Sunday, 29 April 2012

Cafe de Flore

Cafe de Flore, the latest film from from Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) is one of those films where you have to try harder than most to suspend all levels of logic and reality to accept the film's baffling conclusion. Or maybe not, depending on your belief system. Unfortunately however the resulting story was very much one of two halves. A beautiful story, set in 1960s Paris, about the relationship between a mother and her son with Down syndrome, and the trials and tribulations which come along with that; most notably the boy falling in love with a little girl with a similar condition.

While the other seemingly unrelated story takes place in modern day Montreal about a perfectly healthy man who is suffering the consequences of leaving his childhood sweetheart, whom he married and had two daughters with, for another woman. They're linked, and in more ways than a simple tune which shares the title of the film, and you'll probably never guess why until you watch the film. Even then you might justifiably think it was all a little convoluted. Which is a shame, and here's why...

Had the film been entirely set in the 1960s narrative with the wonderful Vanessa Paradis as Jacqueline, the mother of Laurent (Marin Gerrier) it could have been one of the most moving and beautifully acted period dramas seen in a cinema this year. This really touching story about the lengths a mother goes for her child, that admirable level of commitment seven days a week, nearly 24 hours a day. Then the struggles she faces when she realises the son isn't as overly depended on her like he may have once been, after he meets his new friend. Vallee should be applauded for how he judged this portion of the film, and the level of sensitivity demonstrated with a delicate subject matter at hand.

Unfortunately he decided to bring the modern day narrative into it, which on its own isn't a bad film either, just maybe not quite as interesting. The relationships between the characters and the personal journeys each were set on, was sort of how Terrence Malick's Tree of Life should have progressed if you strip it away of the Douglas Turnbull theatrics - which I'm still a fan of, CGI dinosaurs and all. Or a really pretentious Love Actually. On the face of it, it seems like a man dealing with a mid-life crisis while his ex-wife Carole - played wonderfully by Helen Florent - tries to pick herself up and move on from the fact her husband has found another soul mate.

Visually it can be quite harrowing and uncomfortable to watch, a lot of incoherent night time shots and haunting shots set within the dreams of Carole's character as she comes to terms with the existential conclusions she draws from her dreams and why these two completely different stories are linked through existence. The film's conclusion will either leave you feeling a bit bothered, confused, baffled, or angry at how naff you think it is. The wonderful thing about this film is that it will spark a varying degree of emotions from its audience, but the cynic inside me just feels the director had two good scripts and didn't want to make two short films out of them.

I particularly enjoyed the use of music throughout the film, obviously the song Cafe de Flore featured continuously in a billion* *several different remixes depending on what period the story was set in as a way of linking it across the narratives. Also in the soundtrack was one of my favourite bands of all time, Sigur Ros and even Pink Floyd graced my ears again to reminds myself it's been too long since I've gave Dark Side of the Moon a play on the ipod. Maybe lost a bit of points for the appearance of Snow Patrol in the background, but at least it wasn't yet another repeat of Chasing Cars.

Final Thoughts
Cafe de Flore was two potentially great dramas trying to masquerade as one great film, but the heavy handed management of the film's revelations left it being an okay, reasonably decent film at best. Which is a shame because the acting from both the modern day and past set of truly likeable characters is tremendous, the dynamic and relationships between everyone is handled with grace and the recreation of 1960s Paris is bloody wonderful. It's not that I didn't get the ending, I just didn't believe in it and this film didn't do enough to change that opinion, and perhaps there lies the problem.


Cafe de Flore is in selected cinemas throughout the UK from Friday May 11th, 2012. 

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Avengers Assemble

And so it's finally here, five films, a few A-List actors, a dozen of supporting characters, various devious villains, a few end of the world scenarios and it's all came down to this. Yes, Marvel Films ambitious five year plan to bring the big screen versions of Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, Thor together at the same time is here in the form of Avengers Assemble - or simply The Avengers if you're reading this from the USA.

The man set with the goliath task of juggling these larger than life characters and putting them into a coherent film is - as mentioned in my Cabin in the Woods review - geek god, Joss Whedon. Films like this have always been a little hit or miss in the wrong hands, but since Whedon has experience with ensemble stories in the past such as his brilliant Buffy The Vampire Slayer saga as well as the gloriously doomed sci-fi series Firefly and its film adaptation Serenity, he gets the balance just about right and even throws in a couple of surprises along the way.

The returning stars of the show, Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Chris Evans (Captain America), Scarlet Johansson (Black Widow) and Sam L Jackson (Nick Fury) are exactly how the audience left them in their previous outings and delivered to such entertaining effect. The real surprise however was the brilliant addition of Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk - replacing Ed Norton from the previous big screen version.  His version of Bruce Banner/The Hulk was maybe at an advantage over his two predecessors in the role, getting to play off the sheer absurdity of the situation at hand and developing great chemistry with his co-stars, as oppose to having to carry the film alone, brooding and juggling his inner demons. Due to this Ruffalo's Banner came across much more light hearted incarnation of the character but still managed to explode into life gloriously when he 'Hulked Out'.

It was a bit of a shame Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye didn't get as much chance to shine as some of his team mates did, as he added an extra level of class to the proceedings any time he was on screen. However, his limited use and his screen time with Johansson managed to flesh out his backstory without the need for convoluted flashbacks and moments of angst which would clog up an already packed film. Where a lot of the Marvel films have faltered over the years for me is in the distinct lack of a genuinely interesting villain. Thankfully when (forgive the pun) assembling The Avengers, Whedon opted for the best of the bunch in Tom Hiddleston's Loki who unsurprisingly was excellent from beginning to end; typically dastardly, still licking his wounds from the emotional conclusions of Thor and setting the film up for its explosive action packed third act.

Returning to the fold was a bunch of characters from all the previous films leading up to it in various supporting roles and cameos. Most notable was Clark Gregg as SHIELD agent Phil Coulson, the man whom (with the exception of Fury) ties this universe of characters together. Stellan Skarsgard manages to reprise his supporting role from Thor as scientist Erik Selvig, and plays a bigger role in the overall plot than one might expect. Gwyneth Paltrow even takes the time to share a couple of scenes with RDJ as his on again/off again love interest Pepper Potts while Paul Bettany returns to voice Iron Man's virtual butler, Jarvis.   New to the proceedings and coming across very well in her few scenes was How I Met Your Mother star Cobie Smulders as SHEILD agent, Maria Hill.

Even in a two and a half hour running time, managing to have proper use for all these characters in a meaningful way was always going to cause problems at certain points. Where it stumbles the most is probably in the first act bringing everything together, but unlike say... Nolan's Batman series where the genre was taken in directions it'd never really been before, The Avengers was never about being anything more than a giant, entertaining, spectacle. It's thankfully this in abundance. Almost like a superhero movie equivalent of Comic Relief.  Each and every character gets their chance to shine also, be it in more intimate one-to-one segments like a surprisingly endearing scene between Banner and Stark about The Hulk, or the bigger moments when you see The Hulk utterly level the impending alien invasion heading Earth's.

I don't agree with all the film techniques Whedon used in the film, some really strange camera shots might make you feel queasy if watching the film in 3D - which I thankfully did not. Nevertheless I'd probably rate the film's dialogue and overall delivery as some of the finest work Whedon has scripted in his long and illustrious career, which I can only imagine will go to new levels now off the projected box-office success of this film and the critical acclaim from The Cabin in the Woods. It's been a long and torturous road and when you see films like Battleships getting made you know Hollywood isn't quite there yet but with this and the likes of X-Men: First Class and Super 8 before it and The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus and the Spider-Man reboot to come, I get this warm and fussy - possibly diluted - feeling that the blockbuster genre is starting to return to a more meaningful event status like it did when I was a kid seeing Jurassic Park on the big screen for the first time.

The special effects were brilliant and used in a way Michael Bay should probably take a moment to consider next time he plagues our cinema screens. I particularly enjoyed the set designs for the famous SHIELD heli-carrier which looked like it was ripped straight from the comics. If I'm being overly critical however I'd say the one thing the film was severely lacking was a memorable theme tune in the score. Not to say Alan Silvestri's stellar work was awful, but even as I sit here typing up this review I'm really struggling to hum along to any of it like I would occasionally with Williams' Superman score or Elfman's Batman and his underrated Spider-Man scores.

As usual with Marvel films be sure to stay until after the main credits roll, and for the obligatory cameo from Stan Lee.

Final Thoughts
Avengers Assemble is exactly what you expect from a film where superheroes team up to save the world from an impending, seemingly unwinnable situation. There's loads of action, there's the odd moment of tension, there's a dastardly villain and scattered throughout a lot of moments of genuine comic relief. Don't expect it to be a game changer, don't expect it to be the finest example the genre has to offer, because it definitely isn't. However even the harshest of cynics can't deny the sights of Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America and Thor standing together, saving the world isn't some of the most satisfying entertainment you'll see on a big screen for some time. Well done, Mr Whedon. Well done.


Avengers Assemble is in cinemas everywhere now. 

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

If there is one name you better get use to hearing through April 2012, then it is undoubtedly the one of Mr Joss Whedon; geek god and creator of such wonderful things like the acclaimed TV series of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and such cult hits as Firefly, Dollhouse and Angel. He even has a writing credit to his name on the now legendary Pixar fable, Toy Story and an extremely impressive run on Marvel's X-Men comics. He's also directed one of the biggest blockbusters this year. However, before he assembles the most anticipated superhero ensemble in...well...ever in The Avengers later this month, he took time to co-write and produce this intimate little horror tale called The Cabin in the Woods, directed by fellow collaborator Drew Goddard.

Much like Whedon and Goddard's previous projects, Cabin in the Woods takes a tired and predictable old formula of good looking kids getting mauled in a forest one by one by a deathly, satanic, horrific force and turns it on its head. With the exception of a few ponderous occurrences featuring the always brilliant Bradley Whitford (most famous for his turn as Josh in Aaron Sorkin's exceptional political drama, The West Wing) and an excellent Richard Jenkins the film starts out pretty much how you would expect a film like The Cabin in the Woods would. The secluded cabin, the creaky dark cellar, the uneasy back-story of a cruel family from the turn of the century and those pesky kids getting stoned, drunk, playing truth and/or dare and meddling with forces beyond their control.

If you've seen the trailer - for full effect I seriously suggest you don't - you'll already see nothing is quite what it seems and as the film's plot quickly unravels it paints a much darker and surprisingly more ambitious tale than previously imagined. Some of the plot is slightly suggestive of a few story arcs from Whedon's Buffy The Vampire series which will put die hard fans of the show into a fit of wonders, but it also cleverly uses his slick dialogue and almost satirical storytelling to give the audience a fitting tribute to all the best movies of the genre.

It has echoes of The Evil Dead in abundance, it also has hints of Hellraiser, The Exorcist, The Hills Have Eyes, The Strangers, The Ring, The Wolfman, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Prince of Darkness, Texas Chainshaw amongst countless others. It also does a curious thing where, due to aspects of the plot I'll try so hard not to spoil here, you find yourself wanting the impending victims to all get killed. Not because they're vain, moronic, stuck-up douchebags like in most of these films. They're not. Quite the opposite in fact, they feature extremely charismatic and likeable performances from Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchinson, Frans Kranz, Jesse Williams and a wonderful turn from Kristen Connolly in arguably the leading role.

It has a fun time of showing why in the event of death lurking outside the door, common sense seemingly goes right out the window during these sorts of movies. While the kids are fleeing from all kinds of crazy stuff, you have a curious Truman Show-esque sub-plot going on featuring the aforementioned Whitford and Jenkins alongside fun appearances from Whedon stalwarts, Amy Acker and Tom Lenk as well as Tim De Zarn, Brian White and a delightfully poised cameo from Sigourney Weaver. The only thing it was missing was a few choice appearances from the Serenity crew and some fans might have geeked out to death in a corner somewhere...

Don't let all this fool you though, this isn't a slightly more serious version of the Scary Movie franchise by any means. It still contains enough jumpy horror, gore, guts and unnerving scenes to appease anyone wanting a decent scare. Though unlike its storytelling the actual horror aspect is really nothing you haven't seen in all the films it pays tribute to many times before.

Final Thoughts
From a man who really doesn't enjoy watching horror films compared to most of the movie going public, I put my hands up and say The Cabin in the Woods is one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences I've had so far in 2012 and will happily watch it again right now if asked. It's smart, funny, horrific and contains some playful dialogue and fantastic performances from some of the most hard-working, most celebrated and simply most likeable American actors working in television at the minute. Essential for fans of horror, equally so if you're not.


The Cabin in the Woods is in cinemas everywhere now.

Sunday, 1 April 2012


Following in the footsteps of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo is the latest Scandinavian literary phenomenon to sweep the murder mystery genre and yet again turning it on its head with bleak Nordic landscapes, mind boggling plot twists and a memorable protagonist in the form of Detective Harry Hole. With The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Wallander proving amazing hits with the USA and Europe, it was only a matter of time before someone took all this and turned it into a big screen adaptation. However, before Martin Scorsese brings Harry Hole to the cinema sometime in the next couple of years, some folks in Nesbo's native country of Norway opted to to adapt his lesser known and seemingly utterly terrific stand alone thriller, Headhunters (Hodejegenre).

Starring Aksel Hennie, the film tells the tale of corporate headhunter Roger Brown, an insecure and desperate man who resorts to stealing works of art to provide for his wife's expensive tastes in life. Upon a chance encounter at the opening of his beautiful wife's new art gallery, he goes on one last heist for a piece of art belonging to a mysterious ex-marine by the name of Clas Greve (Game of Thrones' own Jamie Lannister, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) which is thought to be worth hundreds of millions of krones. Unsurprisingly when the heist goes wrong and Roger stumbles onto a bigger plot, which results in a deathly chase on his own life, the film desecnds into an action packed journey of total, utter carnage the stuff of which Nicolas Winding Refn would be proud of.

Where Headhunters proves to be one of the stand out releases in the cinema, so far this year, is in its completely seamless merging of various sub-genres. It opens almost as this strange caper parody, where this suave businessman who loves his wife just goes on a To Catch A Thief-esque night life of  stealing glorious pieces of art and sleeping with his mistress then coming back to his mundane job in the morning. Yet curiously as the film progresses and plot twists are revealed all over the place, the film morphs into this smartly written, no holds barred action film full of pretty mental violence and intense car chases...with a tractor...and an unfortunate end to a dog. But anyway...

From the same company, Yellow Bird, that brought the original Wallander series and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo adaptations, one of the most telling things about Headhunters is how the money generated from the success of the previous two franchises has clearly reaped dividends in this superior, clearly bigger budget feature.The production quality was just lifted to a much more measured and mature level, with some terrific pacing and slick story-telling.

The quality of actors was also evident, with Hennie proving to be an endearing lead as the protagonist, while Coster-Waldau plays a role not unlike his devious, backstabbing, complex, silent assassin persona of Jamie Lannister in the excellent Game of Thrones, as the villain of the piece Clas Greve. Special mention must go to the blonde beauty of Synnove Macody as Roger's wife Diane and Eivind Sander as Roger's partner in crime, the utterly bonkers, gun and prostitute obsessed Ove.

Final Thoughts
If you didn't know Jo Nesbo from constantly seeing his books on the shelves of Waterstones, then you'll undoubtedly have your interest peaked after seeing this highly charged, genre-bending, carnage inspiring, action packed example of a film in Headhunters. It has action, intensity, a lot of really creditable black humour and some terrific performances and a few really choice moments which will give the more risque moments of films like Drive a run for their money. The Scandinavian invasion continues. Hunt it out right now. Well, what are you waiting for?


Headhunters is in selected cinemas throughout the UK from April 6th, 2012.