Tag Archives: Hugh Jackman

Failed Critics Podcast: Mugs, Tugs and Logan

The year is 2029. The world is a horrible place where those who are different are deemed a threat. Those with special or otherwise exceptional talents, skills and abilities are segregated out from the rest of society. Shunned. In some cases, destroyed. Hunted.

Fortunately this precludes Steve Norman, Owen Hughes, Andrew Brooker and Tony Black, who are allowed to just carry on as normal producing episodes of the Failed Critics Film Podcast for your delectation. Just in time for us to review the latest thriller in the X-Men movie franchise, Logan, starring Hugh Jackman as the titular mutant, aka Wolverine.

On this weeks show, Steve wonders why anybody would ever want to watch anything like the Dave Courtney straight-to-DVD geezer movie Thugs, Mugs and Dogs. We also have our regular What We’ve Been Watching, where Tony begins plotting a trip to Derby after Brooker reviews the new Iko Uwais actioner, Headshot; Owen rewatches Kill Bill Volume 1 and decides he definitely won’t be returning to Volume 2; Steve runs through the Netflix Original movie Tallulah; and Tony ponders the unfortunate situation where Friend Request is about as good a social-media influenced horror as we’re likely to get.

Join us again next week for blockbuster monster-movie, Kong: Skull Island.

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Logan

“I’ve done terrible, unspeakable things.”

It’s taken far too long to get here. Seventeen years since the first X-Men movie and finally someone has realised that a film about an indestructible human being who, via several super secret military experiments, has enormous razor sharp claws that appear on command should probably be a little bit violent. A little bit bloody. Maybe, just maybe, there should be a fatality or two in it.

The fear, of course, is that things might go completely over the top. With 20th Century Fox chasing that Deadpool money, it’s always possible the studio get their grubby little fingers into the Wolverine flavoured pie and ruin it for all of us, forgetting that The Merc with the Mouth was almost certainly a one-off. But there I was, popcorn in hand at the premier screening of director James Mangold’s latest foray into the X-Men universe, hoping for great things.

It’s 2029, mutants are all but extinct and Logan (Hugh Jackman) is an old man who has completely dropped any illusions of being a hero. Living day-to-day as an Uber driver to make enough cash to keep himself in booze, and his ward – the ageing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) – safe, away from prying eyes that may be looking for him. Logan’s world is turned upside down when he meets Laura (Dafne Keen), a young girl with extraordinary abilities.

Suddenly finding himself with an army of mercenaries on his tail, the man the world once knew as Wolverine unwittingly has a new mission: to get Laura and Xavier to safety.

As much a western as it is an action film, Logan‘s story is one of redemption. It’s not your everyday, run-of-the-mill comic book movie; and certainly not what you’d expect from a film in the X-Men universe. These usually fluffy and slight films are all well and good – ok, they’re not really, not any more – but that’s not what you’re getting here. Instead, a darker tone (without being all The Dark Knight about it) is how we get to spend the little over two-hour runtime.

First, the elephant in the room. The question so many had. After Deadpool last year, the rumours of a violent, expletive-filled Wolverine movie were floating around almost instantly. There was a worry that 20th Century Fox were just going to throw us a crappy film loaded with content that gives it a 15 rating, with no thought to actually giving us a decent film.

That’s simply something you needn’t worry about. Back on directorial (and writing) duties is James Mangold, the creative force behind 2014’s The Wolverine; a film that was more fun than most of the other films in its shared universe and very, very close to being a perfect Wolverine movie. With Mangold at the helm and seemingly let off the leash to flex his muscles, the veteran writer/director has delivered a thriller that has you enthralled for the whole time it’s on, riveted to the screen, unable to look away.

Hugh Jackman’s Logan is a character to be admired – and the performance is one to sit in awe of. As one of the last remaining mutants in this near future, Wolverine has been forced to become a care-giver and protector of the professor that used to be both to every mutant at his school. This position change takes its toll on the biologically upgraded soldier. He looks tired, both battle and world weary, and Jackman sells that fatigue beautifully.

The same goes for Patrick Stewart as the ninety year old Professor X. A character so used to being the one in charge and in front of everyone else when it came to danger, but has to rely on Logan’s dwindling strength to protect him. Almost entirely helpless in his old age, the ailing mutant can only look on impotently, where once he would have taken charge. Like Jackman’s role reversal, Stewart’s is a thing of beauty to watch. A heartbreaking turn from a person who has previously shown nothing but strength, it’s guaranteed to gently pluck at those heart strings.

Relative newcomer, Dafne Keen, is truly thrown in at the deep end. The eleven year old Laura, a mute girl, whose past mirrors that of Logan’s, is a role that she takes on wholeheartedly and brings everything to. Teaming up with Wolverine is just as much a necessity for her as it is unwanted. Forced into this pairing with the cantankerous mutant is as much a shock to her as it is to him. The young actress deserves a ton of respect; clearly fighting for screen presence against Stewart and Jackman, yet she still manages to shine whilst surrounded by all that star power. Her action scenes are sublime and I was in awe of her performance. She’s clearly worked exceptionally hard to get as good as she is. Long may she continue to impress us.

On the surface, the bad guys can seem a little rubbish. Richard E. Grant’s head-honcho businessman, creating mutants for weapons, is possibly the most one-dimensional, clichéd bad guy you can get. A proper weak spot in an otherwise excellent film is made up for by his dogs body, Pierce. The lead mercenary chasing Laura and Logan is a surgically cold killer. Played by Boyd Holbrook, the brutal, violent headhunter should be commended for being limitlessly entertaining in a role that should be pretty bland, maybe even a little boring. Not here though. The robotically enhanced killer is the kind of guy you could root for, if he wasn’t trying to kill Wolverine.

I feel like we’re being spoiled with Logan. Between Mangold’s near perfect direction and his excellent writing, it has culminated in a brilliantly filmed, amazingly paced actioner that has a surprising amount of emotion and heart. It is excellently acted by its stars (both old and new) in a story about a violent world gone completely mad.

And make no mistake: this is a violent, bloody film. But its beauty is in the fact that while it’s nasty and over the top, it never feel gratuitous or unnecessary. Every bloody swipe of Wolverine’s claws, and every bad guy impaled on the end of them, feels like it had to be done for the good of the character’s progression. Even those moments that make you wince feel necessary.

Dark, morose and grim were always going to be the order of the day for Logan. Loosely based on a comicbook story arc called “Old Man Logan”, there was only ever had one choice when it came to Hugh Jackman’s last outing as Weapon-X. Whether the adaptation is true to the comic book arc or not, I neither know nor care. What I can tell you is that we have finally gotten the Wolverine film that we all wanted. A near perfect movie from everyone involved. If this is indeed the last time we see Jackman and Stewart on the screen together in an X-Men movie, like so many interviews up to his point have said, then everyone has bowed out on a genuine high for the series.

I went into Logan with phenomenally high expectations – as I write this I’ve already seen the film twice and I’m looking to squeeze in a third showing – yet it still managed to blow me away. Honestly, if the people that do the organising can remember this far back when the time comes, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this grabbing a few retrospective awards, later down the line.

Failed Critics Podcast: Halloween Necromancing Triple Bill

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Brushing the cobwebs out of the way through the passage right at the back of the Failed Critics library, where nobody has been for centuries or more, we’ve found an ancient book containing spells for raising the dead.

Using our powers wisely, we let Steve Norman, Owen Hughes and Tony Black conjure up some deceased actors, putting them straight back to work in brand new movies pitched on this very episode of the Failed Critics Podcast Halloween special.

Resurrecting the dead in a triple bill is about as creepy as it gets this year, with What We’ve Been Watching ditched in favour of reviewing the new release Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, and a quick chat about the brand new semi-biographical comedy The Comedian’s Guide to Survivalstarring James Buckley (The Inbetweeners). Comedian’s Guide is co-written by and based on the life of our very own James Mullinger from Underground Nights – check out their latest episode for some great background information on the making of the hilarious film.

Elsewhere on this podcast, the Failed Critics found time to bring back the quiz with Owen in the driving seat. News was trailer heavy, packed with discussion about the new Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Logan trailers.

We’ll be back as normal next week with a review of Doctor Strange, but in the meantime keep an eye out for a brand new episode of our sister gaming podcast Character Unlock – as well as a round-up from this year’s Cambridge Film Festival, the longest running film festival in the UK!

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X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men Apocalypse

“From the ashes of their world, we’ll build a better one.”

It’s been sixteen years since Bryan Singer brought the world the X-Men. It was a silly bit of fun that was pretty enjoyable. It gave us a perfect personification of fan favourite Wolverine and introduced a generation to the awesome abilities of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (if you were two years old when it came out, you’re old enough now to go watch Green Room – get to it).

Somehow, miraculously, even after a bloody awful second sequel, this franchise is the only one left from the super-cheesy noughties comic book films that plagued filmgoers for years. Now we find ourselves, if you count the Wolverine solo outings, with the ninth film in the series and some of us wondering what they can possibly do next.

Buried underneath the ruins of a destroyed pyramid, En Sabar Nuh – the world’s first mutant – has been imprisoned under the ancient rubble for thousands of years. Resurrected by a cult believing him to be an all-powerful God, the man we will come to know as Apocalypse (played by the suddenly everywhere Oscar Isaac) sets about recruiting his own personal Four Horsemen and putting plans in place to kick-start the end of the world.

Sinking his teeth into the strongest, most disillusioned mutants he can find, Apocalypse soon has an entourage that includes a young, impressionable Storm (Straight Outta Compton‘s Alexandra Shipp) ; the beaten down Angel (former Eastenders regular Ben Hardy); the power hungry, vicious Psylocke (Olivia Munn); and the world-weary, disenchanted Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Tapping into the anger and negativity in their lives, convincing these powerful mutants to work for him makes the wannabe-god a force to be reckoned with and together they waste no time in bringing about, well, the apocalypse.

Meanwhile, James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier is dealing with his own band of misfits in his now world famous school. But, when Apocalypse kidnaps the X-Men’s leader for his own ends, it’s down to Mystique (the returning Jennifer Lawrence) to rally the troops and fight the impending doom. Returning good guys Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Holt), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Alex “Havok” Summers are joined by a cavalcade of newcomers. Fresh to the First Class arc, if not necessary the franchise, the younger incarnations of Scott Summers, Nightcrawler and Jean Grey all join the fray and team up to take on the biggest, most powerful mutant that the world has ever seen.

Director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg have returned to the X-Men franchise to round off this particular story arc and, believe it or not, they’ve done an okay job of it. Now, I know this is going against the grain a little for this film, so maybe I should clarify that a little.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of First Class or Days of Future Past. I don’t think they’re bad films, not at all, but I honestly believe that X-Men, as a franchise, has been treading water since the year 2000. Singer and 20th Century Fox found a winning formula when the first film was a hit all those years ago and as Fox have tried and failed over and over again to bring a decent comic book film to profit, they have refused to take any risks and change up the recipe with these films.

The biggest issue there is that when you’re averaging a film every two years and you’re not changing things up, the audience, no matter how die hard they are, will eventually stop going to see your films as a way to tell you that they’ve had enough of your shit. What made this trilogy – yes, I’m calling it a trilogy – worth a second look was the genius casting of Michael Fassbender in the recently vacated Ian McKellan role of Magneto. I’m still convinced that First Class is actually the quietly disappeared Origins: Magneto movie we were supposed to get; and as such, the story of Erik Lehnsherr and his change to the maniacal Magneto across the first two films is nothing short of riveting.

But after the reboot/timeline shift/whatever you want to call it, I was ready to write this film off as the worn out end of another trilogy, soon for the glue factory. But once again, while Apocalypse may not be the best film you watch this year, and it’s got some pretty glaring problems, but it’s a film I wouldn’t tell you to avoid. It’s almost worth the *phew* two and a half hours you’ll spend watching it.

As far as flaws, I’ve got to start with the most obvious one. Apocalypse himself. For what is supposed to be a terrifying, world ending bad guy, I genuinely couldn’t care less about him or his motives. The problem with these super-strong bad guys, the ones that are supposed to be unbeatable, is that by the time you get to the end of the movie you know full well that he’s gonna get his arse handed to him. Usually through the power of teamwork, or love, or a mutual fondness for hardcore pornography, or something. Either way, and this is another problem with this refusal to change the formula, you know you’re in for a happy ending when the forces of good triumph! And to be honest, Apocalypse is just a bit crap.

And man, this film is so very long. I mean it’s nearly two and a half hours. It’s an X-Men movie for shit’s sake, there’s just no need for it. So much is put on that screen with so little actually happening that I really, truly wondered on more than one occasion if I’d missed something, a plot point or bit of story somewhere. I wondered if maybe I’d slipped into a mini coma at one point and missed a chunk of exposition at around the half way mark. And if someone could explain Olivia Munn’s terrible, terrible costume, I’d really appreciate it. She looks awesome and bad ass when you first meet her, and she transforms into some weird vinyl clad monstrosity that isn’t half as titillating as the 12 year old boys in the costume department thinks it is.

But things aren’t all bad. In fact, the film has a few positives that elevate its standings quite a bit for me. Newcomer to the series and Game of Thrones alum Sophie Turner has a decent turn as the young Jean Grey. Much like Jennifer Lawrence before her, I was a fan of the actress originally in the role and Turner has managed to convince me that, yet again, I was wrong to doubt the younger replacement. Although, she has taken on the annoying trait McAvoy had in previous films of touching her face to indicate she’s doing a psychic thing; but it doesn’t detract from her performance and she’s rather good. It’s always good to see homegrown talent on the big screen, especially when she’s from your surrogate home of Northampton.  Quicksilver’s return isn’t half bad either; he’s not overplayed and his super-speed shtick isn’t overused, but when it is used, it’s a wonderful, fun little bit of film.

As with the previous films though, the big hitter here is Michael Fassbender. I’ve really enjoyed watching Eric’s gradual change to Magneto over the years. Fassbender has always been convincing as the guy who’s trying, sincerely, to do good and is screwed with at every turn. Back at the turn of the century, McKellan’s role as the already jaded and evil Magneto was stupendous, but Fassbender makes you genuinely feel some sympathy for the mutant who is proven to over and over again that he won’t be accepted, even when he’s being the good guy. Long after these films are gone, the German-Irish actor’s role in them will be remembered as the defining part of this trilogy.

I went in to X-Men: Apocalypse with pretty low – okay, very low – expectations; but overall, I have to admit that it wasn’t as rubbish as I anticipated it to be. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it doesn’t quite hit the awful levels of X-Men: The Last Stand where it throws all the shit at the wall hoping something will stick. A rubbish bad guy and a severely bloated run time hinder a film that was actually pretty enjoyable. If I had to score it, I’d give it a solid 6/10.

Failed Critics Podcast: Spy, United Passions and Utter Filth

uwe bollWhat happens when you reunite the filthy minds of [The Mirror’s film correspondent] Paul Field and Andrew Brooker on the same podcast as Steve Norman and Owen Hughes?

If you guessed “clean, mild mannered discussion on various films in the cinema” then you’d be wrong. This episode is explicit with a capital E. And a capital X, P, L, I, C, I and T as well. You have been warned! Although there are still plenty of films discussed this week.

Together, in-between the carnage, the team manage to put together 80 minutes of semi-coherent chat, starting as ever with a tightly poised quiz (+ results from last week’s United Passions defence) and discussing the latest from the world of film news, including Jurassic World‘s initially poor reception and Hugh Jackman relinquishing his most famous role.

We also discuss a number of new releases in the cinema this past week, including:  Paul Feig’s comedy Spy, starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Jude Law, Rose Byrne and Miranda Hart;  the confusingly titled studio horror prequel Insidious: Chapter 3;  James McTeigue’s latest attempt to save his career with crime thriller Survivor;  and the FIFA propaganda film that’s convincing nobody, United Passions.

As well as that, Brooker discusses Alex Garland’s Ex Machina;  Owen flips his opinion around on The Redwood Massacre;  Paul has two very different opinions on the terrifying We Are Still Here and bizarre sleep paralysis documentary The Nightmare;  and Steve tries to raise the tone with a review of Billy Elliot… but quickly plummets back down to our usual depths.

Join us again next week as we review (amongst other things) Colin Trevorrow’s adventure sci-fi, Jurassic World.

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Chappie

Objectively, Chappie is a mess.  Everything else depends on you.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

chappieThis one is going to divide people.  I pretty much guarantee that.  See, objectively, Chappie is a giant mess, a film that alternates between working totally and failing to work at all for long stretches because of multiple creative decisions that, again objectively, cripple the film from its full potential and run the risk of derailing the ride.  Whether or not they do depends on how much the stuff it does right offsets for you the stuff it does wrong, and how much its delightfully earnest tone and mood either wins you over or turns you off.  Or, to put it another way, this is Jupiter Ascending all over again.

For me, personally – as a review is simply one person’s subjective opinion, after all – I sort of liked it.  I mean, I didn’t love it and disappointment is a major emotion mixed with that liking because the decisions and things required to make Chappie a better film are so thuddingly obvious that I grow ever more frustrated over them not having been done in the first place, but I sort of liked it.  It is a rather wasted opportunity, though.  After all, that great film was poking its head out so often and so obviously that I couldn’t help but fixate on all of the things that this OK film was doing wrong, much to its detriment.

What Chappie gets right, though – and I feel that it is necessary to get through what Chappie does right first before we dive into the stuff it does wrong – it gets right.  Chappie itself, for example, is pretty much note-perfect.  The film takes the metaphor of the birth and subsequent burgeoning of Artificial Intelligence almost literally with Chappie having a personality akin to that of a 5 year-old.  It’s easily scared, calls out to its “Mommy” when anything bad happens, is overly trusting of people, and is filled with a child-like wonder of the world and a very child-like binary view of right and wrong.

It’s rather pure, basically, a force of possible absolute good and purity, and Chappie never undercuts Chappie, never insults its worldview as naive or stupid, and that kind of sincerity is probably going to be the main thing that divides people.  I personally bought into it.  For one, I still, even at age 20, have a relatively absolute view of right and wrong and can be somewhat naive and overly trusting, so I saw bits of myself in Chappie.  For two, a protagonist of genuine good is a nice change of pace from a gluttony of anti-heroes and villain protagonists that often front more adult entertainment these days.  And for three, Sharlto Copley is brilliant as the mo-cap and voice of Chappie, infusing it with the softness, sentimentality and sincerity required to make the character work.  It’s the polar opposite of his work in Elysium and is yet another example of the surprising amount of range the man has.

Meanwhile, when the film actually sticks to its wheelhouse, it also manages to be interesting thematically, too.  See, despite what the trailers (which I saw after having seen the film) would lead you to believe, Chappie is actually more concerned with questions of parenting, abusive families, and the cycle of poverty and crime that can ensnare even the most kind-hearted if their situation is desperate enough.  Chappie’s maker, Deon (Dev Patel), ends up being kidnapped by a trio of gang members (one played by Jose Pablo Cantillo, the others played by… you know what, I’m gonna hold off on that for a minute) and forced to activate the AI-uploaded police scout robot that he was planning to test at home for them because they need to pull off a $60 million heist, lest they be killed in a week by Johannesburg’s ruthless gang leader.

From there, the central conflict of the film comes from the various parenting styles pushed upon Chappie.  Deon wants it to expand its creative horizons and become a pacifist, shining beacon of humanity and the future but is, by necessity, an absent father.  One of the male gang members wants to pretty much brutalise it into helping them carry out the heist that it has no desire to get involved in – “Heists is crimes” Chappie repeatedly adorably explains – which also involves snuffing out any possible traces of weakness (that mostly manifest as femininity) and bending the truth to get it to co-operate.  Meanwhile, the female gang member adapts very quickly to the mother role and just wishes to support Chappie no matter what it does or what happens to it.

The writing of this is typical Neill Blomkamp melodrama – Deon at one point yells at the gang that they’re all “philistines” as he escapes, in case you needed an indicator of what we’re operating at – but it still mostly works anyway.  Dev Patel is committed to the part, Chappie itself as mentioned is adorable and Copley is fantastic in the role, and the film itself, when it is actually focussed on the theme, follows it through with aplomb, playing it for equal parts quietly sad drama and surprisingly funny comedy.  Again, when Chappie works, and it does for long stretches, it’s great.  Blomkamp’s distinctive visual palette is still in full effect, Hans Zimmer’s score is surprisingly pretty when it’s not drowning every last ‘dramatic’ scene in enough portentous strings to make a Goth dress from, and the film always had my attention for all 120 of its minutes.

Unfortunately, there are also long stretches in which Chappie does not work.  Like, at all.  Specifically, Blomkamp really has a problem with not throwing everything, the kitchen sink, and the kitchen sinks of the next four houses down from him into a story that really doesn’t need them.  It’s not enough that Chappie is mostly about parenting, apparently; Blomkamp also has to throw in questions about the nature of AI, the desire to live, a weapons company that manufactures the security bots that Chappie is born from (headed up by an utterly wasted Sigourney Weaver), a maniacal crime boss who threatens the gang but doesn’t really do anything, and a disgruntled god-fearing gun-nut ex-soldier-turned-programmer (Hugh Jackman) who is angry that Deon’s bots are pulling funding away from his human-piloted Robocop-reminiscing mini-mecha that he really wants out policing Johannesburg despite their police force finding the thing overkill.

Unsurprisingly, this means that Chappie’s scale and scope is unnecessarily bloated and unfocussed, which leads to many prolonged stretches where the film gets away from itself, goes loud and big instead of small and intimate, as it visibly strains to manoeuvre itself into the place required for the third act explosions that it feels that it needs to have to occur.  It means that everything not immediately, and I do mean immediately, connected to Chappie and its troubled parental upbringing is undercooked and one-dimensional – Jackman’s character, in particular, is literally just a walking collection of Evil Villain In A Sci-Fi Allegory tropes that he is desperately trying to force onto an actual character through sheer force of charisma.

Every time the film seems to be building up some head of steam with Chappie, it cuts back to Jackman doing everything but twirl an evil moustache, or arbitrarily reminding us that the walking plot device gang boss is still kicking about, or having an utterly wasted and could-not-be-less-enthused Sigourney Weaver do nothing, or teasing questions about the police force that it will never actually properly address, and all that momentum is drained from the picture.  Blomkamp also self-plagiarises from District 9 a lot during its opening – even adopting, and then immediately dropping which makes one wonder why he bothered with it in the first place, a faux-documentary style for the opening two minutes – which keeps the film from hitting the ground running, his action pile-up finale is the definition of obligatory and astoundingly hypocritical, and it introduces ideas and concepts in its final 5 minutes that would have been far better served in their own separate film instead of just being thrown into an already over-full broth just cos.

There is also, however, one huge, major, utterly confounding problem that nearly kills the entire movie, because it also infests the stuff that the film actually does right.  It’s the kind of decision that keeps the good stuff from hitting with the level of power that it should have and keeps the film, even if it wasn’t a structural mess, from even being in the same league as greatness.  It’s the kind of bone-headed inexplicable decision that people like myself are going to spend years trying and failing to adequately rationalise and understand.  What is that problem?

Well, remember how I said that there were three gang members who are raising Chappie alongside Deon, when the latter can actually show up, and I didn’t name two of them?  Well, see, that’s because two of them are Ninja and Yolandi-Vi$$er from Die Antwoord.  I don’t mean, “Ninja and Yolandi-Vi$$er from Die Antwoord are playing characters,” I mean they are Ninja and Yolandi-Vi$$er from South African piss-take gangsta rap group Die Antwoord, only they’re real gangsters instead of musicians.  Kind of.  Sort of.  In that I don’t think that they’re supposed to be semi-famous musicians in this universe, except that they keep wearing their own band merchandise, and their music is played prominently from cars and such in-universe, and Yolandi actually spends the finale wearing a shirt with Chappie’s name (and, consequently, the film’s logo) and face on it

It is exactly as weird and distracting as it sounds on paper, especially since the film wants you to take them and the film’s world completely seriously but it’s near impossible to do so because, once again, a member of Die Antwoord spends THE ENTIRE FINALE WEARING A CHAPPIE SHIRT!  Instead of being wrapped up in the finale, my brain kept being drawn to that shirt as it kept screaming, “Neill Blomkamp, what the f*ck are you doing?!  Why would you OK that?!”  I might have been able to forgive this if Ninja and Yolandi gave good performances but… well, they’re not actors, let’s put it this way.  They’re both clearly trying, which I guess counts for something, but he’s too awkward, she’s too shrill, they are both really out of their depth, and neither manages to properly become their characters instead of just “it’s Die Antwoord trying to act”.  And they’re in two of the most vital roles of the film, too, which makes it a miracle that any part of the thing works!

Yet, despite the fact that the film is a complete mess that only works about half the time, and even then only about half as well as it should, and the literally inexplicable stunt casting of Die Antwoord in two of the film’s most vital roles… I actually rather like Chappie.  Somewhere, buried within this complete mess, there is a charm and sincerity that is able to escape and spread throughout the majority of the film.  Chappie itself is charming and cute, Copley nails the part, and the film manages to treat its character (and by extension its surprisingly consistent tone) right, which manages to keep the film from failing utterly for me, and the film is interesting and entertaining enough to have kept me engaged the whole time through (not once did I look at my watch).

I am disappointed, because this really should have been better, but that disappointment has, as of roughly 24 hours after sitting down to watch it, yet to turn into anything resembling hatred or resentment or even true dislike of the thing.  Yeah, I do kinda like Chappie.  Not enough to be able to overlook the major systemic flaws that it objectively has, but enough to be kinda fond of the thing.  I’d recommend seeing it, if only so that you can know which side of the divide you’re going to fall on when the debates start up because, again, this one will divide people.

Callum Petch is having an existential time crisis.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Flushed Away

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary.  To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment.  Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.


flushed away 213] Flushed Away (3rd November 2006)

Budget: $149 million

Gross: $178,120,010

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

I hated Flushed Away.

As a 12 year-old kid in 2006, I hated Flushed Away.  I was there opening weekend, with my dad and brother in tow, sold on the fact that it was Aardman and that Aardman had never done me wrong before.  I was hyped, I was ready, and I was left feeling dissatisfied and confused.  I did not like Flushed Away and I had no idea why.  The whole film felt off, it felt wrong, it didn’t feel like Aardman.  Let’s not forget, I was going off of DreamWorks films at the time and, though I was about to enter my stupid teenager phase where one rejects everything they loved as a child out of hand (because they are stupid teenagers), their joints with Aardman were the only confident signs I had of them putting out quality during this winding down period in our relationship.

And I didn’t like Flushed Away.  But it was Aardman!  Aardman aren’t supposed to make bad stuff, with the exception of Angry Kid!  That confusion and disappointment stuck with me.  It stuck with me for a real long time.  It festered and festered, until it manifested itself as full-blown hate.  There may have been good elements to Flushed Away, but the sheer level of disappointment that the film had visited upon me had completely crushed those elements.  Therefore, I was absolutely dreading this part of the retrospective, exactly as much as I was Shark Tale (OK, maybe not, but close).  Expectations were low, I had never really gotten over the film the first time, and this series is only 1 month removed from the commonly accepted nadir period of DreamWorks Animation.

So… I strongly dislike Flushed Away.  I don’t hate it anymore, the pain has finally subsided, I’ve come to terms with my grief, and I managed to have some fun with it because it’s not a bad film or anything, but I still very much dislike it.  The reason why is basically the same as the reason why I hated it when I was young and impressionable.  Flushed Away feels like DreamWorks trying to make an Aardman film, or Aardman trying to make a DreamWorks film, take your pick.  Considering how much the two companies allegedly butted heads with one another during production, which represented the final straw in relations between the pair, I’m not surprised that the film feels that way.  For example, this was supposed to be a pirate-based film, but DreamWorks nixed the idea believing back in 2001 that pirate movies didn’t sell (although Aardman would get to make their pirate movie after all, but we’ll get to that shortly).

Yet, at the time, not a single credited writer on the film is actually affiliated with DreamWorks.  Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, for example, were responsible for The Likely Lads franchise, many episodes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and the entirety of Porridge.  Simon Nye, the film’s other credited writer, was responsible for Men Behaving Badly.  Yet the whole film feels so… American, like 27 DreamWorks execs were all crowding around each writer’s shoulder micro-managing every line for maximum commercial appeal.  As such, there’s this awkward compromise between the cheap, easy, toilet and pop-culture obsessed humour of DreamWorks films and the witty, clever, pun-focussed, heart-felt and quintessentially British humour of Aardman productions, where the latter is done as cynically as one can manage and where the former vastly overshadows the latter to such a lowbrow degree.

The film making said incredibly American view of England, by having the villain be heavily obsessed with tacky British predominately royal memorabilia, really doesn’t help proceedings.  It instead marks them out with a giant arrow of “Look!  British things!  Y’know?  Fish and chips, World Cup, broad working-class accents, ‘ello ‘ello, Benny Hill and all that!”  It feels insulting, references that broad, that obvious, the equivalent of a Yank thinking that all of England is exactly like the London they read about in a particularly useless encyclopaedia from the mid-1970s.  Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run were similarly classically British, but they felt more genuine because the films weren’t stopping every five seconds to show off their British credentials.

Case in point, the moment where Roddy realises that Sid will ruin his solitary bachelor lifestyle if he hangs around is backed by, of all sodding things, “Yakety Sax”.  Why?  Who knows; the incredibly short daydream sequence doesn’t seem to reference any part of any Benny Hill sketch, the show that basically appropriated that track for its own ends.  It’s just there because a funny music cue was required, for some reason, and since this is supposed to be a British film we should pick the most British song available!  To be honest, I’m pretty sure the only reason why there isn’t a bonding sequence between Roddy and Rita set to “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is because rights to songs by The Beatles are really bloody expensive.  It’s all so cringeworthy.

Speaking of, music cues in Flushed Away are primarily of the licensed variety, another creative choice that reeks of studio interference from upon high (note how nearly every important scene in both Shrek movies covered so far has been backed by licensed music).  Roddy’s trip down the loo to the sewer is backed by “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” by JET because the song sounds cool to soundtrack scenes to, although anybody who actually knows the song and tries to get caught up in it will be driven mad by the awkward editing to keep it at some instrumental part.  There’s a chase set to “Bohemian Like You”, again seemingly because it’s a cool song to soundtrack scenes to.  They are, I’m not disputing that, but the score is perfectly serviceable in and of itself and, again, their inclusion doesn’t have any reason beyond being cool songs to back things with (there’s none of the irony or joke-enhancing choices present in Pirates!’ usage of punk, ska and Flight Of The Conchords).

Well, unless they’re sung by the film’s most obvious comic relief, The Slugs.  See, unlike with Wallace & Gromit, which kept the appearance and usage of the bunnies to a minimum lest they run the risk of becoming this, Flushed Away keeps forcing in a group of slugs purely for the kids to laugh at.  They always just happen to be hanging around somewhere for a quick gag involving their high-pitch screams or Alvin & The Chipmunks singing of pop songs.  Also unlike the bunnies, they feel really shoehorned in, like one of said 27 execs noticed that the script didn’t have enough pop culture references or kid-exclusive gags and that must be rectified ASAP!  They only do the pop song thing twice, the other two times they do original compositions (which are eeeeehhh… “Ice Cold Rita” has Hugh Jackman singing going for it, but that’s about it), but they both feel incredibly unnecessary and a scene in which a group of slugs sing “Mr. Lonely” is going to feel like it’s going out of my way to annoy me, regardless of whether it runs for 30 seconds or 10 minutes.

When I keep mentioning “broad” in service of describing the humour, I mean that it’s lowest common denominator stuff.  Extended fart and burp jokes – which Wallace & Gromit also indulged in once or twice, admittedly – toilet humour in the literal and figurative sense, pop culture references where a thing is presented to you and you are expected to laugh due to recognising it – like a moment where the character voiced by Hugh Jackman tries to decide between wearing an Elvis Presley suit or a Wolverine suit – even extending to frequent, frequent cameos and references to past Aardman productions, to the point where it starts to feel less like little Easter eggs for more attentive and knowledgeable viewers and more like blatantly calling out their much better works to excuse what we’re watching.  “Look!  We made Wallace & Gromit!  DreamWorks made all these films!  We’re not normally this sub-par, honest!”

The puns, meanwhile, the bread and butter of many an Aardman production, feel really cynically calculated rather than genuine.  A groaner of a bad pun can still elicit laughs if the person who is writing or delivering the pun is completely sincere in their telling of it; this is why Curse Of The Were-Rabbit is a near-non-stop gag-fest.  Flushed Away’s puns, by contrast, feel… forced.  Again, the majority of the film feels like DreamWorks trying to make an Aardman film but not getting why Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit worked.  So you get threatening mob bosses telling their goons to put people “on ice” and then we find out that he means literally freezing them in an ice machine, followed by the even worse “prepare to meet your maker, your ice maker!”  But they just end up landing with loud notable thuds instead of laughter-in-spite-of-oneself.

At least they’re not lazy, though.  A surprising number of the gags here are extremely easy and very lazily delivered.  Le Frog and his ninja frog henchmen are all walking French stereotypes and whilst you can make those jokes funny, as Muppets Most Wanted proved this year and which this film manages to do once, here they just feel like yet another “Oh, look!  We’re British!  We get British customs!  Look at how British we are!”  Roddy’s fall from Toad’s lair involves not one unfortunate crotch shot, not two unfortunate crotch shots, but four unfortunate crotch shots, one straight after the other for about 20 seconds of film time; a gag the film does again later on but with slightly different parameters.  There’s a brief bit of random uncomfortable racism where Roddy accidentally dials a Chinese takeout and his attempts at communicating his situation are, thanks to the operator’s accent, hi-lariously misinterpreted as ordering Chinese food.  It’s all just so cheap.

And yet this film cost $149 million to make!  Not that all of that made it into the finished film, you understand.  The constant re-writes and do-overs ended up inflating the budget to nearly twice the combined budgets of Chicken Run and Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.  There was an initial trailer that predominately showed Roddy having hamster man-servants named Gilbert and Sullivan, only for them to be dropped totally in the final film.  Of course, this isn’t a problem in and of itself, I almost guarantee you that every animated film undergoes some giant fundamental change at some point during its production, but the film does such a poor job at hiding that.  The central story dynamic remains about the same throughout, think a gender-swapped version of “Common People” by Pulp played straight, but everything else is a giant mess.

For example, Toad honestly feels kinda pointless to overall proceedings or, at least, as the big overall villain.  As somebody who needs to pair Rita and Roddy together and drive the opening segment of the film, he makes sense.  As somebody who becomes a big overall villain who wishes to wipe out the entirety of the sewer so that we can have our big action finale?  No, he doesn’t, especially since said finale feels entirely rudimentary instead of earned and its existence requires the heroes to be unbelievably wilfully stupid.  The main emotional centre of the film, the burgeoning respect and all-but-explicitly-stated romance of Roddy and Rita, also feels false.  I never really bought it, that derogatory “Common People” comparison sticking with me a lot, and I never really found Roddy or Rita to be particularly interesting or consistent characters – Roddy flits back and forth schizophrenically between out-of-his-depth and try-too-hard-suave, whilst Rita spends all of her time talking tough but needing immediate rescue and help whenever action kicks off like a female Scrappy Doo.

As for the animation, which one would think I was OK with seeing as I’ve spent forever tearing into the script and neglecting it, it hasn’t aged well.  I appreciate the attempt to recreate the Aardman claymation style in CGI, to try and keep the house style, but a hell of a lot of the enterprise, Up-Top especially, now looks like an even lower-quality version of the graphics used to power Telltale Games’ Wallace & Gromit series.  Character models clearly try and recall the handmade plasticine models that became the Aardman calling card, but the bodies move too fluidly for the purposefully cut-and-replace mouth movements to gel with.  Rita, Roddy and Sid also look way too human.  In fact, let’s not beat around the bush, all of the cast look way too human, to such an extent that the good rats may as well just be human.  This technique would work if it were primarily limited to Roddy – him being an upper class pet, it would make sense for him to have humanlike movements – but everybody does it, to such an extent that they may as well just be human.

I get why Aardman chose to go CG.  The story takes place in a sewer, that requires a lot of water, you do not expose clay figurines to water, that is a stupid idea.  But considering the film we have, one that feels less like Aardman and more like a very sub-standard DreamWorks film, I can’t help but feel like it was yet another demand from upon high by the overlords at DreamWorks.  A desire to standardise even further, homogenise a unique voice in search of the more lucrative general audiences, and seeing as the script has received the sufficient amount of corporate retooling why not extend it to the whole style of animation too?  I know that that didn’t happen, but it still makes a tonne of sense considering the film Flushed Away ended up as.

To its credit, Flushed Away is still Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, comfortably at that.  Many reviewers threw around lines like “Best Animated Film Of The Year”, although 2006 wasn’t really a good year for animated film in Empire’s defence.  Many reviews were still relatively soft in the praise department, though; one even noting that “the Aardman magic is missing.”  And then there were the negative reviews, more than Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit combined; many lamenting the loud broad nature of the film, the generic nature of the film itself, the extreme anthropomorphism of its cast, and the fact that it was set in a sewer because The Guardian can be really unprofessional with its reviews a lot of the time (a little something to remember next time you want to take me to task for my review of Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie).  For the first time, Aardman looked human to a lot of critics.

Financially… well, the film was doomed to failure as soon as its budget swelled to $100 million, the highest grossing Aardman film is still Chicken Run ($224 million) and a film isn’t considered a success until it has doubled its budget.  Nevertheless, Flushed Away marched ahead to a noble failure anyway.  The film debuted in third in America, behind a limited release Borat and a wide-release The Santa Clause 3 (side note: Santa Clause 3 happened, folks).  Paramount execs (DreamWorks’ new distribution partners, let’s not forget) tried to spin that as a surpassing of the expectations and therefore a good thing, but the arrival of Happy Feet in Week 3 and Flushed Away’s resultant descent into oblivion more than likely put pay to that.  Overseas, the film performed strongly, particularly in France and Aardman’s native Britain, enough to get the film technically in the black, but the film still caused DreamWorks to ultimately take a $109 million write-down due to its near-total failure domestically.

So, the film was a failure, it didn’t knock every critic for six, and it took a giant bath at the box office.  Combine these factors with the termination of their contract with DreamWorks, and the very public television failures of Creature Comforts USA and Chop Socky Chooks, and one could be forgiven for thinking at the time that Flushed Away was like some kind of Grim Reaper herald for Aardman.  That’s a pretty big tailspin to pull out of, after all.  Fortunately, as evidenced by the fact that we have a Shaun The Sheep movie due from them in a few months’ time, things managed to turn around for the company after making that breakaway.

For starters, in 2007, they found a new partner for feature-filmmaking, in the shape of Sony Pictures Animation (who, if Hotel Transylvania 2 and Genndy Tartakovsky’s Popeye end up as successful as I think they will be, are about to become a major known player in this field).  They even renewed their contract with them in 2010 – although they seem to be on their own again for Shaun The Sheep after production on Pirates! ended up more than a little troubled.  In 2011, they returned to the all-CG way of doing things with Arthur Christmas and, this time, managed to earn critical acclaim and a relatively decent profit.  Then, in 2012, Aardman finally got to make their pirate movie, in the shape of The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!  That too received critical acclaim, although an apparently bowlderised US edit and a release date quite literally the week before The Avengers meant that its box office gross was underwhelming.

So though they may struggle to reap giant financial rewards, Aardman have clearly gotten their mojo back since their “amicable” split from DreamWorks.  More importantly, you watch either Arthur Christmas or The Pirates! and one can clearly get the sense that Aardman are getting to make the films that they want to make again.  Those films are quintessentially British in a way that doesn’t involve them having to loudly announce and restate that fact every five minutes in the broadest and most obvious way possible, like we’ll run it out of town if it doesn’t have sufficient British credentials.  Those films have a heart and soul that makes their puns and ridiculously silly humour charming and endearing instead of boring and annoying.  Those films are clearly made for the filmmaker’s artistic benefit instead of aiming for the widest possible audience.

In other words, they’re everything that Flushed Away is not.  Again, I don’t hate Flushed Away, I found enough funny sequences (especially the “he’s gonna steal your boat” exchange and the frog mime) to feel like I wasn’t wasting my time, but it is an awkward attempt to marry two distinct styles and identities that don’t gel well with one another.  It doesn’t feel like an Aardman film, and it’s not a very good DreamWorks film, so the result is just the worst of both worlds, coupled with the disappointment of it being a sub-par Aardman film.


Investors in DreamWorks Animation were likely spending a lot of 2006 scratching their heads.  Not only had the company’s two films for the year underperformed, they had managed to drive away the part of their company that was capable of bringing in critical acclaim.  Many investors, more than likely, were getting nervous.  Had DreamWorks already lost it?  Was their investment for nothing?  Then Shrek The Third happened and, like all sequels to still-lucrative properties, set everyone who was focussed on the bottom-line’s minds at ease.  Next week, in our final instalment before a week’s hiatus, we take a look at the moment where I all but cut the cord with the company.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch has got a great car, yeah what’s wrong with it today?  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Failed Critics Podcast: X-Critics: Hours of Future Mutterings

XMenDOFPWelcome to this week’s bumper Failed Critics Podcast, ans the usual suspects and special guest Carole Petts get in touch with their younger selves and combine their efforts in attempt to stop catastrophe: Steve winning the quiz and picking a film worse than Cutthroat Island…

They also find time to review new releases X-Men: Days of Future Past and Maleficent, as well as a clutch of teen-focused dramas in What We’ve Been Watching, including Short Term 12, The Selfish Giant, and The Kids Are Alright. Not only that, but we even find time to discuss the departure of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, and the recruitment of Gareth Edwards for a Star Wars spin-off.

Join us next week for reviews of Edge of Tomorrow and A Million Ways to Die in the West.

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A guide to Les Mis on dvd

lesmisI wrote the obligatory Les Mis review back in January, after its (Leicester based) premiere on the big screen. Since then, I’ve been to see it more times than I went to the cinema in the whole of 2012. Which, admittedly, was only about four times. But still, what a loser.

Today it is released on DVD. No longer must you attempt discreet silent sobbing into a single Kleenex Balsam while sharing an arm rest with a stranger. Instead you can watch it the privacy of your own home, clutching a loo roll in the fetal position on your sofa, the way Victor Hugo would have wanted.

It’s about 3 hours long which, I agree, is quite a commitment. So here are my must see moments, in their painstaking, obsessive, chronological entirety.

1. Enter Colm Wilkinson (0:07:14)
The first few minutes of the film are a little disconcerting, even for a hysterical fan such as myself. I was still reeling from the fact that Hugh Jackman was Irish and Russell Crowe couldn’t sing, when suddenly Colm Wilkinson (who originated the role of Valjean in the West End AND Broadway, so he knows his shit, people) turned up as the kindly Bishop, brandishing those candlesticks, and reassured me that it was all going to be ok.

2. Fantine nods (0:16:03)
At this point she’s still part of the factory chorus. Though she stands out a mile off because she’s a) the only one wearing pink and b) Anne Hathaway. “Pay the landlord, pay the shop. Keep on working as long as you’re able.” she sings, with the steely determination of someone who knows she isn’t going to be in a job much longer. Not that job, anyway.

3. The sniff that won the Academy Award (0:29:40)
This performance is perfect for many reasons, not least because it represents the moment everyone stopped associating the song with a reality TV contestant. I Dreamed a Dream is filmed as one continuous tight shot of Hathaway’s Oscar winning face. But my favourite sniff in particular occurs here.

4. When Jackman gets it (0:37:37)
These songs have been performed on stage for 18 years. Those are some big boots to fill, and at the beginning Hugh’s shoe size waivers. But it’s in the gathering up his belongings (candlesticks, mainly) section of Who Am I? when he suddenly makes the role his own. Glancing up at the heavens during his surprisingly subtle utterance of the line “my soul belongs to God, I know, I made that bargain long ago”, he nails it.

5. Valjean stealth failure (1:00:32)
Jean Valjean is many things; world’s strongest man, Mayor, bread thief. But he certainly isn’t an expert when it comes to stealth. This is showcased earlier in the film, when he attempts to steal some silver platters from the Bishop by drop kicking them out of an open door (0:08:39). However he surpasses this moment when stumbling into the church yard, whispering “we need to disappear” and then immediately launching into song at the top of his lungs. Brilliant.

6. Size zero Eponine (1:07:45)
We get a few glimpses of Eponine mooching around in the background, batting her grubby eyelashes at Marius. But this is the first time we see a full length shot of her, and her eye watering corset. My official scientific calculations put her waist at half the size of a Cadbury Creme Egg. Or something. I couldn’t be bothered to get off the sofa to measure it.

7. Vacuous Cosette (1:08:10)
Cosette is a bit of a nothing character. Her main purpose is to sing the really high twiddly notes that no one else can hit during the group numbers. Aside from that she just stands around looking dead eyed to the point where you wonder if her bonnet isn’t tied a bit too tight. It’s kind of a testament to Amanda Seyfried that she pulled this off to perfection.

8. Marius & Enjolras walk into certain death in order to save face (1:34:48)
You know when you’re on a night out with your mates and an elaborate drunken plan is hatched to go to Blackpool for the weekend, and then the next morning you all play cancellation chicken, because you don’t want to be a spoilsport, but you really don’t want to drive to Blackpool? That’s essentially what Marius & Enjolras do at this moment.

9. The shit barricades (1:35:56)
Books rely entirely on your imagination to create a vivid picture. Theatre relies on basic set and a suspension of disbelief. Films are supposed to do all that for you. On stage, the barricades are an all singing, all dancing, revolving masterpiece. In the movie, which had a not insubstantial $61 million budget, the barricades are built from a couple of old chairs. 

10. Enjolras’s death back-flip (1:57:50)
There are multiple deaths in this movie, from the tragedy of Fantine saying goodbye to her daughter, to the exquisite crunch of Russell Crowe’s vocal chords snapping in the sea. But Enjolras hanging backwards out of the window, red flag in hand, is a wonderful chest punching nod to the theatre goers in the audience. 

11. The Shawshank Redemption homage (2:00:38)
After dragging his future son-in-law (rather than just a bag of shoes and some money laundering paperwork) through endless sewers, Jackman emerges covered head to toe in shit, save for his beady white eyes. Liquid cinema, in every sense.

12. Grandpa Marius crashes the party (2:09:21)
Alright, so they gave Marius a bit of a back story, made that sacrifice all the more poignant. And, fair enough, Grandpa and his bucket-loads money put on a pretty fancy wedding for the kids. But that does not give him the right to muscle his face into A Heart Full of Love reprise. Dude, wind your wrinkly neck in.

13. The Jackanory bit (2:10:21)
Marius is a sweet kid. When Valjean settles down to have what is obviously a serious important discussion with his new son in law, Marius reacts with an excitable grin, like he’s about to get a bedtime story.

14. The making of Marius (2:11:57)
Moments ago he was grinning like a loon. Then suddenly Marius understands that Valjean is doing a runner, and he’s going to have to pick up the slack. Never mind all that revolution nonsense, this is the moment Marius becomes a man. His voice suddenly and inexplicably breaks, and he practically growls the line “for the sake of Cosette, it must be so”. HOT.

15. Do you hear the people sing? (2:15:30)
Basically, the second the film cuts to the convent (beginning of chapter 19), it’s time to brace yourself for the big finale. It’s a stunning scene, but the bit where Valjean stands up out of the chair with Fantine (2:21:20) is particularly well done. Then the whispered singing, a proper set of barricades, and all the clapping and crying I can muster. Marvellous.

Shall we watch it again?

Failed Critics Podcast: Les Miserables

Do you hear the critics sing?

Podding the thoughts of angry men,

They are the musings of a people who won’t watch Rock of Ages again,

When the bleating of the fool,

Echoes the bleating of the drunk,

There is podcast about to start when tomorrow comes!

That’s right, James has finally managed to persuade the critics back into the cinema to see another musical, and hopefully this time they won’t want to kill him afterwards. Also on our big return we review new releases Gangster Squad, The Sessions, The Impossible, and Quartet.

Join us next week as we review Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The D is silent, the podcast won’t be…

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The obligatory Les Misérables review

les mis anne hathawayLes Misérables is my Lord of the Rings. I’ve been anticipating this film for a long time, simultaneously excited and worried they’re going to balls it up.

Let’s tackle the elephant in the room first of all. And no, I don’t mean the actual Elephant of the Bastille monument that the students lark about on in later scenes. I mean Russell Crowe‘s really shit singing. Here’s a little tip for any other theatre producers thinking of transferring their global phenomenon stage musical to the big screen: if there are rumblings about one of your leading actor’s singing not being up to scratch, don’t give him the opening line of the sodding film! My first thought was ‘oh god’. My second thought was ‘I can’t work out what he sounds like and it’s going to bug me for the next 157 minutes’. And my third thought (don’t worry, I’m not going to document every thought that entered my head throughout the film, that would be terrifying) was ‘oh yes, I’ve worked it out’.

The first few minutes are all a bit random really. Crowe’s Javert is great at riding a horse, and being downright menacing, so long as he isn’t carrying a (nasal) tune. Hugh Jackman‘s Valjean looks as rough as someone who’s spent 19 years in prison lugging boats around has every right to and, when he speaks, he sounds like he has a mouthful of spoons. That, coupled with the fact that they’re doing this weird sing/talk hybrid, and I can see why newcomers and reluctant viewers might have been a little put off. I struggled to enjoy it at first, and I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Les Mis fan. Ideally, they should have swapped it around a bit, and started the film with one of the more solid performances. But I guess they felt that telling the story out of chronological sequence, Pulp Fiction style, was unbecoming. Bloody theatre snobs.

Luckily, while I was still wondering whether this was actually going to be any good, Anne Hathaway turned up, had all her hair chopped off, sang a song, won an Oscar, and promptly died, all within the space of about 15 minutes. Nailed it, Hathaway.

By now, eight years have passed and Valjean’s had a chance to have a wash and remove all those spoons from his mouth, and scrubs up pretty nicely indeed. Hello Mr Mayor! It’s like that bit in Friends where Monica & Rachel mistake some guy for a yeti, but then he cuts his hair and he’s really hot. Or, you know, a reference to something far more highbrow. He sets off to rescue little Cosette (neatly skimming over the fact that he was kind of responsible for her mother’s untimely death) and give her a better life. Which means that she’ll get to wear pretty bonnets and no longer have to fetch water from that scary well, but she’ll never have any mates ever, and will always have to be ready to abscond at a moment’s notice, because her dad’s in some kind of unexplained, self imposed witness protection scheme.

At this point you should insert a new song, which we all know was crowbarred in to add one more Oscar nomination to the haul. The lyrics should be reminiscent of something Westlife would sing, while perched atop stools on a Top of the Pops stage.

Another nine years pass and, while the French revolution rumbles away in the background, Javert is still hunting for Valjean. Tip: he’s the one lugging the giant candlestick wherever he goes. Meanwhile Cosette falls in love, Valjean prepares to do another runner, and some students get pissed and shout ‘red’ and ‘black’ over and over again. This is all leading to the most rousing, and my absolute favourite, song of the stage show, One Day More. On screen I’m not entirely sure it meshed perfectly, but I’d have to see it again to be sure. At the theatre, this juncture would be your interval. But there’s no time for a gin & tonic at the cinema, people. The bleakness is unremitting as we immediately plough on with act two.

The thing is, I don’t actually find it all that gloomy. Within the context of 19th century France, I’d say they’re quite a cheery bunch really. Nonetheless, the Thénardiers are important for the purposes of comic relief. You would have thought that noted comic actors Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter would have pulled this off with aplomb. But I’m sad to say they did not. Master of the House felt like a dress rehearsal of something that could have, eventually, been great; while other killer lines are lost in the direction altogether. Shame, really.

While I don’t want this review to be entirely about Russell Crowe’s singing (I only want it to be 95% about that), his performance of Stars cannot go unmentioned. Stars is Javert’s big moment. His Anne Hathaway, if you will. Maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that the director was more concerned with having him balance along the edge of a really tall building than hitting some/any of the big notes. But Stars has been dumbed down so much it is rendered almost meaningless. And I know these songs, let me tell you. I’ve seen Les Misérables probably five times on the West End, plus a couple of school/college performances, and have driven the length of the M5 listening to the CD on more than one occasion.

There is plenty of enjoyment to be gained for fans of the show. The always ridiculous runaway cart becomes the fallen cart, seemingly because they couldn’t even be arsed to push it down a hill this time. The obligatory Cockney kid screaming ‘Vive le Francais!’ is good for a wry smile. And Enjolras pulls off a very fine version of the barricades death back-flip. There is also the amazing moment where, after dragging his future son-in-law (rather than just a bag of shoes and some money laundering paperwork) through endless sewers, Jackman emerges covered head to toe in shit, save for his beady white eyes. It’s brilliantly horrific.

I’m a fan, I’m predisposed to like it. There is good (outstanding) and bad (embarrassingly disappointing). But, ultimately, Les Misérables is more than the sum of its parts. Even if one of those parts is a New Zealand-born Australian actor who sounds like he’s making a three pints down attempt at “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears on Sing Star.

One final note of thanks to the impeccably behaved audience of the completely sold out 8pm showing at Leicester Showcase on Friday night, who watched the film in total silence and applauded at the end. You restored my faith in cinema-going.