Oscar Nominee: The Hunt

Jagten / The Hunt (2012)

Dir:  Thomas Vinterberg

A Danish film that watches a complex situation unfold that deals with some difficult subject matter, but here handled in a way that is simple, different, and compelling.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) works at a nursery in a small Danish town, a respected member of the close-knit community. However, when his best friends young daughter wrongly accuses him of sexual abuse, things spiral out of control with the whole community affected and Lucas struggling to clear his name or hold his already troubled life together.

The director has handled this sort of subject matter before, but here unrestrained by previous ideals, the topic is handled in a fascinating way. Thomas Vinterberg was one of the co-founders of the Dogme 95 filmmaking movement, where film production was very simplified. It’s probably through this that he learnt the importance of a film’s focus being on a well-constructed story and full-developed characters, put together with simple editing. However, so much more can be done, and with more polished results now that he’s working without the constraints of that manifesto.

Mads Mikkelsen is very well cast in this role, he looks the part, very much an ‘everyman’. He’s proving himself to be an excellent actor who is now breaking out into roles that will be seen by a far wider audience. He’s possibly going to be working with Marvel soon if rumors are to be believed, while currently starring as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the TV series ‘Hannibal’.

The film is nominated for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Oscars tonight, and is the only foreign language nominee I’ve seen so far, but it was excellent in my opinion so I’m guessing it has a chance.

It’s really very compelling in the way it looks at how a false accusation that’s even recanted, still has a massive impact on the falsely accused, and the simple storytelling puts the focus right where it should be, on the characters. It kept me interested right to the very last shot.



Oscar Nominee: The Croods

The Croods (2013)

Dir:  Kirk De Micco & Chris Sanders

Earlier in the 2013 eligibility year, there were so few animated films that showed much promise for the Oscars, and for the first time in a long time, Pixar wasn’t nominated, which has allowed for other usually-overlooked animations to break through, such as Despicable Me 2, and this!

The Croods, a prehistoric cave-dwelling family, are must to relocate and adapt as the Earth is changing drastically, putting them in perilous situations and resisting progress spurred on by love-interest and ‘modern man’ Guy!

There’s a well assembled voice cast here, with Emma Stone as the rebellious teenage daughter Eep, and Ryan Reynolds as her suitor Guy, as well as the wonderful Cloris Leachman as a tough grandmother. Nicolas Cage as the father Grug is actually pretty good as just a voice, he may have found a niche he should stay in!

Originally intended as a stop-motion project by Aardman, it was co-written by John Cleese with co-director Kirk DeMicco. The other director on the film, Chris Sanders has excellent experience in animation, most notably ‘Lilo & Stitch’ and ‘How to Train Your Dragon’.

The film really is nothing particularly amazing, but it is colorful and humorous, and made plenty at the box office so an inevitable sequel and also a TV show are now in the pipeline. It seems likely that Dreamworks may keep this going for a fair few films as they have with ‘Shrek’ and ‘Madagascar’ though I doubt this will have quite the same lasting appeal as those. Interestingly I would have been fascinated to see what the Aardman claymation version of this would’ve been like!


Oscar Nominee: Her

Her (2013)

Dir: Spike Jonze

“I think anybody who falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.”

Theordore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, ‘Gladiator’) is a lonely man who is going through a prolonged and reluctant divorce, working as a personal letter writer for other people, he puts complex emotions into words for strangers, but is unable to develop his own relationships. When he upgrades to a new operating system with advanced artificial intelligence called Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), he becomes drawn to her view of the world and the two become close… very close!

A similar idea to this was featured in an episode of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ when Raj fell in love with Siri, but here the idea of a lonely man who has been disappointed by human relationships and so becomes unusually close to his OS is fleshed out for a feature film length. Funnily enough, though high-concepts like this are often great in short form, then fall flat when stretched out, I didn’t feel that to be the case here. The slightly futuristic world that Theodore lives in is so familiar to our own, filmed in beautifully architectural parts of L.A. and Shanghai. All the technology, while not in every home right now, is available, so rather than viewers merely seeing things as a sci-fi futuristic scenario, the focus is kept on the interpersonal relationships that take place rather than the time or setting.

All other relationships shown in the film are troubled and flawed in some way, thus making his unusual one with Samantha seem a lot more logical, reasonable, and understandable. His estranged wife (Rooney Mara) is said to be in need of medication and was raised without praise from her parents, making her always in need of his approval. Theodore goes on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde) and they hit it off brilliantly over dinner, but this disintegrates instantly afterwards due to commitment issues and her calling him ‘creepy’ without much reason except possibly alcohol. His best friend Amy (Amy Adams) is married, and while they dated briefly in college remain good friends, yet her own marriage ends as her overbearing husband becomes a monk. Even a woman who Theodore randomly connects with online for some ‘flirtation’ is quickly shown to be certifiably crazy!

So, with all these human relationships being troubled as they are, dating an intelligent and witty OS with the undeniably sexy voice of Scarlett Johansson becomes an increasingly rational option in comparison. What makes it even more incredible is that he’s not alone, and so when he finally opens up to Amy about his new girlfriend being an OS, the revelation is met with “what’s it like” rather than, what are you doing?”

The whole film is beautifully shot, and filled with a great quality cast that put in a variety of performances as each of their roles show distinctive qualities. Amy Adams is far removed from the glamorous image as seen in ‘American Hustle’ or the confident and plucky Lois Lane in ‘Man of Steel’, here much more insecure and muted to fill the role of a best friend well. Joaquin Phoenix is well cast, his withdrawn and lonely Theodore wouldn’t attract any attention in the street or on the subway, but then when his relationship is flourishing, Phoenix wonderfully makes the same man come alive with enthusiasm and joy for life, the transformation is excellently conveyed and helps to negate the expected audience reactions to his romance as the viewer is uplifted along with him.

Then there’s Scarlett Johansson… or at least her voice! When filming, the voice of Samantha was provided by an on-set Samantha Morton (‘John Carter‘), who was later replaced. Johansson’s voice is distinctive, incredibly feminine, and conveys all the tones, nuances, and rasps that distinguish it from the clearly electronic Siri or any other attempts at a digital speech system. While deemed ineligible for most acting awards owing to not actually being on screen at all in the film, Scarlett Johansson did win the award for ‘Best Actress’ at the Rome film festival for the role, as well as other wins and nominations in other awards.

One of my favorite parts of Spike Jonze’s direction and the editing, is how in many scenes, Theodore’s mind goes elsewhere while doing something or talking to someone. This is shown in flashes and glimpses of memories that are loosely related to his present actions, but it’s a beautifully human thing to do, that we are often thinking about or remembering something else even when talking to somebody or engaged in a task. This wonderfully adds weight to the arguments that arise between Theodore and Samantha when he discovers that she’s often doing other things or talking to other people, even when talking to him, a facet of her ability to multitask as a consciousness without a body. It causes friction between them, yet may be one of the most compelling evidences of her developing sense of self.

A very believable sci-fi concept that is acted out very well, that could elicit any number of reactions from viewers depending on how much you go with or resist the way that this romance is presented as a relationship that’s as valid as any other.


Oscar Nominee: Gravity

Gravity (2013)

Dir: Alfonso Cuarón

After missing the chance to see this in my local cinema on release, I had to travel pretty far to catch a final screening with full 3D in a London multiplex… I know it’s not as far as space, but still!

A small group of astronauts, primarily experienced Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and first-timer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), are making adjustments to the Hubble telescope, when they are radioed to immediately abandon their mission as a field of space debris is heading towards them, but unable to get clear in time, Stone and Kowalski are left stranded in space.

Although it may be considered ‘Science Fiction’, to the average viewer like myself who is unaware of the reported scientific inaccuracies, there’s no apparent reason why this couldn’t easily be fact! I heard an interview with the director Alfonso Cuarón, he explained how he and his son approached writing the screenplay, with a simple linear narrative, nothing complicated or distracting, it plays out in essentially real-time, and this simplicity works incredibly well to draw the audience in.

There’s been a lot of criticism that despite the ground-breaking visual effects, the dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. I’m going to go out on a limb here and disagree. Firstly the Cuaróns aren’t first-language English speakers, and their writing reflects a necessity and desire to keep things simple and clear for the audience to follow. This regular exposition, while it may seem unnecessary for the segment of the audience who are au-fait with space science, helps to keep the rest of the audience up to speed and along for the ride.

A ride it certainly is, with stunning visuals, incredible effects, and without doubt the most beneficial use of 3D cinema I have seen yet! The 3D works here, partly because of the setting, with the huge distances involved between the objects in space and even more so with the Earth. The other reason for 3D being so important to this film is that it’s all about one-off spectacle, this isn’t going to be a franchise, it wasn’t designed for TV, this is a film that was made for the cinema screen and the bigger the better with breathtaking visuals, immersive sound, and a brilliantly restrained running time. New equipment and techniques were invented and developed to make the film, and make it a dead cert to win the Oscars in that category, with the film likely to triumph in other fields also.

Rarely does a film have such a small cast as this, Stone and Kowalski do have colleagues in space but they are more heard than seen. Their mission control contact is the familiar voice of Ed Harris, previously doing a similar job in ‘Apollo 13’, and there are other voices in the form of radio contact and music, but these are unseen characters, keeping the focus very much on the astronauts and especially Bullock’s character Ryan Stone. Though back-story is touched on and added to give the characters more depth, it is inserted in moments of comparative calm and quiet so that the pieces of action are unencumbered by anything other than the issues at hand which are hugely dramatic.

Co-writer and directors son Jonas Cuarón also made a short film as a lovely companion piece which adds quite a lot to the film, so click on this link for Aningaaq but only if you have seen Gravity first as it does contain some spoilers. Or, if you’ve seen the film and want a chuckle, watch the ‘Honest Trailers’ take on it here!

Described by James Cameron as ‘the best space film ever made’, it far exceeds ‘Avatar’ as a ‘must-see’ film, I traveled far to see it properly and it was well worth it, but with the DVD and Blu-Ray release this month you can get hold of it far closer to home!


#152 I Know What You Did Last Summer

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

Dir: Jim Gillespie

My sister used to work in a library, and often brought home books she thought I might enjoy. This was one of them, and so I read the book when I was part of the target audience, a teen, and had always wanted to see the film, but have only now gotten around to it.

When four friends (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddy Prinze Jr. and Ryan Phillippe) go out to celebrate graduating high school, they accidentally run over a man in their car, deciding to get rid of the body and never mention it again. However, a year later, they realise that someone knows, and is out for revenge!

This film adaptation of the book is considered classic 90’s horror, possibly the most recognised of the genre in that decade along with ‘Scream’ (both screenplays were written by the same man, Kevin Williamson). Both of those films have been parodied and referenced to death (no pun intended), and spoofed in things such as ‘Scary Movie’ and endless comedy sketches. Aspects of this in both style and story are clearly evident in much work of the horror genre since, but even when it’s used as inspiration in a respectful way they rarely garner the same level of entry into the zeitgeist as this did and still maintains.

This story involves a lot more suspense than gore, which is far better than the recent trends which have been more towards what’s commonly referred to as ‘torture porn’ and buckets of visceral entrails. Sadly the idea wouldn’t work so well nowadays with everyone carrying a mobile. I can’t quite imagine Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt) just texting the others, ‘Sum guy iz after me! Lol’.

All the main four actors have gone on to have moderately succesful careers, and one marriage that at last check is still going strong. There’s even a small role for a young Johnny Galecki who has found huge success on ‘The Big Bang Theory’.

This remains a classic of the genre and especially of its time, and will likely go on to scare teens who are discerning enough to choose suspense and scares over vomit-inducing gore.


#151 Zoom

Zoom (2006)

Dir: Peter Hewitt

I wasn’t going to review this, it was too terrible, but while looking to see how big of a flop it was, I discovered something interesting…

Once part of a superpowered team of teenagers, washed up ex-superhero Captain Zoom (Tim Allen) is forced back into that world by the military (Rip Torn and Chevy Chase), deemed the best person to help a new set of youngsters (including Kate Mara) develop their abilities, and protect the earth from Zoom’s long-lost brother Concussion (Kevin Zegers).

Briefly to give my views on the film itself, it is pretty pants. The effects aren’t very good, the acting is sub-par despite having a few usually good actors, and the script offers nothing enthralling, different, new, or even very funny.

Rather than review the film itself much, the most interesting point about it is that, apparently, the film was delayed by Marvel and Fox suing Sony, as it was due to be released a couple of weeks before ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’. It was considered to be too similar to the X-Men film, and would confuse audiences!

How could people struggle to distinguish between this and ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’?

Even the worst of the X-Men is still better than this, and though ‘The Last Stand’ really wasn’t all that great, and I’ve forgotten the most part of it after seeing it just the once on release at the cinema, I can still remember more of it and more fondly than this that I saw just over a week ago!

It also appears that there was lots cut out of ‘Zoom’, possibly to put the focus on the young new kids and help distinguish it from the teenaged and older X-Men team. The original team that Captain Zoom was a member of apparently featured Alexis Bledel, Devon Aoki and Wilmer Valderrama, but I saw none of that at all in the televised version which I’m under the impression was the final cut. I have no idea why exactly. It possibly would have been much better if that had been done properly and included, rather than just the comic-book styled opening back story exposition that I saw.

The same sort of story of training up young superheroes storyline was done in ‘Sky High’ a year earlier, and that film was far better, nicely developed and actually enjoyable family superhero fun, actually worth the time to watch it.

Or maybe watch ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ again? Apparently it’s similar, and it’s definitely better!

zoom poster

#150 Despicable Me 2

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

Dir: Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud


When the world comes under threat from a new super villain, reformed Gru (Steve Carrell), now a family man settled with his adopted daughters, is brought in by the Anti-Villain League to help them protect the world. He is partnered up with agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), and with a little help from the Minions must find this new menace before his evil scheme is unleashed.

The “Bottom” line was Mark Kermode’s favourite of the film, made even more funny for me as when I saw it I had a middle-aged man repeating that word over and over again going through my head. However that was not my first or last laugh of the film, it’s full of funny moments and lines!

The first ‘Despicable Me’ film didn’t instantly strike a chord with me when I first saw it in the cinema on release, but with subsequent viewings, often with small children, I grew to really enjoy it more and warm to all the characters. I think that’s a good part of why this sequel was so eagerly anticipated, so well received by critics and audiences, and myself included. It has done incredible business in the worldwide box office, and I think that a 3rd is inevitable.

That’s made even more likely now with the new character of Lucy, who is brilliantly voiced by Kristen Wiig, who did lend her voice in a small role to the first film, but here is far more suited to the ‘kooky’ personality of this enthusiastic agent who has a soft-spot for Gru. Her character is very much needed, as Gru’s has changed so much, as though the film title still describes him as ‘Despicable’ he isn’t any longer. Thus, pairing him with someone else helps with the change in his character, putting him into a very funny and good-natured partnership as they work together ineptly.

Before any ‘Despicable Me 3’ is made, there is definitely a future Minions spinoff movie in the works. I’m not sure how well that will work as they can’t really articulate themselves so well, but it does seem that there will be a human villain that the minions will be paired with to provide the main part of the dialogue, and apparently she will be voiced by Sandra Bullock!

I’m probably looking forward to Sandy B and the minions a little more than a grown man should be!


#149 The Wolverine

The Wolverine (2013)

Dir: James Mangold

Forget his origins, this is much more like how to do a Wolverine movie!

Logan (Hugh Jackman) has turned his back on his ways as the Wolverine, and is living a secluded life in the Yukon, regularly having nightmares and visions of his old love Jean Grey whom he was forced to kill. When he is tracked down by a young woman called Yukio (the striking Rila Fukushima), he goes with her to Japan to say goodbye to an old acquaintance who well knows of his abilities and wants to ask one last favour of him. However this powerful family is under threat, and Logan is forced to once again make use of the other side of himself to protect them and his own life, which for once looks like it could actually end.

I wasnt really expecting much after having my expectations lowered back in 2009 by the first Wolverine film ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ which was a huge disappointment. That film tried to shoehorn Logan into the X-Men far too early and linked him with those characters in ways that weren’t natural and felt stupid. This one avoids that, instead picking up after the events of ‘The Last Stand’.

For me this story worked well. It made plenty of sense, well, as much as any comic book adaptation ever will, and though it doesn’t delve into Logan’s thoughts quite as much as might be expected, there’s a lot more of an insight here than there really has been before, and yet there’s still some good action too.

Cleverly the director, James Mangold, uses the setting and its distinctive look to add something extra to the film, and really set it apart from the other X-Men films. I liked how for part of it, the storyline takes characters out of urban Tokyo, and into the more rural and very beautiful parts of Japan, which helps with the change in pace and tone, but is also just refreshing to see.

The mid-credits sequence is truly superb. It isn’t just a little nod towards next years ‘Days of Future Past, but almost a teaser for it, a short scene that could almost be the start of that film, popping in quite a few elements of the story, and a number of surprising visuals that are incredibly exciting for anyone anticipating that film.

I really am now!
The-Wolverine-2013-Movie still

#148 The World’s End

The World’s End (2013)

Dir: Edgar Wright

It’s the final Cornetto!

First there was ‘Shaun of the Dead’, where a small group of friends faced a zombie uprising. Then in ‘Hot Fuzz’ two small-town police officers took on a sinister village conspiracy. Here, a group of middle-aged men who were friends at school, are reunited to have another attempt at completing the pub crawl around their hometown that defeated them when they were teenagers. The problem is that everyone in the town has been replaced by alien robot clones…

What a group of friends they are, lead by Gary King played by Simon Pegg (Star Trek Into Darkness),  Nick Frost as Andy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) as Oliver, Paddy Considine (Submarine) as Steven, and Eddie Marsan (Jack the Giant Slayer, Snow White and the Huntsman, War Horse) as Peter. The film also stars Rosamund Pike (Made in Dagenham) as Oliver’s sister who two of the other men had a crush on at school, and still do. Sadly she’s severely underused, especially considering how brilliant she usually is, which is a shame.

Zombies though fantasy, were not technologically difficult science fiction, they’re a relatively easy effect to achieve, especially considering the comic nature of ‘Shaun’. Then ‘Hot Fuzz’, there were a few effects in terms of some odd deaths, and an epic shootout, but again nothing that needed huge amounts of wizardry. This time, achieving alien robot takeovers requires a lot more special effects, and the budgets reflect this. Shaun = under £4 million. Hot Fuzz = £8 million. The Worlds End = £20 million, which sadly it seems to be struggling to make back quite yet, though a U.S. release is due next week which should sort that quickly enough.

Integrating such a sci-fi element into the teams style that has worked so well on the intimate small-scale before, is partly this films undoing. The other thing that makes it tricky is that Pegg and Frost are cast against their usual types. Gary King is obnoxious, and generally unlikable, while Andy is quite straight-laced and sensible. What has always been at the heart of their partnership in all their other films, the ones with Edgar Wright directing and also in ‘Paul’, is their close friendship and funny ways. They’re not entirely gone here, but certainly pushed aside for the majority of the film.

I have to give them all credit for trying something different and working to make this film in a way that doesn’t completely follow the formula set before, but it’s a slightly odd thing to do when it’s the 3rd in a linked trilogy (similar thematic setup and the trio of actors and director), and when the formula has worked so phenomenally well in the past. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are hugely loved, they are on TV here in the UK almost every week without fail. In fact, one of my friends watched Hot Fuzz on television with his new wife on his wedding night!… Anyhoo…

There are a number of little references to the other films, and there’s a really genius way of getting a cornetto in there. I think this may disappoint many who loved their other films so much, or it may prove popular with them as some reviews have been suggesting. There’s a good possibility that I personally am missing something having only watched it once, but I really expected to instantly love it as I did the others, but sadly not, I just enjoyed it enough to laugh, but not to leave the cinema thrilled.

Edgar Wright’s next project is working on Marvel Studio’s Phase 3 with ‘Ant Man’, and rumours are abounding this week that it might feature Simon Pegg in the lead role. That would be very interesting to see!


#147 Nowhere Boy

Nowhere Boy (2009)

Dir: Sam Taylor-Wood

Before he was Kick-Ass he was John Lennon!


This is a biopic of the teenage John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), partly based on things that are known, with gaps filled in with artistic licence and with help from memoirs written by Lennon’s half-sister. It shows how Lennon grew up with his maternal aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott-Thomas) and her husband (David Threlfall), and how he then tries to reconnect with his absent mother (Anne-Marie Duff) who just lives within walking distance but has problems of her own, and how it was a complicated situation.

Lennon lived with his uncle who he clearly adored, and aunt, who he doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with, but following the death of his uncle he reconnects with his mother who he hasn’t seen in a very long time. There’s a really odd dynamic that develops with his mother who tries to ‘be a mate’ but isn’t very responsible as a mother, that role is better kept by Aunt Mimi. His mum does however help develop his musical abilities, and teaches him the banjo, but ultimately it is Aunt Mimi who buys his first guitar, while his mum becomes an awkward groupie.

There are quite a few little knowing references dotted in throughout the film, mostly clues popped in the background of shots but lingered upon to allow time for the audience to realise the link, such as a Strawberry fields sign, or the outside of the Cavern Club.

I was expecting it to just be a film about Lennon, but then the story brings in Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster), and then George Harrison, so it actually shows the early forming of The Beatles which took me a little by surprise. However it doesn’t completely turn into a film about them. It still holds the focus on John, and the end text is all about him and his Aunt Mimi and how they stayed in touch, not a mention about him going on to find success with The Beatles, as really that is too obvious it doesn’t need saying.

Being a biopic of a musician, it does feature some musical performances, and these are very convincing, with a few of the old songs written by young Lennon and McCartney being performed by Johnson and Sangster. Though Aaron Johnson’s scouse accent fluctuates a little in his dialogue, when he’s singing the performances work rather well and he sounds quite believably like a young Lennon.

While working on this film a relationship began between the lead and director, which turned into a marriage, so Sam Taylor-Wood is actually now Sam Taylor-Johnson. Both of them have gone on to do quite well in film, with Aaron Johnson doing a variety of big film roles, and ‘Kick-Ass 2′ currently being on release around the world. Mr’s Taylor-Johnson is set for an even bigger challenge however, hired to direct the film adaptation of the bestselling phenomenon ’50 Shades of Grey’.

I doubt she’ll be casting her husband in the lead for that one!