26 December 2009

Holmes Away From Holmes

Did everyone have a good Christmas then? A big old blog post is coming after 8pm on New Year's Day, when David Tennant will have handed the key to the TARDIS over to Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith and I'll be some manner of soggy, crying wreck on the sofa. Part One of "The End of Time" astounded and confused me in equal measure, but I loved it. But to the matter at hand- Christmas Day has given way to Boxing Day, which is the unofficial National 'Nothing Happens' Day. It does however herald the release of Sherlock Holmes in UK cinemas, so I went along to see that. 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 Sherlock Holmes is the latest reinvention of Arthur Conan Doyle's anti-social but brilliant detective, gadding around Victorian London with his loyal friend and war veteran, Dr. John Watson. With Guy Ritchie at the helm, this version sees Holmes and Watson take on Lord Henry Blackwood, a practitioner of the dark arts who is hanged after Holmes brings him to justice. When Blackwood rises from the grave, a chain of events are set in motion that threaten to change the world forever, not to mention the implications for the weary Watson's imminent engagement. Matters are complicated further by the involvement of the only person ever to outwit Holmes, the beautiful and wily Irene Adler, who has a shady employer working behind the scenes...

I should say at this relatively early point of the review that I read the script for this film some six months ago. My verdict then was that it was a film that would be made or broken by its performances, not by its plot or writing. There appears to have been a couple of rewrites since the version I downloaded, emphasising certain of the minor aspects detailed above, but I still think that holds true. The one potentially fatal flaw of the film is that is fails to establish and maintain a balance between comedy and horror. It's a rip-roaring historical adventure like the best of that cinematic sub-set, but physical comedy jars with the more atmospheric and creepy stuff. At some points, it's in danger of looking like the result of a high-speed collision between Shanghai Knights and From Hell. It's really saved from that by its cast, who are excellent without exception.

Robert Downey Jr. hasn't been changed much by his suddenly ballooning fame and renown, and he's still a terrific actor. He sports a surprisingly good English accent for Holmes, and really brings out the misanthropic aspects of Conan Doyle's original character. Jude Law also embodied certain overlooked aspect of the literary Watson- he's more like the wounded soldier than the slightly-awed sidekick of other adaptations. But more on that in a bit, because although these two take centre-stage, Mark Strong very nearly steals the show as the villainous Lord Blackwood- a really threatening screen villain who wields enormous presence throughout. Rachel McAdams is slightly less memorable but no less competent as Irene, mostly because the script has slightly crossed purposes, in presenting her both as a match for Holmes and as a damsel in distress where the plot requires one.

Adler is more than just eye candy though, and she's one of many things that have been transported to the film from the literary canon, where Holmes also fancied the pants off her and referred to her only as "the woman". However, the story isn't adapted from one of Conan Doyle's, and it's blatantly been a little sexed-up for the Hollywood treatment. For instance, another of the less prominent aspects of previous versions of Holmes is his skill as both a boxer and a fencer. In front of Guy Ritchie's lens, this makes Holmes a shirtless bare-knuckle fighter, albeit one who still uses his wits in the process of felling his opponents. In that respect at least, Downey Jr's Holmes is like no other before him, but the characters are translated very well for the most part. Law's Watson gets frequently gets fed up with Holmes' foibles, and quite right too- you can believe they've had to get on with each other for a very long time, and the performances just add another dimension to that.

Looking to the future is an almost inescapable act in the course of watching Sherlock Holmes. I'm really not spoiling anything by saying that Adler's shady employer is Professor Moriarty, because it's a fact that will be obvious to anyone who has ever been aware of the Holmes canon from the first rendezvous between Rachel McAdams and a handily shadow-laden gentleman. It's more reminiscent of the early Blofeld appearances in James Bond than of the tantalising glimpse of a joker card at the end of Batman Begins, and that's a slight problem. It's rare that a film seems so obviously set on a sequel, and that's difficult to get around whenever Moriarty appears (or rather doesn't appear) in this one. But as I said, those appearances are fleeting, and I imagine that a second viewing will allow me to get more swept up in Blackwood's doings now that I know the extent of the other baddy's involvement.

To recap though, 2009 began with the tidings that Guy Ritchie, he of Revolver fame, was directing Sherlock Holmes, with an American (even if that American is a brilliant actor) in the title role and Jude "smarmy fuck" Law as Watson. I was understandably gnashing my teeth with disgust at this prospect. Now we're at the opposite end of the year and I've actually seen the film, I can happily report that there's no shit in Sherlock. This is different to any other film Guy Ritchie has ever directed, and it's certainly much more entertaining. Tonally uneven, but a terrific adventure to which I wouldn't object about seeing a sequel in a couple of years. At least not too vociferously anyway.


Planet 51 and Nowhere Boy still to come before the end of the year, along with a few others I mentioned in the Christmas Eve post. On top of that, I'll be bringing you my personal favourite and least favourite films in cinemas for the last year. I'll hold off the lists for the decade until next month, because they might take a little longer to ponder and collate. I'm sure you're waiting with bated breath for that, but in the meantime, why not post your thoughts on Sherlock Holmes in the comments?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, have a very Merry Christmas.

24 December 2009

Dreck the Halls...

My top ten films of the year are pretty much locked now, but it occurred to me recently that there are a number of contenders for my bottom ten still playing in cinemas, just waiting to give me grief before I make it to 2010. Very occasionally, there are films that come along that I fear will actually hurt me, and a number of those have to be watched within the next week or so. It's not a large number, but nevertheless, with Avatar being a surprising guilty pleasure of a film, I haven't had a good rant in a while. So here's what's going to be detaining me in cinematic sorrow before I can ring in the New Year.


I have to say I have the least trepidation for this film, because I only fear that I'd be more tolerant of it if I saw it before Christmas. It's now Christmas Eve, and this looks just a little bit too mawkish and twee for me to appreciate it after the big day's been and gone. All said, this is the film that's most likely to be overlooked in the next week or so because I can't see a review being entirely relevant. It's just that three films is a nice round number to cover.

St Trinian's 2- The Legend of Fritton's Gold

One of two sequels clogging up multiplexes this Christmas, The Legend of Fritton's Gold invokes the somewhat dubious plot device of a treasure hunt in order to continue the excellent character development of the first one. That's right- Nerdy One, Bitchy One, Ditzy One and The Twins are back! Having sat through the first film, I can say that about the one thing that makes this film look any better is that David Tennant's in it. It's always possible for an actor of Tennant's calibre to give good performances in awful films (see also: most of Michael Caine's films in the late 80s/early 90s), but I still feel a sense of dread about the whole thing.

Shit Chipmunk Film 2

As mentioned earlier in the year, I refuse to call this by the name they're actually giving it, but this just looks awful. The sequel to the pretty deplorable Alvin and the Chipmunks cashes in on the financial success of its predecessor by miring Jason Lee's career even deeper in shit and sending the pixellated rat things to high school. Yes, seriously, human high-school. More than that, the trailer promised "One Big Surprise", which it then showed us, presumably ruining any chance of it surprising anyone. It's a trio of female counterparts to the furry leads, and everytime I see any advertising for this film, I die a little more inside. If I can muster the will or level of intoxication required to see this outright pool of evilness, the ensuing rant may explode your brains. Forewarned is forearmed, readers.

As really, properly scared as I am to see Shit Chipmunk Film 2, it's not all bad news. There are plenty of good films on telly over Christmas, including the Orson Welles season on BBC Four and a Christmas Day premiere of The Incredibles on BBC One. At the cinema, I've pencilled in a trip to see Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes on Boxing Day afternoon, so you can expect a review of that film next up. Then it will all come down to listy things, so the blog should be fairly busy over the next couple of weeks.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, have a very Merry Christmas.

17 December 2009

Dances With Smurfs?

The hype behind James Cameron's first film in 12 years, Avatar has been fairly massive. The Titanic director has been pioneering 3D since 2005 and promising a total game-changer for cinema in the form of his latest big-budget epic, but I confess I've been skeptical about that. 3D thus far has been little more than a gimmick, and I don't think Cameron has made a decent film since Terminator 2. The trailers for Avatar didn't impress me either. The first teaser had a bunch of CGI money-shots with no discernible plot or dialogue except the words "This is great." Thanks, James, but I'll make my mind up for myself. The second trailer was more plot-heavy, but as Eric Cartman observed in a recent South Park episode, it looked like Dances with Smurfs more than anything else. Now of course, the film has finally landed in cinemas worldwide, and I've been to give it a look.

I'll point out in advance that I've now seen Avatar in both 2D and 3D, and the latter still adds nothing. Although Cameron has used it more competently than any of the releases this year that pipped him to the post in terms of release date (except Disney and Pixar's output), 3D is still a gimmick. It's not really much more immersive in 3D, because credit where credit's due, the film is immersive on the merits of its cast and script. However, if you've been holding out on seeing your first 3D film in the cinema, this is probably the one to go for. For weary veterans of animated films and horror remakes, plump for 2D, cos it looks just as good. And so without further ado, I'm going to give the film a review. 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.

Avatar is all about Jake Sully, a crippled Marine who is drafted into a 22nd century science experiment ran by his late brother on the planet Pandora. The principle is that Jake's mind would be remote-beamed into a hybrid body, cloned from his brother's tissue and that of the native Na'vi. The Na'vi are hostile to the encroaching humans, and the idea is that the avatar bodies would be able to negotiate a diplomatic understanding between the two species. Because if they can't, the Ahab-esque Colonel Quaritch will send in the troops in the name of the dying Earth, aiming to dig out a rare mineral called Unobtainium. No, that is what they really called it. However, Jake goes native when he falls for a real Na'vi, Neytiri, and begins to question his calling in life.

I went into the cinema with low expectations for the film, and I'm pleased to say from the off that I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I stand corrected from all my assertions that this would be visuals at the expense of narrative. It'd be naive to say that the opposite is true- the very theme of Avatar is seeing everything, (something I suspect Cameron hoped would be epitomised by the 3D) so even when the narrative's foremost, it's about visuals. And the visuals are pretty staggering- in the assault of quick shots in the teaser trailer it was easy to dismiss the floating mountains of Pandora as "just floating mountains". But think about it for a second- floating mountains! We finally have time to savour those trailed visuals, and it's a tremendous feat of special effects. I've never been a proponent of style over substance- my favourite special effects in films were all done practically rather than digitally, especially in the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So I was relieved that there was something more solid to the film than just the computer generated creatures and vistas.

There's a shot of a six-legged horse galloping along while on fire somewhere in the middle of the film that just about sums up the approach to most of the creatures in Avatar. Cameron can create anything with CGI, so he has, just for kicks. But in the Na'vi, we have something a little more special. They're cat-faced, ten feet tall and blue, and yet they're our protagonists. The bad guys are us- humanity and its greed, represented with scene-stealing vigour by Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi. This subversion of the usual human-alien dynamic (see War of the Worlds, and every other alien invasion film) only works for a (mostly) human audience because the Na'vi are written and performed so well. Zoe Saldana gives a motion-captured performance as Neytiri, and in a narrow field for standout female roles this year, it's one of the best of 2009. It's through her that you empathise with the Na'vi, even over the aforementioned brilliance of Stephen Lang's downright awesome Colonel Quaritch.

Sam Worthington is central as Jake of course, and he's as excellent here as he was in Terminator Salvation, only better here because he has a coherent script and a director who doesn't credit himself as "JCam"or some shite like that. I've been taking the piss out of his Next Big Thing label a bit because it was borne solely out of early buzz for this film, but I have to admit that Worthington has a very engaging screen presence, both as an action star and as an actor. He has some good support from Lang and Saldana, not to mention an emotive and memorable turn from Sigourney Weaver as the Avatar project's director, Grace. The role is just as much a showcase for her snarkiness and biting humour as it is for her instant empathy with her audience. I'm stressing these points because I feel it's easy to get swept away in the visuals of Avatar and not give due credit elsewhere.

As you might expect if you're even slightly aware of who I am, I don't think Avatar is without flaws. James Cameron hasn't made a film shorter than two hours long since The Terminator, and this film's 162 minutes carries more than a little flab between setpieces in the second half. I have to say that for the most part, it flew by, but my expectations of Cameron made those flabby bits drag a little. Mostly, these parts are concerned with the film's mixed message. The director's trademark worship of military hardware is increased tenfold by the futuristic setting, and yet there's a slightly hypocritical anti-war message at the centre. You can't convince me that you want to save the trees, on Pandora or anywhere else, when the very next shot is essentially saying "LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT GUNSHIP! BOOM BOOM BOOM, KABOOM! WAR IS AWESOME!" and decimating CG forestry. There's also a clumsy war-on-terror subtext in Quaritch's motivations and in the general Unobtainium scramble. And that's the other big flaw- that stupid name. I think they only mention it once, but they can surely come up with a better name than that for a McGuffin? That said, I wish oil was called Unobtainium instead- the alleged ulterior motives for the war in Iraq would have been laughed out of Bush's Cabinet room.

All of this aside, I wouldn't want to damn with faint praise by saying that this is Cameron's best film since Terminator 2, because in the 18 years since that came out, he's only made two films, and they were True Lies and Titanic. Nuff said. Instead, I can favourably compare this to Aliens. The two films ostensibly have several elements in common, like the non-descript evil corporation going into space in the name of greed, the wise-cracking and quotable Marines, the AMP mechs, and of course Sigourney Weaver. But more than that, it's a damn fun film to watch, a world away from the schmaltzy-ness that looms throughout Titanic and the utter lack of entertainment value in the bloated and self-indulgent True Lies. It's a game-changer in respect of the visuals, because special effects have now been advanced spectacularly by Avatar. There haven't been battle sequences this good on film since the Lord of the Rings trilogy closed off six years ago, and crucially, the effects complement the narrative rather than vice versa.

As I've said before, this has been a dog of a year for big-budget action blockbusters- summer of this year was an awful time to be at the cinema with the exception of Harry Potter and Star Trek, both of which were 2008 films delayed to this summer, and District 9, which was comparatively cheap to make anyway. In Avatar, we finally have the first, and probably last, bonafide, big-budget cinema experience of 2009. It's by no means a great film, but it should be applauded for not relying entirely on its groundbreaking visuals. It's probably not going to win an Oscar for Best Picture, for instance, but it's sure to clean up in the Visual Effects category. It will be a while before we'll see a cinematic event as big as this again, so make sure you see it there, because only time will tell if this holds up as well on DVD and blu-ray...


Year's end is approaching faster and faster, and I'm now going to race to catch up on the films still playing- Nativity! and Planet 51 specifically- and the last week of the year brings a wealth of releases too, including Sherlock Holmes and Nowhere Boy. Reviews of those are sure to be up in the next two weeks, along with the long promised Special Project for this blog. Watch this space!

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

14 December 2009

Serious Things

When we're two posts past the Christmas special and still in 2009, you know the year's end is fast approaching. Indeed, there are very few films left to go before 2010 rolls around, bringing Toy Story 3 and my inevitable explosion of excitement a little bit closer. But there are still a few to come, including certain James Cameron and Guy Ritchie films that I'm a little ambivalent about. For today, I have seen A Serious Man and Where The Wild Things Are. 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.


After their recent mainstream successes, such as Burn After Reading or the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen present a much more personal and thoughtful project in the form of A Serious Man. Larry Gopnick is a physics professor who suddenly and inexplicably incurs a number of grave misfortunes. His wife decides to ask for a divorce, having decided to abscond with one of his more "serious" acquaintances, his children don't appreciate him and his deadbeat brother is sleeping on the sofa and hogging Larry's bathroom as he works on puzzling out the universe. In all of this, Larry begins to wonder what he's done to deserve his problems and consults with rabbis to try and regain some sense of direction.

The central refrain of A Serious Man is "I didn't do anything", and it's easy to see how an audience weaned off the mainstream to see this might assert that nothing happens in the leisurely-paced narrative. On the contrary, it's essentially the Coen brothers' equivalent of a biblical epic, grounded in suburbia. And the biblical aspect aside, we have the central character being pitched as analogous to Schrödinger's cat, potentially being both alive and dead at the same time. If that last sentence doesn't describe your ideal and entertaining night out at your local multiplex, that's because it's not, unless you're looking for a film you can really discuss and think about afterwards. There is a strong current of black comedy running through the film though, but when I say black, think ace of spades-black. And then some more black. But every comic exchange has buckets of meaning stacked up behind it, and I wouldn't blame anyone who had to go and discuss the film on the Internet to entirely "get" it. I know I had to, just so I could get my head around that final shot. It is a film that gleefully discomforts the audience and confounds expectations.

I did laugh a lot at the trademark dialogue of the Coens, and they bring that brilliant insight into idiocy and incompetence in everyday life to the table once again, but on many levels this is still a rather frustrating film to watch. Larry's aforementioned inaction is a double-edged sword- he doesn't deserve his misfortune, but then he doesn't do anything to subvert it either, and that's agonising to behold. On the other hand, Larry is brilliantly realised by Michael Stuhlbarg, and the Coens really got it right in casting virtually unknown actors. We're allowed to buy into their plight much easier when we're not trying to remember the last time we saw them in a film, or thinking about Ocean's Eleven, or whatever. It's not the most tense or gripping film ever, but there could have been big problems in making a film so personal that it restricted their audience. I didn't think it had those problems, but I'm sure long-time fans of the Coens will have a much greater appreciation for this, if they can take the intense discomfort that's ladled upon them.

A Serious Man is either a tragic comedy or a comic tragedy. I'm not sure which, but it's like watching someone scraping their nails down a blackboard, but not because it's annoying or terrible- it's just incredibly uncomfortable, and this elevates audience discomfort to high art. It's as dark as they come, but it still has laugh-out-loud moments. Newcomers may be alienated, and I certainly didn't feel entirely comfortable either, but it remains a thoughtful and interesting addition to the Coens' body of work. Oh, and that final shot is infuriatingly brusque, but it'll make sense once you have a quick look on IMDB. Fascinating, but toe-curlingly contrary.


Another slightly ambiguously pitched film in cinemas at the moment is Spike Jonze's eagerly-anticipated adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are, a children's book which, as loved as it is, doesn't seem the most likely candidate for film adaptation at only 10 pages long. Nevertheless, this film is the story of Max, an emotionally volatile young boy who runs away from home after an argument with his mother and winds up on an island. The island is populated by a group of six large creatures, who look cuddly enough but are given to wild and violent activity at any given point. Dressed in a wolf costume, Max ingratiates himself and becomes King of the Wild Things, but realises through his experiences that he has a lot of growing up to do.

Yes, that's the same Spike Jonze who directed Being John Malkovich. He's not the obvious choice to direct this, just as this is actually not an obvious choice for film adaptation. So there's a refreshing lack of obviousness about Where The Wild Things Are that makes it one of the more enjoyable family films of the year. There really shouldn't be any of the current debate about whether or not it's too scary for children, because as has been established many times, children can take, and indeed enjoy a little scary stuff every now and then. There's certainly no gore in the film, and if adults think children will be scared, then it just shows that children are a lot less panicky and reactionary than adults. The violence that the Wild Things inflict upon each other is real enough and carries enough weight to put the audience on edge, but it's certainly not imitable- most children are not seven feet tall or covered in fur.

But one thing I definitely have to praise is the look of those Wild Things. With Avatar fast approaching and apparently taking the lack of photo-realism in CGI creatures to laughable proportions, it's incredibly satisfying to see a film like this employ real, physical effects where possible. Yes, they had to do a bit of computer wizardry on the faces in order for there to be any lip-synch between the actors' voices and the creatures on screen. But the actual bodies were achieved with puppetry and animatronics- solid objects as opposed to pixel-composed creations. As a result, Where The Wild Things Are has weight and realism, and perhaps that's why parents are so pent up about the violence. The creatures are also well-served by the voices of James Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose, and there's also a rather excellent breakthrough performance by young Max Records. The whole thing is topped off by a beautiful and sweeping musical score by Karen O and Carter Burwell, making this a film that's just as good as the sum of its parts.

As Jonze said himself, it was his intention to make a film about childhood rather than a children's film. The end result exceeds in both of those categories, and Where The Wild Things Are is a touching fantasy film that has as much for its young audience as it does for adults, so long as they're not quibbling about what scares kids. It has a strong aesthetic and captures on celluloid a great deal of the turmoil that certain areas of your childhood can hold, as well as retaining all the joy of a youthful imagination.


If you've seen Where The Wild Things Are, or seen and recovered from A Serious Man, why not share your comments on those films or on my reviews below?

It's extremely likely that Avatar will be next up on the blog. I really can't see it being anywhere near as perfect as James Cameron has painted it- my favourite comment on how it looks so far has been "Pocahontas with Smurfs". It may completely surprise me yet and I'm going to try and watch it with an open mind, but the man hasn't made a film under two hours long since The Terminator, and this is probably going to be quite unnecessarily lengthy. Forewarned is forearmed, readers, so get your rant umbrellas out for the end of the week.

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

8 December 2009

This Blog Is Your Blog

Rosebud. It's not me being lazy, folks- it's just that work gets on top of me at the moment. So I'm still seeing a lot of films, but if I sat around withholding reviews until I'd seen another film I could group it with, you wouldn't really have anything to read for long periods of time. So while I hope to return to posts with more than one review at a time, please don't be disheartened/shouty if there are a few like this. I am working on a special little thing for the end of the year that I hope will be appreciated by those who've been following my ramblings these last six months or so.

For now, we have a review! 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.

Me and Orson Welles
is a period-piece from Richard Linklater, whose work has ranged from School of Rock to Before Sunset, and it chronicles the hectic development and rehearsal of the eponymous auteur's seminal production of Caesar in 1937. Welles rules the roost at the Mercury Theatre in Manhattan, and an aspiring actor called Richard Samuels, the "Me" of the title, enters into his world quite by chance. He's cast as Lucius after bumping into Welles on the sidewalk, and is quite immediately bedazzled by the glamour of the theatre. But the Mercury's future hangs on the success of Caesar, and as the days before opening night pass by, the cast and crew grow increasingly exasperated with Welles' conceit and perfectionism.

Make no mistake, the operative part of that titular dynamic is Orson Welles, played remarkably by Christian McKay. If you want a definition of "breakthrough", that's what his tour-de-force effort is, and McKay is sure to make a name for himself following this film. His Welles is all of the worst things you could think of to say about the man- he's arrogant, impolite and incredibly short-tempered. But more than that, he is incredibly charismatic. Welles was 22 years old at this stage of his career, and yet his authority and his genius is unquestionable from the moment he appears on-screen. When the frustrated artisans of the Mercury sit around for hours on end waiting for their director, you can believe he's worth waiting for. And there's also a terrific undertone to his performance. Welles is a man who thrives on appreciation, perservering only for success, and it feels like his moodiness is fed by the frustration that he can't realise his vision or achieve that acclaim all on his own- he needs his cast and crew. McKay sells that beautifully, and he's truly one to watch if this film is anything to go by.

And that's why it's a shame that Zac Efron as Richard has been sold as the main reason to see Me and Orson Welles. He has top-billing in the trailer and on the poster, when he's more or less utterly outclassed by McKay and by the sterling supporting cast. Credit where credit is due- I'm a lot more accepting of Efron now than I was before. As a Doctor Who fan, I can't necessarily vouch that John Barrowman's popularity is a result of any great acting talent, but I see how his background with singing and dancing makes him reminiscent of a matinee idol. Zac Efron probably has the same appeal, and in this one he's at least been given more to do on the Performing Arts side of things than on serious acting. His acting is indeed more tolerable here than in 17 Again, but it's still relatively sucky when matched against his co-stars. After last month's embarrassment with Robert Pattinson droning Romeo and Juliet in New Moon, we now have to endure Efron shakily emoting his way through speeches from Julius Caesar at various points, and these are the film's only awkward or uncomfortable points. That's why marketing him as the main draw was a poor idea, especially seeing as how the film has made a mere £166,000 at the box office on its opening weekend, indicating that few denizens of his young fanbase turned out to see a film about theatre in 1930s New York.

More fool them, because this is incontrovertibly the best thing Efron has ever done. He might not be the best thing about it by any stretch of the imagination, but there's plenty to interest all audiences. People who are unfamiliar with Orson Welles and his work may well enjoy the romantic storyline between Richard and Welles' secretary, and Welles aficionados will, as mentioned, find a lot to enjoy in McKay's performance. But bigger than either of these things, it implants a love of theatre into its audience. We're never more than a metre away from the nearest media player in the age of iPhones and internet cafes, but this is a film that revives an appreciation for the stage and its methods. This is not least because of how wonderfully the period setting has been recreated- I honestly couldn't believe this was filmed on the Isle of Man, because it's just so believable as a front for 1930s Manhattan. Richard Linklater wants you to feel comfortable in the setting from the opening frames until the end credits roll, watching some great performances coupled with a great story. What more could you ask of a cinema outing?

Me and Orson Welles is not a Zac Efron film. Nor is it a Christian McKay film, or an Orson Welles film, in that none of those men dominate it. It's a film about the stage- a romance that's more about a young man falling for the nobility of the theatre than him falling for a woman. Christian McKay's performance remains the best of the year to date, and anyone who loves the cinema or the theatre should grit their teeth against Zac Efron's involvement if necessary and go to see this as soon as they can.


Next up will probably be some family fare- Planet 51 and Where The Wild Things Are, to be specific. Sorry that I won't be reviewing Paranormal Activity, because I've been told that the best way to watch it is in your own home, late at night, so I'm holding out for the DVD release rather than going to the cinema. In the meantime, if you go and watch Me And Orson Welles, why not share your comments below?

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

5 December 2009

More Of Gravy Than The Grave

It's Chriiiiiiiiiiiiistmaaaaaaaaaaas, as that loon in the song keeps screaming from our radios every December. Preoccupied as I am with cinema, it's hard not to notice that the Christmas film sub-genre has been a real dumping ground for every cliche and shitty setup since the turn of the century. Thankfully, we're not having the dubious treat of another Vince Vaughn-starring Christmas film this year after the dual abominations that were Fred Claus and Four Christmases. Instead, we have Robert Zemeckis' new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which is as festive as Noddy Holder throwing Christmas puddings at a bunch of cold and starving orphans, (i.e. very) and The Box, which is not.

But more than just reviewing those- what makes a really good Christmas film? And more importantly, what should you all be watching in the run-up to the 25th. But first, the reviews- 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. Except with A Christmas Carol, because in fairness, if you don't know how that one turns out by now, you're probably not really in touch with reality enough to know what Christmas actually is.

The Box is a film that definitely doesn't fit my own strictures of the Christmas film sub-genre, despite the filmmakers going to great lengths to situate the action in the Advent season. It does however wield one of the more intriguing premises of the year, and has been marketed very well indeed, eliciting a rapturous response from film fans when they showed off the trailer at Comic Con in July. It's based on a short story by Richard Matheson and is all about what happens when a husband and wife are given a difficult dilemma in the face of an uncertain financial future. Arthur and Norma can't afford to pay their son's tuition fees unless they take part in a bizarre social experiment. They receive a box with a button on top of it, and are given 24 hours to decide whether or not to push the button. If they do, they will be paid one million dollars, but somewhere in the world, someone will die.

It would be easy to dismiss this film as a Twilight Zone episode bloated to feature-length proportions, and to some extent, it is. Matheson's short story provides ample mileage for director Richard Kelly, who's in need of a comeback since Southland Tales eradicated most of the goodwill he mustered with his debut, Donnie Darko, and the 113 minute running time zips along. While I've always found Donnie Darko to be massively overrated, I found a lot to enjoy in The Box, not least of which was its antagonist- the disfigured and seemingly benevolent Arlington Steward, played by Frank Langella. Steward is a marvellously creepy creation, and Langella has half his face CGI-ed off in the process of bringing him to life. Villains of dubious morality are always more interesting than those who are out-and-out "evil", and of course Langella is naturally watchable. Less interesting are Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, and it's difficult to empathise with their characters to begin with. They have a big house and a Corvette, which somewhat debases the merits of their selection to receive the box- in the context of the recession, audiences will hardly think they're desperate for the cash to survive. Instead, it raises questions of greed.

One of the main things that bugged me was the score by Arcade Fire, because it's almost distractingly intrusive in the early stages of the film. Creepy music is really not required in that first scene with Steward, and certainly not at that volume. The volume is dialled down later on and there's more of a relationship between the score and what's happening on-screen, but it's important to get that kind of thing consistent, because it can really take an audience out of the film. And to be fair, this is a very hard sell for most audiences. The film is pleasingly subversive of what the trailers have led you to understand about the plot, and it was the fact that the twist around 20 minutes into the film hadn't been signposted anywhere that made me sit up and pay attention. From there, I admit that the film sort of settles back into Kelly's disregard for narrative logic at times, but for the most part it's very engaging and satisfying. Though I'll bet that however many people enjoy it, an equal number will resist its charms and claim it's confusing rubbish. It is inscrutable at times, but it's far from being rubbish.

I'm really not sure how to sum up The Box, except to say that I felt a perplexing satisfaction about the whole thing once it was over. It had an odd sense of nostalgia about it that's absent in most of these supernatural thrillers. Certain kinks in the plot give it a slightly contrived sense, but overall I'd say that pushing a button is a pretty apt metaphor for how much you'll enjoy it. Whether it's pushing the right buttons or not depends entirely on who you are and how much you're willing to suspend disbelief with these things. Just please don't kill anyone I don't know if it pushes the wrong buttons.

Now of course we have A Christmas Carol. For the uninitiated- all two of you- this is the story of Victorian miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who receives three hauntings on Christmas Eve as his late business partner urges him to change his ways and embrace humanity. And there's no Muppets in this one. Instead, this is the latest motion-capture eye-boggler from Robert Zemeckis, who was a leading proponent of 3D and motion-capture around the time of The Polar Express, and it stars Jim Carrey as Scrooge and various other characters. Not least among the odder choices in this adaptation is Gary Oldman as both Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. No, really. Motion-capture technology can age or de-age an actor accordingly, allowing them to conceivably play any role. The trouble with Zemeckis' version is that motion-capture and 3D are the only new things he brings to the table.

This is, by now, one of the most adapted stories ever. As society grows more and more secular, this is the story that will eventually replace the nativity play in schools. Blackadder did it, Mickey Mouse did it, and most abominably it was done to explore why Michael Moore hates America. Most successfully however, it's been done by the Muppets, in The Muppet Christmas Carol back in 1992. Some will argue that Alastair Sim or Albert Finney starred in the definitive version, but never underestimate how big a fan of Michael Caine I am. Not to mention Muppets. So in the matter of the latest iteration of A Christmas Carol, I spent a large amount of the film knowing every line from the book and wishing it was Fozzie Bear or the Hecklers saying them instead. The only new additions in terms of plot and execution are a number of frankly unnecessary action beats spaced throughout to show off the technology.

Don't get me wrong, it looks pretty, and although the 3D still adds nothing, Zemeckis has recreated Victorian London in consummate detail, creating an atmosphere that works immeasurably to the film's advantage. Everything else is rather plain though. I'm not a huge Jim Carrey fan, and here we're treated to a Scrooge that's more like Mr. Burns and most bizarrely, a Ghost of Christmas Present who sounds like Ringo Starr. Somehow it's always better to see Carrey in the flesh, and you're generally left wondering why he was the best choice for the role. Gary Oldman suffers too for the lack of physicality in his roles, restricted by the motion-capture technology. On the other hand, that doesn't really stop Bob Hoskins, who's arguably better known for his voice than for his physical presence and makes a memorable but brief impression as Fezziwig.

Zemeckis has been well-served by this technology in the past, but both The Polar Express and Beowulf benefited from being adapted for the screen for the first time, whereas everybody knows all about A Christmas Carol. That begs the question of why you would go and watch a miscast Jim Carrey ham it up in 3D when you can stay at home with the Great Gonzo playing Charles Dickens. The next project in this vein will be a remake of Yellow Submarine, and I can't help but wondering when the creator of Back to the Future is going to give us another more original piece. This one looks good, but it's nothing we haven't seen before.

Despite some fairly anvil-sized hints as to where this is headed, we move now to my top five favourite Christmas films. The criteria here being that Christmas has to play some role in the plot for it to be a Christmas film. Therefore Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a Christmas film as it has Michelle Monaghan's damsel-in-distress investigating what happened to her dead sister over the Christmas period, whereas The Godfather, in which the assassination attempt on Vito Corleone happens to occur at Christmas, is not. Hopefully now that we have that cleared up, there'll be no quibbling about what counts and what doesn't in my estimation.

5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Yeah, I mentioned this one ahead of time, but then you can probably already guess what my number one is already too. Robert Downey Jr. plays an out-of-luck petty criminal who is embroiled in a murder investigation with his childhood crush and a gay private eye. And it's Christmas!

4. Batman Returns
This one seems to get a number of unfair drubbings lately, with words like "camp" and "silly" being thrown around. These people have obviously never seen Batman & Robin. Anyways, Michael Keaton returns as the Caped Crusader to do battle with Danny Devito's Penguin and Michelle Pfieffer's Catwoman. I actually prefer this one to its predecessor, oddly. Not just because it's set at Christmas either.

3. Die Hard
It spawned a million knock-offs, and not one matched the quality of this one. Bruce Willis makes a name for himself in action films as John McClane, an ordinary guy who takes on a skyscraper full of terrorists on Christmas Eve. Never mind that the sequels elevated him to superhuman status just like every other 80s action hero, the original is still one of the best action films of all time. And the end credits rolling to "Let It Snow" is as festive as it gets.

2. It's A Wonderful Life
This one's a given, right? It's the seminal Christmas film. James Stewart is George Bailey, a man driven to throw himself off a bridge on Christmas Eve. Before he can go through with it, an angel appears to show George exactly how important he is to the people of his small town. You can probably watch and enjoy this one all year round, but the warm feeling it leaves you with is doubly nice at Christmas.

1. The Muppet Christmas Carol

Obviously. The Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat narrate the redemption of Michael Caine's Scrooge. The Hecklers, Fozzie, Animal, Bunsen and Beaker all show up, and it's the best adaptation of the story ever, in my humble opinion. Even the vegetables like it.

Yes, I am very humble, and if you agree or disagree about A Christmas Carol, The Box or anything else on the blog, 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 December 2009

He's Going To Kill EVERYONE?!

'Tis the season to be jolly and all that. Problem is, I still haven't seen either of the two new Christmas films in the cinema this year, so I can't blog on that topic just yet. Arg. Instead I'm going to do a short post on a film my busy university and work schedule has allowed me to see this week, Law Abiding Citizen with Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx. 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.

Moving right along, the film starts with two killers bursting into Clyde Shelton's home and mudering his wife and daughter in front of him. Shelton survives, but is dismayed when an ambitious young lawyer, Nick Rice, allows one of the killers to go free on a plea bargain. Ten years later, Nick is the District Attorney of Philadelphia, and the Shelton case is about to come back to haunt him. He hunts Clyde down after a series of killings and puts him into police custody, only to find that Clyde is a master tactician, and that the killings aren't going to stop just because he's behind bars. Law Abiding Citizen attempts to broach the failings of the American justice system with as many booms, bangs and wallops as possible, but right away, there's a problem with that.

The slightly vanilla title aside, I expected this film to be quite good- the trailer looked just crazy enough to be this year's equivalent of Taken, a thriller that had a serious core but which still carried a warning along the lines of "don't think too much". What this film is instead isn't quite as memorable. If the film had took itself as seriously as I was taking it, it would immediately have jumped up a notch in my estimation. I wasn't taking it seriously at all, and thus that's where Law Abiding Citizen fell down for me. Shelton's murderous antics from inside the jail have been done similarly before and done better, with the Joker in The Dark Knight remaining the high benchmark for post-Hannibal Lecter criminal masterminds. An unfair comparison perhaps, but for the large part, watching this film felt like watching those ten minutes where the Joker is in prison, but in slow motion.

More than that, Gerard Butler- oh, sorry, I'll say it right, GERARD BUTLER! still isn't turning in much in the way of a memorable or distinctive performance. In fact, both he and Jamie Foxx are sort of miscast as their characters. Butler is still best known as that bold and caps-locked fellow we remember from 300, and though he's considerably more clothed here, he still fails to convince either as a bereaved family man or as the James Bond government agent type that Clyde turns into after the story's been set up. Jamie Foxx just seems to turn up for the paycheck too, though I've never really been convinced he's as good an actor as people say he is. This miscasting also brings down that message that the film's trying to send, turning what could've been an enjoyable action flick into something that needlessly tries to be more weighty and falls considerably short of its mark. That said, the action setpieces are good, and the plot unfolds in a largely satisfying manner up until the last ten minutes or so, where a bonkers twist leads into a consequence-free climax. Nobody learns anything, further undermining the "serious" factor.

If you saw the trailer for Law Abiding Citizen, prepare to have been mis-sold on the premise a little. It's not as action-packed nor as enjoyable as the advertising campaign has made out, but I definitely recommend you take my approach before you go in and don't take it seriously. Ignore the slight preachiness about the justice system, because the ending is strictly by-numbers and several earlier threads are left dangling in the wind. I found the film moderately entertaining, albeit overly grisly. Indeed, the 18 certificate could have been avoided with one minor cut or alteration to the violence, and this film might have found a broader audience. It's not bad, but you might want to hold this one in contempt for a while, at least as long as it takes for the DVD to be released.


It is December, so some Christmas films and posts are imminent. Please don't yell at me, and if you've seen Law Abiding Citizen, why not share your comments below?

Don't forget, we're also reaching the end of the year, the end of the 2000s and most crucially, the end of David Tennant's era on Doctor Who, so you can expect some best-of lists mixed in with some of the reviews towards January.

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