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What Steve said...
...being a potpourri of musings, ideas, opinions and conjecture.

On Ted 2, and funny, filthy films.

June 30th, 2015

You might find a more squalid, unpleasant and foul film than Ted 2 to watch this weekend, but it’s unlikely. It’s also highly unlikely that you’ll find a funnier one.

Ted 2

Ted 2

Building on the flimsy but effective premise of the original film — a teddy bear come to life — Ted 2 sees Ted having to prove that he is a person, so that he can be married to Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). His old friend John (Mark Wahlberg) helps him recruit a young, inexperienced, bong-smoking lawyer (Amanda Seyfried) to fight his case in court.

So that’s the setup. It’s not just a story, of course — as was the case with the first film, it’s a frame to hang the most appalling selection of utterly filthy gags. Before even the opening, Busby Berkeley-inspired opening credits, you’ll be treated to gay sex jokes, bear sex jokes, drug jokes. It is a very, very funny film.

It’s funny in a very strange and sharp way. Trying to cast speciesism as the new racism, it mentions Dred Scott for comedy value, not something one does lightly and not something many other films would risk. It works — or, at the very least, the film builds up so much comedy goodwill that you’ll be willing to allow it. It also risks a reference to John Candy’s “Do The Mess Around” in Planes, Trains And Automobiles, a film you invoke at your own peril. But, again, it’s a funny enough film that it can get away with this kind of hubris. It really is that funny.

It manages to risk being sweet and sentimental, too, in moments, but not too many, and does immediately redeem itself by returning to the semen gags and erections gags and everything else you’d expect from a film of this calibre. It also features a handful of rather odd cameos from assorted celebrities, not least from Liam Neeson being rather peculiar.

And, this being a Seth MacFarlane film, there are the inevitable jokes about Amanda Seyfried’s eyes. The editing suggests that she didn’t necessarily know they were in the script, but she should, given that MacFarlane almost certainly hired her for this film after getting a bug-eyed monster crack into A Million Ways To Die In The West.

Ted 2 is not a sophisticated film, not a classy picture, not a movie with any meaningfully redeeming features apart from the fact that it is endlessly, relentlessly funny. Paramount laid on pizza, beer and wine at the press screening, perhaps thinking that they’d need to win us over before letting us in, or maybe hoping that we’d only laugh if we were pissed enough. They really needn’t have worried. They opened up three screens at the Events Cinema in Newmarket; I don’t know about screens five and seven, but in six, the audience laughed the whole film through. It really is that funny.

On Minions, and music.

June 21st, 2015

Spinoffs are not always the best idea. It’s tempting to imagine that if a little bit is good, then a lot is even better, but this isn’t always true. A pinch of salt makes a dish’s flavour pop; a cup of salt makes it inedible. The risk, then, with Minions is that what made Despicable Me sweet and charming when they were in the background would be unwatchable when asked to carry a film by themselves.



But it works. Minions works surprisingly well; it’s a very funny, very silly, film, and a very entertaining one at that. It’s nonsense, of course — as Geoffrey Rush’s narration explains in the first ten minutes, minions crave a villain they can follow, and they’ve been in a rut for years, finally sending three of their number, Bob, Kevin and Stuart to find a new baddie to lead them. For reasons that writer Brian Lynch and directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin don’t even bother to attempt to explain, the three minions find themselves in New York in the late 60s, where, stumbling across a secret television channel, they see an advert for Villain-Con, a convention of evil in Orlando. They hitchhike their way their, and work their way into the employ of Scarlett Overkill, the first woman super-villain, who then takes them to England so they can steal for her the crown of the Queen of England. As I said, nonsense, of the highest order. 

But it’s bloody good fun along the way. The film is a love-letter to London in the late 60s, with outdoor scenes looking like they could almost have photographic backdrops instead of computer graphics. Television news reporters drink tea during broadcasts, pausing to pour from teapots. London landmarks, from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace, are realistically represented. Even the signs, from the Underground to the chemist’s, are accurate. And the music — well, the music is the real star of the film. The score is as funky as it needs to be in a film set in the 1960s, its visuals angular and stylised and unmistakably of a period. And the soundtrack is a thing of beauty, clearly compiled by someone who has nothing but love for the period. It includes — now this is, ostensibly, a children’s film, remember — The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Box Tops, even The bloody Doors. There are sight gags that nod to The Beatles, The Blues Brothers, possibly even The Goodies.

Attention to the most exquisite detail is to be expected in films like this, animations aimed at children but aware that parents will be taking the little ones to see them. Production values are high, from the music to the visual gags, and the voice acting — Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, John Hamm — is outstanding. The minions themselves are voiced by director Coffin, and the fact that the main characters talk utter gibberish throughout the film without making it unwatchable is an indication of how utterly unjoyable Minions is. Sandra Bullock, as Scarlett Overkill, is the weak point in the cast; clearly nobody remembered to tell her that the film was set in the 1960s, and she forgets to be as groovy as, say, Hamm, who gives every indication of having a lot of fun voicing Herb Overkill.

Minions had absolutely no business being any good at all. On paper, it should have been utter rubbish. Instead, it managed to be a surprisingly, and wonderfully, silly and enjoyable film, and one I would definitely recommend.

On Jurassic World, and why dinosaurs aren’t enough

June 12th, 2015

Jurassic World is a film about dinosaurs. Sadly, that’s all it’s a film about.

I saw the first Jurassic Park film twenty years ago; I remember well the anticipation, the excitement, that surrounded the original film. And it was good. I watched it again, last week; it was still reasonably good, but it didn’t, it has to be said, hold up terribly well. But it had characters, and a story, and enough to keep the audience engaged that the film has been remembered fondly, perhaps more fondly than it entirely deserved.

Jurassic World: good, but not at all good enough

Jurassic World: good, but not at all good enough

But Jurassic World simply lacks what gave the original film its warmth. It has the rudiments of a story — two young brothers visit the incredibly popular and successful Jurassic World park, built on the site of Jurassic Park, on Isla Nubar in Costa Rica, some dinosaurs escape, dinosaurs fight humans and each other. The story, though, is simplistic at best, and it lacks characters of any great interest to propel it along. Chris Pratt plays Owen, the manly man’s man who trains velociraptors for a living, and tinkers with motorbikes for fun. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire, the brothers’ aunt who is supposed to show them around but who is too busy with her very important job to look after them. These characters, though, are hard to engage with or care about. They’re one-dimensional characters played with an almost absolute lack of warmth or depth, partly because they were written with entirely no warmth or depth. In the 1995 original, John Hammond, Dickie Attenborough’s kindly old uncle with the hopelessly adrift accent, at least had a little bit of warmth and roundedness to his character; Pratt’s Owen scowls and swaggers his way through the film in little more than a monotone. Howard looks, at times, like she wants nothing more than to be Taylor Swift, but instead has to plough through a script that presents her character as an object lesson in anti-feminism — a woman really, really shouldn’t devote herself too much to her job, lest she forget how to nurture children — in a strange turnaround from the learning-to-love-children arc of Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant in the original film

It’s the bit characters that manage to go some very small way toward redeeming the film. Jake Johnson, as Lowery, the nerd at the control desk, has a handful of decent lines, and a pleasing way of interacting with Lauren Lapkus, who really needs to put distance between herself and this and get herself back to Orange Is The New Black. BD Wong, the only member of the 1995 cast to make an appearance here, is interesting but underused as a moderately evil scientist. Omar Sy treads dangerously close to Magical Black Friend territory. And Vincent d’Onofrio is the nearest the film has to a villain that we can hope gets eaten, but even he isn’t able to get truly nasty.

And since we’re mentioning characters who could have redeemed the film, where was Jeff Goldblum? There has been speculation that he might, at the very least, have shown up in a cameo, but if he did, it was a very, very short appearance, and certainly not one that I noticed. Ian Malcolm would have helped enormously. But despite Goldblum’s absence, the original park does make a cameo appearance; Johson’s Lowery also makes a few references to Jurassic Park, even wearing  t-shirt with the T-rex logo, telling Claire “That park was legit.”

The new park is, it must be said, a little less legit. Product placement abounds; in the very Disneyland-esque plaza leading to the Samsung Visitor Centre (honest), Brookstone and Starbucks and Margaritaville signs are clear and prominent above shopfronts. And, since Samsung clearly sponsor Jurassic World — the film and its fictional setting — nobody has an iPhone.

In the end, then, this is a film about dinosaurs. It’s not about people, their interactions, their problems, their challenges. It’s about huge, impressive, spectacular CGI dinosaurs roaring and thundering and eating their way across a small Costa Rican island. Nobody stops to ask why they’re there, after Hammond, at the end of Jurassic Park, essentially announces that there will be no dinosaur park. And there are no baddies, not even a slightly sappy lawyer — there’s nobody, really (well, maybe one, but even that’s highly debatable) that you simply have to see getting eaten by a tyrannosaur. Jurassic World, the park, is, simply, a huge success; the issue of how it was resurrected is simply ignored, so that instead we get, essentially, more of the same spectacular dinosaur roaring that made the first film the hit it was. But there’s little new in this film, little to break new ground. Indeed, if anything, absent the characters, the meaningful story arc, and, most importantly, Dr. Ian Malcolm, the dinosaurs are left to carry the film themselves. They’re very impressive, but they’re not enough to carry over two hours of otherwise really rather hollow and empty film.

On Seventh Son, and films you don’t want to waste your time on

March 5th, 2015

“Fire will only make me stronger,” says a witch to a witchfinder early on in Seventh Son. So the witchfinder sets fire to the witch.

Had he killed her, we would have been spared the tedious, pointless, meandering hour and a half that was Seventh Son. Instead, the witch, whose name, we eventually learn maybe half-way through the film, long after we care, is Mother Malkin, played by Julianne Moore, in what could very nearly have been her very own Norbert Moment, survives to gurn and groan through this hound of a film. Moore is, usually, an exceptional actress. Even she isn’t up to the task of making a decent film of this nonsense. There was, I’m sure, a story somewhere in the minds of director Sergei Bodrov and Matt Greenberg, who has a “screen story” credit but whose adaptation of Joseph Delaney’s novel The Spook’s Apprentice warrants less credit and more shame. I’m sure there was, but it didn’t translate onto the screen.

Half an our into Seventh Son, my daughter, usually an aficionado of the sword-and-sorcery genre, leaned over to me and whispered “This is rubbish, isn’t it?” She was, I felt, rather generous. There’s no sense in dressing it up — Seventh Son is unmitigated shite. The witchfinder — the “spook,” he’s called — is played by Jeff Bridges, chewing scenery like no scenery has ever been chewed before as some sort of ill-defined ninja-magician, who has to train up an apprentice to fight witches. Cue, then, all the predictable tropes — unlikely candidate plucked from obscurity, hopeless at first, is trained up through humiliation and impossible tasks to become a deserving successor to mentor in a surprisingly short period of time. You’ve seen this nonsense before; you don’t need to waste your time seeing it again.

Bridges has been, in the past, a talented actor, but here he pulls the hood of his cape down and hides behind his beard, declaiming absurd lines in a voice — not simply an accent, but an entire way of speaking — that sounds like a constipated James Earl Jones after the helium’s starting to wear off. He does his best, I suppose, to put a little life into an otherwise utterly pointless and dull film. There may be a story, but it’s hard to tell — this happens, then that happens, then something else happens, with no apparent connection between events, no sense of narrative flow or coherence. A little exposition — even exposition as honking as Basil in the Austin Powers films — wouldn’t have gone amiss, a little explanation to the audience to help us to understand what’s going on. By the time it comes, we don’t care — even with the gorgeous scenery of British Columbia to distract us, the film is just crap.

Plot holes — at least I think they’re plot holes; the plot is so sketchy that I possibly dozed off briefly — abound; a minor, but named, character is killed off, only to reappear in the next scene, not even an “Oh, he’s immortal” or some other such device to explain why he’s not dead any more. Perhaps the writers got too bored even to bother trying to explain what the hell was going on.

Bridges and Moore, Oscar-winning talent both, should be embarrassed by this film, deeply and thoroughly ashamed to have had anything to do with it. Kit Harrington clearly isn’t making as much from his turn as Jon Snow in Game Of Thrones, as one might imagine; he must be in this disaster for the money, because there can’t possibly be any other reason why he agreed to show up in the obligatory tavern sequence early in the film. But he’s only in the film for a few minutes; presumably he realised how awful it was and decided that, no matter how badly he needs the money, he can’t possibly need it this badly. For all the beautiful scenery and richly-detailed and lovingly-filmed sets, the dialogue is clangingly absurd, lots of “You can’t fight your destiny” drivel that’s meant to sound meaningful and profound but simply red-lines the cliché-ometer.

Please don’t go and see this film. It cost, apparently, ninety-five million dollars to make. It doesn’t deserve to make ninety-five cents. Don’t go and see it — you’ll only encourage them.

On Fifty Shades of Grey, and great big choppers

February 12th, 2015

There’s a scene, about half an hour into Fifty Shades of Grey, in which Christian Grey takes Ana Steele for a ride in his helicopter. Setting aside the obvious chopper gags for a second, the scene is full of basic aviation-based mistakes — helicopter pilots fly from the right seat, not the left; callsigns in the US are four or five characters long, not six; “your flight plan is cleared” has no meaning. This isn’t a scene about flying a helicopter; it’s a scene about what the filmmakers imagine flying a helicopter is like.

Christian Grey's chopper — my, it's a big one. (Fifty Shades of Grey)

Christian Grey’s chopper — my, it’s a big one. (From Fifty Shades of Grey)

And that, then, is the film in microcosm. The entire of Fifty Shades of Grey is how director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel, and indeed E.L. James, who originated this whole sorry little mess, imagine people talk, what they imagine a dominant-submissive relationships looks like, what BDSM sex is like. In trying to make a film about things they clearly have no understanding of, they’ve managed to make one of the funniest films of the year.

Well, that’s true of the first half, at least, before the film just gets boring. The audience at last night’s media screening in Auckland, the best-attended press showing I’ve been to, laughed their way almost continously through the first hour of the film, and through much of the rest. At first, I wasn’t sure if they were laughing with the film, or at it. If they were finding wit in the cliché-ridden dialogue, or sophistication and humour in the mechanical delivery, then I must have been missing something; but when Christian sat at his piano for a swift post-deflowering tinkle, the laughter was more cynical than sympathetic. Fifty Shades of Grey,  although I’m sure its creators didn’t intend this to be the case, is bloody funny.

Which is good, because it saves the film from being almost completely without merit. Dakota Johnson is the nearest thing the film has to acting talent; she does her best with plodding dialogue, which, even stripped of the utterly absurd “my inner goddess” bollocks of the source material, is simply flat and dull. She lacks range, though — she simpers and whimpers her way through the majority of the scenes which feature both Ana and Christian, and she demonstrates just how difficult playing drunk effectively is. Jamie Dornan does little with Christian Grey, but it’s not entirely his fault. The character is woefully underwritten — “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” he declares toward the end of the film, but we don’t see more than one or two of them. James’ characters are vehicles to drive her own S&M fantasies, and Marcel does little to flesh them out any further; by the time Grey offers Ana a few broad-strokes nuggets of information about his background, we simply don’t care.

And not caring is the worst thing an audience can be allowed to do. But there is so very little in Fifty Shades of Grey, from the characters to the flimsy-almost-to-the-point-of-nonexistence story arc, to encourage its viewers to care. When, as Christian was trying to seduce Ana for the first time, a woman two seats down from me told her friend “Oh my god, this is so funny,” it was clear that last night’s audience, at least, had totally failed to engage with the characters they were watching. Even as the musical cues from Danny Elfman’s score told us that something significant, something meaningful and poignant, was happening onscreen, the audience were giggling. This is, simply, a boring and badly-made film. It’s not bad enough to be good — Showgirls, which remains the gold standard for “so bad it’s brilliant,” was overegged and fun, but Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t even have the courage to be remarkable in its badness. It’s just dull. Had it managed to be actually bad, I’d have warmed to it — monumentally shite is entertaining, but tedious is just tedious.

What makes this harder to bear is the fact that — twice, just twice — there are glimpses of a much, much better film. In the first, Christian wants Ana to sign a statement of consent to his little hobbies, and they meet in the boardroom of his ill-defined company to thrash out the details. For the very first time, I believed that Sam Taylor-Johnson was capable of more than simply by-the-numbers filmmaking. The setting, the lighting, the colour palette, the costumes — if I were being generous, and there was bugger all else on display last night that really encouraged me to be at all generous, I’d possibly suggest hints of Peter Greenaway in the one scene where the acting and the script manage to rise above the clankingly shite. As Ana works through a list of activities she will or won’t allow, we are teased with hints of an entirely better film, one full of arch dialogue and camp delivery, a film I’d likely enjoy much more than I enjoyed this one, which instead sees the two characters talking at each other, Dornan’s Christian reciting most of his lines in an urgent monotone. Johnson finds more depth as she contemplates fisting — anal and vaginal both — and genital clamping than ever she does when James, Marcel and Taylor-Johnson have her trying to analyse Grey. But then the scene ends, and we’re left wondering if the grey palette of many of the outdoor scenes around Vancouver, playing Seattle better than Dornan or Johnson play their characters, is a conscious choice of the director or just a happy accident. I’m thinking it’s likely the latter.

The second glimpse comes, appropriately, when Ana finally enters Christian’s playroom. The first of three S&M scenes, and by far the best three or four minutes in the entire film, this sequence is intriguingly edited, sharply directed, an honestly well-made piece of cinema. As a piece of soft-core porn it’s very restrained: Ana’s naked, we see her chained up, we watch Christian use a riding crop on her, and that’s all just fine and suitable for a grown-up film, but as she writhes and thrashes around, her knee rises up just enough to prevent us seeing anything truly naughty. It’s an oddly coy affectation in a film that, presumably, intends to be daring and bold and sexual. But then it’s over. When they return to the dungeon later, there’s little new to see, and Taylor-Johnson simply rehashes the first scene, Johnson sounding less like a woman in the throes of ecstasy and more like Kenneth Williams. And when he actually hurts her, when he uses his belt on her, it feels nasty, squalid, wrong. It’s not even shocking — it’s just ugly.

Fifty Shades of Grey will, of course, make absurd amounts of money at the box office. At last night’s screening, two days before the film opens in New Zealand, I heard that it had sold 20,000 tickets already; bookings to see it on Valentine’s Day evening are, it appears, as hard to find as moments of interest in the film itself. The film ends as the first book in James’ trilogy does; there will, of course, be two more films. I hope, fool that I am, that they might be better than this one. Oh, dear Lord, they could barely be worse.

On The Theory of Everything, and brilliance

January 29th, 2015

The Theory of Everything is based on the memoirs of Jane Hawking, once the wife of Stephen, and so it’s perhaps appropriate that the strongest, richest, most fully-realised performance in the film comes from Felicity Jones as Jane. Jones offers a quite outstanding depiction of a woman who gives up a career, and, to a large degree, her own independent identity, in order to devote her life to supporting a husband who increasingly relied on her.

The film is, of course, ostensibly the story of Stephen Hawking, one of the finest, and certainly one of the most famous, physicists in history. The broad strokes of his life to date are well-enough known; an astonishingly brilliant mind in a less-brilliant body. But as Eddie Redmayne superbly portrays Hawking’s physical decline as motor neurone disease progresses from clumsiness to almost total paralysis, Hawking’s character slowly starts to develop. Hawking the man starts the film as something of a cipher, a blank slate; he’s a somewhat one-dimensional, slightly clichéd, collection of twitches and dropped pencils; while his friends, all chummy, plummy 1960s Cambridge types, and Jane, the most developed character in the film, are actual people, Hawking is, to begin with, simply, it seems, along for the ride. But as his illness starts to take over, as he moves from one walking stick to two, and then into his wheelchair, and then his motorised chair, so his character starts, subtly, to emerge. But even then, it’s a slightly simplistic character — yes, he’s playful, and he appears to have a sense of humour, but that’s about all we really know about him, and perhaps this could have emerged earlier in the film. He has the occasional sharp line — he explains cosmology, when he meets Jane, as “a religion for intelligent atheists” — but there’s little depth to the young Hawking. And when he’s given comedic lines and situations, one is tempted to ask whether the fulsome laughter they get is solely due to the scene or the line, or whether there’s just a little sympathy for the man in the wheelchair.

But there’s an alternative reading. For most people, motor neurone disease would be a prison — what could be worse than to be trapped inside a body that doesn’t respond, to be left with only your thoughts? But then, most people aren’t Stephen Hawking, and there is a case to be made for the idea that a man as monumentally cerebral as Hawking, a man who, one gets the impression, lives to think the most sublimely insightful thoughts. One could read Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking in The Theory of Everything as an evolution that happened because of, not in spite of, a catastrophic illness.

At any rate, Redmayne does a magnificent job of inhabiting the role. The problem is, he inhabits the role of Stephen Hawking’s Illness, but not, really, of Stephen Hawking. He’s quite likely to pocket award after award for this performance, but he’s played an illness more than a man, which is a shame. The Theory of Everything is a serious contender for the best-picture Oscar. It’s a very good film, a story well-told of a woman who lived in the shadow of a brilliant and challenging man, but it’s less the story of Stephen and more the story of Jane. And on that level, it’s an excellent film.

On Selma, and hard stories

January 11th, 2015

Selma is not a film about Martin Luther King. King does, to be sure, feature prominently, but this is the story of a particular event in the history of the American civil rights movement. King was a major player in that movement, but this is a story about events, not players. And it’s an ugly, nasty story, but one that needed telling, and one that Ava DuVernay has told with clarity, honesty and power.



The film charts the events that led to two marches to promote voter registration among the black community of Selma, a small town in Alabama, in 1965. King is played by David Oyelowo, a British actor who does a magnificent job of recreating King’s oratory — or, at the very least, a close approximation; King’s estate hold the copyright to his speeches, and jealously guard their rights. Oyelowo shines especially in the set-piece scenes, the church speeches, the courthouse-steps speeches, where delivers his lines with a passion that becomes almost musical. He also presents, in the more intimate scenes, a vulnerable side to King that’s rarely contemplated in most American depictions of King, which paint a picture of a myth, more than of a man, shying away from the behind-the-scenes deliberations with his lieutentants which  reveal a human, conflicted man who experienced doubt. Selma is even bold enough to address the issue of King’s infidelity, a subject that Coretta Scott King, played wonderfully by Carmen Ejogo, broaches once, briefly. This is not a film about King, but he is a central character — possibly the central character — and it depicts him, honestly, avoiding the hagiography that attends the man in most American discourse. It’s a little jarring, indeed, to hear him addressed, even by his wife or his confidantes, simply as “Martin.” To the extent that Selma is about King, it offers a rounded, rich picture of him.

Tom Wilkinson plays Lyndon Johnson as somewhere between the man himself and Ronald Reagan, but the film does risk whitewashing his role in the civil rights movement, presenting him as a willing supporter of the black cause who wishes he could do more but whose hands are tied by Congress. Less attractively portrayed is George Wallace, portrayed as a whiney little toady with a pleasing odiousness that manages to stay out of cartoon-villain territory by Tim Roth (why, incidentally, did it take this many British actors to tell so very American a story?).

The events of the Selma to Montgomery marches have been well-enough documented that there’s no need to detail the events in great depth. But it must be said that DuVernay tells the story powerfully. The first march ended in horrific violence, and DuVernay shows it unflinchingly. DuVernay slightly overuses the standard view of King as speaker, the back of his head filling most of the frame with his audience visible in the distance, but overall her direction is outstanding. She takes a story full of the most unbearable attrocities — a church bombing early in the film is quite shocking — and manages to find humour, in particular in an early scene that sees Annie Lee Cooper, played by a slightly incongruous Oprah Winfrey (Harpo Productions were behind the making of the film, so I suppose we can find room for her), being denied voter registration once again, this time, even though she could recite the preamble to the US Constitution, for being unable to name all the judges in the county.

This is not an easy film to watch. But it is fascinating. The cast — with Oyelowo and Ejogo as standouts — are superb, and the story is one that needs to be told. Award nomination, at time of writing, have not been announced. But expect to see Selma, and its two leads, feature prominently. DuVernay has made a film that is likely to be awarded quite extensively, without it simply being Oscar-bait.

On Paddington, and simply wonderful films

December 18th, 2014

The hardest film to make is one that appeals to children and adults alike. Make it too kiddie-friendly and the grownups will simply get bored; if it’s pitched at the older audience, it’ll go over the heads of the little ones. Paddington, then, is that rarest of things, a film that works — oh, and how it works! — on both levels.



This is, simply, a delightful, wonderful film. From the black-and-white intro in — where else? — Darkest Peru to the not-cheesy-at-all Doogie-Howser-esque ending, the film barely puts a single foot wrong. Paddington himself is voiced perfectly by Ben Wishaw; Colin Firth, so we’ve been told, was originally in the frame for this role, but, magnificent though he utterly and undeniably is, his voice would not have suited Paddington. He’s too mature, too sophisticated. Wishaw, instead, plays Paddington with simplicity, naivety — an innocent voice for an innocent abroad. Firth might have worked better as Mr. Brown, but that role is handled to fantastic effect by Hugh Bonneville, who manages a near-perfect combination of grump and humour. Sally Hawkins is similarly effective as Mrs. Brown, as are Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin, as Judy and Jonathan Brown. Peter Capaldi, as Mr. Curry, and Jim Broadbent, as Mr. Gruber, are criminally underused, but when they are, briefly, on screen, they are a joy to watch. Less convincing is Nicole Kidman as the baddie of the piece, a Cruella-lite character that doesn’t quite work.

Indeed, if there is a weakness to the film, it’s the shoehorning of the essence of Paddington — a bear-out-of-water story, a refugee story that needs a little more Mr. Gruber to really make it work — into a narrative arc. And that’s where Kidman’s character, Millicent, comes in, and I could have lived without her bleached bob and insufficient evil.

But that really is the only criticism I could level at Paddington. It was, from start to finish, it was faithful in character and tone to Michael Bond’s source material, animating and rejoicing in its central character without feeling the need to reinvent him or reimagine him or force some contrived backstory. Instead, it’s the story of a real, developed, engaging and relatable character, but one who just happens to be a bear. Part of the joy of the film, indeed, is the fact that nobody seems to find the presence of a bear — a four-foot-tall, dufflecoat-wearing (of course), English-speaking bear — in the middle of London especially remarkable.

Paul King, who also directed, has written a very, very funny film. The humour is, to be fair, mostly compressed into the first half of the film, but it is truly, seriously, funny, and this, at least partly, thanks to the outstanding supporting cast — Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Matt Lucas, even Michael Bond himself, make cameo appearances. The biggest laughs come from brilliantly-staged set-pieces, but the overall tone of the film is one of humour and joy and light.

King has also directed a film that’s exquisite to look at — this is a film that has nothing but affection and respect for its characters and its settings. Paddington himself is, of course, a digital creation, but such an excellent one that the computer animation fits into its physical surroundings seamlessly, and you’ll forget that you’re not looking at an actual bear. The film inhabits a version of London that probably doesn’t exist, but perhaps should. Windsor Gardens’ pastel colours, the steampunk of the Geographers’ Guild, the utterly superb lighting and shooting of the Natural History Museum — the city is treated with as much respect as the characters that people it.

In the end, it’s not a Children’s Film. It’s a fantastically entertaining, enjoyable, sweet, wonderful film. See it. You’ll be very, very glad you did.

On Dick Cheney, torture and being a total dick

December 14th, 2014

Dick Cheney thinks that anal rape is acceptable behaviour for civilised countries. We already knew he’s a dick; now we know he’s a complete and utter wanker.

We’ve learnt recently that the United States, in the form of the CIA, has tortured men it has captured and held prisoner, as part of an “enhanced interrogation” regime. The United States, therefore, can no longer claim to be a civilised country. It can no longer sit at the grownups’ table among proper countries, countries that understand that some things are simply wrong.

What a Dick.

What a Dick.

America has long claimed to be uniquely righteous among the nations of the world, to be uniquely honorable. And Americans are brought up, almost from birth, to believe that their country is exceptional, that it is the greatest nation on earth, that it is special, a nation apart. America, they’re taught, is the great beacon of freedom and liberty in the world. This is, of course, bollocks. But American exceptionalism is a firmly-held belief, a conviction that America is, almost by definition, right.

But America has been revealed — by its own government — to be anything but. The CIA tortured its captives — physically, psychologically, sexually — on an ongoing basis, with the full knowledge of the president and vice-president, for years. For this George W. Bush and Dick Cheney should be deeply ashamed, as should every single American who voted for them in 2000 — and then voted for them again in 2004, when these men were already revealing themselves to have the morals of pondslime.

Torture is wrong. It’s always wrong. Don’t believe me? Here’s what the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights has to say: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. That’s pretty unequivocal, isn’t it? It doesn’t even work, which simply rubs salt in the wounds, but even if it did work, it’s still wrong. Ends do not, despite what Cheney, the utter tosser, might claim, but even if they did, the CIA have, at the direction of Total Dick Cheney, been torturing under the most circular logic. The men the CIA tortured were guilty of terrorist acts; therefore, anything America does to them is justified. No trial is necessary; the enormity of the acts they’ve been accused of are sufficient to justify anything their torturers can throw at them — or shove up their arses. Complete And Absolute Dick Cheney would deny them anything resembling due process; he, an American citizen, would, I’m guessing, be appalled to be convicted on the same basis, but, really, why shouldn’t he? By his own admission, he was part of these atrocities; if the magnitude of the offence is inversely proportional to the need for a trial, as his own logic would imply, then he needn’t bother calling his lawyer.

Cheney plays, of course, the 9/11 card in his defence of the disgusting behaviour he endorses. America has done this for far too long. Through September 2001, the entire world was on the side of America — the attacks of that day were so utterly awful that America had the sympathy, the goodwill, of even the French. But by the end of the year, that goodwill was largely squandered by George W and Dick. America, so long a supporter of terrorism, had finally discovered what terrorism on its own soil felt like, and now considered itself empowered to act without limit, without question, without let or hindrance, to visit its revenge as it saw fit. And if anyone dared challenge America’s right to act, then America simply pointed to the southern tip of Manhattan, simply invoked 9/11 — as though that made everything all right. And Cheney continues to invoke tragedy to justify atrocity.

But he’s wrong. America has become a secular, nation-state version of ISIS. It has chosen a standard — ISIS has Islam; America has liberty — and defined, refined, distorted that standard to suit its own prejudices. It has then decided that this standard is a universal value, one that it is uniquely entitled to impose across the globe because…well, because we’ve bloody well decided it’s right, so who are you to argue? And since America is, as America has established, always and unequivocally on the side of right, anything is justified in the course of imposing that value.

America has long defined itself as the land of liberty, of freedom, of all that is right and good. But America is now just one more country that violates international law, that disregards international treaties that it has signed, that ignores fundamental standards of decent behaviour. America has long held up its Constitution as a model of government; indeed, the eighth amendment to the constitution prohibits “cruel and usual punishment.” It’s worrying, then, that a vice-president has considered the CIA to be above the law, but more worrying is that a Supreme Court Justice has also decided that there’s nothing in the Constitution to outlaw torture. The fact that Antonin Scalia, after making such an inane declaration, is still a Supreme Court justice is deeply concerning. He should step down immediately; if he doesn’t, he should be removed. But neither will happen.

Cheney, Bush, and everyone else who authorised, ordered and carried out this appalling behaviour should be brought to trial. This is the only way America can demonstrate to the world that it understands how badly it has screwed up, and how urgently and desperately it needs to put its house in order. But the reality is that it won’t. Its people won’t demand it, and its politicians won’t push the matter too hard. The handwringing has begun, but that, so far, is all that’s happened, and there’s little indication that anything more will be done. The people of America, of course, won’t vote out the people who are failing to act on the matter, just as they didn’t vote out the people who were committing these crimes through the last decade, and that, then, makes them complicit in the acts that were done in their name.

The reality of America, sadly, is that it is no longer the shining city on a hill. It is just another failed state.