Sunday 19 December 2010

Gulliver's Travels review (The List, Issue 673)

In the ten years since his breakout performance as John Cusack’s slacker workmate in High Fidelity, Jack Black has become a big name movie star, but his CV is surprisingly short of hits. Only Richard Linklater’s family comedy School of Rock has managed to showcase Black’s wisecracking, music-loving personality in a way that both audiences and critics have warmed to. Gulliver’s Travels is an attempt by Black, who co-produced the film, to create a similarly successful vehicle for his talents, but it is a weak, forgettable comedy, bearing little resemblance to Swift’s classic satire. Black seems uninspired by his own movie, going through the motions, and while the film scrapes by as undemanding family entertainment, there is not much to recommend about it.

Black plays Gulliver, a mail clerk at the Washington Post who accepts a travel writing assignment from the editor he has a crush on (Amanda Peet), and ends up shipwrecked in Lilliput, land of tiny people. After being captured by General Edward Edwardian (Chris O’Dowd) and the Lilliputian army, Gulliver earns the favour of the King and Queen (Billy Connolly and Catherine Tate) by saving Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) from a kidnap attempt. He becomes Lilliput’s official protector, but Edwardian sets out to discover the truth about Gulliver and bring him down.

The script’s endless pop culture references suggest that the film was conceived as a satire on celebrity, but the whole thing is played with such winking self-awareness by all involved that subtlety doesn’t get a look in. Only Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) gives a straight performance as the humble everyman who loves the princess, and he seems to be the only comedian involved who really understood what this film needed to make it funny. Someone who clearly doesn’t understand comedy is the film’s director Rob Letterman, who brings no sense of comic unity to any part of the film: the overall impression is that Letterman left each actor to play their part however they felt best, while he paid more attention to the complex visual effects required to put it all together.


Gulliver's Travels is released on Boxing Day, Sunday 26th December. This review first published in The List magazine.

Friday 17 December 2010

Tron: Legacy and Fred: The Movie reviews (Radio Scotland Movie Cafe)

Listen to my reviews of new cinema releases Tron Legacy and Fred: The Movie

Tron: Legacy is basically the best music video you’ve ever seen. The visuals are stunning, and the revelation of the world is played out to Daft Punk’s atmospheric score. But despite its awesome looks and sounds, the game world and its occupants are not quite the never-before-seen spectacle that may have been hoped for, and the plot is a sub-Matrix rip-off that steals ideas and scenes from Star Wars, Blade Runner and even Lord of the Rings to name a few.

But Tron is infinitely better than Fred: The Movie, which wins my worst movie of 2010 award. Listen to the reviews to find out why!

Tron: Legacy and Fred: The Movie are in cinemas now.
Listen to the reviews here

Thursday 9 December 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader review (

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books set a particular challenge to filmmakers and audiences who are accustomed to film series that tell a single continuous story (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight etc.). The constant factor in Lewis’s seven books is not the story but the location, and each book tells a story that, as well as being a stand-alone adventure, increases the reader’s understanding of what kind of world Narnia is. Director Andrew Adamson did a pretty good job of transferring the basic stories of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) and Prince Caspian (2008) to the big screen, but both of his films failed to really explore or in any way explain Narnia, beyond the initial revelation of it being a wonderful, magical place.

For this third trip there’s a change of personnel behind the camera as veteran director Michael Apted takes over from Adamson (who now oversees in a producer capacity), but while Apted ensures that Dawn Treader features a lot more exploring of Narnia, there still isn’t much explaining; logical plot progression is decidedly not one of this story’s strengths. To be fair, the point of the magic of Narnia is that it is mysterious and inexplicable, but for much of the time in Dawn Treader there is not even a clear explanation as to why the Pevensie children have been summoned to Narnia once more.

The story begins with the two younger Pevensies, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), being transported to Narnia in spectacular fashion, through a magical picture frame, with their spoiled brat cousin Eustace (Son of Rambow’s Will Poulter) in tow. Once there they find themselves on board the Dawn Treader, the longboat captained by Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) with the able assistance of swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg, replacing Eddie Izzard) and his crew. Caspian is on a quest to find seven lords who were banished during the reign of tyrannical King Miraz, and invites the children to join him. From there the story unfolds as a series of smaller stories, each taking place on a different island in Narnia and involving one of the characters having to overcome a specific personal temptation in order to succeed.

There is fun to be had with this story, and Apted doesn’t try to disguise its freewheeling nature. In fact, the character of Eustace spends much of the first half of the film incredulous at the increasingly far-fetched turns of events, a function that Poulter carries off pretty well (until a particularly crazy twist literally transforms his performance). But more so than the previous two films, Dawn Treader is a film that is best-suited to younger audiences. With its simplistic moral boundaries, episodic story and broad characterisation, it’s not a film that has anything like the thematic weight of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but what it does offer is a fun and exciting (but not too scary) time at the movies for kids.


The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is in UK cinemas now. This review first published on

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Monsters interview feature (The List, Issue 683)

Paul Gallagher talks to the director and stars of brilliant new sci-fi horror Monsters

‘Doing visual effects for a living is like being a gynaecologist’, says Gareth Edwards, ‘when you do it every day at work, it doesn’t turn you on any more.’ So he decided to stop staring at pixels and pick up a camera. The result is Monsters, one of the most unique and surprising films of the year, an ingenious mix of indie romance, sci-fi road movie and CG trickery that positions Edwards as his generation’s answer to James Cameron. All he wanted was to reclaim visual effects from the blockbusters: ‘I really hate watching Hollywood films where you can tell they’ve made lots of effects people break their backs to do these shots, but the final emotional impact is nothing. So it was really important for me to put the record straight: what I did with this film is not technically groundbreaking, but I hope the choices that were made were to be bold and throw away visual effects, not make a big deal of them.’ Monsters takes place in an alternate, alien-invaded earth, but Edwards’ focus remains on two human characters, travelling through the Mexican ‘infected zone’ throughout: ‘My favourite bits in the film are when you have these crazy visual spectacles, and as a cameraman I’m more interested in this couple. I hope that’s infectious for the audience.’

The couple are real-life husband and wife actors Scoot McNairy (In Search of a Midnight Kiss) and Whitney Able, who signed up for Edwards’ improvised Mexico shoot on the strength of one meeting and a 12-page plot treatment. ‘He’s a mad genius’, says McNairy, emphasising the mad: ‘We were down in Mexico City and Gareth needed people in gas masks, and this was just when swine flu came out. Gareth was like “this is amazing, everyone’s wearing masks, it’s perfect!” And Whitney and I were like, “well yes, but we don’t want to get swine flu and die”’. The seat-of-the-pants nature of the shoot was an ideal form of marriage preparation for the then-dating couple though: ‘I’m a huge outdoors guy’, says McNairy, ‘and I thought, if she can make it through this production – cos it’s going to be hell – I could definitely spend the rest of my life with her!’ For her part, Able relished the chance to do something that broke her out of the traditional confines of her stunning movie star looks: ‘Most [directors] want to put me in a box, being blonde and blue-eyed, so I was really excited to get a chance to show another side of myself.’ Edwards was clearly impressed: ‘It’s the Scoot and Whitney show, and I can’t imagine this film with anyone else.’

Monsters is on general release from Fri 3 Dec. This feature first published in The List magazine.