All Is Lost

all-is-lost-poster2

In the past 12 months there has been a spate of sea-faring movies, starting with Life of Pi, through A Hijacking and Captain Phillips, and now we have what is perhaps the most remarkable of them all, All Is Lost.

Robert Redford players “The Sailor”, a man in a yacht in the middle of a deserted ocean. We join him when he wakes to find water pouring into his sleeping quarters and all over his computer and radio equipment. Heading outside to investigate, he discovers a rogue shipping container floating in the middle of the ocean that his yacht has drifted into. Redford sets about fixing things but it’s downhill from there. The remarkable things about the film are that a) it is played out as a virtually silent movie (about two thirds of Redford’s lines are said in voiceover before the film gets under way) and b) that Redford is the only actor on screen.

The nature of the film provokes questions about Redford’s performance. How much of what he does is acting? It’s a physical feat, one all the more impressive given his age (77), but so much of what we think of as acting isn’t required in this film. There’s no interaction and little or no emotion, beyond some minor exasperation at the predicament he finds himself in. But it’s pretty incredible, none the less.

At the same time, the technical aspects of the film are just as impressive. The special effects in the storm sequences are pretty incredible when one considers the scale of the movie. We all too often take these things for granted, especially in the big budget blockbusters, but this isn’t one of those and yet it remains immaculate.

Ultimately, this is a special film. It grips you throughout despite breaking all the rules for what you expect from a film. There is no conflict, beyond man versus nature. There is no emotion to draw you in. But from beginning to end you can’t take your eyes off the screen.

A-

Film length: 1 hour 46 minutes – Feels like: 1 hour 30 minutes

Saving Mr Banks

Tom Hanks and Emma Thomson cross rivers of blood. Only Liam Neeson can save them...

Tom Hanks and Emma Thomson cross rivers of blood. Only Liam Neeson can save them…

Mary Poppins is an all time classic film beloved by adults and children around the world, but it’s journey to the screen took over 20 years and the finished product wasn’t loved by the author of the book upon which it was based. Saving Mr Banks tells the story of the final stage of the jounrey from book to screen, with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) pulling out all the stops to convince PL Travers (Emma Thomson) to sell him the rights to her story. It is a lovely film set around a brilliant performance from Thomson but being a product of Disney films, there are some questions that have to be asked about how truthful it is, specifically with regard to the final scene.

Before we get on to that, and the aspect of the story that I found of particular interest, I want to look at the story a little more. There are two strands which run throughout the film, the first concerning Disney’s attempts to buy the rights from Mrs Travers, and the second concerning Travers’ childhood growing up in Australia and her relationship with her alcoholic father. I understand the narrative need for the sequences in Australia but unfortunately the film doesn’t quite find the right balance in cutting between these sections meaning that the moment you leave Thomson you and yourself aching to get back to her part of the story and losing the impact of the earlier section. This could, in part, be due to the fact that Thomson’s performance is so strong that it casts a shadow when she’s not on screen, but I think it’s also down to the fact that the tone between sections differs wildly. Travers’ tut-tutting school-ma’am attitude has a lightness of touch that keeps a smile constantly on the lips, while the Australian sequences are melancholy and lack the lightness of touch and sparkle. While this is appropriate for the aspect of the subject these sections examine, it does mean they don’t fit the tone of the rest of the film, leaving an ultimately uneven experience.

Now, what interests me most is what this says about an author’s ownership of the story and characters. For me, the film portrays Travers’ wariness about letting someone else take control of her characters as being almost petty. Disney is a caring man who would never do any harm to her beloved Mary Poppins, and of course we, the audience, all know that an all-time great film will be the result. But of course that presents an unfair picture. What of all the good, personal novels that are ruined by Hollywood? Without the benefit of hindsight, how would Travers know what fate would befall her character? (And that’s setting aside the fact that she didn’t like what was done with the film ultimately). Look at, for example, The Golden Compass, the adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. A film which tore the heart out of the source material. Or as Travers’ herself says in Saving Mr Banks, “Poor AA Milne”, whose Winnie the Pooh lost his soul at Disney’s hands.

The film seems to be saying that, while it understands her reluctance to sell, ultimately that is the right thing to do, which leads to the (is it or isn’t it) troubling final scene. This may be a spoiler, so you have been warned. Travers attends the premier of the film and, when it reaches its conclusion with Let’s Go Fly A Kite, a song which is given some emotional resonance earlier, Travers is shown crying. While she says “I hate cartoons” by way of explanation, the implication is that she has been drawn in and won over by what she has seen on screen and it has exorcised some long held demons for her.

I completely understand and accept this as a narrative device for telling the story, and I have no issue with true stories being tweaked to make them fit a narrative arc – it can be a necessary evil to make the story resonate – but I feel here the film is trying to have its cake and eat it. “She says she hates it” defenders can say and baldly, on the page of the script, that is true, but that is not what is shown on screen. I know I am not the only one to have drawn these conclusions from the way this scene is shot.

As I say, I don’t think, ultimately, this matters, but I do think an acknowledgement needs to be made somewhere. The story isn’t well known enough for it to outlive the film – this will, no doubt, become the definitive version, and that can be troubling. Hopefully the bluray edition will feature some documentary evidence which tells the *real* true story as well.

B+

Film length: 2hrs 5 minutes – Fells like: 1 hour 50 mins

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The-Hunger-Games-Catching-Fire

I don’t get it. This film has been widely and wildly praised and I just don’t get it. I quite liked the first film, although it was a good half an hour too long, With some good editing it could have been a rip-roaring young-adult thriller, but instead it was ponderous and yet still lacked a little context.

This second film suffers from the same kind of issues, but added to that, it also comes across as a cover version of the first film. In the first film, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark were chosen from their sector of the new world order’s version of America to be representatives in The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are a fight to the death between 24 teenagers from the 12 different sectors. Last one alive, lives on with immunity. It’s like Battle Royale, but with a weak romance instead of the chutzpah to follow through on the concept. So, when we left them, Katniss and Peeta and faked a relationship on national TV in order that they both might be saved. In Catching Fire, we meet them touring the provinces and living the lie but President Snow (Donald Sutherland, sleepwalking through the role of one of the most tedious villains around) sees a threat in Katniss and wants her done away with. For some reason he doesn’t just arrange for the train that carries her around to crash, but instead sets up a “QuarterQuell” – a 25th anniversary Hunger Games in which all surviving winners head back into the dome and only one can survive.

So we head back into the games, but this time, instead of a bunch of obnoxious teens, we’re also given a couple of old people to work with too. Now, the problem is that more than half the film is needed* to set this up and get them back into the games. Considering so little plot is dealt with it’s unfathomable that it should take so long on the screen. Then, realising that the they’ve already done the ‘kids killing other kids’ bit once, the games quickly dispense with that bit, and President Snow, via Games’ designer Plutarch Heavensbee (apparently that’s a name, and he’s played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman who kinda makes it seem like a paycheck role), unleashes some surprises. These surprises made me laugh out loud. They are ridiculous and the way they’re handled made them seem rather desperate. When a reveal comes they make a little more sense, but that just makes you think that the writing and directing could have done a better job.

Jennifer Lawrence does a very good job at trying to hold it all together. I’m a big fan of hers, but it’s just a shame she’s attached to all of this and can’t go off and make more interesting stuff.

Yawn.

Film length: 2hrs 26 minutes – Feels like: 3 hrs

C-

*That much time is not needed

Alex Horne/The Best of Chortle

The Best of Chortle Comedy Tour, feat Alex Horne – 23 November, 2013 – Berry Theatre, Hedge End

Alex-Horne

[Part 3 in the ongoing series of short, late reviews]

Compered by John Robins and headlined by Alex Horne, this show was pretty hit and miss. Robins did a great job in a 20% full theatre and Alex Horne did a reliable job closing things off, but it was clear the other comedians on the bill were early on in their career. Each had a few decent lines but didn’t have a smooth and complete 15 minutes. Given time they could all develop into guys worth looking out for but it’s equally clear that there’s hard work ahead to reach that point. Robins was the find though, and someone I’ll be trying to track down in a show on his own…

Lucy Porter – Northern Soul

Lucy Porter – Northern Soul – 21 November, 2013 – Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham

Northern Soul

[This is part of my ongoing series of ridiculously late, and thus shorter, reviews while I catch up]

When she’s not labelling me a sexual predator, Lucy Porter’s new show, Northern Soul, is a brilliant trip through her childhood through to her early days as a comedian, detailing how she went from feeling alienated in Croydon to discovering where her she really belonged through the music of the 80s. Where her previous show, People Person, was essentially based around an anecdote – a very amusing anecdote very well told, but still a little inconsequential, with occasional glimpses of something more – Northern Soul is deeper and more heartfelt and is all the stronger for it. As for the sexual predator thing, I guess someone has to be given that label each night and I was sat a little too close to the front. At least I hope that’s the case, but at least I’m not from Derby…

Jeremy Hardy 2013

Jeremy Hardy – Nuffield Theatre, Southampton – November 15, 2013

Jeremy Hardy

This is running very late, so I’m going to make it short and sweet. Jeremy Hardy is a very funny man but, as he acknowledged, he’s been doing stand-up for 30 years now and he probably should be by now. He has a very relaxed manner which comes with the experience he’s built up and the confidence in a) his material and b) his ability to deal with anything that should come up. Not that his gigs are rife with hecklers. He’s perhaps at least mildly remarkable for not having drifted to the right as so many people are ‘supposed’ to as they age (see Ben Elton for the worst example of this), and his show is kept relevant with a lot of cutting material on the current government and scathing words for the attitudes they’re promoting, but at the same time he’s more than happy to send himself and his liberal views up.

A

Gravity

Sandra Bullock is into goldfish role-play

Sandra Bullock is into goldfish role-play

Imagine you dislike cucumber. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but for the sake of this, you really dislike it. In your mind, it’s essentially flavourless and makes everything around it soggy, so while, in and of itself, it isn’t an issue, it makes everything around it that bit worse. Then imagine a friend cooks you a meal. They’re a really good cook and you trust that whatever dish they prepare for you will be delicious. They mention that a key ingredient is cucumber and you think about objecting before saying to yourself, “you know what, I trust my friend as a chef”. The meal is a revelation; you have rarely eaten anything so delicious. You have to acknowledge that the meal probably wouldn’t be quite so good without the cucumber. The cucumber is a vital part of this meal. It’s like Lebowski’s rug – it really ties the meal together. This is not to say that you like cucumber, this is to say that your friend’s cooking is brilliant. He is a brilliant chef.

3D cinema is cucumber, while (here’s the big reveal) Gravity is the meal and Alfonso Cuaron is my friend, the excellent chef*. The fact that Gravity is such a great film and is enhanced by the 3D doesn’t mean that 3D is a good thing in general. Generally speaking, in fact, it gets in the way and distracts you from the main event. Look, I even wrote a blog about it ages ago. In fact, as I can’t trust you to go back and re-read my old pieces, let’s excerpt the relevant passages here:

“It is something often (seemingly) ignored, but when you look at a film as striking as, say, Far From Heaven, the use of colour is used to emphasise emotion, to fill the audience with warmth and enables us to further empathise with Julianne Moore. Compare this to the stark, cold blues in Gattaca which give the whole film a cold, clinical, detached feel which serves to distance the viewer. 3D doesn’t – or hasn’t yet – been used in such a way to draw in or distance the audience. If someone works out a way to do this, that gives the film an additional emotional core not available in 2D, I will happily become a 3D convert…

…It may well be that it takes a true artist to unleash 3D in a way which will truly exploit its potential…

…The test will be whether artists like Mallick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers start using the technology and what they do with it.”

Cuaron is the artist that 3D cinema has been waiting for, someone who understands how to use 3D as a tool to help his story-telling, rather than purely as a novelty that gets in the way. And that brings us to a simple fact. Gravity may be the most beautiful looking film you will ever see. The visuals are stunning, but more than that, the directing is stunning. There is a certain majesty to the manner in which the camera floats weightless around the screen, performing an intricate dance with the actors and objects. You feel both that you are there in the midst of space alngside Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and you feel the effortless glide of the story pulling you along.

Ah yes, the story. This is very simple. A crew are repairing the Hubble telescope. George Clooney is the veteran astronaut while Sandra Bullock is a rookie making the repairs. They are struck by some space debris and things go wrong. Can they survive? You don’t need more than that. It is a B movie concept, cut to B movie lengths – a slim 90 minutes – and that’s all it needs to be. It has no pretensions and it understands that epic is something you are, not something you become by bloating a script.

The film is crafted to slowly ratchet up the tension, to draw the audience in, to make you hold your breath. The 3D is used to bring the weightlessness to life, to help the audience live this nightmare along with the cast. It’s subtle. Not so subtle as you ignore it, but not obvious enough to truly notice it. It allows you to become part of the film.

Beyond that there’s nothing else to say, except you have to see this film. And if you can, you should see it in IMAX 3D – the biggest and best way to see it.

Well what are you waiting for? Go. Now.

A

Film length: 90 minutes – Feels like: 90 minutes

*Disclaimer – Alfonso Cuaron is not actually my friend. I cannot testify to his skills as a chef.

Simon Munnery – Fylms

Simon Munnery – West End Centre, Aldershot – 2 November 2013

Simon Munnery is a criminally underappreciated comic, and his latest show, Fylms, is both ingenious and hilarious. And, as Munnery himself points out, stadium ready.

The concept is deceptively simple. On stage is a screen. In the middle of the audience Munnery has set up a little gantry for himself from where he will conduct the show. He has two cameras, one pointing at his face, and one pointing down on a tabletop, and a series of images and diagrams to display.

What follows is probably best described as a semi-animated TV sketch-show on-stage from the middle of the audience. Actually, that’s a terrible description. It’s mediocre-ly described as such. Look, it’s difficult to describe it, clearly, but it works very well and if you go along and see it you’ll see how simple a concept it really is. Then you can send me your own mediocre description of the show’s format.

The sketches veer all over the place, with no rhyme or reason. Some are incredibly surreal, others disturbingly lucid, all very funny. I’m going to pull out one moment which really tickled me, though far from the best joke of the night. After that, you should track down tickets for a show near you. I promise it’s worth it.

Venn

Very very very very very funny. Deeply profound and seemingly inane. And overwhelmingly pink.

A

This is a trailer for the DVD of a previous incarnation of the show, Fylm Makker. Be warned, it’s odd.

Thor: The Dark World

Image from Mis-Matched Siamese Twins Monthly

Image from Mis-Matched Siamese Twins Monthly

The original Thor film was a curiosity of 2 parts. Directed by Kenneth Brannagh, the scenes on Asgard, the home planet/realm of Norse God Thor (Chris Hemsworth), were treated as weighty drama filled with Shakespearean import while the scenes on Earth were imagined as being somewhere between Hanna Barbera, Playschool and Charlie Chaplin. Suffice it to say, it was the latter sequences which stood out, while Asgard was stuffy, emotionless and ultimately tedious (as well as being a brilliant advert for Mr Sheen).

Thor: The Dark World looks to repeat the formula, though the lack of a Brannagh makes the Asgard scenes that little bit more approachable while the story sidelines the fantastic Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for the bland Makelith (Christopher Eccleston, who does his best in a thankless role), a trade off which perhaps balances the two sides a little better but still fails to produce a truly thrilling ride.

The story sees Makelith and his men imprisoned by Thor’s father some time ago, and escaping in the modern day to track down the magical Aether, a mystical power source which will enable Makelith to take over the world. Or something.

Meanwhile, Thor’s earth-bound girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles across the Aether because of a thing. I mean really – does it matter? Is it even explained? Not really. Does it make sense? No. Does that matter? Not really.

The pace of the movie is just about fast enough, though the scenes on Asgard still drag it down, but ultimately the film is redeemed with a fantastically fun end sequence using portals. No, that doesn’t make sense either, but it’s pulled off with enough comic panache that it gets away with it.

Fun while it lasts.

B-

Film length: 1hr 52mins – Feels like: 1hr 50mins

Suede – Southampton Guildhall

Suede Bloodsports

Suede – Southampton Guildhall – 22 October 2013

Suede’s new UK tour kicked off with a great performance only inhibited by the terrible sound quality that has always been a feature of Southampton Guildhall.

Obeying the rule that the support should never overshadow the main event, the first half of the gig is devoted to playing the entirety of their new album, Bloodsports. That’s not to say it’s a bad album – there are some very good tracks on it – it’s just that it’s not… well… none of the songs will sit too happily among what’s too follow.

The second half of the show is a reminder of why we are all there and why Suede were a big deal in the first place. The band play each of their first 10 singles, running through from The Drowners to Beautiful Ones.

It’s a fascinating journey that started 21 years ago. Something that is hugely scary to think about. Suede’s eponymous debut album was the first of my ‘modern’ purchases (read: the first I am happy to own up to), and represented the beginning of my love for vinyl.

It’s amazing just how fresh and exciting The Drowners still sounds. It’s as though it’s been vacuum-sealed because it’s still fresh and invigorating. That initial burst of drums opening the song is perhaps the most dramatic way for a new band to introduce itself to the world and then Bernard Butler’s riff cuts through air and then… and then… Brett Anderson asks someone to give him a gun in a vocal style that to my musically uneducated ears is like no one else. The opening of that song, especially to a 15 year old who, up until that moment has had, at best, questionable taste, was an awakening. It seemed to redefine what music could be on some level.

Similar statements can be made about the other 3 singles from that first album, Metal Mickey, Animal Nitrate and So Young. Overall, that album stands unique. You can trace lines through it, before and after, but nothing sounds quite like it, and that includes the future works from its authors.

Of course, in the process of making Suede’s follow-up, Dog Man Star, Bernard Butler left the band and Richard Oakes, a youngster from Poole joined the band’s ranks to replace him. The album only features Anderson/Butler compositions, but the sound was already progressing and moving away from what had come before. Stay Together was the epic non-album track single that came between the two, and is luxuriated in on stage. The lyrics, which Anderson has previously dismissed as weak, disappear into background as the guitar comes to the fore.

We Are The Pigs came as the first single from the second album and is nowhere near as alienating as the title makes it sound. I love the song, at times it is my favourite of theirs, and it’s still in the tradition of what went before, but after this things start the change. The Wild Ones represented the first slower ballad released as a single, and it’s swept up in romantic notions in a way that escapes the grit and the grime of the first album.

Finally, New Generation showcases the new direction for Suede – it’s a brilliant pop song, and again, one that I love, but listening to the progression played live it’s clear how much of a transformation occurred between these two time periods. Where once it was the outright weirdness of

“She sells hearts, she sells meat,
Dad, she’s driving me mad, come see”

… for a chorus, now it’s the much more traditional

“Oh but when she is calling here in my head
Can you hear her calling
And what she has said?
Oh but when she is calling here in my head
It’s like a new generation calling
Can you hear it call?
And I’m losing myself, losing myself to you”

When we then move on to Trash and Beautiful Ones, the beginning of the Oakes era, it’s clear just how much has changed. Perhaps it’s in the production or perhaps it’s in Oakes’ writing but the guitars are no longer as clean and crisp and cutting as they were. Trash, as played here, is clearly a significant cut below the tunes that surround it. At the time of its release I remember struggling to pick the tune out properly, but it grew on me, but in such illustrious company it’s as flimsy as the litter on the breeze from the chorus.

Oakes needed a hit to reassure the fans who weren’t happy about Butler’s departure and hadn’t been convinced by Trash, and they duly got one in the form of the next single and final song of the night, Beautiful Ones, which is, again, a brilliant pop song, and one filled with the kind of guitar-work fans had been pining for, but aside from references to being “High on diesel and gasoline” and “drag acts, drug acts, suicides” could actually have been the work of any number of guitar pop bands. It sounded like Suede because it was Brett Anderson singing, but musically it didn’t bear much resemblance to the band that had come before. That said, the sing-along “La la la”s at the end of the song are a magnificent way to head of stage and leave a crowd wanting more.

There was no more to come, of course, because the best had already been. It was an exhilarating journey through the back catalogue of a band who had number one albums and sold out gigs at the O2 while, along with the Manic Street Preachers, seeming like one of the less commercial bands of the 1990s. The 90s were, of course, the decade where Sky took football from the terraces and hooligans and made it mainstream, it was the decade that launched a thousand lads mags, and yet the band that launched Britpop (like it or not) where androgynous and of ambiguous sexuality. But that’s what cracking tunes can do. What’s most shocking, perhaps, is that if Suede had never existed and The Drowners was released now, it would sound as fresh, different and out there as it did 21 years ago.

A

And hopefully this will work… A Spotify playlist of the gig…