Calvary – 8/10.

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Brendan Gleeson gives a career best performance in a little film with big ideas.

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

David Lynch’s seminal TV show Twin Peaks helped to introduce the idea of a town or city becoming almost a living breathing character. Brendan Gleeson’s fatherly priest James is continually surprised and stumped by the actions of the inhabitants of the strange little town he has found himself in. It is this sense of the bizarre and unease that drive Calvary forward with enough interesting characters to fill a whole TV show.

Aside from the beautiful Irish countryside and Gleeson’s remarkable performance it is the dialogue that really sets Calvary aside from similar works. Big philosophical ideas are presented as casual chats between acquaintances and the many subliminal messages are hidden beneath the eccentricities of the characters and the wit and humour inherent throughout the script.

Another big plus is the supporting cast with comedians Chris O’ Dowd and Dylan Moran stepping out of their comfort zones in spectacular fashion. Moran in particular is superb, stealing almost every scene he is in with a restrained and vulnerable performance. Kelly Reilly also gives a very strong performance as the cynical counter weight to Gleeson’s warm optimism

Calvary is poetic, beautiful and laugh out loud funny and I instantly wanted to watch it again after the credits rolled. One of the best films of 2014.

Jan Svankmajer’s Alice – 7/10

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Really weird film… even by Alice in Wonderland standards.

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Being unfamiliar with Czech director Jan Svankmajer’s previous work and also a bit patchy on surrealist cinema in general I didn’t quite know what to expect when I sat down with a pint of Doncaster’s finest ale at Phantom Cinema’s latest screening.

Svankmajer had made a number of celebrated short films during the 60’s and 70’s before he made his first feature film in 1988, Alice, a surreal and nightmarish take on Lewis Carrol’s classic novel. Svankmajer rejected the idea of Alice in Wonderland as a fairy tale and instead saw it as a ‘realised dream’ and it is this theme that creates such a memorable adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Alice definitely won’t be for everyone as Svankmajer continually uses extreme close ups and jarring sound effects to drive home what Alice is experiencing, but as in the novel Alice remains calm and almost nonplussed during the most frightening sequences. Indeed we see a lot more of Alice herself than in any other reworking and ironically for such an unconventional take on the story in this respect Alice is probably the most faithful to the source material. In recent adaptations such as Tim Burton’s, Alice has become almost a bystander in her own story with the Cheshire cat (notably absent here) and the Queen of Hearts taking centre stage but this is not in keeping with the original book which went into great detail about how Alice felt about each new development in the strange world of Wonderland.

Svankmajer’s take on Wonderland itself is completely unique. Gone are the colourful and beautiful landscapes, replaced instead by industrial house hold items and grey rooms lit by a single hanging light bulb. It is here where Alice is at its most dark and grotesque and the seamless mixture of stop motion animation and live action only adds to the dreamlike sense of unease and confusion.

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The stop motion animation is something commonly used by Svankmajer in his other works and it is really impressive in Alice – once again proving that just because new technology exists it isn’t always the most effective method as Wes Anderson’s brilliant use of stop motion animation in Fantastic Mr. Fox also attests to.

For all the innovative use of animation and sound and also the imaginative concept and fantastic ending Alice is a success because it goes back to the roots of what made Alice in Wonderland so magical in the first place – Alice herself – the dreamer not the dreamed.

This article first appeared in Doncopolitan magazine:

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Beyond Clueless – 4/10.

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Documentary explores the psychology behind teen movies.

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There is a great documentary to be made about teen movies and their effect on pop culture but Beyond Clueless definitely isn’t it. Some of the theories presented are plausible – I can just about get on board with Idle Hands as an allegory for masturbation – but others are tenuous at best. Jeepers Creepers as a fable about a man’s fear of his own homosexuality? If you look for a message in everything you will find one, but that doesn’t mean it is what the filmmaker intended.

It is almost insulting to attempt to dissect modern classics like Clueless and Mean Girls by ‘revealing’ ideas that are openly discussed in the narrative. Some of the other choices of films to focus on are equally inappropriate. Does anyone really need a ten minutes exploration of Slap Her… She’s French when genre staples like American Pie, Heathers and Porky’s are completely ignored.

Narrator Fairuza Balk, herself a teen movie veteran having appeared in The Craft, makes for a smug and annoying voice over which further takes away from the rare sections of the film that are actually interesting.

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Beyond Cluess? With this documentary first time writer/director Charlie Lyne was just plain clueless.

Kingsman: The Secret Service – 7.5/10.

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Colin Firth plays tinker, tailer, soldier and spy as Matthew Vaughn continues his hot streak.

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With 2010’s Kick Ass, director Matthew Vaughn turned the comic book genre on it’s head with gritty realism and unfamiliar character arcs and story line. After continuing his good work in that area with X-Men: First Class (one of the finest films in the whole comic book genre), Vaughn has turned his talents to the classic espionage genre and if not reinvigorated it then certainly made it interesting again.

I wasn’t that taken with the Bourne franchise, despite my undying love for Matt Damon, and I flat out dislike Bond films so the only reason I ended up watching Kingsman was for the excellent cast and because of Matthew Vaughn’s track record (Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick Ass and X:Men: First Class to date).

Heading up a mostly British cast are Colin Firth and Mark Strong who always collaborate well together and it is nice to see Strong as a supporting hero rather than as a stock British villain. Firth is a touch of class as ever and he has more of a twinkle in his eye in Kingsman than in some of his recent work which has appeared a bit phoned in since The Kings Speech.

Alongside Firth and Strong, relative newcomer Taron Egerton does a brilliant job as the protagonist in what is a tough role to pull off. The cockney wide boy can so easily become caricature but Egerton is equally at home in trackie bottoms or a smart suit and he could be one to keep an eye on for the future.

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Slightly worrying is the inability to escape completely from genre trappings with tired plot devices like a ticking clock and also cartoonish villains (Samuel. L Jackson is disappointing as the antagonist) unfortunately present. Another concern is the action genre in general is still guilty of failing to find interesting roles for woman with Sophie Cookson little more than a prop in her supporting role here.

With Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams, Gareth Evans and to a lesser extent Zack Snyder doing great work on similar projects we could be entering a new golden age for big action blockbusters and Matthew Vaughn should be able to pick whatever project he wants next after such a strong start to his directing career.

Pulp: a film about life, death & supermarkets – 7.5/10.

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Love letter to Sheffield that also features Pulp.

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I was expecting Florian Habicht’s long awaited Pulp documentary to be a history of the band in the classic music documentary style but it is actually more of a concert movie than a linear story. Interviews with all the members of Pulp are interspersed with footage of their triumphant live return to Sheffield in 2012.

While front man Jarvis Cocker has always appeared candid in interviews, he is also controlled and guarded about certain subjects and the interviews here offer nothing we haven’t heard before but as always Jarvis comes across as warm, intelligent and funny. Arguably more illuminating are interviews with the lesser known members of the band with keyboardist Candida Doyle and guitarist Mark Webber particularly interesting.

Sharing almost as much screen time with the Sheffield five piece are the people of Sheffield themselves with extensive interviews with some of the most gloriously Yorkshire folk captured on film since Kes, as well as beautifully edited shots of Sheffield itself.

While the dark period of the recording of This is Hardcore is only briefly mentioned, the live performance of the title track is electrifying, indeed all the live footage captured from Sheffield arena is really high quality and contains numerous goose bump inducing moments with every song greeted with massive enthusiasm from the adoring Sheffield crowd.

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If you were expecting a Montage of Heck style warts and all expose of Pulp with this documentary you might be disappointed but part of both Pulp and Jarvis Cocker’s appeal is the air of enigmatic mystery juxtaposed with seemingly autobiographical lyrics and A film about life, death and supermarkets fits the bands curious narrative perfectly.

Montage of Heck – 8/10.

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Powerful documentary brings us closer to the truth behind Kurt Cobain than ever before.

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Due to various rows and legal battles over Kurt’s image rights and Nirvana’s music there is not a great deal of stuff out there in terms of Nirvana documentaries. The closest thing to Montage of Heck would be Live! Tonight! Sold Out! which is more of a collection of live performance albeit with lots of interview and news footage thrown in.

Montage of Heck is more linear than Live! Tonight! Sold Out! but it is still surrealist and arty, particularly the absolutely brilliant animations that bring to life Kurt’s haunting private journals.

There is also more interviews with people talking solely about Kurt and not Nirvana’s music with Kurt’s mum and dad, his wife Courtney Love, close friend and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and a couple of others all being (disappointingly very gently) interviewed. The interviews were the only aspect of Montage of Heck that was a let down. Even at over two hours I think there was much more room for insight from other people that Kurt knew. There was nothing from other bands or former Nirvana band mates (no Dave Grohl!!) or people from Sub Pop or Geffen Records and the always interesting Krist Novoselic is relegated to just a few minutes.

This is only a minor gripe though and the extensive and exclusive home footage more than makes up for it. The juxtaposition of home movies of Kurt as a child and Kurt with Frances his daughter is both challenging and jarring but it is also a unique insight to a fascinating and enigmatic presence in modern music.

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If you want to learn more about Nirvana than watch Live at Reading or Unplugged in New York because the glorious rage inherent in the songs is all you need to know about that fucking amazing band but if it is Kurt the man that interests you than you can’t go wrong with Montage of Heck.

Shocking but never exploitative, no holes barred but also warm, Montage of Heck is a love letter not just to a band but to a man who has touched so many peoples lives (including my own).

RIP Kurt.

Frank – 8/10.

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Oxymoronic fictionalized biopic…

Michael Fassbender as Frank

So Frank Sidebottom was the alter ego of Manchester based singer and comedian Chris Sievey. Jon Ronson is a famed journalist and author (The Psycopath Test, Men Who Stare at Goats) who once played keyboard for Frank’s band in his youth. Frank is loosely based on the book that Ronson wrote about this experience except it isn’t… Confused yet? So was I. The best way to enjoy Frank is to kind of forget the back story and origin and take it a fictionalized stand alone film.

Frank tells the story of a band so avant garde they can’t bear to record any music, led by a brilliant but erratic singer who wears a huge papier mache head over his own. A young keyboard player is accidentally swept along for the ride and so ensues a beautiful and truly original film that can hold its head high along with Submarine as one of the best and most touching movies to come out of the UK in the last ten years.

Michael Fassbender throws himself into the role of Frank with gusto and somehow brings emotion and humour to a massive lifeless head as well showing a sense of physical comic timing previously absent from his work. Supporting Fassbender are protagonist Domhnall Gleeson (Black Mirror) and a brilliant Maggie Gyllenhaal as Frank’s band members in the brilliantly named Soronprfbs.

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While all the acting is top notch it is the funny and snappy script that should take home the plaudits as well as the stunning scenery and visuals and excellent pacing that leaves you wanting more as the credits roll.

Frank is one of the oddest films I can remember to hit mainstream cinema in recent times but it never feels disjointed or too surreal and the soundtrack is great which always helps.

A really satisfying piece of work to be Frank.