A Triple Double Bill

Three quick reviews as I try to wrap up a few posts before Christmas.
Can you spot the connection? Can you spot the connection?

In Muppets Most Wanted (James Bobin, 2014), all our furry faves are back again to build on the success of the excellent Muppets re-boot from a couple of years ago. This time, the plot revolves around Kermit's evil doppelganger, the master-criminal Constantine, who takes Kermit's place in the Muppets and uses their world tour to pull off a series of dastardly robberies. Kermit, meanwhile, is cast into a remote Siberian prison, where he is forced to direct a prisoners musical. Naturally, this is all merely an excuse for more Muppet madness. So this looks the same as the last one, but there's something not quite right about it. The songs, jokes and silliness are all in place, but none are quite as memorable or charming as the last time, although it tries its hardest to plaster over this fact with some green face-paint and a long list of celebrity cameos. Still, good to see Sam Eagle get some love, and Christoph Waltz waltzing. *chortle*

Based on a short Dostoevsky novel, The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2014) has an intriguing set-up. A meek, overlooked office-worker Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is understandably confused when his exact lookalike James Simon (Eisenberg again) starts work in his office and is everything Simon is not; charming, confident, popular. However, nobody else seems to notice that James is Simon's doppelganger, much to Simon's annoyance, leading him to confront James about his real intentions. So where does it go with this storyline? Well, nowhere really, which is the problem. Design-wise, this looks fantastic, creating a kind of steampunk office environment, filled with strange noises and angles. The references to similarly paranoid films like Brazil and Eraserhead seem obvious, although Ayoade denies this, preferring to namecheck stuff like Welle's The Trial, Melville's Le Samourai and Polanki's The Tenant among those films which influenced his artistic vision. There's clearly a lot of thought and effort going on here, so it's just a pity it plays a bit coldly and doesn't really deliver on such a promising set-up. That said, with this and the excellent Submarine under his belt now, Ayoade is clearly a talent to watch - I look forward to his next film with interest.

A Double Life (George Cukor, 1947) perceptively explores how an actor's psyche might be affected by playing a role over and over again. Here, renowned thesp Tony John (Ronald Colman) finds the boundaries between life and art blur into one another to murderous effect, following a long run playing the tormented Othello on-stage. Colman won a Best Actor Oscar for good work playing both Tony John, and Tony John playing Othello, but it's the script by husband-and-wife team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin that provides most of the food for thought with recurring themes of duality, opposition and, yes, double lives. Cukor's direction and Milton Krasner's evocative cinematography build upon these themes well, resulting in a tidy and well-assembled noir. I wasn't too keen on Edmond O'Brien and his so-so detective skills though. Still, it turns up on TV regularly, so it's worth catching.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)

What's it about? A mismatched bunch of characters, including cavalier human Quill, genetically engineered raccoon Rocket, tough guy Drax the Destroyer, feisty green-skinned assassin Gamora and monosyllabic plant Groot (don't call him an Ent!!!) are thrown together to save....nay....guard the galaxy from some bad guys.

Is it any good? In my review of Avengers Assemble, I likened that film to the video for Band Aid, in which several well-known characters got together for a laugh and, in the process, to save the world. So the similar sounding Guardians of the Galaxy, which features no characters that normal people have heard of, must be like the recent Band Aid 30, right? Well, to be fair this is a lot more fun than singing about Ebola, and these guys are quite memorable, which is more than I can say the participants of Band Aid 30.

Part of the appeal is that, unlike more recognisable Marvel characters, the Guardians are free from the baggage of other movies and incarnations, so there's a refreshing....er....freshness to proceedings, even as it follows a fairly formulaic save-the-universe plot. The characters spark off each other well as the plot barrels along, thanks to quick dialogue and easy-going performances from Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and professional wrestler Dave Batista, along with the voice-work of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. It's also happy to poke fun at itself, there's a catchy pop soundtrack (if I were cynical, I might think this a blatant attempt to appeal to an older demographic than the teenage comic-book fan) and a generally light-hearted approach throughout.

It does lack a memorable villain and despite a few efforts at touchy-feely moments, it never really stirs the emotions as the best comic-book/space adventure films do. It's just a good-natured, colourful space adventure, easy on the eye and the brain. Fair enough.

I don't trust you. What do others think? I invited along my friend Hodor from Game of Thrones to watch this along with Groot, who had swung by the house for a groot beer. Here's what they thought.

Thanks guys, that said it better than I ever could.

What does the Fonz think? Groot fun.

40s Quadruple Bill

Been catching up on a few Golden Oldies from the....well....Golden Age of Hollywood, I suppose. Here's four from the forties.

In Unfaithfully Yours (Preston Sturges, 1948), a famous composer (Rex Harrison) suspects his wife (Linda Darnell) of having an affair and plots revenge. However, that's easier imagined than done, and it's the word 'imagined' that's key to the playful presentation of the story. This was a big flop on original release, before it was re-appraised as a Sturges classic, but actually it belongs somewhere between those two poles. It generates some blackly comic mileage from contrasting the imagined and real attempts of a husband to take revenge on his wife for cheating - Harrison's attempt to use an apparently simple recording machine is a very funny highlight. However, it's a rather uneven affair, taking an age to get going and rather unsure of its moral compass. On the plus side, Darnell pouts magnificently and Max from Hart to Hart is in it. "These guys are moider!"

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945) is a heartfelt adaptation of Betty Smith's coming-of-age story about a young girl growing up in a poor Brooklyn family in the early 20th century. Kazan's direction is assured and economical, but it's the performances here that really sell the story. Johnny Dunn won an Oscar as for his performance as the alcoholic father, whose endlessly optimistic demeanour hides a sadness at his inability to provide for his family. Opposite him, Dorothy Maguire is equally good as the proud, practically-minded mother, who is pulled in several different directions as she attempts to keep her family together. But it's a wonderful turn from 13-year old Peggy Ann Garner which tugs on the heartstrings most, playing the young girl on the cusp of adolescence who must grow up (too) fast. Her adoration of her father and burgeoning love for her mother is both touching and convincing (a scene toward the end when she receives some flowers had me muttering about something in my eye), and she was a deserving recipient of a juvenile Academy Award for her performance. It may be a bit episodic, and there's a couple of over-egged moments, but it's a moving film and a quietly life-affirming celebration of the human spirit and the decency of people.

From lowly beginnings in Hollywood's 'Poverty Row', Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) has risen to the status of B-movie film noir classic, praised for distilling the essence of the genre into a mere 68 minutes. Indeed, if Detour were a character in a noir thriller, it would be the one with the seemingly inconsequential role, which turns out to be more important than first thought. Thing is, if I was watching such a thriller, I wouldn't be too convinced by Detour's performance. Yes, it's impressively bleak and atmospheric, but its low-budget and 6-day shoot mean technical errors abound, its unknown stars presumably never became....er....known because they aren't very memorable, and it's only 68 mins because the story is so disappointingly slight. Worth a look for curiosity value, but not worth going out of your way for.

Now Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) has a big reputation as both a classic romantic drama and a key 'woman's picture' from the 40s. However, it's a good job Bette Davis has such a screen presence because she pretty much single-handedly elevates what is really a baggy, soapy melodrama into something a bit more memorable with her commanding performance as the repressed spinster who blossoms into a strong, confident woman. She's the main reason to see this, although I should also give a special shout-out for Paul Henreid and his super-smooth double cigarette move, which would surely melt the heart of any woman, even in these health-conscious days. In fact, I'm off to put on my suit and natty trilby and try it out now.

Take note, men : the way to any woman's heart

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014)

What's it about? You might think it's about a giant atomic-breathing monster stomping on things, but in fact it's a thinly-veiled allegory about the Catholic Church's intolerance of pre-marital sex.

Is it any good? Not really. At best, it's an earnest, well-realised, but rather confused and quite dull homage to the original Godzilla. But quite clearly, it's all about how God (Godzilla) and various do-gooders come down hard on two young Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs), who only want to have sex and grow babies. Like most teenagers, they're uncommunicative, awkward about their bodies, and somewhat destructive, but the Catholic Church frowns upon such youthful degeneracy, particularly if they are planning to reproduce before getting properly hitched. So they are dealt with destructive Old Testament radioactive-fire-and-brimstone fashion by Godzilla, their babies are taken away and destroyed, whilst the boring family unit of the bland, but crucially married, hero (Aaron Taylor Johnson) is spared. In another parallel with the dubious practices of the Catholic Church, the film reveals the truth behind some revisionist history which was fed to the unsuspecting masses to keep them docile. And to think if the film had been better, I wouldn't even have thought about this stuff.

I don't trust you. What do others think? Well, let's see what the original, and best, Godzilla thinks...

What does the Fonz think? God-dull-a

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)

What's it about? 10 years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (ROTPOTA), super-smart chimp Caeser and fellow apes have established a community in the forests outside San Francisco. But their peaceful existence is threatened when human survivors of the global simian flu enter their territory.

Is it any good? If ROTPOTA was a furry version of Spartacus, this is a furry version of X-Men: First Class. Caeser takes the Professor X role, urging that his genetically altered companions live in peace with humans. His friend Koba is the Magneto-esque character, tortured by humans in his youth, now hell-bent on destroying them. Which was fine with me, incidentally, because the humans on display here are underwritten, wooden characters in comparison to the apes - obviously they haven't evolved to be interesting since their similarly dull predecessors in ROTPOTA. So it's up to the apes to keep the attention, which they do, with some nicely observed 'natural' moments of ape interaction mixed in with some crowd-pleasing stunts and action. Once again, it's a testament to the superb motion-capture performances and CGI that this always looks and feels utterly real, yes, even when it's a gun-toting chimp on horseback attacking a tank (which didn't quite trump ROTPOTA's gorilla-attacking-a-helicopter moment, but was nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable). Overall, it's not quite as good as ROTPOTA, but it does enough to keep the interest for another round of monkey business.

Anything else I should know? I got my copy of this film from a street dealer in return for a packet of KP nuts. It's true what they say; you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

What does the Fonz think? X-Chimp: Furred Ass