colin firth

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)

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It’s that time of year when you can’t turn on the television without falling over another adaptation of Charles Dickens’ seminal Christmas classic. It seems that every single channel has yet another different version of it for each day of the Yuletide.

It means that if your version is going to stand out and get noticed among this clamour, it really has to have outstanding Unique Selling Point, and in the case of Disney’s 2009 retelling of the tale the USP is without question the state of the art CGI animation and motion capture performances. This, it turns out, is not only the film’s biggest strength – it’s also the root cause of many of its most serious weaknesses. Read the rest of this entry »

Mamma Mia! (2008)

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After admitting at a recent family gathering that I had never seen the film or stage production of Mamma Mia!, the DVD was being whipped out of its cellophane wrapper and into the player in double quick time – and what a perfect film selection it proved in the holiday week atmosphere.

Men might dislike this film on principle because it’s light and fluffy and utterly flippant fun; younger audiences may dislike it as well, since it concentrates on the friendships, trials and tribulations of the mostly middle aged characters, with the pretty young bride and her even prettier groom-to-be soon pushed out of the limelight by the wrinklies. But really, only the most complete and utter grinch could possibly hold out against such a tidal wave of vitality and enjoyment that’s unleashed in the process – just as only the most ardent of dog-haters can hold out for more than a few minutes against the overwhelming charms of the most good-natured Labrador or golden retriever that’s set at full-on loveable-and-adorable mode.

Despite the all-star cast (Meryl Streep! Pierce Brosnan! Stellan Skarsgård! Colin Firth! Julie Walters! Dominic Cooper!) and the gorgeous sun-soaked Greek island setting, the real stars of this film are undoubtably the ABBA songs (which remain both quintessentially 70s and yet, curiously, joyously timeless as well) that are just about tenuously woven together by the script. Actually they manage to fit together remarkably well all things considered, with only “Chiquitita” being done with the most audacious and obvious of set-ups – but it does so with such a wide, knowing grin toward the audience that you really can’t mind a bit. And it’s not like you could do an ABBA show with “Chiquitita”, now is it?

The story doesn’t really matter – it’s just an excuse for the songs at the end of the day and is always intent on the obvious happy ending – but surprisingly doesn’t take the path of not bothering too much, either. There’s a few unexpected twists in the outcome, and overall the script conjures up a quite complex French farce of “who knows what and with whom and when?” levels of intricacy. That it sometimes doesn’t make sense and leaves you yelling at certain people not to be so obtuse or secretive is just part of the game shared with the audience. Equally you can totally ignore the plot if you want and simply sit back and enjoy the spectacle, which puts it in much the same category as any number of golden age Hollywood musicals.

The cast seem to enjoy themselves immensely going through the most famous “big” song and dance numbers and acquit themselves pretty well on all counts – save for Brosnan, who really can’t sing at all and is somewhat miscast in the part of Sam as written; and as for what accent he’s attempting, it seems to change from scene to scene. But Brosnan then almost completely makes up for such deficiencies with his charm and star presence that seems to only continue to grow in leaps and bounds post-007. Skarsgård is also somewhat awkward playing comedy, while Firth gets perhaps the least likeable character and Cooper gets a rather thankless second-string role in the proceedings. The girls fare much better, with Julie Walters a particular delight throughout and Christine Baranski all-but reprising her much-married witty best friend role from TV’s Cybill and thereby once again stealing some of the best scenes of the film, especially her big solo number “Does Your Mother Know.”

Central to it all is Streep, the most serious dramatic actress of her generation, who this time around is having a ball in the role of a comically-overwhelmed hippyish hotel owner. I’d heard that her singing was pretty good, but I was still surprised at just how good she was with it all (and how well she acquitted herself with the enthusiastic if undistinguished choreographed dancing too.) She also gets to exercise her dramatic muscles near the end when the story uses some of the later-era, more melancholy ABBA songs to allow her moments of real feeling and angst including “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “The Winner Takes It all” before the inevitably happy-all-round ending that follows.

It helps that such later bitter-sweet songs are some of my favourite songs from ABBA: the rousing singalong big numbers are all well and good, but ABBA were at their best just when they were falling apart – when that sadness and turmoil bled into their last albums. This was some of their finest, deepest and most heart-felt work of their time together, however much they’re overshadowed by the earlier more empty-headed singalong numbers for which they’re best known. Yes, I admit it – I’m quite an ABBA fan and have been ever since I can remember, and that surely predisposes me toward liking Mamma Mia! as a whole.

Is it a great film? Not in the slightest. It doesn’t pretend to be, nor does it seek to be. There’s all manner of faults with it, and everyone’s at least one notch over the top along with the colour saturation, but it just doesn’t matter. The film simply wants to have some loud and unrestrained fun, to take you along with the cast away to Greece for a break from the gloom of the British weather and allow everyone to have some unexpected out-of-character fun and enjoy a brief summer fling far from the demands of reality. It has no higher or greater aspiration, which leaves it free to deliver exactly the levels of delight that it intended to from the start – much like ABBA’s music itself always did in its heyday. The soundtrack and the film are entirely well-matched in that aspiration and style.

Maybe you have to be one or more of either female, middle-aged or a fan of ABBA’s to enjoy this. But if that’s the case, the rest of you don’t know the 105 minutes of fun you’re missing out on and instead you can go and also shoo off that adorable Labrador on the way out, as you leave the rest of us singing along so badly and shamelessly that even Pierce Brosnan’s vocals are sounding rather awesome by comparison.

Mamma Mia! is showing on ITV1 on January 4 2012 at 8pm (and an hour later on ITV1+1)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

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There is certainly a huge amount to admire in this new big screen adaptation of John Le Carré’s seminal espionage story.

From the stunning production design with its immaculate attention to detail (even down to the vintage packet of Trebor Mints Smiley toys with while awaiting his prey), the way it takes its time to use that detail to build character and story, the uniformly brilliant performances by a superb A-list cast (including Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Kathy Burke, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch) and a precision screenplay that manages to condense down a lengthy original book to a manageable two hour film, extracting a rare clarity of plot and theme without losing any of the complexity and intelligence of the source material, it’s hard to see how this film could have been bettered.

Where there are changes and alterations to the original, they’re invariably for the better: the ambushing of Jim Prideaux becomes a nailbiting set piece in a café, and the film improves immeasurably on the BBC TV series of the 1970s by reducing the Ricki Tarr story to its barest essentials (whereas it was previously a lengthy distraction, practically a separate novella dropped into the original.) The Christmas party addition is also inspired, bringing all the characters together in one place and under different circumstances to better throw light on subsequent events.

But for all the admiration I have for this film, I wish I liked it a little more. Instead it’s rather like looking at a pristine diamond: one appreciates the perfection of the stone and the craftsmanship, but it’s still rather cold and icy. I had a not dissimilar reaction to director Tomas Alfredson’s previous acknowledged classic, Let the Right One In.

In some ways the lack of a true passion toward the film is inevitable and perhaps even intentional, given that the film is set in the deeply disillusioned 70s and deals with a world in which lovers, friends, colleagues – even one’s employer and country – are routinely betrayed, and the only defence anyone has is to emotionally shut down. Certainly that’s true of Smiley, who is intended in the book as impassive and almost a ‘blank slate’. The film’s most powerful moments are when this icy veneer cracks – such as the spectacular look of pure love that Smiley tries but fails to suppress while looking at his wife at the office party, bookended by the abject look of despair later when he realises her betrayal. Or the look shared between the “inseperables”, Hayden and Prideaux; or the heart-rending moment when Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch in one of the film’s best turns) has to give up the person he loves in the aftermath of one of the film’s most nerve-wracking moments.

Tom Hardy is another one of the stand-out performers here – his rough, uncouth Rikki Tarr successfully blending the lout with the charmer, the streetwise thug co-existing with the cunning intelligence operative in a way that Hywel Bennett in the BBC version never did. But there are set-piece moments for all the stars who get their chance to shine, save for an oddly under-utilised Hinds whose part seems to have been reduced in the edit to little more than “looking suspicious.”

As for Oldman – it’s hard to think of another movie star who would be so willing or so able to play a part that requires him to do very little for much of the time except blend into the background and disappear for much of the time. Nonetheless he still gets more meat to sink his teeth into than did Alec Guinness (as good as Oldman is, Sir Alec’s spirit hangs heavy over the role to this day) who took ‘inscrutable’ to a whole new level. However, for my money the scene where Oldman’s Smiley gets lost in the memory of meeting Russian spymaster Karla and starts reenacting it for Guillam is one of those moments that is an undeniable coup de theatre but not entirely successful or in line with the character or the film’s otherwise unflashy nature.

Otherwise the ‘star’ of the film is how it looks – and feels, and smells, as the cigarette smoke practically pours off the screen. It stylishly recreates the period in a way that ironically the BBC version never could – mainly because that was filmed in the 70s in which the story is set. It therefore had no concept of the world outside the window being a ‘period’ and the result is just filmed in a realistic documentary style. In the film, the evocation of the period is powerful and flawless – save for the curious use of a very old George Formby song that appears to be purely a directorial conceit even while it breaks the meticulously created mise en scene established elsewhere. It’s a small, irrelevant flaw; but in many ways, it’s that flaw that gives the film a bit of personality and character outside its icy perfection.

To finish, an example of the screenplay’s lovely sense of structure: it begins with Smiley and his boss, friend and mentor Control leaving the MI6 building in disgrace, watched by everyone in the Service. Two hours later, the ending eloquently mirrors that sequence: and the sense of justice having been done and good things possible at last for the right people gives a rare surge of upbeat optimism that gives a surprising emotional payoff after all.

Oscars night 2011 – in the rear view mirror

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So the Oscars came, and the Oscars went, and the most surprising thing was perhaps how efficient but airless it was: it got the job done, but it was a mainly joyless affair with the two young actor hosts notable only by their near-invisibility in proceedings. Things only really picked up when former host Billy Crystal made a cameo appearance and showed how to fill the room with some energy; and while Kevin Spacey and Robert Downey Jr auditioned for the gig next year.

Looking back, I think I did reasonably well with my list of predictions, although to be honest they were all pretty obvious selections for the most part. What really came across was just how ‘safe’ the Academy were playing it this year: faced with a selection of good and some really interesting films, they seemed to make a reflexive grasp for something cosy and familiar. How else how to explain the Best Director award going to a young British TV director only just starting to get a sense of his cinematic style and vision, than as a sign that the Academy panicked, didn’t know who else to vote for, and went for the security blanket of a classy, old-fashioned British drama that reminded them of cinema’s undoubted glory days? Or that the two Best Supporting acting awards went to the most clichéd Oscar-baiting displays of ostentatious acting of the year? It seems you only stand a chance of winning an acting Oscar if the audience is allowed to clearly see you acting your socks off – which is not how it’s meant to be. At least Natalie Portman won despite the divisive Marmite feel of the film she starred in, Black Swan, which was clearly too way out for the Academy’s overwhelmingly ageing demographic.

It’s a shame that the “safety first” decisions got in the way: frankly, The Social Network still deserved far better than it got but it was simply too fresh, too new and too stylised for the Academy or else Jesse Eisenberg’s mesmerising central performance in a unique part would have beaten Colin Firth’s obligatory “Oscar for playing a Member of the Royal Family.” Don’t get me wrong, as a Brit I’m absolutely delighted for Firth (and indeed for Christian Bale as Best Supporting Actor) and they both gave two terrific acceptance speeches – I just think the Academy went for the ‘safe’ or ‘obvious’ Oscar route in both cases.

It is interesting, though, how the awards were rather shared out this year and no film really dominated. Sure, The King’s Speech won the headline awards of Film, Director, Actor and Original Screenplay, but that was only 4 out of the 12 nominations it went into the evening with; Inception, despite thought-provoking science fiction clearly not generally being to the Academy’s taste, won 4 as well (out of 8 nominations – does that make it “more” successful?) although it was getting its love from the technical Academicians – Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and of course Effects. The Social Network slumped to just three (Adapted Screenplay, Score and Editing) as if the Academy really wanted to stamp home the message “yes – well written, well made, but not a Fincher film.” Heck, even the much-derided Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland came away with two Oscars (Art Direction and Costume Design) as did The Fighter with its two supporting actor/actress nods, while The Wolfman(!) ended up with one for Makeup – although really that should be seen as a well-deserved lifetime achievement award for the great Rick Baker.

If there is a real loser this year – and a real surprise at that – it’s True Grit. It came in with ten nominations, second only to The King’s Speech, and went away with nothing at all. The shutout meant that two nominees that I really felt deserved an Oscar – Hailee Steinfeld and Roger Deakins – were cruelly robbed. The Coen Brothers have been Oscar darlings in the past (Best Film, Best Director for 2007’s No Country for Old Men) so what have they done to hack off the Academy in the meantime? Or maybe it’s just the genre that the Academy have no love for any more? Personally I wonder whether the Academy didn’t pick up on the underlying feeling to the film that the Coen Brothers just simply didn’t understand the Western nearly as well as they thought they did and needed to, and accidentally ended up making a bit of a superficial pastiche in the process.

And there are some mysteries about the Oscars I’ll never understand: how did The King’s Speech win Best Original Screenplay when it’s based on the diaries of speech therapist Lionel Logue and any number of historical documents and memoirs, when the wholly original Inception goes unrecognised? How can Toy Story 3 be in contention for Best Adapted Screenplay for a totally new story, just because it’s a sequel? Yeesh.

Ahh well, that’s enough. The Oscars are done and we can forget about them all for another 12 months. It won’t be hard to put them out of mind; I can barely remember the specifics already, the morning after the night before.