Easter is upon us, bringing a much needed long weekend, in which I've done the following things: (a) went to Hereford to watch a really dire football match, (b) played squash for the first time in about five months, and (c) sat around the house watching quite a few movies, reviews for which are coming right up:
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)
I've been a fan of (Bristol's own) Aardman Animations since the mid '90s, when they released a series of fantastic short films starring a Wensleydale enthusiast and his canine sidekick. This time out, our heroes are a crew of misfit pirates, led by Hugh Grant as the Pirate Captain, and ably assisted by Number Two (Martin Freeman), the Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and the Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey). Despite their shortcomings as plunderers and swashbucklers, the Pirate Captain is determined to achieve his dream of one day becoming pirate of the year, even if he has to sell his beloved dodo, Polly, to do it. This quest leads him from his Caribbean stomping ground to smoggy old London, home of his arch nemesis, Queen Victoria. Now, I saw the movie in a packed out cinema, and it was noticeable that there weren't very many moments where the whole audience was laughing out loud - it isn't that kind of film. Instead, there are plenty of subtly amusing moments that make you chuckle, little references to various figures in Victorian Britain (Jane Austen, the Elephant Man), that kind of thing. It's also a film which will (I suspect) reward repeat viewing - the attention to detail in the creation of the backdrops to the pirate's adventures is fantastic, with all sorts of things going on in the background which you only notice if you're looking closely. Whilst this one isn't quite up to Wallace and Gromit standards (as it's lacking in big laughs), it's still entertaining stuff.
I was doing a pub quiz recently and was surprised to discover that it was this film, rather than The Artist, which was nominated for the highest number of Academy Awards at this year's Oscars. Of course, many of these were in the more 'technical' categories (Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing/ Mixing etc.), but it also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and won for Best Cinematography. All of which is kind of a long-winded way of saying that this is certainly a noteworthy picture, and one I should probably have got around to seeing sooner. The film is a bit of a departure for Martin Scorsese; we're a long way from the mean streets of New York City here, instead we're transported to the more genteel location of Paris in the 1930s. Behind the scenes at the Gare Montparnasse we find young orphan Hugo Cabret, surviving on a diet of stolen croissants, working to repair a clockwork automaton left to him by his father, and generally doing his best to avoid the attentions of the rather unpleasant station inspector (played by Sacha Baron Cohen). Hugo's life takes a turn for the better, however, when he befriends Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), the granddaughter of one of the merchants at the station. As the pair go in search of an adventure, they discover that there's more to Isabelle's grandfather (Ben Kingsley) than initially meets the eye... This is a film which works so phenomenally well visually that you're able to forgive any minor flaws it might have (the dialogue which is a little un-naturalistic at times, and the young leads have a few shaky moments, particularly in the beginning of the film). The cinematography here is absolutely top notch - the way the camera swoops around the beautifully recreated Parisian station is breathtaking. Almost every frame of the movie has been brilliantly composed, and it's just generally a treat for the eyes. All in all, it's a fine picture, and one which fully deserved its recognition at the Oscars.
I've been burned by Rainn Wilson before. Sure, he's probably the funniest guy on the US version of the Office, but when it comes to starring in movies, he's like some sort of comedic black hole, sucking the life out of a picture. I mean, I'm one of the (approximately) five people who saw The Rocker, so I'm well aware of his shortcomings. Anyway, even though I probably should have known better, I decided to rent this one. The premise sounded intriguing - a regular guy decides to take the law into his own hands and become a superhero, kind of like Kick Ass, but more realistic. There's even a dependable cast of strong character actors in support - Kevin Bacon, Ellen Page, Michael Rooker, Andre Royo... However, in practice, the tone of the film is just massively misjudged. All it amounts to is Wilson's superhero running amok in a grim, post-industrial city, smashing perceived wrong-doers (whose crimes may amount to merely cutting in line) over the head with a spanner. I like to think that I can appreciate black humour - I liked Observe and Report, which also took a darkly comic look at vigilante justice - but this film is just crushingly brutal and depressing, and includes hardly anything that even vaguely resembles a joke. Super? It's anything but.
The Omega Man (1971)
In which Charlton Heston stars as Robert Neville, a former scientist and one of the few survivors of a biological attack which has ravaged North America. He's free to roam the city by day, watching movies at empty cinemas, picking out clothes from deserted department stores and cruising around town in his convertible. However, at night time, he has to hole up in his heavily fortified apartment - because after dark, the city becomes the domain of 'The Family', a tribe of individuals disfigured and warped by the effects of the biological weapons. This group, outfitted in black monk's habits, blame the scientists for the downfall of civilisation, and want to take revenge on Neville. Now, I've seen the Will Smith movie based on the same story (I Am Legend), as well as the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror parody (the Homega Man), so I knew what to expect from this one. Still, as this was the original take on Richard Matheson's novel, I expected something a little better than what I ended up watching. In a number of ways, the movie has dated pretty badly - in particular, the gun battles and fake blood used look very unconvincing. By this stage in his career, Charlton Heston seems altogether too old to be playing an action hero, and his romance with a much younger woman left me feeling kind of grossed out. That's not to say it's a complete disappointment - despite his advancing years, Heston still has tremendous screen presence, which is very important, particularly in the early going, where he's basically talking to himself for the opening half hour. All the same, if I was to rank the three versions of Matheson's story I've seen, this would come in third (obviously, the Homega Man would top the list...).
In A Better World (Haevnen) (2010)
The first of two Scandinavian movies I saw to finish off the week, this one was the recipient of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011, beating out the likes of Biutiful and Dogtooth to win the prize. To be honest, I've now seen all three of those movies, and it's tough to choose the best one - if I was pushed, I'd probably plump for Dogtooth, but there's not much in it. What I can say is that the Academy didn't make a bad decision - this is a very well put together and acted picture. It's a film which tells two parallel stories: one involving a Swedish doctor posted in a refugee camp in Africa, and the other involving the doctor's son and his struggles with bullying at his school in Denmark. Both of these tales take on common themes - violence begetting violence, how to cope with the loss of a loved one and how to confront one's enemies. If I was to be over critical, I would say that the African story is underserved in comparison with the Danish one - we get around twice as much coverage of the issues facing the kids in Denmark as we do of the refugee camp. Nevertheless, it's a very strong film, with a number of compelling performances, particularly from Mikael Persbrandt (as the doctor) and Markus Rygaard and William Johnk Nielsen (as the two troubled Danish boys).
Headhunters (Hodejegerne) (2011)
My movie of the week this time around is this brilliant Norwegian thriller, based on a bestselling novel by Jo Nesbo. It concerns the life and times of a conniving, philandering corporate headhunter, named Roger Brown, who keeps his beautiful wife in the style to which she has become accustomed by moonlighting as an art thief. Using the pretext of a job interview with various wealthy individuals, he tricks them into revealing details about any valuable works of art they own, as well as their domestic security arrangements, then burgles their homes at a time he knows they will be away. Brown makes for a brilliant antihero, but he more than meets his match when he attempts to steal a priceless Rubens painting from Clas Greve, a Dutch CEO who is a former special forces operative. Pretty soon, he finds himself in over his head and on the run from this remorseless and cruel adversary... This is a movie which really warrants the term 'thriller' - it's exciting, tense stuff from start to finish, with some scenes in the middle of the picture which almost defy belief. Special praise should go to Aksel Hennie for his fine performance as Roger Brown. At the beginning of the movie, his character is a truly reprehensible individual, but by the end you can only admire the courage and resourcefulness that he displays in attempting to overcome a seemingly unbeatable opponent. I really enjoyed this one - it keeps you gripped right until the end, with a plot that twists and turns and keeps you guessing until its dramatic conclusion.