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.

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