Saturday, 28 March 2009

British comedians making the big leap: The highs and lows

After the overwhelming success of Gavin and Stacey, James Corden and Matthew Horne could afford to pick and choose any project they wanted, and, like so many other successful comedians before them, they found the film world too tempting to resist. It may well prove to be an ill judged decision with Lesbian Vampire Killers falling foul of the critics and failing to become the monster hit that they hoped for. They're not the first TV comedy act to harbour bit screen ambitions and certainly not the last to choose a duff script. Its a trecharous transition to make, but when it goes right we can get genuine classics like Shaun of the Dead. When it goes wrong, however, you can get talented individuals like Mitchell and Webb labouring away in the distinctly average Magicians. So whats the right formula for Brits to make the big leap?

Is this really how you build on success?

The yardstick, in British comedy at least, for a successful transition from TV to the big screen is the Monty Python team. Undoubtably a collective of the most talented inviduals in the industry, this did not necessarily guarantee them success. Morecambe and Wise for instance, could pull in huge audiences and enjoyed unprecendented success but their film efforts were forgetable. Somehow, in Holy Grail and Life of Brian, the Monty Python team produced 2 of the greatest comedies ever made and the key to this success arguably lies to sticking to what they did best, and doing it well.

These films were not the type of money-spinning vehicle that so many greats have idly graced with their presence. It was the collective's attempt to bring the true scope and ambition of their comedy into realisation. They proved that by taking creative control over a project, maintaining the style of humour and values that made them successful, and applying it to the right material they could produce classics of the genre. Its a concept that has been so often ignored by others and it wasn't until Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg so brilliantly transferred the humour and heart of Spaced to their film projects that TV comedy acts have enjoyed that kind of big screen success.

All too often the trend has been for British talent to move away from their established roots to appear in low grade, fast tracked comedies that fatten their wallet and increase their exposure but show nothing of their potential. Thats why for every Hot Fuzz there's a Sex Lives of the Potato Men or Fat Slags around the corner meaning that within months of the "new saviours of British film comedy" (TM) emerging the critics will begin mourning its death.

The one comedian that is all too aware of all this is Ricky Gervais. After his incredible television success the only direction to go was into the film world and he has been wise in his choices so far. He's avoided the British produced duds so far and by going to Hollywood he has adapted his unique style of humour to American comedy. His first starring role, in the underrated-but-not-brilliant Ghost Town proved his star quality and ability to pick a solid script and still put his own personal stamp on a film. He hasn't rushed into the film industry and that patience is beginning to show its rewards. He has creative control over his next film; writing, directing and starring in This Side of the Truth and though its an American production he could well be the next "saviour of British film comedy" (TM). It probably won't be too long before it dies again, with the next-big-thing comedians wondering where it all went so wrong.

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Monday, 23 March 2009

Underrated: Brendan Gleeson

So you're making a big, epic ensemble movie, your lead actor is embarrassing himself and you need your supporting players to step up and give the film a bit of credibility. Who do you call? Brendan Gleeson. This guy's never gonna be your traditional leading man in these films. He looks a bit like the bloke down the pub who you're not sure if he's going to buy you a pint or punch you, but he is always solid and its no coincidence that he crops up in so many summer blockbusters. The guy's a pretty sure bet to put in a good performance without overshadowing the pretty-boy lead.

I'd seen Gleeson pop up in a number of films over the years, particularly in an awesome but brief role in A.I., but I only really started to follow this guy after I saw 28 Days Later. All I could think was that this guy does Ray Winstone better than Ray Winstone and that he was playing the rarest of things in modern horror movies; a believable, sympathetic character. Alot of this is testiment to the superior team behind the film but it was the perfect role for Gleeson. Very few people can do the gruff father figure better than Gleeson; he only started acting at 34 so its the kind of role he's grown into with each passing film.

However, where Gleeson really shines is in historical epics. Like Orlando Bloom, he cropped up in both Troy and Kingdom of Heaven, but unlike Orlando Bloom he was competant and believable as a historical character. He can play the eccentric, booming individual that characterise these films with ease and can challenge the Rickmans of this world for scenery-chewing brilliance that makes everyone else look boring or sit back and be the wise mentor if needs be. And if you need a guy to beat up Mr. Bloom and make him look as pathetic as possible he's your man. And who couldn't love him for that?

The film industry seems to finally be recognising Gleeson's value. He's joined the elite band of thespians proudly cashing their paychecks from the Harry Potter franchise and is beginning to get some seriously meaty roles, not least in last year's In Bruges, and later this year will be playing one of history's most interesting figures as Winston Churchill in Into The Storm, the follow up to The Gathering Storm. That film featured an amazing Albert Finney perfomance which will be hard to match but if anyone can fill his shoes its Brendan Gleeson and he could very well be a good bet for an Oscar nod. About time too.

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Saturday, 7 March 2009

When will Pixar break the best picture barrier?

Post Oscar nominations, The Reader got a bit of a bad reputation on the internet. It’s not necessarily the film’s fault; many hadn’t seen it, but the general consensus seemed to be that it was taking the rightful place of another, better, and less awards friendly film amongst the best picture nominees. To many this was the Dark Knight, the record breaking behemoth that maybe, just maybe, would be too big for the academy to ignore. But perhaps the most interesting fan favourite for the fifth spot on the shortlist was Wall-E, the little robot that could.

Well, not quite. He couldn’t in the end. He was trying to get a place in an exclusive club to which he didn’t belong, but the important thing was that fans and critics alike felt he should belong there. And why not? The film consistently topped end of year “best of” lists and was as original as it was groundbreaking. But it had a little problem. A quite big problem actually. Pretty massive actually. There’s ‘best picture’ quality films, then there’s animation, or so say the academy.

But of course, you may say, that’s what the Best Animated Feature award is for. An entire award for one genre should be fair enough, and it really would be if it wasn’t 60 years too late. There may have been complaints that The Dark Knight’s status as a superhero genre movie effectively ended its chances of getting a best picture nomination but the fact remains that it’s the only movie in that genre good enough to get one. Comedy and horror fans (rightly) lament the fact that their genres are not taken seriously enough by the academy but do get occasional recognition. Up to the millennium, however, animation was largely ignored in major categories. Most of the now immortal Disney classics had to contend themselves with the odd technical or musical nod.

Walt Disney himself was probably not too concerned with this. The man won 22 Oscars, enough to make a football match out of little golden men if he so chose. The vast majority of these were for his short animations however and the fact remains that Beauty and the Beast remains the sole Disney animation, or any other animation for that matter to garner a best picture nomination in the award’s history. Think about that; one of the most difficult and painstaking forms of filmmaking, designed to cater for the most demanding of audiences has one best picture nomination in 81 years.

Walt Disney and his army of Oscars

The audience, however, is a problem. Traditionally they’re quite small, not particularly respected as critics and enjoy simple pleasures like mud and tantrums. But someone noticed that the big people they dragged along to see the animated films got rather annoyed if there was nothing in them that they could enjoy. Most animated movies are still aimed squarely at kids; talking animal goes on adventure, maybe makes soft allusions to intercourse/marriage to satisfy the adults who are trying to figure out if that’s Burt Reynolds they can hear. But Pixar has always challenged this formula by making films with broad and complex themes that can still appeal to kids. That’s why The Incredibles can be a children’s animation and one of the best action movies this century and why Ratatouille’s narrative and emotion overshadows the cute talking rat.

The Incredibles: family drama, comedy, action-adventure and superhero movie rolled into one

Best Animated Feature may have been created to recognise the technological advances and resurgence in popularity of animated films but when these films begin to transcend the confines of their genres the category can limit rather than celebrate their achievements. In much the same way that foreign language films are occasionally limited to their own specialist category when they deserve a higher accolade, Pixar has demonstrating that the animation bar can be pushed higher and higher and be so much more than a ‘kids’ film. Last year they made a film with barely any dialogue capture the attention and imaginations of its audience and this year, Up, a film with a grumpy septuagenarian as its hero, looks to be its most ambitious and riskiest project yet. But we say the same about every new Pixar project, and they never cease to amaze.

You can’t say the same thing about many of the finest of film producers and perhaps it’s time that the awards that define greatness recognise that on the rarest of occasions animation, gorgeous as it may be, is more than just animation.

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