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.

9 November 2009

Underrated, Overrated, Rambling Free...

I don't pretend that I go against the current in any way, shape or form. Once you start Media Studies at degree-level, you realise that for every blog slating a really rubbish mainstream film, there are about four journals or academic writings to say you're Michael Bay's bitch. The two big mainstream preoccupations of the year I can't pretend to understand the appeal behind though are probably Megan Fox and Michael Jackson. And Britain's Got Talent. And Twilight. And... alright two OF the preoccupations. And alright, I'm not saying MJ was anywhere near as talentless as Megan Fox, but I'd have to get back to you on who looks more plastic...

The point is eluding me in talking about it all like this- what we're here for is reviewing. Specifically, reviewing Jennifer's Body and Michael Jackson's This Is It. 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. With This Is It not following any conventional narrative structure, you could argue that the only spoiler there has been widely circulated in the news media for the last three months.

But first, to Jennifer's Body. The eponymous Jennifer is played by Megan Fox, and her sole characteristic at the start of the film is that she's the hottest and most desirable girl in her high-school. That's right, you have to believe that Megan Fox is young enough to be at school... again. Her best friend is Needy, played by Amanda Seyfried, a bespectacled, nerdy but sweet young lady who follows Jennifer's every whim. That's right, you have to believe that Amanda Seyfried isn't attractive and popular. But on with the story- an indie band has stumbled upon a satanic ritual whereby they'll become famous if they sacrifice a virgin, and they mistakenly believe that Jennifer still has her cherry. Bad juju and demonic transference ensues, and Jennifer is suddenly possessed of a demon that must consume boys to survive.

It's an interesting enough premise from Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind Juno. I enjoyed Juno very much, but I don't think that the cast and director behind Jennifer's Body is anywhere near as talented as those behind the earlier film. That aside, there's nothing particularly awful and horrible about the film, and in some ways that's a bad thing- it is meant to be a horror film after all, so there should at least be some scares. But as a film, the lack of awful, horrible shite makes this far and away the best thing that Megan Fox has ever been attached to. I still remain unconvinced that she can act, nor that she was cast here for anything other than needing a body worth naming the whole film after, but with a half-decent script, she's not as intolerable as I usually find her. That pout that makes her face look like a kazoo is still there though.

Far more endearing is Amanda Seyfried, though this is actually the first thing I've seen from the apparently much-lauded actress. Her character is burdened with a unnecessarily uncommon name that I suspect may become Diablo Cody's trademark, but Seyfried is never any less than watchable in her role. JK Simmons makes an always welcome appearance too, and Fox aside, I don't really have anything bad to say about the cast. Even though I said the cast and director elevated Juno to what it was, the script here shows that Cody isn't quite the writer I thought she was. The esoteric slang that only niggled slightly in her first feature positively irked me this time around, mostly because it's so inconsistent with the characters. Jennifer is meant to be a ditz, but can snappily come out with cracks about MoveOn.org- it seems Diablo Cody is writing her own dialogue rather than her characters' dialogue.

It's a slightly disappointing sophomore effort from Diablo Cody, but while Jennifer's Body won't be winning her any more awards for writing, it's still a cut above most of the horror films that came to cinemas this Halloween. It's not as original as people seem to think, as this type of premise has been around since Carrie, and the soundtrack is incredibly intrusive throughout, but in spite of its minor flaws, the film is actually a fairly enjoyable guilty pleasure. It's lacking in genuine scares and it's kind of forgettable, but it's still entertaining enough to make a decent dark comedy.

I'm actually fairly loath to reviewing Michael Jackson's This Is It, because it's not like anything else that's been reviewed on this blog before now. Covering two months of rehearsals, this is a look into the show Michael Jackson was planning to put on across 50 sold-out dates at London's O2 Arena, compiled by the show's director and the director of numerous Zac Efron aberrations, Kenny Ortega. The film includes interviews about Jackson with dancers and technicians, as well as the supplementary effects footage that would have played during the performances. It's a concert film essentially, and being the laziest music listener in the world, a review of a live music performance puts me out of my critical comfort zone a little.

It's tempting to go off on a cynical rant about how this is just being released to make money off of Michael Jackson's death. That's because it is, really- the man's own father proclaimed that his son was worth more dead than he had been when he was alive. And to some extent that's true as well, if you want to be blunt about it, given Jackson's chequered medical history and the staggering prospect of doing the show this film tries to represent not once or twice, but 50 times. I think to do that would be to get too wrapped up in context rather than looking at the film itself. What there remains to say about the contextual detritus is that the opening caption, "for the fans", just about sums up the selling point. I'm not particularly a big fan of Michael Jackson, and this didn't entirely change my mind- there may well be something someday that does that, but ironically, this isn't it.

The ethical issues I had with the film only became greater once I'd seen it. Although it didn't convert me into a fan of his music, it did persuade me that Jackson was a consummate perfectionist. He stops performances throughout the rehearsals to correct a dancer or a technician who've fouled up in seemingly inconsequential ways. He's every bit a performer, and it looks like this gig really would have been his masterpiece. The highlight of the whole thing for me was the video that would have accompanied Smooth Criminal, shot in black and white with Jackson digitally inserted into a chase sequence with Humphrey Bogart. It's visually stunning, whether you believe Jackson could give Bogart that much trouble or not- I mean, it's Humphrey chuffing Bogart! The other sequences never make as much of an impression as that one, particularly the cringe-inducingly tacky short for Earth Song, which is a cringe-inducingly tacky song to begin with.

Where the ethics come in is that I don't think Jackson ever intended this rehearsal footage to be seen by his fans, especially seeing how perfect he wanted things to be. Imagine if Terry Gilliam had simply made a film with Heath Ledger talking to people on the set of Doctor Parnassus, and you'll come pretty close to what Kenny Ortega's sort of done here. For him, This Is Not It- the actual concert would have been It. Nevertheless, I have to admit that This Is It won me over in the end. Money-grubbing or not, the fans who did really love Michael Jackson's music will really want to see this, especially those who had tickets booked for the concerts before his untimely death. And I can't begrudge anyone that- the man did create good music and greater performances, even if his body of work isn't constantly rattling around my iPod. Fans will love it, and if you can abandon your scepticism like I did, I'm sure you won't hate it either.


Next up will almost certainly be Harry Brown and 2012, though I may slip An Education in instead of Roland Emmerich's latest war on the world. Early reports say that film is so bad, it's good, but that guy must really hate the world. Greenpeace need to get onto him, I'm sure he's hurting the environment more in a pretend way than Land Rovers ever could in real life.

In the meantime, if you've seen Jennifer's Body or Michael Jackson's This Is It, why not share your comments on those films below?

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

5 November 2009

Clooney's Farm

George Clooney is known for many things these days, but we Batman fans, we usually remember just one thing. We remember that he was in Batman & Robin. While we certainly don't forget, it's possible that if we love film as much as the caped crusader, we might eventually forgive. I mean, sure, Clooney is the worst Batman ever, but is he really as much to blame for that film as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Akiva Goldsman or Joel Schumacher? Certainly not, especially since he's exonerated himself with his latter departures from TV soap operas.

The fact is that Clooney is a rather talented actor, writer and director. He's got one Oscar win under his belt already and has a rather impressive body of work through collaborations with the Coen brothers and Stephen Soderbergh. Yeah, there's that Sexiest Man in the World thing, but I'm loath to mentioning his perceived dreaminess for fear of the errant ton of homophobic bricks that might fall on me. Besides which, I've said many times before that good looks aren't necessary to good filmmaking. I just think the guy's a great film star, and he's got a number of films out lately, so today's post will cover Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Men Who Stare At Goats, his two farm animal related outings in cinemas at the moment. 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.

First off, Clooney lends his voice to the titular Mr. Fox in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox. Borrowing the premise of Roald Dahl's much loved book, Mr. Fox mounts a terrific heist on the local farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean, raiding for chickens, turkeys and cider. Little does he realise that the farmers will go to the ends of the earth for revenge, deploying their combined workforces to obliterate Mr. Fox and his family's home. Banding together with the Rabbit and Badger families, Mr. Fox eludes capture and mounts yet another raid on the farms, only making the farmers madder. If that sounds like a pretty straightforward and entertaining animation, you've probably overestimated Wes Anderson.

A film based on this book should be accessible for children, correct? Not in Wes Anderson's world, where he's crafted the biggest disappointment I've had at the cinema in a while now. Fantastic Mr. Fox is essentially just like The Royal Tenenbaums, which I personally found to be the most overrated comedy in years, transplanted into Roald Dahl's world, and it just didn't work for me. It's obviously been sanitised for kids, but the use of the word "cuss" every time there should be a swear word isn't endearing at all- it just feels like Anderson wrote fuck, shit and tits exactly as he normally might, and then censored himself afterwards. The final title card proclaims that the film is based on Roald Dahl's book, but I actually want to decry that as false advertising.

The worst part of this approach is that it's a film for middle-aged people rather than Dahl's much younger target audience. There are films that strike a balance between adult enjoyment and children's entertainment, mostly the output of Aardman and Pixar, but you can't tell me that the 8-year-olds in the audience are excited by Mr. Fox talking about existentialism. Simultaneously humanising- not to mention Americanising- the animals and still making frequent mentions of how wild and feral they are confused me, never mind, your average 8-year-old. I'm a proponent of young audiences being more intelligent than most Hollywood fare gives them credit for, but Anderson has made an Anderson film, not an adaptation of the book. Personally, I'm just scorned by the fact that I was excited about Jarvis Cocker's contribution to the soundtrack, only to discover that he essentially cameos as himself in stop-motion form. Wes Anderson has made Jarvis Cocker annoying, and that's a cardinal sin of filmmaking in my book.

That's not to say the film is without merit- despite being utterly mistargeted, the voice cast largely do a great job. George Clooney brings Mr. Fox to life as a charming yet cunning creature, and it's always terrific to hear the voices of Bill Murray and Michael Gambon, whether attached to their bodies or not. Moreover, the animation looks fabulous. Production company Indian Paintbrush have given this a wonderfully retro aesthetic. It's not polished or computer generated like most animated films of late, but that gives it a lot more soul than its counterparts. With a less self-indulgent script, all the ingredients would have been there to make Fantastic Mr. Fox into a truly special animated treat. As it is, it's something of a letdown- who ever wanted to see a Roald Dahl book repurposed for Wes Anderson fans?

On the other side of Clooney's farm, we have The Men Who Stare At Goats, the feature film version of Jon Ronson's exposé of US black ops. In the film version, Ewan McGregor plays Bob Wilton, a heartbroken journalist who goes to cover the conflict in Iraq with a need to justify himself. There he has a chance encounter with Lyn Cassady (Farmer Clooney again), and discovers that he's undergone training as a psychic "Jedi" soldier for the New Earth Army, an American funded project. Bob is roped into Lyn's latest mission, which puts them at odds with the more nefarious Larry Hooper, played by Kevin Spacey. If you've seen the trailer, it's the one that gives off a slight vibe of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, only a lot more mainstream.

And that's just what some have said is the problem with the film. I haven't read Jon Ronson's book yet, and even though I plan to in the wake of enjoying this version, I don't think you can let that ruin your enjoyment of The Men Who Stare At Goats. As I've said in the past, any adaptation has to stand alone in the medium it's being brought to you in- sure, a nod to those who've followed the story across different iterations is nice here and there, but the most abominable adaptations are those that subsist on such nods rather than forming any coherent translation. The script for this one comes from screenwriter Peter Straughan, who also translated How To Lose Friends and Alienate People to the screen last year, but with much less competence than he displays here. It's a difficult beast to convert, but somehow it pays off beautifully.

A modest caption of "More of this is true than you would believe" doesn't completely overshadow the audience's enjoyment of the film, and you'd expect nothing less of Grant Heslov and George Clooney, who last collaborated on the understated and really rather excellent Good Night And Good Luck. As much as that film was a different beast, very grounded in reality, the opposite approach pays off remarkably well here. It's a comedy first and foremost, and its grasp of absurdity and humour makes this a very enjoyable watch indeed. McGregor is our narrator a la Gonzo, and got more than a few titters whenever the word "Jedi" came out of his mouth, given his brave struggle through three not-very-good films as a very-good Obi Wan Kenobi. Clooney plays Lyn almost completely deadpan, and it works brilliantly. Similarly enjoyable are Jeff Bridges, as the psychic project's hippie lieutenant Bill Django, and Kevin Spacey, as the almost cartoonishly spiteful villain.

There's a wonderful surrealism to the comedy of The Men Who Stare At Goats that keeps the laughs coming consistently for the full 93 minute running time. Its sense of humour put me in mind of Anchorman, given how both are traditionally viewed as "men's films" and this one has nary a female in sight. That said, the reviews it's been getting between user-generated content and more reputed critics suggests that this is going to be sadly overlooked. The complaints have been with narrative flow, but as a comedy it excels everything the mainstream reviews have said and sits comfortably amongst other great satires of the US military. Ewan McGregor's best Jedi film, and one of the best comedies of the year.


It only occurred to me halfway through writing that I could have just as easily paired Jennifer's Body (Megan Fox) with Fantastic Mr. Fox (...with some foxes), both of which were released by 20th Century Fox and had a Fox-fest. Ah...

Moving swiftly on, the next post will cover Jennifer's Body and Michael Jackson's This Is It, even though you can't really describe the latter as a film. In the meantime, if you've seen Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Men Who Stare At Goats, 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 November 2009

I Fought The Saw

It's little more than a coincidence that the supposedly unlucky number coincides with this latest instalment of my thoughts on cinema, brought out on Halloween weekend and focusing on horror. I'm prophetic only in the Howard Beale sense of things, so the only trepidation you should approach this post with is the usual weariness at having to read my articulated rantings. I've spent a great deal of time lately catching up with the Saw franchise awaiting the release of Saw VI, so as with the Harry Potter review earlier in the year, I'll give you a potted look at my thoughts on the earlier instalments. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available, and spoilers for I-V may follow throughout the review.

Saw is really nothing short of excellent. A brilliant extension of a short film from James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the film hits all the right notes- it's innovative, chilling and it's one of the best thrillers of the decade. I don't particularly classify the franchise as horror just because of the copious amounts of gore, and so I always thought the films were at their best when they were discomforting the audience in other ways. Best of all, it stars Cary Elwes, who gets an automatic pass in most films because he was so awesome in The Princess Bride. Look at the picture, he's still not left-handed. To say that the first of six is the best doesn't suggest that I liked the rest very much, but on the contrary, I found Saw II to be nearly as good as its predecessor, and certainly just as clever, and though Saw III is a definite step-down in quality, it wrapped up most of the loose ends and provided what would've been a rather satisfying conclusion with franchise baddy Jigsaw's death.

At that point, I felt the creative strain was already starting to show, and if only they'd spun off from there into a TV series about the cops who are after Jigsaw, the series' continuation might have been a bit better. As it is, Saw IV is execrable. Just an utter waste of time that descends into soap opera with gore. By this point, it almost seems like the writers are more interested in formulating new traps and building some kind of grand plan with the narrative than in maintaining the cold hard logic behind their victims' circumstances. Even III had one victim who was put into the torture device simply because she's "already dead on the inside". That's not necessarily a misdeed that needs punishing now, is it? Not really akin to the barbed wire room for the self-harm guy in the first film, or the "needle in a haystack" for the drug dealer in the second film.

I found the fourth film was only really notable for its inclusion of the only violent act that made me cringe since the early films, and that's the accident that causes Jill's miscarriage. From that you can probably guess I take no pleasure in the desensitising clusterfuck of gore that the films spray everywhere, and that if they're explaining Jigsaw's wife having a miscarriage is what made Jigsaw do his thing, they may be in trouble. That's the sign of a franchise that's a little too wrapped up in its own mythology- it's episodic rather than cinematic, hence my suggestion that it might've made a better TV series. And Tobin Bell probably has a contract stipulation that means he has to play the guy in flashbacks ad infinitum, even though his character died three films ago. Saw V recovers a little, and although it's widely slated as the worst, I still think IV is the worst so far. And now, at the film-a-year rate that Twisted Pictures have been pumping out since 2004, we find Saw VI arriving in multiplexes this Halloween.

At this stage in affairs, every one of the original detectives investigating Jigsaw has died except Detective Hoffman, who became Jigsaw's new apprentice two films ago. The FBI are getting closer to exposing the truth, so Hoffman one of Jigsaw's final games in motion, tackling insurance companies who have power over life and death. Spoilers for I-V may persist, but you need not fear any spoilers for Saw VI in reading on.

For those who aren't aware, America's healthcare system is a little bit crap. Anyone looking for an appraisal of that system is probably better served by the slightly self-aggrandizing Sicko- this is a film for those who take it as a given that medical insurance people are penny-pinching scumbags and cheats, and who want to see them using each other's vital organs as jaunty hats in order to try and save themselves. As a result of this, all of our de facto protagonists in Saw VI are thoroughly unlikable, and you feel they deserve to die. Not in the typical horror fashion, whereby characters are so one-dimensional you don't care if they explode, melt, drown or spaff themselves to death- these guys are really hateful, and for the first time since the second instalment, we have a set of characters who do deserve to be in this game, as opposed to being audience friendly. Peter Outerbridge's slimy executive, William, is the focus of Jigsaw's game from beyond the grave and he's put through hell in order to save his family, like a kind of twatty Harrison Ford. Jigsaw's logic makes a welcome return in the treatment of characters like these, and writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton vastly improve on their last efforts.

Also owing to the marked increase in quality is director Kevin Greutert, who edited the first five films and really brings some discomfort back to the proceedings. The shaky and fast-cut shots were annoying in the first two films, but once they disappeared, I realised why they were there. They disorientate the audience precisely so they don't become desensitised to or comfortable with the amount of gore on-screen, and now that this style of editing has returned, the gore has regained a little of its horror value. I say this not as a sick and twisted human being who watches these films for the joy of simulated torture, but someone who ended up really bloody bored watching it being constantly repeated in Saw III through Saw V with little of the innovation of their predecessors. And don't get me wrong, this one does have its faults. Indeed, for such a positive review, it's a fairly average film.

So the flashbacks haven't gone away, the gore still comes gushing, and I still haven't been really properly horrified since Jill's miscarriage in Saw IV. If you've found my mentions of the first five films to be incomprehensible, Saw VI is not the film for you, because it still has great reverence for the series' continuity. On the other hand, if you want a film that largely acquits itself of the rather crappy legacy the most recent instalments have accrued, you could do a lot worse. For the first time in the series, I actually want to see the next film to find out where it goes from the ending of VI. Dunstan and Melton's episodic business is actually taking a little bit of shape now, and they claim that the storyline will finally wrap up with an eighth instalment in 2011. Much like Harry Potter then, only with headfucking retcons and more gore than the 2000 presidential campaign. For now, they've restored enough of the innovation and tension-building that made the first film to make this a more competent "part six" than any horror fan could really hope to expect.


Yeah, I made an Al Gore joke. I'm current! Next time, I'll be getting through the films I'm planning to see this week, which include Jennifer's Body and Michael Jackson's This Is It. I've already seen Fantastic Mr. Fox, so that'll definitely be in there. If you've been reading this long though, I'll assume you're quite the Saw fan, so if you've seen Saw VI, why not share your thoughts in the comments?

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