7 October 2009

Creative Difference

Given how I believe a large portion of my readership on this blog are in higher education, the following sentence will probably be nothing you haven't already noticed. However, I can reliably report that the Daily Mail and its ilk aren't entirely accurate in telling us that the student population is made up of Gruffalos- I have no moss under my armpits and I still retain my vocabulary, and I've been at university for a whole week or two. On the other hand, it has put something of a crimp on the amount of blog posts I've been able to do lately.

For this, you can also blame the influx of classic films at my local multiplex and my general technical problems at home- it's factors like these that have prevented me from seeing enough new releases since my last post to rush off a quick review. Since the last post though, I've been to see Creation, The Invention of Lying and Surrogates, all of which should generally still be playing in cinemas wherever you are. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.


Slightly mis-named, Jon Amiel's Creation studies Charles Darwin's life at the time he was writing his seminal work, "On The Origin of Species". This premise alone has immediately attracted controversy with Christian activists in America, where there's something of a struggle to get the thing distributed. The long history of such baseless controversy in the form of films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Dogma assures me that this will only attract attention to the film, and well deserved it is too. The film is not so much about Darwin's book as it is about his grief following the death of his daughter, and the consequences that has for his marriage and family life. When Charles is cajoled and pressured to develop his revolutionary theories to bolster the scientific community, he takes ill and struggles to make peace with his own beliefs and those of his devoutly Christian wife, Emma.

Real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly play the two lead roles, but as usual with actor-actress couples playing spouses on film, that's nothing to write home about, especially it's Bettany that really deserves top billing. His Darwin is tortured, world-weary and utterly compelling to watch, and he effectively carries the film by himself. Connelly isn't performing badly, and nor are co-stars Jeremy Northam and Benedict Cumberbatch, but the strength of Bettany's performance makes everything else seem unremarkable. This is crucial to make John Collee's script work, and it works beautifully. It's a film that isn't trying to score points for either side of the debate about our universe's origins- the smug variety of Richard Dawkins lover won't find much to quote without citation amongst friends, and the Christian groups who are up in arms in America won't be nearly as offended as they have presumed. Instead, it's an objective look at the most troubled time in Charles Darwin's life, and it's engaging and sympathetic from the off.

I did think that Amiel really should've been a little more restrained at times, as Darwin's coping mechanism of hallucinatory conversations with his deceased daughter brings the film dangerously close to melodrama sometimes. Besides which, it's slightly incongruous with Darwin's apparent atheism- how can there be ghosts if there is no afterlife? This dramatic device does give the film a slightly stagey feel, but as I've said before, that's not a deal-breaker. It does also deepen the personal connection the audience has to Darwin, and that definitely works in the film's favour. A well-written script and a powerhouse performance from Paul Bettany makes Creation one of the more enjoyable biopics of the last few years, and I hope it does eventually get past the Christians in America to reach a wider audience.

If you're after something a little lighter and funnier, Ricky Gervais has followed up last year's rather marvellous Ghost Town with another Hollywood comedy, The Invention of Lying. Gervais plays Mark Bellison, an underachieving screenwriter in a world where fiction doesn't exist in any iteration. No one has ever told a lie, and subsequently Mark's employers distribute blockbusters that consist of history lessons- "The Invention of the Automobile" being the highlight of the upcoming summer season. Mark is frequently the victim of brutal honesty and general snootiness until he happens upon a lie for the first time. Naturally, he exploits this for personal gain to achieve the fame and fortune he's always wanted. High concept? Yes, and a rather good one at that, but it's in the comedy stakes that the film loses out somewhat.

Without spoiling too much, there's a pivotal moment halfway through The Invention of Lying that marks a considerable shift in tone. The first half gets a lot of laughs from the perfunctory offensiveness that comes with a world where no one knows how to lie. There is no flattery, no modesty and no ability to sugar-coat things, and thus a retirement home is marketed to clients as "A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People". And it's here that the pivotal moment comes about. It's not a funny scene by any stretch of the imagination and would have a lot of emotional weight, except it seems like an opportunity for Gervais to do some Serious Acting. Because it's not the only way the subsequent narrative could develop, it feels somewhat shoe-horned in, and it affects the rest of the film- the stakes are lowered when the tone flips back to comedic and Gervais is put back in his element.

That's not to say it's not an enjoyable film- I did laugh a lot, but once we get past that midway point, the film hares off in a different direction that never quite matches the promise of the original concept. There's some stuff that's very reminiscent of The Life of Brian and an allusion to Jesus that any audience members who aren't really fans of Ricky Gervais will balk at, and the rest sort of settles into a generic romantic comedy. Gervais really doesn't share any romantic chemistry, no matter how much he'd probably like to. Besides which, her character is continually said to be sweet and very caring, as if she's only so hideously blunt because she doesn't know how to lie. If some of the stuff she's coming out with is her honest opinion, how does that excuse her? That aside, Garner copes well enough, and I don't have many complaints with the rest of the cast either.

However, let's have a look at the rest of the cast, which boasts cameos from Jason Bateman, Christopher Guest, Jeffrey Tambor, Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, Edward Norton and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. And this brings about the return of the Bit. You may remember the Bit from Night at the Museum 2, and it's always about the length of any given comedy star's cameo in a film that could otherwise be good without their appearance. That at least is how I measure a metric Bit, and this is full of them. A cameo-palooza is always distracting, and this film really didn't need it. Allow me to be honest though. The film's discrepancies in tone don't bring it down at all, and if you liked Ghost Town, you'll probably like this. Then again, it's more cynical than that film. Hey, you might be better off just watching Ghost Town again. Fans of Gervais won't be disappointed, but the film just falls short of the promise its central concept holds. Even though the tone of this review generally seems to be negative, The Invention of Lying is a sweet and highly original film.

Unfortunately it now falls to me to review a film as far removed from that originality and ingenuity as possible, and turn to Jonathan Mostow's Surrogates. Stop me if you've heard this one before- in a future where people live their lives via robotic surrogates, Bruce Willis plays Tom Greer, a detective with serious issues about robots, and is investigating the first homicide in years following the emergence of a weapon that can kill people while they are connected to their surrogates. Yes, I can hear you all screaming stop. This is a film so creatively bankrupt and pedestrian that it could well have been made by The Asylum. The most identifiable rip off in the film's synopsis would be I, Robot, so because it's five years since that film was released, it's actually sub-Asylum.

In many ways, I think Surrogates was some form of karmic retribution for my assertion that District 9's ostensible lack of originality didn't necessarily make it a bad film. While I stand by my opinion that Neill Blomkamp used homage and innovation in equal measure in that film, Jonathan Mostow has crafted a largely brainless blockbuster that plods along for 104 minutes with little to enjoy at all. As versatile an actor as Bruce Willis can be, Hollywood will eventually learn that his best cop character was John McClane. Thusly if he's playing a cop who isn't John McClane, even if it's some future cop who pilots a bewigged robot version of himself from his couch, it's not going to leave much of an impression. This is why casting him against type in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable was such a good idea, and he clearly engages much better with scripts like that than with dross like this.

The script was written by serial offenders Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato, who also penned Terminator Salvation and Catwoman, so you know it's not going to be very good right off the bat. No matter how good the performers are, you can't elevate a bad script, and it really seems like the rest of the usually capable cast have the same lack of vigour that Willis contributes- Ving Rhames also dons a bad wig, Rosamund Pike is utterly unremarkable and even James Cromwell, one of my favourite actors, is looking bored. Admittedly, he's only in it briefly, and that's probably due to the fact he's playing the inventor of the robots, just like he did in I, Robot. Surrogates is a film that should really get Will Smith on the phone to his lawyer, along with most members of any paying audience who see it. Devoid of originality and entertainment value- worse than that, it's one of those films where the entire crux of the story is shown in the trailer. If you've seen the trailer, definitely give the film a miss. If you haven't seen the trailer... definitely give it a miss. Just utterly dull.


I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the next post will involve much gushing about Pixar, because if I don't talk about the thrill of seeing Toy Story on the big screen again soon, I may do a little bit of wee. More to the point, tomorrow sees the long-awaited UK release of Up, which I'm sure to give a look over the weekend. Thereafter, expect reviews of The Soloist and Zombieland. If you've seen Creation, The Invention of Lying or Surrogates, comment below and let me know what you thought of the film and of my review- I always like a bit of discussion and feedback.

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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