Tom Wilkinson), the overbearing wife (Penelope Wilton), the long-suffering husband (Bill Nighy), the feisty woman (Celia Imrie), the feisty man (Ronald Pickup) and the token racist (Maggie Smith). But thankfully their roles become more rounded as we get to know them throughout the film.

Admittedly, Marigold Hotel is a formulaic, fish-out-of-water ensemble whereby each character overcomes their difficulties against a colourful, cultural backdrop. But the sheer likeability of the cast brings freshness to the formula and - whilst a neat happy ending was always a safe bet - there is the odd twist and turn along the way to keep the audience engaged.

Director John Madden handles the ensemble reasonably well. Having directed Shakespeare in Love, Madden is comfortable with a lengthy cast list. As such, each character is allowed their share of screen-time to overcome their issues and bag a few stand-out moments for the trailer. The problems of an ensemble are not entirely absent (Pickup and Imrie are reduced to comic relief, whilst the running time is a little long) but generally Madden has interwoven each story nicely.

It is hard to pick a stand-out from such an accomplished list of veterans. All are a pleasure to watch, whether it be the emotional moments with Dench, Smith's xenophobia or the laugh-out-loud antics of Pickup's flirting. Ironically, the stand-out might actually be Dev Patel who holds his own against the A-list leads. Patel's Sonny is a sure-fire scene-stealer, brimming with optimistic sales-speak and a bang-on Mumbai accent. As in Slumdog, he is playing the underdog and naturally wins over the audience as he fights for both his love and his fledgling dream of owning the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Patel has come a long way since Skins. Here's hoping there are more roles like this for him in the future.

Cynics will snigger at the rushed resolutions (the old racist lady happens to be a pretty nifty accountant!) but Marigold Hotel is not made for cynics, just as last week's The Woman in Black was not made for thinkers. This is made for any February cinema-goer fed up with winter and ready for the adventures of summer. It is a bright, uplifting dramedy which delivers the escapism that we all need at this time of year.

And it is the feel-good film of the year.


Monday, 20 February 2012

The Woman in Black

Ghost stories make for notoriously frustrating films and The Woman in Black is no exception. 

The problem that has befallen many films in this genre is that there are very few rules when you are dealing with the supernatural. Inevitably, this leads to a script littered with plot-holes. Take the Woman in Black. She is apparently an omnipresent, omnipotent poltergeist capable of dashing over to the next town to possess children and force them to commit suicide. Yet, a barking dog scares her away. And she has difficulty opening a locked door. And for some reason, she has no idea that her child's body is buried by the cross right outside her house. It is a tiresome, irritating, head-banging form of logic that muddies all big-screen ghost stories. There is a reason why there has yet to be a five-star ghost film.

As such, if you want to enjoy The Woman in Black, then you have to suspend the part of your brain that asks questions. Don't ask why Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) repeatedly returns to a haunted house so he can look through some paperwork. Don't ask why he believes dragging up the ghost's dead son will make her rejoice and leave them all in peace. Don't ask why he thinks an axe will protect him against a poltergeist who has already survived her own hanging. And certainly don't ask how Daniel Radcliffe is old enough to have a four year-old son.

So put all that aside and you might just enjoy this film. And, in fairness, there is a lot to enjoy.

The Woman in Black needed to match the creepiness of the renowned stage play and, on that score, it delivers.  Marsh Eel House is the definitive haunted house: dark, dusty, isolated and surrounded by fog. There are nooks and crannies where clues can be hidden and billowing black drapes where the Woman in Black can camouflage herself (you will find her lurking in the background of several shots if you look carefully). Meanwhile, the nursery is the stuff of nightmares, populated by unblinking porcelain dolls and jittery clockwork animals. You get the impression that the props department had a blast searching for the world's freakiest menagerie on eBay.

Naturally, there are the obligatory jump-out-of-your-seat moments and inevitably most of these are false alarms: crows and dogs and gushes of water. Plus, every glimpse of the Woman herself will have you cowering back into your seat.

But the success of these scares is down to the sense of unease which director James Watkins has established throughout the film. Even away from Eel Marsh House, Arthur Kipps has to deal with crackpot grieving mothers and little girls spewing blood and villagers straight out of Royston Vasey. And fair play to James Watkins. He has substituted the violence and 18-rating of his debut, Eden Lake, for a more subtle, classical horror approach which is all the more unsettling. And he does this with a 12A-rating. Take that Saw and Hostel.

Of course, the big talking point around this film is Daniel Radcliffe taking his first brave step towards shredding any future boy wizard type-casting. The age is off-putting at first but only for a second. Radcliffe is confident in front of the camera and delivers an unexpected Arthur Kipps: grim, determined and haunted by his dead wife (the Woman in White, if you will) and that is before he even leaves London. This is very different to the book but Jane Goldman's changes to the novel work well, especially with Radcliffe as the lead.

Unfortunately, Goldman's script makes very little impact elsewhere. There is no memorable dialogue or unexpected plot-points or bold character-development. Plus, the resolution is a cheap conveniently-'happy' ending. But the novel was always very simple in the first place. And big-screen ghost stories will always be more about the ghost and less about the story. 

In short, The Woman in Black serves a purpose. It is mainstream throwaway entertainment, designed to sell tickets and give you the chills, thrills and popcorn spills that the trailer promised. But you're unlikely to watch it again.

The search for a five-star ghost film continues.


Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Muppets

The Muppets return to the big screen to prove there is still life in the old sock puppet yet. 

And it's all thanks to Jason Segel. As a long-serving fan of the original The Muppet Show, Segel had been keen to bring the ragtag bunch of felt favourites back for years. His script with Nicholas Stoller finally won Disney over and its no surprise. Segel clearly understands the phenomenon (ahem) of the Muppets and has stayed loyal to their brand. This is chaotic, bonkers, tongue-firmly-in-cheek humour but, most importantly, it is innocent, family-friendly and harmless. That is the charm of the Muppets. They are lovable misfits in a cynical world but their optimism and good clean fun never falters.

Segel has kept the plot simple: the Muppets have to reunite and put on a show to raise $10 million otherwise the Muppet Studios will be destroyed. Luckily, they have help from their biggest fans, brothers Walter (a muppet) and Gary (Segel), plus Gary's girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams). And that is all the plot that we need. Segel realises that fans just want to see their favourite Muppets cause mayhem in a series of sketches and that is what audiences are given.

Segel has also steered clear of the flaws of the previous Muppet movies, whereby the Muppets have had to squeeze their personalities into Dickensian characters or pirates. Instead, Segel has had the foresight to just let the Muppets be themselves. It is a crowd-pleasing move because fans simply want to see Kermit be Kermit and Miss Piggy be Miss Piggy. After all, it was their lovable personalities from the 1970s The Muppet Show that made them famous in the first place. Why should they be anyone else?

You might be concerned that Segel has been pressured to update the Muppets for a modern audience. But never fear. You won't find the Muppets texting or tweeting or downloading apps. The only modernising that you will find are a few visual background gags - Scooter apparently works for Google, Beaker and Dr Bunsen have been working on the Large Hadron Collider - and these are welcome enough without tarnishing the retro appeal of the gang.

Segel's humour is perfect for the muppets, with much play on the muppets' inherent self-awareness. For instance, everyone seems to know they are in a film: Waldorf draws attention to the fact that he has just explained a key plot point in the movie, Fozzy comments on how expensive an off-screen explosion appears, the characters 'travel by map' to cover great distances in a matter of seconds and 80s Robot (a new and brilliant addition to the gang) suggests that they recruit several of the muppets via montage to save time.

The songs will also bring out the laughs. With James Bobin as director, fresh from directing Flight of the Conchords, there was always going to be great dellivery of the musical numbers. And even better, Brett Mackenzie, co-star of Conchords, flew over from New Zealand to act as Bobin's Musical Supervisor. We therefore get great musical numbers such as Life's A Happy Song, Party of One, Chris Cooper rapping and the Oscar-nominated Man or Muppet, which also serves as the highlight of the film (especially when we glimpse Walter's human reflection).

However, whilst the songs are a hit every time, the cameos are a mixed bunch. The Muppet Show always prided itself on its guest stars and in their heyday they based whole episodes around Roger Moore, Gene Kelly, Vincent Price, Steve Martin, Twiggy, Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers and the cast of Star Wars. Unfortunately, the same A-list standards are not maintained in 2012. You therefore get a bizarre combination of veterans (Mickey Rooney, Alan Arkin, Whoopi Goldberg) alongside whoever happens to be popular at this point in time (Zack Galifianakis, Selena Gomez and familiar faces from popular TV such as Community and Modern Family). There are even blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos from Dave Grohl and John Krasinski. They all just feel a bit pointless.

The only cameo that feels worthwhile or even gets enough screen time to make an impact is Jack Black's appearance as himself. And fair play to Jack: his loud, manic, brash brand of humour is perfectly suited to the Muppets. Also, his diminishing popularity allows him to be a pleasing target for the Muppets' relentless abuse. But aside from Jack, they should have featured guest stars properly or not at all.

But little niggles like this can be fixed in the future because, thanks to Segel, the Muppets once again have a future. They are lean, green and back on the screen. 

You'd be a Muppet to miss this show.


Friday, 10 February 2012

Young Adult

Jason Reitman has finally misfired with his fourth film, Young Adult.

And it was all going so well. Thank You For Smoking was a sharply-scripted, crowd-pleasing debut. This was followed by Juno, a hugely-popular indie which won Diablo Cody the Oscar for Original Screenplay. And then Reitman hit his stride with Up In The Air, bagging an A-list leading man and reaping Oscar nominations in multiple categories, including Best Film and Best Director for Reitman himself.

It is therefore a crushing shame that Reitman fails to deliver with Young Adult. With Reitman at the helm and Cody holding the pen, this was the long-awaited reunion of the Juno duo (Juo?). It should have been dynamite. The plot is stacked with potential: Charlize Theron's Mavis - once crowned prom queen and now a writer of teen novels through which she relives her high school years - learns that her high school boyfriend is married with a newly-born baby so she returns to her hometown in order to steal him away. It is a great concept and one which should generate a lot of carefully-observed, witty humour. Unfortunately, all of the best gags, if not the only gags, are used in the trailer.

The whole film lacks the energy of Reitman's earlier creations. The pre-credits sequence is tortuously slow and the film never really gets going thereafter. The credits themselves are literally start-and-stop, as Mavis continuously rewinds the same thirty seconds of cassette music, which funnily enough sets the pace for the following 90 minutes. Every so often, there will be a glimpse of Cody's sharp writing (Mos Eisley moonshine!) or Reitman's prowess behind the lens but it soon fades back into the plodding tone of the movie.

Considering this is Reitman's shortest movie, the time really drags. Scenes of dialogue are few and far between, separated by huge amounts of padding: makeover montages, lingering shots of hotel rooms and we are even shown the entire saga of Mavis printing an invitation from her computer. Thanks for that. With so much filler, Reitman and Cody appear to be dawdling. It would have been better to pad the film out with additional characters (only two of them are fully-fleshed out and given anything interesting to do) or throw a few curve-balls into the plot.

Young Adult also ends on morally-shaky ground. The moral of the story seems to be that small folk from small towns with simple lives don't actually matter. Meanwhile, the girl with mental-health problems runs back to the big city to carry on as she pleases. And Mavis' old flame, after sharing a snog with Mavis, never gets called on it. He is married with a daughter but is given no reprimand and even has the audacity to judge Mavis in the end.

The good news is that Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt (the rat from Ratatouille!) are great as the two leads, the former dwelling on past highs and the latter dwelling on past lows. Their scenes together prevent the film from being a total write-off, with Theron utilising her underused comedy skills - perfected in the third season of Arrested Development - and Oswalt's fantastic voice delivering deadpan honesty throughout.

But ultimately, Young Adult is a disappointment. A potentially good idea is underdeveloped and the laziness of those involved is felt throughout, as if they grew as bored with their project as no doubt their audiences will. You really would expect better from an Oscar-nominated director and an Oscar-winning writer. A shame.


Sunday, 5 February 2012


The BAFTAs and Oscars still lie ahead of us but the multiplexes have already moved on from Oscar Season. The award-standard films of January haven given way to the ever-interesting February, a typically unpredictable and experimental month. Expect everything from rom-coms to horrors to Muppets and even the re-release of The Phantom Menace in 3D.

February can often be good for an unexpected sleeper hit or two... which brings us to Chronicle.

Chronicle came out of nowhere so you would be forgiven for letting it slip under your radar. Consider it a mix of Cloverfield and X-Men or - better yet - Carrie for the YouTube generation.

It tells the story of Andrew (Dane DeHaan) a teenager bullied both at school and at home with a terminally-ill mother. His life changes when he stumbles upon a mysterious crystal along with his lovesick cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and the most popular kid in school Steve (Michael B Jordan) and suddenly the three develop telekinetic superpowers. Initially over-the-moon, the three teenagers soon discover that superpowers are only the beginning of their problems.

Admittedly, with so many comic book films released every year, the plot is nothing new. However, Chronicle is a member of the 'found-footage' sub-genre and that is where its originality lies. Until now, found-footage films have largely focussed on horror films (Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity) and monster movies (Cloverfield, Troll Hunter). But it was only a matter of time before superheroes were given the found-footage treatment.

The huge benefits of the genre are correct and present: a talented bunch of unknown actors, an unmatched gritty realism, a sense of utter immersion in the story-telling and modest but clever use of special effects (if only Transformers took the same approach, DreamWorks could have saved hundreds of millions). Found-footage films are also produced on a comparatively low budget and so they are a great springboard for a new director, such as Chronicle's Josh Trank.

Trank, at the disgustingly young age of 26, has proven himself a confident and adept talent to watch over the next few years. He negotiates the found-footage genre with ease, invoking humour in the early stages when the boys make home videos and prank customers in a toy shop but equally able to handle the CGI and chaos of the film's climax. 

Trank also finds smart ways to sidestep the usual limitations of the genre. For instance, the lead character uses his power to levitate his own camcorder so he can film himself from a variety of angles very early in the story. This essentially allows for a 'phantom cameraman,' which is a convenient plot point in order to avoid any awkward 'How would this be filmed by the character?' moments. Equally, as the chaos escalates and the main characters put their camcorders down, Trank cuts rapidly to CCTV cameras, news footage and any available floating smartphone to capture the action. It is a clever move, staying true to the rules of the genre without ever cheating (as opposed to, say, District 9, where the second half of the film completely abandons the camcorder viewpoint).

It would be a shame to say too much about Chronicle as it would detract from the experience. As with many found-footage films, the less you know beforehand the better. Suffice it to say: remember how you felt when you first saw Blair Witch? Prepare to feel that way again. Chronicle is original, refreshing, captivating, edge-of-your-seat film-making. 

And it is your new favourite film.