Thursday 29 April 2010

Iron Man 2 (

It seems unthinkable now, but back in 2008, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was something of a gamble. It was a huge step up in scale for the filmmaker, and even more so for his star, the temperamental character actor Robert Downey Jr. They played to their strengths, and the result was something like movie magic: Downey’s excellent performance boosted him into the movie stratosphere, he followed it with a hilarious Oscar-nominated turn in Tropic Thunder and cemented his status as box office gold in the much-loved Sherlock Holmes. Favreau had succeeded in pleasing audiences and critics alike by putting some fun back into the superhero genre - a nice counterpoint to the sombre Dark Knight that same year - and he was quickly entrusted with the Iron Man sequel.

The question was, after the original’s unconventional ending in which the hero revealed his secret identity, where would Tony Stark’s story go next? The answer, as provided here by Favreau and writer Justin Theroux is “nowhere particularly interesting”. Despite - or perhaps because of - having an embarrassingly great cast in place, including all the original stars (except for Terrence Howard, cheekily replaced by Don Cheadle) and new and equally well-chosen additions Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson, Favreau has lost the emphasis on character that made the first film so compelling. Instead this film offers a series of carefully-planned, effects-heavy sequences strung together with slapdash storytelling, underdeveloped character ideas and the occasional funny line of dialogue.

It starts promisingly, noticeably darker than Iron Man left off, introducing Rourke’s embittered Russian scientist Ivan Venko, and presenting Stark as even more narcissistic than before. After some plodding courtroom banter over the legality of Stark holding onto “the Iron Man weapon”, Favreau zips location to the glitz of the Monaco grand prix and unleashes a killer set-piece. Cars fly across the screen and Rourke steps out from a huge explosion cloud like a laser-whip-wielding angel of death; it’s ridiculous, but enjoy it, because it’s as exciting as Iron Man 2 gets. After establishing Venko as a villain capable of doing some real damage, Favreau shifts the focus onto Stark’s business rival Justin Hammer (Rockwell), and Venko becomes a surprisingly controlled screen presence. The film never recovers from that shift, as Favreau fails to make it clear who the main bad guy is, what kind of threat they pose and to whom.

There is the suggestion in the film’s first half that the greatest threat to Tony Stark may be himself, both in terms of his super-powered technology and his self-destructive temperament. This is the direction that Favreau had hinted that he might take the Stark character, but it remains just a hint in this film, with Stark comfortably overcoming such pressures without much drama.

Curiously, Favreau sets all of the aerial action at night, meaning it’s often hard to make out what Iron Man is actually up to when he’s flying around. Much more satisfying is a late-in-the-game punch-up between Scarlett Johansson’s Natalie and a host of security guards, in which the slinky actress demonstrates a previously untapped skill for bone-breaking martial arts. The scene is tightly edited and has a neat and funny payoff. It’s a reminder of what  Favreau can do, and the rest of the film would have benefited from a similarly disciplined approach.


Iron Man 2 is in cinemas now. This review first published on  

Wednesday 21 April 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

While Dreamworks’ Shrek franchise continues to earn more money with each inferior addition to its series, the studio’s animation filmmakers are showing signs in other areas that they may yet be able to rival Pixar in the quality stakes. Last year their Monsters vs. Aliens was laugh-out-loud hilarious and made great use of imaginative characters, and How To Train Your Dragon is even better. It’s a really well told story full of heart, action and comedy and it’s refreshingly free of the pop-culture in-jokes that have so often been Dreamworks’ lazy standby.

Based on a novel by Cressida Cowell, the film centres on Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a clumsy teenage Viking whose tribe lives a perilous existence in the village of Berk, perched on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the sea and continually under attack from vicious dragons. Hiccup excels at inventing but is useless with an axe, and his father Stoic (Gerard Butler), head of the tribe and also Berk’s premier dragon-slayer, is resigned to the fact that his son will never follow him into battle. When Hiccup amazingly succeeds in shooting down a dragon with one of his inventions he determines to secretly kill it and prove his worth as a warrior. But when he finds the trapped dragon he discovers not only that he can’t bring himself to kill it, but that the dragons may actually be much more friendly than the tribe believes.

The story follows the well-worn ‘young innocent secretly befriends the enemy’ formula with all the plot-turns you would expect, but filmmakers Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders tell it without irony, prioritising strong characterisation, and the film is genuinely engaging and moving as a result. Added to this they create some thrilling flying sequences and an intense action finale, representing arguably the best use of new-style 3D in animation yet.
The film also features great voice acting, with Gerard Butler in particular giving his most recognisably human performance in years as Stoic. He was clearly born to play warriors, and not much else!

How To Train Your Dragon is out now.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Centurion & Valhalla Rising (The Movie Cafe)

Neil Marshall's Centurion (with Michael Fassbender, pictured) and Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising were under discussion on this week's Movie Cafe on BBC Radio Scotland, with myself and Miles Fielder talking with host Pasquale Iannone about the appeal of shooting in Scotland, where both of these historical action movies were made, as well as giving our thoughts on the relative merits of each film.

The programme is available to listen to here until Thursday 22nd April, and the Centurion/Valhalla Rising discussion begins at about the 32 minute mark.

The show also features an interview with Martin Compston about his new movie The Disappearance of Alice Creed, plus an experienced ghost writer giving his perspective on Roman Polanski's The Ghost. All good stuff.

Centurion is released nationwide on 23rd April, Valhalla Rising has a limited release on 30th April, with a DVD release soon after.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Whip It (

From infant star to wild-child persona to cutesy rom-com stalwart backed by a shrewd business sensibility, Drew Barrymore has continually found new ways to win audiences’ affections. And with her first film as director she maintains that track record, gathering a fantastic cast and making an unashamedly fun and feelgood movie, and putting something clearly close to her heart onscreen in the process. She places a niche women’s sport – Roller Derby - front and centre, but Whip It is no chick-flick on wheels; its mix of sporting action, silly humour and memorable characters will appeal to anyone who loves a good time at the cinema. The former Charlie’s Angel also scores a bullseye with the casting of leading lady Ellen Page, an actress who has such a likeable onscreen presence that no audience could help but cheer her on.

Page plays Bliss Cavendar, an average 17-year old from smalltown Texas who discovers the punk-infused appeal of Roller Derby and, despite the expectations of her beauty pageant-obsessed mother, secretly starts taking part. While the role isn’t as unique or challenging as those that she so brilliantly performed in Juno and Hard Candy, Page makes Bliss completely her own, and effortlessly draws the audience in, even in the context of this rather formulaic story. Her achievement is no small one considering that she’s surrounded by a wealth of endlessly watchable actresses, including Juliette Lewis, hugely entertaining as jokey nemesis Iron Maven, and ace comedienne Kristen Wiig, who gets a rare chance to play a slightly more serious role, and proves herself well able. Barrymore keeps the most broadly comic part for herself, and has a great time crashing into things and punching people as the short-fused, accident-prone, wonderfully-named Smashley Simpson.

Working from a script by Shauna Cross, who also wrote the source novel, Barrymore lets some of the domestic scenes hang around for too long, but directs with energy and confidence on the track. Getting her camera right in amongst the fishnets and mini-skirts, she gets a great balance of intensity and fun, and successfully builds to a final event that feels properly exciting. Jimmy Fallon, a former Barrymore co-star and a fine comedian, adds more laughs into the mix as trackside commentator Johnny Rocket, and aptly sums up the film’s easygoing approach to explaining Roller Derby’s rules: “we’ll keep track of the score, you keep track of the fishnets”.

While Whip It’s plot is aptly summed up in the title of Radiohead’s No Surprises - one of the many great choices on the film’s excellent soundtrack – it doesn’t really matter; the real enjoyment is in seeing this great cast on supremely entertaining form. With Page easily handling what little dramatic weight there is, the support players are free to focus on being funny, and they give it their all. Deserving particularly special mention is Andrew Wilson, who plays Razor, the girls’ coach. He very accurately sets the tone of the film in his performance, a deft balance of sincerity, hope and silliness. And that’s not a bad summary of what Drew Barrymore has served up with Whip It.


Whip It is out now. This review first published on

Friday 2 April 2010

Whip It - Let the good times roll (The List)

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, is the high-octane story of indie-rock misfit Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) who escapes small town family life by joining the US roller derby circuit. But does the film get close to capturing the real excitement of the sport? In the spirit of our Glasgow vs Edinburgh issue we’ve asked old rivals (actually firm friends) the Glasgow Irn Bruisers and the Auld Reekie Roller Girls to pass comment. Interviews by Paul Gallagher and Paul Dale.

Irn Bruisers

What did you think of the film?

Lethal Loulou: I think it’s brilliant and I think everybody should go and see it! It’s really feel-good, and shows why roller derby is so awesome; how it lets you put such confidence in yourself. That’s what the whole film’s about, because everyone’s trying to force Bliss into being a beauty pageant queen, and she secretly goes off and plays roller derby and ‘finds herself’ and then has the guts to say ‘this is who I am’.

Coco Pox: If it was a film about a boys’ sport, we’ve all seen that kind of thing before, but this is a women’s sport, where a woman is the hero and the romance stuff takes a back seat. And she doesn’t go off into the sunset; she goes off to the derby!

Poison Delight: It is Hollywood-ised, definitely, but there are some elements that are quite true, like the reasons people get into roller derby, and that feeling you get when you’re with a bunch of girls that you have a lot in common with.

Sarah McMilan: It wasn’t as good as Juno, but it was a step above the generic sports film. I saw the trailer for it the other night and shivered again; every time I hear her say ‘I’m in love with this’ I get goosebumps.

Was it a fair representation of the roller derby scene?

Lethal Loulou: It was really good for showing what it’s like in America. It’s growing in popularity. Hundreds of people support teams and they have special warehouses where they can go and train and play games. We’re starting to get there and hopefully in a couple of years that might be us getting our own warehouse.

Sarah McMilan: The age range of the players in the film is great. You have people like Juliette Lewis and Drew Barrymore who are my age – mid 30s – and that’s very representative. Our team’s ages go up to 43, and that’s the wonderful thing about roller derby, it’s for all women of all shapes and sizes and ages.

Was there anything in particular that you wished it had included?

Sarah McMilan: I think some bits in it were unnecessary. But it’s a Hollywood film, so it’s a good idea to make it look glamorous and exciting and a bit offbeat. We don’t punch people though! Don’t get me wrong, it’s a full-contact sport, but you don’t punch anyone.

Coco Pox: [tongue-in-cheek] That’s for the after-party.

Do you think the actors could survive on a Glasgow track?

Lethal Loulou: Yeah I do. I think they could give us a good run for our money! A lot of the skaters in the film are actually real skaters, so it’s a real representation of the girls who play derby.

Coco Pox: I think that backs up the tag line, ‘Be your own hero.’ It’s not cartoon superheroes, it’s real people, and there they are on-screen. And you can tell the actresses from the real skaters from the thickness of their thighs!

Who would play you in a roller derby movie?

Coco Pox: Sarah would be played by that Gladiator, Jet!

Lethal Loulou: I think it would be hard to find an actress tall enough to play me.

Coco Pox: Maybe Lucy Lawless, from Xena: Warrior Princess?

Poison Delight: I would need to be someone short …

Sarah McMilan: Ellen Page, perhaps?

Poison Delight: Well she can skate already, so yeah!

Coco Pox: Meryl Streep for me, because I’ve got a weird accent and the same nose as her. And she’s about 60, proving you don’t have to be young to play roller derby!

Auld Reekie Roller Girls

What did you think of the film?

Bruise Leigh: To be honest I didn’t like the film. It was a kind of chick flick with roller derby in it, which isn’t really my thing. But apart from that I didn’t think it was very accurate. There was a lot of bitchiness and cattiness in Whip It which is the antithesis of what roller derby is about. This the most open and welcoming group of girls and we have a policy of no bitching, no back-stabbing and that’s totally the way it is.

On the plus side I suppose it didn’t make it glossy; all the outfits were still really shoddy and they got the DIY aspect of the sport right. And the line where one of the characters says ‘I’m in love with this’ rings true.

Was it a fair representation of the roller derby scene?

Candy Savage: If you see it for what it is – an American-made, Hollywood type film – it’s fine. It’s a sort of fun Sunday afternoon film. In the film they play more the derby that was played in the 1970s with a banked track. They could have portrayed it as it’s played now because it’s just as dramatic. I did, however, love Juliette Lewis in the film, she was awesome. The film’s pretty funny and has got some kick-ass girls.

Armalite Angie: I’m a bigger girl and roller derby is one of those sports where bigger girls can be included as long as you are physically able to take part and the film didn’t really reflect players like me. There’s also no upper age limit.

Roller derby is predominantly a female sport but we have committees set up and there is never any internal fighting and there is no discrimination. Girls don’t pick on girls or do any of that kind of stuff that happens in the film. What happens on the track stays on the track. The depiction of hedonism and extra curricular activities in the film is pretty accurate though. We have themed parties and really let our hair down after a tournament.

Was there anything in particular that you wished it had included?

Candy Savage: The real story should have been how we all find our inner roller derby girl. I’m Hannah in real life, but here I’m Candy Savage. I stand differently, sit differently … living out that persona is a big part of the sport. They could have just showed that story. They didn’t have to use the whole beauty pageant storyline. I’m surprised the film has got such a big release. It needed a bit more bite. Barrymore was playing it safe.

Do you think Whip It will raise the profile of the sport?

Armalite Angie: I’m hoping the film is going to make people more aware. I speak to people every day and they have no idea what we do. They think we line skate and play hockey basically. The sport is the same but they play on a banked track and you can go over the top but for us the only way is to go down.

Whip It is on general release from Fri 9 Apr. This article first published in The List magazine.