Things to See: Guinness Storehouse

Guinness is one of Ireland’s most famous and long-standing exports, brewed in almost 60 countries and available in over 120 countries. No surprise then, that the Guinness Storehouse, filled with history of how “dark stuff”, is Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction. There was no way I was going to Dublin without seeing it.

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Guest Series: Closely Watched Trains

Since starting my Foreign Favourites, I’ve been delighted with the standard, analysis and range of genres, styles and nationalities covered. So it’s great news that I have another addition from the Norfolk-based Beetley Pete who in his charming blog shares his thoughts about his life in eastern England, including his interest in photography, his dog Ollie and the rural nature around him. Here are his thoughts on Czech film, Closely Watched Trains (1966).

Closely Watched Trains Film Poster

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Foreign Favourite Series: The White Ribbon (2009)

When I set up the Foreign Favourites series, I never intended it for any person contributing to have more than one film. It seemed easier that way. No films would overlap and I know how all busy you all are. But after being blown away by how great your reviews were and discussing the idea with a few of you, I’ve decided to extend it to two or more films. To get us all started off again, here is Cindy with The White Ribbon. You can find her previous effort here

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Foreign Favourites series: Battle Royale

I’ve been keen to get my friend Neel involved in my Foreign Favourites film series, ever since he set up his Dohabitation blog. Like the guy himself, the blog is funny entertaining and very colourful, and tells of his adventures since moving to Doha. Definitely worth heading over. Without any further ado, here are his thoughts on disturbing thriller Battle Royale.

Battle Royale film poster

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Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon – Psycho (1960) – Alex Raphael

There’s a very fine Blogathon being hosted by Zoe and Rob of every Hitchcock film. Starting from his early black and white, silent films to his more modern masterpieces. I just had to get involved. Always interested to hear your thoughts too.

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Here’s Alex from Alex Raphael for a review of probably Hitchcock’s most famous movie, Psycho for our Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon.

Thanks Alex for this great review!

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When you are discussing Psycho, you are not merely reviewing a film but a phenomenon. Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece continues to shock, amaze and enthrall audiences over 50 years since it was released amidst a wave of notorious publicity. It is not just a horror film, able to terrify audiences without the use of the supernatural or special effects. It is not just a story about a man’s disturbing relationship with his mother, with an underlying social commentary on voyeurism. Or even a film taking the groundbreaking view of killing off its leading character halfway through the film. Quite simply, it is all this and more.

Based on the Robert Bloch novel published the previous year, Psycho tells of a young woman, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), on the…

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Reviews and other Features: Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Hunger Games - Catching Fire

Adapting the second film of a highly successful literary franchise must feel like juggling between “don’t to screw it up”, “make it bigger and better” and “leave them desperate for the third”. In other words, entice new fans while cranking up the action, style and intensity from its predecessor. And don’t give too much away for the third.

Director Francis Lawrence has undertaken the challenge with relish. Best known for the films ‘I am Legend’ and ‘Constantine’ as well as a wide array of music videos, the man relatively new to the big screen heads up a team that has come up trumps.

This is helped by a stronger story that shows how much the major characters have learned. Whilst in the first film Hunger Games there was the need for an introduction to the characters and the premise, here we can shoot right in and continue where it left off. So Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have survived the 74th Hunger Games but rather than being able to enjoy their victory, they face events more treacherous than ever.  The menacing President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is on the scene and out for blood. The pair’s unlikely and unprecedented survival has inspired an uprising in District 12 and Snow makes it clear there will be serious consequences to them and their families if they don’t quell the rebellion.

Katniss and Peeta do their best but things are far more complicated than even they can imagine. Realising that Katniss’ popularity is unprecedented and fearing further repercussions, President Snow knows he has to destroy Katniss in a way that will not harm the Capitol. He instructs new tournament director Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to create an even grander Hunger Games, using the fact that it is the 75th anniversary to allow them plenty of creative license. The sneaky gambit this time is that two recent former winners of all the districts will be the contestants. Katniss will not only have to fight against her good friend Peeta or mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), but the most skilled of enemies. And as per usual, only one person will be coming back.

The premise is so brilliant it is tempting to keep describing the story as it is so well thought out and brilliantly executed. The script never fails to highlight the immense pressure that is on each of the characters, whilst not losing the touches of humour that were so notable in the first film.

The stronger script allows previous characters to reveal all kinds of personal development. It isn’t just limited to the main characters. Katniss’ sister Primrose (Willow Shields) has become skilled at nursing and is confident enough to take responsibility. We see beyond the helpful showman side of Haymitch, who is caught with all kinds of horrible obligations and see how Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) cannot abandon his people despite knowing how violent it will get.

But such is Jennifer Lawrence’s presence on screen that is of course impossible to ignore how much of this film almost belongs with her. Her Katniss is a heroine of modern times, filled with consummate skill, but with a compassion and sensitivity that is never made to look one-dimensional. Philip Seymour Hoffman brings gravitas to his scheming role, and Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks revel in their maverick roles.

It could be argued that that those who didn’t see it will struggle to understand the context, though this is what helps it maintain its pace. One or two parts are overly sentimental and the ending even for the second part of four is a bit too abrupt.

But the film rises above any perceived limits of the genre to be far more than an entertaining ride. It’s more than just action and adrenalin and a good looking heroine. The Olympic Games may be the ultimate in sporting achievements, but Catching Fire shows how fun and exciting it is when you push the limits of human endurance even further.

Film Review: Rush

Rush film poster

JoshI’m much better at video hockey.
Paul: That’s not a sport.
JoshIt requires hand and eye coordination.
PaulIt’s not a sport if you don’t sweat.
JoshWhat about golf? It’s a sport and you don’t sweat.
PaulIt’s not a sport if you let a machine do all the work.
JoshWhat about car racing?
PaulShut up, Baskin.

Taken from ‘Big’ (1988)

There’s always been something different with Formula 1. Those fascinated by the outrageous speeds and driving skills can struggle to explain that it’s more than just a group of indulged playboys showing off their fast toys. Or, that there is more to it than the guy with the strongest car and best engineers always finishing first. With ‘Rush’, the story of James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Nikki Lauda’s (Daniel Brühl) fight for the 1976 championship, a lot of the beauty and ugliness of Formula 1 is explained to the non-believer. And what an adrenalin rush and insightful film it is.

Director Ron Howard and scriptwriter Peter Morgan team up again after their successful collaboration in ‘Frost/Nixon’ to tell the story of two competitive opposites. James Hunt, the good-looking, charismatic English playboy always surrounded by women, drink and envious followers, and the methodical, controlled Nikki Lauda, who struggles to gain acceptance by his rivals.

We first meet them in a F3 race. The confident, swaggering Hunt is intrigued by the quiet composure of the Austrian Lauda and the two soon battle on the track, far ahead of the opposition. With an intense collision towards the end of the race, both are spun around, but Hunt is able to finish first, and later wins the tournament. It’s clear this is a rivalry that will be fought in and out of the car, especially as the relentless Lauda will stop at nothing to get to the top.

With their attitude equally daring on the track, both soon obtain their ambitions of racing at the highest level at F1, and the rivalry takes on a different dimension. Lauda cruises to the title, with Hunt far behind and struggling in an unreliable car. Hunt, fearing he will miss his chance, and believing a more settled life will help him win the F1 title, marries the model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde). And with Hunt now able to race in a formidable car, McLaren against Ferrari, the rivals are on equal footing with the 1976 championship. And so follows tragedies and triumphs, as the momentum swings between both drivers. The closer they get to the trophy, the more the stakes rise as both have to ask themselves how much they are willing to sacrifice to win that title.

There aren’t too many great sporting films about two rivals, and even less in the sphere of motor racing. What ‘Rush’ does is to show just how amazing a sports film is when everything comes together. While the brilliant documentary ‘Senna’ captured the fearless intensity of two of the game’s greats and their longstanding rivalry on the track, ‘Rush’ captures it as a spectacle too. Even those going into the film knowing who did win the championship that year, will still be on the edge of their seats. Though not a big fan of the sport before choosing to do the film, Howard has understood just what is so electric about driving at the highest level. We can picture being in the car for all the glory and fear it entails. The racing scenes are shot with flair and excitement and we really get a sense of how their lives in the car impact their viewpoint outside of it.

But this is a film far more than about a fascinating rivalry and a great director. Hemsworth and Brühl are riveting, and their magnetic auras catch alight, especially when they are in heated scenes together. Peter Morgan’s script takes a few liberties as you would expect (such as what happened in the team meeting and with the complainer of the car) but it adds to the drama and the dialogue is exceptional. You really sense how these two can look at the same issue with a different mindset and at the same time be both enemies and friends. When the 1976 season is over and both are talking to each other, it’s a wonderful scene that showcases the film perfectly. Away from distractions and away from everyone else, there was respect and almost desperation for the other to live life like they did themselves. What ‘Rush’ really answers, is why that could never have happened, and why that season was the perfect culmination of it.

Review: Now you see me

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“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it”

So said the supremely gifted writer Roald Dahl, and it could easily be used for all the naysayer critics who have panned Now You See Me. The latest effort by French director Louis Leterrier thrusts magic into the spotlight, giving it top bill and centre stage with all manner of tricks, illusions and slights of hand. And what a delight it is, skating along at a glorious pace, with spectacular sets and surprises aplenty.

It all begins shrouded in mystery when four highly-talented magicians are each brought together by specifically designed tarot cards. Arrogant showman J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), his glamorous former assistant Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) who has since made it as an escapologist, cocky mind-reader and hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and pickpocket extraordinaire Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), discover a set of highly developed plans. Working together, it’s clear they will be part of something very secretive and very special. For once, they are in the dark.

Now established as “The Four Horsemen” and on the cusp of super stardom; they announce on stage their grand finale. Something never done before. To rob a bank.. You don’t get that from X-factor. Before a flabbergasted audience, a bank is robbed before their very eyes!

Grumpy agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is on the case and struggles to take magic seriously; something that is making it harder for him to solve the case. Throw in the insightful former magician Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) with his own agenda, and you have all kinds of cat and mouse games. And a finale full of elaborate shocks.  This is one magic show that will leave you all chasing shadows.

With a strong cast, confident direction and an imaginative screenplay, Now You See Me is full of flamboyant panache. With sets in Vegas, New York and Paris, and with high speed chases, amusing interrogation scenes and distinctive action scenes, it’s certainly not dull. The maverick four are an unusual but inspired line up, with the wisecracking dynamic and differing skills neatly playing out.

Those that aren’t into magic should still get a kick from the reveals, but the big message of the film is that magic is so much fun even when on the outside looking in. It’s easy to say that there are suspensions of belief, that the characters should be better rounded and that the ending should have a more mysterious note, but magic is never a mathematical science. Sometimes, it’s all just about entertaining the audience.