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Posts Tagged ‘2013’

As you may have noticed, I am quite lucky, or at least determined, when it comes to actually getting to see the films that I want to see. Since the back end of 2010 it has been quite unusual for a mainstream film to come out and my not to be able to catch it on the big screen in some form, the main exceptions being a particular style of mainstream thriller which the Oxford city centre multiplexes don’t seem to like very much.

Nevertheless exceptions do occur and I am lucky enough to have a colleague who not only enjoys movies as much as me, but also still buys DVDs. Apropos of I-don’t-remember-what, he asked me a while back if I’d seen A Field in England, and when I admitted I hadn’t and that this was a source of some regret, he was kind enough to put it in my direction. Also included, and which I was (of course) much too polite to demur about, was Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.

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Now this was a movie which did get a release at the Oxford Phoenix and which I could quite probably have gone to see on the big screen, but I must confess that something about it didn’t really appeal: a black and white road movie comedy-drama about a dysfunctional American family? I don’t know, I thought I had much too strong an idea of what this film was going to be. (And I must confess to having gotten Alexander Payne jumbled up in my head with Alexandre Rockwell, despite having seen and enjoyed The Descendants and About Schmidt, though I doubt that’s a hanging offence.) It took me a while to actually getting around to watching the DVD, in rather the same way it’s taking me a while to actually start writing about Nebraska – I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to find enough things to say about it now beyond simply restating the obvious.

The core of Payne’s film is the relationship between Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly man in small-town Montana, and his son David (Will Forte). Woody is, not to put too fine a point on it, a contrary old git, a borderline alcoholic who appears not to give a damn about anyone but himself, and when he is discovered one day seemingly wandering at random on the edge of town, there is a sort of communal sigh of dismay from everyone connected to him.

But Woody insists he is not senile: he is in possession of a letter assuring him that he has won a million dollars in a sweepstake. It looks like an obvious scam, but Woody refuses to accept this and tries again and again to leave town, heading for Lincoln, Nebraska where he can collect his winnings. Short of having his father put away, David realises there is no way he can convince him to stop: and it’s with a certain sense of resignation that he realises he has no really pressing business to prevent him driving his father to Lincoln himself.

Various complications inevitably ensue, and David and Woody find themselves taking an extended break from their journey in Woody’s home town of Hawthorne. Staying with the family brings all the usual little problems, and provides several reminders of Woody’s chequered past: but there is a more serious concern as well. Word of Woody’s supposed good fortune gets around, with the result that various interested parties and longstanding debtors come out of the woodwork, all making their claim on the apparently-nonexistent fortune, and making not-so-subtle threats as to what may happen if they don’t get it…

So, Nebraska is a black-and-white film from an indy-ish director whose biggest star – internationally speaking, at least – is probably best known for films he made back in the 1970s (I’m thinking of Silent Running and things like that). The opening shot is of an urban landscape, with a tiny human figure stumbling through the snow towards the viewer for what feels like a very long time. A violin is playing soulfully on the soundtrack. Is this simply just the kind of film that it appears to be?

You know what I mean: Arty and Significant and probably just a bit Slow and Depressing. It has to be said that Nebraska does go on for over two hours, and a lot of it consists of various characters driving back and forth between the same handful of places. The plot contains no great reversals or stunning twists.

The fact that Payne chooses to film it in black and white is, I think, a significant artistic choice, rather than the result of budgetary constraints. The results have a sort of pristine clarity which is is quite beautiful; the cinematography is quite beautiful. The thing is that much of the film is actually taking place in locations and concerns people which you wouldn’t ordinarily think of as being remotely pleasant to look at: hospital and motel rooms, scuzzy taverns, the backs of cars, filled with large men in baseball caps and dungarees or slightly decaying older people. This is a very blue-collar world, in places almost a redneck one, and it seems to me that by filming it in such an elevated style Payne is trying to summon up the magic of the everyday and commonplace and invite viewers to look again at the world around them. I suppose this does tie in to the theme of the film somewhat, which is that of David Grant reappraising his father and their relationship, and to some degree himself.

On the other hand, if Payne really is trying to suggest that beauty is all around us, filling his movie with so many small-town grotesques and cantankerous elderly curmudgeons is a strange way to go about it. Nearly everyone in this film is either mildly weird and/or objectionable on some level, or very weird and/or objectionable. The exception is, naturally, David himself, because as the viewpoint character he has to be someone the audience identifies with – but it’s never really explained why he should be the only normal one in the family.

It sounds like I had a terrible time watching Nebraska, doesn’t it? And, to be fair, the early part of the film does have an air of quiet desperation about it which could bring a person’s mood down, as David realises nobody’s life seems to be going anywhere, and Woody’s quest to collect his million is really no more absurd or quixotic than any of the concerns held by the other characters in the film.

But it was never actually a chore to watch, and as the film went on I found myself warming to it quite considerably: I do like me a slice of low-key comedy-drama once in a while, after all, and it would be absolutely unfair to suggest that Nebraska is anything other than extremely well written, directed, and performed. Dern gets the showy role, obviously, but Forte is extremely good as the straight man of the film: his is a performance of considerable subtlety, and the transformation in attitude he goes through by the conclusion of the film is convincing without feeling heavy-handed. The final sequence of the film is, to be honest, quite charming and lovely, without going into details too much.

So there you go, proof that a really good film can win you over even if you do (figuratively speaking) turn up to it with serious reservations. In narrative terms it’s a small, low-key story, but one about universal themes of family and respect and coming to terms with the disappointments of life. I’m not saying I’m in a hurry to watch it again soon (which is a shame, as I should probably give the DVD back), but somewhere down the line I would definitely like to look at it again.

 

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There’s a website which I regularly visit, fairly admirable when it comes to news relating to all things in the horror, SF, and fantasy genres, but just a little bit taxing in some of its politics. How can I describe the ethos of the place? ‘Dogmatically progressive’? That makes it sound like I’m some kind of baleful reactionary, which I hope is not quite yet the case. But even so, the view that any story must necessarily be improved by making the characters more diverse is one I have trouble subscribing to. Look at, for instance, John Carpenter’s The Thing – I don’t think you can improve this movie, all you can do is make it different. Perhaps less accomplished, but equally distinctive and even less diverse is Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, in which five straight white blokes wander about the countryside for about an hour and a half.

field

Well, there are obviously other things going on, but I don’t really want to commit to saying what any of them are. The movie opens with Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a cowardly astrologer, fleeing the carnage of the English Civil War. He finds himself in the company of various other ne’er-do-wells – deserters and idiots – heading for the dubious haven of an ale-house. However, through slightly obscure occult means – hallucinogenic mushrooms also appear to be involved – they find themselves in the ominous company of the magician O’Neill (Michael Smiley), who is intent on uncovering an obscure mystic treasure secreted in a nearby field…

At least, I think that’s what it’s about. This is not a film which feels the need to offer much in the way of easy answers, or indeed normal narrative coherence. ‘Non-naturalistic’ doesn’t begin to do justice to this film’s weirder sections, but then it does scream ‘experimental film-making’ too. Shot for well under half a million quid in less than a fortnight, it was also the recipient of an equally adventurous release strategy, being shown on TV the day of its cinema release (which, of course, was also the day it was released on DVD and for download).

Perhaps they would have been less unconventional with a less unconventional film, for A Field in England is deeply strange: Ben Wheatley specialises in a particular style of deeply ominous horror, occasionally married to a very black sense of humour, but even compared to something like Sightseers, this is an unashamedly unsettling film, by turns earthy, comic, graphic, and surreal: filmed in black and white, almost always an intentional distancing device nowadays, it also features strange posed tableaux of the various characters at key junctures, and at one point cuts to one character singing a folk song straight to camera.

If we’re going to talk about English Civil War horror movies, the inescapable thing-that-must-be-acknowledged is, of course, Witchfinder General, and the influence of Michael Reeves’ film is clear, if subtle. The main difference is that Witchfinder General, despite its title, is fundamentally about very mundane human evil and corruption – but there is a sense of darker forces being in play here, and the structure of the world breaking down.

Magic mushrooms are a recurring presence in the film, and it seems to be implied that whatever forces O’Neill commands are in some way connected to them – his character seemingly materialises out of thin air while most of the other characters are high on them. They also seem to fuel the deeply bizarre hallucinatory visions afflicting Whitehead at one point during the climax, but then the whole film has a skewed, nightmarish feel to it. People appear and disappear almost without reason, abruptly vomit up stones inscribed with strange markings, even rise from the dead without any explanation being given.

It’s quite possible the whole thing is intended to be allegorical on some level – the film is structured so it concludes practically in the same way it began, and you could interpret the whole thing as some sort of solipsistic psychological crisis undergone by one of the characters. Certainly the nature of the treasure everyone is after remains wilfully obscure, and there’s arguably a sense in which the story is about discovering your own inner strength, surely the greatest treasure of all. Then again, I could be completely wrong, of course.

What’s certain is that Ben Wheatley’s direction retains its usual dark magic, while Amy Jump’s script gets the balance between dreadful strangeness, earthy splatter, and identifiable characters just about right. Michael Smiley, resplendent in a rather magnificent hat and cloak, is revelatory, and Reece Shearsmith’s performance is also just about the best thing I can remember him doing. A Field in England is small and strange, but it always looks and feels like a proper movie, and one which has clearly been made with great skill. Despite all that, however, it’s more hypnotic to watch than it is genuinely enjoyable – or so I found it, anyway. The atmosphere of brooding, dislocated menace throughout it makes it slightly uncomfortable to watch, but still probably worthwhile. I was looking forward to Wheatley’s forthcoming adaptation of High-Rise already, but this has stoked up my expectations still further.

 

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Well, here’s the perfect pre-Christmas treat, a film veritably dripping with cosiness, warmth, compassion, and good humour. Or one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, anyway, based on the track records of many of the principals involved. The director is Prachya Pinkaew, and two of the lead performers are Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin. The film is Tom Yum Goong 2 – aka Warrior King 2 and The Protector 2, but in line with the treatment hereabouts of the film it’s following up, I shall be referring to it as Tony Jaa Still Loves His Elephant. I was expecting great things from this movie – well, not so much great things as howling rampant insanity – and I’m pleased to say that I was not really disappointed.

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The story opens with a degree of peculiar backstory concerning the fictitious Republic of Katana and a degree of structural fluff, but soon settles down to show us Tony Jaa enjoying his life in rural Thailand, where he passes his time looking after his beloved elephant and teaching the local children insanely violent martial arts.

However, all this changes when some gangsters turn up and attempt to force Tony to part with his pachyderm. Tony, naturally, says no, but all that happens is that the gangsters come back and steal the elephant as soon as he pops out for a bit. This makes our hero very cross indeed and he goes round to the chief gangster’s house to make his feelings clear in time-honoured bone-crunching style, but – much to his surprise – the crook has already been beaten to death by someone else. However, he is discovered with the corpse by the ex-villain’s doting martial arts fiend nieces, Ping Ping and Sue Sue (Yanin and Theerada Kittisiriprasert), whose response does not suggest they are pacifists.

…and at that point you may as well forget about anything remotely resembling logic, a coherent plot, or indeed reality as we know it, as Tony and Jeeja plummet into a world where… well, there’s a lot of fisticuffs, but that’s about all I’m certain of. Also returning from the first film is Petchtai Wongkamlao as Tony’s hapless mate Sarge, who is at least issued some pithy dialogue critiquing the premise of the proceedings: ‘Don’t tell me you’ve lost your elephant again! Is this an elephant or a kitten? How can you keep losing him?’ Sensible questions one and all.

Sarge, whom viewers of the first film may recall spends his days as the most preposterous cop in Sydney, is in town to help with a peace conference connected to the Republic of Katana, which dark forces are trying to interfere with. Charged with bringing about this act of premeditated beastliness is gangster LC (the noted rapperist RZA), who also runs some sort of fight circuit where the participants have numbers rather than names. It is LC and his top man Fighter Number 2 (Marrese Crump – I tell you, the names in this film…) who have ensnared Tony and his elephant in their web of bafflement, though whether this is because LC wants Tony to be Fighter Number 1, or just needs the elephant for his evil scheme (suffice to say the climax includes the dialogue ‘There’s a bomb in that elephant!’), or perhaps both, is unclear – one gets the impression they wrote the script as they were going along.

As you may have gathered, Tony Jaa Still Loves His Elephant is completely nuts, although perhaps not as flamboyantly and soaringly so as the first one, or indeed Chocolate (Pinkaew’s previous film with Jeeja Yanin) – it doesn’t include any of the really weird stuff like dream sequences about elephants or whip-wielding transgender bad guys, it’s just very, very comic booky, and not necessarily in a good way. There are some absurdly extravagant action sequences – at one point Tony finds himself pursued by a literal army of people on motor scooters, while at another there’s a scrap between Tony and a bunch of goons, all of whose feet are on fire – but that’s really all the film has.

And, while the movie doesn’t have the most inspired or varied fight sequences – there’s nothing as jawdropping as the five minute travelling shot from Tom Yum Goong – they are solid stuff. Tony spends most of the film fighting Crump, if we’re honest, but the two kick lumps out of each other with aplomb. The real shame, if you ask me, is that we never really get the sequence where Tony and Jeeja face off against one another at length. To be honest, Jeeja Yanin’s contribution to the film feels a little bit dispensable – she just rattles about the edges of the plot not doing very much. Pinkaew introduces the character of a female fighter called Number 20 (Rhatha Phongam), and you naturally assume that come the climax she will be fighting Jeeja while Tony sorts out RZA. But no. In the end this just feels like a regular Tony Jaa movie, albeit one with an extended cameo by Jeeja Yanin, rather than a proper team-up of the duo.

With the benefit of hindsight, Tom Yum Goong and Chocolate are both such boldly nutty films that it would have been very difficult for this film, whatever you want to call it, to push this particular envelope any further. By conventional standards this is not a good thriller or action movie. But as a headbanging piece of martial arts nonsense it fits the bill admirably, even if it doesn’t quite deliver everything it promises.

 

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Well, the end of the year is very nearly upon us, and of course one of the signs of this is the fact that the cinemas are getting ready to fill up with prestigious, big-budget, star-laden quality movies, all with an eye to collecting as many gongs as possible in a few months time: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Twelve Years a Slave, the Mandela movie, and doubtless many others will soon be with us. None of them really look like a barrel of laughs, but on the other hand it’s arguably the equivalent of the January detox after the usual festive excesses.

Sneaking out ahead of the pack is Carl Rinsch’s 47 Ronin, a costume-drama based on the venerable and much-loved Chushingura literature dating from early 18th century Japan. Clearly, no expense has been spared in bringing this slice of Shogunate life to the screen in a deeply authentic and respectful way, as all the subtleties and strangenesses of feudal Japan survive intact, with a very nuanced and emotionally expressive central performance as a  samurai warrior from Keanu Reeves.

47ronin

It all sounds just about plausible until you reach those last couple of words, doesn’t it? (And I say that as someone who always enjoys it when Keanu turns up on screen.) Hey ho: this is very much not a prestige production, nor even a remotely successful one. In a rational world it might even be challenging the likes of After Earth for the title of Dog of the Year, but we shall see.

As the film opens we are transported to a Mystic Japan of Expository Voice-overs, where demons and spirits still lurk in the forests (despite the fact that it’s technically set only about three hundred years ago). The movie may be based on a real-life historical event, but the actual plot structure we are presented with consists almost entirely of bits from bog-standard fantasy movies with their desktop theme reset to late-period Kurosawa. So we meet the mysterious orphan adopted by a wise old nobleman, witness his loyalty and nobility as his patron’s blood family mistreat him, are party to various wicked shenanigans from an ambitious rival noble, and so on. There is a tragedy, exile, a regrouping of the protagonists, a trip to the mystic forest for supernatural aid and so on. In the end there is a damn big fight in a castle.

Now, sick as I am of bog-standard fantasy movies, I would still concede that it might be possible to do one of these movies that wasn’t actively dreadful – but for this to happen, you would need a witty and intelligent script with a firm handle on the characters, brought to life by engaged and charismatic performers and a director of vision and energy. 47 Ronin has none of these things, with the remarkable result that a big-budget fusion of the fantasy and samurai genres with lashings of CGI and a considerable amount of bloody mayhem actually turns out to be really, really dull.

I can forgive a film being bad as long as it’s bad in an interesting way. Tedium is much bigger crime in my book, and this film reeks of it – and it’s really all down to the script, which is mechanical and obvious, not bothering to bring any of the characters to life, and the direction, which is flat, uninspired, and too reliant on empty spectacle to really involve the viewer.

Keanu is at his most robotic throughout – though his cause isn’t helped by the fact that the film can’t seem to decide whether his character is the main hero, or if it’s in fact Hiroyuki Sanada. I should point out that Keanu is the only significant non-Japanese character in the film (there’s a very Pirates of the Caribbean-informed visit to some Portuguese traders, but it’s over with quickly) and most of the cast is made up of Japanese thesps whose faces may be vaguely familiar to you even if their names aren’t. Most of them have a decent stab at the material, such as it is – though the totemo kawaii Rinko Kikuchi really struggles with the part of a vampy witch (or possibly a witchy vamp) who spends some of the time looking like a fox, some of it looking like a dragon, but nearly all of it looking a bit like David Bowie.

Despite this, for most of its duration the film feels about as authentically Japanese as Usain Bolt playing the bagpipes while dressed in lederhosen. There’s something very odd about the conception of this film – it’s a bit like Japanese producers deciding to make a Robin Hood movie, then casting a lot of British and American stars in it but requiring them to speak Japanese (with Watanabe Ken prominently cast as a Merry Man).

The only element of the film which felt to me as if it genuinely came from Japanese culture was a slightly distasteful obsession with ritual suicide. This is practically fetishised by the film, and – without giving too much away – it happens in bulk quantities. Something very weird is going on when something that appears to have been an attempt at an exciting fantasy adventure for a mainstream audience feels the need to include dozens of characters committing seppuku, and virtually celebrates this.

I saw the trailer for 47 Ronin, clocked the dodgy historicity, prominent CGI, and Keanu Reeves, and thought I had the film pegged as 300 Goes East. I would never seriously argue that 300 is a great movie, but it’s highly entertaining – virtually the definition of a guilty pleasure. 47 Ronin didn’t make me feel guilty, but I got hardly any pleasure from it. I respect Keanu Reeves’ decision only to take selected acting roles these days – but on this evidence, he really needs to do his selecting with a lot more care and attention, because 47 Ronin is a rotten film.

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With the possible exception of an American horror movie, I am less likely to see an American comedy than any other type of film. This is mainly because it seems to me that the funny American film is in a state of advanced homogeneity, with all of them sharing the same sort of tone and approach, not to mention the fact that they draw upon the same very familiar pool of actors. Nearly every major release seems to be produced by Judd Apatow, as well. None of this would be a problem if it were a kind of homogeneity I actually had much time for. But I don’t. So there you are.

However, if we’re looking at it in those terms, I shouldn’t really have enjoyed Adam McKay’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy back in 2004, because it is a very broad Apatow-produced comedy featuring various members of the usual crowd – Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, and so on. And yet I really liked it; enough to buy the DVD (albeit using a money-off voucher), enough to be mildly pleased at the announcement of a sequel, and – apparently – enough to actually go and see Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. (Though the fact they shot a bespoke commercial to run before the Doctor Who 50th anniversary show may also have been a point in the film’s favour.)

Anchorman2_Poster

Comedy sequels tend to be pretty odd beasts – the whole basis of a sequel is essentially ‘more of the same’, but repetition is, of course, the death of comedy. Long-running comedy franchises tend to be based around characters who can go anywhere and do anything, either as individuals or ensembles. Anchorman is, you would have thought, fairly limited by the fact that it’s about a newsreader. So how does the new film perform?

After some scene-setting shenanigans, the story proper opens with a clinically upset Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) on the skids and on the bottle, working at a sea-life park. Once a journalistic titan, Ron is in a bad way, his personal and professional lives both having fallen apart. However, hope glimmers when he is offered a spot on America’s first 24-hour news channel – is this a chance to re-forge the legend of Ron Burgundy?

Well, of course it is, provided he can reassemble his crack news team of sports reporter Champ (David Koechner), roving investigator Brian (Paul Rudd), and semi-sentient weatherman Brick (Steve Carell). What follows is essentially a relentless shotgun satire directed against any hapless target that wanders into range: fast food restaurants, cat photographs, race relations, rolling news channels, Australian media tycoons, and so on, interspersed with character bits for Ron and his team.

I was watching the first Anchorman on TV the other night and, as usual, trying to work out what made it so funny – was it the loving pastiche of 70s values and fashions? Was it the deadpan skills of the performers? Was it the fact that – despite the film not being scripted as such, but improvised by a gang of people messing about in front of a camera – it was built on a firm structural basis? And then I realised it was none of the above. Both the original Anchorman and the new one are funny because they are knowingly, defiantly, enormously silly.

Most of this film is simply ludicrous on every level – but it’s a knowing sort of ludicrousness, one that’s carefully judged and not all that far from actually being ironic. There’s a sight gag about Ron bottle-feeding a… no, better not spoil it, not to mention another scene where an astonishingly big-name star in an uncredited cameo turns into a… no, don’t want to spoil that one either. I usually avoid movie comparisons like the plague (I have people on the payroll to do that kind of thing for me, after all), but there are scenes in Anchorman 2 which would not seem entirely out of place in a Monty Python project.

However, what is telling is that the producers have a very strong idea about what their real strengths are: Ferrell and most of the others are consistently amusing, but it’s telling that when the film feels the need to get really big laughs, it wheels on Steve Carell as Brick Tamblyn. Carell is, by a very long way, the funniest thing in an extremely funny film – one is almost tempted to wonder how long it will be before Brick gets his own spin-off movie, but I’m not sure the character would support one. One of the less successful plotlines in Anchorman 2 sees Brick embark on a torrid romance with the equally brain-dead Chani (Kristen Wiig), and the results are more weird than consistently funny: Wiig almost seems to be trying to find some emotional reality in her character, as opposed to the glazed inscrutability that makes Carell’s performance so hilarious, and it does feel as if scenes from a very off-beat art-house movie have been spliced in by accident.

What’s slightly surprising, given how riotously absurd most of the story is, is that this actually seems to be a film attempting to make serious points about the modern media: there is a lot of satire of the news networks and the fact that they are making news much more than simply broadcasting it; the populist and conservative bias of most of these channels comes in for some heavy stick as well. This is not done with an especially light touch, and this gives some parts of the film an almost preachy quality which I wasn’t sure I cared for. Then Brick came on again and made me laugh until I hyperventilated, so that was okay.

Even so, there’s a third act segment which felt to me like a genuine misjudgement – earlier in the film there are some slightly edgy gags about attitudes to race and domestic violence, but the whole point of them is that Ron and his friends share stupidly unreconstructed values. We’re laughing at them, not at jokes about punching women or all coloured people being drug dealers. Later on, though, there’s an extended series of jokes about disability which didn’t seem to have that quality of distance which made them acceptably ironic. It’s not that big a deal, and the circumstances involved are as ridiculous as the rest of the movie, but it’s still a distinct wobble.

Nevertheless, this is still a very funny comedy. It reminded me a lot of the second Austin Powers film, in that it’s largely a more confident and more polished version of the original, with the key moments and gags you remember from the first one being retooled and expanded upon this time around. That proved to be a very limited strategy when it came to producing a long-running franchise, of course, and I can imagine McKay and Ferrell thinking very carefully about whether to return to these characters yet again. For the time being, though, that’s not a problem: Anchorman 2 is as inventive and as charmingly deranged as its predecessor.

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And so it sprawls amidst the stupendous pile of treasure which dictates its every action, like some great segmented worm, bloated, grotesque, and yet somehow rather majestic… on the other hand perhaps I should stop being quite so rude about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. It is, as they say, all simply a question of perspective.

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This second whopping slice of prequel action is subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, after the region of Middle-Earth in which its final movements take place. Obviously, it takes ages and many helicopter shots of scale doubles yomping across hillsides before we actually get there, of course. The action opens more-or-less where the previous film left off, with timorous burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), wise old wizard Gandalf (‘he’s a bad role model, and he’s lazy’) the Grey (Ian McKellen), smouldering dwarven prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) and their followers on the run from a pack of orcs.

What follows is, for the most part, a picaresque piece of epic fantasy: the company enjoy the hospitality of a werebear, brave the giant-spider-infested depths of Mirkwood, fall foul of the Elves of the region… I’m sorry, this is turning into the bridge section of Leonard Nimoy’s The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins. Anyway, they eventually end up at Erebor, the ancient dwarf city currently being squatted in by the dragon Smaug (voiced by Cumbersome Bandersnatch). Without spoiling the ending, let’s just say that an equally lengthy final chapter is on the way this time next year.

As I say, I was distinctly luke-warm about the first Hobbit movie twelve months ago, rather to the derision of some friends of mine who were delighted simply to see the Tolkien-Jackson axis back in operation again. And, admittedly, it is with some ruefulness that I recall my own glowing response to the first Lord of the Rings movie, which I praised mainly on the grounds that Jackson did not feel himself overly bound to be reverent towards the book. Can I then criticise Jackson for departing too far from the original text of The Hobbit and hope to retain any shred of integrity or credibility?

Well, I would argue there’s a difference between cutting and rewriting stuff to bring a huge story down to a filmable size and comprehensible shape, and just adding everything and the kitchen sink simply because it strikes you as being cool. Nevertheless, I have come to accept that these movies are not, in any real sense, a straightforward adaptation of The Hobbit, but rather a palimpsest of it: by which I mean they are a wholesale rewriting of the story, through which vestiges of the original can still occasionally be glimpsed.

To his credit Jackson and his writers manage the transition between the different kinds of material rather deftly, and I doubt anyone unfamiliar with the book will be able to tell apart the sections which feel impressively faithful to the novel (some sections of the spider fight, Bilbo’s initial conversation with Smaug), those which are derived from what was implicit in the book (such as what Gandalf is up to most of the time), and stuff which has been stuck in simply because Jackson thought it was really cool (a full-scale action sequence with Legolas (Landy Bloom) tackling a pack of orc commandos in Laketown).

I am sort of reminded of the old joke asking where an eight-hundred pound gorilla sleeps – the answer being wherever he damn well pleases. When it comes to these films, Peter Jackson is very much one of the eight-hundred-pound gorillas of the film directing world, and I get a very strong sense of him doing things just because he wants to throughout this movie. Luckily, it seems that what he wants to do on this occasion is simply to make a really good fantasy epic. His penchant for idiosyncratic casting persists (no Andy Serkis this time around, nor Christopher Lee and the guy who doubles for him in wide shots, but in addition to the usual crowd there is Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, Evangeline Lilly as a somewhat token-ish female elf, and perennial bellwether of dimbo action movies Luke Evans as Bard), but his facility with astoundingly ambitious and intricately-choreographed action sequences remains, as does his capacity to create a real sense of otherworldly scale and wonder. The best scenes of Desolation of Smaug do bear comparison to the highlights of his earlier sojourns in Middle-Earth, although some elements of the new film do feel rather contrived and implausible – an Elf-Dwarf romance being the most obvious. (And for a film called The Hobbit, there are quite long stretches where Martin Freeman as Bilbo seems a bit sidelined!)

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that this series are prequels to the Lord of the Rings movies as much as anything else, and this is a major influence on the film – virtually the first thing that happens in the film is an in-joke that only fairly dedicated fans of the first trilogy are going to get, while imagery and themes from those films become increasingly dominant as it goes on. Tolkien later tried to retrofit The Hobbit as a prelude to The Lord of the Rings – Jackson obviously has a much freer hand in doing so. He persuasively presents Middle-Earth as a patchwork of different principalities and domains consumed by petty rivalries and political feuds, with everyone oblivious to the apocalyptic threat which is slowly taking shape in a remote part of the wilderness.

The question, of course, is quite how far Jackson is going to go down this road in the final chapter. But that’s also a question for next year. Until then, I really am happy to report that The Desolation of Smaug indicates that both the director and this series are back on form. I turned up to this one with a mental attitude of ‘come on then, impress me if you can’ – along with a side order of ‘I hope the giant spider sequence doesn’t give me a heart attack’ (I am a bit of a megaarachnophobe) – and found myself, for the most part, engrossed and entertained throughout. Is it in the same league as any of The Lord of the Rings movies? No, but it’s still probably one of the half-dozen best epic fantasy films ever made, with the single best dragon ever seen in movie history (Vermithrax Pejorative has had a long run at the top, but…). In most respects, this is a vastly accomplished and very enjoyable film.

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Ah, the film career of Jason Statham: or as I always think of it, the gift that keeps on giving. While there is inevitably a shadow over the prospects of Mr Statham’s highest-profile release for 2014, Fast and Furious 7, this year has been a good one for Shirebrook’s most famous son – by which I mean that none of his films has been an Expendables, and one of them (Hummingbird) was genuinely really good. Now, with the Christmas season upon us, we have one last treat featuring the great man (and a supporting cast of actors whom, it must said, once looked set for better things than secondary roles in mid-budget genre movies).

This is not to say that Gary Fleder’s Homefront is by any stretch of the imagination a family-friendly Christmas movie. As you might expect, it is rather too high both in terms of its people-beaten-to-a-pulp quotient and effing-and-jeffing-o-meter for that. A higher-minded friend of mine might even find himself moved to describe it as another ‘dystopian opera of urban pain’ were it not for the fact that much of it takes place in the countryside.

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Jason Statham plays, as ever, the Jason Statham Character, who in this film is in his maverick cop incarnation: an uproariously silly opening sequence sees him working undercover with a gang of meth-dealing bikers (crystal meth is so modish these days), before taking them down in a shootout and bike chase that leaves the substance of his wig wholly unruffled.

Thankfully, at this point the film calms down and the action relocates to rural Louisiana, two years later. Following the unelaborated-upon death of his wife, the Jason Statham Character has retired to the remote countryside to raise his young daughter and renovate a rattly old house. Louisiana looks beautiful and for most of the movie, the direction is moody and effective, picking up on the details of small-town life.

One of the neater twists in the script is the way that what looks like a minor character moment actually turns out to be the inciting incident for the entire plot of the film: the local school bully tries to pick on Statham’s daughter and, being her father’s girl, she promptly lamps him. Statham is called in for a meeting with the school counsellor (Rachelle Lefevre), following which the other kid’s parents confront him, so he promptly goes in for a spot of lamping himself.

This does not sit well with the mother of the bully (an almost unrecognisable Kate Bosworth, whose A-list career was a casualty of the great Superman Returns disaster), who realises that her useless husband is not up to the task of restoring the family honour. So she gets on the phone to her brother Gator (James Franco). Gator is the local drugs manufacturer, but it’s his credentials as a general headcase that she’s more interested in. Through his girlfriend (Winona Ryder) he happens to have connections with some of the gangs that Statham, in his former life, was such a nuisance to, which may prove pertinent to the unfolding plot…

Now, it would really be stretching a point to claim that Homefront is anything more than a competently-made mid-range genre movie, but it does a very effective job of balancing the action and thriller beats this kind of film requires with a clever and coherent script that – for the most part – departs from the planet Earth no more than is absolutely necessary. I see the actual screenplay is based on a novel by Chuck Logan, but written for the screen by and up-and-coming young talent named… hang on a minute, let me check my notes… Sylvester Stallone. (Sylvester, huh? Sounds like a bookish, sensitive young chap.) Well, young Stallone me laddo, if you’re reading this, the script for Homefront is really quite good, and you have a great future ahead of you as a screenwriter – but I would still be careful not to get stuck in the action movie ghetto.

The film tries especially hard to make the escalation from playground clash of egos to full-auto matter of life and death seem half-way credible, and it succeeds up to a point. Unfortunately the story not only requires Statham to keep a massive personal arsenal under his bed (somewhat at odds with the careful nature of the character on this occasion), but also to have detailed files on all his past cases lying unsecured around the house, so this is at most rather qualified success.

Anyone hoping for another instance of Mr Statham really stretching himself as a performer, a la Hummingbird, is probably going to be disappointed, too. The closest thing to an innovation in his characterisation here is making him a single parent, and even here one is inevitably reminded of his relationship with Catherine Chan in last year’s Safe. This is yet another movie which ducks the possibility of giving Statham an actual on-screen romance, although there are hints of something potentially on the cards with Lefevre’s character. In the end it really just boils down to Statham doing his usual thing with his usual facility – the hard-man-code-of-honour-soft-side-no-nonsense-wise-cracking-one-liner thing. The fights are good this time, as are the one-liners (the best one comes at the end of a three-against-one fight and goes: ‘When I get home tonight, I’m going to tell my daughter a story. And this is how it ends:‘ *KER-THWOK*).

A definite plus to the movie, however, is the presence of James Franco as the chief antagonist. Franco’s not the most obvious choice of opponent for Statham, and I’ve been fairly rude about his acting on occasion in the past, but he manages to give Gator a dead-pan quirkiness that lifts him above the level of the stereotyped bad guy he could very easily have been. He’s an oddly likeable character, initially at least, even though the film also makes it quite clear that in many ways he’s an irredeemable scumbag.

But there isn’t anything particularly outstanding about Homefront – it’s a film of extremely modest ambitions that manages to hit the targets it sets itself in a highly polished and competent way. It’s a Jason Statham action thriller. It’s a pretty good Jason Statham action thriller, with a relatively sensible plot and decent performances. But it still doesn’t transcend the limits of the genre in any meaningful sense worth mentioning. I had a good time watching it, but then I would – and I suspect that in a few years time I’ll struggle to remember which scenes were in this one, as opposed to The Mechanic or Parker. A solid movie, but basically meat-and-potatoes stuff for Mr Statham and his fans.

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If you were of a sour, baleful, Daily Mail-ish disposition, you might well find something very disagreeable in the current trend towards films which are essentially historical accounts not of the lives of great people, nor of the details of significant events, but simply of the making of other films. And I suppose you might have a point – at the very least it smacks of creative conservatism, if not an outright dearth of ideas. Already this year we have had Hitchcock, which was essentially behind-the-scenes on Psycho, while making a solid pitch for the quality-Christmas-non-Elf-fixated box office is John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks, which is deeply concerned with the genesis of the movie version of Mary Poppins.

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Emma Thompson plays Mrs P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins stories. The main plot of the movie is set in the early 60s, by which point she has been fending off expressions of interest in the film rights to her work for decades. Now, however, bankruptcy looms, and rather than lose her home she is obliged to depart for California, to work on a script for a film with the creative guys at Walt Disney Productions. Walt Disney himself is played by Tom Hanks. Disney is genial, avuncular, folksy and charming – Mrs Travers is prickly, particular, formal and demanding (she thinks Disney’s life’s work is vulgar and frivolous). Both of them are used to getting their own way, and so a titanic, if fairly good-mannered, clash of wills is in prospect.

Intercut with all this is another narrative concerning Mrs Travers’ own childhood in Australia five decades earlier. This focuses on her complex relationship with her father (played by Colin Farrell), an affectionate man, but also a somewhat irresponsible alcoholic. Inevitably it is this storyline which illuminates and to some extent explains the character of the adult Mrs Travers, though the manner in which this is handled is variable. Sometimes the film is quite subtle, at other points it is not – a scene with Mrs Travers objecting to Mr Banks (the father in the Poppins film) wearing a moustache is closely followed by one where we see Farrell explaining to his daughter why it is so important that he shaves.

It seems to me that there are two main approaches you can take to Saving Mr. Banks, and your choice here will largely dictate your response to the film. Either it is a touching biographical excavation of an often-overlooked literary figure, or a ghastly piece of self-regarding publicity for the Disney corporation.

Accusations that this film is basically a two-hour-plus promo for the Blu-ray of Mary Poppins, and indeed Disney enterprises in general, are not entirely without substance: the 1964 film informs the 2013 one to a considerable extent, to the point where excerpts from it are shown during the climax. Your enjoyment of most of the 1960s material will depend somewhat on your fondness for Mary Poppins – though I have to say that I’m indifferent to it at best, and still found these scenes to be enjoyable and frequently very funny indeed.

(I should say that I did emerge from this film with a heightened respect for the majesty of the Sherman brothers’ songs from Mary Poppins, which are regularly deployed throughout. The soundtrack listing even appears to promise a scene where Colin Farrell comes on and performs Chim-Chim-Cheree, which I was rather looking forward to as (potentially) this year’s Pierce-Brosnan-versus-ABBA moment, but unfortunately it never quite materialises.)

The makers of this film claim the Disney corporation made no stipulations regarding the depiction of the man who’s essentially their patron deity, which I find slightly hard to believe, and it’s still the case that while Mrs Travers comes across as often brittle, demanding, chilly, and contrary, Walt Disney is presented as unfailingly wise, kindly, decent and insightful. (Whatever one makes of the characterisations, one instinctively doubts the historical accuracy of any major Hollywood production these days as a matter of course.)

Even the most sceptical viewer would, I think, concede that this is a very polished and charming production, with considerable credit due to the writers and cast. Watching Thompson and Hanks spar is a real pleasure – Thompson gets perhaps the slightly better part, but you can see Hanks is revelling in the opportunity to play such an iconic figure when it comes to both Americana and global pop culture generally. Paul Giamatti plays Mrs Travers’ chauffeur, and Brad Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak play Don DaGradi and the Sherman brothers: all of them get the tone of their performances pretty much exactly right. Colin Farrell gets the big role in the Australian sequences, but I was rather impressed by Ruth Wilson as Mrs Travers’ mother.

I can’t help thinking that, based on what we’re shown here, the real Mrs Travers would have been mortified to the point of horror by the thought of her life story being repurposed as the basis for a heart-warming comedy drama, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily grounds for dismissing Saving Mr. Banks. I liked it a lot, and indeed I think it’s a film you would have to make a real effort to actively dislike – but, much as the central story of how the parent-child relationship can influence a person throughout their life is sensitively and impressively handled, one can’t shake the impression that this particular version of it is only being told due to its proximity to a much-loved, much-garlanded, out-now-on-various-formats movie classic. This is a good film, but the charge that on some level it’s basically just the Disney company patting itself on the back in public for two hours is going to be a hard one to dodge.

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You could spend happily spend forever pointing out all the things The Hunger Games series is derivative of, and come to think of it I indulged myself quite a bit when I was talking about the first film. So let’s just say Year of the Sex Olympics, occasional bits of Star Trek, and Battle Royale one last time and move on to considering the new movie on its own merits.

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The hefty lead-times involved in a movie this size mean that Gary Ross has been replaced as the director by Francis Lawrence, a prolific creator of music videos but someone really lacking in a significant movie CV. These movies are basically a licence to print money anyway, so all it really takes is a safe pair of hands, I suppose.

Anyway, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (one of the increasing number of films that doesn’t bother with a title card until the end credits) is very much what it is, which is one of the middle films in a blockbuster genre adaptation franchise. (As is pretty much obligatory these days, the final volume is being chopped in two to maximise the bottom line to increase viewers’ pleasure.) By this I mean that it assumes most of the audience will not only have seen the first film, but watched it recently on DVD, because there isn’t what you could call a recap of the events of part one.

Jennifer Lawrence again plays Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who when asked to describe herself opts for ‘Stubborn – good with a bow – that’s about it.’ I think she’s forgetting ‘fond of knitwear’, but that’s just me. Having won the titular games in the first film, she and co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) – not stubborn, not much good with a bow, basically just blandly good-looking and a bit dull – are coming to terms with the realities of life as victors. They are celebrities, but more than that, the manner of their victory has made them symbols of dissent against the autocratic government, as embodied by nasty old President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

For complex and slightly subtle reasons, Snow manages to persuade Katniss that preventing an uprising against the authorities requires her and Peeta to maintain the fantasy of the romance they simulated during the games, and do her best to avoid stoking the flames of dissent. Of course, events prove this to be quite difficult, and Snow comes to realise that the cult of personality surrounding games victors is a threat to his own position: the games weren’t intended to produce heroes, but that’s what’s happening (oops, forgot one: it’s a bit like the original Rollerball, too).

So, with the aid of new games director Plutarch Heavensbee (good grief, these names), played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Snow hits upon a wheeze which will probably kill all these symbols of opposition – and even if it doesn’t, Katniss’s reputation as a good citizen will likely take a major hit. He decides to stage a champion-of-champions version of the hunger games where only previous winners will compete.

It takes quite a long time for the film to reach this point, and another quite long time for the various pre-games rituals and games themselves to play out. The result is a film which, to be perfectly honest, felt to me to be rather longer than was strictly necessary, especially when so much of the second half is more-or-less a retread of the same material from the first film – all right, so they’re in a jungle rather than a forest this time, and things get spiced up a bit by the introduction of acid gas, homicidal baboons, and so on, into the proceedings, but even so.

I thought the first half of the film was by far the more interesting, anyway, dealing with the realities – both political and personal – of The Hunger Games’ world with a surprising level of sophistication and subtlety. Contrasts are repeatedly drawn, between the fantasy of the viewing channels and the reality of life in the various districts, between the personae Katniss and Peeta adopt for their fans, and who they really are, and so on. This section of the film is surprisingly subtle and cynical, in many ways, and it doesn’t feel the need to belabour the audience with the points it is making.

Then again, it did occur to me that The Hunger Games may be the most dystopian piece of SF ever to form the basis of a modern blockbuster franchise: this is a horrible, brutal world, and we are shown absolutely as many details of it as the 12 certificate will permit. My main criticism of the first film was that it just wasn’t vicious and shocking enough: I do not make that same criticism here. The parallels with the days of the Roman Empire are not made with a great deal of delicacy, but that doesn’t stop them being effective.

So this is, at least in part, a very competently made and rather thoughtful piece of SF. However, it felt to me like a potentially very good film bashed out of shape by the need to be part of a franchise. We don’t get a proper opening, as it follows straight on from the first film and doesn’t bother to introduce the characters, and – especially irksomely – it doesn’t really have a proper conclusion, opting instead for a cliffhanger into the forthcoming part three.

And I still think the fact that the film is consciously pitching to as broad an audience as possible is a problem. Everything, from the plot to the characters, is just a little blanded out or soap-opera’d up in an attempt to make it as palatable as possible. As a result none of the cast really get the material they deserve to show their full abilities, and this is a real shame when performers like Jennifer Lawrence and Philip Seymour Hoffman are sharing scenes. (Also particularly good this time around are Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone as two of Lawrence’s rival competitors – Toby Jones, on the other hand, has landed himself a plum spot in the cast list but barely appears.) Then again, I suppose you could argue that people like Hoffman and Lawrence aren’t cast in this kind of film to give brilliant, subtle performances, they’re here to give a glossy genre movie a bit of credibility and gravitas. (We really should be honest that, both here and in the X-Men films, Jennifer Lawrence really is slumming it in return for a fat paycheck.)

There were a lot of things that I liked about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – the cast do the best they can, the production designs are pleasing, and the generally horrible tenor of the whole thing is sort of refreshing. I wasn’t so impressed by the structure, as I said, and the soap-opera love-triangle romance elements felt a bit laboured to me. Some of these negatives will no doubt get fixed for part three, while others I’m sure will be with us for the duration. For the time being, though, this is one big franchise which doesn’t feel like it’s outstaying its welcome or presuming too much on the audience’s goodwill.

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Well, look, there’s all sorts of ways I could launch into a review of Stephen Frears’ Philomena, but only one which I know will get every regular reader excited.

In other words – he’s back! I am, of course, referring to my trusty Comparison Wrangler, who in the past has shared with me his considered verdicts on Beasts of the South Wild (‘Waterworld meets City of God’), Silver Linings Playbook (‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest meets Dirty Dancing’), Hitchcock (‘The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns’), and Lincoln (‘Forrest Gump meets Dirty Harry’). Circumstances have meant that the Wrangler and I have not been able to go to the cinema together in a ridiculously long time, but finally the stars came right and off we went to see Philomena (Mrs Wrangler came along too).

To be honest, Philomena had not featured prominently on my list of films to see, even though it does feature Steve Coogan, whose praises I have been intermittently singing all this year, and Judi first-person-to-F-bomb-a-Bond-movie Dench, who’s one of those people who seems utterly incapable of giving a poor performance.

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Based on a true story, in Frears’ movie Steve Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist-turned-government-spin-doctor-turned-unemployed-person (such has been the career trajectory of many in recent years, but at least he managed to dodge jail time), looking to restart his career in some fashion. A chance encounter at a party leads him to Philomena (Dench), a little old lady from Ireland who fifty years earlier was compelled to give up her firstborn son for adoption.

Philomena, naturally, has never stopped thinking about her child, but all her efforts to track him down have come to nothing. Though Martin is dismissive of this kind of narrative from a journalistic point of view, on the most basic level it at least offers him the possibility of selling a story, so he agrees to use his contacts to assist her with her enquiries.

And what follows is the sort of story you would mockingly dismiss if it were presented to you purely as a piece of fiction. I knew very little about Philomena prior to going to see it, and the various twists and jumps in the narrative consistently engaged and surprised me.

The main reason I was indifferent to actually seeing this film was that, essentially, I thought it was a movie about various institutionalised horrors perpetrated by the Catholic Church and parents cut off from their children by great distances and long periods of time. I’ve seen that film; I’ve seen that film a number of times, in fact (as The Magdalene Sisters and Oranges and Sunshine, to name but two), and I don’t particularly feel the need to go and see another version of it unless it brings something new and different to the table.

And Philomena does this, mainly because the horrible-Catholic-nun material is sparingly deployed (needless to say this also makes it more effective), and much of the film is instead played as an odd-couple comedy drama. Philomena is sweet, straightforward, uncultured, and decent; Martin is educated, refined, highly intelligent and deeply cynical. The film is fundamentally about how he gives her the answers she has been waiting most of her life for, and how she manages to instill in him a little more humanity and feeling.

The film is smart enough to anticipate the criticism that this type of narrative might not be  more than woman’s magazine sob-story fodder, and gives the film an unexpectedly sharp edge in places: Martin is initially only doing it for the cheque, privately very dismissive of Philomena, and indifferent as to whether the actual resolution to their search is a happy or sad one (both are equally good from a journalistic point of view). You know this won’t last, but it’s still a refreshing perspective to see on screen.

And of course it doesn’t hurt matters at all that the majority of the film is a two-hander played between performers both carved of solid Star. It isn’t even as if Coogan is there to deliver the smart, jaundiced comedy while Dench rolls out the tear-jerking stuff. Both of them get their moments both of comedy and real drama, and both are equally effective. It isn’t really a surprise to see a film in which Judi Dench gives a virtuoso display of acting – but it is, perhaps, where Steve Coogan is concerned. Nevertheless, he matches Dench here.

This is, I think, the fourth live-action movie starring Steve Coogan to be released this year (the third I’ve actually seen, after The Look of Love and Alan Partridge), which is an impressive work rate even before one considers the sheer range of material he appears in. Nevertheless, I think this may be a bit of a watershed moment for Coogan as a performer – it’s not a grotesque, not a comedy turn, he’s not playing an exaggeration of himself or delivering a sparkling cameo. This is a proper leading man performance from someone with serious chops as an actor, and as such this may just be his finest hour at the movies to date (the fact that he co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film himself are also not to be overlooked).

This is an impressive, well-made, frequently very funny and equally quite moving film, which nevertheless has respect for its audience and doesn’t lay the sentimentality on with a trowel. It’s powered by two extremely good performances from two of the UK’s finest actors, and it’s a bit of a treat. I wasn’t planning to see this film, but I’m very glad I did.

And at the end I looked at my trusty Comparison Wrangler, not even needing to ask the question.

‘Harold and Maude,’ quoth he, ‘meets Finding Nemo.’

He’s still got it.

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