Tuesday 19 January 2010

The Boys Are Back (futuremovies.co.uk)

The title is misleading, as it’s not actually the boys who have gone missing; it’s the girls. In fact, it’s one girl in particular, Katy, who tragically dies of cancer at the start of this story, leaving the grieving and clueless Joe to raise Artie, the 6-year old son he hardly knows. It’s a traumatic and potentially devastating opening, but director Scott Hicks grounds its telling in matter-of-fact reality rather than initially dwelling on the heart-tugging potential. This is based on a true-life story after all, and the thing about real life is that it keeps on going.

The question for Joe is how he and Artie will keep going, and the answers he comes up with - adopting a ‘just say yes’ policy to parenting and resolving to become everything that Artie needs – allow Hicks to celebrate manly “hog heaven” living while also effectively presenting Joe and Artie as two boys who don’t know how to express themselves to each other. Their stumbling attempts to achieve domestic harmony are further complicated by the arrival of Harry, Joe’s teenage son from his first marriage.

Clive Owen, the film’s star, is not an actor of great range; no matter what movie he’s in he always looks the same and talks the same. But he has powerful screen presence and can imbue lines with genuine movie star gravitas, and in this respect he is rare among British leading men – there aren’t many others who could reasonably hold their own opposite Julia Roberts with star-wattage on full beam, as Owen did in last year’s Duplicity. His performance as Joe in The Boys Are Back not only gives the film a strong emotional centre but also keeps it out of overly sentimental territory. Alan Cubitt’s screenplay offers plenty of moments that a less confident actor would milk for emotional impact, but Owen doesn’t go for these easy options, he holds back, and the character is all the more believable, and the story more truthful, for it.

That’s not to say that the film is without weak points. Hicks combines beautiful cinematography and overly intrusive music to create a very safe atmosphere, so although the story is one with high stakes, it never has a sense of genuine drama – we never doubt that things will be okay by the time we leave the theatre. A little more tension and some stronger crisis points would have made this a more realistic tale.

But Hicks, who guided Geoffrey Rush to the Best Actor Oscar in his most notable previous film, Shine, is obviously very good at judging how to get the best from his actors, and deserves a lot of credit for creating two very believable father-son relationships in this film. In particular, the development of Joe’s relationship with Artie is moving and genuine, as we follow them from virtual strangers to something like brothers to a strongly interdependent father and son.


This review first published on futuremovies.co.uk.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Up in the Air

Jason Reitman's third film, and first since his breakout hit Juno, is an enjoyable, quality production in classical Hollywood style, with George Clooney perfectly cast and complemented by terrific support performances from Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga. Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a man who makes his living by firing employees for clients across America, and spends most of his time flying from state to state, ensuring that he never has to maintain meaningful relationships with family or friends. He exists alone and likes it that way. The fact that we don’t instantly hate him is due to Clooney’s charmingly self-aware performance and director Jason Juno Reitman’s skill in getting the tone of the film just right. It’s light and easygoing, but there’s depth and reality to each of the characters, right down to a heartbreaking single-scene appearance from JK Simmons, which takes us right into his character’s life in a few brief moments.

Kendrick plays a new employee shaking things up in Bingham’s industry, while Farmiga, clicking with Clooney in all the right ways, is Bingham’s equal and opposite. The way Reitman brings these three characters together is skilful and supremely entertaining. As with Juno, the director demonstrates his ability to not only understand the touchstones of contemporary life in the Western world, but to get beneath these characters’ surfaces – particularly Clooney and Kendrick – in ways that are believable and insightful. The film is also very funny, and while the final third lacks the grace and ease of the first 70 minutes, Up in the Air is a wonderful example of grown-up mainstream cinema.


Thursday 14 January 2010

The Richard Attenborough Film Awards

These awards, snappily abbreviated to the RAFAs, were set up four years ago as a way for regional film critics like me to name their favourite film of the year. Because, y'know, even though there's a gazillion awards in the world already, it's important for us to have one of our own too. Honest. Anyway, it's been very successful and expanded last year to include a public vote section, in which voting is currently open until the end of January for cinemagoers to vote in nine different award categories for films released in the UK in 2009. All with the patronage of the quite wonderful Lord Attenborough himself.

All the info on the public voting categories can be found here, or if you're a UK regional film critic you can vote here.

The winners will be revealed at the end of the month, so I guess I'd better get my votes in. Transformers 2, anyone?

That's a joke, by the way. Please don't vote for Transformers 2. Please.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

MiShorts: Critic's Choice

If you're interested in short films, there's a wealth of them available on the MiShorts website, which I have written the Critic's Choice reviews for this month. The site splits all its films into 12 generic categories to make it easier to find stuff, and while it's still a bit of a pot-luck as to what you're gonna get, overall it is a valuable showcase for this often-overlooked film form.

The four films I chose to highlight are the documentary Crutchmaster (pictured), a music video called A Bit of Education, an interesting comedy called Is It Me? and Oasis Terminal, a derivative but accomplished sci-fi.

Read my reviews on the MiShorts site

Thursday 7 January 2010

Preview: Kick-Ass (futuremovies.co.uk)

Matthew Vaughn was destined to get to superheroes eventually. After an eleventh-hour exit from directing the third X-Men outing in 2005, he side-stepped into the fantasy genre, successfully adapting Neil Gaiman's playful novel Stardust (with a very starry cast to boot), and revealed a flair for tongue-in-cheek comedy; quite a change from his efficient and brutally violent debut, Layer Cake. It appears that comic books were still close to his heart though, as his forthcoming third feature is an adaptation of Kick-Ass, an ongoing comics series by Scottish writer Mark Millar and American artist John Romita Jr. Described by Millar as 'Spider-Man meets Superbad', Kick-Ass appears to fit Vaughn's established styles perfectly, taking a cheeky sideways glance at the superhero genre and layering it with blood-gushing violence.

The title refers to the superhero name that ordinary kid Dave Lizewski assumes when he decides to put on a home-made costume and become a crime fighter. This decision is prompted by a question: how come, out of all the billions of people in the world, no-one has ever actually tried to do what the guys in the comics do? Dave decides to give it a shot, and is predictably laughed at and beaten up by the criminals he tries to stop. But in taking that first step he becomes aware of others who are out there doing the same thing, and while they're all just as 'normal' as Dave, they're a little bit more prepared for action.

Those with memory spans of over five minutes might be thinking that we've been here before, not even 12 months ago, with Zack Snyder's stylised epic Watchmen. While it's true that the basic themes of ordinary people donning capes and 18-rated violence flies pretty close to the hallmarks of Snyder's divisive hit, from the footage I've seen of Kick-Ass the key difference here is in the tone. Where Watchmen was deadly serious and played out on a global canvas, Kick-Ass seems to be pitched somewhere between playful and silly, and has a much more focused, personal storyline. In fact, the film it appears most comparable to is Kill Bill: Vol. 1; as well as the aforementioned spraying blood, Vaughn has opted for a primary-coloured visual palette reminiscent of Bill, and the snippets of dialogue I heard positively fizzed with self-consciously Tarantino-esque wit.

That dialogue, penned by Vaughn and his Stardust co-writer Jane Goldman, is one of the film's most potentially controversial points, particularly in the amount of expletives uttered by Hit Girl, a 12-year old sword-swinger you definitely wouldn't want to mess with (played by up-and-coming actress Chloe Moretz, last seen as Joe Gordon Levitt's worldly-wise little sister in (500) Days of Summer). The UK's easily excited movie magazines, along with the film's distributors Universal, are already celebrating this censor-baiting aspect of Kick-Ass, and even using it as a selling point, but I am yet to be convinced that it is anything more than a gimmick, and a bad taste one at that. Of course, Hit Girl's dialogue may yet prove to be an essential element of the character and perfectly justifiable within the context; we'll have to wait and see.

Regardless of such controversies, what is clear now is that Vaughn deserves praise for even getting this film made. Having received no studio backing, he raised funds independently, attracted a great mix of new and established acting talent - from hot young lead Aaron Johnson to old pro in need of a kick-start Nicolas Cage - and has not compromised on creating the film he originally had in mind. Let's hope it's worth the effort.

Kick-Ass is released in UK cinemas on April 2nd. This preview first appeared on futuremovies.co.uk.