Monday, October 7, 2013

Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium was all but forgotten until last month, when it was a punchline in Breaking Bad. I'd even forgotten that I reviewed it for the (sadly departed) Event Guide....

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman and Jason Bateman
Written and directed by Zach Helm

So, Zach Helm, at the tender age of 26 you have written ‘Stranger than Fiction’. While not universally adored, it’s certainly a film that all involved should be very proud of- a sweet, intelligent picture. Barely 30 and with Hollywood at your feet, you make your directorial debut. It stars Dustin Hoffman as the owner of a magical toy store and is called ‘Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium’. Really? Seriously? Mr. Helm’s agent must be nursing an impressive collection of ulcers and other psychosomatic maladies.

Though it sounds like the name of a decidedly grown-up establishment you might find in a seedy corner of Bangkok, the titular emporium is strictly for kids. Magorium (Hoffman) is a toymaker and sort-of magician who owns the store, while failed classical musician Molly (Natalie Portman) manages.

The shop is magical- ping pong balls try to escape, grumpy slinkies slink backwards and so on. Magical things happen, but it never feels enchanted, perhaps because there’s surprisingly little imagination and life in the way that the toys become animated. Kermit the Frog also shops there and is seen in a brief cameo, though his appearance as the only fictional character from another kids’ movie is distracting and curious. Perhaps the other muppets have better agents?

Jason Bateman also shows up as Henry, a stick-in-the-mud accountant hired to sort the paperwork needed for Mr. Magorium’s impending departure and for Molly to take over the shop.

There really is little more to the film.  Henry (predictably) learns to loosen up, Molly, though resistant to owning the shop (predictably) caves and Magorium (thankfully) finally fecks off.

Yes, Dustin Hoffman’s Mr. Magorium was always going to be a tricky performance. Wearing striped clothes and speaking in a funny voice that sounds like Buffalo Bill in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ are not qualities that might automatically endear one to children. By comparison, Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka (to which Mr Magorium owes a huge debt) spoke matter-of-factly and wore his eccentricity like a favourite coat. Hoffman and the filmmakers, however, seem to be busting a gut to try to make us like both Mr Magorium and his damned emporium- from the intrusive, non-stop high-key music to the endless shots of wide-eyed kids making golly gosh faces.

Here’s a tip for makers of children’s films: kids don’t like cheap old-fashioned toys any more and they certainly don’t like it when you speak in a funny voice for too long.

Occasional cute moments, like a soft toy stretching out for a hug whenever Henry walks past, hint at the film it could have been, but Mr. Magorioum’s 93-minute avalanche of forced whimsy is a struggle to get through. This director had better have something special planned next. Otherwise he’ll be forever the man behind Zach Helm’s Boring Career Moratorium. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Iron Man 3

It’s pretty traditional at this stage of a franchise to aim for a darker tone than before; at this point, the superhero has settled into his life so the stakes have to be raised and he’s usually required to question his motives and existence. That’s what makes director/co-writer Shane Black such an inspired choice for Iron Man 3 – he has a gift for blending the melancholy with the irreverent.

Black often likes mixing playfulness and sadness, which might go some of the way towards explaining why his screenplays are usually set at Christmas (Lethal Weapon, Long Kiss Goodnight, Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3). These stories are all coated in tinsel and artificial joy, but each have central characters isolated and pressurised, a feeling compounded by (to quote Lethal Weapon) “the silly season”.

Iron Man 3 opens with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) saying “we create our own demons” before showing a New Year’s Eve party in which he shuns a geeky young inventor/entrepreneur Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and has a one-night stand with a beautiful young scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). We know that this night will eventually be connected with the destruction of Stark’s home, but how?
Cut to present day and Stark still has the swagger of a celebrity superhero, but following his near-death experience in Avengers Assemble he’s humbled and nervous – clearly showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. And this is all before a series of terror attacks are undertaken by a mysterious figure known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).
After the meandering, misguided Iron Man 2, part 3 is much more confident and assured: funny, thrilling and even more emotionally rewarding than any other Iron Man film. We all know that Black has a gift for one-liners, but the set pieces were the biggest surprise here: genuinely awe-inspiring spectacle with real moments of invention. It was a wise move for the filmmakers to use Iron Man’s costume as rarely as possible; it makes Stark more vulnerable and forces him to come up with solutions on the fly, raising the stakes while making the action scenes more unusual and suspenseful (bringing shades of both Iron Man 1 and MacGuyver!). This decision also makes the suits’ appearance more satisfying when they do turn up. (My use of plural was intentional.)

Iron Man 3 isn’t just a celebration of set pieces and one-liners (though those needs will be met). There are nods to the hypocrisy of Stark, a man made rich by weapons manufacturing; and there are glimpses of the real world, with terrorist propaganda videos and mentions of atrocities undertaken by Americans. Stark is a compelling character in his own right, a billionaire playboy superhero humbled by love and fear.
Guy Pearce – one of my favourite actors – is a suave, intimidating villain. And it’s fun to see Stark go toe to toe with another inventor. Paltrow and Downey Jr have good chemistry now, endearingly settling into the routine of a long-term couple, and the filmmakers even get away with including a cute kid for Stark to befriend. Stark – non-religious and pro-science - really is a hero of his time.

Two minor quibbles – while it never sags, it overstays its welcome by about fifteen minutes or so, which is a common problem with blockbusters. And on one or two occasions Black sacrifices menace for humour.
Still, this is easily the best Iron Man film, and probably the best film made under the Marvel banner so far. It feels like a farewell tour for the rockstar that is Tony Stark. Let’s hope that’s not the case. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines review

Luke (Ryan Gosling) is an uneducated, taciturn, but gifted young man. He makes his living as a stunt motorcyclist in a travelling circus, but decides to settle down and try to win back his one-time fling Romina (Eva Mendes) when he discovers that she’s had his son. Romina has met a new man, but Luke is determined to become the breadwinner she wants and win her back. This leads him on a path to crime and (eventually) on a collision course with a young cop.

This is a tricky film to review: It’s so unpredictable and strangely structured that it’s hard to describe without spoiling it. Despite what ads you might have seen, don’t go in expecting Drive with Dirt-bikes. Instead, think of it as a domestic drama that happens to have crime as a backdrop and theme.
Derek Cianfrance (who directed Gosling in Blue Valentine) has crafted an ambitious, unusual and moving drama with rich themes of legacy, violence, love and cause and effect: Indeed, some of the actions in this movie effect people decades later. The change in perspective of the story is expertly done, so much so that you don’t even notice it’s happening at first.

The level of detail is admirable; supposedly insignificant props (a photo, a pair of sunglasses) become hugely relevant years later in the story, as do little asides and details. A reference to the band Hall & Oates pops up on two occasions, supposedly to remind us of the two irrevocably linked characters.

As well as being beautifully shot (largely on location in upstate New York) and strangely constructed it’s an atmospheric, haunting drama, with an eccentric, effective score by Mike Patton from Faith no More; synths, ominous strings, and curiously artificial choir sounds.
Ryan Gosling is good as you’d expect – gently melancholic and with great presence and tremendous chemistry with Mendes; and Bradley Cooper, as Avery the cop, is even better than he was in Silver Linings Playbook, playing a conflicted, intelligent and ambitious young cop.

Emory Cohen and Dane Dahaan, two excellent young actors, turn up later in small but significant roles. And Ben Mendelson – who has a knack for playing bottom feeders – is greasy, believable and even a little likeable as Luke’s partner in crime.

The Place beyond the Pines has jarring structure - I have never seen anything like it actually. It asks a lot of the audience, but gives a lot in return.

Don’t go in expecting a heist movie, which is what it’s being marketed as. Expect a detailed, nuanced, morally murky and tragic drama that happens to be about crime, and you’ll be rewarded

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

There's an old joke about film cliches that goes like this: Every time a character in a film sees something on TV, it's a news story or commercial directly relevant to their current situation. I've seen it in dozens of films, from Flight to Argo. But I've never seen so many characters watch TV as they have in No.

No covers the unusual ad campaign that was developed and run in opposition to General Pinochet in Chile in 1988. The film features Gael Garcia Bernal as Rene Saveedra, an adman who spearheads the campaign, promoting a fluffy and positive campaign that more closely resembles “a coke commercial” (as one colleague says) than a campaign ad.

The No ad forgoes acknowledgement of the torture, “disappearances” and brutality of Pinochet's regime in favour of rainbows, positivity and a “jingle” instead of a rock or folk protest song. The protagonists get pressure from all sides – from colleagues who disagree with them, from soldiers and police who intimidate and threaten them, and even from rival advertisers, who up the ante with aggressive and misleading counter-propaganda.

The ad shoots and focus group meetings have their own flavour of tension, as the advertisers bicker about approaches to the material. It's fascinating seeing the tit-for-tat ads and the context that shaped them. And some of the ads were very much of their era, giving some badly needed comic relief. My favourite heavy-handed 80s ad was the one with the metaphorical steamroller representing the No campaign. It's shown squashing all of the luxury items, and coming for your children next!

This is docudrama in the truest sense of the word; it's shot in 80s style VHS footage, so when it jumps to news footage, vox pops or the real commercials, it's completely seamless. The filming style also, unsurprisingly, makes the whole thing feel authentic. It's a similar device to Argo and Goodnight and Good Luck. Like those two films, No uses real life footage of its events and villains as well (in Goodnight it was Joseph McCarthy).

Like the best historical dramas, this feels like it has relevance to present day. The dirty campaign reminded me of the recent, incendiary ads in the lead up to the American Presidential election, and even gun debate ads I've seen recently. The attempts to mobilise the country's youth via unconventional, innovative communications was like the Arab Spring of recent years, and like Obama's first campaign.

Bernal, as usual, gives a likeable, intelligent performance as the advertising creative, and he has good rapport with all of his co-stars, especially Alredo Castro as his former colleague turned friendly nemesis.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ni No Kuni review

Here's a review of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch I wrote for the Irish Times...

Sumptuous, eye-popping animation is standard for Studio Ghibli. To say that the makers of Spirited Away and Ponyo make lush and beguiling cartoons has become a cliché. Their latest project, a collaboration with game developers Level-5, forgoes the cinema for the Playstation 3, and is a typically spectacular affair.

Okay, enough talk of beauty. (So, so pretty!) Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is the story of an ordinary 13-year-old boy named Oliver. Following some misbehaviour, and a terrible personal tragedy, he discovers that one of his cuddly toys comes to life, awakened when soaked by Oliver’s tears (a nice touch). The newly animated Mr Drippy then takes the boy to a parallel world. This is where Oliver learns about magic, good and evil. And it’s a place where he just might undo a tragedy in his own world.

Ni No Kuni is a Japanese role-playing game, and like many JRPGs, you can expect to watch plenty of cut-scenes and wear out lots of virtual shoe leather on long walks. There are also turn-based battles; a staple of JRPGs. Choose to attack or defend for a few seconds, delegate tasks to your virtual friends (a variety of magical creatures) and manipulate menus mid-skirmish. Even the game acknowledges that it can get complicated, as Oliver says “Jeepers, there’s so much to remember!”

But Ni No Kuni is a perfect introduction to the genre. The game-play – while sometimes knotty – is user-friendly. And perhaps most importantly, Ni No Kuni works as an original fairytale – an epic animated story overflowing with sincerity, imagination and emotion. Ultimately it’s a hardcore game that asks a lot of its players, and gives a lot more back in return. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

A short review of DMC

Alex Garland is the new king of pulp. The writer has followed his splendid work on Dredd with a co-writing gig on DMC. This Devil May Cry reboot doesn’t disappoint: it’s a juvenile, violent and lurid journey to the dark side. 

As usual, antihero Dante is cracking wise and cracking skulls, as he takes on the forces of evil, one demon at a time. There’s an engaging story, following ambitious, occult villains (including bankers!) and Dante learning about his family. But the combat is the main attraction: a third-person hack-and-slash, with a drop of gunplay, DMC has an endless procession of monsters to slay, and dozens of ways to dispatch them. There’s a nice variety of weapons (pistols, axes, grappling hooks and more) but the action is always intuitive and never overly-complicated.Every skirmish finishes with a satisfying, slow-motion flourish. 

DMC is a triumph of game-play and style, unencumbered by pesky refinement and nuance.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Les Miserables

Over the next few weeks, I'll be reviewing the Oscar nominees for best picture. Here's my take on Les Miserables...

In 18th century France, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a recently released convict who breaks parole and reinvents himself as a mayor of a small town. Russell Crowe plays Javert, the relentless cop who pursues him. Along the way we also meet a seamstress (and employee of Valjean) who’s fallen on hard times Fantine (Anne Hathaway). And later the story follows her daughter Cossette (Amanda Seyfried) who strikes an unlikely relationship with Marius (Eddie Redmayne) a rich boy with revolution on his mind.

As you might have guessed, this is epic, decades-spanning storytelling told on a huge canvas, with big acting and bombastic singing and score. The opening shot, of a ship being dragged into port by prisoners, is impressive, grandiose, and conspicuously expensive.

From the get-go, just about every line is sung, which takes a few minutes to get used to, not least because the lines are being sung by such big stars (icons?). Once you get past the idea of watching Wolverine and Gladiator duet, it settles somewhat into an engaging, if hugely contrived, story. I don’t fully buy into the argument that the stars have too much baggage. The idea of movie star baggage doesn’t really hold water. After all, we’ve seen Dustin Hoffman as a trannie soap star and an autistic savant, and he doesn’t carry baggage in either role.

Anyway, Valjean and Javert are both interesting characters and are played well. Jackman’s singing is fantastic and as an actor he’s loveable and noble. And while Crowe’s voice has traces of fog-horn, he just about gets away with it thanks to his presence, commitment and some fine hats.
Anne Hathaway is getting lots of Oscar buzz for her relatively short screen time, and it is an emotional and raw performance. Her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream is one of the most intimate moments of the film.

But there are many things that work on stage (especially in a stage musical) that don’t work in cinema. Storytelling is under harsher scrutiny in a movie, and Les Miserables has a number of astonishing coincidences – characters bump into each other frequently in different towns, across different regions, different social strata and even in the sewers! Were there only about 6 people living in France at the time? Valjean is supposedly a fair and good mayor, but he runs a clothes factory filled with miserable, underpaid workers and his town is filled with prostitutes and thieves. And what else is happening in France while Javert is chasing someone over a loaf of bread? I’m sure Victor Hugo’s book isn’t nearly as simplistic.

The historical context and backdrop are also skimmed over in favour of long songs in which people sing exactly how they feel. If you don’t love the music (and I didn’t) it can get wearying.

The second half of the film is the most trying: I literally couldn’t care less about Cossette and Marius, despite the best efforts and decent singing of the actors. Seyfried’s voice is like that of a lark – pretty and high pitched, but also a little shrill. A one-second glimpse of one another on a street leads to at least ten minutes (not an exaggeration) of singing about how in love they are. Cossette is literally defined by her love for Marius.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter turn up as sleazy brothel keepers as comic relief. They’re broad, but effective, although their screen time is a mite over-long.

Here are the parameters for my liking a musical – I must love the songs (as in Grease or Hairspray); generally, I prefer them to be joyous and not melodramatic (a la Singing in the Rain or The Sound of Music); if they must be dour, at least have them blackly comic, like Little Shop of Horrors or Sondheim’s work on Sweeney Todd.

Tom Hooper does as good a job as can be expected. It looks great, and he switches nimbly from grandiose (lots of crane shots) to intimate. The decision to have the actors sing live while filming was a good one – resulting in raw, even sometimes rough, performances. He also makes the impoverished setting look appropriately grimy

But it is ultimately a slog, with a two and a half hour running time that feels much longer. It’s recommended only to those who loved the musicals.

The trailers hint at a lot less singing than there actually is in the film: I wonder if audiences who come for the movie stars will stay for the songs?