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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Retrospective - 'The Thick Of It / In The Loop' (2005-2010)

Armando Iannucci is quite possibly, Britains funniest man. Having created, written and directed some of the greatest shows on TV, not just in the UK, but in the entire history of the medium, he is a legend. He is responsible for 'The Day Today' (along with the genius of Chris Morris) and the possibly greatest single character ever created, 'Alan Partridge'. Those two shows have influenced almost every single comedy show on British TV since and the fact that he is still doing it right up to this day with 'The Thick Of It', shows his place in comedy history is assured. Yes, as ridiculously exaggerated as this fawning over is, just watch one (if not all) of these shows, and try and tell me different. As a political satirist as seen in 'The Day Today' and 'The Thick Of It', he is second to none. 'The Day Today' is over 16 years old, and yet is still incredibly relevant and original. Political satire by its definition should be current and should aim to puncture the pulse of politics right now if it wants to make an impression. In 1994, 'The Day Today' did this sure, but the fact you can still see it relating back to current news to this very day, shows its legacy. A hilarious lampoon of news programmes, its intention was to show how silly they look by attempting to heighten its own news articles to an almost ridiculous level of sensationalism in order to reflect it back to those original shows; are they that different? Its utter absurdity and surreal vignettes assured its place in classic comedy and it gave birth to the careers of some great British talent. Alan Partridge is known more widely as the career defining moment for both Iannucci and co-writer/creator, Steve Coogan. His influence is widely known and does not need to be trumpeted here, but for anyone who has not before familiarized themselves with Ianucci's work, stop reading and watch all of it now. Yes, thats right, all of it, it really is that essential. It also will bring you up to date for 'The Thick Of It' and how it may possibly, surpass Iannuccis prior achievements.

I am ashamed to say, I did not catch the original airing of the show in 2005, but rather its transition to the big screen last year in the shape of 'In The Loop'. As a fan of not only Iannucci, but head writer Jesse Armstrong (one half of the writing team from Peep Show), I had heard overwhelmingly positive reviews for it. I had heard it was based on a Television Show, but as it did not tie into the plot of that ('In The Loop' is completely stand alone) I eagerly checked it out. The film did not disappoint. It was easily one of the best films of last year and was rewarded for its efforts with an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay last March. For the film, Iannucci widened his scope to include not only British Politicians, but Americans too. And surprise, surprise, we find that the Americans are as prone to disaster as the British are. The film is a completely fictionalized account of the run up to the US invasion of Iraq although, and this may sound odd, but plot isn't that important. It is there and always driving the action yes, but it is not what you take from the film. What you take from the film is the raw attention to detail and stunning observations on the minutiae of political life. As it has been said before elsewhere, this is complete opposite to the glamour and romanticism of politics that 'The West Wing' offered. Those in charge of running the Country are small but pithy people who would stab their best friend in the back as to further their own political careers. The film is, as you may not have noticed by anything I have stated thus far, one of the funniest films you may ever see. Its broad and all encompassing dialogue is some of the most fluidly written you may ever hear and rolls along at such a vitriolic pace, you barely have time to regather the air in your lungs, let alone take all of its shock/grandiose poetry in at once. It initially jars the senses as the film begins as it means to go on; in complete and utter confusion and mayhem, but once you get a hold on it, it becomes quite a pleasure for your ears to hear something so fine tuned and effortlessly drawn from its cast, more of which I will get to momentarily. The film is a instant classic and one that should be watched straight away if not done so already.

The origins of the film lie in the bind Iannucci found himself in when lead actor of the show, Chris Langham was arrested for possessing child pornography in 2007. Quite shocking considering the top class comedy work Langham had been delivering for years. Here it seemed he was finally getting the success he was long overdue as the bungling and almost completely incompetant MP, Hugh Abbot. He was fantastic in his part however with his arrest, Iannucci found himself in trouble with where to take the show. Abbot's abrupt absence in the two Christmas Specials was explained, yet it was obvious a comic foil was necessary to continue in order for the show to work. Knowing he had a good thing, Iannucci decided to keep each character and transport then to a feature length version and name them all differently, except choosing to replace Langham with Tom Hollander as the inept MP. It is a testament to both mens performances and high class of writing involved, that this is not at once jarring. So the film is the perfect gateway into the show, despite it being made right in the middle of its (so far) three season run. With the film acting as the gateway, you are primed and ready for the series.

'The Thick Of It' could easily be better than the film and that is saying something. I have declined from mentioning characters up to this point as that is what propels everything, far more so than the plot. Its wryly observed, fly on the wall look is a colorful, cacophony of useless and very selfish twits. No one is very likable. All of them you love. It makes no apologies for its lack of emotionality. Everything in this world is cold and hard and if you can't stand it, then get out of it. So in no particular order we have Olly, played by Chris Addison, a 'morally bankrupt' special adviser to the MP. He is very shallow and shows no hesitation in manipulating people for what he wants. Glenn played by James Smith, a Senior Adviser to the Minister. He is usually quite good at his job, but his age is the brunt of many jokes from others and is not taken as seriously as he possibly should be. From the most recent season, Chris Langhams absence was explained in a reshuffle and is now replaced by the very inexperienced Nicola Murray played by the excellent Rebecca Front, previous callaborator with Iannucci on the 'The Day Today'. As she is completely new to her job, her constant strain to keep up with everything is one of the things that land her in hot water throughout the season, although she wisely does not try and be a 'Hugh Abbot Mk 2' for season 3. And then we have Malcolm Tucker. A simply stunning Peter Capaldi, he is the shows undeniable drawing point for many. He is the dreaded Director of Communications for the Government. He is essentially a spin doctor for the Prime Minister and serves as his man on the field. He is a ready made classic creation and Capaldi gives him everything he's got. With every filthy obscenity and threat spat out of his mouth, I defy you to not burst your rib cage laughing. No one is safe from his tyrannical reign and everyone lies terrified in his shadow. He is one of the funniest characters ever created on Television.

The cast are amongst the best around. All of the show is written excellently, yet were it not for the entire cast and supporting players, it would not be what it is. Indeed, the cast even get a writing credit, due to their improvisations on set, which surely must almost be as crucial to its off the cuff spontaneity, as its carefully planned writing is. It is all filmed as very realistically. Cameras shake and struggle to catch up with the mayhem going on all around the hapless characters. Its pseudo-documentary style is completely in keeping to its unrestrained and impulsive themes and characters. You simply are moving along the whole time, with nary a second to take it all in, let alone catch your breath for laughing. This is 'classic line, after classic line' and the great cast give it everything they have got. Any show so fouled mouthed as to feature a 'swearing supervisor' must be given the applause it deserves. The rhythm and efficiancy with which each character delivers said expletive is among the most original (and shocking) language used anywhere in the history of the medium.

So yes, I am slightly too enthusiastic and appreciative about this series, but it really should be seen by all.It may be a political satire, but its characters and situations are so ruthlessly hilarious and endearing that despite the ugliness of most of their words and actions, we can't help but fall in love with them all. It is a show that exist with a rare few far above its source material in satire and comedy, and so elegantly performed and written it will surely be remembered for many years to come as another classic hit for Iannucci. Despite its satire trappings, it carries basic human nature and wry observations on humans that should see it in almost 20 years from now, much like 'The Day Today' being as relevant as ever. No matter what the future holds for us, politicians will always be the same shits they always were.

'The Thick Of It' Verdict: 91%
'In The Loop' Verdict: 85%
Iannucci takes the best of both 'The Day Today' and 'Alan Partridge' and delivers another hilarious subversive and foul mouthed observation of politicians. Malcolm Tucker is a hero for the ages and I could fill a whole other blog on the shows many genius and side splittingly hilarious and clever one liners. If you haven't done so already, I urge you to go out and catch up on it before Season 4 begins later in the year.

'The Thick Of It' Trailer:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Matthew Vaughn, welcome to the big time. After two decent attempts and wild genre change in 'Layer Cake' and 'Stardust', he now, with his latest effort finds himself on the speed dial to every studio in Hollywood. Quite simply, this is a film designed to entertain, thrill, and provoke endless censorship debate in modern cinema. This is a film for the times and one that will be surely be remembered in many years to come as a sure sign of the zeitgeist at the early 2010's. And with it, Vaughn has sealed his place in A-List Directors to watch out for. Here he directs with such confidence and flair, you wonder why you haven't noticed it before in his movies. This is down to one major reason I believe. Vaughn funded 'Kick-Ass' independently thus alleviating himself from the constant strain of over bearing studios breathing down his neck. Incidentally, he ended up selling the film back to Universal for more than he initially asked from them to make it in the first place. As a result, he made the film on his terms and on every frame does this show. Where else would you see a foul mouthed 11 year old girl-assassin lay waste to a room full of drug dealers? As is befitting its source material, (the 2008 comic book series written by Mark Miller) the film pulls absolutely no punches. It is quite possibly, the most fun you might have in a darkened room full of strangers this year.

Dave Lizewski is an everyday normal teenager. Painfully normal. His humdrum boring existence (not to mention, a love of all things comic-book related) leads him to wonder why real life people don't don spandex and become vigilantes on the streets in the name of Superheroes everywhere. 'Because they would get their ass kicked', retorts one of his friends. Aside from this being true, this does not sway Dave and soon he is patrolling the streets and attempting to stop muggings and every day street violence in his own, E-Bay bought costume. It turns out Daves friend was right. Dave does certainly get his ass kicked. It's not long however before Dave makes a name for himself online as his Superhero alter ego Kick-Ass. This leads to a few copycat vigilantes in the name of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and his daughter, Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz). The difference here, is that these two are the real deal. They are the closest things to Superheroes the film has, albeit completely bat-shit crazy. While Kick-Ass has his sights on small time gang crime, the other two have their crosshairs set on Gangster Kingpin Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong)and it is in this that Kick-Ass gets involved and way over his head with.

The cast are all uniformly excellent. Without a single false note in it, everyone delivers very memorable work and manages to stand out amongst the mad cap profanity and violence. As the lead protagonist British actor Aaron Johnson handles a very tough job very well. It is in he, that the film must be grounded in order for all the craziness to lead from later. Christopher Mintz-Plasse proves he actually isn't the one note McLovin everyone had him initially pegged for as the (again, useless) Superhero Red Mist. Strong, playing the bad guy is going to get tiring quite soon as he has done it so many times before already, however here he is a very formidable threat to our heroes. And then there is Cage and Moretz, the movies secret weapons. Cage here is having a ball and seems to be having the most fun he's had in years. It is easily the best performance he has given in a very long time. Whether he is taking out an entire warehouse of goons or imitating Adam West (Big Daddy's costume bears a striking resemblance to one caped crusader) Cage excels in all his scenes. It might still be a while for him to crawl his credibility back, but on evidence here, it seems that all is certainly not lost from him. And now for Moretz. The character that will define the film for years and the one in which everyone will be talking about as they exit the cinema; she is a giddy riot. Whether spewing out filthy obscenities or mercilessly and fluidly taking out perps, Moretz proves she is now a name to watch out for. Her headline grabbing turn as Hit-Girl is sure enough going to have newspapers spewing out controversy over the moral deviance Vaughn has created by having a character like this in his film. She kills with no remorse, and is the most exciting thing in the films many excellent set pieces. An empowering female role to be proud of, she beats everyone to a pulp and is the strongest character in the film. She recalls the initial impact of originally seeing both Jodie Foster in 'Taxi Driver' and Natalie Portman in 'Leon' such is her impact. Moretz nails it, being at turns hilarious, threatening and tough while reminding the audience that she is only an 11 year old girl all the time.

With all this madness everywhere, a lesser director might have got lost in the mix. Not so Vaughn. This is a very ballsy movie in quite some time and both Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldsman should be applauded in their adaptation. The film is hilarious. It lampoons comic book movies while simultaneously being one. An off-the-wall 'Watchmen' if you will. It plays completely on its own terms and if you don't want to go along with it, then get out of its way. It is the ultimate fan boy movie writ large. Sure, the script, despite building excellently and being razor sharp does include a few small formulaic details here and there. I say put them aside; the film is there merely to entertain you, and is original in more than enough different ways to keep you watching. When something is so unabashedly crowd pleasing as this, you would be a fool not to go along with it as it breathes new life into the Superhero genre. It is violent and very morally questionable at times, but it's also a 'movie'. Are you really going to take something in which an 11 year old can kick the crap out of men twice her age as serious as that? Make no mistake, while it starts off as proclaiming a need for a Superhero in the 'real world', it is very much set in a 'movies' world. Vaughn as it turns out can have his cake and eat it. A sophisticated and funny satire of the genre yes, but also packed with enough action to keep everyone happy, lest those themes go over some peoples heads. Kudos also to John Murphy, for delivering another nuanced score to go with the picture, and Vaughn himself packing the movie with enough already known pop hits to rattle along to all the carnage. This is the 'Pulp Fiction' of comic book movies. It takes stale conventions and turns them on their heads. It is original when it needs to be, yet is wise enough to play to audience demands for entertainment.

The film is the definition of crowd pleasing. If it is possible, make sure and catch the movie with a group of mates or in a crowded theater to get the most out its charms. Laugh along to the jokes, cheer and whoop the violence (in all its comic, bloody glory) and wince as everybody at some stage gets their ass kicked. Our eponymous hero, lets not forget, is a crap Superhero after all and Vaughn gets great pleasure in repeatedly beating him to a pulp. So throw your morals out the window and go along with the fun this movie has to offer. It isn't going to win any awards, but I have the feeling that this will be remembered very fondly in many years to come. As for Matthew Vaughn, we intriguingly look on to see where he takes us next. After gritty, cockney gangsters, tongue in cheek fantasy and now, morally questionable and gun toting Superheroes, the sky is the limit.

Verdict: 79%

An hilarious script, genuinely exciting action, original characters and lots of violence added together a great movie makes. The true hero here is Vaughn who takes a very combustible concept and makes a classic, knowing comic book movie for the ages.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Date Night

There's a lot to be said for good casting. In many instances you just simply cannot imagine another actor inhabiting a certain part. Sometimes the mere presence of a certain actor is enough to make a film for a particular fan, even if said actor doesn't do very much. And many other times, a good casting decison, can lift a bad film, up to a rather likeable one. Which is what we have here in 'Date Night'. Not to say it is a bad movie, but in the hands of others, we would not nearly be prepared, or as enthusiastic to go where this film takes us. And this is all down to Steve Carell and Tine Fey. It comes as no surprise for anyone who has seen 'The Office' or '30 Rock' that both Carell and Fey are actually funny. As very talented comedic actors, they give the film a sense of charm and warmth, that would severely cripple the film were it missing. Though they are surrounded by some nice cameos here and there (those few surprises shall not be spoiled), which bump up the watchability factor, it's the game leads that inject all the fun into proceedings.

The film centers on Carell and Fey as married couple, The Fosters. They have two loving children and a beautiful house, but it seems the stress and exhaustion of work mixed with raising children has taken the spice out of their relationship. Things have become stale. So the two head into the city one night to perhaps reignite some of that flame. A very exclusive and booked up restaurant leads the two to harmlessly (so they think) adopt the identity of two no-shows to get a table. Unfortunately those two no-shows turn out to be up to no good criminals. What follows is a case of mistaken identity as everything spirals more and more hilariously out of control and the Fosters are left with both the police and the mob hot on their heels. The early scenes are crucial to this films success. You like both Phil and Claire almost instantly. They are very relatable and they show a sense of natural chemistry together. It is because of this that as the film becomes more and more farcical in nature, you stick with it. While there are no big belly laughs from it, it carries more than enough chuckles to keep you engaged. While lines might not as clever or as witty as you might expect, a lot of them would simply have fallen flat without the expert and precision timing of both leads. Yes, they have both been better and funnier elsewhere before, but there is a simple delight in watching two performers, so at ease with one another, effortlessly gleaming comedy from each others performance. Both take and give generously to their partner when they have to, and as a result, both are given plenty of seperate moments to shine.

However, all this can't make it classic comedy. There is simply not enough big laughs along the way. The two bad guys (Common and Jimmi Simspon) seem confused and don't seem to mesh as well with the light hearted tone of the film. Some of the set pieces are fun (the double-car chase) but at the end of the day, can you really buy a surburban couple in their 40's doing all that the Fosters do here? The film is always enjoyable, but unfortunately never rises above that. The two are supported well by Mark Wahlberg as a 'security expert' who just refuses to put a shirt on, and the great William Fichtner (one of those actors that elevates something, by their mere presence as talked about earlier) as a very sleazy D.A. And then there are the cameos....

Director Shawn Levy has worked with some of the best names in comedy from many generations, just due to his work on the two 'Night at the Museum' films. It is a simple and effective tool; by using some big names in some otherwise non existent roles, he can beef up watchability factor for the overall product. However, for someone who has worked with as many as he, while knowing the right comedic actors to use, he can't quite simply grasp how to let them off the hook and do their thing. Maybe this is because his films usually have significant budgets behind them, but it seems that in most of his films, the edge of spontaneity is missing and in a film that by its plot should rely on it, it is noticeable by its absence.

That is all nit picking. You can get a very pleasant evenings entertainment and should not read too deep into the films flaws. It is a feel good 'movie' after all, one that only wants you to escape with it for a few hours and on that, it largely succeeds. Bolstered by its very talented lead performers and you have a sure sign for comedy, but perhaps next time, they should be let off the leesh to reach their full potential.

Verdict: 63%

Carell and Fey both excel as ever, but are held back by a very broad script and somewhat clunky direction. However, a fun and entertaining ride is to be had by those who put flaws aside, and go along with its charm of which it has plenty of in abundance.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Retrospective - 'The King of Kong' 2007

Here is something genuinely original, which proves that sometimes, fact can be much more crazier than fiction. One of the most compelling and hilarious documentaries I have seen in recent memory; this is nigh on unmissable stuff for almost anybody. In fact, many of the films scenarios are almost too perfect. I mean, most Hollywood movies don't have plots or characters as compelling as those seen here. It has everything you could want from a film. The underdog everybody is rooting to come through and win in the end, some hilarious supporting players, a compelling story and a great 'boo-hiss' villain. And it's all real. And it's all about middle aged computer game nerds. And despite what you may be thinking, it really is that exciting.

The documentary centers primarily on the titular 'Donkey Kong', arcade video game from the 80's. Except, and despite it being the 21st Century, many people seem caught in a time loop, forever dedicated to their love of retro gaming. And not only that, but competitive retro gaming. It is too easy to call these people nerds. Gaming is what they live for. They are real people and are presented as such. And it is not just those middle aged, speccy man-boys that feature here. Along the way we see an elderly lady competing in the tournament also suggesting that the audience for these old arcade games, while small, are most definately diverse. So this small group are dedicated to their love and in competing for the highest scores and bragging rights. All this is for their passion, not to win money or accolades. They simply want to be recognised among their peers. These organised tournaments feature referees, rules and the chance for the players to 'perform' as it were, to live audiences. Out of the crowds the film follows 2 men, both in their late 30's/early 40's and both hell bent on claiming the highest Donkey Kong score. And this is where the film comes into its own. The casting. This is down to one person particularly: Billy Mitchell. A cocky, self indulgant, heavily mulleted and unintentionally hilarious human, he is the perfect villain for the film. One look and you're already hissing him and yet you cannot tear you eyes away. He has surrounded himself with sycophants who worship him and the very high scores he set for the game (albeit back in the early 80's). As a result his ego is almost as big as his hair. Watching him smugly tour the gamesfloor with his trophy wife at his side, you want to simultaneously smack and laugh at him. This is in stark contrast to Steve Wiebe, our underdog. While Mitchell has been in the gaming eye for decades now, Wiebe is the new pretender. He is ready made with the audience cheering for him from the start. A beautiful family, recently laid off and not to mention his proficiancy in not only video games, but also various sports and musical instruments, he has our affections instantly. He is simply one of those guys who never got his break in life, despite the fact of just how talented he is. Could defeating Mitchell be that success that has eluded him his whole life? The rivalry and competition follows, as well as all those involved play out the next action packed 80 or so minutes. And did I mention, it is all about video games?!

Director Seth Gordon does an excellent job with the story. As stated earlier, Wiebe and Mitchell are both tailer made protagonists for the film, but the fact that it is supported by those involved with the competition adds to the comedy. Most are against Wiebe, and most try their best to put him off in various and dirty ways. This is despite the fact that Wiebe has to constantly prove himself on live gaming runs, while Mitchell gets to send in dubiously edited footage of himself beating the game to receive all the accolades that should be Wiebes. It is reveting and compelling stuff. Mitchell cuts a ridiculous picture of a person. Director Gordon said the real life man was worse than that depicted in the film. His worst moments it seems where left out in order to maintain the light tone of the picture. As it stands, he is unforgettable. He hypocritically changes various phrases and sayings throughout the film to suit him. That hair, that beard, that tie, his pseudo intellectual musings on winning and what it means to be a winner, they are too good to be true.

Unfortunately, it all may just be too good to be true as it turns out. As entertaining as it all is, I kept on getting the feeling that Gordon leisurely edited his way around the story and certain events. Which upon later research, I found to be actually the case. So, while no one is portrayed innacurately, certain events have been played around with, in order to maintain dramatic effect for the picture. Upon seeing just what was changed and tweaked, I personally believe them to be for the benefit of the film, and as such, do not personally hold it against either the film or Director. Your own opinion may differ if you feel the Director and Editor cheated themselves around the 'Documentary' genre. As it stands, I believe a small does of creative license with certain events can mostly benefit the subject, as long as it does not twist and morph facts. Gordon seems to have omitted certain things here and there, but for me, it serves as no purpose leaving them in, other than taking away tension from proceedings. I might feel different on other cases, but for this, I found the small tweaks to be for the benefit of the film.

Overall, here is an incredibly entertaining portrayal of men who refuse to grow up. Yes the film could be presented on a darker note (the fact that family and friends are ignored when the great Wiebe's 'Kong' obsession takes hold, that the rivalry seems to be dominating both mens lives, the 'real' Mitchell) but really, could you take a film about such a subject matter as that serious? Those featured here are completely unaware of how they appear to people, but their love for gaming shines through it all. The various back stabbings, intense rivalries and dirty mind tricks are all played out in such a ridiculous background, you cannot help but laugh. As a result, you grow attached to these people. You understand their thrill at seeing a Donkey Kong 'kill screen' for the first time, but don't have to nessessarily commend it. It's all they have in life. It is their own personal mark on history. Gordon is very focused with proceedings and with such a story on his hands he turns out a very crowd pleasing tale. This story has laughs, tears, tension, action, romance and is more exciting than most Hollywood Blockbusters. It could be viewed in manner of different ways; a metaphor for the Generation X's inability to grow up, modern America's growing obsession with gaming, a critique of the American Dream or as simply an old fashioned David and Goliath story. Take your pick as all work excellently towards the final product.

Verdict: 81%

Gordon delivers a universal story played out in almost pitch perfect fashion. Minor liberties taken with certain events aside, he provides everything a Documentary should, along with what most Fiction films should too, all undercutted to an excellent retro 80's soundtrack. Seek out this 'King' and enjoy, just don't get any ideas to attempt to beat either Mitchell or Wiebe's scores afterwards....