24 September 2009

Broad Palate

In an entry that's titled with a food theme, you could be forgiven for thinking that Julie and Julia would be getting a look. Alas no, my constitution isn't quite strong enough for me to sit and watch a film where Amy Adams is apparently kooky and "crazy" for cooking meals and doing a blog. Maybe on DVD. For now however, we have Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a film in which the relevance of food should really be obvious, and District 9, in which aliens on Earth are derogatorily referred to as prawns.

For good measure, I've also tacked on The Firm, which probably compares to a chewed up vol-au-vent on a paper plate that someone's left in amongst the chicken wings and pizza in this week's cinematic buffet. I should've omitted it to preserve that food thing, but never mind, I want it out of the way. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Ostensibly, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs seems to be another of the more soulless variety of CGI animated films that have come out in the last ten years. And worse, the major marketing point of the film has been the fact that it's in 3D. I can say upfront once again (I really need some manner of 3D disclaimer to refer you all to at any given point) that the 3D really adds nothing to it, and that it would be just as enjoyable in 2D. Unfortunately, most cinemas are keen to show the technology off, and thus 2D screenings are sometimes difficult to attend. Gimmicks aside, this is a film set on an island that chiefly exports and consumes sardines, where budding inventor Flint Lockwood resides. When an experiment that turns water into food goes awry and causes food to rain from the sky three times a day, he inadvertently heaps renown and fame upon the island, but with potentially disastrous consequences. So the premise is a smaller-scale The Day After Tomorrow, but with gravy.

From this premise, and indeed from having watched the finished product, I could imagine this being heralded as a surrealist masterpiece if it had been produced as a live-action feature. It would be directed by Terry Gilliam or David Lynch, or someone like those directors, and would probably be held up as a cult classic like Brazil or Blue Velvet. If we reviewed everything based on my imaginings, you'd all be very confused, so I'll stick to saying how enjoyable an animated film this is. The script is funny, the visuals are rather dazzling and the voice work is both competent and enjoyable. There's no Dreamworks syndrome going on here, with the recognisable voices of Bruce Campbell, Bill Hader and Mr. T putting words to the pictures, as opposed to just recognisable names. And as I say, the script is very funny, so they have a lot to work with.

I'm as surprised as you are that I'm giving a film called Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs as positive a review as is usually reserved for the very best of Dreamworks' output or any Pixar film that falls even slightly short of amazing, but I do feel the need to sell this film to you. Next week, Toy Story is re-released in 3D, and the week after that, Pixar's latest effort Up follows it, so while the film is a moderate box office hit, the odds are that this will be overlooked by most. Even though it'll have healthy eating enthusiasts up in arms with the downpour of cheeseburgers and pizza that happens on-screen to fill up the island's all-too-hungry citizens, the fact is that this is a film that is qualified by its modesty alone as one that deserves to do well- the opening title card proclaims it to be "A film by lots of people" as opposed to the autonomous leanings of most credits. And beyond that, those people have made this a film that really is enjoyable for the whole family, and not in a "they said so in the advert" kind of way. Take the kids or the parents or a friend, and just enjoy it. You'll probably be hungry afterwards.

It's certainly a great deal better than the "grown-up" film that was released on the same day- Nick Love's latest effort The Firm. Based on the much-acclaimed BBC teleplay starring Gary Oldman, Nick Love has created yet another film for which the target audience is the viewership of "Danny Dyer's Deadliest Men". Granted, this is the first of Love's films that hasn't employed that sterling young thespian Mr. Dyer, but that small mercy doesn't make this any less rubbish. As with the original, this focuses on the dangerous lifestyle of Bex- estate agent by day, football hooligan by night and er... weekend- and the "firm" of violent football fans he heads up. He draws hero worship from an impressionable young teen called Dom as he plans an attack on his nemeses in the other firms. Dom apparently doesn't feature in the original, which focuses more on Gary Oldman's character. I haven't seen the original, so please don't expect a rant reminiscent of the Pelham 123/One Two Three episode, but I think this one lost points before it started by the fault of not having Gary Oldman in it.

And worse, the film starts exactly as it goes on throughout. A pink neon variant of the Warner Brothers logo appears as the synth intro to Soft Cell's Tainted Love booms from the soundtrack, apropos of nothing whatsoever when preceding a film about football hooliganism. In fact, for all the 80s music on the soundtrack, it doesn't inform the film at all. The setting is totally irrelevant- not in a Brokeback Mountain way, whereby the passage of time is only really noteworthy by news reports and calendars in the background of more important scenes, but because everything is more or less irrelevant. After this film concluded, I thought back over it and realised there was only one scene in the whole thing that couldn't be removed without confusing the rest of the plot, and that was one of the final scenes. This utter lack of narrative drive makes for a very boring viewing experience, as you can imagine.

It's not totally irredeemable, as it is elevated by a few good performances. Eddie Webber and Camille Coduri are notable for their supporting roles as Dom's parents, and Paul Anderson might not be Gary Oldman, but he's certainly charismatic as Bex. As with Dorian Gray, the film might be better if the better performer were the central character, but instead Calum McNab is central as Dom. McNab is the star of no less than three other Nick Love-esque films, two of which are also about hooliganism, and I wouldn't predict a bright future for him if it weren't for the fact that he's clearly due to star alongside Danny Dyer in a film called The Manor. I presume this will be an enormous departure from type for both young men, and that this couldn't possibly be another film about "geezers" being "geezers", but then I've been wrong before. What we have in The Firm is a film about a pointless facet of football culture that says absolutely nothing about its subject whatsoever. Even the actual violence is shot with a camera so shaky, it's impossible to tell what's happening or what point Love's trying to make- and those last thirteen words sum the entire exercise up. Those performances aside, absolutely worthless.

The final course for today has arrived slightly late. Indeed, District 9 has been out for the best part of a month and I don't doubt that most of you have seen or otherwise heard all about it. See if you come here again, eh? The fact is, I was very run down the first time I saw it, and thus I saw it through streaming eyes and coughing fits. A second viewing was needed, and I've only just managed to fit that in yesterday. So the titular slum is the film's location- the home to a million inter-planetary immigrants and an area rife with litter, crime and general unpleasantness. Their crippled mothership hovers over Johannesburg as protests break out amongst the city's human population. The decision is made by District 9's regulators MNU (Multi-National United) to rehouse the hated and feared aliens 200km away from the city, and their agent Wikus van der Merwe is put in charge. In the course of his duties, Wikus finds his life irrevocably changed as he overcomes his prejudices and tries to help an alien called Christopher Johnson to return home. It's a film about an alien incursion on Earth where humans are decidedly unsympathetic.

Of course anyone interested in recent world history will recognise the parallels with apartheid in South Africa, and that's something that's very personal to director Neill Blomkamp. District 9 is the product of producer Peter Jackson giving Blomkamp $30 million to make whatever kind of film he wanted to, after the pair's mooted adaptation of the Halo games fell through. And what Blomkamp came up with isn't a political drama- it's the most intelligent action movie of the summer. In a way, it's a shame we had to wait until September for it, given how rubbish this summer was on the whole, but now that it's here, it's very very good. One trap I'm not going to fall into is to say that it's original- it starts with a Cloverfield style mockumentary way of story-telling and continues to homage or reference The Fly, Alien Nation and even The Quatermass Experiment. It does handle all of its elements in a very refreshing and innovative way, and that's what makes it so entertaining to watch. The only thing I would say is really jarring about its execution is the transition between the rigid fourth wall narrative and that mockumentary style, which goes backwards and forwards throughout.

While mockumentary can sometimes lend a film credibility and realism, it took me out of the film at times and I honestly feel the film would be better if it had a consistent way of storytelling. What does make the film realistic is the phenomenal use of visual effects. McG and Michael Bay have shits that cost more than $30 million, but the CGI here is terrific- the aliens and their spaceship look photo-real and are very well-designed too. The design of the "prawns" as everyone calls them derogatorily throughout also ties into a now-universal truth of bipeds that have squid faces- along with the Ood and Dr. Zoidberg, you are going to be marginalised if you're in sci-fi. Also adding an extra dimension to the film is the terrific debut performance by Sharlto Copley, a convincing everyman who swears and shrieks his way through Wikus' trials and tribulations and gives one of the most enjoyable and well-rounded performances of the year so far. All of this makes District 9 a very entertaining film on multiple levels- it's got political commentary on apartheid AND guns that explode people into bloody mulch with a single blast. It's not perfect, but it's a very interesting debut feature indeed, and it's certainly worth watching if you haven't seen it yet.

So to conclude, I thought Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is good for kids and their parents but not for obesity levels, and District 9 is enjoyable and thought-provoking for everyone else. If you see The Firm walking down the street towards you, cross over to the other side to avoid having your head kicked in with utter pointlessness for 90 minutes. If you've seen any of these films, please comment on this post and let me know if you agree or disagree.

Um, up next? I've still got to see Away We Go, and tomorrow brings in a raft of new releases including Creation and Surrogates. I'm unlikely to see the re-envisioned and re-RnB'd version of Fame, so let's say Away We Go and Creation will be reviewed next.

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

20 September 2009

Games Games Games

In the last week, I've been to see two new films in cinemas and otherwise found myself engrossed in the DVDs of Batman: The Animated Series. There's something of a post-summer lull going on at the moment, and it seems like the only other films that are really showing on my radar at the moment are either not coming to cinemas until December or is otherwise a 3D re-release of Toy Story. It's a film that's been out for almost 15 years now, but that won't stop me doing a lovely celebratory post on here once I see it on the big-screen again.

In the meantime, we've got two films that happen to deal with games- as an occupation in Adventureland, and as the very apex of human achievement in Gamer, so it's needless to say which was the more thought-provoking. In spite of this somewhat premature drubbing, you can safely assume as ever that while minor plot spoilers may occur, I'm not going to spoil any major developments in either film in the course of the reviews.


Adventureland is the new film from Superbad director, Greg Mottola, and it's a much more personal film than his first feature. It's based on his own time spent working in a big and slightly shoddy amusement park in the late 1980s, and follows James, the kind of sweet, awkward character that Michael Cera plays in... well, every single film that Michael Cera is in. So Mottola gains points right away by casting young up and comer Jesse Eisenberg in the lead instead as the unfortunate James, whose plans to travel Europe after his high-school graduation fall through, forcing him to take a minimum wage job at the titular amusement park and learn some lessons about real life that he wasn't particularly prepared for.

Essentially the antithesis of Superbad, this is a film that seems totally honest about the troubles of teenage life. Yes, I enjoyed Superbad, and found it very funny, but where Adventureland succeeds is in creating much more well-drawn characters than Seth and Evan in the earlier film. It's not as jam-packed with jokes as the earlier film, but as I said about Judd Apatow and Funny People, this is probably Greg Mottola's best film, though not necessarily his funniest. The comedy is there, but it's secondary to the story, which feels honest and natural throughout. Its subtleties mark it as a very different beast to the type of teen comedy that's come about since American Pie, which is, for my money, the most overrated comedy since A Midsummer Night's Dream. No, not an adaptation, I mean Shakespeare's original. And for a comedy "inspired" by Pie, it has to register on one of two levels for me to enjoy it- it has to be either really really funny (see Sex Drive, an unfortunately titled but surprisingly funny comedy) or otherwise feature great performances and a well-drawn story, and this film fits comfortably into the latter.

Jesse Eisenberg's performance may be cut from the same cloth as the typecast Michael Cera, but is immediately elevated because he's not Michael Cera, and thus he's a lot easier to empathise with. Eisenberg's co-star is Kristen Stewart- yes, she of Twilight fame. I've noted before that the character Bella Swan has all the charisma and common sense of a baked potato, and that Stewart was the most bearable part of the first Twilight film. Having watched her performance in this film, as James' love interest Em, I actually feel I did her a disservice with such faint praise. She's an actress I hope will make more films outside of That Franchise, because she's extremely capable and endearing when given the right material. Beyond that, there's a fairly phoned-in performance from Ryan Reynolds as the park's handyman, Connell, and the only other highlight is Bill Hader trying to steal the show once again as Bobby, the manically committed David Brent-esque manager of the park, who occasionally wields a baseball bat against litterbugs and cheaters, with Kristen Wiig playing his indulgent wife. So the film largely centres around James and Em, and is all the better for it.

And the best part of this is that they're given equal focus. It's all too often the case in modern romantic comedies that the audience is shown the main character's love interest solely through the eyes of the main character- this was one of the biggest oversights in (500) Days of Summer, for instance. Here we're not solely restricted to James' POV, as we see Connell's extra-marital affair with Em at various junctures. As none of the other characters yet know about it, Em is a much deeper character than most love interests, and the insights into her love life and family life never seem exposition-laden, nor do they distract from James' character arc. It is a little light on laughs for a romantic comedy, but the dramatic elements of Adventureland sit well with the film as a whole, and as coming-of-age films go, it's certainly worth a watch.

On the opposite end of the scale, we have Gamer, a higher-budget and more plot-burdened feature than Crank directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are accustomed to. Gerard Butler continues in his quest to destroy the reputation created by his breakthrough film 300 by starring as Kable, the star of a computer game called Slayers. In the world of the film, Slayers is the ultimate gaming experience- players can take control of an actual human being in a fully immersive combat environment. The actual human beings in question are Death Row inmates, who will be set free if they can survive 40 sessions of the game. So far, so Death Race, but Kable is just a few missions away from freedom when the game's creator, Castle, takes steps to ensure he will not survive. Kable breaks loose and goes on a rampage to find his wife and child.

As recorded on this blog before, I like Crank. It had a certain harmlessness to its mindless violence, video game logic and use of 80s action movie tropes. I liked Crank 2: High Voltage slightly less because it took on a more misogynistic and jingoistic edge that made it more unpleasant to watch, but the video game logic was still enjoyable. Now that "Neveldine/Taylor" (as they're always credited) have actually created a film about a video game though, something has gone badly wrong. The game that Kable is trapped in is the product of a culture where Sims/Second Life culture has been taken to extremes, which we're told will come into reality "not too long from this very moment". It's an interesting enough idea, but somewhere between script and screen, the film became utterly bland. Gerard Butler is consistently unable to match King Leonidas from 300 in the succession of staid action films and horrible romantic comedies that have followed that performance, and Gamer is no return to form. That said, Neveldine/Taylor have never really been renowned for their character work.

That's not to say there aren't memorable moments and performances- in films as excessive as Neveldine/Taylor's output, there always are. Michael C. Hall is naturally the highlight of the whole thing- having set the small screen alight in Dexter these last few years, his cinematic debut as Castle takes an underwritten role and turns it into a nuanced and extremely enjoyable villain performance. I can guarantee this will not be the highlight of his cinematic career once it's done, but he's clearly having a whale of a time. Other memorable moments include Milo Ventimiglia in a bizarre cameo as a PVC-clad man whore called Rick Rape... yes, I'm being serious... and Terry Crews singing a creepy rendition of I've Got No Strings from Pinocchio, but that's all Gamer really amounts to- a few enjoyable moments of ridiculously over-the-top excess, caked in a bland sub-Seagal action plot.

Gamer was never going to be more than a guilty pleasure- that is what the Crank films are, after all. It was never going to make any real commentary on Second Life culture, beyond the uncomfortable and gruesome shots of a morbidly obese player in his underwear, masturbating at the sight of Kable beating on the aforementioned Rick Rape. Instead, the film is typical of Neveldine/Taylor's video-game sensibilities, but if that fat, naked pervert is what they think of the demographic a film like this could appeal to, it's hard to see how anyone can enjoy it. Not to mention the more offensive overtones of High Voltage making an unwelcome return here in the film's attitude to women. By the inclusion of a tangible plot, Gamer is taking itself more seriously than Crank, and thus it disqualifies itself as brainless entertainment. It's trash, like Crank, but this time it's utterly disposable.

So to conclude, Adventureland is an enjoyable watch and, I suspect, a good date film, but if you take a date to see Gamer, the odds are that that relationship isn't going to last. Unless your date is male, but even then he might be put off by your taste in films. Hell, don't take anyone to see it and just wait for the DVD if you must.

If you've seen either of the films reviewed, please comment on this post and let me know what you thought! The next post will most likely comprise Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the much-delayed review of District 9.

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

17 September 2009

Not Currently Playing In Cinemas...

It's a sad fact of multiplex culture that even in excessively large cinemas, certain films still don't get screened. Your local 25-screen Omniplex Cinema will sooner dedicate half of its venues to the latest overlong blockbuster so as to maximise profit than give one auditorium over to a thought-provoking 90 minute independent film. As a result, I can't always bring you reviews of every single great cinema release, equipped as I am with a local cinema that's still showing Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs in 3D, and yet I'd have to travel two miles to the nearest independent cinema if I wanted to see either of the Mesrine films.

With the prevalence of DVDs, it's become the case that a lot of these oversights can be rectified once films arrive on the shiny disc- Fight Club was outshined by the execrable Star Wars Episode I back in 1999, but anyone can tell you which is now the more quoted and enjoyed. And that's thanks to the film's popularity on DVD. And that's why I'm only too pleased to dedicate a blog entry to two rather great films from 2009 that've just made it to DVD. I'm not entirely sure if this problem with multiplexes warrants a regular feature on DVD releases, but I can say for now that this post will cover Good and Is Anybody There? Both are available to rent and buy on DVD right now, and if you read on, I'll tell you why they're worth a look, with the usual minimum of spoilerage.

Good is a film set in Nazi Germany, exploring how the middle class was drawn towards political activism in the tidal wave of oppression and national change that Hitler's election brought about, but it's a character-based drama as opposed to say, a film about a complicit Nazi who likes being read to. Based on a stage-play, the lead roles are taken by Viggo Mortensen and Jason Isaacs. Mortensen plays John Halder, a university professor who juggles his work and his lukewarm marriage and family life with the care of his elderly mother. He's outshone professionally by his friend Maurice- played by Isaacs- a Jewish psychologist for whom things understandably get difficult as the Nazis develop their ideas. Meanwhile, Halder comes to the attention of the leading Nazi officials with the publication of his book about euthanasia, and rapidly finds himself ignoring his conscience entirely to make lavish changes to his lifestyle.

So as you'll grasp from that, it's a morality tale at heart. The title refers to Halder being a fundamentally good man, with the inferred message that evil (the Nazis) will prevail as long as good men (like Halder) do nothing. The representation of evil in films is a can of worms I don't want to open in the middle of this review, but needless to say, we've got the gist when it comes to Nazis being bad. In the wake of Inglourious Basterds and Valkyrie, it isn't the best time for Good to come to DVD, as it may well be lost in the wake of those more bombastic and action-packed "Nazi movies". And all the way through it, I couldn't shake the feeling I was watching the story in the wrong medium. Seeing as how it's adapted from a stage-play, that's arguably true. Director Vicente Amorim certainly makes the affair feel more theatrical than cinematic, and while that's certainly not a bad thing, it drew me out of the film every now and then.

And like a play, it's very performance-driven. Viggo Mortensen underplays Halder rather well, and Jason Isaacs- for whom this was something of a personal project, having spent a lot of time and money trying to get the film going- is excellent in an impressive but relatively smaller role. "Screen Jew" seems to be a credit that the average Oscar-hunting actor is keen to add to their CV, if you take a cynical view of things, but as with all of Isaacs' work, there's something intense and honest about his performance. Isaacs is one of the best and most under-valued British actors in film today, and holds his own against Mortensen very well too. They make good use of a script that moves along at a leisurely pace, with no real sense of momentum at any given point. Good is a drama that's worth watching for its performances alone, but it's also a fairly competent drama that will intrigue anyone who has studied or is interested in Nazi Germany before the war, and how the large part of an entire nation found themselves supporting madmen. I am interested in that era, and so I liked it.

Perhaps the other great film that's just arrived on DVD has a more broad appeal- everyone loves Michael Caine, right? From The Ipcress File to The Dark Knight, via The Muppet Christmas Carol and Without A Clue, I am a huge fan (6'5 at the last measurement) of Michael Caine. And Is Anybody There? might just boast one of his finest performances ever. Caine plays Clarence, a retired magician with a cynical and anarchic outlook on life, who is pressed to move into an old peoples' home. There he finds friendship with the owners' young son, Edward, played by the utterly superb Bill Milner. Edward is obsessed with the customary death rate amongst the infirm population he shares his home with, and more specifically what happens to them after their bodies give up.

I was lucky enough to see this in a cinema- the Arc Cinema in Stockton, two miles from where I live- and was willing to take two buses to see it on my own because I'd heard such good things about the film. However, as I'd neglected to read the listings properly before I set off, I hadn't realised that I was going to what the cinema promoted as a Silver Screen showing. And because of that, I was sat in the middle of a sold-out screening of excited OAPs who'd gained admission for half-price. Some might say that's a slightly immersive viewing experience given the subject and setting of the film, but I'd happily go to another of those screenings- they were the most excited and enjoyable audience I've seen a film with all year. But I'm getting off topic here- the question should be, was it worth it? Yes. Yes, yes, a million times, yes.

The reason I didn't review the film immediately after seeing it was because I knew it would be forgotten if I reviewed it at a time when nowhere close was showing it. I wanted people to actually be able to see the film within a few days of reading the review if I really wanted, because Is Anybody There? is just a marvellous film. Aside from the moving script and well-drawn characters, the performances are just absolutely excellent. Granted, it has a good cast, that includes David Morrissey, Anne-Marie Duff and Liz Spriggs in her final role, all of whom are on excellent form, but what really made the film stand out from the rest were the two central performances- Bill Milner builds on the promise he showed in last year's Son of Rambow to bring another charming character to life. I feel old and wizened for the combination of words that are about to occur, but I'm absolutely sure he will go far in this business. And then there's Michael Caine. Well, it's Michael Caine- his character is obviously funny, spellbinding and brilliant to watch. He's made his name out of performances like that, and here I just thought he was amazing.

I'll address one potentially spoilery element that I suspect I'd be challenged about if anyone saw this film and disagreed with me, so look away if you're planning to watch and don't want to read anything close to plot spoilers. People will say that the ending is predictable. I think that's just a fact of how the film is structured, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say those people are wrong. Yes, you realise what's coming at a certain stage in the film, but we're certainly not talking Marley and Me levels of predictability. I'd say instead that what happens at the end of the film is inevitable, not predictable. And the scenes that precede it don't act as a fanfare, but rather as a sort of poignancy that runs through the second half of the film. And I shed a tear at the very end. No, really, I cried like a giant baby at the end, and I don't cry easily at films. Perhaps a second viewing is needed to tell if that ending is as much of an emotional sucker-punch as it was first time around- perhaps I was just feeling vulnerable, being alone in Stockton and surrounded by gleeful OAPs.

Whether my fragile emotions factor into it or not, Is Anybody There? is a touching, darkly comic and generally marvellous film. I'm planning to get it on DVD as soon as my stunted finances will allow, and I advise anyone else to seek it out and watch it. Caine and Milner make an enjoyable duo to watch, and together with the script, the direction and the rest of the performances, it's one of the best films of the year. It might seem like I'm throwing that out a lot lately, but I'm really not. This was the best film I'd seen all year back in July, and it probably still is. Absolutely definitely see it if you set any stock by my opinion whatsoever. Thank me later.


District 9 is coming at some point, I promise- I still need a second viewing before I review that film and that hasn't yet happened. I'm sure that's getting enough praise elsewhere for you to see it without hearing my verdict first, and without giving too much away, I agree that you should. Possibly pipping that review to the post however, reviews of Adventureland and Gamer shall be appearing online within the next week or so, depending on when I see the latter.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, make sure you don't watch anything I wouldn't watch. More pressingly, watch Is Anybody There?

10 September 2009

Schlock! Horror!

District 9 shall have to wait a week for a review, because I saw it when I was rather ill and rather tired. I feel I need to watch it again to do a full review, but I'm sure you don't need my verdict to go and see it in the meantime. So please do go, because what I did take in properly through streaming eyes and runny nose was very very good indeed. In the meantime, I can loosely group two horrors that aren't really horrors today in the form of Dorian Gray and Sorority Row. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the course of discussion but not so far as to ruin major plot developments.

Exhibit A then- Dorian Gray is a new film adaptation of the novel by Oscar Wilde, starring Ben Barnes as the naive young Dorian Gray, bound for great renown as a high-class socialite in London until he meets Colin Firth's Lord Henry Wotton, who introduces him to a life of hedonism and temptation. This is much abetted by the fact that a painter friend has just inadvertently captured Gray's soul in a painting, leaving his looks frozen in reality while his image degrades in the attic each time he succumbs to temptation. The novel is appraised as one of the last great Gothic Horror novels, but in the translation to film, it's lost most of its scare value. This is largely down to the fact that they've made the film for the audience of Twilight, which should inherently suggest that something is wrong.

Chief amongst the mistakes that this focus would entail is the casting of Ben Barnes. I previously found him to be the worst part of the second Narnia film, Prince Caspian, which isn't good considering he was in the title role. There's an identical problem here, as it seems he's been cast purely for his looks once again, because the only time he really convinces as Gray is in the early scenes, where he's wide-eyed and naive about the position in the world he's inherited. Once he begins having wild orgies, taking up substance abuse and murdering people, he slips into that same acting trend as Robert Pattinson does as Edward Cullen. He purveys age beyond his appearance simply by speaking slower and occasionally using his big boy voice to admonish people. It's also fairly reminiscent of Hayden Christensen in... well, anything Hayden Christensen has done. Far from being convinced of Gray's weariness and hidden malice, I half expected him to shout that from his point of view, the Jedi were evil.

Where Dorian Gray fell down for me was in the fact that everything hinges on a strong central lead. Barnes is certainly not that, and so it's easy to forget that the rest of the production is fairly competent. It remains largely faithful to Wilde's novel, and looking at St Trinian's director Oliver Parker's CV, this is certainly the most interesting film he's done to date. The visuals are slightly reminiscent of Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd, but Parker doesn't allow the film to look hackneyed or unoriginal. Especially deserving of praise is Colin Firth, who does his utmost to steal the show as the cynical Lord Harry, dispensing wit and one-liners aplenty. Unfortunately, it's misjudged as a vehicle for Barnes. Not to mention the fact that it skews towards a young teenage target audience, meaning that Gray's violent and lewd misdemeanours cannot be entirely represented on screen. At the same time, a fair portion of that target audience won't be able to see the film in cinemas on account of its 15 certificate- so it's stuck somewhere in the middle of two audiences. It's not a bad film by any means, but it's forgettable and in many ways that's worse.

I have far less tolerance for Exhibit B, the remake of The House on Sorority Row, which has been economically been re-titled as Sorority Row and is, in short, rubbish. A group of sorority sisters engage in the most misjudged prank since God said to Abraham, "you must kill your son, Isaac." Even as an atheist I feel uncomfortable comparing this film to scripture- at least the Bible inspires happiness and faith. Getting back to the point, the end result of the prank is the death of one of the sorority sisters, and the rest agree to cover up their involvement by dumping her corpse down a conveniently placed abandoned mineshaft. And wouldn't you know it? Eight months later, they all receive texts and threatening calls from the girl's phone, and eventually- and that word has huge importance in why this film fails- start getting picked off by a hooded figure. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

To elaborate upon the point I made earlier, that this isn't a horror film, I'd argue instead that this was part of a sub-genre that's becoming more and more hackneyed all the time- the "slasher" genre. As discussed in my review of The Final Destination, the function of slasher films is to provide audiences with the chance to laugh at idiots being killed off in satisfyingly gruesome accidents, stabbings or head-splosions. That Sorority Row fails to kill anyone except Megan, the film's unfortunate victim-cum-possibly-resurrected-killer, until around 40 minutes in demonstrates a failure to realise what most people want from such films. That's why "eventually" was the key word of the last paragraph. Before that stage, we just get a lot of sorority girls dancing around at foam parties. What's that? No, I didn't like that. No, I'm not gay. I just think I've demonstrated myself immune to the Booby Distraction, whereby mild titillation will distract everyone from how bad the film is, through viewings of Transformers 2 and the like, so maybe it's just me who was bored shitless until people started dying. And even once people started dying, the film was hardly worth watching. This is a big statement considering I only went to see it to kill an afternoon I might otherwise have spent at home doing approximately bugger all.

The most interesting death (the one with the bottle) has been shown extensively in the trailers, and that comes fairly early on. The rest is just by-the-numbers rubbish- big titted idiots running away, big titted idiots being stabbed with a tyre iron, and then not one, but two, lame and nonsensical twists presumably designed to persuade anyone without boobies on the mind that they'd actually seen a cleverly structured and plotted slasher flick rather than... well, Sorority Row. Should I be worried that while watching nubile young women were running about in their pants, I felt little more than mild concern at the fact Carrie Fisher needed money badly enough to be in the film? Nah, because I like to think I'm a little ahead of the curve. Eventually people will lose interest in rubbish slasher flicks and their remakes, and we might get some actual horror on the big-screen. For now though, Sorority Row will go down just fine for girls who identify with Paris Hilton and Katie Price as role models, and for guys who read Nuts and Zoo. For everyone else, don't be fooled by the fact I found enough to talk about in it for a whole three paragraphs. Vacuous, boring and one of the worst films of the year.


See Dorian Gray if you like the original novel and Colin Firth, avoid Sorority Row like a panty-clad plague, but in general, I think you'll be much better served by going to see District 9, even without first reading my babbling about why it's so good.

Some negativity every once in a while seems to keep me sane in this film-reviewing lark, but trust me, I'm much happier seeing good films. And as evidence of that fact, the next post will cover two films I didn't get to cover when they hit cinemas, but two films that I'd heartily recommend that you all go and watch now that they're out on DVD- Good and Is Anybody There? Oh and I'll be seeing District 9 again, so can promise a review of that
on Wednesday.

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

9 September 2009

A World of Hurt

Once again I find myself playing catch-up with these reviews. I'm having frequent computer problems lately, as well as having to do things in the real world as I prepare to start university. Freshers week at Teesside University starts at the end of September, and I'm yet to work out whether or not my studies will curb my somewhat excessive film viewing. So, with seven films to review in some manner or another in the next few days, I'll give you a bumper post with three lots of rambling to enjoy/tut at- Final Destination 4, (500) Days of Summer, and The Hurt Locker, the somewhat tenuous connection being pain, with which I could've linked Dance Flick were I prepared to waste time and precious vitriol seeing that arse-end of a film.

And no, I'm not mistaken by the way. As part of my irritating pre-possession that I'm almost always right, I'm downright refusing to call Final Destination 4 by the detached title that New Line is advertising it as. It's the fourth film in the Final Destination series, and I'll call it just that. To give it the phoney "official" title makes me feel like the film is a wayward middle-aged man who goes out and buys a sports car to impress upon all who behold him that he's still fresh and cool. Petty as this may seem on my part, you will similarly find me refusing to use this title for Shit Chipmunk Film 2 later in the year. My main bugbear with the film at hand however is that it suffers the same problem as the previous instalment, in that it's not fresh and cool- it's a rehash of the first film.

While Final Destination 2 advanced the concept of Death's plan being unstoppable with new plot twists and character developments, rather than just expecting the audience to enjoy death porn, the two films that followed both just expect the audience to enjoy death porn. And with the disposable teenage casts of each film, we get a new set of cardboard stereotypes at the beginning of every film, this time having narrowly escaped being burnt, splattered and turned into worm-food by a collapsing stadium when one of their number has a premonition of just that. The deaths are not so much imaginative as more contrived than ever before, and it takes a frustrating amount of time for the characters to catch up with the audience in realising that Death is pissed off. In fact, the only marked difference between this instalment and the one before is that this one is in 3D, a dubious distinction that I'm saving up all my rant juice about until James Cameron's Avatar is released.

It's important for me to extol the fact that this is rubbish first, because I have to admit, it was still entertaining. Watching idiotic stereotypes die with lashings of poetic justice will always have currency for me, but the reason why this fails is because it's a Final Destination film. The first two had interesting characters in amongst the more disposable douchebags, and the film has lost all sense of horror when you're not scared for the characters' lives, but just want them to end in the most splattery and head-fucking way possible. So that's Final Destination 4- the acting is poor, the concept is nothing you haven't seen done before (and done better), and all in all, the trendy de-numbered title does nothing to hide the liver spots and sagging belly of a franchise that should've ended around number 2. But if you like watching idiots die, you'll still enjoy yourself a little.

On the opposite end of the scale to the brash, audience-drawing gubbins of that film though, we have (500) Days of Summer, a slightly unconventional romantic comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. Like the horror genre, my close friends seem to be under the impression that I hate this genre. As with both genres, I only hate how boring and lazy most romcom output actually is these days- an entire subset of film in which you can tell what the ending is from the trailer. Hugh Grant and Renee Zelleweger will usually star, and some prestige actor like Michael Douglas will utterly debase themselves for a paycheck and a prominent credit in the trailer. And of course there'll be a mad dash to the airport. On the contrary, (500) Days of Summer is a refreshing yet curious mix-up that reminded me of High Fidelity (the best romcom of the last ten years, bar none), and Memento, combining those films' attitude to relationships and non-linear continuity, respectively.

I'm obviously bound to find something to criticise in a film that holds up a mirror on my own slightly-stilted private life in the ways that this film did, so here's my attempts to have a go at (500) Days of Summer. It's of the caste of films that have become popular since Juno and Brick that sort of seems to have "... you know what I mean?" tacked on the end of every line of dialogue. Director Marc Webb gives off a sense that the film is so indie that its very core is possessed of some universal truth that your tiny rigid minds are as yet unable to comprehend. There's also a level of kook is becoming dangerously familiar for Zooey Deschanel, a terrific actress who I'm still really hoping doesn't get shoehorned into that typeset for the whole of her career. Similarly, rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt reprises the endearing romantic archetype that we've seen him play before, but still manages to make a very good turn as the more central of the two leads, and plays off against Deschanel very well indeed.

A paragraph that started with cynicism turns to praise, and that just about sums up my own viewing experience. The trailers and early buzz were promising, but I always sit down to romcoms with the feeling that they have to win me over. This one was just charming enough to manage that, from a hilariously candid "author's note" from the screenwriters before the film starts through one-liner after one-liner, all set to rather good music- but then I like the Smiths just as much as the film's characters do. We're warned early on that while this is a story about romance, it's not a love story, and the film's realistic views on love and relationships never become pessimistic or uneven. As mentioned, it's a very honest film, and rather inventive on the whole. Like High Fidelity, the standard against which I hold all romantic comedies, it's a film that can be enjoyed just as much on a date or in solitude. The lack of focus on Deschanel's character is one respect in which the film is left wanting, but if you can stomach the ever-so-slightly patronising hint of indie and kook being the be-all and end-all, there's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't enjoy (500) Days of Summer.

Going again to the opposite end of the scale, the quality has improved slightly. There may not be any explosions in (500) Days of Summer like the one pictured above, but the nice explosive type of pain is given a much more cerebral outing in The Hurt Locker. It's being lauded by all and sundry as the best of the films thus far about the current war in Iraq, but I respectfully disagree- this is a film about character. Jeremy Renner plays Sgt. William James, a bomb disposal expert drafted in to replace the recent head-sploded leader of a small team of American soldiers, and that's what the film is about. The film could as easily have been about any war, but seeing as how Iraq is the current big warzone, that's where this character study is set. To my recollection, George W. Bush and 9/11 are not mentioned even once in the whole film, because director Kathryn Bigelow is making a film about the soldiers, not the politics.

Bigelow's casting of Jeremy Renner is also a masterstroke. Not only because of his terrific performance, which definitely deserves some award or other, but because I'd lay odds that few of you reading this can place Jeremy Renner. Even after a look on IMDB. In fact, the big recognisable stars in this film are all barely in it. Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and Evangeline Lily all make appearances, but not one of them features for more than five minutes. Even David Morse, an actor you probably can't place without looking at IMDB but you'll go "oh, him" when you see him in the film, appears for about three minutes overall. In making this film, Bigelow was not about casting Shia LeBeouf as a bomb-disposal nut to sell more tickets and put more posters on billboards. It's all about getting you close to the characters, and it's this approach that makes the whole thing a lot more immersive, not to mention that it puts the film lightyears ahead of any preachy, political or jingoistic film about the Iraq war to date.

Don't get me wrong, by the way- I'm certainly not trying to downplay the explosive element of The Hurt Locker, because I did pick that picture for a reason. In an industry with so few female directors, Bigelow stands out as the best (and possibly the only) female action director, because this film alone is so unbelievably tense. The best sequence of the film involves Sgt. James and his colleagues lying on their stomachs in the scorching sun for a whole day, watching their enemies from afar through a sniper scope, just waiting to retaliate if necessary. The silence is tense, but the bravado the men try to muster as they wait is worse- it's where the audience is shown what makes these men tick. Why do people who go to Iraq, go to Iraq? As a whole, The Hurt Locker is just outstanding- it's the only film I've ever seen to which I can honestly attribute the phrase "The windscreen wiper made me shit myself"- Kathryn Bigelow capably builds the tension throughout, exhausting you at the end of the film. As you come up for air though, you'll still be left with one of the best cinema experiences of the year so far.

I'm literally typing as quick as I can to finish this because I'm supposed to get ready to see Dorian Gray about... now. So naturally, that'll be reviewed in the next of the planned three posts for this week. Alongside that, District 9, before the third and final post covers two of this year's excellent films that are just coming to DVD. I do occasionally miss films when they first come out- the perils of multiplex culture- but I'm making up the slack as best I can.

To conclude, see The Hurt Locker and (500) Days of Summer, but don't bother with The Final Destination unless the 3D gimmick is enough to pique your interest. As ever, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the films I've reviewed, so leave comments if you've seen any of them.

I'm Mark, mad prophet of the airwaves, and until next time, make sure you don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.