Nitpick 5: The Simpsons - The Raven

There is no doubt that The Simpsons is one of the greatest shows of all time. This nitpick is one particular bit which I think is the greatest thing it has ever done and it’s one that fits with today’s halloween fun.

Back in 1990 The Simpsons was one of the biggest things around. A true phenomenon. Then for their first halloween episode they introduced a format which they would repeat every year; The Treehouse of Horror. In it they featured 3 stories as told by members of the family in Bart’s treehouse. The 3rd of those stories however, is just so perfect in my eyes that if you haven’t seen it I urge you to seek it out.

While the first two stories featured an amusing haunted house story and a very clever first appearance by Kang and Kudos, ‘The Raven’ is adapted for The Simpsons universe as Lisa reads it out. However as she does we hear it read by Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones. We also watch as Bart takes on the form of the Raven who taunts Homer, finding himself as poem’s mourning widower - mourning after a painting of Marge of course.
The adaptation sticks so loyally to the original but gives it a Simpsons twist so perfectly it doesn’t matter that there really isn’t a single laugh in it. Show runner Sam Simon adapted it brilliantly but it’s director David Silverman, who would later go on to direct Monsters, Inc. for Pixar, that makes it all look fantastic. From the long shadows to the wonderful soaring camera angles to the great bit where several Bart/Ravens dance around Homer’s head it’s all done so beautifully.
Matt Groening has said that he was hesitant about doing it as he thought it would be ‘pretentious’ and there weren’t any jokes. Luckily it’s done so damn well that I doubt anyone would have thought that.

It’s a shame the show hasn’t tested itself as much as that again but maybe it was just one of those things that happened at the right time.

Give it a Halloween watch people!


BFI London Film Festival: Easy Money 1 & 2

I’m condensing two reviews into one here with Easy Money and Easy Money II(Or Snabba Cash as it’s called in Sweden which I love the sound of). I saw both at the London film festival but seeing as they’re part of a trilogy and the first is a couple of years old I thought it easier to do.
Easy Money I is a pretty entertaining Swedish thriller set in the criminal underworld. We follow student ‘JW’(Joel Kinnaman from AMC’s The Killing) as he gets drawn into this world because of his wanting of, you guessed it, ‘easy money’ so he can continue his lifestyle of upperclass partying with his youthful, elite friends who are mostly living off they’re huge trust funds.
Firstly, that’s a tough sell. You really want me to feel bad for a guy who just wants to act like all the other spoilt brats? Sorry, but even when they throw in a sweet but slightly boring romance it’s still very hard to root for his motives.
Nevertheless, there are other characters for us to focus on like Jorge(Matias Varela) who breaks out of a prison all too easily at the start and who befriends our lead. Then there’s the crude loser Mahmoud(Fares Fares) and the hard as nails Mrado(Dragomir Mrsic) who of course has a soft side because… he has a young daughter! That’s quite a common theme through both films: ‘these hard as nails guys are really all softies underneath. Look, a kid. A romance, another romance, he just wants to be loved. He just wants to be accepted by his parents. It’s all a bit unconvincing.
Luckily though, the rest of the storyline in the first film is thoroughly entertaining. As JW gets dragged into this world, realising he’s in too deep and he starts just trying to keep his head above water the film takes many an entertaining twist and turn with just as much strong bloody violence to go with it (one of the opening sequences is not for the squeamish as a man gets his head repeatedly smashed against a urinal). The performances are also very strong and put a lot of conviction into some of the more slightly unconvincing elements of the story.
Also great is the frenetic direction and very grim, real world photography; this is not a pretty world and we can see with our very eyes how. Back this up with a very bombastic score during the action and it’s a very well constructed thriller which sets out to entertain and succeeds very well in doing so.

Which makes it a shame that the second one doesn’t quite live up to it.

Picking up 3 years later we re-join several of our characters and catch up with what they’re doing(I won’t say what as that might spoil the first film). Of course what a lot of them are doing is very loud and brash and violent. Then there’s a new romantic interest for one of the characters(the women in these films really are poorly and weakly written). You can almost see the swagger of the film from the beginning as the credits flash up full screen in huge type and backed by a fog horn. Unfortunately it’s all attitude and no substance as the separate story lines of the characters unravel into… well, nothing really. It all feels like a lot of set up to the third film. While the first one could be watched and you wouldn’t need to see the second, the second leaves several plots frustratingly undeveloped purely to lead into ‘Snabba Cash III’.

The performances are still strong, the score is still fun and the photography still great but the strange editing style that appeared fleetingly in the first film now really distracts as we repeatedly flash forward and back between one scene and the next. A sort of weird transition if you like. It’s too frequent and makes it hard to watch at times.

I’m not sure how you can get hold of either film outside of Sweden but I’d recommend the first one for pure entertainment value.


BFI London Film Festival 2012: Argo

Argo is Ben Affleck’s third directorial film. It’s definitely his best and should finally shake off those ghosts of terrible films past like Pearl Harbour and, shudder, Armageddon.
Based on a true story, it tells the tale of CIA agent Tony Mendez who rescued 6 US diplomats from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis by posing as a fake producer scouting for locations for a cheesy Star Wars rip off and then taking them back with him on his journey out. It’s quite a ridiculous premise but one which Affleck carries out with all the seriousness of any other hostage situation. After all, this did actually happen!

Firstly, I have to address the issue of the cast which had me smiling with recognition and appreciation as each new character appeared. Most of them were from some of my favourite TV shows of recent times. Bryan Cranston? Check. Kyle Chandler? Check. Željko Ivanek? Check. Chris Messina, Victor Garber, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Tom Lenk, Tate Donovan, Philip Baker Hall? All check! Still not happy? Then hey, why not throw in John Goodman and Alan Arkin? That is one hell of a cast and while some of them like Tom Lenk might only get one scene it’s still great to see them all.
Which unfortunately, makes the casting of Ben Affleck slightly odd since, Tony Mendez is, well, Latino! This isn’t helped any further by Affleck’s slightly muted turn as Mendez. It’s far from bad but when he’s going up against big hitters like Goodman, Arkin and Cranston it does show.

But hey, let’s let that pass. After all it doesn’t spoil the film which is relentlessly gripping up until the end even if you know the real life outcome. That’s definitely something to be noted. Taking on a real life story that people know the end of is very difficult. Especially if its an out and out thriller and doesn’t spend a whole lot of time delving into the character’s personalities. Only Ben Affleck really gets a small bit of back story and the diplomats are particularly one dimensional - poor Rory Cochrane barely registers any dialogue or personality behind a moustache bigger than his face. I’m sure it even got bigger as the film went on. Our main focus points are really the 4 men on the poster: Mendez, his boss Bryan Cranston on excellent form once again and the enjoyably haggered and world wearied Goodman and Arkin who provide most of the laughs and some knowingly funny moments satirising Hollywood and the film making business.

Affleck’s attention to detail is very good making the story all the more believable which is important given the very bizarre nature of the tale.
In the end though, it’s clear Affleck is going for thrills pure and simple and he ratchets up the tension to an almost unbelievable level at the end resulting in the whole audience at my screening breaking into a round of applause at one point. Before the film even ended.

The script from Chris Terrio certainly embellishes the details of the real life tale but it’s to good effect and hey, this is entertainment on a hugely enjoyable level so that is more than forgivable.

Affleck’s slightly weak turn not withstanding this is great stuff and you shouldn’t miss it.

Argo is released by Warner Bros. Pictures on 7th November.
A further interesting read is the official CIA article by Tony Mendez here.


BFI London Film Festival: EVERYDAY

EVERYDAY (yes, all caps as seems to be the way everyone is writing it) is the latest film from Michael Winterbottom, the director of 24 Party People, Cock and Bull Story and the truly fantastic The Trip TV series.
Suffice to say my expectations were high going into this especially considering the inclusion of John Simm, Shirley Henderson and the intriguing idea of filming over the course of 5 years.

The story follows a family who are struggling to move on with life and cope with the absence of their father, Simm, who is incarcerated for an unspecified crime. I say story but there isn’t really a story at all. It’s more of a snapshot of life in this family and the relationship between the two parents over a certain period of time. You watch as Henderson struggles with 4 children, the boys of which are fast becoming independent and at times troublesome, trying just to get through the days bringing them up while making regular visits to their father in prison and trying to find her own identity without him. It’s certainly not a criticism that the film has no real story. In fact, that’s the film’s biggest strength; somehow the mundane becomes interesting and gripping even though its just, well, life. The lack of a script means the dialogue is very realistic and Winterbottom’s very ‘observing’ style of shooting makes for very accessible viewing, almost like you’re being invited to sit in on the family. The performances are excellent although the children, at least in the early stages, really are getting getting upset or making jokes or reacting to situations.

It’s endlessly watchable stuff and I could certainly watch another 5 years worth of the family’s life.

EVERYDAY is not getting a full theatrical release but will be shown on Channel 4 later this year so there’s no excuse not to see this. It’s free!


BFI London Film Festival: The Sessions

I’ve been a huge fan of John Hawkes for many a year now. One of the most underrated actors around today(along with the awesome Garret Dillahunt), he’s always been the bridesmaid, never the bride. Always showing up in strong supporting roles from Deadwood to Winter’s Bone to Eastbound and Down. Now, finally, he gets to be the focus and seems to relish every moment.

Hawkes is fantastic in the true story of Mark O’Brien, a man pretty much paralysed from the neck down due to polio, who sets out to lose his virginity through the aid of sex surrogate. His performance as a man who really tries to live life to the full despite his disability and slight bitterness about it is all the more remarkable due to his very limited use of his body in the role. Mark frequently quips about his situation while harbouring a deep desire to love and be loved back. By a woman. And not in a “I love you, I’m just not IN love with you” way.

The film is for the most part light hearted but when it delves into the real heartbreak of Mark and the subsequent feelings of his surrogate Helen Hunt it really finds it’s biggest strength. We’ve seen many a film before where someone has a disability or something that makes them ‘different’ but not often are we made to completely forget about that and focus on the person behind that. This film succeeds to do that and it is due mainly to Hawkes and the way director Ben Lewin refuses to let it all get too heavy. It certainly teeters on the edge of becoming too comedic sometimes but it doesn’t quite fall over and that’s certainly to be applauded.

Hunt is great support as the strong willed but gentle surrogate although William H Macy seems merely there to act as a sounding board for Mark to talk us through what he’s feeling which can sometimes be a bit distracting, as much as I like Macey. The film is nicely rounded out by support from Moon Bloodgood and small turns from Rhea Perlman and an enjoyably curmudgeonly Adam Arkin.

The Sessions is released by Fox Searchlight Pictures on January 18th in the UK and this weekend in the US.


BFI London Film Festival: Midnight’s Children

Midnight’s Children is the film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning 1981 novel of the same name. Going into the screening I didn’t know anything about Rushdie’s novels, only knowing about him and some of the controversy he’s gone through over the years.
So I’m coming at this from a purely movie watching angle, as every adaptation should be. In my opinion it shouldn’t rely on people referring back to the book in their head while watching, something that Rushdie made a point of saying at a talk I went to with him the following night at the BFI. So it’s frustrating that, despite what he says, it felt so much like a book to screen translation.

The story follows a young man, played by Satya Bhabha, who is born on the stroke of midnight at the start of India’s independence. He is also, along with several other ‘Midnight’s Children’, born with special powers. His being the ability of telepathy and the ability to ‘bring people together’. The film starts with the events leading up to his birth and then follows him as he grows, along with the rest of independent India and during several historical events.

Director Deepa Mehta is not someone I’m familiar with but her record shows a good career including an Academy Award nomination. However lots of the plot seems rushed and very loosely stitched together, as if Mehta couldn’t wait to whisk us off to the next fantastic location(of which there are many). I haven’t been to India but the way it shows the country certainly makes me want to go. It’s beautifully photographed and endlessly fascinating. Unfortunately thats the only thing that the film really delivers on. It’s not that it’s a bad film and the performances were all solid it’s just that at no point was I really rooting for the characters and the minute I started to settle into a setting or group of characters I’d suddenly be thrown forward in the story. Rushdie’s pleasant style of narration helps in places without getting in the way too much but it’s not enough and I was left feeling like I’d been given notes on a story rather than shown the full thing.

Maybe Rushdie’s words are best left on the page because with this, his first screenplay outing, he fails to provide any real depth or real flow to a plot which could have been great. It certainly had all the ingredients, India’s rich history and culture being the biggest.

Midnight’s Children is released by 20th Century Fox on December 26th.


BFI London Film Festival: Beasts of the Southern Wild

‘Beasts…’ was the first film of my 2012 London Film Festival and set the bar extremely high for the rest of the festival.
It centres around a very cute girl called ‘Hushpuppy’ who lives in a small fictitious community just off the coast of Southern America called ‘The Bathtub’. In this small little world Hushpuppy uses her huge imagination to watch and explore everything around her while considering her own place in it and the universe. She lives with her alcoholic father(although in separate houses), who tries to teach her how to be strong and ‘the man’ in a world which will eventually try and crush her when he isn’t around. They have a strange relationship as he tries to keep her at arms length emotionally. Things take a turn for the worst when Hushpuppy discovers something bad about him and as violent storms and floods approach, he refuses to leave.

The world we are brought into is firmly from the perspective of a child - and one with a fantastic imagination. Director Benh Zeitlin fantastically visualises the wonder Hushpuppy sees around her and backs it up with a wonderful score from himself and Dan Romer. But in the end the films true strength lies in the wonderful two leads and their incredibly strong characters. 5 year old newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis appears to very funny and cute at first but quickly develops into an incredibly strong, bold and defiant young girl. Dwight Henry as her father ‘Wink’ is also great as a tortured man who despite all his flaws you still want to root for.

Another great touch is the voice over by Quvenzhané Wallis which is written in a brilliantly observed, child like manner that really feels like it’s coming from Hushpuppy’s head rather than just as a standard voice over.

In the end this is a wonderful film that celebrates imagination and human spirit. Both myself and my girlfriend felt like we’d been through an emotional wringer by the end(in a good way) and it ends on what I felt was an overwhelmingly life-affirming moment. And I guess that’s what I’ll take away from it most; just feeling great about life.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is released in the UK by Fox Searchlight Pictures on October 19th and I can’t recommend it highly enough.


BFI London Film Festival Begins!

Been a bit slack on here recently but the next or so should be pretty busy as the London Film Festival begins. I’m heading to see 14 films and events over the next 10 days and I’ll review each of them here.
Films my list of films will include:
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie in Conversation, BUG, The Sessions, Easy Money, Easy Money 2, EVERYDAY, The Sapphires, A Liar’s Autobiography, Argo, Seven Psychopaths, Celeste & Jesse Forever, Compliance, End of Watch and last night’s first film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, a review of which should be forthcoming today.
My poor eyes are gonna take a battering!


Nitpick 4: Monkey Dust

Animation and satire. Two types of British television that really seem to have gone in opposite directions in the last 10 years.
British made animation is rarely shown in any reasonable time slot, with the rare exception of the occasional Wallace and Gromit special and some children’s programming. Adult animation is nowhere to be seen though. On the other hand satire and social commentary comedy makes up some of our best output. Shows like The Thick Of It and various Charlie Brooker programs have been outstanding examples of the quality of talent we have around these days.

Back in 2003 though, Monkey Dust combined both things to masterful effect, producing some great animation with razor sharp comments on society. Oh, and a lot of dirty jokes.

The show was created by Shaun Pye, best known for his role on Extras and co-creating The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, and the late Harry Thompson, one of the most influential comedy producers of recent times known for, amongst other things, Have I Got News For You and developing the Ali G character.

The show often dealt with subjects such as murder, suicide and, notably at that time, paedophilia. It faced them head on unflinchingly and, most importantly, hilariously.

Notable characters included the Paedofinder General, a grim reaper type who executed possible paedophiles based on very questionable evidence, such as a man wearing speedos who had the ‘s’ covered up, while quoting lines such as “By the power vested in me by a text vote on Sky News… I proclaim you guilty of paedophilia!”.
Then there was Clive Pringle, a man who would return home from work often days late telling tales of his amazing adventures which always resembled plots from well known films or TV shows such as Lord of the Rings or 24. When his wife would point that out the real truth would be revealed often being something humiliating like “volunteering to be the cum sponge at a soho fetish club”.

There were many other dark characters like this but the best ones were often commentaries on the so called ‘Cruel Britannia’. The aforementioned Paedofinder General often held up copies of The Sun and would call the victim “guilty until proven otherwise!”, a reflection of the frequent sensationalising, jumping-to-conclusion style of journalism in the tabloids.
Or there was ‘Labia’ a company who would ridiculously and unnecessarily re-brand things like cancer as an ‘end of life option’ called ‘closure’. This of course was a play on some of the ridiculous rebranding of things at the time like The Post Office.
This was all soundtracked brilliantly to tracks by the likes of Goldfrapp and Eels.

While, due to being shown on BBC Three, Monkey Dust never really gathered huge ratings and attention it was very highly regarded by people that watched it and is one of my favourite British shows of the last 10 years.

Harry Thompson’s death in 2005 left a huge legacy and this was one of his highest points in my view. The first series is available on DVD and clips from the other two are available in patches on YouTube. Now if we could get more commissioning of adult animation in the UK, I’d be very happy…


Nitpick 3: Fred Jones Part II by Ben Folds

This Nitpick is in my opinion the saddest song I’ve ever heard.
It’s the fifth track off Ben Folds’ debut solo LP ‘Rockin’ the Suburbs’, released in 2001. It’s still one of my favourite albums mainly for catchy tunes of the songs and Folds’ excellent lyrical style.

In amongst those 12 tracks though is this story set to music about a man’s last day working at a newspaper after being fired. I remember him talking about the history of the song on the excellent Nerdist podcast where, at least in his mind, Fred Jones Part 1 was actually a song called Cigarette from ‘Whatever and Ever Amen’. That itself was based on a news article about a woman who through some brain damage changed her personality and the husband who was torn about what to do because, essentially, she wasn’t the person he married. Part II was based on the stories he’d read about old-style newspaper editors being laid off.

It’s a sad story no doubt but Folds’ lyrics just ache with sadness and loneliness. It’s almost as if the titular Fred is walking to his own death and in a way he is as he leaves what was a huge part of his life. There’s a terribly sad line in it which goes ‘He’s forgotten but not yet gone’ which gets me every time. Folds keeps declaring ‘I’m sorry Mr Jones’ over and over as the song goes on as if apologising to people like Fred who are just cast by the wayside as society, jobs and the world progresses and advances, losing the need for their talents and skills.

Folds’ lyrics are always clever and often funny but this one is just sad. Devastatingly sad. And a great, great song.