Wittertainment going strong; a review of the “Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review” podcast

This massively successful podcast achieves the rare quality of hitting the mainstream, whilst allowing its listeners to feel hat they are part of a select or cult following, described in-show as “the Church of Wittertainment.” ‘Wittertainment’ being the term given host’s bantering approach.

Simon Mayo, radio presenter and DJ chiefly on BBC Radio’s 2 and 5, and Mark Kermode, leading film critic, are perfect foils.  Kermode is all urbane, sophisticated wit, and Mayo the baffled straight-man.  The podcast, which takes their Friday film show on BBC radio 5 and bookends it with a special introduction and closing extra’s, is available weekly on the same day, and runs for on average 1 hour 30 minutes.  It takes the format of said introduction which sets the show up, a run down of the top 10 films in the UK box office, Kermode’s reviews, an intreview of film star/s, or producers or directors or any combination of these involved in a current release, more reviews and banter, and podcast extras including ‘dvd of the week,’ a review of the show, and possibly more reviews of films they did not have time for.

What works so well is the strength of Mark Kermode’s film criticism, which is very good indeed.  Informed, insightful, intelligent, and impassioned with that reviewers strong value base.  He’s a self confessed “old Trot” (Trotskyite / socialist / left winger).  His reviews can be categorised as; the good ones, and you feel you trust his judgement to give a reliable quality mark (indeed the phrase “Mark Kermode says…is used up and down the UK by the film-going public when assessing exactly what to go and see next); the films he says are “ok” or “are what they are,” you get what you pay for and they do what they say on the tin; those he dislikes because they are bad technically or lazy; and those he hates, with a passion, because they are bad technically and also embed values he sees as hateful, be it the consumerist porn of the “Sex and the City” films, or the misogyny and empty over-long vacant spectacle of a Michael Bay film.  This latter category can produce a “Kermodian Rant” which are celebrated and often very funny, although Mark Kermode himself says that he is wary of such rants, not wanting to be known or reduced to a ranting critic, although he sometimes can’t help himself.

Simon Mayo, as said, is the perfect foil to all this.  He plays a baffled Everyman when his critical companion disappears verbally up his own backside through an overuse of erudite terms, or will playfully antagonise him in an number of ways.  That he is able to do this has been earned in their many years broadcasting together (the show is over 10 years old and stated on Radio 1).  He serves as the conduit to the listeners emails and reactions and is a good interviewer to boot.

The show is in danger, though, of becoming too self-referential and smug, too pleased with itself, to the point when the in-show wittering, bantering and in-jokes becomes a bit leaden and threaten to pull down or overshadow the criticism.  The opening “Wassup’s” are getting wearingly jarring to this reviewer.  The show feels like it needs a better editor to trim some of this stuff down to make space for more reviews or film talk.

However, all the looser stuff fits in with the pod-cast brief of sounding more informal and “unplugged.”  And although the wittering can be occasionally wearing, it can be more often very funny, and gives the show that character of a well known friend in whose company you are both very comfortable and very entertained.




A review of Disney Pixar’s “Inside Out.”

This latest of Pixar’s has been received with happy reviews that reflect the film’s central character of ‘Joy.’ Critics and cinema goers alike have praised its depth and layers of meaning, its sense of fun, and its effect of making you want to hug your family.  Others have expressed disappointment, saying it left their kids sad and baffled when they should have been entertained.

I saw this with my wife, 9 year old son and 5 year old daughter.  The son is a harsh critic and was left utterly cold by the acclaimed “Paddington” for example.  But through this film he was engaged, smiling and responsive to the humour.  Unprompted at the end he declared it ‘good.’  My younger daughter was more baffled and bemused, burrowing into her Mum’s shoulder at the moments of threat.  From this I would say that the film would be most enjoyed by children 10-12 and any age upwards.  The age of the central protagonist, Riley, is 12, so children around that age will find the most to relate to.

The story is, Riley and her family are moving home, due to Dad’s work, moving to the more urban environment of San Francisco.  This throws Riley’s emotional life into turmoil, and as you will have gathered from the film’s marketing, reviews, word of mouth etc. her emotional life is personified by a range of brightly coloured cartoon characters; Joy (US sitcom ‘Park and Recreation’s’ Amy Poehler), Sadness (another US sitcom ‘The Office’ actress Phyllis Lapin-Vance), and the rest of the emotion cast have also a strong comedic background, with Bill Nader playing Fear, Lewis Black voicing Anger (good casting, because as well as his comedy he is also a strong social critic) and Disgust by Mindy Kaling.  The emotions sit in Riley’s skull, as with the old Beano strip ‘The Numskulls.’   They control from a Starship Enterprise like Bridge and console.  They process her memories and core memories, which are brightly colour coded spheres (gold for joy, blue for sadness etc.), monitoring her dreams (produced by her own in-skull film studio, and the main structures of her personality here represented as islands based around such themes as ‘family,’ ‘honesty,’ ‘hockey,’ ‘friendship,’ and ‘goofy.’   They work as a team with Joy in the ascendant, constantly side-lining sadness as a risk, or irrelevant.  Their stability is shattered as it is with Riley with the move house.  This participates huge change, and in a panicky attempt to preserve the status-quo, Joy inadvertently sets off a series of events that sees her and sadness ejected from the bridge and lost in Riley’s long term memories.  Their they meet Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong.  Meanwhile, Anger, Disgust and Fear are left in control, as Riley’s island’s of personality start to disintegrate under the strain of the change of new home, new school etc.  And Anger has a bright idea based on, well, anger.  That of running away.  Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong must get back to the bridge to regain control, but in the process, Joy may have to learn that sometimes, Sadness just has to be part of the team.

The film is an emotional roller-coaster, from the lump in the throat moment at the beginning of Riley forming her first memory as a newborn, to a montage of happy childhood memories, very funny moments (chiefly involving anger), to the drama of the crisis and a resolution that certainly had us parents welling up.  This is down to the story telling, animation, voice acting and themes that are already freighted with emotion in a film about emotion, such as childhood, families under crisis etc.  It is laugh out loud funny, with the interactions of the emotions not only in Riley but in her parents and sometimes those around her.  Anger (for me) raised the most laughs, especially in a scene where the father’s anger emotion raises the Defcon stakes before ‘putting his foot down’ and sending Riley to her room.  There are a lot of sight gags and a great visual, imaginative and inventive wit.

The conceit of the emotions and how they work in the machinery of Riley’s head is of course well developed from its Numskulls roots.  But whereas there has to be a limit on what a family animated feature can cover on the subject of a child’s mental health, there are some limitations that worried me.  The emotional spectrum is vast, and so having 5 core emotions characters must needs be very reductive.  ‘Love’ is never mentioned explicitly, for example, although it is represented through the characters actions, and what of all the other kinds of intelligence such as spiritual intelligence, intellectual ability etc?  Emotions are not everything and nor should they be completely in control, and yet here they are.

The other problem the film raised for me is that, it carries it’s meaning, it’s more weighty messages and lessons, a lot less loosely than did the Toy Story trilogy.  The Toy Story films had a lot to say about growing up and childhood, and yet the vehicles of story and entertainment came first and the deeper stuff came back to you on reflection, or on repeated viewings.  Here the life lessons etc. run alongside the entertainment and are much more obvious, and less effortlessly carried by the story.  As a result the sadness in the film will, for a lot of children, not be sufficiently carried by all the fun stuff.

I also need to warn you about a short film preceding the main one as in the great Pixar tradition.  It’s called ‘Lava’ and is about singing volcanoes falling in love.  It is charming enough, and a treat to look at, but it has one of biggest ‘ear-worm’ songs I’ve heard in a long time.  Pleasant enough, but extremely difficult to get out of your head!

To sum up ‘Inside Out’ is a justly praised, intelligent and funny family film, well worth a holiday trip to the cinema.

“The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies,” a review

The last film of the forced trilogy that is Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” has marched onto our screen to mixed reviews.

Before considering other views, here’s mine. I love the “Lord of the Rings” books and Tolkien’s world and mythology.  The films are fantastic, unforgettable cinema, which had me looking forward through an entire year for the next instalment.  They were event cinema of the highest order.  As soon as the “New Line”/ “Wing-nut” logos appeared on the screens to the sweeping strains of Howard Shores score, I was hooked.  Then there were other landmarks through the year, the dvd release, and the extended box set releases.  The LOTR films were not perfect; to me the Battle of Helms Deep was punctuated by daft action sequences (sliding down stairs on a shield, tossing a dwarf, etc.) that ruined the tension, and Return of the King almost entirely squandered near three hours of epic cinema with a ridiculously rambling ending full of hugs, lingering looks and dewy eyes.

And yet what works is outstanding, unforgettable cinema, capturing the grandeur and poetry, horror and pathos of the book, and that has you returning again and again to the films, showing them to your children, who in their turn are hooked.

All the above that was wrong, and what worked, to a lesser degree, is present with “The Hobbit” trilogy.  First to an obvious problem that was not present with LOTR. The source material was not a trilogy but a shorter children’s book.  And as a children’s book it did not have the height, weight or depth of LOTR, although a loved classic in its own right.  To stretch to this epic length is a forced manoeuvre that has led to justifiable accusations of cash raking cynicism on the part of the film makers, and led to the lengthy longueurs, especially in the first film, and the need to invent extra characters and scenes.

But, and this is a big but, Peter Jackson has preserved the integrity and the poetic and spiritual and human truths of the source, whilst providing, again, spectacular event cinema that has us looking forward through the year to the next film (or did).

It is also Jackson’s middle Earth, recognisably so, so those fans of his LOTR films feel at home and know exactly why they are going to the cinema and to a large measure what they will get.  To me this disarms the oft quoted current criticism of the Hobbit films that this is nothing new, and we have seen it all before.  Well, yes, that is largely the point.  We go to the cinema sometimes because we want to see a certain vision, we return to a certain country because we want to see a certain landscape, here a language we love, meet a people we recognise, encounter strangeness and grandeur that thrills us.  So it is with Jackson’s Middle Earth.  We return there with “The Battle of the Five Armies” because we know it is a finite journey that’s coming to an end, and we want to be immersed in an experience we have loved one last time.

Another magnet of hostility lies with the source material itself.  It is more childish, shallower in places and is more fantastical and less humanistic than LOTR.  It is a children’s book with dwarves as heroes with silly names.  But then there are enough people presumably who understand that and want to see this made into cinema.  If the tone of the original source offends that much, then avoid the films, in the same way that if you are easily squeamish, avoid gory horror.  Whether it justifies three films is the most valid criticism in my book.  Apparently, Guillermo del Torro was once slated to direct and said he would have gone with two films, which echoes the structure of the book much better, and perhaps this would have been a wiser move.

However, we are where we are, three films have been made by Peter Jackson, so how does “Battle of the Five Armies” stand as a conclusion?

We begin as “The Desolation of Smaug” ended, with Smaug swooping in on Laketown, much to the dismay of the Dwarf and Hobbit onlookers.  It’s an incredible opening of sound and fury, as Smaug unleashed a firestorm on the largely wooden town, and the Bard (integrity and understated heroism from Luke Evans) struggles to escape from the local jail whilst the Master (Stephen Fry) looks to escape with the gold.

These set pieces manage to maintain a sense of narrative coherence in the middle of broiling chaos, and much is made of shots of helpless children shouting for their “Da” to stoke up our emotional investment.

Meanwhile, back at the Lonely Mountain, Richard Armitage’s Thorin Son of Thrain struggles with the “Dragon Sickness,” a madness which is an overwhelming lust for riches brought on by too much exposure to “mountains of gold over which a serpent has brooded” and his desire for “the Arkenstone.”  This plot strand gives the film some added resonance, and is like an extreme example of the recent madness that our “Black Friday” shopping orgies have aroused in people.   In fact it’s not an extreme reflection but an accurate one!  It is a disturbing mirror back on ourselves on how our lust for riches or objects, be they tech, cars, or whatever, can skew our humanity and perspective.

Bilbo (the excellent Martin Freeman) looks on aghast at what is happening to his friend, as Thorin barricades the company in the mountain against the needy refugees from Laketown.  Martin Freeman nails Bilbo, and we can see why Peter Jackson was determined to secure him for the role.  His “wait a minute” deadpan comic timing, his charm, vulnerability, courage, homesickness and stoicism, Freeman delivers, and we miss him when he is not on screen.   Meanwhile, armies of elves led by Lee pace’s Thranduil, arrive to reclaim some of their treasure from the mountain.  Thorin resists and calls for a Dwarf army back-up.  Meantime armies of Orcs march on Lake-town manipulated by Sauron.  Can the warring factions unite under Gandalf’s prompting against this common foe?

See how much there is going on?  I haven’t mention Tauriel’s (the lovely, graceful, fast and deadly Evangeline Lilly) rebellion and banishment by Thranduil.   Allied with Orlando Bloom’s reliable heroic lead Legolas, they strike out to trace the Orc army to its source.  These elves, of course an addition to the text, work on the movie level, providing a neat link with LOTR, and having some cracking action scenes that rely on their grace, agility, and speed.  Then there is a battle between Sauron , his Wraiths and Galadriel and pre-turning to the dark-side Saruman (Christopher Lee) to rescue Gandalf.  It’s impressive to see the elder Lee in action hero mode, smiting the dark forces with his staff.  There’s an effective scene with Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel as she speaks the dark language against Sauron to banish him.

Then there is the battle of the five armies itself as things well and truly kick off.  How there is anyone left from Laketown as the evil forces of Orc and gigantic “War beasts” attack after their decimation by Smaug is anyone’s guess.  There are some truly epic scenes of combat.  A favourite is massed ranks of dwarves forming a tank of shields and spears Roman legionnaire style over which leap attacking elves.  The War beasts are gigantic and frightening creations, massive trolls outfitted in battle suits of catapults and huge sling shots, as well as those that charge head-down with pointed stone helmets to breach city walls.  The Orc’s and their leaders including Manu Bennett’s Azog and his prosthetic sword are also menacing, visceral beasts.

Events start to round off with some heroic duels between leads.  Look for a chilling comeback from under the ice, and Legolas’s videogame-like but still thrilling leaps between falling blocks of masonry.  There are some neat, if slightly contrived, tie-ins at the end with Fellowship of the Ring, the most ominous of which is an embattled Saruman vowing to hunt down Sauron by himself, and most touching in the final coda, as we begin where we came in.

Scenes with Ryan Gage’s Alfrid as the Master’s assistant are a little ill judged, and there’s a massively unfunny scene of cross-dressing that jars towards the end.  Jackson has always struggled in trying to bring the odd spot of light relief to his massive canvas, his comic scenes appearing forced and stilted and not defusing the tension but interrupting it.

How much you accept the deja-vous from LOTR depends on your buy-in to the Hobbit.  If you are a fan you will very probably accept and enjoy, if not, you will be probably be wearied by echoes of the displaced refugees from Laketown being seen before at Rohan / Helms Deep, and indeed of the epic battle and siege and huge beasts with those seen in the attack on Gondor in ROTK.

But on the whole this is fantastic cinema that shows respect and reverence to Tolkien’s vision.  It was a huge relief to me that one of the closing lines from the Hobbit is present in the film, as this is one of the underlying truths of Tolkien’s philosophy, and a lynch –pin for the whole narrative:

“You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

Going back to our roots: A review of Terrence Mallick’s “Tree of Life.”

I took a chance on this film after hearing various bewildered critical responses from cinema goers and critics. At issue seemed to be the sprawling cosmic imagery, intercutting scenes of family drama, with sequences involving dinosaurs being singled out for especial derision.
Still, intrigued, I rented this, and I am incredibly glad that I did.
The film is long and sprawling, and you are put in the mind frame for the human wrestling the transcendent straightaway, with a quote from the Book of Job, the voice of God, no less;
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world…”
The film unfolds at a searching, meditative pace, but we go straight to intense human drama, with the O’Brien family receiving news of the death of a son. The action then rewinds, through the mind’s eye of Sean Penn’s middle aged architect reflecting on his boyhood with this family, and the character of the mother (Jessica Chastain) reflecting on the twin paths of ‘Grace’ and ‘Nature.’
The interplay between the sons and the parents in the America of their day (50’s Texas) is the human drama of the film. The mother is all gentleness and grace, but with steel too. The father (an impressive Brad Pitt), authoritarian and wounded, is scarred into an oppressive attitude to his boys by what he sees as the merciless, Darwinian struggle of life.
The Sean Penn character, as a boy, grows and rebels, increasingly testing his father. There are also landmark events that further underscore the frightening side of life. The drowning of a boyhood friend is a particularly chilling and effective example of this, with the grotesque suddenness and splintering horror of it breaking in when least expected to a carefree community event.
All this is juxtaposed by the wider cosmic ‘birth pangs’ of the universe and the world, with fantastic images of galaxies and worlds, our world, being born. We see the growing pains of creation, cosmic collisions and explosions, experimental life, dinosaurs.
So, the human struggle is given context, but not trivialised. In fact, it is given its meaning.
The Christian imagery, spoken and implied in the film will give meaning to some. Others will find the meaning in the cycles and struggles of nature. Some both. But for me, no film has so successfully linked the human struggle with the transcendent since perhaps 2001 a Space Odyssey. This earlier film, with its explosion of cosmic imagery and the sense of an incredible ‘other’ gave me a lasting sense of wonder similar to this. It’s fitting that both films are linked through the effects work of Doug Trumbull. If anything, this film has a greater human heart set in the realities of human life, without the distractions of homicidal supercomputers.
And the climactic vision, seen through the eyes of Sean Penn’s character, is a powerful emotional and spiritual drama of reconciliation and redemption.
This is an enthralling, wonderful film. Go see.