Monday, 30 April 2012

US PILOTS 2012/3: The CW


Every time - something keeps luring me back to this channel! Though the only programme I invested any time in last year was Ringer, and that's sure to be cancelled in the next couple of weeks. There's at least another show up for the chop too (will most likely be Nikita) which means they're going to need some fresh new crops. Let's have a look at what they have to chew over...


Beauty and the Beast
Tell me now: A modern day love story based on the famous fairy tale (and CBS series from the 1980s), this new take has a "procedural twist".
And who's in it: Beauty is Kristin Kruek (pictured, from Smallville) and the Beast will be Jay Ryan (Terra Nova, and lots of episodes of Neighbours). Also set to star is Brian White (The Shield), Nicole Gale Anderson, Max Brown (The Tudors), and Austin Basis (Ghost... GHOSTFACERS!).
Should I care?: Eh, probably not - the cast aren't much to write home about and "procedural twist" sends shivers through my fur. The ABC version sounds much more promising, as this has a certain whiff of a bad film from last year about it. Still, if it gets picked up you'll know I'll be watching for at least the first few episodes.


The Carrie Diaries
Tell me now: Based on the books by Sex and the City author Candance Bushnell, this traces the younger life of its major star Carrie Bradshaw as a teenager in NYC in the 1980s.
And who's in it: Playing a young Carrie/SJP will be AnnaSophia Robb, who has been in a tonne of films from Tim Burton's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (she was bubblegummer Violet) to last year's Soul Surfer. Joined by Freema Agyeman (Doctor Who), Austin Butler (Life Unexpected), Brendan Dooling, Ellen Wong (Scott Pilgrim), and Matt Letscher (Eli Stone), who plays her father.
Should I care?: I never watched SATC (feel like I'm saying that a lot at the moment!) but I'm all for teenagers in NYC wearing beautiful clothes and having angst with one another... sounds a lot like Gossip Girl, doesn't it? Well don't be too surprised when this is quickly picked up for series, runs alongside a finale season of GG next year so it's in prime position to take it's place come 2013/4. Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage are producing too...


Cult
Tell me now: A female production assistant on a popular TV show begins to realise the avid fans of the show are resorting to extreme methods to practice story lines in real life - behaviour that has led to a series of disappearances and a possible murder.
And who's in it: Jessica Lucas (pictured brunette, Melrose Place 2.0) will star as the production assistant, alongside Alona Tal (pictured blonde, Supernatural), Matt Davis (The Vampire Diaries), and Robert Knepper (Prison Break).
Should I care?: This also comes courtesy of the Schwartz/Savage duo, as well as Rockne S O'Bannon (who did Farscape, randomly). It nearly didn't make the list, but there's just something intriguing about it that I can't shake. I like both Alona Tal and Jessica Lucas, and as long as it doesn't descend into something utterly ridiculous - this is The CW and it's called Cult - it might be worth watching. If it's picked up, of course.


The Selection
Tell me now: Set 300 years in the future, a young girl is chosen by lottery to take part in a competition to become the new Queen of her war-torn nation.
And who's in it: Aimee Teegarden (90210, Scre4m), Sean Patrick Thomas (Ringer), Ethan Peck (10 Things I Hate About You) and Peta Sergeant (the upcoming Nazis on the moon flick, Iron Sky).
Should I care?:
Yes alright, alright, it's The Hunger Games (meets The Bachelor, apparently!). But this is exactly what I would have wanted for the Suzanne Collins novel - I think it would have worked so much better as a TV series, giving us a chance to really invest in the characters rather than cram it into a couple of hours. The Selection is also based on a series of (as yet unpublished) books, by Kiera Class and I think it's the most exciting of all The CW's projects. Fingers crossed it's not too ambitious!



Shelter
Tell me now:
Following a group of young workers at a historic New England summer resort, caring for the needs of their guests as well as navigating their own problems with one another.
And who's in it:
Malese Jow, Trent Ford (both The Vampire Diaries), Zachary Abel (Make it or Break it), Eko Darville, Hannah New and Elizabeth Henstridge (all pictured).
Should I care?:
Again, this doesn't sound too enticing and could end up being the same old we see again and again at The CW. But it's Mark Schwahn's next project after One Tree Hill finished up earlier this year, and with JJ Abrams down as executive producer, this might just have enough clout behind it to get a full series run, and then we'll see if it can sustain it.



I'm already looking forward to tomorrow - it's HBO time!


Sunday, 29 April 2012

US PILOTS 2012/3: ABC

Once again, the output at ABC for 2012/3 is very strong indeed - apart from The CW (which I can never seem to escape) ABC is the top US Network for me, and I always manage to find a new shows to watch every year. Last year it gave up Once Upon A Time (not as dark as I'd hoped, but still lots of fun), Suburgatory (which has finally found its stride and by GOD I love Yakult), Revenge (soapish heaven - but actually brilliantly scripted) and my new fave The B--- in Apartment 23 (kinda sad I never watched Dawson's Creek so I can't properly lol at everything James Van Der Beek does). Let's see what's on the plate this year...


666 Park Ave
Tell me now: A young couple move into a historic apartment building in New York City, located at 666 Park Avenue. The plan is to manage the building and its variety of residents, but strange supernatural occurrences begin to threaten their work and their stay.
And who's in it: The main couple in question are Dave Annabele and Rachael Taylor, not huge names but have both starred in Brothers and Sisters and Grey's Anatomy respectively. The haunted apartment's residents also include Terry O'Quinn (Locke from Lost), Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty), and Robert Buckley (One Tree Hill).
Should I care?: Horror - along with fairy tales, which you'll see more of later - is a hot genre in the US TV market at the moment, particularly due to the success of American Horror Story on F/X. ABC had a bit of a spooky dud last year with The River but I have better hopes for 666 as it's based on the book by Gabriella Pierce so the source material for a series is there and lead writer is David Wilcox (Fringe). But poor Terry O'Quinn has been trying to get a pilot picked up for donkey's!


Americana
Tell me now: Soapy drama revolving around legendary fashion designer Robert Soulter and his family business.
And who's in it: Soulter will be played by Anthony LaPaglia who is best known for Without A Trace. Family members include Lost (and Once Upon A Time)'s Emilie de Ravin, The Descent's Natalie Mendoza, and David Alpay from both The Tudors and The Borgias. Also stars Ashley Greene (Twilight, pictured left), Christine Adams (Terra Nova) and Ken Olin (Brothers and Sisters).
Should I care?: Well it's set in the fashion industry and that's enough of a draw for me. ABC clearly looking to capitalise on the success of Revenge with this pretty looking soapsud - Philip Noyce who directed the pilot for Revenge is back to do this one, too. But it has a lot of other contention this year...


Beauty and the Beast
Tell me now: Set in a mythical kingdom, a fearless princess looking for help in the midst of a rebellion finds unlikely help from a mysterious beast.
And who's in it: Our Beauty and Beast are Ruth Bradley (Primeval) and - gulp - Darius Campbell (Popstars: the Rivals)!! Since when did he become a star over there? Or did he just get lucky? I'm not sure if I can take this seriously... Filling up the rest: Christopher Egan (Kings), F. Murray Abraham and Alan Dale (Lost, Once Upon A Time).
Should I care?: Not to be confused with The CW pilot of the same name which is also up for a series run at the upfronts (one of them is going to have to change their name otherwise it's going to be utterly confusing). This is the more promising of the two projects however, as we get the fantasy setting which is always the best bit about watching Once Upon A Time.


Gilded Lilys
Tell me now: In 1895 the first luxury hotel in New York City opens, and family rivalries, secrets and disdain between the classes dominate the mood.
And who's in it: Maury Sterling (Homeland), Matt Long (Mad Men), Blythe Danner, Brigid Brannagh, Sarah Bolger (The Tudors) and John Barrowman.
Should I care?: This is pretty much what Americana is going to be, except this time it'll be a hotel that's the focus of attention and not a fashion house. But, what could set Lilys apart is it's period setting - plus it's from one of the writers/producers of Gossip Girl which should be, ahem, interesting... scandal on the Upper East Side in the 19th Century, anyone? God I wonder if it'll be a bit like The Luxe?


Gotham
Tell me now: Female Detective Annie Travers discovers there's a magical world that exists within New York City - a world unknown and unseen by normal folk.
And who's in it: Newbie Megan Ketch (pictured), who only graduated from Tisch last year, is playing Annie Travers so it's a big break for her. Also starring: Barry Sloane (er, Hollyoaks), Lennie James (Jericho) and BRIAN COX!
Should I care?: This is basically the premise of Grimm but set in a different city and this time with a female lead. Hopefully this will be much, much better (I only lasted 4 episodes with the NBC drama) but I am slightly dubious about the fact the pilot is written by Michael Green, who wrote and produced The River... Guhhhhhh.


Scruples
Tell me now: Glamorama soap set in the 1970s following a socialite's quest to open up a fashion forward clothes boutique in Beverly Hills following the death of her husband.
And who's in it: Claire Forlani is socialite Billy Winthorp Ikehorn (what a name!), who has recently starred in both NCIS and CSI (but having recently watched it, she was in Kevin Smith's Mallrats). But it's a pretty strong cast all round, which makes me think it'll get picked up: Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill), Mimi Rogers, Gary Cole (The West Wing) and Karine Vanasse (the best thing to come out of last year's ABC drama Pan Am).
Should I care?: Truth be told this doesn't sound like the kind of thing I'd be watching, but something caught my eye as I was reading over the cast and crew... it's only going to be executive produced by NATALIE! What brought her on board the project I have no idea - was she a big fan of the best-selling novel by Judith Krantz, which was previously adapted into a mini series in the 1980s? Who knows, but word is she's planned to star in some episodes, too. Hello new favourite show of the new season!

 
Tomorrow it's the guilty pleasures of The CW.


US PILOT SEASON 2012/3


Hola.

Yup it's that time of year again - frenzied US TV pilot season, where promising new shows fight to get Network Executive attention, and push out any dead meat still clinging onto their precious time slot. Last week one of the biggest wobblers Fringe was guaranteed safety as Fox handed them a final season run in 2013. But there are a number of other shows on the bubble - most notably Ringer at the CW and Awake on NBC - who won't hear their fate until the upfronts in a couple of weeks. This is also when the pilots, which I'll be discussing in further detail over the course of this week, will find out whether they have picked up for a full season run.

A few notes before I get started: 
  • one absence this year will be CBS, who quite categorically have nothing of interest at all this year to offer, so I won't be previewing any of their slate. Believe you me I read the proposals twice in depth in the hope of finding a glimmer of anything, but to no effect. And as you will know, I'm not the biggest fan of CBS and their output anyway (except for 2 Broke Girls which is amazing).
  • Fox's line up this year is also very poor, but I've managed to find one project of interest, so Fox will be thrown in with "All The Rest".
  • Off the Network, as well as HBO (which gets its own post as the shows in development there are of a staggering quality) I'm also going to be previewing shows on Showtime (which I ignored last year and missed Homeland - oops), and Netflix which is new to this section. Over here, Netflix is just the new VOD competitor to LoveFilm, but in America Netflix is huge - not only the biggest source of rental and streaming content, but so big now it actually premieres new content and commissions new series, so that is why it's going to be included this year. Also a quick note to say Netflix will be showing in full, and instantly, the resurrected Arrested Development new season in 2013, in time for the film which will be hitting cinemas in the Summer (tbc). Woop!
  • There's the odd show which I will be previewing which has not got a definite title yet (bit late in the game!) but I will highlight this, and change whenever it is announced.

More on which current shows are up for cancellation here.

And this year's upfronts will take place on the following dates:

May 14          NBC
May 14          Fox
May 15          ABC
May 16          CBS
May 17          The CW


Time to get started!


Friday, 27 April 2012

BFF FILM REVIEW: Livide


It's quite a feat when the Q&A session with the director turns out to be more interesting than the feature film that's shown before - sadly that's the case for Livide, my second film at this year's Bradford Film Festival, a French fantasy/horror film that was supposed to be a homage to Hammer and lighting a candle to Guillermo Del Toro but ends up dissolving into fractionally hilarious guff.

Chloé Coulloud (cute) plays Lucie, a young girl who we join on her first day shadowing a home care nurse, Wilson (Catherine Jacob). Treating the elderly and infirm in their homes, Lucie's day is straightforward enough with quietly enjoyable banter between her and her employer, and a knack for the job - though Lucie herself seems reserved and sullen. Their last stop is at an old mansion off the beaten track where Wilson tells Lucie to stay in the car - she's not ready for this patient yet. Bored and curious, Lucie eventually follows her into the house and discovers Madam Jessel, a woman of over 100 years old who is being kept alive by blood transfusions and an oxygen mask. Wilson tells her that she used to be a dance teacher, but now she is left all alone after her only daughter, Anna, died years ago. There's also something else intriguing about the old lady - she is very rich, and has treasure stashed in the house somewhere, though Wilson has never been able to find it. Later that night, Lucie meets with her boyfriend Will (Félix Moati) and his brother Ben (Jérémy Kapone) and once she tells them about the treasure, Will is intent on breaking into the mansion and stealing it, to make a better life for all of them. Lucie is annoyed by his attitude and goes home where she is met by her father, who informs her the woman he has been dating will be moving into their home. Lucie is furious - it's only been eight months since her mother killed herself. Feeling miserable, she phones Will to tell him she will join him in going to the old lady's house to find the treasure so they set off the beaten track to find a way in. Oh and of course it's also Halloween night. Of course it is! Let's go break into a spooky old mansion on Halloween where there's an old lady on the top floor who looks like this:


YEAH THAT'S A GREAT IDEA.

Contrary to the predictable horror tropes - this is what it's trying to be of course - the first 10-15 minutes of Livide are actually very strong indeed. The setting is appropriately terrifying, our main protagonist is interesting (within the genre limitations of course - dead mother, check; infuriating boyfriend, check; slightly odd but key morphological trait - two different coloured eyes, check) and there are glimpses of the unexplained - Wilson murdering a young girl on her way home. There's all the potential there for a suspense filled, highly entertaining haunted house story.

And there's a few jumps at first as the three are exploring the house downstairs, searching for the treasure and coming across all matter of eerie taxidermy and eventually stumbling onto a locked room - and Lucie recalls the old lady upstairs has a key around her neck. So they decide to go up and take it from her.

HELLO, you do remember she looks like this?



But they go up anyway. This is when I started to get girlishly unsettled (I hid behind my hands a bit) as she leans forward to take the key and you're just waiting for the old woman's eyes to flick open, or her hand to grab her. It reminded me a lot of Dorothy going to get the magic powder from Mumbi in Return to Oz and her head waking up - murghhhh! But nothing happens - and they safely get away. It's a false alarm, but I enjoyed that bluff - made me think we were in safe hands with the directors. After the immediate rush to break into the mansion (the first night of Lucie's new job - I would have liked to have lingered longer with her character and Wilson, and get more of a build up before they decide to do it), it seems as though they are happy to tease us a bit and ready us for the big scare.

But things go downhill from there. Inside the locked room we discover Anna, Jessel's daughter, a corpse strung up as a live music box ballerina. She's surrounded by a creepy doll's tea party, only with stuffed animals instead of dolls. It all sounds hideous, but instead of caving in with fear, what do our trusted heroes do? They punch the corpse. YOU DON'T PUNCH A CORPSE. Then obviously a raft of bad things start happening - banging noises, the house shudders, and they run down the stairs to escape to realise they've been locked in.

At this moment, you would be beside yourself with terror, acting irrationally and crazed, unable to think clearly and becoming paranoid. But these three seem remarkably calm, and decide the best thing to do is go back upstairs and try and get out of the window in the old lady's room - where they discover her bed is empty. YET THEY DON'T QUESTION THIS! No, they just dismiss it and carry on trying to get the window open, which is obviously barricaded. S
he's over 100, been in a coma for years, can only survive on a drip and an oxygen machine, yet now she's got up and walked off. YOU WOULD BE MORE SCARED THAN THAT.


YOU DO REMEMBER SHE LOOKS LIKE THIS.

Unretractable spoilers ahead, peeps.

The brother, Ben, then gets separated from the group by apparently travelling through a mirror in the old lady's room, as we catch a quick glimpse of her behind him (this should have been more scary than it was). He is transported to a room without any doors, and is bludgeoned to death by young girls dressed as ballerinas who appear out of thin air. It was at this precise moment that I relaxed, and realised Livide wasn't going to be nearly as night-botheringly terrifying as promised. This is a cardinal sin in horror. You should never be allowed to relax - constant dread always, and they fail to do this. The boyfriend is next to follow, in a hilarious encounter with back from the dead Ben, who is covered in blood with a pillowcase over his head, Will proceeds to strike up a conversation with him about where he's been anyway. He's soon dispatched, this time by the old lady who has morphed into a sort of banshee witch, and takes a good glug on his brains.

Lucie meanwhile, has been trapped inside Jessel's daughter's bedroom, and starts getting flashbacks into what life was like here many years ago - we discover Jessel's daughter was banned from the ballet training her mother would give to other young girls, but picked off strays to feed on their flesh. So she's a vampire then? It would seem so, as when she tries to escape from her mother and the house her skin begins to crack up like dried earth in the sunshine and she collapses. But then we get another scene where Jessel is mending her daughter who appears to have a large clockwork contraption in her back - so now she's a clockwork Pinocchio Frankenstein vampire child? It's all so confusing. And then Wilson appears and knocks Lucie unconscious - the flashback shows who she really is: one of the young students of Jessel, who discovered their secret and now helps to keep the old lady alive by killing people and draining their blood for her transfusions. The tale about the treasure was just a ruse to get Lucie to come back to the house so herself and Jessel can go through with their final plan: to switch the bodies of Lucie and Anna so Jessel's daughter can be alive again.

It makes sense it that crazy far-fetched fantastical way, but the problem here it's not inventive or creative enough to scare nor to enchant. If you think of films such as Pan's Labyrinth or Drag Me To Hell, these are films which are satisfyingly creepy - Livide is trying so desperately to tick all the boxes and tip its cap to all the seminal moments of horror that it forgets to be itself and forge its own mark. There are snapshots of brilliance - when Anna's corpse comes to life as a ballerina figurine, her eyes stitched shut as she jabs around for Lucie; the old lady quietly sat amongst the stuffed animals at the doll's tea party table; lots of throwbacks to objects placed in earlier scenes - fingernails, scissors, window, pillowcase, fire with clever follow-throughs. But there's more missteps - the ending which is just WTF-ed to the max, as the girls - now in each other's bodies - work together to kill Jessel and Wilson, but can't escape the house because it's floating in the sky (how did they break in in the first place, then?!). And when they do escape, they go to the beach where Lucie - as Anna - throws herself off a cliff and ends up floating into the clouds, as Anna - as Lucie - goes home to her "new" family. Is this because Lucie can only be happy in death so she can be with her mother, and Anna has finally escaped her horrible mother and can live a normal life as Lucie? None of this is ever properly conveyed to us as an audience, I'm just grasping plausible straws here.

I wish they'd stayed with pure horror as they had an amazingly strong, terrifying set up that was just wasted by descending into fantasy mess, clunkily and extraneously listing fairy tale motifs of step mother, witch, castle, woods, evil old woman, animals, dancing and greed. Lots of gore for the sake of it too - as Jessel just will not die, Anna and Lucie resort to ripping off her face from the jaw... nice.

Livide is a true Frankenstein movie that it would probably be proud of, made up of the parts of lots of other movies, but it's just too silly to be taken seriously. The Q&A was fascinating though - did you know directors Julien Maury (who was in attendence) and Alexandre Bustillo were all set to make Halloween, Hellraiser and A Nightmare on Elm Street remakes before Hollywood stepped in and took it away from them in various ways? Good to know Michael Bay - who refused to let them re-write the terrible Elm Street remake of last year - is actually a dick by action and not just by reputation, eh?




Monday, 23 April 2012

BFF FILM REVIEW: Damsels in Distress


If you've seen the words "campus comedy" next to any blurbs for Damsels in Distress, coupled with a picture of the lovely girls above, I BEG YOU to not to switch off your minds. This isn't Animal House, or Greek, or Van Wilder - it's not even Mean Girls. This is a completely different breed of film - I can guarantee if you're below the age of 30 you won't have seen anything like this before. And if you have - then chances are you're a Whit Stillman fan and I envy you as I'm only just now discovering his genius (and the kind of impact he has had on directors since, including Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. If you're a fan of those two then you need to see Damsels immediately). It's difficult really to place this film into any kind of genre, but it has that timeless, broad appeal that will delight just about anyone if you really invest some time with these damsels.

Of which there are three: Violet (Indie Queen Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) who room together at the fictional Sevenoaks Campus and strive to help fellow students from killing themselves, from feeling depressed, from social indiscretions and from low standards of any kind. Their three main hubs are Doar Dorm - a house of particularly dumb guys; The Daily Complainer, the local newsrag which is full of "elitists"; and their own Suicide Prevention Centre, a place for students to come and eat free donuts, unload all their problems and solve them in a way that is constructive and therapeutic - tap dancing. Learning all of this with us is new girl Lily (Analeigh Tiption), plucked from registration by Violet to join the girls in their quest to make campus life as clean living and socially compatible as possible. And the main course of their distress? Boys - at least trying to find one who is a perfect match both psychologically (not cooler than you) and algebraically (survival of the fittest). And he's got to smell good, too. But how does someone with such perfectly crafted etiquette cope with the complexities of love and friendship? This is familiar college angst, but then not as you know it.

I saw this on the Opening Night of the Bradford Film Festival (now in full swing, folks) and I couldn't think of a better way to kick off a festival than with Damsels in Distress. It's a bucket load of joy. By timeless I mean you could watch this film at any point during your day and it would still manage to utterly transform it with its whimsical charm. There's no conventional plot - it feels like lots of little chapters all coming together over the course of a college year - the film is neatly divided in that way too, with winksome titles and commentary. And the cinematography is just gorgeous - not just the autumnal haze which seems to glisten the Sevenoaks campus, but the way the girls are shot too - in golden hues, their profiles bathed in sunlight which just adds to that glowing, woozy ambiance. Not only do we get that flush of nature (the girls all have floral names), but colour, and colourful characters, makes up such a huge part of this film. The original damsels all dress the same in girlish, preppy pastels (indeed, the girls even swap clothes throughout the film, which I thought was a gorgeously deft touch on college girls rooming together), a contrast to the outsiders/newbies of the group such as Lily and Priss who wear darker, grungier clothes.

Whit Stillman's previous films (of which there have only been three) have all centred on middle class, preppy liberal youngsters who spend a lot of their time just talking about everyone, and there's no change here except for the characters are nowhere near as ghastly and as unattractive as that sounds. They are all fabulous and so well-realised: Stillman is a master in developing sympathetic and curious characters, and takes such care with them to mould them into people we can truly enjoy. They're just as clueless as the boys in the Doar Dorm! You get a real feel for who they all are: Violet's troubled backstory as Emily Tweeter, Rose's fake but prolonging British accent, Heather's fond naivety and trouble distinguishing her Xs from her Zs, and Lily's struggles to fit in with this new, odd bunch of people. But just as much as our protagonists, the array of wonderfully sharp secondary characters is a wonder to behold too: Violet's boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) who's like an excitable dog - complete with beanball - who's never stopped to consider the colour of his eyes before, and poor Thor (Billy Magnussen) who hasn't stopped to consider any colours before. Adam Brody shows off his goofy side playing at first 'playboy operator' Charlie who soon dissolves into his real identity, Fred Packenstacker, a boy just as passionate about new dance crazes as Violet is. Some welcome cameos as well from Aubrey Plaza and Alia Shawkat as sour students, and even the people Violet meets in the Diner off campus after she has gone away to deal with her 'tailspin' and discover the soap to save all mankind are brilliant. The only dud note was probably Lily's Cathar-following boyfriend Xavier, who is played by Hugo Becker (personal grievance here, I can't stand him as Prince Louis on Gossip Girl).

It could be Greta Gerwig's best - she has such a spot-on delivery and is two, three, four dimensionally Violet. But the rest of the cast are fantastic too - and especially Analeigh Tipton who plays Lily, who I know as the cute girl next door contestant on Cycle 11 of America's Top Model - she came third that year (behind Samantha and McKee) but stood out with some amazing pictures like this:


It's amazing to think how far she's come!

I should also mention that not only is Stillman a superb character craftsman, he also writes eloquent, razor sharp scripts and has a mean sense of humour - there were a handful of proper lolling in the aisle moments here, as well as perpetual grin-inducing one-liners and observations along the way. The humour is very off-beat and yes, most in tone with Wes Anderson from the tiny scale of films that I've watched. But delicious. That being said, the tone is light and feels almost quaint - there's no danger or malice or even mean-spiritedness to be seen in this film. It's only clumsy mis-step would be the decision to cut the rating from a 15 to a 12A so the younger crowds can see it - in doing so they've had to cut out an anal sex subplot/joke (really), which isn't actually completed removed, meaning the film veers oddly for a few moments before finding its balance again. It doesn't spoil the film, it just makes me wonder if 12 year olds should be watching this at all! It will capture many girl's hearts just as films like Clueless and Mean Girls did previously, but I think this is destined for a more cult status - like a lighter, funnier Virgin Suicides. It's quirky and a bit off-kilter, but it's the perfect warm hearted adolescence film. But that doesn't mean to say adults won''t enjoy it either - everyone in the cinema loved it.

And the magic of Damsels in Distress is that it just feels so relevant - whilst it's set in the modern day you could be forgiven for thinking it's the 1950s - neck kerchiefs, tea dresses, no mobile phones or computers, choreographed dancing being the main social activity...with vintage and throwbacks being very in at the moment this naturally feels cool. And I normally hate musical numbers of any kind (see Mirror Mirror) but here it is so beautifully realised - Violet launching her new dance craze to the masses, the Sambola - that I just can't be mad at it. Violet can come across a tad pretentious and smug, but she is completely lovable here and again all credit goes to Gerwig's affability, and Stillman's charm - you just want her to succeed. And this film also boasts the best soundtrack I've heard since Heartbeats last year - I might just go out and buy it!

This was my first Whit Stillman, and now the gates have been opened I can't wait to discover everything else in his back catalogue, starting with The Last Days of Disco at the HPPH on May 3rd. Let's hope it's not another 13 years before his next feature as that would just be a filmic catastrophe of epic proportions. A big shout out to the BFF as well with all their Damsels related freebies we got before and after the screening - FREE SOAP!

A unique oddball gem of a film, Damsels in Distress is pure joy and gibberish rainbows - I can't wait to watch it again. And all the best films have tap dancing in them...



Sunday, 22 April 2012

NEW TV: VEEP



What is it? Give me the set up. Following the inside workings of the US Presidential office in Washington, and Vice President (where the VEEP comes from, it's an acronym) Selina Meyer who has been promoted up from Senator and finds the whole experience daunting and baffling.

Who's behind it? Done anything good? ARMANDO IANNUCCI! It's the writer's first strike on US TV, and considering he's been quiet for the past year or so, new work from him is something to really dance around like a loon about. For those new to Iannucci he's the cheeky godfather of British comedy, throwing up gold with the likes of I'm Alan Partridge, The Day Today, Time Trumpet, and The Thick of It, plus spin-off (and Academy nominated) film In The Loop. Difficult, Difficult, Lemon Difficult! The latter two are particularly relevant here, as VEEP whilst not officially labelled as the US remake to The Thick of It nor an over-the-pond spin-off, shares a lot in common with political satire and farce, and an office full of powerful and influential people who also happen to be bumbling idiots. And being Iannucci, we can expect the same sense of humour too, just this time we're laughing at Americans, and the stakes are a lot higher than a lowly departmental office in Westminster.

L-R: Sufe Bradshaw (Sue, Executive Assistant to VEEP), Matt Walsh (Mike, Director of Communications), Timothy Simons (Jonah, White House Liaison), Anna Chulmsky (Amy, Chief of Staff), Tony Hale (Gary, Personal Aide to VEEP), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Selina, VEEP), Reid Scott (Dan, Deputy Director of Communications)

Who's in it? Should I care? Taking on the main role as the VEEP is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a former SNL comedienne who's best known for her work on Seinfeld and The Adventures of Old Christine, and of course she was "not actually blind" Maggie on Arrested Development. That's more than enough pedigree to carry this off! Joining her to make a complete balls up of things is Anna Chulmsky, who appeared in In The Loop as part of the US political team, but here she is playing a different character. She was of course Macaulay Culkin's love interest in My Girl all those years ago before he got stung to death by bees (HAHAHAHAHA). Also Tony Hale will star in this, Buster from Arrested Development which I can't pretend I'm not hugely stoked about. Matt Walsh (The Hangover), Reid Scott (The Big C) and relative newbies Timothy Simons and Sufe Bradshaw make up the rest of the cast.

Pilot me. In the first episode "The Fundraiser", former Senator Selina Meyer is getting to grips with her new senior role as Vice President and her new staff. Desperate to make a name for herself and to be "visual" amongst the people, she sets about trying to change all the cutlery in the Senate to be more "environmentally friendly" - but not necessarily as useful (watch what happens with the spoon in a cup of coffee) and ends up offending the entire Plastics industry, and then makes a disastrous gaffe at a public relations event after her pre-prepared speech is pulled at the last moment by the White House, leading her even more incompetent staff having to go into damage control mode to keep up her public image. Meanwhile, the President isn't feeling too well, and there's a bit of a faux pas with a condolence card.

And is it any good?
Reviews have been very positive, but you can't expect any less from an Iannucci show. Whether the US audience will get the biting cynicism and awkwardly true to life screwball antics remains to be seen, but fans of The Thick of It will lap it up, though many reviews have commented on the lacking presence of a Malcolm Tucker type character blazing and ripping through the ensemble. This is the perfect role for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who constantly gets to quietly freak out as things collapse around her in the most hideously embarrassing way, and she is so desperate for power and recognition her little spazs of misplaced excitement are wonderfully uncouth. Happily as well, critics have called this Tony Hale's best role since playing the childish Buster of the Bluth Family on Arrested Development and he shines. It's shot in a very similar style to The Thick of It, a fly-on-the-wall approach which echoes similar US sitcoms The Office and Parks and Recreation. With lots of pithy dialogue and creative profanity expect many a quote to pepper your own daily conversations too.


Anything else to intrigue me? Well apart from Iannucci who will be directing and writing the majority of the first season, there's also a refreshingly strong British presence for the rest of the show too - in fact the whole writing/directing/producing talent is almost entirely home-grown. Director Tristram Shapeero (Absolutely Fabulous, Peep Show, Green Wing), writers Simon Blackwell (The Thick of It, In The Loop) and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, The Thick of It) will all be involved, and most excitingly Chris Morris (God) will be directing later on in the Series, too. So expect prolonged cringeworthy situations, cockhanded but lovable characters and the comfort and joy of being in capable and familiar comedy hands.

Um...it's not like The Thick of It is it?
YES, AND THAT'S WHY IT'S GOING TO BE UNMISSABLE TELEVISION.

OK you've sold me - when's this thing on then?
Tonight at 10pm on HBO (the lead in to last week's new preview, Girls). Everywhere tomorrow (wow, Mondays are becoming excellent nights for television) and if you want to be all good and proper about it, VEEP starts on Sky Atlantic in June.



Saturday, 21 April 2012

FILM REVIEW: Tiny Furniture



If you think about the number of quirky indie films that come out every year, only a handful ever get noticed. Tiny Furniture benefits from an above average level of self-promotion and widely garnered praise - picking up the Audience Award at SXSW in 2010, it's only now being released over here in the UK and to tie in with that nicely orchestrated marketing pitch it's appearance coincides with in many ways its sister project, the TV series Girls which premiered on HBO earlier this week (and is previewed here).

But an indie film riding the wave of adulation can sometimes turn into a horrible monster and the backlash begins. I was worried I was going to find this smug, too forced and self aware of its own witticisms and more than anything that I was going to find its star - and writer/director - Lena Dunham completely irritating and unlikable. So in many ways this film was a wonderfully pleasant surprise - not only was Dunham, who carries the film, sweet and endearing as Aura she was above all completely watchable and I just wanted the film to go on and on - always a good sign.

Aura is 22 and moving back home to New York after spending four years at college in Ohio. Her boyfriend has left her, her best friend is thousands of miles away, and she is in a post grad slump with no ambition or idea of what to do with her life. Reconnecting with old friends and taking on a poorly paid job as a hostess in a restaurant, she meets You Tube celebrity Jed (Alex Karpovsky) and chef Keith (David Call), two guys whom she lusts after but are absolutely awful to her. Unable to find her way and making some bad choices, Aura struggles with her family and her future caught between the geeky life she had back in Ohio and the spontaneous but ultimately unsatisfying life she begins to build in NYC.

What made Tiny Furniture so enjoyable was the anti-self loathing approach to having this quarter life crisis, this emptiness and loss of direction Aura feels after graduation - she has no idea what she wants to do, or where she wants to go, so her immediate response is to go home and live with her artist mother and pre-college baby sister who are driven in ways Aura is unable to relate to. But instead of getting all emo about it, she floats and just lets things happen, only at times do we get a glimpse of how genuinely lost she feels. She responds to reproachment and frustration by acting out like a child, but bounces back immediately with cheerful humour. It's one of two things which we really startled me about the film - firstly how she continues to be so composed and so good humoured. She gets into some big fights with her mother and sister (Laurie Simmons and Grace Dunham - her family in real life too! Her dad didn't want to do it) - her sister yells at her telling her she think she's disgusting and she can't stand her. Aura responds by hitting her with a wooden spoon, diffusing the situation and not letting it affect her. The horrible (but entertaining) guys she lets into her life tread all over her with little respect, yet she doesn't let this get to her either. She's refreshing and fascinating - especially to someone who would internally agonise over every confrontation for days, hold a grudge about it, and want to seek out vengeance, ahem (it's how a mouse rolls).

The second thing which stood out to me, and which I love in film, is how Aura's character can be a mystery to the audience. There's no voice over, or talking to herself illumination so we know exactly how she's feeling at any one minute, it's her actions (or moreover, her acting) which defines this and I love that. It's like an unreliable narrator - you're told one thing, and then your character acts against it and you have to discover for yourself why. Her friendship with Frankie (Merritt Wever), her college best friend and roommate, is tantamount to this: they plan to move in together in New York, and at first Aura is excited about it and misses her friend. But then as time goes on you see her deleting and ignoring Frankie's voicemail messages before she finally phones her up to tell her she can't move in with her because her mother needs her - which we know isn't true - causing a permanent friction in the friendship which is further heightened by an awkward surprise appearance from Frankie in Aura's new "environment" and an ambiguous parting - I was led to believe Aura would come around and reunite with her at the end realising she is a "true friend" but this doesn't happen meaning you're left to wonder if they ever meet again at all. I really loved how they sidestepped the cliche ending with that storyline and the near perfect capture of mood and feeling: of letting go, of being 'cool' and wanting to leave your old life and dowdy friends behind.

It brims with great characters - so lifelike (obviously the natural chemistry between the family is already there - so odd to think they are playing different versions of themselves, that their own family member has written for them!) and so funny as well - it's a dry, biting humour that doesn't lead to a lot of LOLs but plenty of grins and chuckles. The dialogue is fantastic too - one of my favourite scripts of this year. Dunham manages to nail that particular period in life so astutely, and again - a film where very little happens - manages to keep your eyes glued to the screen, as you're completely invested in the characters and you want to follow them everywhere they go. This film isn't so much a lead up to a life changing, light bulb moment for our protagonist - more of a snapshot of her life in a particularly confusing and challenging moment and she conveys this so wisely.

Jemima Kirke, who plays nutty British bohemian Charlotte, is a wickedly brilliant find (and yes, girl crush alert!). She reminded me so much of a young Eva Green, whom I also adore - it was just fabulous to watch. Her rapport with Dunham (also personal friend outside of the film) is lovable, and she gets some of the best lines - I love that she replies to Aura's mother - who thinks she's a bad influence anyway - "do you believe you have the same sense of entitlement as my daughter?" with, "no - mine is much worse." She's a fabulous clothes-hanger as well - I just wanted her to be on the screen the whole time! I'm glad they didn't go down the false friend/will let you down route with her character, and her friendship with Aura which is so delightfully dysfunctional remains intact at the end. 

Dunham is such a huge new talent - because her character is so large in this film (and a little autobiographical) it's easy to forget she also wrote and directed it. It's sort of like the female equivalent to Garden State and Zack Braff, though it does lack the magic to make it truly special. Lots of little quirky moments stand up though - the carbon copy white cabinets in the house, the dead hamster (funniest bit of the film), the defect blow up mattress, of course the tiny little furniture, and - um- you won't be eating an omelette for a while. A really lovely ending too that has an almost prophetic sense of timing.

Certainly not to everyone's taste (it's the definition of girlie mumblecore), but Tiny Furniture feels fresh, clever and strangely comforting. Catch it if you can, and of course, make sure to tune into Girls which also features Kirke, Karpovsky and Dunham on HBO this Spring. They're not exactly playing the same characters, but if you're yearning for more after TF then this will please lots of hearts.


Friday, 20 April 2012

FILM REVIEW: Into The Abyss


I wonder if in 2059 when Jason Burkett - serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for a triple murder and robbery - comes up for parole and gets released, will watch Werner Herzog's 2012 documentary Into The Abyss? Burkett is featured heavily in the film, the case which incarcerated both himself and friend Michael Perry at the centre of Herzog's latest musings over the imminence of death and the 'urgency of life'. Would he watch it with a sense of humility? Would he watch it with his children, grandchildren? Or perhaps he won't even get to see it at all - Werner's impact on him as fleeting as the time he had with him to interview him for this project.

It begins with a crime which happened in the small town of Conroe, Texas in 2001. But this isn't a film about this one crime: it serves as the centre point of a much broader subject Herzog wants to explore, but still he chose this case because of the sheer senselessness of the act, and to illustrate the flimsiness of life. The motive for Jason Burkett and Michael Perry was a car; the price for that was the destruction of three innocent lives. Herzog doesn't sway the angle of the events to elicit a judgement and a response out of the audience (do we think they are guilty, does the evidence stand up?), that's not what this film is about. But I did however find the re-telling of the murders somewhat incoherent. I wanted it laid out to me in clear, concise facts but it had the summation of you already knowing the story in the media and so flits through a few of the key details which I did find distracting. The first murder - of Sandra Stotler in her home whilst she was in the middle of watching TV and baking some cookies - is made absolutely real to us, from police footage from her home at the time, even going as far as to showing how they found her body wrapped up in a duvet in the nearby lake. It's chilling. But the subsequent murders of the two young boys Adam Stolter and Jeremy Davidson are never properly clarified - were they on foot? Were they shot at outside the gates to their community? Did they both live in that housing complex? The majority of information comes from an interview with a police detective who worked on the case and discovered the bodies, but interspersed with this are interviews with the victim's family members, and for me I would have preferred that whole chapter of the film which Herzog calls "The Crime" to have been just that - told in a straight-forward, A to B style. I found splitting the narrative frustrating, and had to look up a lot of details on the Internet afterwards to plug the gaps in my knowledge of events. I found the depth and chronology of Grizzly Man so thorough that extra reading just accompanied the film - here it was lacking. But Herzog doesn't tell things in such a matter of fact way - instead of giving us a factual appraisal of the background, he chooses to observe and that emphasises the angle of the film.

Yet it's interesting how he keeps going back to the case - as well as speaking with both Perry and Burkett (though he never asks them explicitly, "are you guilty?" or "what is your take on the events that happened that night?" It is widely implicated that they both think they are innocent - culpable yes, they were there, but they did not pull the trigger and kill those people - they both blame each other) Herzog also speaks to Burkett's father - also in prison - his wife and expectant mother of their first child, who started off as his defence attorney, and people in the town who knew the two men, as well as the victim's families. But instead of quizzing them about the case Herzog is much more interested in their reactions to loss and how they have coped with bereavement, and whether they believe death justifies death. The sister of Adam Stotler, Lisa,  proves to be one of the most compelling subjects: her horrific list of family tragedies alone makes you hang on her every word.

Herzog's interviews with the two inmates are very interesting in their difference: Burkett, given a life sentence due to his father's impassioned plea at his trial, seems low-key and reserved in his responses, portraying a weary and self-reflective character. Perry on the other hand - sentenced to death, with his execution taking place 8 days after filming and so speaking posthumously - is cheerful, upbeat and confident in his innocence and in his faith in God. Lisa Stotler remarks wryly how, in his last words before the lethal injection was given, he forgives them all for what they have done: "what we have done," she muses. He takes no responsibility for what he has done to her and her family. It's interesting to note Herzog has said in interviews afterwards that Perry: "looked like a lost kid...but I think he was the most dangerous."

For me the most disquieting sequence was the interview with Fred Allen, a former worker in the execution chamber, and what happens at the Death House, the last place an inmate goes before his death. Allen is retired, so even though the film transpires through Perry's last few days, execution and aftermath, we do not hear in detail about his last few hours from Allen, only his accounts of over 125 other deaths that he witnessed before he just cracked. You think to yourself - how do people end up in this job? I didn't even think about this job existing and it's unthinkable to imagine doing it. Scenes of the execution room, and the gurney, are also deeply uncomfortable to watch - one cannot help but imagine you, being taken to that room and strapped down to the bed, with the knowledge that in a few minutes you are about to die.

Unquestionably a heavy film to watch, and Herzog's best since the aforementioned Grizzly Man - it is when he is exploring the characters and actions of people when he is at his best. Here, he manages to ask the exact questions that will give him the fullest and most emotional response from his interviewees without probing or interrogating - he has such a reassuring and gentle manner that he is invaluable today with his astonishing documentaries. He makes no bones about being against capital punishment himself but he does not judge nor coerce others into opinion, he just invites them to speak and picks up insights along the way which help open them out to us, and him, as people - the squirrel question is one that you will remember. It's a discerning film which stimulates debate afterwards and is particularly interesting for someone like myself who lives outside of the US so doesn't have the same normalcy and desensitised attitude towards the death penalty.

Herzog does spend the bulk of the film on the events in Conroe in 2001, and I wish he had either chosen to make this documentary all about this case, or all about death row - it meanders slightly which makes it less gripping. It feels stretched - yet each part individually was so intense to watch. His excellent "spin off" series to this which involves more confrontations with inmates, Death Row, is still available to watch on 4oD and I urge you to do so as it explores further what it means to be looking straight into the abyss of death.

Affecting but just shy of powerful - it doesn't have that one moment that stays with you, but it's definitely a subject and a viewpoint expertly and curiously explored and gets you thinking. Into The Abyss well worth a look and it's Herzog back on bold, engaging form.




Sunday, 15 April 2012

NEW TV: GIRLS



What is it? Give me the set up. Four single twenty-something friends move to Brooklyn, attempting to find themselves and work out who they are, along with trying to achieve life's great aims: finding The Job, The House, and The Man.

Who's behind it? Done anything good? This is the hotly home brewed dramedy from Lena Dunham, who is igniting the indie scene in the US right now largely thanks to her last film - and only recently released over here - Tiny Furniture. Whilst I haven't seen TF as yet (this Tuesday, finally) it's had rave reviews for its depiction of a faltering female just outside of college. Dunham wrote, directed and stars in the festival hit and also extends her talents in this HBO series, greenlit on the back of her filmic success. The other biggie name to mention - and his influence will sure show its mark on the screen - is executive producer Judd Apatow, who is a big fan of Dunham's and wanted to help out on the project.

L-R: Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna), Jemima Kirke (Jessa), Lena Dunham (Hannah), Alison Williams (Marnie)

Who's in it? Should I care? Apart from Dunham (who also stars in upcoming The Innkeepers) the rest of the girly ensemble are relative newbies to the screen, so this is sure to be cause of their major breakout. Zosia Mamet (daughter of David Mamet, the playwright) is the most experienced of the cast, counting roles in The Kids Are All Right, Greenberg, United States of Tara and currently starring as Joyce in Mad Men. Allison Williams was picked for the part largely down to her comedic turns on You Tube and Funny or Die sketches where she impersonated Kate Middleton. Brit Jemima Kirke is the greenest of the bunch, but did star alongside Dunham in Tiny Furniture. It's a fresh-faced young cast all round - you won't find any lurking A-lister cameos here (unless you count Chris O'Dowd, gag), just new talent strutting their stuff.


Pilot me. HBO have commissioned 10 episodes for the first series. The opener sets up the girls' group in Brooklyn, giving us a taster of where they're currently at in their lives and establishing their individual quirks and personalities. Hannah (Dunham) is the driving force, finding herself newly financially independent after her parents tell her they're no longer going to help her out now she has graduated from college. She has aspirations of being a writer, but for the moment needs to work out how to make enough money to eat. She's living with best friend Marnie (Williams) whose role it is to stop Hannah making such awful decisions, whilst at the same time not being completely au fait with her own sensible and "mature" life choices. Hippie Jessa (Kirke) is just moving back to New York after nanny-ing abroad, and moves in with her cousin Shoshanna (Mamet), a pop loving, tracksuit wearing virgin who strives to be cooler than she actually is. The first episode also promises to include the most uncomfortably awkward sex scene in TV history. Er, hurrah!

And is it any good?
YES, one of the most lauded series of the last year, and it actually airing on HBO means the critics could actually be right for a change. It's been called original, smart, realistic, funny (in a grimacing deadpan sort of way) and just brilliant from the get-go. Unlike a lot of other - yes, I'll say it - Network shows, the Pilot is a superior quality of exposition, meaning we don't have to wait until Episode 2 for things to really find their way - they find their way immediately. The situations, characters and dialogue are all believable, in the sense that this isn't a glamorised version of being young, pretty and single in the dazzle of New York City - this is hard-work, making mistakes, things going wrong and feeling a bit lost: instead of being an escapism it's something to relate to, but also in a way to make you laugh. The only criticisms so far have been the tone - if you're not a fan of mumblecore-Apatow-indie fare of the Miranda July school then this probably isn't going to be for you. The characters aren't always likable, or beautiful, or sympathetic, and this being television, it's only realistic up to a point.


Anything else to intrigue me? Well, that brings me to my next question actually: Um...it's not like Sex and the City is it? Not much like SATC at all, but you can't ignore the still glaring comparisons. But the show is good natured and self aware enough to acknowledge the show, with goofy Shoshanna being a big fan of the series, and the girls all harbouring dreams of actually living out their lives in the style of the iconic TV (and HBO) show. Which is of course completely off piste seeing as they are starring in a TV show themselves... (ahem, remove the fourth wall). But apart from the city, the four girls, and the sexperiences, Girls is more akin to Bridesmaids in its, audacious at times, tone. And the clothes are nowhere near as haute couture, more shabby chic on the hanger. Dunham herself admits to being a big SATC fan, but believes Girls focuses of an often ignored gap in the ladder of life: the part before you get settled in. I (and I still surprise myself here) never watched any SATC, so this for me is a premise to be really excited about, despite my reservations of the Judd Apatow presence and the sneaky suspicion I'm going to find Lena Dunham horrendously annoying. If you're a girl in your mid twenties like me with a penchant for angsty friendship dramas set in trendy city districts, then chances are you're already sold (see below) on this. If you're not - Girls will probably irritate and terrify you in equal measure. If you're male, then. Sorry, Guys hasn't been created yet.

OK you've sold me - when's this thing on then?
Girls premieres tonight in America on HBO at 10.30pm and will be coming to Sky Atlantic later this Spring, and to all friendly tinterwebs tomorrow.




Tuesday, 10 April 2012

FILM REVIEW: Headhunters


Most reviews of Headhunters come with the observation of how in vogue Scandinavian crime thrillers are right now, from Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy (long a bestseller before it spawned two hugely successful films) to TV shows such as The Killing and Borgen, both shown on BBC4 recently. Their intricately plotted tales of murder, sex and deception peppered with complex patchwork characters and the sparse yet beautiful snowy landscapes has captured the world's imagination and we just can't get enough of it. Luckily for us, the lid of the treasure chest has just been open, with depths of riches still left to explore. One of these is Norwegian crime sensation Jo Nesbø, whose books I have long seen making up the majority of Waterstones offers, and who is the latest to get his work onto the screen. 

First up is his 2008 novel Headhunters (which at least stands out from the crowd by not having a dead teenage girl at the heart of it!). Aksel Hennie (Norway's answer to Steve Buscemi) plays Roger Brown - the most English man in Oslo - a 1.68m tall headhunting businessman with a catalogue apartment, an out of his league blonde bombshell wife, and a money-paying side job as an art thief. Waiting for that "big job" to score enough money to retire from his criminal endeavours, he is introduced to the ultra stylish, composed Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones and playing bad ass again) who may just have that priceless painting Roger has been waiting on. Whilst priming Clas for a job as the new CEO at a partner company, he gets the information he needs to steal the painting - but then finds out Clas Greve is not who he says he is, and beneath the pristine exterior is a ruthless ex-army assassin. And Roger's just about to get on his bad side.

In actuality, what starts out as a robbery gone wrong becomes very little to do with the painting at all (it's abandoned halfway through), and more a character study cat and mouse chase. Headhunters is the definition of pulp: transposing that page-turning quality onto the big screen with exhilarating action and ingenious plot devices. The story is very silly-clever, with nothing completely stemmed in reality (transmitters in hair gel which can help to track a person for one thing, and a LOT relying on coincidence and chance). But is none the less completely enjoyable - this is a film where you can quite happily sweep the massive plot holes aside as the action is so good and the set-pieces so wonderfully woven together. 

It does take its time to get its gears in motion, which means the characters are well drawn and you care about them, even though our protagonist is a cheat (and hypocritical with it, furious and dismayed when he finds out his wife is having an affair yet he has been involved with another woman for months) and a thief, smoothly appraising clients he's headhunting for other firms to suss out whether they own any valuable art he can steal, whilst simultaneously finding out the times they will be out of the house and whether there will be any obstacles in the way (a dog, a maid, children). Despite all this you root for him throughout the film, and believe me, he has a very bad day of things. What starts off as an art theft slowly becomes something bigger and more sinister, and Clas Greve becomes a man you do not want to mess with, nor his evil dog. 

The brilliant cat and mouse sequence which rips open the second and third acts constantly surprises, horrifies and in turn makes you giggle at the glorious lunacy that you're watching, but applaud them for actually going there as well. The cabin sequence is great, with Roger being forced to hide in outhouse excrement as Clas and his dog hunt him down in the most nauseating moment of cinema so far in 2012. This scene is then bettered by an excellent coming together of a police car and truck (of course on the edge of a cliff), where covered in blood Roger manages to stare dead eyed at Clas for several seconds to convince him that he's dead, before shaving off all of his hair (that pesky GPS hairgel) and escaping once again. He may, as he repeatedly states, be only 1.68m tall, but this guy is truly super human. Some great touches as well (apart from the film's epilogue of "here's how it all happened, were you watching closely?") most notably the obese twin police officers who are there to speak to Roger once he ends up in hospital - they were, unsurprisingly, really difficult to cast and the fact they went to such lengths to match a character description from the book is truly loyal. 

Headhunters' biggest strength though is its black humour, some of the sequences so insane you have to just smile, shake your head and go with it. When there's a character making a getaway covered in shit on a tractor with a dead dog impaled onto the front of it, then you know the tone! There's also the part that I just have to mention where Roger is able to shoot someone through his trousers. Coupled with the jaunty soundtrack, things never get too intense for our characters. The zippy pace means it's not as thickly plotted or as involving as Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or The Killing, but I find it refreshing in that regard - it's a proper good ride. 

The US rights to this have already been snapped up (by Mark Wahlberg, yet again) so get in there while you can. Nesbø's next book to film adaptation is Hollywood bound, with Martin Scorsese signed on to direct The Snowman, his favourite of his Harry Hole detective series. I'm going to keep my eye on that project as it has win all over it. With six other books (and counting) in the series, if The Snowman does well and the Headhunters remake is a success, Nesbø could be a big deal in Hollywood, something Steig Larsson will unfortunately never get to experience.

A darkly comic thriller with some fantastic performances, Headhunters is a treat you shouldn't let pass you by. Great Bank Holiday fun.




Saturday, 7 April 2012

FILM REVIEW: Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!


That there it the cutest animated Dodo you will ever come across on screen, I'll tell you that now for free. Probably not the most positive ringing endorsement I should come out with after watching Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists! but I seem to have yet again stumbled into a film broadly marketed for everyone but in reality only for kids, and adults who spend a lot of time with their kids, meaning I really wish I hadn't paid for it (well at least I avoided the 3D).

Pirates! is the latest plasticine outing from Aardman, centring on the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and his quest to become Pirate of the Year, becoming entangled with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) and the evil Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) along the way. It's based on the children's book by British author Gideon Defoe, whose rather 'educational' series sees the Pirates later have encounters with the Communists Karl Marx and Friedrch Engels, and the romantic poets Byron, Shelley and Keats. I saw a preview of this at Empire Big Screen last Summer where director Peter Lord introduced clips and a showreel from the film, first tickling my fancy. I like Aardman but wouldn't say I'm a huge fan - like any Brit I've seen all the Wallace and Gromit films and feel cosily patriotic of them if anybody asks. But Pirates! looked genuinely funny, with a stellar cast of voice actors and it's about pirates for God's sake, who doesn't love pirates? I've spent many an hour plundering on the Sid Meier PC game.

The animation is of course faultless and goes above and beyond paying attention to detail. Really enjoyed the opening credits where we follow the pirates' boat across a ye olde coffee coloured map of the world, bumping into sea monsters, Poseidon, compasses and creases in the paper, and really glad they kept that up throughout the film as well giving it that nice little authentic, traditional touch that glorifies the spirit of Aardman. The boat was fabulous too - you just can't help but feel a little giddiness of excitement whatever your age when there's a magnificent galleon on the screen (I desperately still wish they made boats today like they used to in the 17th Century - it's one of many fantasy wishes).

Hugh Grant was the perfect pirate camptain (that was actually a typo, but it actually fits rather well). A lovable rogue of the seas, both charming and utterly stupid, he has that true heart that all Aardman creations do, which means when he enters the Pirate of the Year competition with his modest efforts only to be trumped by the super trio of Peg Leg, Cutlass Liz and Back Bellamy (Lenny Henry, Salma Hayek and Jeremy Piven) who laugh at how insignificant he is, it's hard not to feel really sad for him (didn't quite reach the waterbucket stage, though). In fact by far the best moment in the film is when the Pirate Captain is having one of his "sad" moments - abandoned by his crew - and "I'm Not Crying" from Flight of the Conchords suddenly appears on the soundtrack. No tiny child is going to get that reference, but I had a good few moments just joining in with that genius ("I'm not upset because you left me this way, my eyes are just a little sweaty today"). The whole soundtrack was fab actually - the most adult thing about it. Enjoyed the little bromance the Pirate Captain had going as well with Number Two (Martin Freeman, in everything these days) but it was his interactions with Polly the Dodo that were the best - nuzzling up to her and giving her baby talk. OH I JUST WANTED THE DODO, OKAY. GIVE ME THE DAMN DODO.

The biggest problem was that to the average film goer over about 15, it just wasn't funny enough to properly stand out. Kids will love it, but Aardman just don't have the same unmissable cinema as Pixar do. Halfway through the film I realised I would have been perfectly content watching this on a Sunday afternoon on TV in about two years time - I needn't have wasted my money on it. The story was too rambling for my attention span, and I just wanted to grab for the comfortable happy ending sooner than it came. Queen Victoria, as much as Imelda Staunton was fun, just didn't feel right as the main villain - for a pirating adventure there just wasn't enough sea faring, treasure seeking and canon shooting as there should have been.

I enjoyed and smiled as much as I did in Mirror Mirror, which actually has a lot in common with Pirates! - both family friendly films but aimed primarily at the younger kids, visually arresting and entertaining throughout but both of them not for me, and not ones I'll be seeking out to watch again. If you do have a family though, you're spoilt for choice over the Easter holidays for the little ones.


Friday, 6 April 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Cabin in the Woods


It's best to go into this film knowing completely nothing. Aside from the trailer, the marketing campaign for The Cabin in the Woods has been spot on: showing a twisting turning Rubix cube cabin with the teasing tagline: "you think you know the story." This isn't a straight up horror as Whedonites will know from countless Buffy, Firefly and Dollhouse watchings - director Joss Whedon likes to play around with genres, and even more than that, he likes playing around with the mechanics of those genres - subverting and reinventing and surprising, all with his signature wit, humour and copious in-jokes. Filmed in 2009, fans have been clamouring to see The Cabin in the Woods which has been in distribution hell with financially strapped MGM, so it's only now getting a well deserved release. Thor wasn't even Thor back then...

SPOILERS AHEAD, THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD!

You know the premise already: five good looking college kids get away for the weekend by going to stay in a cabin in the woods, and horrible things start happening. Except you don't know the premise already: these college kids have been set up by an unknown organisation whose job it is to - in entertaining horror movie game fashion - sacrifice these kids as a ritual to the Ancient Gods who live beneath the Earth's surface, and are on the brink of rising and destroying the world. So, it's like The Hunger Games but with an actual point.

I LOVED the opening credits - my favourite title sequence since American Horror Story, and in a film for a very long time. Loved the casual buggy ride exploding into giant 70s horror red  letters - one of just many many nods to films such as The Evil Dead, Hellraiser, and Friday the 13th.

Another thing to love was how from the very beginning we know these kids are being set up. I liked this a lot, as I had assumed it would form part of the twist much later when they realise the cabin isn't real and they're being manipulated. The also gives the plot a juicy and beautifully worked split-screen comic effect, where we can follow the kids and their innocent swimming, dancing, flirting, smoking, drinking, sexing, and then also follow the, as I like to call them, "dungeon masters" rigging the cabin, taking bets on the players and the monsters, and manipulating situations to put on the best show for the audience. I hark back to my Woman in Black review: would you seriously go into this place on the intent of staying there?


Fabulous casting all round (it's great when Whedon gets to choose who he works with) but the talent in the laboratory controlling the cabin just edge it. The utterly lovely Amy Acker (in a white coat, again) plays cute and concerned, yet still very much involved in the games of it all : putting a last minute resigned sneaky bet on which monsters will terrorise the kids this time around, which leads to one of the best scenes in the whole film: the monster scoreboard (see how many you can read!). And the two masterminds of it all, Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, are just sublime together - like two bickering security guards who have worked together for far too long and humour each other to a tee.

Because this is a riff on the "good looking college kids go to stay in a remote cabin in the woods and really horrible things happen to them" plot, the film has to play up to the well-defined stereotypes, "the rules" - therefore the characters - the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool and the virgin - are cliches, but Whedon still manages to excel at this and make them interesting. What helps a great deal is they all have that sense of humour, the comic timing that is so reminiscent of a Xander, or a Jayne. Aside from Fran Kranz, the college kids cast are all newbies for Joss Whedon, and - apart from Chris Hemsworth, whose Nordic hammer was just a twinkle in his eye back when they were shooting - pretty much unknown which makes their sparky and instantly likeable presences on the screen even more impressive. Kristen Connolly is a smart breakout, playing the virgin Dana "whose death is optional" and who is our heroine throughout the story (would have been nice for Whedon to use a different dynamic here, but there is reasoning to every decision he makes). But it's Fran Kranz everyone will remember and quote, going from a annoyingsome nerd as Topher in Dollhouse to fully fledged funny guy-slash-accidental hero here. He lights up the screen whenever he's on it, and is killed off far too early (leading to a chorus of "owwwwww's") before Whedon tricks us all, and brings him back from the dead to a dizzingly brilliant final 30 minutes (cue chorus of "huzzah's!").

The pace and invention never let up, meaning the whole thing just zips by like the best ghost train ride you've been on in your life. Too much goodness that will have to be rattled off in a long list: redneck on speaker phone, the "choosing" in the basement, the drugging mists, Curt's heroic gesture only to be slammed into the forcefield wall, the celebration scene in the lab whilst the show plays on in the background, the reveal of the monster compounds... which leads me to the highlight of the whole film: MONSTERS VS MONSTERS. There's a split second pause when all the doors to the compounds are unlocked which is milked so sweetly before there's utter carnage and bloods, guts and limbs flying everywhere. It's like Buffy Series 4 was all meant for something. Everyone gets a horrible death, even the protagonists, and there's a brilliant punch line to the recurring merman joke which will leave you with the biggest grin on your face. And in addition, the most bad-ass unicorn you will encounter in your life, ever. Thought they were cute, did you? Mwahahaha!

The climax is mighty, but leaves you slightly chewing for more. Is this set in the future? How did it all come about? Is this game an annual event that happens every year, and this is the first time it's failed (so spectacularly)? Is this broadcast on television? Are there Ancient Gods in every country that need to be suppressed with rituals? Who the hell was Sigourney Weaver and did she just live down there in the rocks? It's not unsatisfying, but leaves you wanting to know more about the history and the wider world outside of this context, which is only a compliment to Joss Whedon. Absolutely loved the recording of other similar ritual sacrifice games in other countries and the undisguised rivalry with Japan and their schoolgirls being terrorised by a creepy dead ghost girl: a wonderful riff on J-Horror, and Richard Jenkins' "FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU" to the smiling pupils who manage to entrap the evil ghost into the body of a smiling frog (!) is just glorious.

Certifiably bonkers but effortlessly funny and clever with it, The Cabin in the Woods hasn't strived to re-boot the sassy horror franchise ala Scream (if there's a sequel it will be a straight to DVD mess separate of Joss Whedon) but as a standalone walloping joyride more along the lines of the equally fine if less inspired Tucker and Dale vs Evil. A delight for Whedonites and as much fun if you're new to the man as well - I could quite happily watch it again this instant. Go at night, eat lots of popcorn and love it, love it, love it.