Monday, 24 June 2013
Entrepreneur. Entertainment Impresario. Erotica purveyor. Paul Raymond wore many hats -- and one or two labels, not all of his own choosing -- during his reign as 'The King of Soho' in London, from the late 1950s until his death in 2008.
A real estate mogul, Raymond's interests included gentlemen's clubs and theatres which produced works of a more provocative rather than artistic nature. He eventually moved into pornographic magazines and was, at one point, Britain's richest man.
What he wasn't was a particularly good husband or father. This we learn as Michael Winterbottom's film, rich in spot-on but by no means distracting period detail, flashes back through episodes of Raymond's life, as the man himself (played by Steve Coogan) watches the VHS tape of a documentary of which he was the subject and reminisces on a life lived to the full if not entirely for the best.
A failing marriage to Jean (Anna Friel) when we first meet him (having already walked out on another before the film's story takes place), Raymond was very much a ladies man and as London began to swing in the early 1960s (the film transitioning from crisp black and white to colour), so did he; eventually divorcing Jean having fallen for Amber (Tamsin Egerton), a leggy performer in one of his shows and who would later become his wife and 2-I-C-of-sorts.
A neglectful father to his two sons (one from each of his first two marriages), Raymond was an over-indulgent one to his daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots); making her the star of his productions when she had more desire than talent, grooming her to run his magazine, Men Only, and instructing rather than reprimanding her when her drug use is revealed. Debbie snorts cocaine likes it's going out of style, and not even marriage or motherhood can curtail her downward spiral.
Not that Winterbottom's film (nor Raymond's life: living until the age of 82 and dying of respiratory failure with a fortune at one point estimated at £650m) is a cautionary tale. In its colourful though surface-level study of Paul Raymond's world, The Look of Love could be accused of saying little more than success and money can not buy happiness but my word, what fun it is being unhappy when you're rich.
Steve Coogan, collaborating with Winterbottom for the fourth time, manages to make Paul Raymond much more than one of his comic characters but neither the screenplay (by Matt Grennhalgh, who also penned the young John Lennon film, Nowhere Boy) nor Winterbottom seem intent on digging too far beneath the surface of this charming but selfish man.
Raymond's son Howard by his marriage to Jean, who, while neglected by his dad, scored a tidy £78m after his death, is said to be producing a film about his father (The Look of Love's original title, The King of Soho, had been copyrighted by him). No doubt given their relationship, it will be a decidedly more warts-and-all study than Winterbottom's.
Not that The Look of Love is by any means a bad film. Winterbottom, who never makes the same film twice, and certainly not back-to-back, has produced one of his most polished-looking efforts, thanks in no small part to the cinematography (Hubert Taczanowski), costume design (Stephanie Collie), production design (Jacqueline Abrahams) and art direction (Carly Reddin): The Look of Love looks fab.
Wednesday, 19 June 2013
The 'Z', of course, stands for zombie even if the marketing behind World War Z, adapted from Max Brooks' graphic novel of the same name, seems to have gone out of its way to avoid mentioning the word. Perhaps because, for a film about a global zombie pandemic, there's very little of your typical zombie action -- that is, the feasting on human flesh, and blood, lots of blood -- to sink your teeth into.
What director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace) has produced, along with leading man and producer, Brad Pitt, is a thriller which sees Pitt's former U.N. investigator, Gerry Lane, recalled by the powers-that-be to assist them in tracking down the source, and possibly a cure, for the blood-borne virus which has spread like wildfire across the globe; turning (and very quickly at that) mild mannered citizens into bloodthirsty members of the living dead.
Leaving his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and two young daughters aboard an at-sea naval ship (along with a young boy they've collected in their escape from the mainland), Gerry embarks on his globe-trotting mission; hopscotching from South Korea, to Israel and then Wales for a series of tension-filled set pieces which may quicken your pulse and set your heart racing but won't require you to duck for cover when the zombies strike (Note to filmmakers: if a wuss like me isn't scared, your film isn't scary).
Television series, The Walking Dead, has made zombies both popular and scary as fuck. They may be your old school, slow-moving walkers (though they don't chant hungrily for brains) but they manage to strike fear in your heart whenever they appear on screen. (And a zombie stampede at the end of Season 2 was the stuff of my nightmares.)
The zombies in World War Z don't achieve that level of fear. While they're certainly more convincing than the CGI walkers in I Am Legend (2007), their rapid-fire movements make them less convincing (and thus less scary) than an actor in deathly make-up and covered in blood-red corn syrup, however slowly they shuffle.
It's only when Gerry and his Israeli soldier companion, Segen (Daniella Kertesz), arrive at a W.H.O facility in Wales (having survived two close call attacks, on the ground in Tel Aviv and en route mid-air) and must contend with an entire research wing of scientists-turned-walkers that you are truly repulsed; the gnashing of their no-longer pearly whites is quite unsettling.
Pitt has said in interviews for the film that he wanted to make a movie for his sons. Given that they're not yet teenagers, presumably Pitt also wanted to keep them nightmare free; and as a producer, he no doubt had an eye on the box office: an MA15+ rating would seriously eat into the core teen boy audience. Hence, no gore and very little blood. (And I'd wager, very little interest and much disappointment from said demographic.)
Still, as a pre-apocalyptic thriller for adults, World War Z isn't completely anaemic. Brad Pitt convinces as our everyman hero, more brains than brawn, and his waiting family provides an emotional investment (sadly, no other characters are fleshed out). Horror and zombie fans may have to look elsewhere to sate their blood lust but for those who like to grip their armrest whilst telling themselves it's all going to be okay, World War Z should provide the necessary adrenaline to ward off the zzz's.
Monday, 17 June 2013
Walt Disney Studios Films
After the success of Toy Story 1 and 2 (1995 and '98 respectively), Pixar had established themselves as the number one computer animation studio in filmmaking. Combining the character and heart of old school Disney animation (Pixar has always been aligned with the House of Mouse one way or another) and fashioning them to original storylines, they won the hearts and minds of audiences and critics (from ages 4 to 94).
Monsters, Inc., about the world of monsters whose universe is powered by the energy emitted from the screams of children elicited by the jumping out of closets in the middle of the night (inter-dimensional doors allowing them to travel anywhere in the world), was the first in a succession of post-Toy Story home runs for Pixar, introducing us to odd couple scare team, James P. Sullivan and Mike Wazowski.
A prequel to the 2001 hit (Pixar's first Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature), Monsters University introduces us to Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) before they became BFF's. Both arriving on the campus of MU to Major in Scaring, the studious Mike and the easy going Sulley are polar opposites and as we know, opposites attract. But there will plenty of tension and ill-will between the two before they realise they have more in common than outward appearances and ability would suggest.
Cue the college campus caper cliches (minus the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, of course) as Mike and Sulley, and their makeshift frat brothers (a collection of 'uncool' monsters whose frat house just happens to be the home of one their members' mother), work together to win the annual campus Scare Games and secure their places at MU; the pair having royally peed-off the Dean (distractingly voiced by Helen Mirren) who has threatened permanent expulsion should they lose.
Pixar have set the bar in animated features very high for themselves that it seems that even they are no longer capable of besting, or even equalling their own efforts. After the emotional highpoint of Toy Story 3 in 2010 (the rare exception of a second sequel worthy of its predecessors), Pixar's output -- Cars 2, Brave, and now MU -- has (by their standards) been sub-standard.
But even judging Monsters University on its own merits, that is, not as a Pixar film but merely as an animated one, it still comes up short. While there's no denying the animation is top notch, the characters and story -- two things Pixar have always excelled at -- are fairly standard. If we hadn't been previously introduced to Mike and Sulley, we might not care at all about these two Freshmen's scaring escapades, geared so closely as they are to the mechanics of plot.
It's sporadically fun but Monsters University lacks that spark of mayhem which made Monsters, Inc. such a delight. Surprisingly, and more sadly, it also lacks any real heart. I hope that's not a sign of things to come; Pixar announcing they will be producing a sequel to their 2003 smash (and arguably my favourite of their films), Finding Nemo.
Understandably, Pixar is a company (and beholden to Disney) and it needs to make money but turn away from the business model that guaranteed your success -- rich characters, original stories, a big heart -- and we the audience may no longer invest our time or money. You don't need a Mathematics degree from MU to work that out.
Wednesday, 12 June 2013
20th Century Fox Films
I'll admit my bias from the outset: I am not a fan of either Owen Wilson or Vince Vaughn. I simply don't find either of them funny; I was one of the few who didn't RSVP the laughs for their only previous big screen coupling, the 2005 hit Wedding Crashers. So no, I was not looking forward to The Internship.
The unfunny duo, combined with what looked likely to be a movie-length advertisement for multi-billion dollar search engine Google, had set off many red flags but I ventured to see it anyway. And much to my surprise, I didn't loathe it. I actually found it rather funny. Not laugh-out-loud or side-splittingly funny, mind, but amusing just the same.
Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Wilson) are high end wristwatch salesmen who are sharply made aware when the company they work for closes that, other than those who can afford to buy high end wristwatches (and even then only as a status symbol), the time piece's time has passed; superseded by mobile phones which tell the time as well as do all manner of wondrous things.
Forced to contend with a much changed job market, Billy hits on the idea of applying for an internship with Google (the film is indeed product placement writ large; I wouldn't be surprised if the company contributed $1 million to the budget with each mention of their name. This sees Billy and Nick competing with hundreds of much younger, more tech savvy individuals who are both hungry for the opportunity and as cynical as all hell about the world in general; all of them converging on Google's San Francisco campus, which resembles the nerd equivalent of a hippie commune and, other than the free coffee, looks like my idea of a hellish work environment.
Teamed with a bunch of outsiders (yes, even geeks have a class system!), Billy and Nick begin as the butt of their teammates' (and the film's) jokes, before eventually winning them (and, surprise, me!) over. Billy might not completely understand the concept of Instagram, and Nick may be more concerned with impressing standoffish Google employee, Dana (Rose Byrne), than intern manager, Mr. Chetty (Aasif Mandvi), but young and old will get their act together come the third act.
Yes, The Internship is predictable (and unnecessarily drawn-out in spite of it) but refreshingly for a modern Hollywood comedy, it's neither mean-spirited nor gross-out. And the themes -- that "old" people have much to offer in the modern workplace, and that your life isn't over at 21 should you miss out on that dream job or university place (you have your whole life ahead of you!) -- are well intentioned.
If, like me, you can put aside your dislike of the two leads and the incessant promotion of the search engine, you're bound to have a reasonably enjoyable time with The Internship. It's not champagne comedy but nor is it lowest common denominator; more like an actual intern who does what they're asked to do without going above and beyond. You wouldn't give it the job but you'd happily write it a positive reference.
Monday, 10 June 2013
"It's a hell of a thing, a boat in a tree." And so, too, is writer-director Jeff Nichols' third feature which, although no freak of nature, is indeed some kind of small miracle in the modern film milieu: a languidly told coming of age tale which champions love (familial, romantic, platonic), and characters over action.
Not that Mud is without action (albeit most of it in the overly busy third act). It is an eventful summer for 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) who, when he's not required to help his fisherman dad (Ray McKinnon), is boating up and down the Mississippi river with his best pal, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland); the two a regular modern day Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (Nichols' screenplay owing a debt of gratitude to Mark Twain).
It's whilst doing so, headed for an island where they've heard that a boat has indeed been lodged in a tree following a recent flood, that they happen upon the mysterious yet charming Mud (Matthew McConaughey, continuing his career purple patch). We soon learn that Mud is a convict on the run but neither boy seems all that daunted by the potential for danger; both agreeing to help Mud with food, repairs to the boat, and to get word of his whereabouts to his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, a solid supporting role playing low rent), whilst keeping it secret from both law enforcement and the men who would do him harm.
Neckbone, the more suspicious of the two boys, agrees mostly as he wants Mud's pistol as eventual payment. But Ellis, who views Mud through more of a romantic, heroic prism, needs now more than ever to believe in love: his parents (Sarah Paulson plays his mum) have announced they will be separating.
Not only that, they will be moving into town and the government will be demolishing the boathouse from which his father earns his livelihood, and the only home Ellis has ever known. (Much like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Nichols' film is concerned with a people and way of life that modern American bureaucracy has little time or regard for.)
The Devil is in the detail, as they say, and the beauty in Jeff Nichols' film is the attention he gives to his characters, allowing them to unfold and develop before our eyes and at an unhurried pace much like the life of the Mississippi river dwellers he depicts (including Sam Shepard as Ellis's reclusive cross-river neighbour and one-time acquaintance of Mud).
McConaughey's Mud is both villain and hero, and the actor plays him with his inherent Southern charm and an underlying hint of danger, keeping his cards close to his chest yet proving to be exactly what he appears to be. But the real stars of the film are the two boys.
This is Lofland's acting debut and he lends the no-fuss Neckbone (who is cared for by his oyster-farming uncle, played by Nichols regular, Michael Shannon) an unadorned naturalness. While Sheridan (previously seen as one of Brad Pitt's sons in 2011's Tree of Life) allows Ellis to grow before our very eyes as his are gradually opened to the harsh realities of the adult world by his parents, by Mud and Juniper, and by May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), the older high school girl who effortlessly wins and breaks the young man's heart.
Mud premiered at Cannes 2012. That we've had to wait some 12 months to see such a wonderful film is maddening but given that it has had its limited release in Australia extended somewhat (from one Melbourne cinema to a sole Sydney theatre) -- or that it is even releasing at all! -- it seems churlish to complain.
Like a boat in a tree on an river island, it's some kind of miracle we're getting Mud at all. I highly recommend you reciprocate the effort and see it. It's a hell of a thing.
Monday, 3 June 2013
With more and more Hollywood studio fare aimed at adolescent males, the success of the latest Fast and Furious film, the sixth in the franchise, should come as no surprise: an almost $100 million opening weekend in the U.S., and more than $300m total worldwide in its first week of release. Boys and their toys, the need for speed, lowest common denominator etc, etc.
What is somewhat of a surprise, particularly to this casual observer (I'd only seen two - #3 and #5 - of the F&F films prior to #6), is how much fun can be had with these films regardless of your age, gender or IQ. Hell, even a non-driver such as myself (I don't even know how to start a car) can get swept along by the motoring mayhem. Park your brain in neutral, leave all logic (along with your critical faculties) at the door, and buckle up for two hours of rev head action.
That's not to say that Fast and Furious 6 is above criticism, or that it's even a good film. But it's certainly enjoyable in the moment, and it gives its audience and fans exactly what they want. Besides, as the sixth film in a franchise why (other than it being your job) would you even be in the audience if you weren't a fan?
After their successful heist in Brazil (in #5), which netted them $100m in loot, the gang have scattered around the globe to live in well-funded retirement. Brian (Paul Walker) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) have become parents, and Dom (Vin Diesel) an uncle but this picture perfect family photo is upset when it is revealed that Dom's long-thought dead wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), is alive. (Letty was apparently killed while undercover in #2.)
She's working as part of a freelance terrorist group headed by Shaw (Luke Evans), who've recently stolen nuclear weapons, or codes or something (I'm not sure, and I'm not sure it matters), and Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), the US Federal agent who all but nailed our vehicular vigilantes in Brazil, wants Dom and his team (including Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Gal Gidot and Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) to help bring them down in exchange for full pardons.
Not surprisingly, that's pretty much it for plot. The rest of the film is taken up with a series of action set pieces, culminating with an army tank on a Spanish freeway and climaxing on a military runway as even an aeroplane gets a guernsey in this transportation throw down which, as O.T.T. as it is, doesn't even come close to the giddy-inducing silliness of the big-ass safe being dragged around the streets of Rio in film #5 (although a 'leap of faith' at the end of the tank sequence comes awfully close).
Director Justin Lin, who has been in the driver's seat since film #3, Tokyo Drift (hardcore fans will be thrilled with a closing credits sequence which has a teaser for #7, and which they know takes place after the events of #3(?)), seems to know exactly what his audience wants, and more importantly, how to deliver it: fast and furious is a philosophy as well as a brand.
Is Fast and Furious 6 art? No. Is it ambitious or original? No. Is it awful? Surprisingly, no. And as we approach the midway point of 2013, I can say with certainty that it's not even close to being one of the worst films of the year. And as the Fast and Furious franchise appears to have the legs -- or in this case, wheels -- to keep on going, critics and non-fans would be best advised to either get on board or get the hell off the road.