THE INBETWEENERS MOVIE

Odeon East Kilbride, 27.08.11-

The very British cinema genre of successful television comedy going to the big screen is one littered with disasters.  Think of the poor feature-length versions of On The Buses (1971, Harry Booth), Porridge (1979, Dick Clement), Bean (1997, Mel Smith), or the nadir of them all, the deplorable Kevin & Perry Go Large (2000, Ed Bye).  So, with some trepidation comes the latest in this particular subgenre – The Inbetweeners Movie (2011, Ben Palmer).

Running on E4 over 3 series and 18 episodes, The Inbetweeners became a cult hit before finding a wider audience.  It followed the lives of four friends as they made their way through English public comprehensive school, navigating, usually disastrously, the trials and tribulations of male adolescence. The centre of the story is Will (Simon Bird), brought up in a private school and dumped in public school after his parents divorce.  there he befriends Simon (Joe Thomas), Jay (James Buckley) and Neil (Blake Harrison).  The shows blend of inventive dialogue, grose humour and knowing recreation of British school life managed to both provide laugh out loud moments along with clever, subtler touches of emotion about adolescence.  What made the comedy stand out from many similar is the focus on the unpopular kids in the school, the hapless rather than the cool kids.

Rumours of two feature length episodes to complete the story being made for television evolved into a cinematic film release.  Here, the last day of school complete, the four lads set off for Crete on a last summer holiday together, in search of sand, sun, sea and sex. So far, so Kevin and Perry, but fortunately, The Inbetweeners has enough smarts to fare much better on the big screen.

For a start, the writers have had the sense to stick with what worked in the television series. Will’s voice over opens the film, and as with the television episodes, much of the humour comes from his deadpan, exasperated commentary, which helps to make some of the groser moments more palatable. By taking the action abroad, director Palmer, and writers Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, have an opportunity to open up the television setting and they manage to do so reasonably successfully, while still maintaining the cosy feel of the TV series.  There are some hilarious set pieces that are gut-wrenchingly funny, and in the best tradition of the series, cringingly embarrassing.  Look out for an extension of Neil’s previously known dance moves, Jay’s battle with a small boy at a hotel swimming pool and Simon’s naive attempts to win back his ex-girlfriend’s attention.  There are the smattering of groser moments that some could live without, but they are in the trademark tradition of the show.

The positives could also be seen as negatives. By sticking to what worked for television, there is a sense of watching an extended episode, rather than something that necessarily belongs in a cinema.  Some of the problems of carrying on a serial to make a feature are brushed under the carpet. So, at the end of series 3 on television, Simon was all set to move to Wales and had said goodbye to his friends. That gets brushed away in one line of dialogue by Simon simply saying he didn’t have to move in the end.  The narrative is also extremely predictable, as the four lads go through various fights and courting mishaps, it’s clear from early on when they meet a group of four girls that they will eventually end up pairing off.  But the joy with a television to cinema adaption is spending time with familiar characters and The Inbetweeners does this well.  Each character, including the minor characters from the show, get their moments in the spotlight.  It’a a fitting finale to the programme.

None of the negatives  will matter to fans of the show, and there is enough humour to satisfy any newcomers too.  When a British made movie opens at the top of the weekend box office and sets a new record for any British comedy’s opening weekend box office earnings, taking over £13 million – on a budget of about £3.5 million – it is something to be celebrated.  One can only hope that the talent behind The Inbetweeners Movie are allowed to explore new avenues now, and there is no hastily cobbled together sequel to cash in on this film’s success – Mutiny On The Buses (1972, Harry Booth) or Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007, Steve Bendelack) anyone?.

Film Rating: 3 out of 5.

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ONE DAY

Odeon East Kilbride, 24.08.11

The novel One Day by David Nicholls takes the typical boy meets girl story and spreads it over twenty years by focusing on where each of the main characters, Emma and Dexter, are on one day – the 15th of July – every year from 1988 to 2008. It’s a neat trick that allows the writer to take his story through broad life spans, changing lives and the changing world at a rapid pace, without becoming bogged down in heavy details – so for example, Dexter’s mother announces she has cancer on one July 15th, we see her suffering from treatment the next year and the following year we meet Dexter and learn his mother has died.  Similarly, Emma’s relationship with her friend Ian, though lasting a few years in story time, lasts only a few chapters in reading time.  What makes this particularly successful is that Nicholls can express both Emma and Dexter’s internal thoughts to fill in the gap of what has happened in each year that has passed. 

The structure of the book would seem ideally suited to a film, each chapter a little vignette in itself and contributing to the overall plot, but in translating his book from the page onto the screen, Nicholls hasn’t succeeded in finding a way to transpose his character’s inner thoughts.  That leaves many snippets from the book which had a lot of meaning and relevance in written form as simple scenes that lack the same emotional punch.  It’s a problem that the film never quite recovers from throughout and, together with the usual condensing required to make a four hundred-plus page novel fit into under two hours, leaves One Day as a decent film, but lacking the impact the original novel has on a reader.

One way to overcome the lack of internal monologue is, of course, to find actors who can express their characters feelings through looks and actions rather than words. Anne Hathaway as Emma and Jim Sturges as Dexter give it a good shot, but unfortunately fail to deliver the emotions required to raise the material. Part of that failure may come down to both concentrating on mastering their English accents rather than delivering strong performances. Sturgess has the easier job with decent Received Pronunciation English, but Hathaway struggles, landing somewhere between upper class RP, Emmerdale-Midlands and hints of East coast Scottish accents all combining in various forms. It becomes quite distracting.  Patricia Clarkson also turns up with an English accent as Dexter’s mother – leaving one wondering why they couldn’t find anyone from England to play any of these roles. One English actor who does appear is Romola Garai (Poliakoff’s Glorious 39 (2009) and  recently excelling in BBC2 drama The Hour) wasted in the slight part of Dexter’s ex-wife Sylvie. It’s not a great leap to imagine Garai as a much more convincing Emma, and perhaps someone who could have done more with the material. Rafe Spall, as the hapless, Ian seems horribly miscast, coming across as either completely annoying or faintly creepy, not helped by being forced to sport a ridiculous haircut throughout – it’s a credit to his performance that one can muster some sympathy for him by the end.

Lone Scherfig follows up her success with An Education (2009) here, but there is a lack of visual flair for the most part, lifted only by the odd touch (including the dramatic ending which is effectively shot).  For a film that covers the twenty years that brought us mobile phones, home computers, the internet, there seems to be a reluctance to exploit the  changing lifestyles in any detail, with hints and comments alluding to minor things, such as Emma refusing to get a mobile phone. It’s commendable on one level, but leaves the film strangely timeless, as 1988 could easily be interchanged for 2008, with just a swap of hairstyle. Where is does succeed is as a snapshot of the changes that all people go through as they grow up and life doesn’t quite go as planned. This is good, but hardly new in cinema.

All of which isn’t to say that One Day is a failure, it’s reasonable, mature entertainment. But those who have read the book will be left feeling let down by this slight adaptation, while those who haven’t read the book will probably wonder what all the fuss is about.

Film Rating: 3 out of 5.

COWBOYS & ALIENS

Odeon East Kilbride, 21.08.11

After the success of Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011) at the start of the month, the summer of films has taken something of an upturn in fortune, which continues with Jon Favreau’s latest action genre mash-up, Cowboys & Aliens.  Like Super 8, Cowboys & Aliens has taken a tried and tested genre, the Western, and spiced it up by throwing in some aliens freshly arrived on Earth and snatching humans – in this case to learn about their weaknesses before colonising the planet for its resources of gold.  Also similarly to  Super 8, although working in a known genre and giving it a fresh twist, Cowboys is an original story, free of any franchise, not burdened by setting up future sequels, being based on a one-off graphic novel. It benefits from this by genuinely having some originality while having fun playing on the staples of the Western genre.  Ironically the hi-concept, B-movie premise, while providing this freshness, does also leave one wishing the studio had enough faith to make a good old-fashioned Western, but these are all too rare in modern cinema.

Part of that wish comes from the casting of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford in the lead roles as mysterious robber, Lonergan, and grumpy rancher, Dolarhyde, respectively.  Both men are ideally suited to the look of the Western.When Craig was appointed as the new James Bond one of his critics ill-conceived complaints was that he lacked the suave, classic good looks of, say,  Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan, and his rough, craggy looks fit perfectly with the Western landscape he finds himself in here. Ford, a ranch owner for some years, blends into the landscape as if he is part of it.  Both are decidedly man’s men, a level of toughness and masculinity that is ideal for the world of the Western, and both are excellent here. The opening twenty minutes of the film, before the aliens arrive, is set up like a classic Western. The stranger arrives in town amidst unrest and soon makes enemies of the local landowner after fighting with his son and the local sheriff.  It’s a set up that goes all the way back to Hollywood, and the Westerns, heyday, from A Fistful of Dollars (1964, Sergio Leone) through Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks), High Noon (1952, Fred Zinneman) with a hint of Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood) and on and on.

But times have changed since those simpler days, and so in revising a Western for the modern audience, it’s not as simple as good guy versus bad guy. In the end all the humans are basically decent, even the American Indians join forces with the settlers to unite against their common foe – the aliens.  Interestingly, despite these enlightened times, women still get a raw deal in this Western as Lonergan wife exists only in flashbacks to provide some motivation, Olivia Wilde is good, but ultimately not all that she seems, and the rest of the woman folk are simply there to be rescued by the brave posse.  Even in a Hollywood film where political correctness has taken over, the women are still the outsiders in the Western landscape.  Like the classic Westerns there is room for some great support playing – Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano and Adam Beach all get good moments. 

Once the aliens arrive it all becomes a bit silly, but the cast go along with it and there are some good laughs and entertainment along the way.  The alien effects are good, but as always with the bad guys, lack any personality or depth.  There is still something exhilarating about the action scenes in Westerns, as the cowboys ride out in the vast landscape, or charge into battle, and mercifully, alongside the CGI aliens, there’s a good deal of genuine stunt work on display that links back to the simple thrill of the cowboy chase – think back to Stagecoach (1939, John Ford), but add aliens. The lack of playing to a 3D camera also helps to make for action scenes where the viewer can still determine what is going on, and it is all well handled by Favreau – as a director he is firmly established as a Hollywood A-lister now, and with statements such as ‘Westerns should be shot on film’, when asked why Cowboys & Aliens wasn’t shot digitally for 3D, seems like someone who at least has some respect for the art of film-making. Hopefully, this film marks a step away from the sorry Iron-Man 2 (2010) obligations of the past, and a chance to be allowed more original material.

 Cowboys & Aliens is very much a B-movie plot dressed up in blockbuster clothing, but it has enough tough old guts to make it another success in what was fast becoming a poor summer.

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Odeon East Kilbride, 17.08.11

Along with the trend in recent years for the Hollywood studios to rely more and more on sequels and known franchises for their big budget summer films.  Rather than recognising that a franchise is dead, has run its course and every possible  storyline has been mined, studios have begun rebooting films in order to wring more mileage from trusted sure-fire hits.  In the past a few years would have to have passed before attempting to rehash the same story and selling it to the audience as something new. So Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005)  followed 8 years on from the disaster of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997), which killed off the first run of Batman films.  Begins is also a full 15 years on from Tim Burton’s original film, Batman (1989),  and to an extent explored new ground with the origin story that hadn’t been covered previously.  The other DC Comic megastar, Superman, suffered a similar fate.  Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) was made a full 19 years on from the last of Christopher Reeve’s outings, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), and as a film picked up as a sequel to the original Superman II (1980), again covering fresh ground.  However, the case of Superman highlights a another trend that is spreading across Hollywood – ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.’   Because the reboot of Superman was judged a failure by the accountants at Warner Brothers, the reboot is now to be rebooted, with Nolan producing for Zack Snyder and another new Superman in the guise of Henry Cavill. Snyder’s Man of Steel will appear in 2013, 7 years since Superman Returns, and bearing no relation to that film other than its central characters. 

The attempt to keep recycling the same comic characters in different guises has also afflicted Marvel in recent years, to more alarming degrees.  So we had Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003), followed by The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008), both failures, so a third Hulk incarnation will arrive in The Avengers  in 2012.  Spider-man fared better, but after three films, the last of which being a critical flop, we will be treated to seeing the  same origin story from 2002’s Tobey Maguire star-er being repeated with Andrew Garfield in the role (and only 5 years since Maguire’s last outing in 2007). Surely too soon?

Non-comic franchises haven’t been spared. James Bond is now on his 5th incarnation with Daniel Craig, but each new embodiment has been a relative success, mainly due to a definite shift in style and fresh stories keeping the interest up.  Bourne will be kept alive by Jeremy Renner in 2012, although playing a nominally different character to the Matt Damon films. The ongoing attempt to keep trusted formulas running is in part to keep the audiences who will pay to see their favourites return happy, but is indicative of the safety first attitude of Hollywood.

So we come to the Planet of the Apes films.   The original film with Charlton Heston in 1968 spawned a further four films, all deteriorating in quality, but based on the central idea that the apes have taken over the planet and rule the humans.  Then, in the days when a studio could tell when an idea had run its course, nothing for almost 30 years, until Tim Burton’s attempt at  a reboot in 2001’s Planet of the Apes.  That film was not only a poor relation to the Heston-starring original, but, frankly, a complete dud.  But, undeterred, 20th Century Fox are back a decade on, rebooting the reboot, with Rise of the Planet of the Apes , from British director Rupert Wyatt. And here’s the twist. It’s actually quite good.

As with the original films, Rise requires the viewer to buy in to the high-concept idea or the whole thing collapses under sniggering silliness as chimps, apes, monkeys and an orangutan take on human intelligence and more. If you can’t buy in to the idea of simians walking, talking and raising war, then it is a movie to steer clear of. On the other hand, if you can over look the premise to see parables about slavery, the abuse of animals, humans attitudes towards our closest relatives, animal kind and our planet, then there is enough to hold the interest and go along with the fun to be had.

Unlike the quaint ’60’s style, the starring chimps here are CGI creations. For the most part it’s pretty effective stuff, despite the odd shot looking too much like a computer game.  It’s more believable than the actors dressed in suits of Malcolm MacDowall and Kim Hunter, but it’s a testament to those actors that their CGI offspring perhaps suffer from a lack of character, with only the leader, Caesar emerging as a distinct being from the mass.  Partly, of course, this is due to the film’s plot, as we witness the events that will lead to the apes taking over the planet.  If another sequel follows (and it surely will), it will be interesting to see how characterisation of the apes is developed.  Here, it suffices to have an angry Gorilla, a mean looking chimp and an orangutan playing it for laughs.

Of the humans, James Franco has the lead as the scientist searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s’ and provides enough square jaw determination to fill Heston’s boots; Frieda Pinto might as well not be there and Brian Cox, who starred in Wyatt’s excellent low-budget debut The Escapist (2008), adds another American villain to his CV. But its the effects and the Apes who are the stars and the film noticeably sags when we are not following their story and they are not on-screen.

There are nice nods to the Heston original with Charlton himself cameo-ing briefly on a TV screen.  There are also references to a space mission to Mars and a missing space ship, which ties in to the original film (and the Burton remake).  Indeed, if anything, the ending to the original film, a classic moment of movie history as Charlton Heston makes an earth-shattering discovery (I won’t spoil it here) is diminished by this prequel which explains exactly how the Apes came to take control and humans managed to nearly wipe themselves from the planet, answering all the questions that jump to mind in the shock of the original’s ending.

That aside this is a solid summer piece of nonsense, and proof that, if you have a few tens of millions of pounds to spare, and the time to keep working with the same material over and over again, then you can afford to have a few failures along the way to making a half-decent film. But is it worth sitting through the failures to get here?

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5

SUPER 8

Cineworld Glasgow, 05.08.11

 

What’s this oddity arriving in cinema in this summer of 2011? It’s a summer Hollywood film, but it’s not based on a comic book superhero, it’s not a sequel, (nor is it franchise-friendly opener), it doesn’t star any big names, and it’s not a remake of a European or Asian hit, it’s not in 3D, it’s not even a literary adaptation. Which isn’t to say J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is an original film, or that it takes any risks, given that it steals liberally from the nostalgic films of the early- to-mid-1980’s, and has the heavyweight names of its director and producer (one Steven Spielberg) to sell it to the public, but in the sequel-heavy, safe-profit driven world of blockbusters, it’s as close to an original story as big-budget Hollywood entertainment seems to want to get this year, and as such is a breath of fresh air.

J.J. Abrams is held as one of Hollywood’s bright new talents, but in truth his track record is patchy at best: I gave up on Lost (2004-10) after a handful of episodes, and despite its cult following, still suspect it wasn’t that good in comparison to the best of US television; he produced Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves), one of the worst films of the last few years, but a hit nonetheless; his Mission Impossible III (2006) was solid if not spectacular, whereas his reinvention of Star Trek (2009) was a definite success.  One thing that is certain is that Abrams is smart, and knows his film and television history, along with the likes of Bryan Singer before him, he has been brought up on film, and knows how to make a stylish movie that will attract a loyal audience.

Super 8 is derivative of, or an homage to (depending on your point of view), so many films from the mid-1980’s, and recalls the America that Spielberg grew up in and recreated in his best, early work. A group of school kids in small town America (here, the fictional town of Lillian) are making their own zombie film on a Super 8 camera. There’s Joe Lamb (Joel Courteney), still mourning his deceased mom and struggling to get along with his Father; his lifelong friend and film director, Charles (Riley Griffiths); Alice (Ellie Fanning) the object of their affection; dim Martin (Gabriel Brasso); geek Preston (Zach Mills) and explosives expert, Cary (Ryan Lee). While out filming one night they witness a  train crash and the resulting escape of an extra-terrestrial from one of the carriages. Soon, strange and unexplained occurrences start plaguing the town, people and objects disappear, the electricity supply is cut off, and the US Air Force are hiding the truth. It’s left to the kids to track down the alien and save the townsfolk from disaster.

It recalls the cult films of the ’80’s based around young kids in small town America, reaching adolescence and embarking on adventures armed with walkie-talkie radios and bicycles. Think of The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985), E.T. (Steven Spielberg, 1982), and Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986), mix them all together and you have all the elements of Super 8 – the bond of a group of male school friends, the dawning of sexual awakening, the dysfunctional families and absent or struggling parents, adults unable to cope with emotions as well as their offspring, extra-terrestrials, and the adventurous spirit of youth in an age before computers, the internet and mobile phones stole the innocence of pre-teen youths.  And it is in its recreation and representation of these elements that Abrams film excels. The camaraderie of the group of friends, the genuine warmth between them, the family issues they face together and the sense of youthful adventure are perfectly presented, and the young cast of unknowns are uniformly excellent in their roles. Joel Courteney channels Henry Thomas from E.T., this time with a missing mother instead of a missing father, and convinces as the young teen committed to his friends and falling for  Alice (an excellent Fanning).  The rest of the young leads are equally engaging with plenty of funny lines and a sense of genuine friendship and fun. The mix of generic archetypes in the group of friends – the overweight one, the scared one, the geek – can be overlooked as they represent a breath of fresh air next to the string of precocious brats normally served up in Hollywood cinema. The unassuming performances at the heart of the film provide a core that allows one to forgive criticisms elsewhere in the film.

Abrams has revealed that the film was created from two separate ideas – one the story of the young kids making their own movie, the other from his sci-fi background in the story of the alien crash landing on earth and trying to rebuild its spacecraft and return home. As much as the kids storyline riffs on Spielberg’s early kid-centric output successfully, so the alien side of the film lets the film down. The alien, exactly like E.T., just wants to return home. The difference is, that unlike the benign E.T., Abrams alien is a descendant of his Cloverfield creation – a malevolent, ugly beast, killing humans for food and destroying the town in order to escape. It leads to a streak of nastiness that sits ill at ease with the rest of the good-natured film. There’s a lot of blood and violence that feels misplaced, and one wishes Abrams could have shown more restraint. There’s simply no need for the excess level of gore. The same criticism can be applied to the over the top level of explosions, which feel like a misguided attempt to match the expected noise and bombast of Hollywood summer action films, but feel quite different from the film they appear in – the scenes of the Army destroying the town of Lillian in an attempt to kill the alien feel like they belong more in Spielberg’s other loud action monstrosity of the summer Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, 2011), than in a story centered on teenage friendship and adventure. Similarly, the train crash that sets the alien free is bizarrely over the top, and needlessly so. And, while most of the representation of mid-80’s life is accurately observed, there is some heavy-handed, though admittedly funny, humour in details such as the novelty of the Sony Walkman (“it’s a slippery slope” comments the town’s aging Sheriff), that could have been carried off much more subtly.

In the end though, the excesses can be forgiven because in recreating the era of Spielberg’s better films and childhood innocence, Abrams creates a genuinely feel good film, with central characters that can be cared about, and that manage to overcome the CGI excesses and violent action that dominate Hollywood cinema. It’s telling that Spielberg is the producer on a film that recalls his earlier work so tellingly, and reminds us that, like Hollywood itself, twenty years ago he knew how to make great entertainment with genuine soul. Perhaps on seeing this, he will be tempted to rediscover his lost innocence too. One feels it’s important that Super 8 does good business at the box office to try to encourage the Hollywood studios to at least have faith in making more original product instead of the over reliance on sequels and superheros.

Film Rating: 4 out of 5.