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Posts Tagged ‘2011’

Looking back through the collected works, it occurs to me that I may, on occasion, have come across as just a bit snarky and oh-ho-ho about the life and works of Jason Statham – ‘my kitchen can act better’ (about The Transporter), ‘a nuanced performer he is not’ (Transporter 2), ‘Statham in genuinely good movie shocker’ (Killer Elite), and so on. I think I am guilty of misrepresenting myself, as I’ve never seen a Statham-led movie I haven’t enjoyed on some level, but more importantly doing the man himself a disservice: Statham is clearly aware of his own range as a performer and operates inside it exceedingly well. He hasn’t quite made a gilt-edged classic yet, but neither has he put his name to a complete dog (it’s just occurred to me that I should watch Revolver before throwing that kind of assertion about).

On the other hand, it might not go amiss were he to stretch himself just a little more in his choice of roles – because long stretches of Simon West’s The Mechanic are virtually interchangeable with bits from other Statham movies, or other recent action movies generally. It has the same colour-saturated cinematography, the same kind of graphic design, the same aesthetic, the same sensibility – with the insertion of a bare minimum of new material I suspect you could edit The Mechanic, Colombiana, either of the first two Transporters and Haywire together into one sprawling six-hour epic, so very similar are all of these movies.

In The Mechanic Jason Statham plays… well, officially, someone called Arthur Bishop, but really he’s just playing his standard Jason Statham Character. (There’s a broad unity between most of his roles, moreso even than with the average action movie star.) For the benefit of newcomers, the Jason Statham Character is a highly skilled and extremely dangerous mercenary, who is also either blessed or saddled with a strict code of personal honour which he does his best to abide by at all times. He has feelings, but most of the time he knows better than to show or act upon them – except when the plot demands it, of course. In this movie the Jason Statham Character is a professional assassin who specialises in invisible killings (making it look like an accident, in other words).

The Jason Statham Character’s code is stretched, however, when he is called upon to terminate his own mentor, Harry (Donald Sutherland), who has apparently gone bad. He initially demurs from this, but the client – another member of the same nebulous organisation – is insistent and makes the point that surely the Jason Statham Character would prefer to do it himself, and be sure that Harry doesn’t suffer unnecessarily. Harry himself expresses relief on the same point when the deed is actually done – there’s a strange commingling of sentiment and brutality here which I found rather creepy, to be honest.

Anyway, motivated largely by guilt, the Jason Statham Character takes on Harry’s troubled son Steve (Ben Foster) as an apprentice – not bothering to tell him that he killed his father, of course. Needless to say, Steve has issues of all kinds, which perhaps mean he’s not the best person for this line of work. And what will happen if he ever finds out the truth about his father’s demise…?

Well, The Mechanic is a solidly competent action thriller which should satisfy fans of both the genre and Statham himself. That it isn’t anything more is a shame, because West has previously shown himself to be a superior director and there are flashes here of what could have been a rather more accomplished movie.

Part of the problem is that the movie could really use another fifteen or twenty minutes to add onto the relatively brief running time: for most of its length the film is building up the relationship between Bishop and Steve, and at the same time increasing one’s expectations of what will kick off when – inevitably – Steve learns the truth about his father’s death. One kind of expects the climax of the movie to be an extended battle of wits and skill between master and apprentice. Suffice to say it’s nothing of the sort; the bulk of the movie turns out to revolve around a seen-this-before hero-is-screwed-over-by-his-own-employers plot, with the stuff you’ve been expecting handled in a very cursory way almost as an afterthought.

So the plot is a bit lopsided and doesn’t deliver on what it appears to be promising. On the other hand, what it delivers instead is a series of effective action sequences and character bits, slickly assembled and presented. Some of it is a little far-fetched – it’s a fairly big ask to have as total a professional as Bishop decide to take a loose cannon like Steve on as a trainee – but the script and (to be fair to him) Statham both work hard to make Bishop’s guilt (and thus his desire to help Harry’s son) plausible. As I mentioned, there’s nothing really very new going on here, but what does happen is playing to the strengths of the performers.

And, as I mentioned, there are moments that lift the film briefly above the average – early on we see Bishop meeting a woman in a bar, they dance, it then transpires they’re lovers – and you think, ah ha, she’s the girlfriend who doesn’t know what his job is, she’s going to get caught in the middle of this and force him to reappraise his lifestyle. But almost instantly the film kicks all this out from under you: she’s simply a prostitute Bishop regularly uses, and for all that she’s the top-billed woman she’s barely in the film (no pun intended). Your expectation of the worst kind of cliches is, refreshingly, not met. This kind of intelligence in a genre movie is welcome no matter how fleetingly it manifests itself.

This is a movie with a slightly harder edge than many action films, but not to the point where it ever becomes too gruelling or realistic to be entertaining. That said, there’s a slightly lurid flavour to it in a couple of places – a couple of incidental victims of the two hitmen both turn out to be sex offenders, for no other reason than to reassure the audience that they really do deserve to be executed. I can really do without this kind of material, to be honest: a dumb action movie it may be, but this just struck me as salacious and unnecessary.

Apart from this there was very little in The Mechanic I found myself taking exception to and a lot that I rather enjoyed. I must confess that a little more of Statham himself, properly in action, wouldn’t have gone amiss, but his actual performances these days are more than competent enough to lead a movie with the minimum of martial arts nonsense being required. This movie doesn’t quite give you exactly what it suggests it will, but it comes close enough to be satisfying.

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I feel the need to mark the passing of one year and the start of another in some form, but not (you may be pleased to hear) in the form of any kind of Best of 2011 list. So this is more a sort of general look back and very brief peek forward.

Getting the tedious stuff out of the way first, speaking personally, 2011 went very nicely for me, despite the fact I didn’t actually make a profit on the year, didn’t have a professional experience as good as the best one of 2010, haven’t managed to resolve any of the dangling personal issues from this time last year, and am still living in a garret. January and early February were rather dark days for me, despite the fact that for the first time ever I got paid for a piece of writing work – I had no idea if I had any kind of future in my chosen profession, and the realisation that the novel manuscript I’d spent November writing was 115,000 words of suck was not an easy one to digest.

However! I received the best birthday present imaginable when an old friend got a new job, and his first act was to give me a new job. I have been there now for ten months (on and off) and have no plans to make a permanent departure either. On top of this I finally managed to scrape a place on a Diploma course and that’s going better than I could have hoped for, too. So there are much worse places I could be in right now. The main priority for the first half of this year is to pass the course, but I would also like to have a slightly smoother summer job experience as well. If the prospect of a hassle-free divorce came along I’d jump at that as well, I expect (any experts on international law reading this, please get in touch) – not because I have any plans or expectations in that arena, but because it’s nice to keep things tidy.

The blog (you’re reading it) has ticked over nicely, boosted somewhat by my decision to back up all my old (2001-2009) film reviews from h2g2 here. As it turned out h2g2 survived the year so this was arguably a waste of time, but it’s nice to have everything together. The decision to change the blog name from So Much More Than This to the (I thought) punchier and more informative current title coincided with the number of average daily visits plummeting by at least two thirds: so there we have it, folks – if you want to be read, be vague.

A rare photo of Lacey Banghard where her face is the most prominent element.

Or write about glamour models. My most popular pieces this year (by a country mile) were both gag items about the page 3 girl Lacey Banghard. Slightly depressing but not surprising. Neither depressing nor really surprising were the continuing popularity of old items about Doctor Who bad guys and The Wicker Man (more accurately, photos from The Wicker Man – my actual review of the movie is seldom looked at, but the one for The Man with the Golden Gun is a banker).  Altogether more mysterious is the steady popularity of my thoughts concerning the obscure and rotten Hammer movie The Viking Queen, which is well inside the top 10 list of all-time most popular film reviews. Hmmm.

Carita in The Viking Queen. For some reason I feel I should reiterate that this really was meant to be a serious film.

I wrote less about Doctor Who this year than I would have expected, mainly because I’m not quite sure what to make of the show at the moment – it’s clearly brilliant on so many levels and yet it also routinely leaves me exasperated and unsatisfied. The head writer is brilliant, the regular cast is very good, the writers are mostly great and the inventors are unceasingly inventive – so why is the actual programme no better than ‘pretty good, but…’? I don’t know. I feel a traitorous cur for even voicing these thoughts, to be honest. (Case in point: the Christmas special was so slight and felt – for the most part – so inconsequential that I haven’t bothered to review or even re-watch it. Something is wrong somewhere.)

Masses of film reviews, of course, as you could have guessed. I could gripe about the low standard of behaviour in Oxford multiplexes, or the mixed fortunes of the year, and so on, but I’ve just written a thing all about that as an h2g2 original and I can’t be bothered to recycle it. So, in a nutshell:  the worst film of 2011 was The Three Musketeers, the best three (in reverse order) were Submarine, Never Let Me Go and The Guard, and the one I’m most looking forward to from 2012 is (tough call this one)… The Dark Knight Rises. Never afraid to run with the flock, this blog.

Brendan Gleeson as The Guard, my pick of the year's films.

It’s all gone a bit quiet on the wargamey front, mainly because the Diploma doesn’t allow me the time or money to do it properly. This year was mainly about the new Blood Angels army I’d been considering since 1997. Looks nice and I’m happy with much of it but it turned out to be a tough one to use well. My inability to actually get a WFB army anywhere near finished proved increasingly annoying too. Come August I may be able to do something about this.

I think the uke may be filling the role in my life that wargaming previously took, anyway, in that there’s a very precise technical element to it as well as a personal and creative one. I have no reason to think that the two shouldn’t be able to co-exist once the Diploma is out of the way – I suspect they may actually synergise quite well. We shall see.

Anyway, that was 2011. Despite all the little niggles and annoyances, if 2012 turns out to be of the same standard I don’t think I’ll have grounds for complaint – so fingers crossed and let’s find out.

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Back we go again to that beloved world where old war wounds migrate, snakes are partial to milk, martial arts styles are somewhat fictitious and first names are oddly mutable: yes, it’s time for a look at Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, directed as before by Guy Ritchie. Portraying the immortal characters involved are, once again, Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, and Jude Law as Doctor Watson, while Eddie Marsan, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly and Geraldine James briefly reprise their roles from the first film as Lestrade, Irene Adler, Mary Morstan and Mrs Hudson respectively. New to proceedings this time around are Stephen Fry as Mycroft, Paul Anderson as Sebastian Moran, and Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty.

Only very loosely following on from the previous movie, this film finds Moriarty behind a Machiavellian plot to start the First World War twenty years early (pretty much the same plan he had when he appeared in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, but I am in no position to criticise his lack of imagination as I used the same joke on that occasion too). Holmes and Watson are, of course, on the case, only mildly distracted by Watson’s looming nuptials. Their pursuit of the master criminal leads them across Europe, from Paris into Germany, and beyond, to a final confrontation high in the Swiss Alps.

The story is a very, very, very loose adaptation of The Final Problem, but you have to be on the ball to really spot this, as the signs are mostly hidden beneath many layers of comedy squabbling between Downey and Law, and also spectacular action set-pieces. Nevertheless this is still an improvement on the wholly original and somehow slightly unsatisfying story from Sherlock Holmes. And it’s very apparent that the writers have done their research and really delved deep into Conan Doyle’s works – there are so many little details in this film which add nothing to the story, but will mean the world to Sherlockians (Holmes’ birth year is got right, as is the name of Moriarty’s most famous work), that it would be very difficult to give this film a completely hard time.

Nevertheless, I still don’t think either of the Ritchie films are really premium Holmes, though for a while I struggled to settle on why. I don’t think it’s entirely down to the presentation of the two leads (though I do find Downey’s Holmes to be a bit too mad and dishevelled, and Law’s Watson a bit too irascible, for either to really convince), but more the way that the scripts of these films cheerfully detonate the structure of the original stories. You know – Holmes and Watson are enjoying breakfast in Baker Street, someone arrives with a seemingly-inexplicable problem, Holmes springs into action, etc, etc. Holmes as a martial artist and self-employed gentleman adventurer is by no means utterly inconsistent with Conan Doyle, but the very texture of the stories in these films is not recognisable as that of the classic Holmes canon.

Indeed, in this film there’s a sequence where Holmes and Watson have to machine-gun their way out of an enemy base which is much more like a Bond film than anything else. The action in this movie is well-mounted and the whole thing has been lavishly put together, with sumptuous production values and cinematography. And the movie is stuffed with moments verging on the brilliant – every time Holmes and Moriarty have a scene together, for example – even if things do occasionally get a bit silly (some of Holmes’ disguises stretch credulity to its utmost limits).

And whatever you may make of the two lead roles, there is some fantastic acting going on here – Noomi Rapace is a bit underused as the female lead, but Stephen Fry is terrific as Mycroft (revealing yet another new side to his talents), and Jared Harris is even better as Moriarty.

Our time is curiously blessed – received wisdom has it that in years gone by, every generation had one and only one Sherlock Holmes worthy of consideration, whether that be William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett. And yet we are lucky enough to have both Downey’s version of the character and Benedict Cumberbatch’s to enjoy, the latter in Sherlock.

Sherlock comes back on TV in a few weeks, promising its own take on The Final Problem, and it will no doubt be interesting to compare the two. Sherlock may not have the big Hollywood money behind it, with the associated production values, but in terms of wit and intelligence and – above all else – fidelity to the original stories, for me it outguns the Guy Ritchie movies in virtually every department.

But, that said, this movie is an enjoyably frenetic and inventive way of spending a couple of hours, and certainly better than the first one. Is A Game of Shadows a classic interpretation of the Sherlock Holmes mythos? Absolutely not, but then I’m not sure it was ever intended to be. Is it a fun and satisfying piece of blockbuster entertainment? Yeah, pretty much – so I suppose we should settle for that.

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Explicitly religious movies seem to have fallen out of favour somewhat (and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that), but if you’re going to release one then this is a good time of year to do so. It may be that this is the philosophy that has led to Nanni Moretti’s Habemas Papem (We Have A Pope) enjoying a UK run at the moment.

This movie is being marketed (and, indeed, in the case of many critics, received) as a comedy, for all that it opens with documentary scenes of the most sombre kind. It’s set in present day Italy, where the Pope has just passed away. Grieving crowds throng St Peter’s Square and the cardinals of the Catholic Church have assembled to elect a successor.

However, none of the pre-Conclave favourites manage to land the top job, which instead goes to the relative unknown Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), who is astounded by this elevation. Nevertheless he is garbed and prepared as the pontiff in the traditional manner, right up until the moment at which he is to be introduced to the world. At this point the new Pope has a bout of the screaming ab-dabs, runs away and hides.

This causes some consternation, especially when a medical examination reveals the Pope is physically sound: he just doesn’t believe himself to be up to the job, and is now in fact suffering from hysterical amnesia. The Vatican is forced to call in a psychoanalyst (Moretti) to give the Pope therapy, despite the fact that the Catholic Church publically repudiates this kind of treatment.

Matters are not helped when the Pope goes AWOL to live incognito somewhere in Rome while he decides what to do. As the results of the election have still technically yet to be announced to the world, this means that the psychoanalyst and the increasingly restive Cardinals are trapped in the Vatican together until the Pope can be found and persuaded to do his job…

Papal comedy is a vanishingly tiny subgenre – I don’t think Angels and Demons really qualifies, which leaves our only other example Peter Richardson’s The Pope Must Die. We Have A Pope is a lot more thoughtful and interesting than that movie, but as to its value as a genuine comedy – I have my doubts.

Anyone expecting something as irreverent and bold as Father Ted is in for a disappointment, as – possibly inevitably, given it’s an Italian film – it’s broadly sympathetic throughout, towards both the Papacy and Catholicism. The seriousness of the situation in the film is not undercut or underplayed, which would usually bode well for laughs. And in places this works rather well – early on we are made privy to the private prayers of the Cardinals, and in a subversion of expectation, they’re all essentially saying ‘Please, not me.’ This quiet, humane joke really sets the tone for the film.

However, the movie really struggles to stay consistent with it. It’s being sold largely on the strength of the Pope-gets-psychoanalysed angle, but this is really just only one scene, quite early on. It’s a very funny scene, admittedly, as Moretti’s character struggles to do his job given the very long list of areas which he is not allowed to enquire into, but the film doesn’t follow up on it much.

Instead, much of the rest of the film see-saws back and forth between quite serious sequences of the Pope questioning himself and observing the everyday life of Rome, and some very broad, droll, and absurd comedy as Moretti has to find increasingly improbable ways of keeping the Cardinals from going stir-crazy. Piccoli and Moretti are both excellent, in different ways – Piccoli in particular gives a very plausible and moving portrayal of self-doubt and uncertainty. But the two threads of the film don’t feel like they connect on more than the most perfunctory level.

The movie unravels still further in the climax, which in places feels both contrived and unsatisfying. This is one of those films where the audience stay pinned to their seats as the credits roll, not because they don’t want the experience to finish or because they’re stunned by the final scenes, but because the film provides hardly any sense of closure. Given that this is supposedly a comedy, the fact that the closest thing one gets to a final message concerns the inescapability of human frailty is decidedly odd.

But then this is a very odd film anyway. I haven’t seen any of Nanni Moretti’s other films (I thought I had, but it turned out I was thinking of Maurizio Nichetti – oops), but his direction is effective and adroit and he is very funny on screen as well. Ultimately, however, We Have A Pope is a movie which has several very interesting and/or funny ideas – but it can’t seem to find a coherent story to tell with them, and ends up being too silly to work as a drama but not consistently funny enough to qualify as a successful ‘pure’ comedy.

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In the past I have occasionally commented on the subtle way that improvements in computer technology have impacted on the film-making process. Specifically, it’s not that difficult now to make high-quality CGI come out of commercially-available hardware, which means that high-concept SF visuals are no longer beyond the reach of the cash-strapped independent film maker (what a hyphen-heavy first paragraph this has turned out to be).

Such an indie project is Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, although if anyone’s name belongs above the title it’s that of Brit Marling. Indeed, this is definitely A Brit Marling Film, as the young woman in question writes, produces and stars in the movie. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with this, of course.

Marling plays Rhoda, a bright teenage girl with a glittering future – until she makes the mistake of driving under the influence one night, and smashes her car into that of composer and music professor John Burroughs (William Mapother), putting him briefly into a coma and killing his wife and child. Emerging from prison some years later, Rhoda struggles to find a reason to live, consumed with regret over her past actions. She finds herself drawn to Burroughs’ house, intending to apologise, but her nerve fails her and she instead starts working as his cleaning lady. Completely unaware of who she really is, Burroughs accepts her into his life and the two find themselves becoming close…

That’s all very well, Awix, you may be saying, but why is this movie called Another Earth? A good question, well asked. Congratulations. Well, in tandem with all this going on is another plotline about a new planet being discovered in the solar system. As it approaches Earth, scientists realise that the two worlds are identical, twins in every respect, and communications with this mirror world are soon in place. (Meanwhile, people with socks over their faces and lamps on their heads turn up at the South Pole and start causing no end of trouble… only kidding.)

You can look at this movie in a number of ways. In its combination of art-housey character drama and big-concept SF it bears a striking resemblence to Melancholia – there are a couple of scenes which are practically identical (though Marling is less forthcoming than Kirsten Dunst was in the basking-in-planetlight sequence), and both films gaily disregard the realities of celestial mechanics. But on the whole this is a much less accomplished film than von Trier’s.

The SF element is, for one thing, cobblers, with no explanation given as to why there happens to be two planets floating around which are exact duplicates of each other. I know I mentioned this up the page, but the film flatly ignores the laws of physics when it comes to things like tidal forces and gravitational shear: another Earth floating close to ours would cause a global catastrophe, not provide the occasion for soul-searching that it does here.

This isn’t even really proper SF, which at its best is about introducing a completely new element into a recognisable world and then exploring the ramifications of that in a vaguely systematic way. The twin planet idea here is just a way of articulating this film’s central theme, albeit in a grindingly obvious way. It’s very clear that this film is about the desire for second chances and the mysteries of roads not travelled: sticking another planet into the story and making the theme literal just makes the film seem simple-minded. Apparently this film won an award for Best Film with a Scientific Theme: steam probably came out of my ears when I read that.

This movie would probably have worked better as a more down-to-earth drama – the other planet has very little impact on the plot proper until near the end – though it’s still quite heavy-going in its early stages. Bashingly unsubtle dialogue and am-dram performances from the supporting cast are one thing, but there’s also the fact that we’re clearly intended to see the full depths of misery to which Rhoda has sunk. This takes the form of a lot of cleaning, in various venues: we see her scrubbing a set of school toilets, mopping the corridors of the same institution, wiping down Burrough’s kitchen table, folding his laundry, and so on. A little of this goes a long way, and the audience is generously provided with these domestic goings-on, along with more surprising material concerning the two leads playing on a Wii at what feels like great length, and Mapother serenading someone on a musical saw (one should not mock: the film implies this instrument has remarkable aphrodisiac powers).

At this point I was ready to dismiss Another Earth (well, kick it out the door, if we’re honest) as another example of preposterous arthouse pretension, overpraised for simply being different. But, as the story goes on the relationship between Marling and Mapother becomes rather engrossing and affecting – both of them equally messed up by the same accident, and stumbling towards some kind of redemption or renewal through their contact with the other. Both the leads are rather good at this point and it’s clear that some thought has gone into the movie: not necessarily good thought, but still.

Inevitably, of course, the plot resolves itself through some shenanigans involving the other Earth – I say resolves itself, but it doesn’t, quite. Many more questions are raised than the film even begins to answer and the conclusion itself borders on the actively irritating. Still, there are just – just! – enough interesting things about this film to stop it from being a dud and a waste of time. As I say, it would probably have worked much better without the SF – but as it is, Another Earth is an interesting failure, nothing more.

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Well, the Christmas blockbuster season is descending upon us as usual, and it’s interesting to consider how it compares to its larger summer cousin: fewer films, obviously, perhaps slightly more aimed at a younger audience (not that many summer movies aren’t utterly juvenile), sometimes more of an aura of quality (no doubt due to the overlap with the release of Oscar-bait movies). But apart from that the big Christmas releases aren’t that different from the summer ones – there’s the usual reliance on sequels, series, and big-name properties (skewed more towards the traditionally literary than comic books, though).

Which makes Hugo a bit of an anomaly, in some ways – while this is a big, lavish movie with virtually an all-star cast, it’s based on a novel that I’d never heard of (and I suspect most other people haven’t, either). So what are the makers relying on to draw in the crowds? Well, it seems to me they’re relying on something rather unusual – not just the use of 3D, which is not the novelty it was even last year, but 3D in the hands of a master director, an acclaimed film-maker not usually associated with what is – let’s face it – still a gimmick.

The man in question is Martin Scorsese, someone with a stellar reputation but not much associated with family entertainment. Parents need not fear: no-one’s head is put in a vice, no pimps are executed, and no-one gouges one of their own eyes out with a knife. What we get instead is the classically-told tale of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan living in the main railway station of Paris in the late 1920s. Hugo is the last of a family of clockmakers – his mother died when he was very young (i.e., off-screen), and his father (Jude Law, briefly) in a museum fire. Now in the nominal care of his boozy uncle (Ray Winstone, even more briefly), he is maintaining all the clocks, while trying to avoid the station Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) and repair the automaton (a clockwork man who basically looks like Maria from Metropolis‘ grandad) he and his father were renovating when he died.

Hugo’s quest for parts for the automaton leads him to meet the proprietor of the station toy booth (Ben Kingsley) – well, basically he steals clockwork toys. The old man, when he learns of Hugo’s obsession, is inexplicably appalled, and confiscates Hugo’s notebooks about the mechanism. Hugo is forced to ask the old man’s god-daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) for help, and together they set out to discover the secret of the automaton and its connection to the toy store owner…

Well, as you possibly tell, there’s not a huge amount there that screams ‘big movie potential’ – but if Hugo proves anything, it’s that it’s not what you’ve got, but what you do with it. In almost every department this is a film made to the highest possible standards. Scorsese demonstrates his usual utter mastery of composition and camera movement, John Logan’s script is dense with imagery and detail, yet still always unfolds cleanly and clearly, and the production values are faultless.

The actors are all impeccable too, for all that there is something inescapably odd about a film set in Paris, featuring an almost exclusively British cast, who all speak in an American idiom (so ‘figure something out’ rather than ‘work something out’, ‘get mad’ rather than ‘get angry’, and so on), but this is only a minor distraction most of the time. Possibly more of an issue is Sacha Baron Cohen’s very broadly comedic performance – very much Basil Fawlty meets Inspector Clouseau – which seems to have wandered in from a rather less subtle movie.

There is real strength in depth amongst the supporting cast, too – popping up here are the likes of Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Helen McCrory, Emily Mortimer, and – a total surprise to me – Christopher Lee, as potent a screen presence as ever (and still obviously knowing his own mind: he’s the only person present who actually does a French accent).

And what about the 3D? Well, it’s an integral part of the conception of the movie, as far as I can see, but the strange thing is that after a while I barely noticed it was there. The even stranger thing is that, for me, if 3D has a future then Scorsese has shown us the way to it – not intrusive or gimmicky, but considered and understated. It’s a fundamental element of the movie – the opening sequence of this movie is a stunning piece of work, and nothing that follows quite matches it – but it is only an element, rather than the sine qua non of the film.

The 3D is also pertinent to one of the themes of the film, which is the story of the birth of cinema – Scorsese is using cutting-edge 21st century movie technology to illuminate the earliest history of 19th century films. A number of these very old films are referenced in the course of the narrative, which will doubtless please other movie geeks. Then again, already being aware of the massive achievements of the first great movie directors, I was perhaps more ready than most to indulge the film in what at times feels like a slightly didactic and digressive commentary on the subject. Certainly the second half of the film, though finishing strongly and satisfyingly, lacks the involving narrative drive of the first.

If I had to describe Hugo concisely, I would have to say that it rather reminded of a live-action Studio Ghibli movie. This may sound strange, but this movie has had the same meticulous attention to detail lavished upon it, it has the same eye for the baroque and mildly grotesque, and the same classic narrative virtues. It also has virtually no trace of an American sensibility beyond a few idiosyncrasies amongst the dialogue – not in and of itself a good thing, of course, but refreshingly different from most films of this size. But then this is a refreshingly different, very well-made, and consistently interesting and enjoyable film.

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A rare collision of different blog strands tonight, as another silly old film review collides with one of my vague and unhelpful disquisitions on the playing, or not, of the ukulele. This is probably more interesting to followers of the latter than the former, simply because Tony Coleman and Margaret Meagher’s Mighty Uke is being released into the world one cinema at a time – or, to put it more accurately, the film-makers are taking it on tour.

I knew that this groundbreaking uke-umentary was only making a single appearance in Oxford. This in itself seemed uncannily well-timed as I only learned of it within hours of taking up the uke myself. While I was also aware of the events supporting the showing, I didn’t know quite what an unusual evening this was to be. I was standing in the ticket line when a disparate group in matching t-shirts arrived and introduced themselves to the Phoenix staff with cheery cries of ‘We’re the Mighty Uke people!’ You don’t get that down the local Odeon.

So I took my place in the theatre, looking around surreptitiously for ukes amongst the crowd (I had, of course, brought my own), but was interrupted by the appearance of a stocky Canadian in a cap in front of the screen. Rather to my surprise this turned out to be the film’s director, Tony Coleman: the ‘Mighty Uke people’ were not particularly rabid fans of the movie, but the actual film-makers themselves. Having the director turn up in person and thank you for coming is a very gratifying experience, and I’m surprised more movies don’t arrange something similar. With the way the evening would go having been explained, the film rolled.

Coleman and Meagher’s film is about the ukulele; partly the history of this remarkable instrument, but mainly concerned with the current boom in its popularity. They set their cards on the table from practically the first sequence, which portrays the celebrated uke soloist Jake Shimabukuro in action: suspicions that anyone involved is going to treat the ukulele as a joke or in a remotely condescending manner at utterly blown away.

From hereon the movie proceeds at a fairly brisk trot for the rest of its 80-minute running time, starting by covering the extent of the current ukulele boom (players from as far afield as Japan and Israel make an appearance), and the reasons for its popularity. The ease of starting to play is, rightly, addressed, along with the pleasingly low expectations surrounding the instrument (both reasons why I myself took up the uke).

After this there is a lengthy segment on the history of the instrument, beginning in Hawaii in 1879 and proceeding through the 20th century, and interviews with notable players both past and present (one of whom, the 103-year-old veteran Bill Tapia, died only days before the screening I went to). These run the gamut from traditional folksy performers, to singer-songwriter Uni and her Ukulele, to Jon Braman (an extraordinary hip-hop ukulele player from New York), to Scandinavian punk uker Elvira Bira, and finally to the Canadian virtuoso James Hill whose talents on the instrument almost seem to defy logic.

From hereon the movie segues again, to look at one of Canada’s most distinguished ukulele groups, the Langley Ukulele Ensemble (of which Hill is an alumnus) and their almost insanely enthusiastic teacher. Needless to say their skills are such that every summer they play a residency in Hawaii, and the film follows them on one such trip.

British audiences will no doubt have one major question: and the answer is, yes, George Formby does appear in the film – but we hardly get to hear that legendary right hand in action, doubtless for rights clearance reasons. The same presumably explains the omission of other noted performers such as the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain or Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. There’s hardly any Jake Shimabukuro in it either, really – the only modern great who gets serious screen-time is Hill, frequently described as the world’s greatest ukulele player, who was clearly heavily involved with the production behind-the-scenes.

Hill has a point when he talks about the extraordinary musical sleight-of-hand a well-played ukulele is capable of – the sounds it generates seem so far in excess of what the musician is doing to it – but I think the appeal of the instrument is far simpler. It’s impossible to listen to decent uke music without feeling just a tiny bit uplifted and cheered, and the sound of massed ukes playing together is, quite simply, absurdly joyous.

A wise man (not me) has said that a great documentary makes you interested in a topic you knew nothing about previously. As a uke player myself, I was probably always going to enjoy a film which celebrated the instrument, but even so I think this is a great little film. I don’t think it’s perfect – the structure doesn’t lend itself to much of a climax and the film seems to stop rather abruptly – but another wise man (and this time it was me) has commented on the suicide-inducing qualities of most allegedly ‘feel good’ movies: I’ve never seen Mighty Uke described in those terms, but for me this was one of the most simply enjoyable films I’ve seen all year.

And the evening did not conclude with the end of the film – following a short intermission, we moved forward to cram the front two or three rows of the theatre, as James Hill himself was accompanying the tour and performed a brief set with his accompanist, the cellist Anne Davison. When not telling fairly droll anecdotes about being interned in Singapore on suspicion of having bird flu, Hill showed off his own skills and the versatility of the uke by playing folk songs, jazz, original compositions, and then rounding off with his celebrated arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, playing percussion, rhythm and melody simultaneously on a single uke. One of the most astounding pieces of musicianship I’ve ever seen.

Finally, there was the promised ukulele jam, and it seemed that most of the crowd had brought their own ukes. (Another thing you don’t get down the Odeon – though I suspect if I turned up to the latest Twilight and started strumming along to the action I would be bodily ejected from the showing.) My Makala MK-SC seemed very humble given the distinguished instruments suddenly appearing all around, but this was no time for bashfulness. The sound of twenty-five ukuleles and a cello tuning up simultaneously is not one which is easily described, and only added to my concern that the A-string on my own uke is an octave low, but then the assembled ukes and their players launched into a couple of simple songs, led by Hill (performing a strange human semaphore to indicate chord changes). This was a strangely transcendent moment for me in my playing; the duff noises coming off the A-string and my tendency to get my strumming finger tangled on the upstroke suddenly seemed quite inconsequential (although my inability to get from G to D minor cleanly was more of an issue).

Too soon it was over and we all wafted out of the theatre in a state of elation, united by our affection for the uke. Much to my delight I made the acquaintance of a group of Oxford-based ukers and with any luck I will not be labouring in isolation for very much longer. A good movie, a great experience, and the best night out I’ve had in a long time.

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