Christopher Robin (2018)

2018 #180
Marc Forster | 104 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Christopher Robin

Disney appear to have found a rich seam to mine for box office gold when it comes to live-action remakes of their most popular animated properties. Some have been variations different enough to almost stand on their own two feet; others have been straight-up remakes, because why mess with success. Christopher Robin is, perhaps, the most original so far. There have been many Winnie the Pooh adaptations down the years, as well as original movies and TV series featuring the same characters, so rather than remake any of those, here Disney have set about telling another brand-new story (although it begins with an adaptation of one of A.A. Milne’s very best Pooh stories, which is nice). This new tale justifies its live-action form by moving beyond the confines of the Hundred Acre Wood; and it also, smartly, trades on our own childhood nostalgia for the silly old bear.

We all remember Christopher Robin as a small boy, but small boys grow up, and now Christopher (Ewan McGregor) is an adult in post-war London with a wife (Hayley Atwell) and young daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). He works for a luggage company that is facing the prospect of firing most of Christopher’s team, unless he can find 20% of cuts; so instead of going away with his family for a nice weekend in the country, he must stay and work — again. With both his personal and professional lives on the brink of collapse, Christopher is very stressed.

Pooh in the park

Meanwhile, in his childhood playground of the Hundred Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh (a convincingly cuddly CGI creation, given voice by Pooh’s regular performer, Jim Cummings) awakens one morning to find all his friends are missing. Deeply concerned, he wanders through the door through which Christopher Robin used to appear, and finds himself in London, where who should he bump into but his old childhood friend — now all grown up and serious. But Pooh is still a childlike innocent, of course (don’t worry, they haven’t given him a Ted-style makeover), and maybe that attitude is just what Christopher needs.

Having said they haven’t made Pooh into Ted (thank goodness — I like Ted, but that really isn’t the spirit of this franchise), there’s more than a little whiff of Paddington here. It’s not the exact same plot, but the overall theme — of a naïve but good-hearted bear arriving to help humans overcome their problems with kindness — is certainly similar. Indeed, many beats of the story that unfolds are familiar — the climax is somewhat borrowed from Mary Poppins, for example; and you’ll know how every subplot will end as soon as it’s introduced. For some viewers, this will render the film pointless and clichéd. For others… well, it’s not really the point.

The joy of Christopher Robin is it takes those recycled elements and filters them through the prism of Pooh. If you too loved Pooh as a child, or an adult, then Christopher’s journey to rediscover that connection is relatable and supportable. And it’s simply a delight to spend time with the characters, as Pooh casually (and accidentally) dispenses heartfelt wisdom that both delights and, occasionally, may even cause you to think.

Tigger on the loose

The other denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood do pop up too: miserable old Eeyore (Brad Garrett) stole the show for the audience I watched with; Tigger (also Cummings, after test audiences objected to Chris O’Dowd’s English-accented take on the character!) is as exuberant as ever; and Piglet (Nick Mohammed) remains the voice of caution and cowardice, and as sweet as ever. As “the main ones”, those four get the most to do in the story, but there are also appearances from Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and Roo (Sara Sheen) to complete the set; and with actors that good providing the voices, they make their mark.

But, really, this is all about Pooh. Well, Pooh and Christopher Robin — the title’s not inaccurate. For those who don’t feel a connection to the bear of very little brain, I guess the familiarity of the narrative he’s part of in this film will drag down enjoyment — this, I presume, is why the reviews have been somewhat mixed. But, in my opinion, a little Pooh goes a long way — as Christopher says, he may be a bear of very little brain, but he’s also a bear of very big heart. The combination makes for a film that is amusing, sweet, and thoroughly delightful.

4 out of 5

Christopher Robin is in UK cinemas now.

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Perfect Sense (2011)

2017 #131
David Mackenzie | 89 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | UK, Sweden, Denmark & Ireland / English | 15 / R

Perfect Sense

It’s funny, sometimes, the journeys we take to watch a movie. I distinctly remember Ewan McGregor appearing on a chat show to promote this back in 2011. I thought it sounded like a good setup for a story, so the film’s existence lodged itself somewhere in the back of my memory. Clearly the film itself didn’t have much impact, and so, with no one talking about it, and no releases or TV screenings or whatever that were high-profile enough for me to notice, it went on the back burner. Until last year, when I noticed it was available to rent on Amazon Video.*

Anyway, the aforementioned setup is a global epidemic that causes people to have an intense emotional outburst followed by losing one of their senses — for example, the first stage is an uncontrollable bout of crying followed by losing the ability to smell. Over a short period everyone experiences the same thing, then the world learns to adapt… until it happens again, losing another sense. While this is going on, we follow the relationship of Michael (McGregor), a chef, and Susan (Eva Green), a member of a team trying to find a cure for the disease. Obviously, this provides our human connection to events, with the grand world-changing stuff providing more of a backdrop.

Life goes on...

It’s ironic, then — or at least counterintuitive — that there’s more emotional power in the montages about senses and what was being lost — the ideas-y stuff — than there is in the character- and relationship-based bits. Those are actually surprisingly clunky at first, with even McGregor and Green — both actors I like a good deal — struggling to make them work. Things do smooth out in that regard, but the romance plot proceeds to conform to a pretty standard shape. Was the sci-fi crisis meant to reflect the relationship, or is the relationship a down-to-earth framework on which to hang a big sci-fi story? I suspect the latter, because it’s the end-of-the-world theatrics that prove more interesting.

Those are kept grounded and plausible: despite the ever-worsening situation, people keep getting used to the new status quo and going on as normal — until the sensory deprivation goes too far to ignore, of course. There are lots of neatly observed and imagined little bits in how this unfolds, like how after taste is lost the rituals of going out to restaurants remains, with focus moved to the sounds and physical sensations of the environment and the food; and newspaper critics still review places for this, naturally. This “life goes on” thing feels very much like how we as a society genuinely react to big changes or threats.

...until it doesn't.

So, it’s not a perfect film, but Jesus, the negative reviews I sampled (chosen at ‘random’, where “random” means “the top results on Google”) were shitty pieces of criticism. Their points include things like it’s preposterous (well, the plot is propelled by an unexplained virus — it’s less preposterous than, say, Spider-Man), or the characters fall in love while the world falls apart (because no one ever seeks comfort in others during times of stress or tragedy), or the screenwriter has kind of a funny name (seriously — a supposedly professional review dedicated some of its limited word count to basically going, “lol, foreigner’s got name that looks funny!”) It annoys me that some people get paid to write bollocks like that.

As I said at the start, no one ever really talks about Perfect Sense, even after its director has gone on to bigger things (Starred Up attracted a lot of praise and Hell or High Water earnt Oscar nominations), but it’s worth a look for anyone interested in broadly-plausible end-of-the-world dramas.

4 out of 5

* Having rented it, I was surprised to see it begin with a BBC Films logo, because most BBC Films productions end up on BBC Two within a year or two. So I checked, and it turned out it had been on TV, just once, in November 2012. (You’d think they’d’ve shown it more than that in the five-and-a-half years since — I mean, they’ve shown The Ides of March six times in four years.) Worse than that, though, was when I checked my iPlayer downloads and found I had actually downloaded it, so paying for the rental was a waste of money. Well, at least it was only £1.99, and I paid with vouchers anyway. But the colour grading of the two was completely different, which was just odd. Anyway, back to the review: ^

T2 Trainspotting (2017)

2017 #124
Danny Boyle | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK / English & Bulgarian | 18 / R

T2 Trainspotting

At one point during T2, a younger character accuses some of the returning characters of living in the past; that it’s all they talk about. It’s true of the characters, and it’s kinda true of the film itself too: this belated sequel to the era-defining original feels try-hard, like it wants to recapture the verve and inventiveness of its predecessor, but everyone’s now too grown up to do it properly.

Set 20 years on, it reunites the first film’s main characters… and, really, that’s the plot. Obviously other things happen, and the details are important, but that seems to be why the film exists: to get the gang back together for another couple of hours. Is that reason enough to make a movie? I guess everyone will have their own answer to that question. For me, it wasn’t reason enough to justify T2.

(Trivia aside that, frankly, I find more interesting then the film itself: reportedly director Danny Boyle wanted to call it simply T2, if James Cameron would let him — they thought they needed that permission because of Terminator 2 being commonly marketed as T2. But then it turned out that Terminator 2 was never officially called T2, so they were free to do as they pleased. But then internet searches for “T2” were found to still mainly turn up the Terminator sequel (unsurprisingly, let’s be honest), so they settled on T2 Trainspotting so people would know what it was. You have to wonder why at that point they didn’t just call it Trainspotting 2…)

Looking as bored as I felt

Anyway, back to this T2. The meandering plot, such as it is, lacks the grit and realism of the first movie. For example, that ended with a simple betrayal — a guy stealing money while his mates were sleeping — while this ends with a knock-down drag-out fight in a construction site like something out of a low-budget thriller. Visually, too, it’s so clean and pristine. There are some properly beautiful shots, especially of the scenery outside Edinburgh, but I’m not sure that’s in-keeping with the Trainspotting aesthetic. Boyle does at points try to reheat the visual tricks of the first movie, but I didn’t feel it worked. The original’s many stylistic flourishes are now much imitated, but they were fresh back in the day and somehow that freshness still comes across when watched now. By trying to ape ape them, T2 just joins the long line of copycats.

Another key element of Trainspotting was the soundtrack. I don’t know what they were thinking with the music here — it isn’t even close to being as memorable or iconic as the original. Maybe that was the point, to not try the same trick again; but there are still plenty of jukeboxed tracks that attempt to draw attention to themselves, but… don’t.

I felt like this, too

Trainspotting had energy, dynamism, exuberance; it pulsed with life and youth. Its sequel is more sedate, more… middle-aged. Well, so are the characters, so that could work; but they don’t behave like they’re middle-aged — they’re too busy trying to recapture their youth, reliving past glories and past conflicts. The film is doing the same. You could perhaps argue that it’s form mirroring content, but the form lacks the wink at the audience to say “this is deliberate.” Like the characters, it seems unaware of the sad state it’s in. Ultimately, it feels like a slightly unfocused, thematically inconclusive, largely unnecessary postscript.

3 out of 5

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

2016 #191
Susanna White | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English, Russian & French | 15 / R

Our Kind of Traitor

Based on a John le Carré novel, Our Kind of Traitor sees a couple of holidaying Brits, Perry and Gail MacKendrick (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris), befriending a Russian chap called Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who it turns out has links to the Mafia and wants our hapless heroes to deliver an information-filled USB stick to British intelligence. As MI6 (primarily represented by Damian Lewis) seek to act on the information, the MacKendricks get drawn into the espionage game thanks to their relationship with Dima.

Some of Traitor’s detractors have a problem with it right from the off, finding the premise to be inherently ridiculous. I disagree. In fact, I think it’s quite a good plan on Dima’s part: to use an unsuspected casual acquaintance to smuggle important documents to the authorities. The way the MacKendricks continue to be involved does wind up stretching credibility, but that’s narrative structure for you — it’d be a real trick to construct a satisfying relay of perspective characters.

If anyone could pull that off it’s probably Le Carré, but this is not his most complicated plot — there are even less twists or double-crosses than you’re probably expecting — but as a tense thriller it satisfies often enough. However, Le Carré as author, plus screenwriter Hossein Amini and director Susanna White, seem to be more interested in the story’s real-world resonances. They’re using a thriller plot to bring up the kind of probably-genuine corruption we get in government today. On the one hand it feels a little obvious, especially to those of certain political leanings, but on the other it’s worth highlighting. An impassioned speech by Damian Lewis to some of his superiors sums it up, probably rather too neatly for some discerning critics.

British intelligence

Lewis is always good value, both in scenes like that and in his tentative partnership with McGregor. Although the MacKendricks are our point-of-view characters, the innocent normal people we should relate to, McGregor’s Perry is ultimately a little flat and Harris is underused. The real star is Skarsgård as the gregarious and foul-mouthed Russian banker, who is by turns unsettlingly dangerous and engagingly likeable. Or perhaps it’s the beautiful cinematography by DP Anthony Dod Mantle — the varied international locations are particularly effective at adding scale to a story that’s really about the personal interactions of four or five people.

Our Kind of Traitor is not the very best Le Carré adaptation, especially given the increasing number we’re being treated to these days, but it’s still a reasonably engrossing thriller with something to say about contemporary geopolitics.

4 out of 5

Young Adam (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #100

Everyone has a past.
Everyone has a secret.

Country: UK & France
Language: English
Runtime: 98 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: NC-17 (uncut) | R (cut)

Original Release: 4th September 2003 (Netherlands)
UK Release: 26th September 2003
First Seen: DVD, c.2005

Stars
Ewan McGregor (Shallow Grave, Big Fish)
Tilda Swinton (Orlando, We Need to Talk About Kevin)
Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Tyrannosaur)
Emily Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing, Match Point)

Director
David Mackenzie (Starred Up, Hell or High Water)

Screenwriter
David Mackenzie (The Last Great Wilderness, Hallam Foe)

Based on
Young Adam, a novel by Alexander Trocchi.

The Story
Joe is earning his keep helping transport coal on a barge between Glasgow and Edinburgh, spending his free time lusting after his employer’s wife, when he spots a woman’s dead body floating in the canal — something Joe knows more about than he lets on…

Our Hero
Joe is a young drifter, who’s wound up working on a barge with Les and Ella Gault and their son. He’s a horny bugger, sex obsessed to the point of distraction, which will have an effect on everyone’s lives.

Our Villain
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say the film is a murder mystery — especially as it’s not clear if the woman was indeed murdered. But how did she die? How was Joe involved? He’s the main character, which makes him the hero, but is he actually a bad’un?

Best Supporting Character
Harried barge wife Ella is not anyone’s typical image of desirability, but nonetheless becomes the object of Joe’s own brand of affections, which brings her some happiness… for a while. Mainly, it’s a brilliant, layered performance by Tilda Swinton.

Memorable Quote
Joe: “Are you sorry?”
Ella: “Fat lot of good that would do me.”

Memorable Scene
Cathie, another of Joe’s lovers, comes home soaking wet. As she undresses, she berates him for doing nothing useful with his time. He informs he has made custard, which he throws over her, followed by various other condiments. Then there is, shall we say, an act with (at best) debatable consent. I believe this is a version of something called “sploshing” (thanks, internet).

Memorable Music
David Byrne’s ambient score haunts the soundtrack, as essential to the film’s grey mood as the drizzly Scottish locations and overcast photography. My favourite part is the plaintive closing song, The Great Western Road.

Awards
4 BAFTA Scotland Awards (Film, Actor in a Scottish Film (Ewan McGregor), Actress in a Scottish Film (Tilda Swinton), Director)
4 British Independent Film Award nominations (British Independent Film, Actor (Ewan McGregor), Actress (Tilda Swinton), Director)
3 Empire Awards nominations (British Film, British Actor (Ewan McGregor), British Actress (Emily Mortimer))

What the Critics Said
“Joe is a hard case. Opaque. Not tender, not good with the small talk. Around women, he has a certain intensity that informs them he plans to have sex with them, and it is up to them to agree or go away. He is not a rapist, but he has only one purpose in his mind, and some women find that intensity of focus to be exciting. It’s as if, at the same time, he cares nothing for them and can think only of them. […] He is not a murderer but a man unwilling to intervene, a man so detached, so cold, so willing to sacrifice others to his own convenience, that perhaps in his mind it occurs that he would feel better about the young woman’s death if he had actually, actively, killed her. Then at least he would know what he had done and would not find such emptiness when he looks inside himself. This is an almost Dostoyevskian study of a man brooding upon evil until it paralyzes him. […] The death of the girl and the plot surrounding it are handled not as a crime or a mystery but as an event that jars characters out of their fixed orbits. When you have a policy of behavior, a pose toward the world, that has hardened like concrete into who you are, it takes more than guilt to break you loose.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Score: 62%

What the Public Say
“McGregor, putting his meat and two veg on show once again, is really good as the conflicted and sex addict, Swinton does almost steal the show as the sex-craving barge woman, who also gets naked, and Mortimer in the flashbacks is very good, with her clothes off too. The film is just stuffed with sexual scenes, and with the dead body premise it combines film noir and melodrama, all adding up to a well crafted and most watchable period drama.” — Jackson Booth-Millard @ IMDb

Verdict

Part murder mystery, part beat character study, part erotic drama, Young Adam is an enigmatic, moody, conflicted film — in a good way. It presents a grimily realistic view of life and sex, around which writhes a murder mystery that, as it turns out, doesn’t contain a murder and, relatively quickly, isn’t much of a mystery. Instead it’s something of an ethical dilemma, presented to a character who’s not exactly unethical but isn’t necessarily concerned about doing what’s right either, especially if it’s against his own interests. Not a cheery one, then, but a film of grey morals, grey imagery, and grey mood — in a good way.

Next time… looking back over my 100 favourites.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #63

Truth — Beauty — Freedom — Love

Country: USA & Australia
Language: English
Runtime: 128 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 16th May 2001 (L.A., USA)
UK Release: 7th September 2001
First Seen: DVD, 2002

Stars
Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut, The Hours)
Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting, Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)
John Leguizamo (Super Mario Bros., Land of the Dead)
Jim Broadbent (Iris, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
Richard Roxburgh (Mission: Impossible II, Van Helsing)

Director
Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Australia)

Screenwriters
Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, The Great Gatsby)
Craig Pearce (Romeo + Juliet, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud)

Music by
Craig Armstrong (Love Actually, The Great Gatsby)

The Story
Paris, 1899: while pitching a show to the owner of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, writer Christian falls for the venue’s leading lady, Satine. Despite her mutual attraction, Satine has been promised to the Duke of Monroth in exchange for his investment in the cabaret. As preparations for the show continue, Christian and Satine’s love blossoms nonetheless. Will true love conquer commerce?

Our Heroes
Christian is just a poor, miserable poet living among Bohemians in turn-of-the-century Paris, until he meets and falls in love with Satine, the Moulin Rouge’s star act and courtesan.

Our Villain
Unfortunately for Christian, Satine has been promised to the Duke of Monroth, a nasty piece of work who will have his way or have Christian killed.

Best Supporting Character
The Moulin Rouge’s exuberant owner, Harold Zidler, is prepared to essentially sell Satine for investment in his establishment. Which makes him sound like a horrible so-and-so, but actually he cares for her deeply.

Memorable Quote
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” — Christian

Memorable Scene
Zidler convinces Satine that she must tell Christian she doesn’t love him, to save his life from the murderous intentions of the Duke. As she leaves the Moulin Rouge to break Christian’s heart, Zidler delivers an emotional rendition of Queen’s The Show Must Go On.

Best Song
The film is packed with interesting reinterpretations of modern pop hits. Personally, I love a reimagined cover version, so picking just one is bloody tough. There are a couple of mash-ups that work particularly well: the big number when Christian & friends first arrive at the eponymous establishment, which crashes Lady Marmalade against Smells Like Teen Spirit; and the Elephant Love Medley, which wittily re-appropriates lyrics from a gaggle of love songs (eight, to be precise) into one number. However, the best of all may be a reimagining of the Police’s Roxanne as a dramatic dance number, El Tango de Roxanne.

Technical Wizardry
One of the most controversial aspects of what is a love-it-or-hate-it film anyway is its editing style. Eschewing the familiar trappings of Hollywood musicals, Luhrmann has the entire film shot (by Donald M. McAlpine) and edited (by Jill Bilcock) as if it were a modern music video. In total, there are just shy of 3,600 shots in the film (according to this analysis), which gives it an Average Shot Length (ASL) of just 2 seconds. For comparison, the mean ASL for US films released the same year was around 5 seconds. Even now, over a decade later, the ASL for English-language films sits at about 2.5 seconds.

Making of
It’s now quite well known that musicals need to contain a brand-new song to be eligible for the Best Song Oscar. Obviously this is normally relevant to adaptations of stage musicals, but naturally it applies to Moulin Rouge, too. The film’s one new song is Come What May, but it was ruled ineligible for the Oscar because it was actually written for Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, even though it wasn’t used in that film. The music arm of the Academy really are a tricky bunch.

Previously on…
Moulin Rouge is the third part of Baz Luhrmann’s thematically-linked Red Curtain Trilogy, following Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet.

Awards
Nominated for the Palme d’Or
2 Oscars (Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design)
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actress (Nicole Kidman), Cinematography, Editing, Makeup, Sound)
3 BAFTAs (Supporting Actor (Jim Broadbent), Music, Sound)
9 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Editing, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair)
5 Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards (Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Costume Design, Production Design)
5 AFI nominations (Film, Director, Actor (Ewan McGregor), Actress (Nicole Kidman), Supporting Actor (Richard Roxburgh))
3 World Soundtrack Awards (including Most Creative Use of Existing Material on a Soundtrack)
2 World Soundtrack Awards nominations (including Best Original Score of the Year Not Released on an Album)

What the Critics Said
“The time, the effort and the sweat are all up there on the screen in this opulent, no-holds-barred and multilayered movie. [It] is wrapped up in such an audacious mix of traditional and contemporary song — including David Bowie, Elton John, Madonna and Nirvana — and staged with a near-insane visual ambition, you will either fall in love with every camp flourish, or find yourself exhausted after 20 minutes. It’s a singular achievement either way.” — Andrew Collins, Radio Times

Score: 76%

What the Public Say
“one of the great movie spectacles of this generation, an undertaking of vast scope made all the more fascinating by how it transforms commonplace undercurrents into rich sensations […] There is a sense that these concepts are simplified for the sake of basic comprehension, but the picture doesn’t so much strip them of complexities as it penetrates to the core of their meaning. That creates a scenario where the story simply observes the indulgences that manifest in the rhythms, the music, the dance moves, the vocals, the dialogue, the facial expressions and the daydreams that inhabit the characters. It seeks no more profound a purpose. Some find the implication startlingly straightforward in an endeavor where the technical achievements are such a subversive triumph, but I applaud it; how frequently has any ambitious Hollywood production been willing to see past the varnish of a formula and deal directly with the ideals[?]” — David M. Keyes, Cinemaphile

Verdict

These days there are plenty of musicals appearing on the big screen, and they’re often contending for the top gongs come awards season. This wasn’t the case back in 2001 — Moulin Rouge, divisive as it is, changed all that (it was the first musical nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in a decade, and the previous one was a Disney animation). Baz Luhrmann’s injection of modern MTV style gave the genre a kick up the arse, which isn’t necessarily to the taste of classic musical fans but certainly brought the genre renewed mainstream attention. Mixing in his theatrical storytelling, melodramatic emotions, and vibrant and extravagant costumes and sets, Luhrmann created a heady film designed to give modern audiences a sense of how visiting the Moulin Rouge would’ve felt in 1899 (well, it’s certainly not the literal experience!) It’s clearly not a film that meets all tastes, but if you’re on its wavelength then it’s magnificent.

The first half of Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series, The Get Down, was released on Friday, which is a neat coincidence.

#64 will be… a lot of fuss over very little.

Shallow Grave (1994)

2015 #105
Danny Boyle | 89 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English | 18 / R

The debut feature of director Danny Boyle was hailed on release for being a British film that wasn’t another period-piece literary adaptation. Instead, it concerns three ultra-chummy flatmates in contemporary Edinburgh (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox) who take in a fourth lodger, who promptly dies, leaving behind an insane amount of cash. Rather than report it, they dispose of the corpse and keep the cash. You don’t get much further from Merchant-Ivory than that.

Naturally, things don’t go swimmingly. The trio’s subsequent behaviour begins to cause ruptures among them; there are some Nasty Men looking for the cash; and when the remains are discovered the police get involved. It’s kind of a dark thriller, as it sounds, but also funny — the kind of film the ’90s specialised in, in some respects (think Fight Club, say). It’s also morally and emotionally complex, however. The flatmates aren’t the villains, they’re ‘us’, tempted to extremes by unusual circumstances. Consequently, it has that great discussion-generating feature of many a zeitgeist-y ‘watercooler’ film: what would you do?

Of course, it’s testament to the film’s quality — Boyle’s kinetic direction, the accomplished performances, the entertaining screenplay — that Shallow Grave endures past that initial ponderance to remain one of the Oscar-winning auteur’s best films.

5 out of 5

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

2015 #32
Bryan Singer | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jack the Giant SlayerThe influence of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings rumbles on with this attempt by director Bryan Singer to turn the fairytale of Jack and the Beanstalk into a fantasy epic.

In a plot that over-complicates the original tale to bulk up the running time, farm-boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult of About a Boy, Skins, the current X-Men prequels, etc) is entrusted with some ancient magic beans, which he accidentally drops and from them grow sky-high beanstalks. Unfortunately, the kingdom’s runaway princess (Eleanor Tomlinson, now known for Poldark) is with him at the time, and ends up at the top, kidnapped by giants. The king (Ian McShane, who I imagine is still Lovejoy to many) commands the head of the palace guard (Ewan McGregor) to lead a team up the beanstalk to rescue her, taking Jack along because… his name’s in the title? I forget. Anyway, they meet some computer-generated giants (the leader voiced by Bill Nighy, because of course), action sequences ensue, etc.

Despite being a moderately-starry big-budget Hollywood effort, Jack the Giant Slayer feels cheap as chips across the board. For starters there’s the woeful screenplay, with its first-draft-level dialogue and poor construction. We’re given little reason to care for quickly-sketched characters or the mission they set out on. The first act is rushed through, then unbalanced by an over-long and over-the-top climax. The quality cast ham it up, probably due to the under-written and over-familiar character types they have to work with.

Jack and the beanstalkA computer-animated prologue wants to be the one from Hellboy II, or the interlude from Deathly Hallows Part 1, but instead just looks like something from a ’90s kids’ CG TV series (think ReBoot, that kind of thing). The main film’s effects are little better — if you told me any of the CG-driven sequences were from a Syfy miniseries, I’d probably believe you.

Naturally the climax leans on these, for an epic-fantasy-wannabe giant invasion. The film would be so much better without this forced attempt to provide an epic battle — focus in on the quest to rescue the princess, which is the main story anyway, then end the movie with the beanstalk coming down and everyone returning home. Leave the giants up in their kingdom, leave the door open for a sequel — every studio exec loves the hope of a sequel, right? (I don’t think there should be a sequel, but that’s how you sell it.)

As a children’s movie, Jack the Giant Slayer would be passable. It should by all rights be a PG, but for some reason (well, for box office) it’s been pushed a little far (only a little far, mind) and insists on being considered as a 12A/PG-13. In that playing field, it’s not up to snuff. I don’t mean to imply kids only need or deserve sub-par entertainment — that’s certainly not true — but, for younger children especially, well-worn plots, They might be giantsoveracted characters, and bright-and-cheerful CGI are more or less acceptable, in a “it’s no classic but it’ll pass two hours just fine” kind of way. Produced on those kinds of terms, this might have passed muster for some. Might.

I didn’t enjoy Jack the Giant Slayer at all. I think I’ve given it a second star only because I like everyone involved and they have my sympathy.

2 out of 5

Jack the Giant Slayer featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Trainspotting (1996)

2007 #29
Danny Boyle | 90 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Trainspotting

Choose great direction.
Choose iconic images.
Choose a great soundtrack.
Choose a brilliant cast.
Choose a career-making performance from Ewan McGregor.
Choose a witty script.
Choose realism.
Choose drugs.
Choose sex.
Choose a condom, for the first time on screen.
Choose swearing.
Choose violence.
Choose drink.
Choose Scotland.
Choose Trainspotting.

5 out of 5

Choose Film4 tonight, Thursday 2nd April 2015, at 10:55pm.