26 December 2009

Holmes Away From Holmes

Did everyone have a good Christmas then? A big old blog post is coming after 8pm on New Year's Day, when David Tennant will have handed the key to the TARDIS over to Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith and I'll be some manner of soggy, crying wreck on the sofa. Part One of "The End of Time" astounded and confused me in equal measure, but I loved it. But to the matter at hand- Christmas Day has given way to Boxing Day, which is the unofficial National 'Nothing Happens' Day. It does however herald the release of Sherlock Holmes in UK cinemas, so I went along to see that. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

So Sherlock Holmes is the latest reinvention of Arthur Conan Doyle's anti-social but brilliant detective, gadding around Victorian London with his loyal friend and war veteran, Dr. John Watson. With Guy Ritchie at the helm, this version sees Holmes and Watson take on Lord Henry Blackwood, a practitioner of the dark arts who is hanged after Holmes brings him to justice. When Blackwood rises from the grave, a chain of events are set in motion that threaten to change the world forever, not to mention the implications for the weary Watson's imminent engagement. Matters are complicated further by the involvement of the only person ever to outwit Holmes, the beautiful and wily Irene Adler, who has a shady employer working behind the scenes...

I should say at this relatively early point of the review that I read the script for this film some six months ago. My verdict then was that it was a film that would be made or broken by its performances, not by its plot or writing. There appears to have been a couple of rewrites since the version I downloaded, emphasising certain of the minor aspects detailed above, but I still think that holds true. The one potentially fatal flaw of the film is that is fails to establish and maintain a balance between comedy and horror. It's a rip-roaring historical adventure like the best of that cinematic sub-set, but physical comedy jars with the more atmospheric and creepy stuff. At some points, it's in danger of looking like the result of a high-speed collision between Shanghai Knights and From Hell. It's really saved from that by its cast, who are excellent without exception.

Robert Downey Jr. hasn't been changed much by his suddenly ballooning fame and renown, and he's still a terrific actor. He sports a surprisingly good English accent for Holmes, and really brings out the misanthropic aspects of Conan Doyle's original character. Jude Law also embodied certain overlooked aspect of the literary Watson- he's more like the wounded soldier than the slightly-awed sidekick of other adaptations. But more on that in a bit, because although these two take centre-stage, Mark Strong very nearly steals the show as the villainous Lord Blackwood- a really threatening screen villain who wields enormous presence throughout. Rachel McAdams is slightly less memorable but no less competent as Irene, mostly because the script has slightly crossed purposes, in presenting her both as a match for Holmes and as a damsel in distress where the plot requires one.

Adler is more than just eye candy though, and she's one of many things that have been transported to the film from the literary canon, where Holmes also fancied the pants off her and referred to her only as "the woman". However, the story isn't adapted from one of Conan Doyle's, and it's blatantly been a little sexed-up for the Hollywood treatment. For instance, another of the less prominent aspects of previous versions of Holmes is his skill as both a boxer and a fencer. In front of Guy Ritchie's lens, this makes Holmes a shirtless bare-knuckle fighter, albeit one who still uses his wits in the process of felling his opponents. In that respect at least, Downey Jr's Holmes is like no other before him, but the characters are translated very well for the most part. Law's Watson gets frequently gets fed up with Holmes' foibles, and quite right too- you can believe they've had to get on with each other for a very long time, and the performances just add another dimension to that.

Looking to the future is an almost inescapable act in the course of watching Sherlock Holmes. I'm really not spoiling anything by saying that Adler's shady employer is Professor Moriarty, because it's a fact that will be obvious to anyone who has ever been aware of the Holmes canon from the first rendezvous between Rachel McAdams and a handily shadow-laden gentleman. It's more reminiscent of the early Blofeld appearances in James Bond than of the tantalising glimpse of a joker card at the end of Batman Begins, and that's a slight problem. It's rare that a film seems so obviously set on a sequel, and that's difficult to get around whenever Moriarty appears (or rather doesn't appear) in this one. But as I said, those appearances are fleeting, and I imagine that a second viewing will allow me to get more swept up in Blackwood's doings now that I know the extent of the other baddy's involvement.

To recap though, 2009 began with the tidings that Guy Ritchie, he of Revolver fame, was directing Sherlock Holmes, with an American (even if that American is a brilliant actor) in the title role and Jude "smarmy fuck" Law as Watson. I was understandably gnashing my teeth with disgust at this prospect. Now we're at the opposite end of the year and I've actually seen the film, I can happily report that there's no shit in Sherlock. This is different to any other film Guy Ritchie has ever directed, and it's certainly much more entertaining. Tonally uneven, but a terrific adventure to which I wouldn't object about seeing a sequel in a couple of years. At least not too vociferously anyway.


Planet 51 and Nowhere Boy still to come before the end of the year, along with a few others I mentioned in the Christmas Eve post. On top of that, I'll be bringing you my personal favourite and least favourite films in cinemas for the last year. I'll hold off the lists for the decade until next month, because they might take a little longer to ponder and collate. I'm sure you're waiting with bated breath for that, but in the meantime, why not post your thoughts on Sherlock Holmes in the comments?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, have a very Merry Christmas.

24 December 2009

Dreck the Halls...

My top ten films of the year are pretty much locked now, but it occurred to me recently that there are a number of contenders for my bottom ten still playing in cinemas, just waiting to give me grief before I make it to 2010. Very occasionally, there are films that come along that I fear will actually hurt me, and a number of those have to be watched within the next week or so. It's not a large number, but nevertheless, with Avatar being a surprising guilty pleasure of a film, I haven't had a good rant in a while. So here's what's going to be detaining me in cinematic sorrow before I can ring in the New Year.


I have to say I have the least trepidation for this film, because I only fear that I'd be more tolerant of it if I saw it before Christmas. It's now Christmas Eve, and this looks just a little bit too mawkish and twee for me to appreciate it after the big day's been and gone. All said, this is the film that's most likely to be overlooked in the next week or so because I can't see a review being entirely relevant. It's just that three films is a nice round number to cover.

St Trinian's 2- The Legend of Fritton's Gold

One of two sequels clogging up multiplexes this Christmas, The Legend of Fritton's Gold invokes the somewhat dubious plot device of a treasure hunt in order to continue the excellent character development of the first one. That's right- Nerdy One, Bitchy One, Ditzy One and The Twins are back! Having sat through the first film, I can say that about the one thing that makes this film look any better is that David Tennant's in it. It's always possible for an actor of Tennant's calibre to give good performances in awful films (see also: most of Michael Caine's films in the late 80s/early 90s), but I still feel a sense of dread about the whole thing.

Shit Chipmunk Film 2

As mentioned earlier in the year, I refuse to call this by the name they're actually giving it, but this just looks awful. The sequel to the pretty deplorable Alvin and the Chipmunks cashes in on the financial success of its predecessor by miring Jason Lee's career even deeper in shit and sending the pixellated rat things to high school. Yes, seriously, human high-school. More than that, the trailer promised "One Big Surprise", which it then showed us, presumably ruining any chance of it surprising anyone. It's a trio of female counterparts to the furry leads, and everytime I see any advertising for this film, I die a little more inside. If I can muster the will or level of intoxication required to see this outright pool of evilness, the ensuing rant may explode your brains. Forewarned is forearmed, readers.

As really, properly scared as I am to see Shit Chipmunk Film 2, it's not all bad news. There are plenty of good films on telly over Christmas, including the Orson Welles season on BBC Four and a Christmas Day premiere of The Incredibles on BBC One. At the cinema, I've pencilled in a trip to see Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes on Boxing Day afternoon, so you can expect a review of that film next up. Then it will all come down to listy things, so the blog should be fairly busy over the next couple of weeks.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, have a very Merry Christmas.

17 December 2009

Dances With Smurfs?

The hype behind James Cameron's first film in 12 years, Avatar has been fairly massive. The Titanic director has been pioneering 3D since 2005 and promising a total game-changer for cinema in the form of his latest big-budget epic, but I confess I've been skeptical about that. 3D thus far has been little more than a gimmick, and I don't think Cameron has made a decent film since Terminator 2. The trailers for Avatar didn't impress me either. The first teaser had a bunch of CGI money-shots with no discernible plot or dialogue except the words "This is great." Thanks, James, but I'll make my mind up for myself. The second trailer was more plot-heavy, but as Eric Cartman observed in a recent South Park episode, it looked like Dances with Smurfs more than anything else. Now of course, the film has finally landed in cinemas worldwide, and I've been to give it a look.

I'll point out in advance that I've now seen Avatar in both 2D and 3D, and the latter still adds nothing. Although Cameron has used it more competently than any of the releases this year that pipped him to the post in terms of release date (except Disney and Pixar's output), 3D is still a gimmick. It's not really much more immersive in 3D, because credit where credit's due, the film is immersive on the merits of its cast and script. However, if you've been holding out on seeing your first 3D film in the cinema, this is probably the one to go for. For weary veterans of animated films and horror remakes, plump for 2D, cos it looks just as good. And so without further ado, I'm going to give the film a review. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Avatar is all about Jake Sully, a crippled Marine who is drafted into a 22nd century science experiment ran by his late brother on the planet Pandora. The principle is that Jake's mind would be remote-beamed into a hybrid body, cloned from his brother's tissue and that of the native Na'vi. The Na'vi are hostile to the encroaching humans, and the idea is that the avatar bodies would be able to negotiate a diplomatic understanding between the two species. Because if they can't, the Ahab-esque Colonel Quaritch will send in the troops in the name of the dying Earth, aiming to dig out a rare mineral called Unobtainium. No, that is what they really called it. However, Jake goes native when he falls for a real Na'vi, Neytiri, and begins to question his calling in life.

I went into the cinema with low expectations for the film, and I'm pleased to say from the off that I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I stand corrected from all my assertions that this would be visuals at the expense of narrative. It'd be naive to say that the opposite is true- the very theme of Avatar is seeing everything, (something I suspect Cameron hoped would be epitomised by the 3D) so even when the narrative's foremost, it's about visuals. And the visuals are pretty staggering- in the assault of quick shots in the teaser trailer it was easy to dismiss the floating mountains of Pandora as "just floating mountains". But think about it for a second- floating mountains! We finally have time to savour those trailed visuals, and it's a tremendous feat of special effects. I've never been a proponent of style over substance- my favourite special effects in films were all done practically rather than digitally, especially in the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So I was relieved that there was something more solid to the film than just the computer generated creatures and vistas.

There's a shot of a six-legged horse galloping along while on fire somewhere in the middle of the film that just about sums up the approach to most of the creatures in Avatar. Cameron can create anything with CGI, so he has, just for kicks. But in the Na'vi, we have something a little more special. They're cat-faced, ten feet tall and blue, and yet they're our protagonists. The bad guys are us- humanity and its greed, represented with scene-stealing vigour by Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi. This subversion of the usual human-alien dynamic (see War of the Worlds, and every other alien invasion film) only works for a (mostly) human audience because the Na'vi are written and performed so well. Zoe Saldana gives a motion-captured performance as Neytiri, and in a narrow field for standout female roles this year, it's one of the best of 2009. It's through her that you empathise with the Na'vi, even over the aforementioned brilliance of Stephen Lang's downright awesome Colonel Quaritch.

Sam Worthington is central as Jake of course, and he's as excellent here as he was in Terminator Salvation, only better here because he has a coherent script and a director who doesn't credit himself as "JCam"or some shite like that. I've been taking the piss out of his Next Big Thing label a bit because it was borne solely out of early buzz for this film, but I have to admit that Worthington has a very engaging screen presence, both as an action star and as an actor. He has some good support from Lang and Saldana, not to mention an emotive and memorable turn from Sigourney Weaver as the Avatar project's director, Grace. The role is just as much a showcase for her snarkiness and biting humour as it is for her instant empathy with her audience. I'm stressing these points because I feel it's easy to get swept away in the visuals of Avatar and not give due credit elsewhere.

As you might expect if you're even slightly aware of who I am, I don't think Avatar is without flaws. James Cameron hasn't made a film shorter than two hours long since The Terminator, and this film's 162 minutes carries more than a little flab between setpieces in the second half. I have to say that for the most part, it flew by, but my expectations of Cameron made those flabby bits drag a little. Mostly, these parts are concerned with the film's mixed message. The director's trademark worship of military hardware is increased tenfold by the futuristic setting, and yet there's a slightly hypocritical anti-war message at the centre. You can't convince me that you want to save the trees, on Pandora or anywhere else, when the very next shot is essentially saying "LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT GUNSHIP! BOOM BOOM BOOM, KABOOM! WAR IS AWESOME!" and decimating CG forestry. There's also a clumsy war-on-terror subtext in Quaritch's motivations and in the general Unobtainium scramble. And that's the other big flaw- that stupid name. I think they only mention it once, but they can surely come up with a better name than that for a McGuffin? That said, I wish oil was called Unobtainium instead- the alleged ulterior motives for the war in Iraq would have been laughed out of Bush's Cabinet room.

All of this aside, I wouldn't want to damn with faint praise by saying that this is Cameron's best film since Terminator 2, because in the 18 years since that came out, he's only made two films, and they were True Lies and Titanic. Nuff said. Instead, I can favourably compare this to Aliens. The two films ostensibly have several elements in common, like the non-descript evil corporation going into space in the name of greed, the wise-cracking and quotable Marines, the AMP mechs, and of course Sigourney Weaver. But more than that, it's a damn fun film to watch, a world away from the schmaltzy-ness that looms throughout Titanic and the utter lack of entertainment value in the bloated and self-indulgent True Lies. It's a game-changer in respect of the visuals, because special effects have now been advanced spectacularly by Avatar. There haven't been battle sequences this good on film since the Lord of the Rings trilogy closed off six years ago, and crucially, the effects complement the narrative rather than vice versa.

As I've said before, this has been a dog of a year for big-budget action blockbusters- summer of this year was an awful time to be at the cinema with the exception of Harry Potter and Star Trek, both of which were 2008 films delayed to this summer, and District 9, which was comparatively cheap to make anyway. In Avatar, we finally have the first, and probably last, bonafide, big-budget cinema experience of 2009. It's by no means a great film, but it should be applauded for not relying entirely on its groundbreaking visuals. It's probably not going to win an Oscar for Best Picture, for instance, but it's sure to clean up in the Visual Effects category. It will be a while before we'll see a cinematic event as big as this again, so make sure you see it there, because only time will tell if this holds up as well on DVD and blu-ray...


Year's end is approaching faster and faster, and I'm now going to race to catch up on the films still playing- Nativity! and Planet 51 specifically- and the last week of the year brings a wealth of releases too, including Sherlock Holmes and Nowhere Boy. Reviews of those are sure to be up in the next two weeks, along with the long promised Special Project for this blog. Watch this space!

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

14 December 2009

Serious Things

When we're two posts past the Christmas special and still in 2009, you know the year's end is fast approaching. Indeed, there are very few films left to go before 2010 rolls around, bringing Toy Story 3 and my inevitable explosion of excitement a little bit closer. But there are still a few to come, including certain James Cameron and Guy Ritchie films that I'm a little ambivalent about. For today, I have seen A Serious Man and Where The Wild Things Are. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.


After their recent mainstream successes, such as Burn After Reading or the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen present a much more personal and thoughtful project in the form of A Serious Man. Larry Gopnick is a physics professor who suddenly and inexplicably incurs a number of grave misfortunes. His wife decides to ask for a divorce, having decided to abscond with one of his more "serious" acquaintances, his children don't appreciate him and his deadbeat brother is sleeping on the sofa and hogging Larry's bathroom as he works on puzzling out the universe. In all of this, Larry begins to wonder what he's done to deserve his problems and consults with rabbis to try and regain some sense of direction.

The central refrain of A Serious Man is "I didn't do anything", and it's easy to see how an audience weaned off the mainstream to see this might assert that nothing happens in the leisurely-paced narrative. On the contrary, it's essentially the Coen brothers' equivalent of a biblical epic, grounded in suburbia. And the biblical aspect aside, we have the central character being pitched as analogous to Schrödinger's cat, potentially being both alive and dead at the same time. If that last sentence doesn't describe your ideal and entertaining night out at your local multiplex, that's because it's not, unless you're looking for a film you can really discuss and think about afterwards. There is a strong current of black comedy running through the film though, but when I say black, think ace of spades-black. And then some more black. But every comic exchange has buckets of meaning stacked up behind it, and I wouldn't blame anyone who had to go and discuss the film on the Internet to entirely "get" it. I know I had to, just so I could get my head around that final shot. It is a film that gleefully discomforts the audience and confounds expectations.

I did laugh a lot at the trademark dialogue of the Coens, and they bring that brilliant insight into idiocy and incompetence in everyday life to the table once again, but on many levels this is still a rather frustrating film to watch. Larry's aforementioned inaction is a double-edged sword- he doesn't deserve his misfortune, but then he doesn't do anything to subvert it either, and that's agonising to behold. On the other hand, Larry is brilliantly realised by Michael Stuhlbarg, and the Coens really got it right in casting virtually unknown actors. We're allowed to buy into their plight much easier when we're not trying to remember the last time we saw them in a film, or thinking about Ocean's Eleven, or whatever. It's not the most tense or gripping film ever, but there could have been big problems in making a film so personal that it restricted their audience. I didn't think it had those problems, but I'm sure long-time fans of the Coens will have a much greater appreciation for this, if they can take the intense discomfort that's ladled upon them.

A Serious Man is either a tragic comedy or a comic tragedy. I'm not sure which, but it's like watching someone scraping their nails down a blackboard, but not because it's annoying or terrible- it's just incredibly uncomfortable, and this elevates audience discomfort to high art. It's as dark as they come, but it still has laugh-out-loud moments. Newcomers may be alienated, and I certainly didn't feel entirely comfortable either, but it remains a thoughtful and interesting addition to the Coens' body of work. Oh, and that final shot is infuriatingly brusque, but it'll make sense once you have a quick look on IMDB. Fascinating, but toe-curlingly contrary.


Another slightly ambiguously pitched film in cinemas at the moment is Spike Jonze's eagerly-anticipated adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are, a children's book which, as loved as it is, doesn't seem the most likely candidate for film adaptation at only 10 pages long. Nevertheless, this film is the story of Max, an emotionally volatile young boy who runs away from home after an argument with his mother and winds up on an island. The island is populated by a group of six large creatures, who look cuddly enough but are given to wild and violent activity at any given point. Dressed in a wolf costume, Max ingratiates himself and becomes King of the Wild Things, but realises through his experiences that he has a lot of growing up to do.

Yes, that's the same Spike Jonze who directed Being John Malkovich. He's not the obvious choice to direct this, just as this is actually not an obvious choice for film adaptation. So there's a refreshing lack of obviousness about Where The Wild Things Are that makes it one of the more enjoyable family films of the year. There really shouldn't be any of the current debate about whether or not it's too scary for children, because as has been established many times, children can take, and indeed enjoy a little scary stuff every now and then. There's certainly no gore in the film, and if adults think children will be scared, then it just shows that children are a lot less panicky and reactionary than adults. The violence that the Wild Things inflict upon each other is real enough and carries enough weight to put the audience on edge, but it's certainly not imitable- most children are not seven feet tall or covered in fur.

But one thing I definitely have to praise is the look of those Wild Things. With Avatar fast approaching and apparently taking the lack of photo-realism in CGI creatures to laughable proportions, it's incredibly satisfying to see a film like this employ real, physical effects where possible. Yes, they had to do a bit of computer wizardry on the faces in order for there to be any lip-synch between the actors' voices and the creatures on screen. But the actual bodies were achieved with puppetry and animatronics- solid objects as opposed to pixel-composed creations. As a result, Where The Wild Things Are has weight and realism, and perhaps that's why parents are so pent up about the violence. The creatures are also well-served by the voices of James Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose, and there's also a rather excellent breakthrough performance by young Max Records. The whole thing is topped off by a beautiful and sweeping musical score by Karen O and Carter Burwell, making this a film that's just as good as the sum of its parts.

As Jonze said himself, it was his intention to make a film about childhood rather than a children's film. The end result exceeds in both of those categories, and Where The Wild Things Are is a touching fantasy film that has as much for its young audience as it does for adults, so long as they're not quibbling about what scares kids. It has a strong aesthetic and captures on celluloid a great deal of the turmoil that certain areas of your childhood can hold, as well as retaining all the joy of a youthful imagination.


If you've seen Where The Wild Things Are, or seen and recovered from A Serious Man, why not share your comments on those films or on my reviews below?

It's extremely likely that Avatar will be next up on the blog. I really can't see it being anywhere near as perfect as James Cameron has painted it- my favourite comment on how it looks so far has been "Pocahontas with Smurfs". It may completely surprise me yet and I'm going to try and watch it with an open mind, but the man hasn't made a film under two hours long since The Terminator, and this is probably going to be quite unnecessarily lengthy. Forewarned is forearmed, readers, so get your rant umbrellas out for the end of the week.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

8 December 2009

This Blog Is Your Blog

Rosebud. It's not me being lazy, folks- it's just that work gets on top of me at the moment. So I'm still seeing a lot of films, but if I sat around withholding reviews until I'd seen another film I could group it with, you wouldn't really have anything to read for long periods of time. So while I hope to return to posts with more than one review at a time, please don't be disheartened/shouty if there are a few like this. I am working on a special little thing for the end of the year that I hope will be appreciated by those who've been following my ramblings these last six months or so.

For now, we have a review! As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Me and Orson Welles
is a period-piece from Richard Linklater, whose work has ranged from School of Rock to Before Sunset, and it chronicles the hectic development and rehearsal of the eponymous auteur's seminal production of Caesar in 1937. Welles rules the roost at the Mercury Theatre in Manhattan, and an aspiring actor called Richard Samuels, the "Me" of the title, enters into his world quite by chance. He's cast as Lucius after bumping into Welles on the sidewalk, and is quite immediately bedazzled by the glamour of the theatre. But the Mercury's future hangs on the success of Caesar, and as the days before opening night pass by, the cast and crew grow increasingly exasperated with Welles' conceit and perfectionism.

Make no mistake, the operative part of that titular dynamic is Orson Welles, played remarkably by Christian McKay. If you want a definition of "breakthrough", that's what his tour-de-force effort is, and McKay is sure to make a name for himself following this film. His Welles is all of the worst things you could think of to say about the man- he's arrogant, impolite and incredibly short-tempered. But more than that, he is incredibly charismatic. Welles was 22 years old at this stage of his career, and yet his authority and his genius is unquestionable from the moment he appears on-screen. When the frustrated artisans of the Mercury sit around for hours on end waiting for their director, you can believe he's worth waiting for. And there's also a terrific undertone to his performance. Welles is a man who thrives on appreciation, perservering only for success, and it feels like his moodiness is fed by the frustration that he can't realise his vision or achieve that acclaim all on his own- he needs his cast and crew. McKay sells that beautifully, and he's truly one to watch if this film is anything to go by.

And that's why it's a shame that Zac Efron as Richard has been sold as the main reason to see Me and Orson Welles. He has top-billing in the trailer and on the poster, when he's more or less utterly outclassed by McKay and by the sterling supporting cast. Credit where credit is due- I'm a lot more accepting of Efron now than I was before. As a Doctor Who fan, I can't necessarily vouch that John Barrowman's popularity is a result of any great acting talent, but I see how his background with singing and dancing makes him reminiscent of a matinee idol. Zac Efron probably has the same appeal, and in this one he's at least been given more to do on the Performing Arts side of things than on serious acting. His acting is indeed more tolerable here than in 17 Again, but it's still relatively sucky when matched against his co-stars. After last month's embarrassment with Robert Pattinson droning Romeo and Juliet in New Moon, we now have to endure Efron shakily emoting his way through speeches from Julius Caesar at various points, and these are the film's only awkward or uncomfortable points. That's why marketing him as the main draw was a poor idea, especially seeing as how the film has made a mere £166,000 at the box office on its opening weekend, indicating that few denizens of his young fanbase turned out to see a film about theatre in 1930s New York.

More fool them, because this is incontrovertibly the best thing Efron has ever done. He might not be the best thing about it by any stretch of the imagination, but there's plenty to interest all audiences. People who are unfamiliar with Orson Welles and his work may well enjoy the romantic storyline between Richard and Welles' secretary, and Welles aficionados will, as mentioned, find a lot to enjoy in McKay's performance. But bigger than either of these things, it implants a love of theatre into its audience. We're never more than a metre away from the nearest media player in the age of iPhones and internet cafes, but this is a film that revives an appreciation for the stage and its methods. This is not least because of how wonderfully the period setting has been recreated- I honestly couldn't believe this was filmed on the Isle of Man, because it's just so believable as a front for 1930s Manhattan. Richard Linklater wants you to feel comfortable in the setting from the opening frames until the end credits roll, watching some great performances coupled with a great story. What more could you ask of a cinema outing?

Me and Orson Welles is not a Zac Efron film. Nor is it a Christian McKay film, or an Orson Welles film, in that none of those men dominate it. It's a film about the stage- a romance that's more about a young man falling for the nobility of the theatre than him falling for a woman. Christian McKay's performance remains the best of the year to date, and anyone who loves the cinema or the theatre should grit their teeth against Zac Efron's involvement if necessary and go to see this as soon as they can.


Next up will probably be some family fare- Planet 51 and Where The Wild Things Are, to be specific. Sorry that I won't be reviewing Paranormal Activity, because I've been told that the best way to watch it is in your own home, late at night, so I'm holding out for the DVD release rather than going to the cinema. In the meantime, if you go and watch Me And Orson Welles, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

5 December 2009

More Of Gravy Than The Grave

It's Chriiiiiiiiiiiiistmaaaaaaaaaaas, as that loon in the song keeps screaming from our radios every December. Preoccupied as I am with cinema, it's hard not to notice that the Christmas film sub-genre has been a real dumping ground for every cliche and shitty setup since the turn of the century. Thankfully, we're not having the dubious treat of another Vince Vaughn-starring Christmas film this year after the dual abominations that were Fred Claus and Four Christmases. Instead, we have Robert Zemeckis' new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which is as festive as Noddy Holder throwing Christmas puddings at a bunch of cold and starving orphans, (i.e. very) and The Box, which is not.

But more than just reviewing those- what makes a really good Christmas film? And more importantly, what should you all be watching in the run-up to the 25th. But first, the reviews- as something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments. Except with A Christmas Carol, because in fairness, if you don't know how that one turns out by now, you're probably not really in touch with reality enough to know what Christmas actually is.

The Box is a film that definitely doesn't fit my own strictures of the Christmas film sub-genre, despite the filmmakers going to great lengths to situate the action in the Advent season. It does however wield one of the more intriguing premises of the year, and has been marketed very well indeed, eliciting a rapturous response from film fans when they showed off the trailer at Comic Con in July. It's based on a short story by Richard Matheson and is all about what happens when a husband and wife are given a difficult dilemma in the face of an uncertain financial future. Arthur and Norma can't afford to pay their son's tuition fees unless they take part in a bizarre social experiment. They receive a box with a button on top of it, and are given 24 hours to decide whether or not to push the button. If they do, they will be paid one million dollars, but somewhere in the world, someone will die.

It would be easy to dismiss this film as a Twilight Zone episode bloated to feature-length proportions, and to some extent, it is. Matheson's short story provides ample mileage for director Richard Kelly, who's in need of a comeback since Southland Tales eradicated most of the goodwill he mustered with his debut, Donnie Darko, and the 113 minute running time zips along. While I've always found Donnie Darko to be massively overrated, I found a lot to enjoy in The Box, not least of which was its antagonist- the disfigured and seemingly benevolent Arlington Steward, played by Frank Langella. Steward is a marvellously creepy creation, and Langella has half his face CGI-ed off in the process of bringing him to life. Villains of dubious morality are always more interesting than those who are out-and-out "evil", and of course Langella is naturally watchable. Less interesting are Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, and it's difficult to empathise with their characters to begin with. They have a big house and a Corvette, which somewhat debases the merits of their selection to receive the box- in the context of the recession, audiences will hardly think they're desperate for the cash to survive. Instead, it raises questions of greed.

One of the main things that bugged me was the score by Arcade Fire, because it's almost distractingly intrusive in the early stages of the film. Creepy music is really not required in that first scene with Steward, and certainly not at that volume. The volume is dialled down later on and there's more of a relationship between the score and what's happening on-screen, but it's important to get that kind of thing consistent, because it can really take an audience out of the film. And to be fair, this is a very hard sell for most audiences. The film is pleasingly subversive of what the trailers have led you to understand about the plot, and it was the fact that the twist around 20 minutes into the film hadn't been signposted anywhere that made me sit up and pay attention. From there, I admit that the film sort of settles back into Kelly's disregard for narrative logic at times, but for the most part it's very engaging and satisfying. Though I'll bet that however many people enjoy it, an equal number will resist its charms and claim it's confusing rubbish. It is inscrutable at times, but it's far from being rubbish.

I'm really not sure how to sum up The Box, except to say that I felt a perplexing satisfaction about the whole thing once it was over. It had an odd sense of nostalgia about it that's absent in most of these supernatural thrillers. Certain kinks in the plot give it a slightly contrived sense, but overall I'd say that pushing a button is a pretty apt metaphor for how much you'll enjoy it. Whether it's pushing the right buttons or not depends entirely on who you are and how much you're willing to suspend disbelief with these things. Just please don't kill anyone I don't know if it pushes the wrong buttons.

Now of course we have A Christmas Carol. For the uninitiated- all two of you- this is the story of Victorian miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who receives three hauntings on Christmas Eve as his late business partner urges him to change his ways and embrace humanity. And there's no Muppets in this one. Instead, this is the latest motion-capture eye-boggler from Robert Zemeckis, who was a leading proponent of 3D and motion-capture around the time of The Polar Express, and it stars Jim Carrey as Scrooge and various other characters. Not least among the odder choices in this adaptation is Gary Oldman as both Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. No, really. Motion-capture technology can age or de-age an actor accordingly, allowing them to conceivably play any role. The trouble with Zemeckis' version is that motion-capture and 3D are the only new things he brings to the table.

This is, by now, one of the most adapted stories ever. As society grows more and more secular, this is the story that will eventually replace the nativity play in schools. Blackadder did it, Mickey Mouse did it, and most abominably it was done to explore why Michael Moore hates America. Most successfully however, it's been done by the Muppets, in The Muppet Christmas Carol back in 1992. Some will argue that Alastair Sim or Albert Finney starred in the definitive version, but never underestimate how big a fan of Michael Caine I am. Not to mention Muppets. So in the matter of the latest iteration of A Christmas Carol, I spent a large amount of the film knowing every line from the book and wishing it was Fozzie Bear or the Hecklers saying them instead. The only new additions in terms of plot and execution are a number of frankly unnecessary action beats spaced throughout to show off the technology.

Don't get me wrong, it looks pretty, and although the 3D still adds nothing, Zemeckis has recreated Victorian London in consummate detail, creating an atmosphere that works immeasurably to the film's advantage. Everything else is rather plain though. I'm not a huge Jim Carrey fan, and here we're treated to a Scrooge that's more like Mr. Burns and most bizarrely, a Ghost of Christmas Present who sounds like Ringo Starr. Somehow it's always better to see Carrey in the flesh, and you're generally left wondering why he was the best choice for the role. Gary Oldman suffers too for the lack of physicality in his roles, restricted by the motion-capture technology. On the other hand, that doesn't really stop Bob Hoskins, who's arguably better known for his voice than for his physical presence and makes a memorable but brief impression as Fezziwig.

Zemeckis has been well-served by this technology in the past, but both The Polar Express and Beowulf benefited from being adapted for the screen for the first time, whereas everybody knows all about A Christmas Carol. That begs the question of why you would go and watch a miscast Jim Carrey ham it up in 3D when you can stay at home with the Great Gonzo playing Charles Dickens. The next project in this vein will be a remake of Yellow Submarine, and I can't help but wondering when the creator of Back to the Future is going to give us another more original piece. This one looks good, but it's nothing we haven't seen before.

Despite some fairly anvil-sized hints as to where this is headed, we move now to my top five favourite Christmas films. The criteria here being that Christmas has to play some role in the plot for it to be a Christmas film. Therefore Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a Christmas film as it has Michelle Monaghan's damsel-in-distress investigating what happened to her dead sister over the Christmas period, whereas The Godfather, in which the assassination attempt on Vito Corleone happens to occur at Christmas, is not. Hopefully now that we have that cleared up, there'll be no quibbling about what counts and what doesn't in my estimation.

5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Yeah, I mentioned this one ahead of time, but then you can probably already guess what my number one is already too. Robert Downey Jr. plays an out-of-luck petty criminal who is embroiled in a murder investigation with his childhood crush and a gay private eye. And it's Christmas!

4. Batman Returns
This one seems to get a number of unfair drubbings lately, with words like "camp" and "silly" being thrown around. These people have obviously never seen Batman & Robin. Anyways, Michael Keaton returns as the Caped Crusader to do battle with Danny Devito's Penguin and Michelle Pfieffer's Catwoman. I actually prefer this one to its predecessor, oddly. Not just because it's set at Christmas either.

3. Die Hard
It spawned a million knock-offs, and not one matched the quality of this one. Bruce Willis makes a name for himself in action films as John McClane, an ordinary guy who takes on a skyscraper full of terrorists on Christmas Eve. Never mind that the sequels elevated him to superhuman status just like every other 80s action hero, the original is still one of the best action films of all time. And the end credits rolling to "Let It Snow" is as festive as it gets.

2. It's A Wonderful Life
This one's a given, right? It's the seminal Christmas film. James Stewart is George Bailey, a man driven to throw himself off a bridge on Christmas Eve. Before he can go through with it, an angel appears to show George exactly how important he is to the people of his small town. You can probably watch and enjoy this one all year round, but the warm feeling it leaves you with is doubly nice at Christmas.

1. The Muppet Christmas Carol

Obviously. The Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat narrate the redemption of Michael Caine's Scrooge. The Hecklers, Fozzie, Animal, Bunsen and Beaker all show up, and it's the best adaptation of the story ever, in my humble opinion. Even the vegetables like it.

Yes, I am very humble, and if you agree or disagree about A Christmas Carol, The Box or anything else on the blog, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch

1 December 2009

He's Going To Kill EVERYONE?!

'Tis the season to be jolly and all that. Problem is, I still haven't seen either of the two new Christmas films in the cinema this year, so I can't blog on that topic just yet. Arg. Instead I'm going to do a short post on a film my busy university and work schedule has allowed me to see this week, Law Abiding Citizen with Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Moving right along, the film starts with two killers bursting into Clyde Shelton's home and mudering his wife and daughter in front of him. Shelton survives, but is dismayed when an ambitious young lawyer, Nick Rice, allows one of the killers to go free on a plea bargain. Ten years later, Nick is the District Attorney of Philadelphia, and the Shelton case is about to come back to haunt him. He hunts Clyde down after a series of killings and puts him into police custody, only to find that Clyde is a master tactician, and that the killings aren't going to stop just because he's behind bars. Law Abiding Citizen attempts to broach the failings of the American justice system with as many booms, bangs and wallops as possible, but right away, there's a problem with that.

The slightly vanilla title aside, I expected this film to be quite good- the trailer looked just crazy enough to be this year's equivalent of Taken, a thriller that had a serious core but which still carried a warning along the lines of "don't think too much". What this film is instead isn't quite as memorable. If the film had took itself as seriously as I was taking it, it would immediately have jumped up a notch in my estimation. I wasn't taking it seriously at all, and thus that's where Law Abiding Citizen fell down for me. Shelton's murderous antics from inside the jail have been done similarly before and done better, with the Joker in The Dark Knight remaining the high benchmark for post-Hannibal Lecter criminal masterminds. An unfair comparison perhaps, but for the large part, watching this film felt like watching those ten minutes where the Joker is in prison, but in slow motion.

More than that, Gerard Butler- oh, sorry, I'll say it right, GERARD BUTLER! still isn't turning in much in the way of a memorable or distinctive performance. In fact, both he and Jamie Foxx are sort of miscast as their characters. Butler is still best known as that bold and caps-locked fellow we remember from 300, and though he's considerably more clothed here, he still fails to convince either as a bereaved family man or as the James Bond government agent type that Clyde turns into after the story's been set up. Jamie Foxx just seems to turn up for the paycheck too, though I've never really been convinced he's as good an actor as people say he is. This miscasting also brings down that message that the film's trying to send, turning what could've been an enjoyable action flick into something that needlessly tries to be more weighty and falls considerably short of its mark. That said, the action setpieces are good, and the plot unfolds in a largely satisfying manner up until the last ten minutes or so, where a bonkers twist leads into a consequence-free climax. Nobody learns anything, further undermining the "serious" factor.

If you saw the trailer for Law Abiding Citizen, prepare to have been mis-sold on the premise a little. It's not as action-packed nor as enjoyable as the advertising campaign has made out, but I definitely recommend you take my approach before you go in and don't take it seriously. Ignore the slight preachiness about the justice system, because the ending is strictly by-numbers and several earlier threads are left dangling in the wind. I found the film moderately entertaining, albeit overly grisly. Indeed, the 18 certificate could have been avoided with one minor cut or alteration to the violence, and this film might have found a broader audience. It's not bad, but you might want to hold this one in contempt for a while, at least as long as it takes for the DVD to be released.


It is December, so some Christmas films and posts are imminent. Please don't yell at me, and if you've seen Law Abiding Citizen, why not share your comments below?

Don't forget, we're also reaching the end of the year, the end of the 2000s and most crucially, the end of David Tennant's era on Doctor Who, so you can expect some best-of lists mixed in with some of the reviews towards January.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

25 November 2009

Bored Shirtless

There isn't an awful lot of commenting going on on this blog anyway, but in advance, here are some popular rebuttals I won't be accepting about today's post.

1. You're not the target audience.
2. By slating a film I and millions of others like, you're stifling my individuality.
3. You're jealous of the manly abs on show.

Point 3 is particularly amusing- like saying I must hate the Super Mario Brothers because they can jump higher than I can. But as you may have garnered, I've been to see New Moon, the second film in the apparent "Twilight Saga". As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

So this film being everywhere at the moment, you probably know the story. Bella Swan is a high-school girl who's dating the practically-neutered vampire, Edward Cullen. At the beginning of New Moon, an altercation with Edward's brother falling off the wagon leaves Edward fearing he can't protect Bella from his blood-sucking brethren anymore. He subsequently leaves Bella in a prolific sulk and he and his family move on. Enter the newly... how do you describe someone becoming more wild? Oh, that's a good word- enter the newly bewildered Jacob Black, Bella's best friend, who's gained a supernatural hang-up of his own since becoming more integrated with his Quileute tribe of Native American werewolves. That the film takes about an hour and a half to get to this most elementary level of plot may lead you to suspect that the film ain't that great.

The truth is, I can't hate the films just because of the hype. Twilight was nowhere near as bad as the worst films of last year and New Moon isn't nearly as bad as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It's curious that it's so easy to make that comparison, given how this series has proportionately the same effect on the female filmgoer as Transformers has on the male filmgoer, and both are really nothing to write home about. And thus it would be easier to magnify the flaws of this film just to rail against it. While I'm not entirely willing to take that route, it is fairly clear that this is not the film that its more militant fans are claiming. The Mormon agenda of sexual abstinence remains at the fore throughout the film, but this is not a film that sends a good message to young women. The aforementioned sulk comes out of Bella feeling that she is worthless without a supernatural beau. Although she attends high school, she has no clear plans for the future except for going where her bloke goes. I'm no manner of feminist but that, to me, seems pretty bad.

So the next thing Bella does is go out and become an adrenaline junkie, undertaking reckless activities because they give her hallucinations of her departed ex, staring blankly and warning her to stop. I'm not a doctor either, but that also seems bad. I'm actually pretty sure that counts as some kind of schizophrenia. In the course of that, she grows closer to Jacob, which I presume has nothing to do with the fact that Taylor Lautner has spent most of his time since the last film in the gym, and not enough learning to act. While Kristen Stewart is a very capable actress with limited material, Lautner's idea of intensity, coupled with his canine nature, put me in mind of Dug the talking dog from Up. He could feasibly have pounced Bella at any moment and said "I have just met you, and I love you!" Even more goofy is the necessary adoption of Stephanie Meyer's self-masturbatory notion that these buff young men must wander around shirtless and wearing jean-shorts, making the tribe look like a werewolf boy-band. I hear they do a mean cover of "Bad Moon Rising".

With all this shirtless nonsense going on, there's little screentime for the female audience's pale and wooden idol Robert Pattinson. Edward's going-away is the impetus for the whole plot, so we're mercifully spared most of the Hayden Christensen School of Acting. He was an unproven actor before this, and he remains unproven. And worse, he occasionally does this tic when he's acting like he's in pain that's more akin to someone spontaneously ejaculating- where was Andy Samberg in this film? That's not to drub all of the cast- as I've said many times, Kristen Stewart is a remarkable actress who makes the best of what paltry amount of character development she's given. She's more watchable than any character as two-dimensional as Bella has any real right to be, carrying the film through much of its stultifying running time. Things only really kick into gear in the last half an hour, much like the first film, but with much more promising results.

For the last half hour is when the Volturi show up. The Volturi are vampire royalty based in Italy, and they're headed by Michael Sheen! Michael Sheen! Brilliant actor, and utterly brilliant in this as Aro, a kind of vampiric Tony Blair with no regard for human life. And he's in the film for... all of ten minutes. That, for me, was New Moon's biggest crime. For all of the angst and aimless wandering, there was nothing worse than seeing this character and this performance wasted in the way it was. Similarly, Dakota Fanning turns in her only performance to date that didn't make me cringe as a young but scarily powerful vampire charged with enforcing the family's will. The worst thing about their negligible screentime is that I'll actually look forward to more Volturi in the two films that are left to go, and I suspect they'll receive little prominence. Still, you can't judge these things sight unseen, and that was enough to get me in the cinema to see New Moon.

I've already said I didn't hate the film, but neither is it very good. While its predecessor was an indie film, Twilight also paid for most of Summit Entertainment's output for the next two years, and the glossy blockbuster look and marketing campaign for New Moon jars slightly. It's not an action film, nor should it be. Director Chris Weitz does bring more CGI eye-candy to proceedings than Catherine Hardwicke did, and the fight scenes that are included are a marked improvement upon what has come before. But that can't justify the film as what it seems to have become. It's a fantasy romance and it didn't seem comfortable as a low-budget indie film, nor does it entirely fit into the blockbuster mould. David Slade is taking the helm for the next film, due out in July, and with his credits I can imagine the film changing again, taking more of a horror slant. This kind of inconsistency can't really be good for a series that has weak source material to begin with, especially as screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has resolutely plowed through two helm changes without changing her approach by one iota- "I'm not some car you can fix up, I'm never gonna run right" sounds more like a bad song lyric than a credible piece of dialogue.

The acting is largely wooden, the writing is vanilla and uninspired, and they still haven't got the tone down, but New Moon isn't any worse than its predecessor. It's definitely not going to convert anyone who doesn't like the series, to whom this will still be the film about the werewolf boy-band and their mortal enemies, the sparkly vampires. But I can honestly say I was expecting a lot worse. The fans of the books seem to enjoy the films, and fair play to them, but they could really hope for something better. The film's ending best summarises the polarising nature of this series- it's a cliffhanger that made several people in the cinema squeal in delight and everyone else rush for the exit. It's not out-and-out bad, but we're halfway through the planned four films and it looks doubtful this series will leave any lasting impression after it's over.


I certainly feel I've given much harsher reviews than that, but the day the Twilight series really gets me to sit up and pay attention will be the day it takes the central love affair a lot less seriously. I wish half the people who go to see New Moon would go to see An Education, a film that deals with the intensity of first love, and the loss of that love, with much more aptitude than Stephanie Meyer could ever muster. Still, if you've seen the film, and want to share your thoughts without telling me I'm out-and-out wrong, why not comment below?

Next up, it's coming up to Christmas, so I'll finally be taking a look at Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol and giving that a critique, as well as talking about various other festive films.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

16 November 2009

The Caine Scrutiny

Britain, Britain, Britain! It's been a pretty good time for British cinema, these last few years- we've had the excellent In Bruges and Is Anybody There? in very recent memory, and of course Oscar glory for Slumdog Millionaire back in February. This post covers the latest cinematic output to come charging into multiplexes, one of which looks likely to repeat Slumdog's Oscar success next year and the other being a bit more like a Daily Mail reader's wet-dream. This is Harry Brown and An Education. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

I'm starting with Harry Brown because what could be more British than that? It's got Michael Caine in it! As regular readers will know, Michael Caine is my all-time favourite actor and I've never seen him give a performance I didn't like. OK, he might have been in bad films, but he's always watchable, whether he's in On Deadly Ground or The Cider House Rules. Here he's the eponymous pensioner whose wife has recently died, leaving him alone living in a rough neighbourhood. So far, so Gran Torino, but when Harry's best friend Leonard is murdered while trying to defend himself from the estate's hellish yobs, Harry gets mad as hell and he ain't gonna take it anymore. So naturally, he gets hold of a gun and turns vigilante on the chavs.

It's sort of typical for a revenge movie that the main character will have slightly flimsy motivation, and that gorehounds will doze through the bloodless overture to a film and wake up when violence starts occurring. What such gorehounds should reckon on at this point is Michael Caine, whose performance is utterly believable and compelling throughout. Harry certainly doesn't start the film as a hardman- indeed, he's afraid to go into the underpass where the yobs hang out on his own, even when he gets a call from the hospital about his wife's condition worsening. We're then shown that his only remaining relationship is with Leonard, played briefly but memorably by David Bradley, and when Leonard's killed, it still takes a while for Harry to go completely out to lunch. This is a fine piece of tension building on director Daniel Barber's part, and Caine's performance matches the material excellently, but it's a shame that such subtlety isn't really employed with everything else in the film.

Once hoodies start turning up dead, a pair of CID officers get on the case, but these are very poorly developed characters. The usually reliable Emily Mortimer has little to work with and just proves slightly annoying. Moreover, the chavs are cartoonishly monstrous, which slightly undermines the social commentary angle of the violence. Alright, so I'm sure there are young people who really are as bad as Noel or Marky in this film, but at the same time, there are many who are pushed to do anti-social things because they're victims themselves- broken families, poor education etc. The film isn't entirely interested in showing that angle, so it actually becomes a chav-sploitation film, to some extent. Barber portrays a broken Britain that can be fixed by violence, so the message of the film becomes entirely too dubious.

It's probably easier to turn your brain off while watching Harry Brown if you're more right wing than I am in your political views. While there's no doubt that these characters deserve the treatment they get at Harry's hands, it's sure to proliferate quite sweeping generalisations about a sector of society that needs to be rehabilitated more effectively than it is at present. All context aside, it's a film that's similar to Gran Torino in more ways than one- a strong central performance makes it what it is, and the performances and supporting characters just let it down. This makes for much more uncomfortable viewing than that film too, but it's worth a look if you have a strong stomach and enjoy Michael Caine's films. If only the latter is true, then Is Anybody There? is still the best film he's made this year.

Harry Brown is Michael Caine's 110th film, and on the opposite end of the spectrum to this screen legend is Carey Mulligan, whose breakout performance in An Education has her being heralded as the Next Big Thing by the type of people who like to predict what the Next Big Thing is going to be. Most famous before this for playing Sally Sparrow in the Tennant-lite Doctor Who adventure Blink, Mulligan plays Jenny, a teenage girl who's utterly bored by the monotony of suburban London in the early 1960s, being pressed to work hard to go to Oxford by her father. Enter David, played by Peter Sarsgaard, a man more than twice Jenny's age who utterly bedazzles the young schoolgirl, seducing her away from her studies with his devil-may-care lifestyle and expensive gifts.

The words "coming of age tale" are bandied around a lot, and have rather bizarrely been attached to the likes of American Pie, a film which had two sequels (well, two that count, anyway) after which none of the characters had gotten any more mature. An Education is fundamentally a coming of age tale about a young girl who learns a hard lesson about the world. More than that, it's about all the things people aren't saying- be they secrets and lies, or the answers to valid questions about what we're doing in life. Jenny is naive and wide-eyed but she nevertheless holds a sharp cynicism about her prospects- her father desperately browbeats her into studying hard so she can go to Oxford, but once the prospect of marrying her off comes around, he encourages her to take a shortcut to the security he wants for her instead. As much as it contrasts with the more phoney coming of age films, it's never entirely po-faced, and screenwriter Nick Hornby gives the film a genial and enjoyable sense of humour.

That humour is best exemplified in Jenny's father, who is played extraordinarily well by Alfred Molina. The man is never more than a couple of seconds away from a rant about all the money he's spending on his daughter, and his narrow-sighted outlook provides for some of the film's funniest moments. But behind that, there's a beautiful moment where his soul is exposed and we can really believe he loves this girl, his daughter. The other standout performance is of course from Carey Mulligan. The rumblings of an Oscar for Best Actress are certainly not unwarranted, and Mulligan makes a remarkably convincing schoolgirl, given how she's actually in her 20s. Much easier to believe than Megan Fox, to say the very least. Her naivety is capitalised upon by Peter Sarsgaard's David, who's creepier in today's context than he perhaps might have been if this film had been released contemporaneously with the period it's actually set in. In the 21st century context, it would be easy to be freaked out from the off by David waiting around outside Jenny's school in his car, but Sarsgaard carries off a quite effortless charm in the role, which makes for excellent drama once his suave veneer wears away.

If there's an issue with seeing An Education in cinemas, it's that you have to go out of your way to see it, for an experience that isn't distinctly cinematic. It's a shame it's playing in so few cinemas, and most will wait until DVD to see this. The bottom line is that the DVD won't be out until next year, and I'm glad I got to see one of the best films of 2009 in 2009, rather than six months from now. Carey Mulligan really is going to be a star, and Alfred Molina joins my select club of great actors who simply aren't in enough films these days. It would be easier to dismiss the film's message as one from a simpler time, but it's a story about a girl who becomes a woman all too quickly. In this age of dubious female role models and teenage pregnancies, when else has it ever been more relevant? Funny, gripping and very watchable indeed.


If I pair up 2012 and New Moon in the next post, it's possible that the entire blog will not only explode, but implode, with my rage, so perhaps it's best to keep those two separate. Nevertheless, you can be certain that one of those two will be coming up next, and that neither of them will be as good or as watchable as Harry Brown or An Education. So if you've seen the films discussed here, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

13 November 2009

Roland Emmerich, Mad Profit

In this week's rather circularly titled post, I'm going to be taking a look at Roland Emmerich's 2012, his third disaster movie, starring John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, amongst others. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

And lo, the prophet Roland Emmerich did deliver upon us a vision of great suffering in a time not too far away. A time when the peoples of the Earth are transformed into narrow character stereotypes as they elude the bangs, booms and wallops that herald the end of the world. And damned are the shady government types who hide this event from the people they are verily seen to be arseholes. Moreover, the prophet Emmerich's vision did ramble on for sometime, and the peoples of the Earth to whom it was related, grew restless and started scratching themselves and wondering what to do once he'd finished and they'd got home. For almost one tenth of their day had vanished once the prophet came out of his stupor, and everyone was sort of annoyed.

Alright, so it's a bit daft and puts about as much of the reasoning behind the next most imminent apocalypse theory into the film as you'd imagine, i.e. next to none. But this, from the director of Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow was always going to be more about profit than prophecy. The film went to number 1 with a bullet at the UK box office, success I am sure can only be curbed by this week's release of the lady-luring New Moon. No matter what I say to you about this, I can hardly convince you not to see it if you want to, so I'll just say this- wait for the Blu-ray. The time was that you'd have to go to the cinema to see special effects such as the ones on display here in the way they were meant to be seen, but this is one of those films that will look terrific in high-definition, so another six months won't kill you- we've apparently got three years until the world ends.

That's not a drubbing by the way, because I have to say that 2012 is one of the funniest films I've seen all year. The CGI looks very well done and polished, but what's actually properly appealing about the film is just how damn goofy it is. You're not entertained by the tidal wave, but by the hilarious cut to a close-up of a chicken reacting to it immediately before it strikes. And then of course there's the stereotypes and cliches on show, which are laughably bad for anyone who's seen more than one American film in their life. Deadbeat dad? Check. Cute little girl who keeps her head in a cataclysmic crisis? Check. Uber-brave President of the United States? Check. It's all there, and you will laugh riotously at it. That in itself is a statement to how the CGI deaths of what must surely be billions of people lack any real dramatic weight because you're too busy laughing. Then again, there are about 60 characters we're meant to be following, each given equal focus, a flaw that contributes largely to the film's unwieldy running time but also covers around 0.00000001 of the Earth's population. That goes some way to making up for the rest, who you really aren't arsed about.

So yes, the film suffers from the inverse ratio between the quality of the CGI and the quality of the script, and speaking of the latter, I have to wonder how many of the film's cast read it before signing on the dotted line of their contract. I look forward to John Cusack's film now that he's been in this, because he has freely admitted he makes an awful big budget film every once in a while so he has the financial security to star in more personal and well-produced film like Being John Malkovich or High Fidelity. On the other hand, Chiwetel Ejiofor's involvement is a sad symptom of how undervalued he is as an actor- since his breakout role in Dirty Pretty Things, he's been consistently good in films like Serenity and Children of Men, but here he's relegated to explaining the film's ludicrously unscientific impetus and being the moral compass to those arsey government types I mentioned. Woody Harrelson is the only one who really acquits himself, doing exactly what the script demands and being ape-shit crazy- for more, see Zombieland.

If you're aware of what 2012 is, you can probably surmise that it's not about the actors, it's about the CGI, and that makes it a B-movie on a huge budget. The science that Ejiofor is forced to spout involves "mutating neutrinos", an explanation that has already been decried as bullshit by this very blog's resident physicist and artist. You know who should have played John Cusack's role? Bruce Campbell. That alone would have elevated this film to a modern classic of entertainment, but the fact that the hilarity is unintentional is where it all falls down. Plus, the huge running time kind of sucks the fun out of what would have been a much shorter and more enjoyable film if they'd trimmed it down to an hour and a half. That said, it's around the same length as the film I hate most in the entire world, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and it's a hell of a lot more entertaining than that. It's just as cynical though- Cusack's protagonist may be quixotic and optimistic, but only for plot convenience, as Roland Emmerich is far more concerned with getting his audience to watch the world burn, melt and generally lose its shit.

In the end, it boils down to one simple flaw- 2012 is ADD filmmaking. In the press coverage surrounding the film's release, Emmerich declared: "I said to myself that I'll do one more disaster movie, but it has to end all disaster movies. So I packed everything in." And he means everything. The end result is a film you really shouldn't see in cinemas, simply because I fear its success would herald a bunch of films attempting to do the same thing, but less funny. Besides which, you can pause it when you're watching at home, the better to take a toilet break or otherwise just wonder why the characters are trying so desperately to survive the apocalypse, given the obvious drop-off in quality of life that would follow. If this warning comes to late and you've seen 2012 already, why not share your comments below.


Next up will almost certainly be that New Moon thing, followed by my review of Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol to kick off a number of cinematic Christmas postings. The next post should be later this week, uni and work allowing.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.