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Posts Tagged ‘Imelda Staunton’

One thing about going to see an animated film during the school holidays: in a rare display of restraint the forces of the market refrain from putting the usual parade of dreary old commercials on before the movie, allowing one to get stuck straight into the trailers (often one of the best parts of the movie-going experience, especially if it’s a Paul W.S. Anderson film). The downside to this is, of course, that it’s generally just trailers for other movies aimed at kids that you get to see, most of which I would rather be dipped in fondue than go to watch.

You know what I mean: slick CGI stuff that seems best described as ‘product’ than anything else, focus-grouped and target-audienced to within an inch of what passes for its life, with the ratio of jokes-for-kids to jokes-for-parents determined through some abstruse hyphenate algebra. That, and I should probably mention the trailer for the first of this year’s cracks at a live-action version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The other one seems to be trying to be Lord of the Rings, but the first one out of the blocks appears to be so heavy in broad-brush whimsy that one wonders why they bothered doing it in live-action at all. You know what they say: don’t bother to see one, don’t bother to see ‘em all.

Most of these films are in 3D, anyway – it seems like the kid’s market, along with summer blockbusters and classic re-releases, has been tasked with trying to prop up the whole stereoscopic edifice in the face of increasing public indifference to its dubious charms. I was mildly appalled but not especially surprised to learn that plans are afoot to bring down the price of 3D tickets (which studio suits believe may be putting punters off), with the extra costs being met by (yes, you’ve guessed it) bumping up the price of 2D tickets.  Both formats will cost the same – presumably, at least until 3D has killed off proper films, at which point the price will rocket up again. Is it just me who thinks there is something suspiciously protectionist about studio bosses doing their best to preserve such a potentially lucrative enterprise in the face of growing public indifference?

Sorry, I’m just in a bit of a sour mood today, for reasons I don’t propose to trouble you with. (Although a strange close encounter in Oxford city centre – full details of which hopefully to follow over the weekend – may have something to do with it.) At least I was able to enjoy Peter Lord’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! in 2D (make the most of it while you can, guys). I suppose you could argue that this is exactly the sort of mass-produced big studio fodder I was railing so ineffectually about just a few paragraphs ago, but this has enough quirky British stuff going on to redeem it.

Anyway. Based on the books by Gideon Defoe, this is the soaringly improbable story of the Pirate Captain (a bold move into acting for the political activist and media spokesperson Hugh Grant), who is not so much a briny marauder as an affably feckless halfwit. Nevertheless, he and his crew of freaks and weirdoes are determined to (finally) win the much-coveted ‘Pirate of the Year’ award. Their initial attempts to get their hands on some booty (steady now) are not very successful, but this changes when they encounter the Beagle and its most celebrated passenger, Charles Darwin (David Tennant).  Darwin has had no luck in the booty department either, but he does know where there’s a prize for ‘Scientific Discovery of the Year’ about to be awarded – and a startling revelation regarding the Pirate Captain’s beloved pet Polly gives everybody hope that their luck is about to change…

Well, it’s a bit difficult to know what to say about Pirates! The first thing is probably that the fact this film has been made at all is somewhat noteworthy, given that up until less than ten years ago making a big movie about pirates was considered as good an investment as putting all your money in a box and throwing it off a cliff. Yes, this movie is clearly following in the wake of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, with many of the jokes having exactly the same off-beat flavour – except perhaps even moreso, given the latitude available to the makers of an animation.

As animations go, this is a stunningly beautiful one, with virtually every shot being lovingly composed and photographed, every background packed with tiny details. Aardman have possibly surpassed themselves in their attention to detail with this film, because the look of it is almost literally breathtaking. Everyone is saying the same thing, which is that this is a film you’ll have to watch on DVD with a finger on the pause button to fully appreciate, there are so many sight gags and throwaway jokes packed into the backgrounds of shots.

The film is stuffed with good jokes of this kind from the opening seconds until deep into the closing titles and this is possibly just as well as – while often very funny indeed – the main plot and the gags in the dialogue are not as consistently funny as they could be. The general beats and reversals of said plot are, in fact, almost entirely predictable.

This is a bit of a shame as many of the details of the plot have a pleasingly baroque insanity about them – I might almost suggest that this film sort of resembles Captain Pugwash, but as written by Michael Moorcock. In fact, there are some signs here of a much darker and more grotesque film buried under all the family-friendly plasticine – there was a bit of a fuss earlier this year when some lepers complained that one scene shown in the trailer was in poor taste. This scene has since been rewritten, but there are still flashes of really strange black humour now and then. I have to say that a version of Pirates! which followed this path a bit further and wasn’t quite so fixated on hitting familiar character-development beats looks like it would have been considerably more interesting.

Nevertheless, consummate craft and attention to detail have gone into this film, and it has attracted a correspondingly top-notch voice cast – as well as Grant and Tennant, there are appearances by Martin Freeman, Salma Hayek, Russell Tovey, Lassie laureate Brendan Gleeson, and Lenny Henry (to name but a few), and a characteristically ear-splitting turn from Brian Blessed (who also gets name-checked in one of the on-screen gags, pleasingly enough). There is plenty here for all ages to enjoy; I laughed a lot and was captivated by the look of the thing, even if the incidental details sometimes seemed to be slightly more interesting and entertaining than the actual meat of the story. Still, fun.

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Normally I have a lot of time for the science advocate, evolutionary theoriser and militant atheist Richard Dawkins, but every once in a while he comes out with some rather off-the-wall opinions, usually when he has temporarily left his own area of expertise and is commenting somewhere else off piste. Fifteen years ago or so I caught part of a lecture the great man was giving on the presentation of science in the media, and he was characteristically scathing about the bias he perceived. Broadcast every week on BBC1, he said, was a programme with two main characters, one of whom represented a rational, scientific viewpoint, while the other was a mouthpiece for every piece of New Age-y and pseudoscientific piece of gobbledegook the writers could come up with. Every week the characters would present their solutions to a mystery or crisis they encountered in the line of their work, and every week the scientific explanation would be wrong. How ridiculous! How objectionable! How likely to turn the nation into superstitious cretins!

Well, er, hang on, Rich – the show in question was The X Files, and only having genuinely spooky things in it 50% of the time would probably not have helped the ratings, given this was a show predicated on the existence of spooky phenomena. Nevertheless, the Prof had a point: any work of fiction revolving around a skeptical rationalist taking on the forces of the unexplained is unlikely to see the protagonist proved right, simply because there’s no story there. Or, to put it another way, one of the distinguishing characteristics of ghost stories is that they have ghosts in them.

Which brings us (finally) to Nick Murphy’s The Awakening, which has come out a couple of weeks late for Halloween, but clearly wants to be a Properly Scary Ghost Movie. Set in 1921, the main character is Florence (Rebecca Hall) a – you guessed it! – skeptical investigator of the paranormal. Her work in the area has won her admirers and detractors in equal number, but almost at once we can sense that something deeper drives her – does she just want to reveal the truth, or is she secretly hoping to one day find evidence of a ghost she is unable to explain away? Some tragedy seems to lurk in her past.

Florence is approached by Mallory (Dominic West), a master at a boarding school in Cumbria. There have long been reports of disturbances in the house, and the same spectral figure has been appearing in school photographs for decades. Now a pupil has been found dead, apparently having died of fright, and for obvious reasons the school authorities wish to have the matter investigated.

Well, I give absolutely nothing away by saying that on this occasion Florence encounters an apparition that resolutely resists debunking. That we are in standard ghost story territory is apparent from very early on, possibly even before we meet the Creepy Domestic to be found in all haunted houses (played in this instance by Imelda Staunton).

I turned up to The Awakening with fairly high hopes, based principally on the fact that co-writing the script with Murphy is Stephen Volk. Volk is not really a big name screenwriter, but nearly twenty years ago he traumatised the nation (if you believe the legend, and why not?) with the brilliant Halloween mockumentary Ghostwatch, in which a routine outside broadcast from a ‘troubled’ suburban house became an excursion into complete terror (particularly for those audience members who switched on late and weren’t aware it was drama).

Well, as I said, The Awakening is a much more traditional tale, and – if we’re honest – considerably less impressive. Murphy contrives some effective ‘jump’ moments (the gentleman in the row behind me was shouting ‘Yaargh!’ quite frequently, and I believe I expostulated at one point myself) but can’t quite generate an appropriately creepy atmosphere to accompany them the rest of the time.

As a result, the ghost itself, despite a reasonably effective build-up, isn’t that memorable a creation (certainly not compared to Pipes, the malevolent presence at the heart of Ghostwatch). I think perhaps the story has been overly drenched in metaphor – hardly surprisingly, given the setting, all the characters seem scarred and haunted by events in their personal histories. This kind of metaphor – the marks left by the past on the present – is central to many ghost stories, if not all of them, so it isn’t a problem in and of itself. But, that said, I’m not sure it should take the place of delivering a damn good scare, which is arguably what happens here.

That said, for most of its duration this is a fine film, well-mounted and directed, and with excellent performances from everyone involved. Rebecca Hall is particularly good in what’s a pretty big starring role which demands that she runs the gamut of emotions. For most of the film, the script is solid, if not exactly innovative, with a dash of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (another brilliant TV ghost story) in its focus on Florence’s rational approach to investigating the haunting.

Unfortunately, the movie comes a serious cropper in its final act. Having been restrained and quite thoughtful prior to this point, the climax sees the movie throwing not one, not two, but three separate twists at the audience. (Although one of these has appeared in so many other ghost movies that it’s practically become a cliche.) There’s a definite case of diminishing returns going on here (when the final twist was revealed, my reaction was not ‘What?!?’ so much as ‘What, not another one?!?’), and I’m not even sure the whole movie hangs together coherently as a result. It would be dishonest of me not to say that I found the end of this film a serious letdown after a strong start.

Is it enough to completely spoil The Awakening? Well, not quite – the film does work well up to a point, the acting is good, and there are some extremely spooky individual moments, especially early on. It won’t scare you to death, but neither will it bore you there – just be prepared to cut the ending some slack.

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