Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Harry Hill Movie

Fool on the Hill

Best Jim Broadbent cameo ever! A unique accolade, I grant you, but one in which The Harry Hill Movie can esteem great pride. In later times little else will distinguish this bland TV to cinema switch from the many similar failures discarded in Britain’s film archive. The Mike Leigh veteran (an Oscar winner, no less) plays an affable cleaning lady at a nuclear power station. Many more odd spectacles are provided by the mad-cap comic but Broadbent’s unexpected appearance is certainly the most endearing.

As a television project, Hill’s extended gag reel might have been an easygoing piece of light entertainment. Paying for it as part of the ‘cinematic experience’, on the other hand, is a waste of time and money. Hill is a fun, enthusiastic and original comedian but even his most ardent fan would struggle to defend ninety minutes of his antics.

Harry and his sprightly Nana (Julie Walters) live in the tranquillity of British suburbia until their pet hamster, Abu, becomes ill. The loyal pet is given a week to live by an evil vet (Simon Bird) so the whole family set off on a luxury holiday to Blackpool as a farewell treat. Waiting for them in Lancashire is Harry’s despicable twin brother Otto (Matt Lucas).

With a paper thin plot the team of writers have free license to dive into joke galore. Among the better sequences Julie Walters raps, giant carnivorous brains chase the protagonists in an homage to Jurassic Park and the warring brothers scale Blackpool tower for a climactic finale. Then, of course, Mr Broadbent makes his glorious entrance.

Who doesn’t want to see a chicken firing a machine gun? Colonel Sanders may have a few reservations but otherwise its fun, silly and harmless humour. In isolation such jokes are mildly amusing. Unfortunately, repeated exposure to this neutral style becomes tiring rather quickly. A poultry premise, indeed.

This orchestra needs more than one note to play with. As silly as the set pieces may appear, the script is far too restrained and conservative. There is nothing in the story to test the production budget or invite character depth into the proceedings.

The Harry Hill Movie, rather ironically, is no ‘movie’ in my sense of the word. Instead it is a thirty minute TV episode stretched way beyond its limit. More disappointingly, it fails to even aspire to be any more than that. Where did all the production costs go? Why can’t I see the money on screen? Show me the money, as Jerry Maguire once famously said. The Inbetweeners Movie worked with audiences because it had daring and ambition, twisting an expected formula to greater lengths. The bigger budget was there for all to see on screen, mainly through its use of an overseas location.

So why should anyone watch The Harry Hill Movie? With the exception of a delicious cameo from a British stalwart there isn't any reason to.


Saturday, 21 December 2013


 Frosty Thrills

While Pixar complacently obsess over emotionless cars and airplanes their parent company have quietly rediscovered the magic of sweet morality plays. Disney can be blamed for any number of unedifying subplots over the course of its long history (sexism, elitism, even racism) but the likes of Tangled, Wreck it Ralph and now Frozen remind us of the heart warming sentiments behind its best productions. Yes, the home of Mickey is healthier than it’s been since Julie Andrews ascended through the wind on her brolly.
The camera pans across a great ice lake. Burly bearded blokes saw and chop their way through the freeze, singing a hearty shanty as they go. Could this be the beginning of the socialist epic I’ve always dreamed about, where Disney discards its fascination with royalty and shows a romantic tale of real working people? Alas, such cinematic poetry remains within the confines of my imagination. By the next scene the focus is well and truly redirected to the usual drama of privileged princesses. Nevertheless, for once this story of aristocratic affairs provides sufficient sincerity and a formidable human sensitivity.
When Princess Elsa’s magical powers endanger her doting little sister, the royal heir is enclosed from the world in the royal palace. As the years pass, the siblings grow further apart. Even after the death of their parents the protective barrier is maintained. Elsa gradually learns to control her wintery curse until a momentary lapse causes havoc on the day of her coronation. Can the emotionally estranged princesses settle their differences before the kingdom is left to ruin?
Written full of humour and surprisingly humble charm, Elsa and Anna are worthy heroines of this fun adventure. Pixar take note: this is what your protagonists used to be like. These characters aren’t cardboard cut-outs; they have petty flaws and make stupid decisions. In fact, (whisper it) they are actually believable.
As in Tangled, the best comic relief is provided by a mute animal. Pascal the chameleon becomes Sven the reindeer, once again proving that dialogue is an overrated commodity.
Where Frozen differs from its Rapunzel-inspired predecessor is with its genuinely toe-tapping tunes. ‘Let it Go’ is sure to make an appearance on the Christmas charts and ‘Love is an Open Door’ is a hilarious take on the folly of teenage crushes. Rest assured these catchy melodies will be on the lips of many young fans for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, Lapland may well be getting a few more visitors next year. The seasonal aesthetic is a pleasing feature of the animation which shamelessly exploits the current vogue for Scandinavia, but to good effect.
Frozen is the best Disney production I have seen in a long time. If it wasn't for such stiff recent competition more plaudits may have fallen its way. However, unless you filter its young target audience into your expectations this snow-kissed picture may leave you cold.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Anchorman 2

 Still Classy

Just as it was for Elton John, Jimmy Carter and the Osmonds, the 1980s were a tough time for Ron Burgundy. Will Ferrell’s most beloved creation returns to cinema screens to chart another rise and fall of his legend.

Despite largely being overlooked by audiences when released in 2004, Anchorman has since become a phenomenal sleeper hit. No casual conversation is safe from frequent references to jazz flute and rich mahogany bookshelves. This sequel closely replicates the same winning formula to the certain delight of its many loyal fans. Anyone who can remember the real translation of ‘San Diego’ will be happy with Burgundy’s comeback to cinemas. Never mind the Avengers, what audiences have really been craving for is “News-team Assemble”.

Ron, Champ, Brian and Brick: their reunification will live longer in the memory than that time the racoon got in the photocopier.

After another bout of personal and professional disaster, Ron and his pals are hired by the world’s first 24 hours news channel. 24 hour news? I know, it’s crazy... I mean, who would watch that rubbish, right? However the team’s unique coverage changes the way current affairs is presented to the public forever.

Despite some irritatingly invasive pre-release publicity, there is no pretension to Anchorman 2. The script unashamedly parades its silliness and calls on an audience of all ages (except perhaps under 11s) to abandon their inhibitions while enjoying a surfeit of wacky material.
Ferrell is the undisputed king of character comedy; his creations always connect with good-natured humour that is never intentionally cruel or demeaning. Could any other actor get away with singing a saccharine ballad about a shark? I doubt it. No other star could even garner the same sympathy towards a character as obnoxious as Burgundy.

Confirmed fans will enjoy the return of many familiar faces and some unexpected additions to their number. Don’t worry; I won’t spoil any of the cameos, needless to say they are perfect examples of celebrity name-dropping at its most brazen - but also most effective.

Relentless the gags may be but the plot still makes some serious points about news coverage in the process. That is, the saturated reporting of human interest stories and corporate interference in the media. Anything that squares up to Rupert Murdoch has my backing (e.g. Tomorrow Never Dies). It isn’t subtle but if it had been the message probably would have passed over my head unnoticed.

Naysayers will inevitably scoff at what they deem ‘juvenile’ comedy. Well, I like it and I’m sure plenty of other pundits will strain themselves chuckling at men being struck by bowling balls and scalded by deep fat fryers.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013


State of Payne

There are few directors in Hollywood capable of making comedy-dramas with the gentle poignancy that Alexander Payne does, and his latest, Nebraska, proves no exception to his run of successful pictures. 

Themes we’ve come to expect in Payne movies are predictably and reassuringly present once more; Nebraska is another road movie, which sees David (Will Fonte) persuaded by his father and the film’s protagonist Woody (Bruce Dern) to travel all the way from their home in Montana to Nebraska to claim a million dollars, despite recognising, along with everyone else aside from Woody, that the prize is a scam.  

The pursuit of the money however turns out to be something of a MacGuffin, with the real substance of the film lying in another familiarly Payneian theme; that of the recovery of strained familial relationships. Woody, it transpires, has drunk excessively his whole life and has consequently held a distant relationship with his sons (the other, Ross, played by Breaking Bad’s Bob Obdenkirk), but David’s patient and generous spirit ensures that he is willing to try to bond with his father as they take a detour on their trip to visit Hawthorne, the small, close-knit town in which Woody grew up in. 

Bruce Dern won the best actor award at the Cannes festival last spring, and it’s easy to see why. He is quietly compelling as Woody, wearing the bemused and alternately detached and affected expression of a man apparently in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He never sentimentalises his character, but succeeds in evoking him sympathetically and humanely, and is uncommonly quiet and short of lines for a protagonist. This allows the more extroverted cast of characters revolving round him to flourish, from his bullying former business partner and nemesis Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), to his scene-stealing, matriarchal wife Kate (June Squibb, who’s granted many of the film’s best lines). 

While Payne’s previous films arguably lacked a distinctly cinematic look to them, the black and white cinematography of Nebraska lends the film a poetically understated look, in keeping with the down to earth outlook of the characters on screen. Its monochrome palate is reminiscent of the visual style of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in its sense of nostalgia for small-town America, and of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise in the plain and underwhelmed manner it depicts its landscapes (at one point David decides to stop off at Mount Rushmore, only for Woody to shrug his shoulders and complain that ‘it doesn’t look finished'). 

Finally, Nebraska is also very funny. The tone is deadpan throughout, with a selection of set-pieces that deliver particularly heavy laughs. And though Woody is something of a tragic figure, his simple and uncomplicated way of looking at life proves ripe for many more laughs. 

Crucially, the film manages to be funny without ever condescending its characters; rather, it’s the fondness it clearly reserves for them that makes the film such a poignant, funny and warm experience, and arguably, especially considering the moving pathos of the final scene, Payne’s best film to date. 


The cinematic history of: women's hair colour

In recent release Blue is the Warmest Colour, the first thing about Emma that catches protagonist Adele’s eye is her sticking blue hair.  Its distinctive colour is what singles Emma out in the busy street, and is the image Adele remembers most vividly when dreaming about her after their first encounter. The colour blue even seems to resonate in Adele’s consciousness long after Emma dyes her hair to blonde, from the clothes she chooses to wear to her symbolic bathing in the ocean.
Emma continues a recent cinematic trend of love interests whose allure comes from their unorthodox hair colour. It is Ramona Flowers’ (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) pink ‘do that infatuates Scott Pilgrim in Scott Pilgrim vs the World, while in Spike Jones’ Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Kate Winslet’s hair alternates between various colours.

On one level these extravagant colours point to the cartoonish comic book aesthetic – both Blue is the Warmest Colour and Scott Pilgrim are adapted from graphic novels, with the red locks of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in The Avengers being another example. But on another level, their atypical style indicates a free spirited mind and counter-cultural individuality, as well as earning them plenty of indie credentials.

Through their coloured hair, they rebel against and reject the labels commonly assigned to a female character sporting either blonde, brunette, red or grey hair. Such colour-coded characterisation has been engrained in Hollywood storytelling as far back as the colourless world of black and white cinema. The blonde hair of Marilyn Monroe, for instance, is crucial to both her physical beauty and her persona of innocent ignorance, while the notions of the ‘dumb blonde’ and the ‘blonde bombshell’ have always shaped the way fair-haired actresses have been perceived.

Often, as the title of Monroe’s film Gentlemen Prefers Blondes and its sequel Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, dark-haired women are presented in opposition to blondes, usually as less alluring but more intelligent and reliable. The cliché for redheads, meanwhile, is possession of a fiery temperament exemplified by Maureen O’Hara, while even the slightest hint of grey hair is of course associated with aging.  
An actress’s hair colour is sometimes perceived as of primary importance ahead of her talent for acting by certain male directors; everyone knows of Hitchcock’s obsession for casting blondes, but note also the prevalence of, for instance, brunettes in Darren Aronofsky and Tim Burton, and of blondes in David Lynch and Steven Spielberg.

Actresses are so synonymous with their hair colour that altering it can cause alarm, as when Orson Welles enraged his backers by instructing Rita Hayworth to cut and die her famously long red hair to a short blonde for The Lady from Shanghai. And dramatic haircuts still posses the power to provoke, as the media attention showered on Emma Watson, Anne Hathaway and Natalie Portman when they first showcased their Jean Seberg-esque ‘pixie cuts’ demonstrates. 

In one respect these haircuts are part of a movement in fashion, while in Hathaway’s case was necessary for her role in Les Miserables. But as a rejection of a traditional feminine haircut, they could also represent a resistance to the usual clichés surrounding hair and hair colour, and in this manner remind us again of Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine.

Through declining the conventional colours of blonde, brunette and red, actresses can reclaim their hair and express an independence free from these restrictive codes. Perhaps it won’t be too long before we are invited to see a film through the eyes of one of these alluring multi-coloured characters as a protagonist, rather than as a mysterious object of desire.  


Saturday, 14 December 2013

Top 5 British TV dramas

High Five! These are the best telly programmes this nation has ever produced. Surprise, surprise, every member of the list was commissioned by the BBC. The closest ITV came to squirming their way onto my very exclusive list is with the Cracker series (although Morse is up there too). Please add your own suggestions in the comments section below.

5. Our Friends in the North

Newcastle upon Tyne, a city stuffed with northern soul, buried in coal dust and soaked in the murky waters of an industrial river: the perfect location for a grand social saga. Peter Flannery wrote this story of four working class friends in twentieth-century Tyneside, enthused with the same nimble sensitivity to life’s pitfalls as Dickens in his prime. Each of the nine episodes is set during a general election year, charting the political character of the provincial north as well as the capital. No scandal is left ignored. Daniel Craig, Christopher Ecclestone, Mark Strong and Gina Mckee head up one of the best small screen ensembles ever assembled.

4. State of Play

In 2003 the Beeb unleashed a scathing political drama on a public disillusioned by the Iraq war and dodgy dossiers. State of Play follows a team of determined journalists exposing Whitehall corruption and justifying the existence of print media in the process. James McAvoy made his name among a cast of big-hitters like John Simm and Kelly Macdonald. Russell Crowe’s film adaptation inevitably failed to replicate the same pulsating tension.

3. Band of Brothers (BBC and HBO co-production)

As soon as the polite tones of the orchestral intro reach my ears, I return to 1945; to the frozen hell of Bastogne, the foreboding peaks of Currahee Mountain, the dark Normandy sky spotted with pale gliding parachutes. The role of America’s First Airborne from D-Day to Berlin is told with an unnerving historical accuracy. Few programmes are as poignant as this study of real people in a strange, destructive world. Every performance is worthy of praise but David Schwimmer needs to be mentioned for playing totally against type and making us feel sympathy for a very ambiguous man.

2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

John Le Carre’s superior spy narrative is beautifully encapsulated in the opening title sequence. Russian dolls are slowly peeled away but, like the story’s ultimate conclusion, has no revelatory end (see video below). All we are left with is questions without answers, a perfect example of allowing the audience to find their own explanations. None of the puzzles will make sense unless you closely consider them afterwards. The bespectacled hero, George Smiley, is portrayed with understated, minimalist sincerity by Alec Guinness. Having read the book, watched the film and viewed the series on DVD, I can safely say that the television adaptation is the definitive version of the espionage tale.

1. The Singing Detective

An unsurpassed masterpiece. A national triumph. The Singing Detective is all these things and more. Michael Gambon plays a failed writer biding his time on a dull hospital ward. His inflamed psoriasis makes him look how he feels: a furious grouch filled with bitterness and regret. The episodes serve as pieces of a majestic jigsaw, unravelling the mystery of a damaged mind. Dennis Potter’s semi-autobiographical script tackles issues of tragedy and hope with a keen honesty and self-awareness. Truth to fiction, boy to man, and memory to reality fuse in an emotive meditation on modern misery. The British idiosyncrasies are so distinct that it would be impossible for any other country to produce a story like this. Watch it and weep.


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Doctor's House Call

Story Time

The Doctor's House Call is a short film I have created over the course of the autumn term. Storytelling is a fantastic medium of informal entertainment and should be utilised more in the arts. Oral narration still has the power to shock and excite. Everyone remembers classic camp-fire tales or the ghost stories they heard as a child. This is my salute to those traditions.


Thursday, 5 December 2013

Blue is the Warmest Colour

Sacre' Bleu!

Given the revelations of the appalling treatment of cast and crew from director Abdellatif Kechiche, it is surprising to find how tender a film Blue is the Warmest Colour is. Since the film was awarded the Palme d’Or at last spring’s Cannes film festival, lead actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux have spoken of the cruel treatment they received from Kechiche, who among other things did not allow them to simulate the blows they exchange in a gruelling one hour take of a fight scene, while the French Audiovisual and Cinematographic Union has condemned the onset working conditions. 

If, however, you can divorce the moral conundrums of how this film came into existence from the actual film itself, you will enjoy an absorbing and emotionally draining work of great merit. The story concerns Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a relatable, ordinary teenage girl, with a familiar routine of school lessons, socialising with friends, and eating with her parents in the evening. Her gossipy classmates encourage her to go out with the good-looking Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), but only when she first lays eyes on the blue haired Emma (Léa Seydoux) does she experience for the first time the genuine passion of love. 

The French title ‘La Vie d'Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2’ (‘The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2’) is perhaps more apt title than the oblique ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’, in that it indicates how the film is utterly absorbed in its lead character, and her love for Emma. Rarely is a film quite this intimate, as not only does Adele feature at the centre of every scene, but is generally shot in close-up, her every reaction and emotion captured by the camera. There is something of Ingmar Bergman in Kechiche’s obsessive detailing of the human face, only combined with a tone of naturalism opposed to the Swede’s melodrama. 

In the same way the camera shuts out much of the wider world in order to focus on the characters’ faces, the film isn’t as interested in society’s homophobia as it is in its lead character’s personal coming of age experience. Given the scarcity of films documenting lesbian relationships, the very fact Blue is the Warmest Colour takes this as its subject matter is enough to make it subversive; but it handles its subject matter in a very matter of fact way, treating the protagonists’ romance in much the same way a conventional heterosexual love story would play out, with only occasional hints towards the fear and secrecy of their taboo relationship, as well as the threat of ostracisation. 

The only moment the film does provoke through its subject matter is in a lengthy sex scene, which caused controversy when Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel the film is based on, deemed it pornographic. However, the uncompromising fashion in which the scene is shot is in keeping with the naturalism of film and, given the importance of the scene in both of the characters’ lives, is as essential to the story as the prolonged scenes in which the lovers meet and talk for the first time. More troubling, again, is the revelations of the director’s treatment of the actresses in this shoot, but in the context of the film the scene is crucial in its depiction of the characters’ passion. 

“Thank God we won the Palme d’Or, because [the experience of shooting] it was horrible”, said Léa Seydoux sometime after the film was rewarded at Cannes, and one can hope that the actresses’ pride for their performances outweigh their traumatic experiences. Among the film’s many virtues, their honest and intense performances are the highlight of the film, with teenage newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos looking set to be a future star. Rarely has a love story been so evocatively brought to life by two performers, and rarely has a love story felt more potent and real.   


Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Class of 92 + Live Q and A

Glory, Glory, Man United

Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and the Neville Brothers: the famous graduates of the 1992 Manchester United youth team. Under the steady tutelage of Alex Ferguson these six young men went on to dominate English football for the next two decades. Their treble-winning triumph in 1999 is the centrepiece of this fun documentary.

What are the chances of directors Ben and Gabe Turner being Old Trafford supporters? Like the makers of Senna their production is embellished with an admiration, verging on sycophancy, for their idolised subjects. The darker side of Ferguson’s team is glossed over completely in favour of an almost poetic retelling of past glories. Whether you buy into this narrative primarily depends on which football team you support.

However, soccer is only one aspect of the film’s central themes. Indeed, this is a study of close male friendship, dressing room banter and colourful anecdotes. Essentially a group of thirty-somethings recall the heady days of their youth with romantic glee.

Disappointingly, none of the most interesting questions are asked of the sextet. In particular, the notable absence of Alex Ferguson is especially damaging. Considering he had such a significant influence on his club it seems odd to only feature him in the most minimal of ways. To my mind the MUFC team was defined by its sour-faced manager and midfield Irish pit bull. Without their input the story relies on jarring ‘celebrity’ interviews with Tony Blair, Danny Boyle and someone from the Stone Roses.

Ultimately, Class of 92 is a pretty, if not insightful, portrait of sport and camaraderie. For instance, Giggs’ famous wonder goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup is given the full Hollywood treatment. As the camera slowly bobbed and weaved with the same delicate poise of the Welshman’s feet, I found myself in the stadium, witnessing a lost moment as though it were happening for the first time. This beautiful piece of filmmaking is by far the highlight of the documentary.

After the screening the audience was shown a Q+A with the players via a live satellite from Leicester Square. Sky Sports News presenter, Kirsty Gallagher, struggled to achieve much more than awkward mumblings from most of the group, although the Neville brothers clearly relish their time in the limelight. It was a strange novelty which probably won’t be repeated any time soon.