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.

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