Sunday 29 November 2009

Nativity! (

This is a very likeable film from Confetti director Debbie Isitt; a piece of festive fun that will genuinely keep the whole family entertained. Martin Freeman stars as Mr Maddens, a Scrooge-like primary teacher who is tasked with directing his school’s annual Nativity play, assisted by his childishly hyperactive classroom assistant Mr Poppy.

Finding himself backed into a corner by rival school Nativity director Mr Shakespeare, Maddens makes up a story that his ex-girlfriend (Ashley Jensen), now working in America and no longer in touch, is going to bring ‘Hollywood’ to Coventry to see his school’s show. Unfortunately the lie finds its way to Maddens’s understandably elated head teacher (Pam Ferris), and Maddens is forced to pull together a spectacular show while simultaneously trying to figure out how to break the news that no movie execs are going to be descending on the town any time soon.

While Freeman’s inevitable transition to Christmas-loving school show director is never in doubt, and we know from the start that things will all turn out fine in the end, the real charm of the film lies in the children, who are given plenty of screen-time as the story focuses on auditions and rehearsals for the show. Isitt’s improvisational style yields many funny scenes, as well as a few affectingly emotional moments between Mr Maddens and his pupils. The hilarious interactions between Freeman and the child actors are so effective, in fact, that the film noticeably loses pace whenever Isitt’s focus shifts to the far less exciting romantic subplot.

Fortunately the supporting cast overflows with comedy talent, and each one is given their moment to shine. Mark Wootton’s guileless Mr Poppy is a hilarious and all-too-real creation, while Jason Watkins steals every scene he appears in as private school prima donna Gordon Shakespeare (his school’s ‘daring’ take on the Nativity is one of the film’s funniest moments). Alan Carr as a sandwich-guzzling newspaper critic is less inspired, but still good for a few chuckles.

It is a shame that Isitt pushes the film into overly sentimental territory for the last 20 minutes. Personally I found it too sickly-sweet in comparison to the hilarious and cheese-free earlier scenes, although I suspect it might be just the kind of heart-warming send-off that many audience members will want.

Nativity! is in UK cinemas now. This review published first on

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Martin Freeman: Child's Play (

is a new comedy from the mind of Debbie Isitt, made using a similar improvisational style, and some of the same cast members, as her previous film, the mock documentary Confetti. As the title suggests, this one has a festive theme, specifically focusing on a Christmas-hating primary school teacher played by Martin Freeman, who is tasked with turning around his school’s reputation for poor Christmas shows and putting on a spectacular Nativity. Freeman is no stranger to the world of improv comedy, having made his name in hit BBC series The Office, and worked previously with Isitt as one of Confetti’s ensemble cast. We spoke to him about the challenges of working with children, his thoughts on primary school teachers and the enduring appeal of the Nativity story…

It’s interesting that there’s no screenplay credit for this film. How does it work – does Debbie explain what she wants or is it all completely improvised?

Yeah she does explain. This, probably more so than Confetti, was more explained and locked down. In Confetti, in the course of a scene if characters decided to take it in any direction, that’s where the scene and the story went, within reason. But with this it was more “you have to get from A to Z, saying this, we need to plot that, and at some point someone needs to say that”. Debbie likes the uncertainty, and I think she has enough respect for actors, as good a screenwriter as she is, and she likes to let unexpected things happen that may be, hopefully, better than what she would have had in mind.

So, is Nativity a British answer to the High School Musical phenomenon?

Well, it’s a fair question because there is an obvious comparison to be made there, but I think, with these children, it is a bit more accessible. It is a bit more – for want of a better word, in a film that’s got bloody live camels in a nativity play – real. Okay, it’s not Ken Loach, but you do see kids messing up, you do see kids failing. They haven’t all arrived like mini stars, you see the real experience of it being good or bad or whatever it is. You see the real charm.

How was it trying to hold your own against so many little scene-stealers?

I’m more than happy to have scenes stolen by them, because after all, whatever makes the film right, you know? And Debbie was adamant from the outset that not only did she want a child-friendly film, but she wanted very much a film that all the family could see, including young ones. As far as I’m concerned, the star of the film is the children, that group, and that’s the real overriding thing that you come away with. So fortunately in this case I was very happy to be gazumped.

Did making the film give you a newfound respect for primary teachers?

I’ve always had a great respect for anyone who wants to get in a room with thirty-odd children, and not kill them. It gave me more of an idea of how difficult it would be, certainly, but no, I’ve always had concrete respect for them. I don’t think I have the patience to be a primary school teacher. All the stuff at the start of the film where my character is not in love with the world and he’s grumpy; that wasn’t all acting. That was verité. And I’m a dad in real life, so I also drew a lot on my own experience as a dad to get those high-pitched shouts!

Did you put on an actual nativity play?

Yeah, we had to rehearse a lot more than you see in the finished film. We were there for hours and hours going through the choreography and the songs and everything. It was testing., and I definitely drew on my own abilities, or otherwise, to corral children. But I haven’t got thirty children; I’ve got less than that! So there’d be times when I’d be trying to appeal to the older ones, to sort of set a good example, which worked sometimes. And other times they would do what children are supposed to do, kind of arse about a bit.

As a parent, have you had many painful experiences watching awful school plays?

I do genuinely think there’s something about watching children doing almost anything that is forgivable, no matter how terrible or otherwise it should be. There’s something about the innocence of children trying their best, and not being that knowing, that’s quite charming really. It is one of the things that I really love about this film; it reminds you of watching your own children do stuff. And yes, normally there aren’t real camels at the Christmas play, but I think it still holds true, there is something undeniably emotional about watching children, your own especially, but any children I think. There’ll be a lot of people in bits as soon as this film starts. I was when I saw it, because it’s real; it’s not kids pretending to be kids, they’re really there trying their best, and however that turns out I find it very moving.

Would you encourage your own children into acting?
I wouldn’t actively encourage or discourage them from this life. Both me and my other half are actors and, while of course there are hard bits to it, it’s a good life and I’m thankful to it every day. But I think if you’re the children of actors you don’t need encouragement – you’ve got a bit of it in you. So I’m just gonna see where that goes with mine.

Would you consider following your Nativity co-star Ashley Jensen and moving to the US to work?
It’s interesting, Debbie definitely wanted someone for that role that looked, to a British audience, like they had ‘crossed over’ to America. So she wanted that parallel to be drawn with Ashley, quite clearly. Personally, I would crawl over broken glass to work on something good, wherever, but I never wanted to go over to the States and just wait around for work. As any actor will tell you, you can stay here and do that! I’ve worked in the States a couple of times, but I’ve got a family, and I have a responsibility I think, to not necessarily do that to them. You know, whatever you want out of LA, your family might not want that too.

What do you think is the continual appeal for retelling the Nativity story?

I think it’s a great tradition, and it’s great that it carries on. I really do think it’s the greatest story ever told, and this is just the first bit! I am a sucker for the whole story, and I’ll hear it any which way, because I’m endlessly fascinated by the myth and the truth, and every part of it. It’s a really, really good story, and I think that there are great truths in it: that great things happen to the smallest, tiniest person, and the least likely child or person ends up elevated to the highest status. If that’s not a great parable, or way to think about life, then I don’t know what is.

Nativity! is released in UK cinemas on 27th November. This feature first published on

Law Abiding Citizen (

This slab of big, dumb, glossy pap has an interesting idea at its core. The innocent man wronged is a movie mainstay, and we’ve seen his kind battling against the odds for some kind of personal justice time and again. But what if, unlike Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, or Tom Cruise in Minority Report, the wronged man lost his own sense of right and wrong somewhere along the way, and became an amoral monster, driven to mete out disproportionate measures of wrath to anyone and everyone? If it were done well, that could be a pretty terrifying movie. If it were done badly, it would be Law Abiding Citizen.

The film positively glistens with stupidity from its opening moments. If director F. Gary Gray’s lack of interest in believable characters isn’t obvious from the speed with which Gerard Butler’s motivation is supposedly established, it becomes unmissable after Jamie Foxx’s lawyer appears on the scene, making some ridiculous and irrational choices that conveniently fuel Butler’s growing sense of injustice. Cut to 10 years later and Butler’s had time to set up so many elaborate ways of killing people that even Saw’s Jigsaw would stand up and applaud.

Granted, there is a certain amount of mindless fun to be had with this kind of film. I enjoy seeing Butler get his maniacal grimace on and deliver lines like “I’ll kill everyone… it’s gonna be biblical” as much as the next Spartan. But when Viola Davis, who gave a jaw-dropping, Oscar-nominated single-scene performance in last year’s Doubt, is so inexcusably wasted by a director as she is here, then we are dealing with something much more dangerous than a mere guilty pleasure. This is an all-out assault on decent cinema.

You can actually feel yourself losing intelligence as Law Abiding Citizen moves interminably towards its meaningless conclusion, and my advice, if you have the misfortune to end up in a theatre where it's playing, is get out while you can. Avoid this drivel at all costs.


Law Abiding Citizen is in UK cinemas from 27th November. This review first appeared on

Wednesday 18 November 2009

A Serious Man (

A reference to Rabbinic Judaism may seem an odd place to start a review of the new Coen Brothers movie, but bear with me. The Jewish tradition is one of long discussion, mulling over questions, telling stories and seeking to grow in wisdom through these exchanges. It’s the tradition that Joel and Ethan Coen have clearly grown up in, and if A Serious Man is their genuine response, they don’t seem too happy about it. I’m fully aware that I’m on dangerous ground here, as nothing is straightforward when the Coen Brothers are concerned, and making judgments about their films’ meanings is not advised. This is probably even more true than usual in the case of A Serious Man, a film that’s as difficult as it is brilliant.

Unlike the pure idiot-mockery of Burn After Reading, or the detached precision of No Country For Old Men, this film feels personal, and therefore complicated. Like every Coen Brothers film it is populated with unforgettable characters who are flawlessly performed and, in their beautifully-drawn idiosyncracies, very funny. But if all you do is laugh at them you could miss the fact that they are dealing with some of life’s most serious (there’s that word again) questions.

From its bizarre yet perfectly ominous pre-credits sequence onwards, the film is about uncertainty: how can a person be sure of anything in this world? And further, when there seems to be no guiding principle as to why one person suffers and another’s life is ‘blessed’, what is the right way to live? Is God there and is he interested? Why aren’t there any answers?

The Coens put these questions primarily in the mouth and mind of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish physics professor who has the rug well and truly yanked from under him when his wife tells him she wants a divorce. Not only that, she is already planning to get re-married to Larry’s friend Sy, a patronising bear of a man, so they require a ‘get’. What’s a get? You may well ask, as many do, in one of the script’s recurring comic asides.

These are just the beginnings of Larry’s troubles, and the way the Coens add layer upon layer to this story is masterful indeed. When Larry reaches the point of not knowing if he’s dreaming or awake, we feel the same confusion. Similarly accomplished is the discipline and focus of the filmmakers: every scene centres on the whys and hows of life; every character clearly offers a different way of coping, or not, with the tension that these questions create.

It’s reasonable to ask whether the Coens are really interested in these questions in the world beyond this film. They have created these characters and are the ‘god’ of this world. They see all, and can decide where Larry’s life is going to go, regardless of his actions. The film’s final moments are quite terrifying in what they suggest, but they also could represent the Coens saying “there is one thing we can be sure of – we are in charge of this world, and we can do whatever we want with it”. Perhaps that’s the only sure conclusion A Serious Man can offer.


A Serious Man is released in the UK on 20 November. This review first published on

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Cold Souls (

Is your soul weighing you down? Paul Giamatti finds that he answers ‘yes’ to that question in an early scene of this funny and thoughtful debut from writer/director Sophie Barthes. Giamatti (his character is an actor called Paul Giamatti – not the only Kaufmanesque element to the film) discovers that help is at hand in the form of a ‘soul-extraction’ agency based in his very own New York City. “When you get rid of the soul”, explains Soul Storage guru Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), “everything makes so much more sense, and becomes more functional and purposeful.” Paul decides to give it a go, and initially finds himself relieved: lighter. But he soon discovers that along with his soul he has lost the ability to act, a problem made all the more pertinent when his soul goes missing from its storage locker.

Barthes has set herself a very ambitious, if not impossible goal, in telling a story that takes the essentially indefinable human soul as its central subject. What is most impressive then, is how enjoyable and entertaining Cold Souls is, in that she tackles this subject in a way that is considered and meaningful but, more significantly, very funny. While Barthes offers plenty to chew on for those who enjoy pondering such things, her film works equally well as an absurd comedy; she has obviously learned from Woody Allen’s films that if you want to seriously attack the biggest questions of life, your best ammunition is a ready stash of jokes. And although on a few occasions she seems on the verge of whirling into philosophical irrelevances, each time she throws in a new plot twist that pulls focus back onto the character and his plight.

She’s invaluably aided by Giamatti, who brilliantly handles the demands of the role, investing a perfect balance of sincerity and humour into what could easily have been a ridiculous scenario. Emily Watson is also great in a small role as Giamatti’s wife Claire, the plain normality of her performance serving to keep the fantastical story grounded. When Giamatti finally confesses to her what has happened she responds with believable incredulity, and we find ourselves identifying with her in spite of the inherently absurd situation.

There are clear overlaps with Barthes’s ideas and methods and the kinds of themes that Charlie Kaufman has so uniquely explored from Being John Malkovich onwards, but Barthes’s film is no rip-off. Where Kaufman’s works tend towards pessimism, Barthes is ultimately interested in finding a hopeful conclusion to this soulish exploration. Her story keeps us laughing, but it also subtly digs into more profound areas, concluding with what could be the beginning of a beautiful, soulful, friendship.


Cold Souls is released in the UK on 13 November. This review originally appeared on

Sunday 8 November 2009

Bright Star (

This period drama from Jane Campion, director of The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady, dramatises the short, chaste and intense romance between the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his neighbour, the seamstress Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), in the three years leading up to his death from tuberculosis aged only 25. While Campion’s previous films have had a cold precision about them (not necessarily a bad thing), Bright Star is the complete opposite: warm, achingly romantic and sometimes breathtaking in its visual beauty. It is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year.

The central relationship is set up with a feisty meeting between Fanny and an equally self-confident Keats, in which she gives an outspoken critique of one of his poems. After this confrontational meeting there is a clear attraction between them, but Campion concentrates on getting beneath the characters’ surfaces, spending a lot of time on quieter moments between them, capturing looks and touches that speak much louder than their words.

The love between Fanny and Keats is under attack from the moment it begins, most forcefully from Keats’s fellow poet Brown (Paul Schneider), who seems to harbour a jealous love of his own, fearing that Fanny will destroy his and Keats’s pure creative partnership. Both Whishaw and Schneider play the idealistic Romantics without a hint of irony, sternly telling their neighbours not to disturb them, even if they seem not to be working, because “thinking is our working; we are opening ourselves up to inspiration”. There is great pleasure to be had in watching these ‘men from another time’ so fervently pursuing what they see as their duty to the world.

Campion, as both writer and director, presents the affair itself as a Romantic poem brought to life, moving from one extreme of emotion to the next. From Fanny’s absolute contentment as she sits in a field reading a letter from Keats, to her inconsolable weeping as she hears of his death, each moment is captured and created with affecting immediacy. Credit must also go to the film’s director of photography Greig Fraser and composer Mark Bradshaw, as so much of Bright Star’s power comes from the mood that their combined work so successfully evokes.

All of Campion’s efforts would have been fruitless though, had she lacked a lead actress capable of being the ‘bright star’ that Keats wrote so fondly of. But Abbie Cornish really does shine under the camera’s lingering gaze, conveying Fanny’s clear-eyed love, longing and passion. Her performance is the highlight of this true cinematic pleasure.


Bright Star is out now in UK cinemas. This review originally published on

Thursday 5 November 2009

Jennifer's Body (

When Juno became such a huge hit in 2007, it announced the arrival of several exciting new talents, the most heralded of whom was the film’s writer, Diablo Cody. Cody went on to win that year’s screenwriting Oscar, and wasted no time in getting on with more work: writing a very well-received, Spielberg-produced TV series called United States of Tara, and developing a handful of film scripts while seemingly keeping many more ideas swilling around in her mind. Jennifer’s Body is the first of these scripts to make it to the screen, and while it is unmistakeably from the same witty and culturally aware mind as Juno, it falls short of the high bar that Cody set for herself with that excellent debut.

Jennifer’s Body is, on the surface at least, another high-school horror movie. And with FHM’s favourite lust-object Megan Fox in the role of Jennifer, along with that suggestive title, it would be natural to expect the kind of bog-standard pervy exploitation that contemporary ‘horror’ tends to present as entertainment. But apart from one shamelessly gratuitous girl-on-girl kissing scene, this is not what Jennifer’s Body offers. The problem is that neither Cody nor director Karyn Kusama seem sure of what they want this film to be instead. It’s funny in parts, but not consistently so; it dabbles in Lynchian weirdness, but never fully commits; it’s fairly gory, but lacks any proper scary bits.

Retold to us by Needy (Amanda Seyfried), the plainer best friend of Jennifer, chief cheerleader and object of desire at their small-town high school, the story concerns Jennifer’s transformation from metaphorical to literal man-eater after a tragic fire destroys the town’s only bar during a busy gig night. Needy relates events from the women’s prison we first find her in, beginning with the great line “hell is a teenage girl”. Cody’s idea of paralleling female adolescence with demon-possession shows that she understands how powerful the horror genre can be, but her tendency to defuse situations with annoyingly quirky dialogue undercuts the film’s potential to genuinely disturb an audience.

Similarly, Cody introduces an interesting subtext about the irrational extremes people can go to in the aftermath of tragedies, but keeps it fairly buried and undeveloped. The one element of the film that really works is the slow reveal of just what has caused Jennifer’s transformation, thanks to a very funny joke concerning a no-hoper indie band and a great deadpan performance from Adam Brody as the lead singer. To go into any more detail would spoil the gag, but it certainly made me chuckle. That idea shares the spark of originality that pervaded Juno, and hopefully there will be more of it in evidence in whatever Cody does next.


Jennifer's Body is in UK cinemas from 6 November. This review originally appeared on

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Film Education: The Wave

Today I was at the Cameo cinema in Edinburgh to take part in an event organised by Film Education as part of National Schools Film Week. I introduced a screening of The Wave, the 2008 film from German director Dennis Gansel, for a group of about 40-50 secondary school students, and also led a brief discussion with them after the film. I've been wanting to get involved in doing things like this for a while, so when Film Education got in touch with me I jumped at the chance.

The screening seemed to go very well, and it was evident from their contributions to the post-screening discussion that most of the pupils (all 4th-6th years) had really engaged with the film while they were watching it, and picked up on Gansel's intentions. The Wave is actually a great film with which to introduce mainstream cinema-goers to foreign language films, as it is fast-paced and stylishly shot, but there's real substance beneath its flashy surfaces. It focuses on a schoolteacher who decides to teach his students about autocracy by running the class according to the principles of a fascist regime, and explores the way in which this project affects everyone involved. The story is based on a novel that was itself based on a real event – or experiment – that a teacher called Ron Jones did with his students in a California high school in 1967, and the results that we see in the film are quite disturbing, and apparently very similar to what happened in the real life situation.

I think it's great that Film Education put these screenings on for free for schools, as they very effectively present film as being much more than just a 'switching-off' form of entertainment for the audiences who come along. This is important for the generation that's growing up right now, as they are constantly bombarded with entertainment purely for its own sake. It was evident from my experience today that young people will gladly embrace film for its potential to provoke discussion and allow them to see the world through fresh eyes, and I'm keen to be involved in encouraging that kind of film-watching wherever possible.

Here is a great Guardian article on the real event that The Wave is based on.

Here's my original review of The Wave on
, although I think I have less of a problem with its 'based-on-truth' claims now than I seemed to then!