19 August 2013

The Great Big Catch-Up

Where the hell have I been? Isn't it just like me to fuck off in this dark time of The Smurfs 2, RED 2 and Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters? For those of you who've missed my regular postings over the last couple of weeks, you have my apologies- I've just started a new job, and so I've entered that familiar phase of real life overtaking cinema. Well, overtaking my writing about cinema anyway.

I haven't seen any of those aforementioned films, (yet) but I have seen Alan Partridge: Alpha PapaBlancanievesThe Conjuring and The Heat, and it seems like we could feasibly catch up on all of those films in fairly short order. It's time for another big catch-up post, folks, just in case you were on tenterhooks about what I thought of them, or whether they're worth your time.

Let's start with the "meh" and get better. The Heat is the latest feature from Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, and the hoo-ha prior to its release was matched only by the colossal harrumph with which it was received. The story is standard buddy-cop fodder- SHE'S a socially awkward, stick-in-the-mud federal agent, and SHE'S a stubborn, street-smart beat cop, and THEY have to bring down a drug kingpin known only as Larkin, while learning some stuff about themselves, and about friendship, along the way.

Disappointingly, there's nothing in The Heat that's as funny or cool as this poster would suggest, but that's not to say that it's a total loss, either. In the lead roles, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy are individually quite good. Bullock is a veteran rom-com star, and has mastered the comedy pratfall by this point- it's also gratifying to see that she gets by without replicating her awkward federal agent character from the Miss Congeniality movies. McCarthy's shtick seems just as established, in a much shorter career, but she's one of the better improv-ers working in cinema and so she's never short of a one-liner, or an abrasive putdown.

On the other hand, the two have surprisingly little chemistry together, and that's where the film falls apart from time to time. To look at other post-modern funny cop movie duos- like Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street, or Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in Hot Fuzz- you realise that the missing spark seems like a pretty massive oversight. Furthermore, that these buddy cops are women is a fact that Feig keeps clumsily acknowledging, writing off some characters as misogynists, and others as working women- it's all pretty broad, and actually serves to distance the audience from the characters and the story.

Bridesmaids did the same thing with its infamous gross-out scene, but in fairness, I enjoyed The Heat a little better. It's roughly the same length as the over-long Bridesmaids, but it doesn't actually feel like it. There are some solid action beats and one or two big laughs, (there's a scene with an emergency tracheotomy that demonstrates the film's ability to go disgusting and funny by crossing the line twice) but The Heat feels like it's retreading old ground without bringing anything new to the table.

The Heat is still playing in cinemas nationwide.

Elsewhere, James Wan has been consolidating his climb to the top of the horror genre, which began with Insidious in 2011, and should continue with the sequel to that film, when it hits cinemas next month. In between, he's made The Conjuring, which has met with huge success from opening at the arse-end of blockbuster fatigue, and by being considerably less noisy than either the season's tentpole pictures or its fellows in the haunted house sub-genre.

The film is loosely based on the case that married paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren called their most disturbing investigation- in 1971, the Perron family is terrorised by a demonic presence in their new house on Rhode Island. If it sounds like standard genre stuff, it's not far off. But it's the execution that sets this apart from dozens of other, similar films in the last ten years. Wan isn't content to simply throw a sound effect at you, amplified through a cinema sound system- his scares are just a tiny bit more psychological.

Even when they're visceral scares, it's not the sudden appearance of a gribbly that gets you- it's a camera movement that reveals how they were already there for the whole of the scene up to that point. Wan doesn't hold with the "quiet, quiet, BOO!" cycle that perpetuates itself through jumpy horror movies, and uses the "based on a true story" tag to ground the action, rather than trying to take refuge in that credibility. It's far from original, and certain beats seem reminiscent of those in other recent horror films, but it's still a cut above the usual.

Between its use of practical effects and its period setting, The Conjuring plays out very much like a 1970s TV movie, in a good way. Wan brings his mischievous approach and his usual good eye for casting to bear upon a plot that could so easily have been squandered- 2009's The Haunting In Connecticut is another film that was based on a Warren case, and I guarantee that you'd forgotten that film existed until I just mentioned it. This one lingers in the mind a little longer than your journey home from the cinema, and Wan's affinity for the genre makes it all the more puzzling that the heir apparent to the throne of horror cinema will be moving on to direct next summer's Fast & Furious 7.

The Conjuring is still playing in cinemas nationwide.

Also serving as a welcome antidote to the smashy-boom-boom of the summer's action blockbusters is Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, a comedy movie that doubles as a shamelessly unambitious siege movie, but gets away with it by virtue of being very, very funny. As seen in the most recent Partridge outing, Mid-Morning Matters, Alan is now presenting a show on North Norfolk Digital radio. In short order, the station is taken over twice- firstly by new corporate owners, who plan to overhaul its image and sack some of the talent, and secondly by Pat Farrell, a late-night DJ who comes back with a shotgun after being laid off.

Alan winds up as the chief negotiator in the hostage situation that follows- a bigger story than we've ever seen him undertake, but one which keeps him firmly in his own wheelhouse. In The Loop's Armando Iannucci is amongst the writers, and there's never a sense that anyone wanted to send Alan Partridge abroad for a movie, as other British TV adaptations have tended towards. It's funnier that the crisis comes to him, and in case I need to emphasise it again, this is a very, very funny movie.

Too few modern comedies can really be called "laugh a minute", but this is one of the few that deserves that label. If the film had been chock full of action sequences, perhaps the joke rate wouldn't be so high, and so consistently successful. By making an unambitious, Norfolk-based film, the writers were able to keep rewriting the script to add new lines and jokes throughout the production, making it funnier and funnier, without resorting to hit-and-miss improvisation.

The story holds water too, bolstered in part by an alternately menacing and sympathetic performance from Colm Meaney as Pat, but centred around Steve Coogan, who is just as watchable as ever in the title role. There are also welcome returns for Felicity Montagu as Lynn and Simon Greenall as Michael, the latter of whom is the subject of two of the film's funniest sight gags. It's always tough to review good comedy, and Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa reminds us how precious great comedy at the multiplex really is. Utterly hilarious and endlessly quotable, this is, as Shakin' Stevens might have said, "lovely stuff."

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is still playing in cinemas nationwide.

Lastly, if you're fed up of gritty reboots of fairytale movies, or just fantasy reboots in general, Blancanieves (which translates as Snow White) shows the Hollywood studios how it's done, with a mix of delightful innovation and sadistic whimsy. Perhaps boosted into international distribution by the Oscar-winning success of The Artist, this is a Spanish-produced silent movie re-telling of the Grimm fairytale, in which the daughter of a disabled bullfighter is forced to run away from her wicked stepmother, and finds refuge with a troop of diminutive matadors.

There's a lot to recommend this one, even outside of the novelty of seeing a modern silent movie. Macarena García makes a likeable lead- not a princess, but a girl who deserved better than the hand she's dealt in life. But sometimes, she's in danger of being blown off-screen by Maribel Verdú, the most sinister big-screen iteration of the tale's wicked witch since Disney's. She's vain, dastardly and utterly brilliant in the role of a nurse who wins the heart of an injured bullfighter and then spends the rest of her life mistreating him, his practically orphaned daughter, and the daughter's pet chicken. That may sound odd, but you will weep for the pet chicken.

It's even less of a straight adaptation of Snow White than it sounds, with part of the fun coming from spotting the contemporaneous versions of devices from the source material- for instane, the social-climbing Encarna does an interview for a magazine, which serves as her magic mirror when she finds that the front cover has been usurped by a stepdaughter she thought dead. But the film is far darker than any of the gloomier Hollywood reboots, without taking itself quite so seriously.

Blancanieves is cheekier and kinkier than any big-budget Snow White film of recent years, and yet it carries more gravitas at the same time. It's a joyful film to watch, with a pitch-black sense of humour that alternately disturbs and delights. It's one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year so far, worth far more than its central silent movie gimmick, and yet its inventiveness is elevated by that medium at the same time- a good old-fashioned dark fairytale that's worth seeking out.

Blancanieves is still showing in selected cinemas nationwide, and is also available as a Special Edition DVD.

There's more to come this week, including full-strength reviews of The Lone Ranger and Kick-Ass 2- in the meantime, why not leave a comment about any of these films?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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