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Olly Buxton "@electricray" RSS Feed (Highgate, UK)

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Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment
Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment
by Anita Elberse
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.43
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Whither the Long Tail?, April 25, 2014
If you're the sort of person who sees only one movie a year, that movie is unlikely to be Dersu Uzala.

If you are a movie executive that piece of learning ought not to seem radical or new. It certainly isn't a function of the information revolution, and would have been as true when Derzu Uzala was released in 1976 as it is today. Yet it is the intellectual cornerstone of Anita Elberse's provocative new book "Blockbusters" which, while dismantling the New-Age canard of the Long Tail is otherwise far less overwhelming than the commentariat seems to believe.

The blockbuster hook is simple: if you are a global media conglomerate like Warner Brothers or Real Madrid, you are better betting the farm on a small number of "blockbuster" projects than diversifying your resources and "managing for margins" a portfolio of smaller projects. Elberse compares Warner, who did this, which NBC TV, who did not, and reaches her conclusion.

Her false premise is to suppose that, in plumping for yet another Harry Potter movie, Warner Brothers really is "risking big". As a matter of fact, it isn't. It is goosing its scale, but risking small: the five films on its annual slate will all be totally formulaic (those that are not remakes or sequels are in tried-and-true genres), will rely on well-established stars and directors, and will deploy immense production resources to deliver superficial fireworks without challenging norms or demanding any great commitment from viewers.

Warner targets precisely the sort of person who sees only one - or five - movies a year, because that's how many it makes.

Some all-but-self-evident assumptions:
*The marginal return on each additional movie ticket you sell tends (but never quite gets) to 100%: All other things being equal, the more people see your movie, the greater your profit margin will be.
*Most filmgoers see a given film only once.
*More filmgoers see five movies a year than see 50.
*Those filmgoers who see only five films won't be seeing Derzu Uzala.

If you take these assumptions as good then, if your movie studio has the requisite resources, it is only sound business sense to make your movie one of the five movies that almost everyone will go see. Likewise, if you don't, reset your priorities and your target demographic accordingly. But expect that your revenues will be accordingly constrained. There are only so many swine before whom to cast your pearls.

This is, as Elberse notes, of a piece with refocussing business strategies adopted by Apple, GM, Fender and other resurgent business lines: don't try to be all things to all people; clear out your inventory, figure out what you're good at and hit that channel relentlessly. Quit wasting time at the periphery.

Leave the tail, that is, for those poor toilers who have no option but to target it. But make no mistake: these toilers are vital to your ecosystem, and without them the big fish could not do what they do: the small guys discover and nurture new talent, do the research and development and build reputations of up-and-comers to the point where, for a Warner Brothers, they become safe enough to bet the house on. Even though she intimates this, Elberse's theory asserts not that only blockbusters should be made, but that *blockbuster-sized studios should only make blockbusters*: everyone should focus at the top of their own segment of their market.

This is really only sound common sense.

The question which Elberse doesn't address is what effect this has on the statistical distribution of film budgets. If every producer applies a blockbuster strategy in its own segment, this will tend to make the head taller and fatter, and the tail skinnier and, at the limit, shorter. And so it transpires: According to the Financial Times, in 2000, 1 per cent of artists accounted for 71 per cent of pop music sales. Last year, the same proportion accounted for 77 per cent.

Perhaps Elberse's theory, which owes nothing at all to the digital revolution, suggests the anointed few are getting smarter, and are hitting their channels more clinically than they used to. But down the tail lurks a much more interesting question: what happened? How was Chris Anderson so wrong? How is it that, all things being considered, the infinite time and choice vouchsafed by digital revolution has led to us exercising fewer choices?

Olly Buxton


Noah (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)
Noah (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)
DVD ~ Russell Crowe
Price: $19.49
19 used & new from $12.24

12 of 25 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars In Which Darren Aronofsky Jumps a Shark, an Elephant and a Kangaroo., April 10, 2014
Darren Aronofsky directed Pi, Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. These are really good, unique, imaginative, unsettling films and I don't recall the audience sniggering during them. They feature extraordinary performances, notably from women of a certain type: small, bird-like creatures with dark eyes who are strung with piano wire: Natalie Portman and Jennifer Connelly being fine examples.

Aronofsky has made a new film: Noah. It is a Biblical epic. He has struck the tone a long way towards the Peter Jackson end of a spectrum which didn't exist before Peter Jackson invented it. He has taken large liberties with some aspects of the Genesis story, inventing rock-encrusted fallen angels and a Kingdom of brutish descendants of Cain, but he has kept faithful to others a modern fellow might have jettisoned: how much more fascinating an examination of the human and divine it might have been were some of those who perished noble and good. The general view is that this is some kind of environmentalist parable. It's a poor parable that chooses for its standard-bearer a glum misanthropic monomaniac.

Connelly (for whom many men my age have a soft spot, having fallen in love at first sight of her in Labyrinth when we were twelve) has signed up, so too have the redoubtable Anthony Hopkins, Hermione Granger (another moody, compact and tensely-strung brunette of Aronofsky's type) and, well, Ray Winstone. They've all agreed to stand behind Russell Crowe, a man who has demonstrated great charisma and masculinity throughout a long Hollywood career, but never much of an inclination to act. Then again, given the films he's chosen to appear in, he's rarely needed one. And nor does he here.

Things proceed disappointingly. The first spot of rain takes an hour and a quarter to fall. The birds and beasts arrive with a great digital flourish, but are swiftly sedated and play no further part in the film. Connelly (who has form for playing Russell Crowe's wife) is obliged to over-emote at every turn. She looks haggard and careworn, possibly from the effort. Hermione also emotes wilfully. Crowe mumbles portentously into his beard and stumps grumpily around the ark believing, upon scant grounds, that doing God's will involves ensuring the annihilation of his own family. I don't remember that from Sunday School. Villainous Ray Winstone is, oddly the one left to advance the point that Noah's is not an especially constructive outlook. The only one listening is Ham.

We are left with a kitchen sink melodrama wherein Noah contemplates the almighty, Hermione wants to keep her baby, Shem and Japeth keep up the numbers (for all the effect that have they may as well have been sedated with the giraffes) and Ham simpers about wishing there was a chick left on God's wet earth he wasn't related to. Ray Winstone lasts longer than the Bible mentions, perhaps so someone is around to present a humanist perspective but we all know what must happen in the end. It's not especially edifying: on the Biblical view, there must have been quite a few unspeakable acts for any of his descendants to have made it as far as the theatre to hear the lessons of this primordial eco-warrior.

Olly Buxton
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 14, 2014 5:41 AM PDT


Post Tenebras Lux (English Subtitled)
Post Tenebras Lux (English Subtitled)
DVD
Price: $5.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A tree falls in a forest. But does it make a sound?, March 5, 2014
I enjoyed Carlos Reygadas’ last film, Luz Silenciosa (Silent Light), though much more in the week following its screening than in the theatre itself. With hindsight, I believe I judged it harshly in my review.

I wonder whether I’m about to do the same thing again.

Reygadas’ output is industrial-strength art-house: You need to pack a soft cushion, an imaginative frame of mind, and to have put your disbelief in colloidal suspension. You must stand ready to invent, apply and discard as many narrative hypotheses as it takes to find one which will help you make sense of what you’re seeing.

With Luz Silenciosa, a film about a love triangle in a Mennonite community, I found one, if late in the piece: the idea that the camera itself is an intruder in the private world of the drama, necessarily intervening with what goes on. This was conveyed through continual reminders of the presence of a lens throughout the film, through rain-spots, sun flares, window frames and, on one occasion during a highway storm seen through a windscreen, all three.

The very act of observation irreparably changes the dynamic of the situation: only when someone is there to hear it, does a tree falling in a forest make a sound.

In Post Tenebras Lux (After Shadows, Light) we are, again, permanently aware of the camera, this time because Reygadas has, selected an almost insolently square aspect ratio and applied a lens which refracts, blurs and distorts the fringes of the picture. We feel as if we are inside a box brownie, or perhaps inside a dream.

A dream: Now there’s a narrative hypothesis that might help.

A fashionable term for this screenplay is non-linear; another way of describing it is all over the place. We open with a toddler happily chasing cows and dogs around a wet football field at dusk as a brutal storm rolls in. It is quite an opening scene (as striking as, yet as different as could possibly be from, the sublime opener of Luz Silenciosa). The film principally concerns a couple and their two children, Rut and Eleazar (played by Reygadas’ own children), whom we meet at several points during their childhood. Much of it is spent in remote Mexican woodland country, where the family has an uneasy relationship with each other, their animals, and labourers who steal, drink, smoke pot, vandalise trees and convene AA meetings in a corrugated iron shed.

Wait – falling trees! As if to validate my tentative theory, we see labourers maliciously sabotaging trees, deep in the Mexican rainforest, hacking part way through their trunks, only for them to fall, later, when no-one but the all-seeing, fish-eyed camera lens is there. It sees, and hears, so we do. We change everything. George Berkeley would be pleased.

Beyond the Mexican bush, the scenes seem wilfully disconnected. Wealthy city folk at a Christmas party argue the toss between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. At a distance, the family gambols in the surf, and mid-scene, the children regress ten years to toddlers. A couple of scenes take place, apropos absolutely nothing, on a rugby field in England. There is a long orgy scene in a French Sauna which manages to be faintly comical and decidedly menacing at the same time.

I don’t pretend to have fathomed this film at all. But some impressions are forming, and by the end of the week I might have a theory about it. For the time being these ideas coalesce, like dream sequences in a box brownie:

There are threats all around us, natural, man-made and self-made. They thunder from the heavens and rise up from the ground. They emanate equally from our servants and our masters. Our own view is necessarily purblind; we are boxed in, constrained to see the world in terms dictated by our biology and our own distorted preconceptions. Yet, amongst all this, we remain exuberant, and confident, and out of angst, pain and loss comes vitality, love and advancement. Even as it ends, life goes on.

This may all be summarised in a passage from War and Peace, quoted rather obnoxiously at that dinner party:

"Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity."

I’m not sure. This time next week, I may have figured it all out.

Olly Buxton


The Look of Love
The Look of Love
DVD ~ Steve Coogan
Price: $13.78
46 used & new from $1.88

3.0 out of 5 stars Arthur or Martha, not Glen or Glenda, March 5, 2014
This review is from: The Look of Love (DVD)
There was a bizarre meta-moment during the screening of Michael Winterbottom’s biopic of Soho impresario Paul Raymond when the audience, at a little preview screening theatre in heart of Soho, realised we were sitting in the exact room that was appearing on the screen in front of us – a scene taking place in a Soho screening room and clearly shot on location.

It isn’t clear who did think it was a good idea to title this film “The Look of Love” but they were mistaken, not least because there was a Robin Williams/Ed Harris vehicle of the same name scheduled for release the same year. In any case, however you do choose to look at this film – a question of some perplexity as I will explain – it isn’t a romantic comedy, and making it sound like one runs the risk of nixing its chances at the box office, at which it verily tanked, if Box Office Mojo is anything to go by: it seems to have made about twenty grand. That ain't going to pay for Steve Coogan's dry cleaning.

And the picture’s misnaming is symptomatic of a bigger problem with the film in general: it’s an Arthur masquerading as a Martha. By its plot trajectory, The Look of Love ought to be a tragedy, but the characters of neither Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan, playing a role with parallels to his own life’s experience) nor his beloved daughter Deborah (Imogen Poots) are invested with the right qualities to make a tragedy work.

Tragic characters are possessed of a delicate balance of emotionally-investable virtue and repellant human flaw. This precipitates in them a righteous internal struggle which, in the end, the virtuous side must lose. Tragedies are all about this internal struggle been light and dark. They are not, principally, about the background facts against which this struggle plays out. The Look of Love fixes its gaze insistently on the background facts. Paul Raymond presents as a roguish northern huckster. He has seized a large financial opportunity by riding the edge of a prurient society’s mores. These mores, perhaps in part thanks to Raymond’s own endeavours, are not ones with which an enlightened 21st century audience is likely to have much sympathy. Raymond is also charming with it, and as you’d expect, not above enjoying the manifold fruits of his enterprise. Indeed, his wife (Anna Friel) seems to expect it too, and Raymond takes no steps to conceal it from her which, in its way, is rather decent behaviour. He is more variable in his devotion to his children: Raymond ignores his two sons and dotes extravagantly on his daughter Deborah. He’s no angel, but in sum, these are hardly Shakespearian flaws. Nor, in Deborah’s case, is being spoilt, or possessing a marginal singing voice.

Nevertheless, due to an unwise screenwriting decision, we are primed from the outset to expect an unhappy outcome as between father and daughter, and so it turns out. But because genuinely tragic flaws are thin on the ground; because there is no such internal struggle, what might have been a tragedy really plays just as a downer.

So, to brighten the mood, the assembled cast (including as it does a surfeit of Noted British Comedians) works the screenplay hard as a comedy. This works fitfully, but never wholeheartedly. A lustier swing for laughs, with a more abrupt tragic turn, might have made the pathos bite the way it did in, say, Four Weddings and a Funeral.

In the meantime, to keep the gentlemen entertained there are a lot of boobs, great and small, on display. Lots and lots and lots. About this no red-blooded chap can, with a straight face, complain – especially not at the sight of Tamsin Egerton’s willowy frame splashing around like a wet otter in a glass-walled tank of water. It might just be attention to detail from the fastidious production design department, which has surely been at pains to attain period authenticity in all other respects, but it did feel a little gratuitous, yet without being (Ms Egerton’s aquatics notwithstanding) especially titillating.

This sounds too much like I disliked the film, and I didn’t. I enjoyed it. The Look of Love is a handsome, well directed, well-acted picture, boasting marvellous production design, lovely cinematography and boasting an impressive ensemble performance (and a huge cast) but, if one compares it with its spiritual forebear, The People vs. Larry Flint, it did feel a little lacking in pure dramatic spark.

Olly Buxton


You're Next [Blu-ray]
You're Next [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Adam Wingard
Offered by just5star
Price: $14.99
53 used & new from $4.47

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dressage, March 5, 2014
This review is from: You're Next [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
If a comedy is a game of rugby, then horror is the dressage phase of a three day equestrian event.

There is a rigid formal structure to, er, cleave to, and success or failure is eked out of nuances and minor variations within that sturdy frame. All the more so with the Home Invasion sub-genre, of which form Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, which has been in a holding pattern waiting for clearance to land at Lionsgate international for nearly two years, is a superior example.

An adult family is convening at a remote and cavernous mansion in rural Missouri to celebrate the wedding anniversary of parents no-one seems to like. The four offspring are Drake (Joe Swanberg), Crispian (AJ Bowen), Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and Aimee (Amy Seimetz). All arrive bearing significant others of a more or less waspish bearing: all but Crispian, that is, whose Erin (Sharni Vinson) is a wide-eyed and wholesome Australian who, at first sight, might have been the girl living next door to the Minogues.

Erin discloses that she was a graduate student who shacked up with Crispian while he was her academic supervisor, a scenario which Drake views with evident distaste. Then Aimee’s boyfriend Tariq (Ti West) discloses that he is an underground film producer. In Drake’s eye, this is even worse. Father (Rob Moran) creases his cultivated brow ineffectually as bread rolls begin to fly.

A few hundred yards away a gang of masked men are about to perpetrate brutal acts on the neighbour Erik (Larry Fessenden) and his sullen teenaged girlfriend Kelly (Margaret Laney). Erik is an unpleasant middle aged man with an earring, and Kelly scowls at him admirably as he completes his manly business. She sticks the Dwight Twilley Band on high rotate as he showers (perhaps still “looking for the magic” lacking in his embrace) and is not thereafter around for long enough for the resentment she transparently harbours to make any difference. But then, nor is he.

Meanwhile back at the castle, the delicate atmosphere is quickly punctured over dinner by fraternal sniping: Drake nettles Crispian for his underachieving and philandering academic ways, while mother (Barbara Crampton) whimpers neurotically. Felix and his gothic girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn) look on malevolently, and we are just beginning to wonder what wholesome Erin mut be making of all this when crossbow bolts start flying through the window. Amusingly, despite this unnerving intrusion the family bickering continues. For all their braggadocio, none of them shows much backbone against the intruders except Erin, who turns out to be far more resourceful than anyone (murderous gang included) expects.

Thus proceeds a well directed, thoughtfully edited, well paced horror thriller with a couple of neat and unexpected twists along the way. Wingard has fun with the grand guignol, expertly flexes the tension inherent in the format, and never forgets to leaven what might otherwise have been a grim experience with snippy humour and sharp dialogue. There are a couple of ingenious kills along the way, including one which I rather think counts as a small-scale homage to the lawnmower scene in Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead.

The genre certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea: make no mistake there is plenty of gore and a jump-scare on autorotate every five minutes or so (rather like Dwight Tilley’s Looking for the Magic), but this is an entertaining and well executed film.

Olly Buxton


Runner Runner
Runner Runner
DVD

2.0 out of 5 stars Routine routine, March 5, 2014
In the Eighties, legend has it, the US armed forces hit upon the idea of encouraging Hollywood to make recruitment films for them. Thus, An Officer and a Gentleman, Top Gun, Navy SEALS and Private Benjamin (okay: maybe not Private Benjamin) were bankrolled by Uncle Sam specifically to make the military look glamorous so impressionable minds might sign up. As far as my mates were concerned it had the desired effect. Since we were slap bang in the middle of Nowheresville, South Pacific, they enlisted not for the Top Gun program but as RNZAF cadets and wound up clanking around the Chatham Islands in a forty-year-old Hercules. As far as I know they’re still doing it now. As a consequence, to this day none of them can abide Val Kilmer. But no matter.

Latterly this military recruitment tactic seemed to have fallen out of favour, but it might be back: Ben Affleck’s new movie Runner Runner plays so moralistically as a lecture against the evils of online gaming you have to wonder whether FBI’s Cybercrime Fraud folk didn’t have a stake – excuse the pun.

Subtext: online gaming can corrupt innocent and brilliant minds all too easily.

In Runner Runner, the possessor of said innocent and brilliant mind is a chap whom we note, with some irony, made his name corrupting them: Justin Timberlake. His character is Ted, or Fred, or Jack – not 20 minutes after the credits rolled I honestly can’t remember – a wily Princeton brainbox, already in penury for inciting games of chance amongst his college buddies, and about to get in a bit deeper when he starts mixing it with Mr Big on a Carribean Island.

Oddly, Timberlake has transmogrified himself from jailbait sex magnet into a faintly oatmealish actor (if Affleck is Theodore Logan, Timberlake is William S. Preston all over) whose only remaining mystery is how he ever passed for a sex symbol, even to a twelve year old, in the first place.

Affleck here plays the more charismatic part of dastardly e-Casino magnate Ivan Block. Still, this is a dramatic return to form for an unremarkable actor who has, of late, been doing a fine impression of having more to him than ever used to meet the eye.

Unltimately, Runner Runner is simply a paint-by-numbers Overcoming the Monster yarn with a strange title. It relies for its glamour on the absurd contrivance that people who set up online gaming companies in places like Costa Rica actually go out there and live in Bachanalian Xanadus, humping scores of prostitutes and throwing hapless local thugs to crocodiles. Here’s the news, folks: the only people who make money in tax havens by actually living there do so by preparing board resolutions. No crocodiles.

In this alternative universe (the same one inhabited by Tom Cruise’s The Firm, incidentally) there is therefore an exotic locale for Oatey Justin to voyage to, and armed henchmen, dopey customs officials, sharp-dressed undercover Feds and foxes by the armful to kick the meagre plot along. Gemma Arterton plays a budget Bond girl who seems to have been sprayed with Ronseal fencing stain.

Duly kicked, Runner Runner certainly canters along. It is not blighted by continuity errors, dialogue howlers or the dull and awkward moments that beset the comparable but inferior Savages. It isn’t a bad night out, but it’s short a car chase or two to be a decent actioner (charging round a carpark with a handycam is no substitute), and is missing a sandwich or two from the picnic hamper if it’s trying to make a political point.

Routine.

Olly Buxton


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty [Blu-ray]
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Ben Stiller
Price: $17.99
50 used & new from $8.25

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful things don't ask for attention, March 5, 2014
Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty of 2013 bears a passing resemblance to Danny Kaye’s of 1947, and none at all to James Thurber’s original creation (in which a hen-pecked husband, who inhabits a short story about five pages long, is sent out to buy overshoes and dog biscuits while his wife has her hair done). So those professional critics who complain (and some have) that Stiller doesn’t capture Thurber’s nuanced social commentary are talking through their hats.

Nor, as far as I know, did Thurber leave behind Tolkienesque appendices of the sort that might underpin the two hour rollercoaster on show. It is a story of derring-do, adversity and high-jinks only matched by the development trajectory of this script. In its decade-long passage through the hands of agents, writers, producers, studios and directors, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was also dunked in the arctic ocean, shot at by Afghan warlords and abandoned in Himalayan wastelands, before falling for its final release into the loving arms of Ben Stiller who found himself not only leading the cast but directing the film as well.

Usually films with this sort of midwifery are a disaster. This one’s a peach. I’m inclined to give Stiller much of the credit, though I dare say Steve Conrad’s screenplay didn’t write itself.

On a big screen, it is stunning. This is what Hollywood blockbusters should be like: imaginative, inventive, engaging, beautiful, sweeping, clever, well observed, well acted, and fun. Stiller demonstrates himself to be a subtler comic than many of his peers (Jim Carey was associated with this picture at one point) and an outstanding actor: his transition from biro-pocketed nerd in the basement to swashbuckling global explorer is a joy to behold. For a little guy with sticky-outy ears, he is a surprisingly credible leading man. There is real chemistry between Stiller and Kirsten Wiig.

That said, Walter Mitty is made by, features, and speaks to the people of a certain demographic - mine: mid-40s toilers who spend their private moments aghast that their lives are slipping away unremarked, and their public ones putting on brave faces and avoiding the inevitable conclusion that their toils might have been for naught.

This film counsels not just seizure of the day, but also that it hasn’t been in vain: the beautiful, as Sean Penn remarks, don’t ask for attention.

Ironically, Walter Mitty learns of his own beauty only when he flees his gilded cage. Only once he really has leapt from a helicopter into shark-infested water does he realise his life hasn’t been wasted after all. (Special mention, by the way, to that Icelandic bear of a man Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, here the drunken chopper pilot, whose extraordinary performance in the recent Icelandic feature The Deep has to be seen to be believed).

Those not old enough to have acquired the humility to doubt their place in the firmament may find this all a little bit self-involved, but there will a big constituency among the rest of us for whom this film hits its mark. It is relentlessly big and beautiful: Stuart Dryburgh’s sparkling cinematography deserves as big a screen as you can find to see it on, and those receptive to its message will sit there for two hours with a big, dumb grin on their faces.

Olly Buxton
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 13, 2014 11:05 AM PDT


The Book Thief
The Book Thief
DVD
Price: $12.99

3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not a patch on Cate Shortland's Lore, March 5, 2014
There is a moving, beautifully-filmed story about a handsome young German girl struggling for her life, and to come of age, through an unlikely bond with a young Jewish refugee during the death throes of the Third Reich. This isn’t it.

That film is Cate Shortland’s remarkable Lore (2012), and if you haven’t seen it, you should.

About this film, which also concerns an orphaned German girl coming of age through a relationship with a young Jewish refugee in the dying days of the Reich, I’m not so sure. Director Brian Percival – he of Downton Abbey – paints by numbers, and his scriptwriter Michael Petroni has a tin ear for dialogue.

The opening aerial shot, swooping in over a layer of cloud, is trite enough to be a studio logo animation. As we dive through the cloud to track a steam train puffing excitedly through snow-bound countryside, one could be forgiven for deducing a Harry Potter instalment. But no: Roger Allam’s mellifluous baritone fills the soundstage and we are underway. Allam is the unseen voice of Death, and he intercedes periodically through the two and a quarter hours of this film to tell slow witted viewers what is going on.

Yet Allam’s dialogue is aspirationally coherent and not actually meaningful. If you let his velvet gravel, John Williams’ lachrymose music and Florian Ballhaus’ luscious images do their work, you may switch off altogether and still get the gist.

The gist comes through loud and clear elsewhere: 10 year-old Liesl, (Sophie Nélisse) has been orphaned and comes to live with Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson), of whom Hans is warm and kind, and Rosa cold, practical, and interested only in the money she will earn from fostering. They wind up sheltering handsome young Jewish refugee Max (Ben Schnetzer), and everything else proceeds exactly as you would expect had you any experience with this sort of story (The Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler’s List, and so on), only without any edge or challenge to expectations. Petroni’s awful dialogue affords the cast no scope to practice their craft and the viewer no need to practice inference. Instead, through wholly artificial dialogue delivered in cod German accents, which lapse for easy words into actual German (nein, ich bin nacht kidding) the screenplay beats us over the head with every plot development.

The actors, accordingly, flounder. Rush is as good a character actor as you’ll find these days, and he works a small miracle breathing life into Hans. Watson singularly fails to animate Rosa, and with their tender years the two child leads, Nélisse, and Rudi (the exceedingly Aryan-looking Nico Liersch) have no chance. Nélisse is an engaging personality, and may go far, but at 11 she was a few years young for this to generate the sort of vertiginous pubescent tension of Lore: Hannelore (15, but played by 18 year-old Saskia Rosendahl) is truculent, nuanced, vulnerable and organic. Liesl is (by necessity) wide-eyed and saccharine, though she does give one of her classmates a good kicking early on.

(Contains spoilers)

Thereafter the screenplay pulls punches it should have thrown heartily: despite being threatened, Liesl’s basement secret is never discovered. Nor is her book-thievery. Max is not captured. Despite being selected and threatening to run away, Rudy never gets sent to military training, and while Hans does get conscripted, before long he’s home again nursing nothing more than a limp and percussion deafness in one ear. A book burning is portrayed rather like a glum Guy Fawkes’ night. Even Kristallnacht is sanitised. Max reaches death’s door from fever a couple of times but, after some mawkish scenes, is turned away each time.

(End of spoilers).

Thus the long middle of the film stumbles around like a blind man in a dark room who keeps walking into cupboards. Eventually he finds his way out, courtesy of a ten-ton weight unprompted by any of the dramatic devices or character arcs that have been carefully established, but by this stage – over two hours in – this reviewer's patience had long since been exhausted.

Olly Buxton


Bring Me the Head of the Machine Gun Woman [Blu-ray]
Bring Me the Head of the Machine Gun Woman [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Fernanda Urrejola
5 used & new from $23.45

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A book you may judge by its cover, January 21, 2014
If the title doesn't quite do the trick, the cover of the DVD should tell you all you need to know when figuring out whether Ernesto Diaz Espinoza's new film Bring Me the Head of the Machine Gun Woman is for you.

It's a wantonly corney, sub-Rodriguez affair that transposes 70s blaxploitation to modern day Chile and plonks a Grand Theft Auto vibe on top of it - a number of the scenes track cars through traffic from behind the rear window.

You hear a lot of complaints that modern action films ever more closely resemble video games: this one goes out of its way to - but the superimposition of the GTA look on a dented toyota stuck in Satiago rush hour traffic is kind of the point - in any case it's an amusing conceit.

Matias Oviedo has fun as geeky DJ thrust reluctantly in between dastardly contract-killing mobster Che Longana (Jorge Alis) (amusingly subtitled as "Che Sausage") and his uzi toting ex-moll (Fernanda Urrejola), who signs off her texts "MGW". Now that's class. Actually - given that "Machine Gun Woman", in Spanish, is Mujer Metralleta, that's some sort of weird continuity prolapse - but it's cool all the same.

Urrejola is predictably magnetic in the role - with a body and clobber like that, it'd be hard not to be - and while Bring Me The Head of the Machine Gun Woman isn't quite as funny as by rights it ought to be, and the editing is a bit rough in places, the appropriately pulsating cheese of Rocco's soundtrack keeps everything well oiled and moving along: at 75 minutes there's certainly no chance to get bored.

Good stuff.

Olly Buxton


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Offered by Brand New Rarities
Price: $26.97
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34 of 53 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Fine moments; dreadful quarter-hours, December 16, 2013
*** Contains Spoilers ***

Rossini is supposed to have said of Wagner that he had some wonderful moments, but dreadful quarter-hours. You might say the same thing of Peter Jackson: there is something Bayreuthian about the excess of everything in his Hobbit saga. Still, he seems to have retained the confidence of the reviewing community: I wonder whether it will last another instalment.

In the months before Ray Harryhausen’s recent passing, giants of cinema from James Cameron to Nick Park, notably including Peter Jackson, queued to salute the stop-motion king. It was Harryhausen who fired the imaginations of these young auteurs as they watched raging plasticene dinosaurs and rickety skeleton warriors duke it out with Sinbad, Jason, Raquel Welch and others across countless other corny heroic fantasies a now bygone era.

Harryhausen was undoubtedly a matinee genius but the films he worked on were, in their day, technological more than cinematic achievements. (Sample quote, from Seventh Voyage of Sinbad: “Classic Harryhausen. May not be heavy on plot, but who cares?”)

George Lucas, a fellow Harryhausen devotee, never pretended his Star Wars franchise was anything other than straight-up homage to the comic book serials and B-grade melodramas of his youth. But Peter Jackson, for all his due deference, is supposed to have aspired to greater things. With the second instalment of his interminable Hobbit saga we now know this not to be the case: it is pure, cornball Harryhausen for the 21st century, Pentium processors replacing plastic stegosauruses but otherwise every bit as cheesy and, in the leaden sequences between cave-girl-fancying monster tortoises, just as tedious anything from One Million Years BC.

No doubt bored of reverend Tolkien scholarship, Jackson has started making stuff up and has oriented all drama around what his inner Harryhausen likes best: scowling orcs, growling wargs, rutting beasts, fruity elves and improbable hand-to-hand combat between the lot of them.

As far as Tolkien was concerned there were hardly any orcs, no Sauron, few Elves and no Legolas in the Hobbit. However pleasing Evangeline Lilly’s elven features may be, Tauriel doesn’t even feature in the appendices, and she certainly didn’t flirt with any dwarves. Why Jackson felt the need to insert dreadful quarter-hours of these creatures hacking each other to bits is difficult to fathom. There are some inventive kills, but none of the action bears at all on the plot. But at least the orcs and fairies do dispose of one other: no-one can lay a finger on the dwarves, and good old Dildo lives a charmed life throughout.

Countless other secondary characters buzz the screenplay like so many horseflies. They too could also have used a morgul blade to the chops: Stephen Fry’s walk-on is surplus to requirements, as is Legolas’, and a shape-shifting bear man, some well-rendered but time-wasting spiders, a new orc 2.I.C. and the rabbit-wizard from the first instalment (this time minus his bunny sled) do nothing but slow the progress of our dogged little dwarves.

Finally they do reach their Lonely Mountain (sorry if this gives the game away) only to find a monologuing dragon who won’t shut up for 45 minutes and who, while anticipating their every move, somehow cannot so much as singe a ginger beard. He lies on a treasure of coins and valuables so large that he could, were he properly advised, defeat the dwarves, Shire People, Lake People, Orcs, Elves, Rohirrin and probably even Sauron himself simply by dumping his hoard of currency outside the mountain. There’s not a dark force on Earth to rival the awesome power of hyperinflation.

Meantime we wonder whether we haven’t been sold the most outrageous pup. The result of our three hours’ toil is a series of scoreless draws: Dragon versus Dwarves; Orcs versus Elves; Elves versus Dwarves; Lake People versus Dwarves; Dwarves versus Dragon; Dragon versus Hobbit; Boatman versus Lake People; Dragon versus Boatman; Necromancer versus Wizard; and Bear-shape-shifter against himself. Jackson apologists will say it is all yet to kick off but, by gum, we shouldn’t have had to wait this long for some resolution. Nine hours is not three but SIX standard-length feature films.

One ruthlessly edited feature film ought to have done the job, even if it meant Orlando Bloom and Stephen Fry missing a trip to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Tchaikovsky said of Gotterdammerung that, after its last notes rang, he felt as though he had been let out of prison. As the feeling seeps back into your buttocks and you join the snaking queue for the loo at your local theatre, you may well know how he felt.

Olly Buxton
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