Monthly Archives: August 2012

Film review: Shadow Dancer

Colette McVeigh2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gave the spy drama a much more realistic edge. Gone were car chases, dramatic shoot outs and sexy time with impossibly attractive femme fatales, and in came lengthy conversation, deep intertwining plot and drabness by the bucketload. Shadow Dancer very much continues in that vein, with action kept to a minimum, an intriguing, twisting plot, and another healthy dose of drabness.

Adapted from the Tom Bradby novel, Shadow Dancer is set primarily in early 1990s Belfast and centres around Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) who is caught leaving a bomb on a London Underground train. In exchange for not rotting in a jail cell, she is enlisted by MI5 agent Mac (Clive Owen) to report on the goings-on of her die-hard IRA family. It’s the beginning of the end of the troubles in Northern Ireland, with Prime Minister John Major announcing significant steps forward in the peace process, but there remains ardent IRA members and supporters and we get to see little evidence of the winds of change, except for Colette.

A prior knowledge of events in Northern Ireland wouldn’t go amiss when approaching the film, but even those with a rudimentary understanding of the conflict should find enough to get by on. The film does very well to not take sides, although some may feel it is shying away from more important subjects that aren’t addressed. However, that’s not what the it is about; it’s not designed to be an in-depth examination of the troubles at that time, more a snaphot of what life was like with added plot.

This is very much a character driven story rather than plot driven; the details almost become incidental to how the characters’ stories are played out, and the entire ensemble, particularly the Irish-based characters pull it off superbly. Riseborough is excellent as the vulnerable yet strong-willed Collette, whilst David Wilmot is equally good as the menacing Kevin, a threat to Colette’s welfare from within her own. Whilst Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson are also entertaining enough in their MI5 roles, this section of the plot is less engaging, which is unfortunate as it actually has a fundamental effect on the overall story. It’s this reason that, come the climax, some of the punches don’t hit home perhaps as hard as they should.

It is arguably the film’s first act that is its strength, with director James Marsh (making a rare and successful foray into fiction following Man on Wire and Project Nim), handling the material with aplomb, ramping up the the tension and intrigue through the brief flashback to Collette’s childhood, her failed bombing attempt and subsequent arrest/interrogation. For every occasional dip in form there are plenty of highs, a standoff with the RUC at a funeral being just one, and each occasional flash of action provides a perfect change of pace.

The look of the film, in some way reflecting its subject matter, is rather bleak, but cutting through the film’s aesthetic drabness like Colette’s red coat is an engaging story, elevated to an even higher standard by the performances of Riseborough and her colleagues. Shadow Dancer will likely not get much of a runtime at cinemas and could well drift into obscurity, but it deserves attention and it would be a shame if such a well made and acted film passed by the wayside.

Words: Chris Thomson

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What is…a MacGuffin?

Hitchcock - famous for using MacGuffinsVery simply put, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is the thing that drives the plot of the film forward. It very often provides the conflict between the protagonists and antagonists but actually has very little, if any, other significance or importance whatsoever.

A MacGuffin may take any form, perhaps something concrete like a briefcase of money or something more abstract like a quest for power or glory. A good test to see whether something is indeed a MacGuffin is whether it is interchangeable with something else. Does it really matter if everyone is searching for some secret blueprints or could it quite conceivably be a cure for a disease? If so then it’s probably a MacGuffin.

The term was invented (or at least popularised) by a certain Mr Alfred Hitchcock (some say it was actually screenwriter and friend of Hitchcock, Angus MacPhail who coined the term) who became renowned for using the technique in his films. In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock described the MacGuffin as follows:

One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”, and the other answers, “Oh, that’s a McGuffin”. The first one asks “What’s a McGuffin?” “Well”, the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands”. The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands”, and the other one answers, “Well, then that’s no McGuffin!” So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

Clearly not one for clear explanation is Mr Hitchcock. Still, nice to hear it in his own words. He has also said that the audience doesn’t actually care what the MacGuffin is, which could explain his rather ambiguous description of it. George Lucas on the other hand said that the audience should very much care about the MacGuffin “almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen.”

The theory behind a MacGuffin has been around since before Hitchcock, however. Back when films were told with title cards and over-exaggerated facial expressions, an actress named Pearl White starred in serials that would have MacGuffin-like plot devices, although she would refer to them as ‘weenies’. Not quite as nice sounding as ‘MacGuffin’ is it?

Examples of MacGuffins

  • Rosebud (Citizen Kane) – The search for the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s last word is perhaps the most famous example of a MacGuffin and one that has become engrained in film culture and parodied countless times in popular culture.
  • R2-D2 (Star Wars) – Some may not realise it, but R2-D2 is probably the central character of Episode IV, as it’s the mischievous little droid who carries the Death Star plans the Rebellion need to plan an attack but the Empire is doing its best to track down.
  • Unobtainium (Avatar) – The precious mineral found on the moon of Pandora, unobtainium is the focus of a mining colony who come up against the local Na’vi. This soon becomes secondary to the other events of the film, however, making it an excellent example of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin.
  • British military secrets (The 39 Steps) – Arguably the most famous of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins, the military secrets (and the meaning behind the 39 Steps) are what drive the entire film, but are ultimately not of huge consequence to the story.

These are just a few examples but there are countless more. In fact, most films contain a MacGuffin of sorts, although some are easier to spot than others. Do you have any particular favourites? If so, feel free to leave a comment.

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New feature: What is…?

Time for a new regular-ish feature to add to the site – What Is…?

Basically, every now and again I will write a post about a particular piece of film terminology. Now this isn’t in any way my attempt to say I know more than anybody else, because, quite frankly, I know no more than any of the fantastic blogs I follow (or follow me), let alone the hundreds of others I haven’t discovered yet.

However, I hope people will find this feature informative. Many may already know everything I cover, but some people may just learn a thing or two, which would be fantastic. I know I’m going to learn a hell of a lot; much of the stuff I will cover won’t come straight out of my brain, but will need some research, so I guess you could say these posts will be as much for me as anyone else!

Sometimes the posts will be about relatively simple terminology, such as a particular type of camera shot, but sometimes it’ll be about more in-depth things that will need a little further explanation. Either way, I hope anyone reading it will take something from it, and I may well call upon other bloggers to help if they have certain areas of expertise.

So here’s the first instalment of ‘What is…?’ – What is… a MacGuffin?

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Quickie: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

When his father, a World War II SS officer, is promoted to oversee the events at Auschwitz, 8 year old Bruno befriends Shmuel, a Jewish boy on the other side of the concentration camp fence.

Shmuel and Bruno

Based on the 2006 John Boyne novel of the same name, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas deals with a subject that has been covered in films countless times, The Holocaust, but does so from a different angle. This is a child’s perspective, and a German child at that. Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is completely oblivious to the horror going on around him, perhaps symbolic of many Germans during the war. Through a child’s innocence, the terrors of Auschwitz seem even greater; each and every detail seeming that more grotesque leading up to the frankly chilling climax.

However, a major downfall of the film is the fact that it’s in English. The filmmakers may have had good reason to make it in English, but it’s a film that is desperate to be made in the characters’ mother tongue. The English accents of the German characters make it doubly confusing when you consider it’s the British that the Germans are fighting against. It detracts from the story somewhat and may confuse slightly younger viewers.

Once you’re over that hurdle, there’s an interesting story but one that suffers from a slightly poor script, particularly in regards to Bruno and Shmuel’s relationship. Considering that’s the crux of the story, there isn’t much progression in their friendship over the shortish runtime, which could have given so much more. Despite that, it’s an interesting take on a WWII story; as viewers with historical knowledge of the situation, we always know more than Bruno, which turns out to be both a blessing and a tragedy.

Words: Chris Thomson

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Quickie: Chronicle

ChronicleA group of three high school students discover a mysterious hole in the ground which, when they enter, gives them super powers. Over the course of the film, their powers develop, getting stronger and more varied, but as they do so, they struggle to cope with their new abilities.

With comic book adaptations meaning that superhero films are now an all too common sight in cinemas, Chronicle could easily just get swept away beneath an already saturated tide. However, this isn’t a superhero film at all, but more a realistic (or as realistic as you can get with such subject matter) examination of what might happen should some pretty regular kids with real problems suddenly have extraordinary abilities thrust upon them.

Chronicle is filmed in a shaky-cam, found footage style that has become rather popular over the last few years, with films such as Cloverfield basing their entire filming format around it. It works well enough in Chronicle but, as is often the case, it can become a little disorientating when things get a little more frantic. It also feels, at times, a little unnatural for people to be carrying cameras round at all times – almost a case of shoehorning this into the plot to continue the shaky-cam style throughout.

The three male leads are solid, with Andrew’s (Dane DeHaan) story taking more of a centre stage. With a rather modest run time, this does mean that the other two protagonists, and Steve’s (Michael B Jordan) in particular, feel a little underdeveloped. Despite this, Chronicle offers a decent big screen debut for director Josh Trank and is enjoyable and different enough to distinguish itself from more run of the mill films of a similar ilk.

Words: Chris Thomson

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Film review: The Artist

The ArtistMost people simply aren’t used to watching silent films anymore. When once they were the only form of the medium, now they are primarily watched by film students and those who have a deeper appreciation of film and its history than the average ‘let’s go watch Battleship coz things go bang’ filmgoer. Or at least that’s often the perception anyway.

However, The Artist has the ability change that. It has brought silent films into the public eye from whence it disappeared and acts as a reminder of what it is that makes films in general so enthralling, so mesmerising, and why we continue to dedicate so much of our time to them.

It’s the late 1920s and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the star of the silent movie era. However, following a chance encounter, some of his stardom rubs off on beautiful extra Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who soon finds herself thrust into the limelight of the new talkie phenomenon. Unable to accept that silent movies are soon to be a thing of the past, Valentin’s life spirals out of control as he tries to ensure he doesn’t go the same way.

For those unfamiliar with silent films, The Artist may take a little getting used to, but persevere and you’ll discover a form of storytelling so pure and true that Hollywood blockbusters will seem even more absurd than many already do. It won’t be long before the lack of true sound becomes unnoticeable and the only issue of any importance is the stories of the characters. It is a simple film, but so much is conveyed in that simplicity. A medium close up of a troubled face with a single tear slowly rolling down its cheek conveys more emotion than some entire films. The ability to connect with characters is one of the most important aspects of a film, and by stripping down to basics and taking away distractions that blight more outlandish productions, The Artist makes you connect with its characters on the most personal of levels.

Dujardin & BejoDujardin portrays Valentin masterfully as the arrogant lead unable to move with the times. Without the ability to talk, an actor’s skill set is tested that little bit further, required to tell a story through mannerisms and expressions alone (plus the odd title card here and there). Dujardin does a superb job of channeling famous actors of a bygone era, such as Chaplin, Fairbanks and Lloyd, whilst still making you believe in Valentin himself as a genuine 1920s actor. Bejo is equally engaging as Miller, trying to balance her new found fame with her fondness for the failing Valentin, and together they have wonderful chemistry; the kind that became a staple of the original silent films.

The thing about The Artist is that, whilst it is a silent film, it plays around with the conventions of the medium, at times making it more a homage than a down-the-line period piece. There are plenty of techniques used that were commonly employed at the time; for example it’s in 1:33 aspect ratio, uses wipes and dissolves, basic camera trickery, and simple (but effective) visual jokes – a lovely gag involves Miller on her own messing around with Valentin’s coat, pretending to be seduced by him. There are also nods to other films, not just of the silent era, but also black and white and theatrical pieces, such as Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain and the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, among others.

However, this is also a silent film for the modern era. A flick of the middle finger would not have found its way into 1920s cinema but here is displayed within the first ten minutes. Director Michel Hazanavicius has managed to create a film that is so obviously from a time gone by but yet feels fresh and for a modern audience. The subject matter of one medium becoming obsolete in favour of another is one that is ubiquitous and ever relevant, which puts it in good stead to stand the test of time.

Those vehemently against the idea of watching silent films will likely see nothing in The Artist that will suddenly make them rush out and buy a Buster Keaton boxset, but for those open to the idea, there’s a film that’s brilliantly simple in its design yet immensely rewarding in its delivery.

Words: Chris Thomson

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The Liebster Award

After a bit of a break due to holidays and stag parties, I thought I’d get round to finally doing this here Liebster Award thingy, which was very kindly bestowed upon me by ClaratsiMovieBlog, Cinema Train and Mettel Ray Movie Blog. Thanks guys, really appreciate it! So here’s my entry…

11 things about me

  1. I support Manchester United FCLiebster Award
  2. I have a scar on my forehead from where I fell down some stairs and hit my head on a table as a child.
  3. I can write shorthand to 100 words per minute
  4. I have quite a prevalent stammer
  5. I once bought the theme song from The Flintstones movie on cassette
  6. I used to rollerblade until I knackered my shoulder
  7. I don’t like coffee
  8. The first gig I went to was Green Day
  9. I hate moths
  10. I used to know the words to all the songs in both Aladdin and The Lion King. I don’t anymore.
  11. I’m awful at drawing. Like, really bad.

Questions from ClaratsiMovieBlog

1. Cats or dogs? Cats. I like other people’s dogs but couldn’t own one.

2. What’s your favourite sport? Football (soccer). Not the most inspired choice, I know.

3. What’s the first film you saw at the cinema? The first film I remember seeing is Fern Gully

4.  How old were you? It came out in ’92, so I would have been 6.

5. If you could meet any movie star, who would it be? Liv Tyler

6. What would you ask them? To run away with me. Or to borrow a tenner.

7. Would you be a geek and ask them for an autograph or a picture? I don’t understand why people want autographs; it’s just a scribble on some paper. I might ask for a photo though.

8. Share one tip for successful blogging. Get involved. Comment and interact with as many other bloggers as possible.

9. Where is the greatest place you have ever been? Disneyland is pretty amazing!

10. Have you ever met anyone really famous? No-one super famous to be honest. A few minor celebs maybe.

11. Which movie star do you really not get? Megan Fox. Not sure what the fuss is really about.

Questions from Cinema Train

1. What is your favourite genre of film? I quite like sci-fi films, although wouldn’t call myself a geek. Not really sure I have a favourite to be honest.

2. Who is your favourite director? Stanley Kubrick

3. In your opinion, should Citizen Kane be known as the greatest movie ever? Most important maybe. Greatest? I don’t think so.

4. Do you have a favourite professional movie critic? If so, who? I don’t really. Mark Kermode is OK I guess.

5. What was the last movie you watched? Zombieland

6. What was one of your favourite movies as a child? I used to watch both Ghostbusters films on repeat when I was younger.

7. Have you ever met a famous person? If so, who was it? I’ve not met many famous people, and those who I have met would barely register on the celeb scale.

8. What is your favorite movie-watching snack? Chocolate covered raisins.

9. Who is your favorite musical artist? I’m counting that as band as well, so I’d have to say Pearl Jam.

10. What is one of your favorite movie trilogies? The original Star Wars trilogy.

11. Would you rather attend the Cannes festival or the Oscars? Definitely the Cannes festival.

Questions from Mettel Ray Movie Blog

1. What movie made you love movies? Probably Star Wars. As a child I would get completely immersed in it.

2. What else do you like except movies? I love playing sports, even though I’m not particularly good at them.

3. Favorite breakfast food? A cooked breakfast of sausages, bacon, eggs, etc.

4. Going to the cinema or staying at home? Going to the cinema. I’d go every night if I could.

5. Is there a movie you hated in the past but now like? I used to hate The Exorcist because it scared me. It still scares me but now I like the film.

6. Superman or Batman? Batman

7. Does gossip effect your opinions about actors/directors? Not in the slightest. Gossip just annoys me.

8. What is your movie related dream to achieve? I would like to see a screenplay I’d written up on the big screen.

9. How many out of 6 movies can you name I’ve used on my RULE images on this post? Four

10. Latest movie you regret watching. I never regret watching a film.

11. Favorite movie/TV-show quote. Pretty much anything from Wayne’s World.

Now we come to the bit where I nominate others for the award, but as I’m quite late to this party, many have already been nominated and have already filled out their own entry, so it’ll likely be somewhat of a pointless endeavour. Some of the selections will also likely be the same as the One Lovely Blog Award. Therefore, you can consider yourselves ALL nominated. I read pretty much everyone’s blog I follow, and they’re all great, so I can heartily recommend them all! Well done to all of you! If you would like to take part, here are some questions you can answer and the rules to follow (even though I have essentially broken those).

Questions

1. Have you ever walked out of a film? If so, what?

2. Do you own any film memorabilia?

3. What’s your favourite movie twist?

4. Which film do you wish you had seen at the cinema but never managed to?

5. Do you like reading in depth film analysis or find it a bit pretentious?

6. If you could erase any film from history, what would it be?

7. Do you tell people to be quiet in a cinema or just suffer through their noise?

8. Do you enjoy 3D films?

9. Are there any film genres you simply can’t stand?

10. Would you be a film hero or villain if you had the choice?

11. Would you rather have hooves for feet or no elbows?

Rules

1. Each person must post eleven things about themselves
2. Answer the eleven questions the person giving the award has set for you
3. Create eleven questions for the people you will be giving the award to
4. Choose eleven people to award and send them a link to your post
5. Go to their page and tell them
6. No tag backs

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Quickie: Zombieland

Zombieland

After much of the American population has been infected by a developed form of mad cow disease, turning them into zombie-like creatures, few regular human beings still survive. One of them is Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) who, on his journey to discover whether his parents are alive, teams up with the volatile Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and two con artist sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), to fight the zombie hordes.

Narrated by Columbus, we learn how he has survived to this point, adopting certain rules to obey, such as “check the back seat” and “avoid strip clubs” with accompanying subtitles each time they are adhered to, and it’s this personality that is the film’s charm. There are plenty of zombie films about, so it takes something a little different for them to stand out from the crowd. However, Zombieland is less about the zombies and more about each of the characters’ relationships with each other.

The comedy (it’s a comedy by the way, in case you’re completely in the dark about this film) is witty, although if you aren’t a fan of Jesse Eisenberg, there’s nothing here that’ll change your opinion of him. He’s likeable throughout and his relationship with Harrleson’s Tallahassee provides many of the film’s standout moments. Stone and Breslin are also excellent, but it’s Harrelson who shines (again).

Despite being a comedy, there is still plenty of gore and a few moments to make you jump. Add to that a truly incredible and memorable cameo scene and you have a film that, whilst cut from the same mould as Shaun of the Dead, is very much its own film and a very entertaining one at that.

Words: Chris Thomson

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Quickie: Bronson

BronsonNotoriously known as Britain’s most dangerous criminal, Charles Bronson is the ideal candidate for a biopic. Bronson tells us the madman/misunderstood fellow’s story from when he was a child getting in fights at school right through his tumultuous prison life, detailing some of the more famous incidents, although often with some alterations and embellishments.

Told from the perspective of the man himself, we are privy to his various attacks on prison guards, his time in a mental institution and his penchant for getting into fights while completely starkers. However, the film is interspersed with narration told from a stage with Bronson dolled up in makeup (has Bronson’s life become a stageshow?), and certain parts are a little more theatrical than is probably true. This works well enough but may leave those expecting a straight up biopic a little confused.

Tom Hardy is superb as Bronson and many may be surprised by his varied acting range. From psychotic madman to troubled soul to bombastic showman, Hardy shows immense versatility not always seen in his films.

Bronson has been hailed by some as the modern generation’s A Clockwork Orange but such hyperbolic statements should not be taken too seriously. There are parallels between the two films, namely the healthy doses of the old ultraviolence and the exuberant yet dangerous nature of the protagonist, but Bronson lacks the disturbing social commentary of A Clockwork Orange, rather focusing on a single man’s misunderstood twisted troubled mind. That’s not a criticism, just an important distinction between the two films. A Clockwork Orange appalled and upset, but there is little in Bronson that will do the same once the initial shock value wears off, which it does a little too quickly.

Words: Chris Thomson

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Movie themed guitars

If I had an endless pit of money, one of the things I would do, aside from buy an endless supply of orange flavoured Kit Kats, is collect guitars. I play a little bit (although not as much as I did) and I just think they are beautiful instruments. However, this is a film blog, not a music one, so here are some film-themed guitars, many of which have clearly taken a ridiculous amount of time to create.

Batman

Batmobile guitar

Nightmare Before Christmas

Nightmare Before Christmas

Alien

Alien guitar

Simply stunning.

Superman

Superman guitar

Vertigo

Zakk Wylde Vertigo guitar

Some may recognise this as the signature guitar of Zakk Wylde of Black Label Society, but he has gone on record to say that the design is directly inspired by Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Star Wars

Millenium Falcon bass guitar

Rebel bass?

Han Solo carbonite guitar

Try and ignore the frankly terrifying bloke and marvel at this awesome guitar.

The Shining

The Shining guitar

All work and no play makes Jack a gnarly shredder.

James Bond – The World is Not Enough

James Bond - The World is Not Enough

Terrible, terrible film, but pretty amazing guitar. You could improve it hugely by simply putting a different Bond film on the neck.

Spiderman

Spiderman guitar

The Matrix

The Matrix guitar

Pretty cool, but the picture of Neo looks a little like Nicolas Cage with massive lips.

If there are any more movie themed guitars you have come across, let me know and I’ll add it to the list.

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