Archive | February, 2012

Review: The Muppets

29 Feb

It’s been a while since The Muppets have graced the big screen. Too long if you ask me and this movie proves why it is beneficial to have a Muppet or two in your life on a regular basis (and that’s Muppet with a capital M, not to be confused with muppet with a lower case m, which is generally used to describe a member of the incompetent male species).  The opening song of The Muppets has got it right when it proclaims ‘I can’t seem to wipe this smile off my face!’

Comedy these days generally revolves around gross-out sex/vomit/poop jokes. Don’t get me wrong, some of the gross out films of the last few years are my absolute favourites (e.g. Superbad), but The Muppets proves that comedy can be good-natured and just plain barmy and still keep an audience sustained. It’s a bubble-gum flavoured twee film that should only appeal to those below the age of 13 usually, but with The Muppets even adults won’t be able to stop themselves laughing like, well, a muppet. It is amazingly well observed and plays on poking fun at conventions of films. My personal favourites of these has to be evil Tex Richman’s ‘maniacal laugh’ and Uncle Deadly’s speech that ends with ‘it’s an idiom, you idiot!’

The film revolves around new Muppet Walter’s journey to Los Angeles to save The Muppet Studios from being demolished by money-grabbing Richman. His good friends Gary (Jason Segal) and Mary (Amy Adams) accompany him to convince Kermit to put the Muppet gang back together in order to raise funds to save the studios. It’s a predicable storyline, much the same as The Muppets Take Manhattan, but you can forgive that because the comedy moments just keep on coming. The film is meant to be very tongue-in-cheek and a predicable story line is part of that. It enables the film to both play on established genre conventions while also adding a new spin to the conventions. It shows how spoofing should really be done and thankfully doesn’t descend into the realms of irredeemable stupidity like the tragic Epic Movie.

The soundtrack is the film’s strongest point. The songs are funny, catchy and lyrically brilliant. It’s no wonder that ‘Man or Muppet’ won the Oscar this weekend for Best Original Song. It didn’t have much competition but as far as songs go I think it is the best observed song I’ve heard for a while. In my opinion, most men should ask themselves whether they are a man or a muppet on a daily basis (with the answer generally being muppet). Other highlights are a barbershop quartet version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Forget You’ clucked entirely by chickens.

The films also features a wealth of star cameos, with particular stand-outs being Dave Grohl as an Animal impersonator in the rip-off band ‘The Moopets’ and The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons as Walter’s human alter-ego. Praise has to go to both Segal and Adams though. It would be really easy for them to become ridiculously annoying in their bubbly roles, but they are given songs that save them from this fate. Amy Adams expertly makes ‘Me Party’ one of the highlights of the film, and Segal’s part in ‘Man or Muppet’ is just faultless.

I can’t begin to recommend this film enough. If you need cheering up, this is definitely the film for you. If you just want to laugh yourself silly, this is also definitely the film for you. It will make ‘Life a Happy Song’ for days after you walk out of the cinema. Thank you Jim Henson for bringing the world The Muppets. The world would be a darker place without them.


Review: The Woman in Black

14 Feb

Caution: This review may contain some spoilers.

I’m notoriously hard to scare. There are very few films that make me jump, check under my bed when I get home or merely keep me awake for a couple of nights. However, The Woman in Black, based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, contains copious amounts of two of the three things that scare me the most; mirrors and creepy children (the third thing is the Ku Klux Klan and thankfully their pointed heads did not feature in this film, as otherwise I imagine I’d have needed medical attention).

The film comes out of legendary horror studio Hammer, and it definitely doesn’t let the studio’s history down. This film reminds it’s audience (and the industry) what horror films should be about. In the wake of the success of Scream in the early 1990s, too many horror films these days go for the all out blood bath and crazed psychopath angle. While these films aim at being ‘more human’ or ‘more believable’, they skimp massively on one of the fundamental rules of horror: the creep factor. It’s something that films like Paranormal Activity have vaguely picked up on, but ultimately still haven’t utilised enough. This can’t be said of The Woman in Black however. The creep factor comes at you full force right from the very opening of the film. Three little girls, harmlessly playing with their dolls, all suddenly slip into a trance and progress to throw themselves out of a window. It’s the synchronism of the three girls that really puts the viewer on edge. There is something inherently disturbing about children in trances, all acting and moving together in an act of pure madness, seemingly under the influence of some unseen power. And from here, dear reader, it only gets creepier.

Unlike many horror films The Woman in Black isn’t working towards a big reveal. The premise of the story works on the grounds that if someone sees the eponymous Woman in Black on the marshes or in the grounds of Eel Marsh House, a child in the village will die in tragic circumstances. This of course means that the big bad has to be revealed right at the beginning, which somehow works to ramp up the creep factor even though you know what lurks in the corner of your eye. It is unsuspecting solicitor Arthur Kipps (played somewhat brilliantly by Daniel Radcliffe) that glimpses said figure on his maiden visit to Eel Marsh House, where he has been sent to finalise the paperwork of the late Alice Drablow. Just as Kipps is attempting to report his sighting to the local police, a girl enters the police station having just drunk lye (caustic sodium hydroxide) and dies in Kipps’ arms. From here on the Woman in Black strikes several more times and the audience finds itself constantly thinking every shadow and trick of the light is the evil spectre herself. It creates a constant atmosphere of fear in the film, and you may even find yourself jumping out of your seat at something as innocent as a man entering a room (true story).

The scenes set in Eel Marsh House in particular are utterly terrifying. The house itself is perhaps even more creepy than the Woman that haunts it. It is FULL of mirrors, a fact that didn’t sit well with me. Mirrors play tricks on the eyes and there is a constant dread that anything might appear just behind you (this is a deep seated terror that may not effect many others but it had me nearly crawling up the walls with fear). Of course the house is also ridiculously dark and is filled with the most disturbing looking children’s toys you can find, all of which helpfully like to come to life randomly. Chuck in a dozen or so creepy ghost children inhabiting the gardens outside and you’ve got a sure fire way of getting me as close to fear tears as you’ll probably ever see.

What particularly makes this film so spectacularly scary is the fact that Daniel Radcliffe can actually act! I was fully expecting young DanRad to merely be Harry Potter tarted up in some Victorian gear and stuck in the Shrieking Shack for 93 minutes. Thankfully his portrayal of tragic Mr Kipps is spot on. It’s a role that many said an older actor would struggle with, but I guess all that time spent in Helena Bonham Carter’s presence has taught the lad what being scared really is.

Needless to say, many factors come together to make this film a tour de force of creep. Of course it does take a willingness to suspend reality to really have an effect on you, but it definitely does it’s best to suck you in so far that you find yourself buying into the whole story without even really meaning to.  The Woman in Black plays unashamedly on that childhood fear of the unknown; that shadow that you think you see out of the corner of your eye or those creaks you hear as ghostly footsteps. I personally think more horror films should seek to emulate Hammer’s latest film. I think I’ve had my fill of living human psychopaths; reality is scary but the things the go bump in the night will always have the edge.  After all, you never know what could be waiting in the deepest, darkest of places. Some people will watch this film and think ‘how ridiculous, it could never happen.’ But I defy even the biggest of sceptics to not jump at least once during this film. This film is an absolute masterclass in how to create an atmosphere of pure and constant creepiness.

(And I will definitely be going to see the play next time I’m in London…. Yep, I’m such a creep junky)

T-5 days!

12 Feb

If you didn’t know, STAR relaunches today (! And yes, that means that The Reel Thing will be back up and running this coming week. I’ll be back in my usual Saturday evening slot (6-7pm) with my standard brand of crazy film chat and tunes. I will be kicking off this semester with a show I’ve been wanting to do for a while….Animation! Yes, that’s right. It’s time to break out the Disney, dust off the Dreamworks and pump up the Pixar. I’ll also be counting down my Top 5 animated films of all time. You all know you can’t live without my Top 5 countdowns guiding your film watching lives….

So look out for the facebook event and don’t forget to tune in. You’d be mad to miss this one.

Review: The Descendants

6 Feb

CAUTION: This review contains spoilers.

I knew two things before I went to see Alexander Payne’s  The Descendants. The first was that it is nominated for a heap of those golden statue things and the second was that George Clooney is good at acting. However, despite the Oscar buzz and Clooney’s credentials I went in with a certain amount of trepidation. If Oscar season 2011 had taught me one thing, it was that going to a film with grand expectations just because the Academy deemed it worthy of nomination is a recipe for disappointment. Also, I’d been hearing pretty mixed reviews of the film itself. Most agreed Clooney had done an admirable job, but that the film was perhaps a little slow. It sounded eerily like it could be another ‘True Grit’ incident.   However, despite my reservations (and wondering whether my £6.50 was better spent on several more boxes of cheerios) I found myself standing in front of the box office at NPH asking for a ticket.

What I found was not the ever-so-slightly dull experience I had worried about. Actually, I’d go as far as saying The Descendants is one of the best character-led pieces I have seen in a long time. Of course big Georgie-boy deserves masses of praise, but I feel he’s already got plenty of that so I won’t gush too much about his excellent and moving portrayal of land baron and father Matt King.

The story begins with Elizabeth King’s speed-boat accident that not only leaves her comatose, but also leaves her husband (Clooney) to look after their two daughters, while trying to prepare himself and those around him for the worst. It is the story of a struggle in paradise, however the film really doesn’t feel like it’s ever building to a big revelation or conclusion, which is perhaps what many people dislike about it. Instead the thing that seems to matter are the relationships between the characters in their attempts to come to terms with Elizabeth’s condition. You always kind of know that Elizabeth is never going to recover, and quite frankly that is the film’s strongest point. There is no great miracle, with Elizabeth regaining consciousness and rejoining the family unit. Instead the audience sees the reality of a group of people, all with vastly contrasting impressions of Elizabeth, saying goodbye.

What struck me most about the film was its simplicity. I can see how it might be perceived as a slow and unchallenging narrative. There aren’t any big surprises, even King’s eventual decision not to sell his land is the obvious outcome from about 10 minutes into the film. Instead what the film gives the audience is a slice of reality and the chance to really think about the characters themselves. In an industry where big production, expensive action sequences and/or the generally fantastical have become the norm, The Descendants attempts to champion a simpler approach, one rooted more in representing the reality of the human condition and showing that life in the slow lane is not necessarily a bad thing. It might seem like a topic and moral that has been done to death, but there was something special about The Descendants that had even my iron-clad heart breaking.

What I found surprising  in the film were the amount of laugh-out-loud moments, mostly thanks to Clooney and Nick Krause’s brilliant Sid, who brought some genuine hilarity even at the darkest of moments. I could go on for days about all the characters in this film, but I am aware many of you just want to know whether this is a film you should spend your money on. I will therefore tentatively say you should, with perhaps one warning. This is a laid back and slow film. This is not fast paced escapist entertainment, but to me that is the point. It’s all humanity and heart, about people that are just trying to find balance again. There are many sequences in the film with little dialogue, but somehow to me it never seemed like a challenge to my attention and I was actually glad for some reflection time. Also, the soundtrack is spot on, the setting is beautiful and the quality of character writing and acting is some of the highest I’ve experienced in recent years.

Perhaps I was just feeling particularly warm-hearted at the time, but a film like this rarely leaves me welling up. And it happened three times with this one. For once it was nice to leave the spectacle of cinema behind and watch a simpler, yet more affecting, study of family life. It’s probably not a film for everybody, and I won’t be tipping it for a lot of Oscar success (besides George of course) but I am genuinely really glad I went to see this film.




The Road to El Dorado Part I: PhD or job?!

1 Feb

The day I dreaded is finally here. Semester 2 has arrived and the only thing on the mind of us poor folk facing eviction from our cosy university world (more commonly referred to as ‘graduation’) is what the hell we are going to do for the next 5, 10 or 2o years. I successfully avoided this delightful circle of hell last year thanks to said cosy university taking me back for an MLitt. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not just one of these types that is throwing Daddy’s hard earned money at more education because I just want to avoid the real world for as long as humanly possible. I actively enjoy studying and know that the day I am forced out of it will be one of the saddest days of my existence (yes, I am a geek). However much I may moan about writing essays, I actually do really enjoy it (especially when writing about war films). I have always been the goon who enjoys going to school and learning something new, so the decision to pursue an MLitt was something like 75% academic goon continuation and only 25% real world avoidance.

However, with the finish line of my foray into post-grad life coming into view, I once again find myself debating where I want to go next. For months I have been banging on about a PhD. For an self-confessed academic goon it wasn’t a difficult life ambition to dream up. A PhD seemed like the holy grail of academia; 3/4 years of research and writing on a topic that is completely of your own device. I’ve been the sort of person who has struggled during the undergrad and MLitt with ‘compulsory modules’ that include a lot of stuff I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole given the choice (Giles Deleuze I’m looking at you). A PhD cuts out all the faff and lets you go crazy on the things that you really care about and enjoy. And heck, if there is one life philosophy I live by it is that you should always strive to enjoy life because tomorrow you might be dead.

However, now that decision day is here I find myself with a dilemma. A PhD is ultimately something that I want to achieve in life, but I’m beginning to have doubts that it is what I should pursue right now. I have the luxury in my academic subject of knowing that I could come back to it in 5 years time and the theory won’t have changed so dramatically that I would be left redundant. There is also the fact that funding opportunities are pretty dire at the moment. Funding is the curse of the PhD dream, the one thing that will disillusion you to the point of no return. It would all be fine if I had an extra £30,000 or so lying about. However, I don’t and that means you have to enter the competition for funding. This to me bears some resemblance to Ancient Roman gladiator fights. Actually, I kind of wish the competition was a physical battle. I’d back me and my rage blackouts any day. Alas, it is your academic aptitude and the whim of the university department that counts.It’s not enough to just have an undeniable amount of excitement for your chosen area and a love for eduction, you must be now deemed ‘worthy’ and every PhD hopeful will have the same polemic in their applications proclaiming their worthiness and desire and all that jazz. Needless to say, you are fighting a losing battle unless you can provide evidence of your unnaturally large multiple brains.

So having been disillusioned by the funding problem I now find myself toying with the idea of making money, hard-earned money that can one day be used to fund myself.  I’m pretty sure that is the only way I’m ever going to get the chance to explore the depths of memory and commemoration in comedy war films. Plus, lately I can’t shake this overwhelming feeling that I don’t just want to be the person who comments on film any more. I’ve always wanted to actually be a part of the making of films and lately that dream has been whispering away at the back of my mind. I know I’ve got something that the world will want to see, and that may sound big headed but hey, only a fool humbles herself when the world is so full of others eager to do that job for her (thanks George R.R Martin for that philosophical gem). So, I’m going to throw my proverbial hat into the ring and give the job hunt a try. With my ambitions I am probably doomed to fail. I won’t settle for a life of misery in some job I constantly want to get out of, even if it is a ‘step on the ladder.’ Stuff your ladder where the sun doesn’t shine. I’m pretty confident that there are some entry level jobs that won’t make me want to jump off a cliff after 6 weeks, and by God I will find them. I’m not going to be ridiculously picky. Anything involving film or music or television I’ll give a shot (within reason of course, I’m not about to give in to the dark side and enter any sort of financial department…shudder).

This little blog diary will attempt to chart my progress as I attempt to apply for both PhDs and jobs. Afterall, by some miracle I might get funding from somewhere and I’ll be able to tick that life ambition off earlier than realism might have expected. Aberdeen is looking most likely if anywhere, but even then it will be a gladiator fight worthy of General Decimus Maximus. God knows I would love to stay in St Andrews. There are many pluses, namely remaining in a department I know and love, with possibly the best supervisor that I can find for my topic. Alas, I feel St Andrews slipping away from me. I’ve resigned myself to thinking of these next few months as my last in this joyous place I have made my home for the last 5 years. However, wherever I end up come September I’ll know it is where I am meant to be. I’m a big believer in destiny, so whatever happens will have its purpose in the grand design, no matter how much you didn’t want it to turn out that way or whatnot. As long as you keep striving for happiness and fulfilment, you’ll never go wrong.

And whatever happens dear readers, I will endeavor to make it somewhat informative and entertaining. For those of you yet to come to this point in your life, maybe something you read here will help you out in the future. For those of you experiencing the coming hell with me, I hope you can find some mirth and solace in my ramblings to help you along your own road.

So keep your peepers pealed for part 2 and hang on to your hats because it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

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