Monday, March 9, 2015

Holy help: what Octavia Spencer can learn from other movie Gods

This weekend saw the news that Oscar winner Octavia Spencer will be taking on one of the most powerful roles in Hollywood: God. The star of The Help has been attached to the adaptation of a best-selling Christian thriller called The Shack, about a man who receives a note from God concerning his missing daughter.
It’s a role that Spencer is already “daunted” by. The actress, next to be seen in this month’s dystopian sequel Insurgent, says she has “huge shoes to fill” and finds the opportunity “overwhelming”.
Physical godly manifestations have been thin on the ground in recent years, despite a huge uplift in the number of faith-based movies, such as Heaven Is for Real and Son of God, and even Ridley Scott’s big-budget epic Exodus: Gods and Kings used the voice of an 11-year-old boy rather than an on-screen actor.
Given the fervent fanbase for the book (it’s sold over 18 million copies worldwide) and the actors who have already inhabited the role (Morgan Freeman, John Huston, erm,, she has reason to be nervous. But what can she learn from other movie portrayals of God?

The wisdom of Morgan Freeman

An almighty act to follow
An almighty act to follow
In Bruce Almighty, and less memorably Evan Almighty, Morgan Freeman’s take on the omnipotent creator was as Morgan Freeman-y as you’d expect, and for all the very best reasons. His commanding yet soothing voice and bottomless pot of charisma served the part well, and he was easily the best part of two comedies that deserve to be remembered for approximately nothing else. But while his performance might have gone down well with the masses, some Christians were less impressed, thanks to the film’s “unscrubbed framework” and “questionable content”. This should serve as a reminder for Spencer not to make any chocolate pies during production.

The helpfulness of Steve Coogan

Religious ecstasy
Religious ecstasy
While the appearance of God in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People might be another displeasing portrayal for many Christians, things could have been a lot worse, given what happens in the rest of the film. Steve Coogan takes on dual roles in the drug-fuelled Madchester biopic as Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson and God, seen by Wilson on a rooftop after a particularly strong joint. He offers a stream of pragmatic business advice and musical opinion, including praise for Shaun Ryder and the Smiths. Given the tortured protagonist of Octavia Spencer’s upcoming thriller, let’s hope she can provide some equally useful input, especially if it involves her calling Mick Hucknall’s music “rubbish” all over again.

The subtlety of Alanis Morissette

She's got the whole world in her pocket.
She’s got the whole world in her pocket. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Channel Four Films
When news hit that Kevin Smith’s Dogma would feature sweary female rocker Alanis Morissette in the role of God, there was an expectation, and an associated fear from Catholic groups, that the casting would result in offence. But the small role was surprisingly dialogue- and angst-free, and Morissette, after understandably killing Ben Affleck’s fallen angel, comes off as actually pretty charming. The decision to lose the booming voice so often seen in films such as The Ten Commandments made for a refreshing change, and although The Shack is mainly focused on the conversations with God, Spencer would be wise to avoid loud histrionics. Plus it never hurts to feature an exploding head.

The kindness of George Burns

Burns in heaven
Burns in heaven. Photograph: The Ronald Grant Archive
At the age of 80, George Burns was an unlikely choice to play the almighty in the comedy Oh God! but his portrayal of God as a sweet-natured grandparent was a big success. It played into what people wanted to see – benevolent rather than destructive – and the film was followed by two sequels and rumours of a remake, with both Betty White and Ellen Degeneres attached. While a compassionate grandmother might be a bit more of a stretch, Spencer could easily pull off a loving aunt.

The otherworldliness of Val Kilmer

Talk like an Egyptian.
Talk like an Egyptian
While last year’s underwhelming epic Exodus: Gods and Kings might have given us a glossy three-dimensional take on the classic story, the tale had already been told with far more skill on a much smaller budget in 1998’s animated musical The Prince of Egypt. In the burning bush scene, the voice of God appears to Moses as a more ethereal version of his own voice, both originating from Val Kilmer. It’s a smart idea, as it helps to make the advice seem like it comes from Moses’s conscience. Kilmer manages to be commanding and godly yet still mysterious. Spencer’s soothing voice could suit this style rather well, although a lack of musical numbers would be a most welcome diversion.

So in summary...

Thou shalt be wise like Morgan Freeman
Thou shalt not indulge in potty humour
Thou shalt provide helpful advice about how terrible Mick Hucknall’s music is
Thou shalt not be shy about exploding at least one head
Thou shalt act like a kind, older relative
Thou shalt not allow any musical numbers involving Mariah Carey

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Astro Boy film in the works for makers of The Lego Movie

Astro Boy is about to be given a reboot by Australian animation studio Animal Logic.
The Australian animation studio Animal Logic is set to make a live-action superhero film, based on the popular manga character Astro Boy. The makers of past animated hits The Lego Movie and Happy Feet, have signed a deal with Japan’s Tezuka Productions.
Chief executive Zareh Nalbandian said the plan was to create a “Marvel-style” franchise that would be “at the very convergence of live-action, animation and visual effects”, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
“There are very few characters in the entertainment world like Astro Boy that haven’t already been brought to the big screen in a live-action movie,” said Nalbandian.
Authored and illustrated by Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy was originally titled Mighty Atom, and was a popular Japanese manga series in the 1950s and 60s. The character found new life in the following decades as an animated television show.

The series is based on a robot boy modelled after the late son of his inventor Doctor Tenma, who passed away in a car accident. Astro Boy quickly proves to have special powers and skills that he uses to fight crime and injustice, often defending humans from other more maniacal robots.
A 2009 film adaption of the character was co-produced by American, Hong Kong and Chinese film companies. Called Astro Boy, it had a US$65m budget, featured the voices of Freddie Highmore and Kristen Bell, but outside of China it did not fare well at the global box office.
Animal Logic is one of the world’s busiest animation and visual effects studios having won several awards for its work in The Lego Movie. Fans have suggested it was snubbed by the Oscars when the film failed to receive an Academy award nomination for best movie.
Founded by Nalbandian and Chris Godfrey in 1991, the company’s film credits include the Matrix series and, most recently, The Great Gatsby, Unbroken, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Rover.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Testament of Youth: battles of Brittain make for moving biopic

Testament of Youth (2014)
Director: James Kent
Entertainment grade: B
History grade: C-
Vera Brittain’s memoir of her experiences and losses in the first world war was published in 1933 as Testament of Youth. It became an instant bestseller and remains a classic.


Before the war, Vera’s main obstacles are parents and boredom. She is played brilliantly by the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair). Her parents don’t like the idea of her going to university: they fear that if she becomes a bluestocking she will never find a husband. This is more or less accurate. Brittain was bored out of her mind during her girlhood in the beautiful but snobbish and conservative environs of Buxton. “Even at 18, a mentally voracious young woman cannot live entirely upon scenery,” she wrote, adding that she would have been in danger of “dying of spontaneous combustion” had she not had her diary to write and an interesting curate in a nearby village. The film’s screenplay might be accused of losing a little of Brittain’s wit in its translation from page to screen, but it captures her courage and sharpness well enough.
Testament of Youth
‘A mentally voracious young woman cannot live entirely upon scenery’ … Testament of Youth. Photograph: Allstar/BBC Films


Just as Vera is shouting at her father (Dominic West) that she doesn’t want a husband, in walks hunky young Roland Leighton (Kit Harington). “Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron. All these romantics aren’t good for you, you know,” he says, rather patronisingly, as he helps her collect the books she has hurled out of a window in a fit of teenage angst. The meeting seems contrived, and it is – the two really met at dinner, according to Brittain’s memoir, and there was no book-throwing rage or patronising putdown. Both Vera and Roland are due to go to Oxford, until Roland announces – when they meet on the station platform to go up together – that he’s joining the army instead. The film has, understandably, dramatised this moment, which in real life was communicated by letter. “I don’t think in the circumstances I could easily bring myself to endure a secluded life of scholastic vegetation,” the real Roland Leighton wrote. “I feel that I am meant to take an active part in this war.”
Alicia Vikander with Kit Harington in Testament of Youth
‘All these romantics aren’t good for you, you know’ … Kit Harington as Roland Leighton with Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain

More romance

The film’s recreation of Roland and Vera’s courtship is sweetly done, and the scene in which he leaves for the war – with a train full of desperate, heartbroken women saying goodbye to the men they love – is extremely moving. It is fictionalised, though. “We never kissed and never said a word,” wrote the real Brittain of seeing Leighton off for France.


Vera cannot live a life of scholastic vegetation either, and leaves Oxford to become a nurse. Christmas approaches, and Roland gets leave to come home and marry her. Vera’s parents are with her at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, and she is already wearing a white suit – “Just half an hour to go!” Then a telephone call comes through. She thinks it must be Roland, but it is his sobbing mother (Anna Chancellor), with the news that he is dead. In reality, there was no wedding scheduled – just a small reunion. The call from Roland’s mother came on the morning of 27 December 1915, as Vera was getting up.


The film misses out the real Brittain’s period of nursing in Malta, skipping to 1917 when she travelled to France to work in a field hospital. She is put to work nursing German prisoners of war. One day, a huge number of British casualties come in. As she walks out of the hospital hut, the camera pulls back to show rows of stretchered men laid out on the ground. It pulls back and back, showing more and more as Vera picks her way between them. This isn’t in Brittain’s book, though film buffs will recognise the shot from the famous moment when Scarlett O’Hara walks through lines of injured soldiers in Gone With the Wind. Told that her brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), is among the wounded, she searches frantically for him among the bodies. She finds him, and carefully nurses him back to health. This is fictional. The real Edward Brittain was not wounded in France, nor was he nursed by his sister.
Alicia Vikander in Testament of Youth.
Testament of Youth charts the origins of Brittain’s pacifism Photograph: Allstar/BBC Films


A fine and moving film, if heavy-handed in places. The screen version of Testament of Youth gilds the lily of Vera Brittain’s memoir – though fans of the book may well feel it didn’t need so much extra adornment.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

George Lucas: I haven't seen Force Awakens trailer

The teaser video for JJ Abrams’ forthcoming Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is set to be the most-viewed trailer of all time, but George Lucas hasn’t seen it
from the upcoming film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," expected in theaters on Dec. 18, 2015from the upcoming film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," expected in theaters on Dec. 18, 2015
Lightsabers ain’t what they used to be … JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Photograph: AP/LucasFilm/Disney

It is on course to be the most-viewed trailer of all time, with an estimated 52m views in its first four days online. But the man who created the long-running Star Wars space saga, George Lucas, has not yet taken the time to view the teaser for new entry The Force Awakens, reports
Lucas told the site he would wait until JJ Abrams’ film hits cinemas. The film-maker, who sold all Star Wars rights to Disney in a $4.05bn deal in October 2012, said he was “not really” curious about the new movie.
“I don’t know anything about it. I haven’t seen it yet,” quoted Lucas saying. Asked why, he replied: “Because it’s not in the movie theatre. I like going to the movies and watching the whole thing there. I plan to see it when it’s released.”
The internet has not been kind to Lucas since the release of the trailer on 28 November. Wags immediately reimagined the teaser with incongruous CGI aliens, in a reference to the remastered Special Edition versions of the original Star Wars trilogy.
One Funny or Die video even speculated over the film-maker’s miserable reaction to Abrams’ take on his creation. In the spoof commentary, Lucas and the “force ghost” of Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker lament the addition of a new, three-pronged lightsaber and complain about the absence of Jar Jar Binks’ race, the Gungans, in the teaser.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Big Eyes review – Tim Burton’s art fraud film is a slow-burn study of abuse

Amy Adams as Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes.
But is it kitsch? … Amy Adams as Margaret Keane in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes.
The irony of Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s film about the authorial stamp on a work of art, is that it is nearly bereft of what makes Burton’s work so recognisable. The deeper implications of this are a matter for Burton and his shrink, but for us in the audience it’s a welcome recharge from a man whose last picture, Frankenweenie, was merely a longer version of one of his earlier projects.
Big Eyes reteams Burton with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who collaborated on the (dare I use the M-word?) masterpiece Ed Wood. Both films are about a misunderstood artist, but the similarities end there. The new film tells the strange but true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a divorcee who arrives with her young daughter in San Francisco in the late 1950s. She’s a bit of a mystery – women simply didn’t just up and leave their husbands back then – but she takes great pride in her paintings. Her work, at first mostly portraits of her daughter, takes the cute but sad form of waif-like children with dark, enormous eyes.
Big Eyes film still
Margaret finds a stable provider in Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a real-estate man and “Sunday painter” of dull street scenes. What he lacks in artistic spark he more than makes up for in loquaciousness and hucksterism. He can’t get his or Margaret’s work exhibited in art galleries, so he works out a deal to get the paintings shown in the Hungry I jazz club. When Walter argues with the club owner (Jon Polito), he is fortunate enough to do so while the press is watching. Amid the confusion, the paintings start selling and the next thing you know, Walter is taking credit for Margaret’s work.
They don’t just sell a few portraits of “big-eyed waifs”; the paintings become a national sensation. Despite the work being derided by serious art critics as kitsch, Walter, with the aid of a columnist pal (Danny Huston), gets it seen and admired by movie stars. He goes on television. The masses who can’t afford a painting are soon buying cheaply produced posters. Even Andy Warhol approves. Meanwhile, trapped in a darkened studio in their new googie-style mansion, Margaret slaves away creating more “Keanes”.
The slow burn of Big Eyes is watching Margaret find the courage to confront her husband, resulting in a fascinating, and funny, trial. Though it is set 50 years ago, Big Eyes is eerily a film of the moment. As we hear more testimonials from the victims of Bill Cosby – himself a figure of Americana bordering on kitsch – there are many who still refuse to take a woman’s allegations at face value. CNN talking head Don Lemon’s ludicrous line of questioning to Joan Tarshis lays bare the misunderstanding some people still have about abuses of power. Margaret has her confidence and agency destroyed slowly and methodically. Walter can stumble into his scheme, knowing that he’ll be able to rely on the “woman’s place” argument when he needs reinforcement from a patriarchal system. (A visit to a Roman Catholic confessional in which the priest tells Margaret to just do as she’s told is among the more infuriating moments in the film.)
Big Eyes film still
The setting and the politics of the era are what keeps Big Eyes intriguing, but much like the waif paintings themselves, the script isn’t exactly subtle. There are many scenes in which we don’t so much get an insight into a character’s thought processes through some deft observation, we get it because the characters stand in a corridor and shout their inner conflicts at one another. Shading from supporting players, even entertaining ones such as the hipster gallerist (Jason Schwartzman) or the snobby New York Times art critic (Terence Stamp), are really there to bark a point of view, and are not gracefully threaded into the drama.
Tim Burton’s usual visual language peeks through sparingly. There’s that fabulous house and then there are the paintings themselves, which harmonise nicely with Burton’s established, playfully macabre iconography. Part of the film’s problem, though, is that it’s hard to know if we should be celebrating or laughing at Margaret’s work. Certainly we care for Margaret and the way Walter has her trapped, but her character comes across as a cypher representing a great number of issues without being a real individual. This movie wants to be an oil painting, but ends up being more of a mass-produced, though good-quality print.
  • Big Eyes is released in the US on Christmas Day, in the UK on Boxing Day and 19 February in Australia