Friday, 28 December 2012

Film Review | Miracle On 34th Street (1994)

A confession to open this review: at the time of writing, I've never seen the 1947 original version of Miracle On 34th Street. Whilst it therefore may be considered cinematic sacrilege to have seen the John Hughes produced 1994 remake several times, it does mean that I can consider the modern version on its own merits without making constant comparisons to the much-loved black-and-white classic.

Richard Attenborough stars as Kris Kringle, playing Santa Claus at New York department store Cole's which is relying on a successful Christmas season to fend off its recent financial difficulties. Kringle purports to be the real Santa and, whilst initially setting about to convince the non-believing Susan Walker (Mara Wilson) and her mother Dorey (Elizabeth Perkins), ends up in court arguing not only for his sanity but also over whether Santa Claus exists at all.

Miracle On 34th Street may not be directed by Hughes, but as producer and co-writer here his fingerprints are all over it. Hughes knows people and seemingly effortlessly creates incredibly human characters often in larger-than-life situations. Kris Kringle is the epitome of this, gleaming throughout with charm and warmth which is brought to life through a fantastically committed and wondrously understated performance from Attenborough. The veteran actor strikes the perfect balance between the harmlessly loopy and endearingly wise and caring elements of Kris' character; many cite Edmund Gwenn from the 1947 version of this film as the greatest big screen Santa of all time (indeed, Gwenn is the only actor ever to win an Oscar for a portrayal of Santa Claus), but to my mind Attenborough has to be considered as one of the all-time greats as well.

Attenborough is supported ably by Wilson and Perkins as the charming, yet damaged, mother and daughter pairing, as well as Dylan McDermott as Bryan, Dorey's patient and adoring boyfriend and later Kris' lawyer. The casting and performances fit brilliantly into the curiously timeless world which Hughes and director Les Mayfield create. Miracle's New York City is enchantingly caught between the modern day and a nostalgic old-fashioned version of the city (perhaps a throwback to the time in which the original film was set and released), giving the film a feeling of quality and a highly polished finish.

The story is one that can be watched and rewatched without becoming tiresome, putting a unique spin on Christmas traditions and creating arguably one of the most magical of all Christmas films without overtly putting the magic on camera. There are no elves or flying sleighs in Miracle: it's magic is much more subtle, and all the more heartwarming for it.

Occasionally the film becomes too schmaltzy for its own good - a montage depicting a date between Bryan and Dorey, set to a vomit-inducing Kenny G version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", is potentially one of the cheesiest sequences ever committed to film - and things occasionally feel a little too gentle, even for a family film. But the pervading Christmas spirit easily wins through, making Miracle On 34th Street a well made and thoroughly enjoyable modern Christmas classic.


Film Review | Arthur Christmas (2011)

With a title based around such a tenuous pun, Arthur Christmas ("Arthur" sounds a bit like "Father", geddit?) was a film I was prepared to watch and then forget, another entry into the middle-of-the-road Christmas cinematic canon. Thankfully, setting my expectations at such an average level meant that Arthur Christmas ended up as something of a pleasant surprise.

The film follows Arthur (James McAvoy), the youngest son of Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) who is well-meaning but clumsy and kept out of the way as much as possible, especially by his older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie). When one gift is left behind on Christmas Eve, Arthur and his grandfather Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) to find a way to make sure it's delivered before Christmas morning.

Plot-wise, Arthur Christmas isn't anything particularly special. The main story is entertaining but provides very few twists or developments that will surprise; once Arthur and Grandsanta set their plan in motion to deliver the missed present, it's pretty obvious how things will conclude. The family dispute subplot is somewhat more original, but also reaches the most predictable conclusion that you'll have seen coming from somewhere during the film's first act.

Thankfully, there's quite a lot elsewhere to prop up Arthur Christmas's by-the-numbers plotting. The voice cast is a veritable "who's who" of British talent, with each imbuing his or her character with charm and humour. Whilst the script may not crackle with comedy the same way that Aardman Animation's traditional stop-motion efforts do, the jokes here hit the mark far more often than they miss. The animation itself is also impressive - not quite Pixar standards, but with some beautifully realised scenes throughout, as well as some finely constructed action sequences. All of this lends the "modern versus traditional" message and the inventive way it's put across throughout the film tangible credibility, as well as making the film enjoyable even at points when the script is at its least focused or inspired.

Arthur Christmas ends up as a very entertaining Christmas tale. What it lacks in depth or originality in its story, it more than makes up for in the talent on show through both the casting and the animation. It's a new Christmas film with both genuine heart and humour - something that seems to be true less and less often in recent years.


Monday, 24 December 2012

Film Review | The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit was always going to have the inescapable problem of being compared to the Lord of the Rings films, and so the creators of this new film had an important decision to make about how they felt the stories should be presented, both in style and in terms of the solidity of their connection. It would have been perfectly possible to hide the overt links between the two sagas, presenting this story in its own right without explicit reference to the familiar scenes to follow. The links would have been there for those willing to look for them, but could have given the prequel more room to find its own style, rather than, as the filmmakers have decided to do, make the connection a part of the story, giving the viewer no doubt that this is intended to form part of a single, larger story.

While this decision perhaps allows for less background to be given (though I would be interested to hear the impression of someone who hadn't seen any of Jackson's previous fantasy epics), the film suffers from the subtle difference in tone between the stories. While Lord of the Rings is (and feels like) a sprawling epic, with huge sacrifices being made in the pursuit of a greater good, The Hobbit seems closer to a fantasy adventure film. More Indiana Jones than The Godfather, maybe. If you disagree with this, ask yourself whether the sequence with the dwarfs and the dishes would have made it into any of the Lord of the Rings films. This is not to imply that the film is in any way "kiddie", but rather that the characters always feel in "peril" rather than "danger". Perhaps this is a subtle distinction (and indeed, perhaps one true only within the confines of my head), but the absence of genuine concern for the characters' safety leads to some of the more extreme action sequences feeling almost comic, rather than thrilling. Gandalf in particular shouts "Run away" one too many times to avoid a possibly slightly unfair comparison to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Spreading the action across three films is a decision that has been much-discussed, and I will reserve judgement until I see the other installments, but my initial impression is that the films are going to be more satisfying as a single 9-hour marathon than as individual works. There are so many characters in the main party that it is difficult to get beyond introductions and into character development. Part of this is a natual problem with having a large number of similar-looking, similarly-named characters (and part of me wonders whether I will remember the individual roles and eccentricities of each dwarf come the sequels), but part of it is due to the decision to only tell a third of the story in this film.

As far as the execution of the movie goes, it's everything I would expect from Jackson and from a modern high-budget production. The visuals are clean, convincing and rarely get in the way, while the performances are strong, with Sir Ian McKellen in particular able to add more layers to his portrayal of Gandalf than was possible in Lord of the Rings, since the character has more of an active role here. Richard Armitage also does well enough as Thorin Oakenshield; a sort of dwarfish Viggo Mortensen: two thirds brooding beardily to one third hitting people with metal. Martin Freeman trundles along effectively enough as Bilbo, though I'm more interested to see how his character develops in the second and third films, and there maybe is not enough made of his internal conflict over whether to continue with his adventure, or return home.

Two things particularly stood out to me: Thorin's song (Over the Misty Mountains cold/To dungeons deep and caverns old), which was a note of true solemnity and seriousness, and perfectly captured the isolation of the dwarfs and the anticipation of the adventure to come; and the depiction of Gollum, the encounter between him and Bilbo is fantastically minimlist and (particularly towards the start of their interaction) Gollum appears as a genuinely dangerous and fearsome opponent.

Overall, I was not disappointed by the film (though I will not be seeing the next two in 3D, which added nothing but distraction), and am looking forward to the sequels, but I fear that the filmmakers may have made a rod for their own backs in the tight coupling between the two franchises.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Film Review | A Christmas Carol (2009)

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has received countless big screen adaptations, becoming just as much a cinematic staple as a literary one during the festive season. But with so many versions already out there, the challenge for any director bringing us a new take on the story of Scrooge is to bring something fresh and original to proceedings. Robert Zemeckis' choice to make Dickens' Christmas ghost story his third venture into CGI motion capture cinema, following 2004's The Polar Express and 2007's Beowulf, had the potential to be the perfect way to bring the supernatural elements of the tale to life. Unfortunately, it's a potential which the film only manages to partially fulfill.

If you don't know the story (and where have you been if you don't?), A Christmas Carol takes place one Christmas Eve, as miserable miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is haunted first by the spirit of his deceased business partner Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman), then by three ghosts representing Christmas Past (Carrey again), Present (and again) and Yet To Come (yep, Carrey too), in order to convince him to change his ways.

Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol really is a mixed bag; when it get things right, it gets them very right, but it also misses the mark by a considerable margin in several ways. It's often the most chilling and scary elements of the story which benefit the most from the motion capture treatment. The scene in which Oldman's Marley torments Carrey's Scrooge is one of the strongest and most memorable of the whole film. The inclusion of some of the often overlooked elements,such as the personification of Ignorance and Want as creepy children accompanying Christmas Present, are also welcome and inspired touches.

The casting decisions too run the gamut of success. Carrey as Scrooge is strong, but as the three Christmas Ghosts is less successful, distractingly adopting a strange and unconvincing Irish accent as Christmas Past and another which meanders around the north of England as Christmas Present. The same can be said for Oldman in his multiple roles: he is superb as Marley and good as Bob Cratchit, but the idea to use Oldman's face for Tiny Tim is both odd and unsettling - initially not all that noticeable, but once it hits you ironically it's more haunting than some of the ghosts.

It's in some of its more spectacular set pieces that the film feels least successful. Sequences such as Scrooge being shot up into the air on a giant candle snuffer by Christmas Past, or being chased through the streets of Victorian London by a demonic horse and carriage driven by Christmas Future, may showcase the film's technical mastery - as well as undoubtedly giving the immersive element in the 3D version (which I wasn't watching) some mileage. But they ultimately come across as soulless and a little overlong, as well as adding nothing to the story. A tale as ingeniously simple and effective in its concept and message as this doesn't need to have the lily gilded with overblown spectacle.

It's this that ultimately holds this version of A Christmas Carol back from being anything more than just good. There are elements here to enjoy a great deal in isolation, but as a whole the film fails to capture the spirit of Dickens' tale, preferring glossy surface level sheen to anything deeper or more heartfelt underneath. An ultimately ironic verdict for a story all about shunning the material side of life and embracing humanity.


Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Film Review | War Horse (2011)

My anticipation of War Horse was perhaps significantly less than that of many. I haven't read Michael Morpurgo's children's novel, now thirty years old, from which the film is adapted; nor have I seen the acclaimed West End production, perhaps most famous for its intricate and impressive full-size horse puppets and the realistic way in which they are brought to life by those operating them. In fact, the biggest draw of the film for me was Steven Spielberg sitting in the director's chair revisiting wartime Europe once again. Nominated for a multitude of awards, including a Best Picture nod as well as five other Oscars at this year's Academy Awards, War Horse certainly on paper held a wealth of potential to be another Spielberg classic.

Beginning shortly before the beginning of the First World War, War Horse follows the life of a horse named Joey, raised and trained by teenager Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) on his father's (Peter Mullan) farm in the Devon countryside, before being sold to the British Army in 1914 when war breaks out.

Joey's story takes him through a wealth of settings, from his beginnings as an unlikely plough horse in Devon through to wartime France at various stages of the war. It's a journey which allows Spielberg as director to create some beautiful and captivating sequences. The cavalry charge beginning in a French cornfield is particularly memorable, as is the scene which sees a terrified Joey hurtling through both British and German trenches before becoming stranded in the middle of no man's land.

Unfortunately, the cinematography of these scenes can only be appreciated in isolation. Structurally, the film is decidedly unsatisfying, with Joey's story moving too hurriedly from one set of human characters to the next. No sooner do we feel settled in Spielberg's decidedly chocolate box vision of early 20th Century Devon at the start of the film than the director moves us on to a new set of characters. Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls, Joey's next owner, is undoubtedly one of the film's strongest characters thanks to the talented actor's performance, but we simply aren't afforded the time to get to know him well enough to truly invest. It's a pattern which happens again and again until the film's conclusion thanks to the plot's rigidly episodic structure. It's a source of constant frustration: other enjoyable talents such as Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis and Toby Kebbell receive just enough screen time for us to want to get to know them better, before being snatched from under our noses, thereby building up layer upon layer of unsatisfying and underdeveloped character arcs.

Tonally, the film ranges from the stark realism of the battle scenes, to the heavy-handed sentimentality of much of the final act, to - perhaps least satisfying of all - the ill-advised and amateurish humour generated by a meeting between a British and German soldier in the middle of no man's land, united in their desire to help the injured Joey. In the end, War Horse ends up as a film which never manages to develop fully, and doesn't have a strong or consistent enough script to prop it up. With a running time at least half an hour too long and a host of British talent that deserve meaty roles to sink their teeth into, but end up with extended cameos at best, it's a film which ultimately puts style over substance. Aside from a few directorial flourishes from Spielberg, War Horse ends up as a shallow and mediocre melodrama.


Sunday, 9 December 2012

Film Review | Brave (2012)

It's purely coincidental that the Pixar output reviewed here so far have all been either been films that have left me somewhat unsatisfied, or films that are not considered to be amongst the classics that the studio  has produced (or, in the case of Cars 2, both). Time will bring articles focused on the jewels in Pixar's crown, films that have already gone down in cinematic history as both classics and landmarks in animation. Unfortunately, Brave is not one of these films.

Brave tells the story of Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a strong-willed princess in medieval Scotland who defies her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), when she is informed that the sons of the Lords of three other clans in Scotland will compete for her hand in marriage. After following a will-o'-the-wisp through the forest, Merida resorts to extreme measures in trying to change her mother's will, but things don't quite unfold the way she expected.

Once again, Pixar show their artistic mastery through Brave's beautiful landscapes and impressive action sequences. The whole feel of the film fits beautifully with the Celtic legends interwoven into Brave's narrative; it's clear that the studio have painstakingly composed the world in which the story unfolds. It's a shame then that, in comparison to both the scenery and what we've seen from Pixar in the past, the character animation is very good but never outstanding. Merida's flowing fire-hued locks are a wonder in themselves, but the time for wonder at Pixar's ability to create realistic hair was around a decade ago with the release of Monsters Inc. Elsewhere, Brave comes across as possibly the first time Pixar has ever felt aesthetically influenced by rival studio DreamWorks, with the look and feel of the more caricatured players in the story, such as King Fergus and Lords Dingwall, Macintosh and McGuffin, decidedly similar to those seen in How To Train Your Dragon.

Brave's story is perfectly enjoyable, with plenty of entertaining moments throughout. The relationships between Merida, Elinor and Fergus are established nicely in the opening act, although few other characters get much development. Things become notably more comedic in tone as the second act gets underway,  becoming more predictable unfortunately at the same time. Once it's established what Merida must do in order to set matters right, things follow their inevitable course without really threatening any genuine surprises or making you feel as though the expected outcome is ever in question. Like I said, it's enjoyable and entertaining, but compared to many of Pixar's previous efforts it all feels a bit light and ordinary.

Ultimately, Pixar are once again victims of their own success. Brave is undoubtedly superior to a great many animated films released this year. But think about how the opening twenty minutes of Up made you feel; think about how Wall-E's almost dialogue-free opening act is pure cinematic perfection; think about pretty much any scene from the final act of Toy Story 3. Brave never gets close to this calibre of cinema or emotional investment; I found myself waiting for the film to achieve this, then disappointed that it never gets there. Brave is Pixar in safe mode, which still makes it a good, well-made and entertaining film. But it's also likely to be possibly the first Pixar film you'll watch, enjoy, and then move on from without any part of it staying with you.


Saturday, 8 December 2012

Film Review | The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

The Muppet Christmas Carol looked like anything but a safe bet when it was released twenty years ago. Eight years on from their previous big screen outing, 1984's The Muppets Take Manhattan, the film was a notable departure from the more straightforward stage musical style that the Muppets were known for. It was also the first major release from the characters since the death of their creator, Jim Henson, two years previously; the film is dedicated to Henson, and his son Brian took on the director's role. These factors combined meant that a Muppet version of Dickens' famous festive ghost story could at the times of its release be considered a sizeable risk. Two decades later and the film is one of the most well-loved film versions of the tale and, arguably, the Muppets' most successful feature film.

The film recounts the well-known story of Ebeneezer Scrooge (Michael Caine), a miserly misanthrope who detests Christmas. However, during a visit from the ghosts of his deceased business partners Jacob and Robert Marley one Christmas Eve, Scrooge is warned to change his ways and informed he will be visited by three further spirits throughout the night.

The Muppet Christmas Carol gives you an awful lot to like about it all the way through. The casting, both human and Muppet, is spot on: Kermit is the perfect fit for humble optimist Bob Cratchit, with Miss Piggy overacting tremendously in the role of his wife; Statler and Waldorf heckling from beyond the grave as the Marley brothers is simply superb, as is Fozzie Bear in the small but key role of Scrooge's first employer Fozziwig; the best piece of Muppet casting, however, has to go to Gonzo narrating the whole thing as Charles Dickens himself, forming a perfect double act with Rizzo The Rat (as himself) and providing plenty of laugh-out-loud moments throughout.

The way in which the three Christmas ghosts are realised through original Muppet creations is wonderful,  with acute attention to detail and incredible faith to the source material; only the Ghost Of Christmas Present is softened up a little, working to the film's benefit by providing a much starker contrast to the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come. Whilst this is a Muppet film, much of the film's success must also be attributed to a faultless central performance from Caine. His Scrooge is the perfect balance of cruel taskmaster, lonely and bitter old man and, becoming more and more evident as the story wears on, a sympathetic figure with some serious emotional damage. His transformation from the start to the end of the film, coupled with the chemistry he consistently demonstrates with his Muppet co-stars, shows just how skilled an actor Caine is.

The combination of fidelity to Dickens' novella, sharp and intelligent humour and some incredibly catchy tunes (you'll have "Marley And Marley" stuck in your head for days after you watch) make The Muppet Christmas Carol a near comprehensive success. It occasionally becomes a little too sentimental for its own good, with some of the scenes involving Tiny Tim (played by Kermit's nephew Robin) laying on the schmaltz a little too heavy-handedly, but the story's pervading morals coupled with this being a Christmas tale allow this to be mostly forgiven. Overall, this is a charming, well made and incredibly enjoyable treat that deserves to be revisited every year during the festive season.


Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Film Review | Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992)

Surprising precisely no-one after the incredible success of the original, Home Alone 2: Lost In New York was released just two years after Home Alone, swiftly cashing in on the unstoppable popularity of pint-sized star Macauley Culkin in the early '90s whilst showing a keen awareness that Culkin's "cute kid" appeal might only last a few more years.

Set a year after the events of Home Alone, the McCallister family are jetting off once again for the Christmas holidays, this time headed to the sunny climes of Florida. Whilst Kevin (Culkin) makes it to the airport this time, things still manage to go awry as he ends up on a plane heading to New York City. Once again, Kevin initially enjoys exploring the city without the constraints of his parents (Catherine O'Hara and John Heard) or siblings. That is until recently escaped convicts Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), whom Kevin helped put away last Christmas, cross paths with our young hero once again.

Home Alone 2 takes a great many of its cues from the first film, with the plot essentially following a similar path to that of Home Alone with the action transferred to New York instead of the McCallister family home. Whilst this is something that never bothered me as a child growing up watching these films, revisiting them as an adult it's a factor which does leave several moments throughout the film lacking in originality. That said, there is enough here to make sure this isn't merely the exact same film being rehashed, with the New York setting providing some memorable moments and settings.

The sequel also retains all the key players in the cast from the original and is all the better for it. Culkin is just as good here as he was in the first film, retaining the charm and mischievousness which made him a star. O'Hara and Heard are reliably strong, and Pesci and Stern too slip straight back into the roles they carved expertly in Home Alone. It's a shame that the script this time gives Harry and Marv a few scenes that are just too silly to be truly satisfying. New additions to the cast range from the welcome (Tim Curry) to the forgettable (Rob Schneider, in a career high).

When all is said and done, Home Alone is a film built on schmaltz and slapstick, and Home Alone 2 not only sticks to the same simple formula but decides to crank up both elements a few notches more. From Brenda Fricker's homeless woman who just doesn't want to get her heart broken again (whom Kevin of course not only befriends, but gives sage advice involving rollerblades about how to overcome her problem) to Eddie Bracken's orphan-loving toy shop owner, when Home Alone 2 turns on the sentimentality it occasionally comes close to excruciating. On the other side of things, the cartoon violence-fuelled finale surpasses that of the original, with the pratfalls and destruction reaching new levels of inventiveness.

Ultimately, Home Alone 2 ends up as the slightly inferior younger sibling of Home Alone. It's enjoyable enough with a strong cast, but falls down when things get too sappy or too familiar. As festive film offerings go, it's not quite the modern classic its predecessor has become, but it's certainly an entertaining slice of '90s nostalgia and much better than a lot of Christmas offerings out there.


Monday, 3 December 2012

Film Review | Home Alone (1990)

Responsible for turning Macauley Culkin into one of the biggest names in Hollywood for the first half of the '90s, Home Alone is now over twenty years old and has become a perennial fixture in many a VHS, and now DVD, player throughout December. And, whilst it has its flaws, the family favourite holds up pleasingly well.

Culkin plays Kevin McCallister, an eight-year-old mischief maker who, thanks to a series of unfortunate mishaps, manages to get left behind whilst his entire family head off to Paris for the Christmas holidays. Whilst Kevin initially revels in his new found freedom, things take a more sinister turn when yuletide burglars Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) target his family home.

Let's get the negatives out of the way first: Home Alone has some uneven plotting here and there, with a middle section that becomes decidedly episodic. Whilst this does allow for some particularly memorable scenes, such as Kevin using dialogue from a gangster flick to pay for a pizza before scaring the delivery boy off, there are also a few sequences which now feel somewhat tedious. Things also become a little too schmaltzy at times, with the moral message - love your family even if they drive you crazy sometimes - laid on very thickly here and there.

There's far more to like than to dislike here though, not least the performances throughout the cast. It's not hard to see why John Hughes wrote this part for Culkin after the young actor's charming performance in 1989's Uncle Buck. Culkin is consistently a likable and enjoyable presence at the centre of the film, delivering a performance which superbly fits the farcical family fun aesthetic. Catherine O'Hara and John Heard as Kevin's mother and father bring credibility and humour to their roles, and there's even a welcome extended cameo from Culkin's Uncle Buck co-star John Candy.

But the most ingenious pieces of casting by far here are Pesci and Stern as the criminal duo terrorising Kevin's neighbourhood. The two have wonderful chemistry and provide plenty of genuine comedy throughout. It's hard to believe that one of Pesci's most iconic and expletive-laden turns, that of Tommy DeVito in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, was released in the same year as Home Alone.

The film's most memorable asset is, and will always remain, the final act where Harry and Marv are subjected by Kevin to one of the most severe slapstick assaults seen in modern cinema. True, the cartoon style of violence means that we never truly believe the youngster is in any real danger, but that doesn't take away from the pure entertainment that is delivered from this section of the film. 

Ultimately, whilst it's not perfect, Home Alone manages to deliver consistently enjoyable family entertainment laid on the able foundations of a talented and entertaining cast. Two decades on from its release, and Home Alone is more than deserving of its status as a modern Christmas stalwart.