21 February 2010

Lit and Miss

It's easy to forget amongst the annoucements of remakes based on 80s horror films, "reboots" of films that only came out last year and films based on board games that some actual literature sometimes makes it to the big screen. And last Friday saw the release of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lovely Bones and a more bombastic transference of Conan creator Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion 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.

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When we first find him, Solomon Kane has been a bad bloke, to put it mildly. Having spent much of his life being a bit of a bastard, he hies himself to a monastery after glimpsing the damnation that awaits him if he continues his evil ways. When he's cast out because a priest had a vague dream where God told him to, Solomon gets Satan's lapdogs on his tail once more, eager to finally claim his soul. Elsewhere, a kind and pious family are drawn into the machinations of a tyrannical demon called Malachi, leading Solomon to cast aside his new peaceful ethos because he has something to fight for- redemption for his sins.

You can count the really good and watchable "swords and sorcery" films on the fingers of one hand. Most of them have The Lord of the Rings somewhere in the title. Having looked forward to this film since I first saw the trailer, it gives me no pleasure at all to report that Solomon Kane is unlikely to have anyone but the most die-hard fans of the source material moving towards their other hand. I'm happy to buy into most genre fare with aplomb, but this is just another sorry attempt to capitalise on the good work done by Peter Jackson, almost ten years ago now, for this type of film. The plot plods along at a stultifying pace, even for a film that's only 104 minutes long, and you really don't need to be a soothsayer to see where it's all going. Not that writer and director Michael J. Bassett noticed that, as he over-explains things by cramming in dialogue like "The girl's the witch!" even as said girl's face transforms into an old hag's and she leaps six feet in the air.

There is never any real sense of jeopardy as the West Country accented Kane slices and snarls his way through a bunch of gribblies in the name of the Lord. Credit where it's due, James Purefoy does throw himself into the role, and said gribblies are remarkable for the fact that they're often achieved with practical effects. A sword fight with a man who's on fire really has a man on fire rather than using digital enhancement. Beyond the commitment of Purefoy and the immolating swordsman though, the audience has only a pair of Hurd-Woods (Rachel and Patrick), who are reduced to screaming the hero's name to get them out of trouble every five minutes, and a typecast Pete Postlethwaite as another religious man. You'd think he'd just stop with the monk/priest/man of faith characters, dammit. Oh, and Mackenzie Crook pops up as a mangy priest in a non-sequitur that wouldn't be out of place in Blackadder, but which jars in a film that takes itself this seriously.

And that's where Solomon Kane fails. It takes itself far, far too seriously. The Lord of the Rings could pull that off because it is seriously epic. It's a nine-hour story that encompasses the length and breadth of its fantastical world, and most of its inhabitants. The failing of this film and many other young pretenders is that their lack of comparable scale just leads the serious tone to look comical. Moreover, it's just horrendously dull and incredibly predictable. There have been worse films in the swords-and-sorcery subset and there are occasional "WOW" moments, but like an internet fantasy enthusiast who becomes a cos-player, WOW was not enough for me.

Peter Jackson seems to have moved away from swords-and-sorcery in the interim before his adaptations of The Hobbit come out, but he's still adapting material in The Lovely Bones, based on Alice Sebold's novel about a young girl, Susie Salmon, who is brutally murdered by a neighbour and subsequently tries to bring him to justice while watching over her family from an idyllic kind of limbo between heaven and the world of the living. I should say in advance that I haven't read the book- though I now plan to- and that the film is a very separate thing from the book. This review, as with the Half-Blood Prince review last year, will appraise it entirely on its own merits.

And there are many, many merits. After a mild mis-step with the overlong King Kong, Peter Jackson is back on form. In The Lovely Bones, he's crafted a wonderful story complemented by his attention to detail and compelling dramatic choices. The film is set in 1973 and the setting utterly reflects that. To my recollection, there are no anachronisms, and you're never any less than certain that Susie's death is even more tragic than by today's standards, because it's just not the kind of thing that happened back then. It was a simpler time, if you will. And that's why Stanley Tucci stands out so starkly in his incredible performance as Mr. Harvey. He's signposted as Susie's killer from the outset, but that doesn't make what we see of the act any more shocking or tragic. Critics have admonished the man who made Braindead and Bad Taste for being toothless and not depicting the book's rape scene, but it truly works better this way, capitalising on the audience's worst fears about men like Mr. Harvey.

Tucci talks in a voice that reminded me of James Stewart, and throughout he's concealing a palpable creepiness beneath a harmless demeanour. It's such a brave move for any actor to play a character like Mr. Harvey- a paedophile and child murderer- and much more so for Tucci to play him so memorably. Also excellent is Saoirse Ronan in the role of Susie, because she's very easy to warm to and that's crucial to all that follows her death and reincarnation in "the in-between". The computer-generated vistas of that world are dazzling of course, but Jackson knows from The Lord of the Rings that the performances have to be right for that to work, and they are here as they were then. Only Mark Wahlberg seems out of his depth slightly, but he's still competent enough as Susie's grieving father, and this is clearly his best role since The Departed, however dubious a qualification his recent filmography might render that claim.

What puzzled me coming out of The Lovely Bones is the general critical response to the film, which effectively killed its awards buzz, especially when compared to the exultation of Oscar favourite Avatar. Many have claimed that Jackson has adumbrated the source material's themes and story with digital trickery, an appraisal that James Cameron would seem exempt from. Additionally, it seems almost like critics have lost touch with reality in saying the exclusion of the more adult content makes it a family-friendly film. It's about a child murderer! I know the astral plane to which Susie's death has transplanted her seems lovely, but then that's quite an old concept. It's called heaven, and I don't believe in it, but I can at least appreciate that it's conceptually meant to be a nice and happy place. It might not have big Smurfs in it, but this film deserves some recognition, dammit!

I recognise there are a few faults with The Lovely Bones, like the halting narration from Ronan and the tremendously incongruous sitcom montage sequence with Susan Sarandon's booze-soaked granny, but I largely have nothing but praise for it. Stanley Tucci and Saoirse Ronan are utterly wonderful, the story moves along nicely and there's an unforgettably tense scene midway through that's reminiscent of Rear Window and is worth the price of admission all by itself. It's criminal that it's been drubbed in the way it has. So long as you can separate it from the source material, you'll adore it. If you can't, then to hell with you, because I personally think you're missing out on an early contender for the film of the year.

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Not everyone's gonna agree with me on either score there, but I really liked The Lovely Bones. Er, scratch that last, you might all agree with me on Solomon Kane, unless you're a fan of the books and comics it's based on. Funny how one of these films depends on your prior knowledge for enjoyment and another requires you to view it as separate. In any case, why not share your comments below about the films and/or my reviews?

Next time, I'll finally get to The Princess and the Frog and Ponyo, which I know I've been promising for a while, but I'm finally seeing the former at the cinema tomorrow.

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

2 comments:

Taranaich said...

"Having looked forward to this film since I first saw the trailer, it gives me no pleasure at all to report that Solomon Kane is unlikely to have anyone but the most die-hard fans of the source material moving towards their other hand."

"Er, scratch that last, you might all agree with me on Solomon Kane, unless you're a fan of the books and comics it's based on. Funny how one of these films depends on your prior knowledge for enjoyment and another requires you to view it as separate."

Actually, Solomon Kane/Robert E. Howard fans are the LEAST likely people to like the film, seeing as it makes incredible alterations to the source material for the sake of an entirely superfluous "origin story" that contradicts Howard's character, world and history. It's like expecting The Dark Knight Returns fans to be the only ones who could like Batman & Robin.

Nonetheless...

"And that's where Solomon Kane fails. It takes itself far, far too seriously.The Lord of the Rings could pull that off because it is seriously epic. It's a nine-hour story that encompasses the length and breadth of an entire world, and most of its inhabitants. The failing of this film and many other young pretenders is that their lack of comparable scale just leads the serious tone to look comical."

How does it take itself "far too seriously"? The implication is that only fantasy films with vast, overreaching plots involving the entire world deserve to "take themselves seriously," and anything less than that shouldn't be. By that logic, only war or disaster films should be allowed to "take themselves seriously", while intimate character dramas, thrillers or the like should be more tongue-in-cheek.

That said, I didn't go into the film expecting much at all: in fact, I went in preparing to grit my teeth and pound my temples in disgust. However, Purefoy's earnestness and the general enthusiasm of the actors made it much more tolerable than I was expecting. I guess knowing exactly what was going to be on screen helped in that regard, though, since I wouldn't suffer any nasty surprises and have to be forcibly ejected from the cinema.

"There have been worse films in the swords-and-sorcery subset and there are occasional "WOW" moments, but like an internet fantasy enthusiast who becomes a cos-player, WOW was not enough for me."

Well, taking that metaphor into account, let me now take this opportunity to recommend you read "The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane." Kane is a far more complex and interesting character than the film presents, the stories are far above the pulp magazines they first appeared in, and best of all, seeing the movie won't have spoiled anything, since nothing that happens in the film is taken from the books. Kane's a swordsman from Devon... and that's it.

Mark said...

"Well, taking that metaphor into account, let me now take this opportunity to recommend you read "The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane." Kane is a far more complex and interesting character than the film presents, the stories are far above the pulp magazines they first appeared in, and best of all, seeing the movie won't have spoiled anything, since nothing that happens in the film is taken from the books. Kane's a swordsman from Devon... and that's it."

I may well take that advice into account next time in Waterstone's, and I apologise if I offended you as a fan by generalising. I'm not familiar with the source material and was going solely by Purefoy's claim in an interview that the fans will enjoy how faithful it is. My bad.

As a film fan, I just really didn't enjoy it. I agree with your point about Purefoy's general enthusiasm for the role, but I didn't feel that was enough to salvage the rest of it. I was just really, really bored.

On the point of taking itself too seriously, I'm certainly not saying that every sword-and-sorcery movie should be a tongue-in-cheek 300 clone or anything. I just found it po-faced and generally wanting, and I could even have forgiven it being predictable if it had been more a enjoyable action pic.

Still, that's nothing more than my opinion. Thanks for your comments. :)