Sunday, 31 March 2013

Richard Griffiths: Harry Potter star dies aged 65

Actor Richard Griffiths, best known for starring in the Harry Potter films and Withnail and I, has died at the age of 65 after complications following heart surgery.

Griffiths enjoyed a long career of success not only on film and TV, but also on the stage where he was a Tony-winning character actor.

TV roles included a cookery-loving detective in the BBC series Pie in the Sky.

However, he was best known for playing uncles Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter series and Monty in Withnail and I (1987).

His Harry Potter co-star Daniel Radcliffe (who also appeared on stage with him in Equus) was among the first to pay tribute, saying: "Richard was by my side during two of the most important moments of my career".

"I was proud to know him. Any room he walked into was made twice as funny and twice as clever just by his presence."

On stage, Griffiths' most acclaimed performance was as the charismatic teacher Hector in Alan Bennett's The History Boys.

After achieving a rare double of winning a Tony Award in New York and an Olivier Award in London, he recreated the role in a 2006 film version.

But it was his role as the predatory Uncle Monty in Bruce Robinson's Withnail And I (one of the biggest cult classics in British cinema history) that made him a fan favourite.

In a message to his co-star on Twitter, the actor Richard E. Grant said: "My beloved Uncle Monty Richard Griffiths died last night. Chin-Chin my dear friend."

Griffiths was born in Thornaby-on-Tees, North Yorkshire in 1947, and left school at the age of 15. He was later persuaded to return to education and studied drama at Stockton and Billingham College in the 1960s before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He married Heather Gibson in 1980 after they met during a production of Lady Windermere's Fan in 1973.

His early TV career saw him land bit parts in series such as Minder, The Sweeney and Bergerac, while he also played small parts in major films such as Chariots of Fire, Superman II and Gandhi before the big breakthrough came in Withnail and I.

Well respected by his peers, he was appointed an OBE in the 2008 New Year Honours for his services to drama.

Sir Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, said Griffiths's unexpected death would devastate his "army of friends".

He said, "Richard Griffiths wasn't only one of the most loved and recognisable British actors - he was also one of the very greatest.

"His performance in The History Boys was quite overwhelming: a masterpiece of wit, delicacy, mischief and desolation, often simultaneously.

"His anecdotes were legendary. They were, literally, endless. They would go on for hours, apparently without destination, constantly side-splitting."

His agent Simon Beresford described him as a "remarkable man".

He said, "On stage he allowed us to share in our own humanity and constantly question our differences.

"Richard gave acting a good name. He was a remarkable man and one of our greatest and best-loved actors. He will be greatly missed."

Our thoughts go out to his friends and family.

Monday, 25 March 2013

New Hope: Part II

So what are J.J. Abrams plans for Episode VII and how will he approach this bold new era for Star Wars? Empire Magazine put that question to the man himself in a recent interview at his Bad Robot offices in LA.

“I don’t know because we’re just getting started. So it’s a great question that I hope I’ll have a good answer to when I know what the answer is. There are infinitely more questions than answers right now, but to me, they’re not that dissimilar. Though I came at these both from very different places, where they both meet is a place of ‘Ooh, that’s really exciting.’ And even though I was never a Star Trek fan, I felt like there was a version of it that would make me excited, that I would think ‘that’s cool, that feels right, I actually would want to see that.

“How we were going to get there, what the choices were going to be, who was going to be in it – all of those things I knew would have to be figured out, but it was all based on a foundation of this indescribable, guttural passion for something that could be. It’s a similar feeling that I have with Star Wars. I feel like I can identify a hunger for what I would want to see again and that is an incredibly exciting place to begin a project. The movies, the worlds could not be more different but that feeling that there’s something amazing here is the thing that they share.”

Lucasfilm had whipped fans into a frenzy earlier this year when they announced that J.J. Abrams would be the man responsible of bringing Star Wars back to the big screen. The director had originally turned down the Episode VII gig last year, throwing people off the scent by saying: “I am looking forward more than anyone to the next iterations of Star Wars, but I believe I will be going as a paying moviegoer!”

But in a surprise turnabout he subsequently accepted the mantle of bringing new hope to the galaxy far, far away.

“My knee-jerk reaction was that I’m in the middle of working on the Star Trek movie and I can’t even consider it. But then time went by and I got further along working on the movie and getting to a place where I had done most of the heavy lifting. So when I met with Kathy Kennedy we just started discussing it and I was able to actually engage in the conversation. I went down to tell Katie, my wife, and I said ‘I had just a very interesting conversation with Kathy.’ That was the beginning.

“I will say that Steven [Spielberg] was very encouraging of Star Wars. It’s funny because I talked to him about it and it turned out he knew all about what was going on.”

You can read more of the exclusive interview with J.J. Abrams in the May issue of Empire, on sale Thursday March 28.

"Can we talk about the end of humanity?"

Check out the latest chilling new poster and trailer for World War Z, the upcoming and long gestating (production started back in July 2011) apocalyptic thriller from Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner, Quantum of Solace).

Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and starring Brad Pitt (Fight Club, Babel, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), the film is based on the Max Brooks novel of the same name. As a zombie pandemic traverses the globe, United Nations employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) travels the world trying to find a way to stop the pandemic that is defeating armies, collapsing governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself.

World War Z is will be released on June 21 in both 2D and 3D in selected theatres.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Ford, Fisher, Hamill on for Star Wars

Since Walt Disney Pictures' acquisition of Lucasfilm last October, George Lucas has not only got engaged to Chicago money manager Mellody Hobson, but he has also been attending regular story meetings for the new Star Wars series. Predominantly adjudicating the physical laws and attributes of the Star Wars universe he created. "I mostly say, 'You can't do this. You can do that,' " Said Lucas. "You know, 'The cars don’t have wheels. They fly with anti gravity.' There’s a million little pieces. Or I can say, 'He doesn't have the power to do that, or he has to do this.' I know all that stuff."

Asked whether members of the original Star Wars cast will appear in Episode VII and if he called them before the deal closed to keep them informed, Lucas says, "We had already signed Mark and Carrie and Harrison – or we were pretty much in final stages of negotiation. So I called them to say, 'Look, this is what's going on.' " He pauses. "Maybe I'm not supposed to say that. I think they want to announce that with some big whoop-de-do, but we were negotiating with them." Then he adds: "I won't say whether the negotiations were successful or not."

Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger has been busy readying the machinery that will crank out Star Wars related toys and theme park attractions and whatever Disney deems as appropriate franchise exploitation. As well as looking towards expanding sales of Star Wars merchandise overseas, he is also overseeing discussions between ABC and Lucasfilm over the possibility of a live action TV series. Something which Lucasfilm has been developing since 2005. At the same time, Iger says he doesn't want to do anything that might detract from the upcoming movies. "I don't want to over commercialize or over hype this," he says. "It's my job to prevent that."

The Lucasfilm acquisition could also turn out to be Iger's last big move at Disney. He currently plans to step down as CEO in 2015, although he'll remain as chairman for another year. Merrill Lynch's Cohen doesn't expect Disney will do any large deals between now and then. "I think it's going to be a period of reaping the benefits of the deals Bob has already done," she says.

Iger seems to be doing just that. There's a table in his office decorated with Disney artifacts, including two light sabers. "People have been sending me lots of these," he chuckles. He picks one up and waves it at an imaginary foe. "I'm getting better at this."

Sunday, 3 March 2013

"Whatever you do, don't eat the fuckin' candy."

Back in 2009, Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola made the brilliant and bonkers low budget zombie comedy Dead Snow (2009). Hollywood took notice. It boded well for what he could potentially do on a studio budget. Yet Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters belies its strong US box office.

Having set up our gingerbread house survivors, Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, Avengers Assemble, The Bourne Legacy) and Gemma Arterton (Quantum Of Solace, Clash Of The Titans, Tamara Drewe) as the all-grown-up steampunk bounty hunters, it lurches erratically from set piece to set piece. And by 'set piece' we mean lots of running about in the woods chasing after Famke Janssen's (GoldenEye, X-men, Taken) evil Muriel and her coven of goth-punk witches. By the time Janssen hisses, "The end is nigh", you'll be praying she's speaking the truth.

With Will Ferrell executive producing and Wirkola keen to inject more blood into Hollywood horror, this revisionist 3D adaptation seemed primed for a classic action B-horror treatment. But instead of delivering a fairytale Evil Dead, Wirkola's film bleeds its premise into a husk that's devoid of life or humour.

There are hints of chemistry between the two leads, but Wirkola keeps them mostly separated, trapping them in roles which boil down to nothing more than manly rescuer and distressed damsel. Renner and Arterton at least look the part having had months of training to prepare for the physical demanding of roles.

You also have to applaud the extensive use of traditional special effects in a genre often driven by CGI spectacle. But despite some inventive production design from Hellboy's (2004) Stephen Scott, this a lurching misstep from the Dead Snow director.

"A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape, condemned to repeat itself time and time again."

In 2008, Argentinian siblings Andy and Barbara Muschietti created a three-minute short simply titled Mamá. It featured little more than two young girls being menaced by a contorted, wild-haired, watery spectre. Beautifully shot, simple and terrifying, it attracted the interest of Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth). Small wonder, as executive producer on the likes of The Orphanage (2007) and Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (2010) del Toro clearly has a passion for childhood ghost stories. Now five years later, the Muschetti's have turned their online sensation into a full length feature thanks to the championing of del Toro. Del Toro himself takes another executive producer role on the feature, whose influence is both immediate and palpable.

Expanding on the original shorts premise, this supernatural chiller tells the haunting story of two young sisters who are abandoned in a forest cabin the day their mother was murdered. Whilst there they are fostered by an unknown entity that they fondly call Mama. But when the girls are miraculously rescued five years years later and brought back to suburbia to begin a new life with their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), they find that Mama still wants to come and tuck them in at night.

Whilst Mama is a cut above your regular recent spooky shockers such Insidious (2011) or The Possession (2012), it overlaps possibly too much with the likes of Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark and Daniel Radcliffe's post-Potter vehicle The Woman In Black (which also featured a child-menacing, homicidal mother ghost). It’s easier to set up a single, inexplicable horror scene than it is to string together a series of them into a coherent narrative, and Mama doesn’t quite manage it. The opening falls back on the old trick of the criminal listening to radio news reports of his misdeeds to fill in back story, plus there’s a drawn-out strand about a double-dealing shrink obsessed with a 19th-century ghost that only serves to leave all too convenient plot information on a laptop.

Mama also shows its hand way too early and plainly. The ghost appears before the credits, so we already know what the girls’ problem is while their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Chastain) are playing catch up. The currently busy Jessica Chastain (The Tree Of Life, Lawless, Zero Dark Thirty) is almost unrecognisable as the black-haired pixie-punk rock chick Annabel, who doesn’t want kids yet winds up as surrogate mother to the young girls.

Aided by Gabriel Gutiérrez's brilliant sound design, it's the smaller, less obvious moments in the first half that make for bigger jumps than the manifestations that come later, reducing the title menace to little more than an attention-seeking special effect. That said, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse as the haunted semi-feral sisters, are great and Chastain brings a much needed touch of class to proceedings. In all, despite it's overuse of good effects, this has enough shocks and screams to make it a decent cinematic ghost story. It also makes Andy Muschietti a man worth looking out for in the future.