7 June 2010

Countdown Conundrum

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.

Women are good. Hang on... women are usually good. And as Hollywood thinks the World Cup means the rest of the world just stops, and duly aren't releasing many of their big action features in June, the month ahead in cinema looks to be very lady-friendly with the likes of Killers and Letters to Juliet coming in the next few weeks. To kick it off though, we have two films that prominently feature women that also seem to be targeted at men, 4.3.2.1 and She's Out Of My League. As we shall see, one of these things is not like the other.
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4.3.2.1 marks a sensible progression by Noel Clarke, a director who has the serenity to accept that Hollywood blockbusters will always be more widely shown while at the same time driving for British cinema to be a bit more ambitious. And so here we have a film centring around four women over three days in two different cities, with one big crime affecting all of them. The story is told in vignettes that interconnect over the weekend the film covers, as our heroines respectively deal with parents getting divorced, a resentful adoptive brother, an audition for a prestigious musical education and most pressingly, a diamond heist gone wrong...

Ambition, as I've said, is good, and it certainly pays off in 4.3.2.1, and it looks more stylish and well constructed than many other British films of the last year or so. The price it pays is around a million studio logos at the beginning to appease all of its financiers, just so you're appreciating the effort this kind of film takes in the UK from frame one. The trouble is that it's a little disjointed. When we first meet our protagonists, played by Ophelia Lovibond, Tamsin Egerton, Shanika Warren-Markland and Emma Roberts, they're close friends with big plans for the weekend. As they diverge, the waters are muddied somewhat.

The vignette format makes a two hour film feel a lot longer than it really is. That's not a bad thing if it's consistently good, but the countdown to the ending is so overt that by the time we get to the third segment, you'll looking at your watch and wondering how many more stylised flashbacks to the beginning we'll get. It's this that prevents a good film from being great, in my estimation, and I still enjoyed
4.3.2.1 a lot.

What's good about the film is very good. There's a strong sense of humour running throughout and there's some fine acting too. All four of the leads are fantastic, with Lovibond and Warren-Markland in particular showing off what they can do in their first major roles. Likewise, Roberts and Egerton are very likable. As each of the four parts of the story centres on one of them, it'd be easy to overlook the rest of the cast, but they were excellent too. Any film that casts Nick Briggs, voice of the Daleks, as the face of a supermarket chain has to be good in my book. Clarke himself has a role that appears at first to massage his ego, but is nicely and quickly subverted in the course of the plot's escalation.

Gender politics is an interesting topic in this film, really. If the women are put down, they always go down swinging and they're all very capable of getting even, but you wonder if they had to dispense with their clothes in the process. Clarke wrote the script after someone told him he didn't write women well, and he mostly proves them wrong, but he's at cross-purposes when still trying to avoid alienating the audiences who made him successful, i.e. young men. This is most apparent in a lesbian sex scene midway through, with dynamic camera angles on the naked women, set to blaring house music. Compare this to a relatively chaste hetero scene earlier, which is more important to a character's story than the latter scene and unfolds fairly routinely.

4.3.2.1 may be Clarke's most vigorous film to date, and it just barely overshoots the desired effect. The narrative is somewhat entangled in its structure and the gender politics don't quite balance out. To compensate for empowered women, the men are all of the type you see in adverts- incompetent pillocks. Nevertheless, it's a film about four women who are capable, independent and sexualised without being objectified, well-acted by all concerned. Insert joke about not going to see Sex and the City 2 here. This is the more stylish and entertaining alternative, and it's worth supporting in cinemas if you want to see more ambitious British films.
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I exited the cinema after seeing She's Out Of My League with an immediate need to review it. Not because I have anything hugely important to say about how good or bad it is, but simply for posterity. If I don't review it now, I'll have forgotten all about it by tomorrow. It's about Kirk, an airport security guard who has a chance encounter with Molly, an enterprising events planner and all-around "hot chick". On account of an antiquated system, self-esteem issues abound as the two start dating. We're asked to follow little more than why a "10" would date a "5".

And therein lies the problem. This is a film that is entirely superficial and vacuous. All of the conflict comes from the idea that everyone has a ranking out of 10 in terms of attractiveness. Hottest of the hot would be a 10 and The Elephant Man would be a 1, I guess. What absolute bollocks, especially as a topic for a romcom. I say this not only because I'm probably about a 4 myself, which by this film's logic places me in the rafters wearing half a face mask and lusting after a piano player, but because it sucks any potential romance right out of the film. This is a romantic comedy without the romance!

More than that, because Alice Eve's buxom Molly is "a hard 10", it requires every other character to act like a complete moron around her. If they're not slack-jawed from awe at her cleavage or smile or whatever pixel-perfect bit of anatomy is showcased at any given point, they're being ridiculously misogynistic and sexually harassing her in some way or another. The consequence of all this is that when the film reaches its woobie stages and has morals like "If somebody loves you, then you're a 10 too", it completely dismisses everything that comes before and after.


Jay Baruchel is more or less overshadowed by the superficial goings-on, but he's a much better actor than most of the others who feature here. He can't excavate any memorable moments from the script though, instead reduced to bantering inanely with his three buddies. You know, that dynamic of four friends that hasn't been done a million times since The Hangover alone, never mind The 40-Year-Old Virgin or even Sex and the City. The comedy falls flat more than it soars. At best it manages to hover limply every now and then, mostly courtesy of supporting roles by Krysten Ritter and TJ Miller.

What depressed me most about it was not the systematic approach to romance that prevails for most of the running time- and boy, does that running time feel a lot longer than it's supposed to be- was the credits. It was specifically the writing credit, for Sean Anders and John Morris. They wrote last year's Sex Drive, which had a piss-poor pun for a title but was much better and much funnier than you'd think. The very worst you could say about it is that it's a guilty pleasure, and I can remember that better than a film I saw today. More recently, Anders and Morris penned Hot Tub Time Machine, which I didn't realise until reading around this one. And now here they steal no less than two bawdy setpieces from the first American Pie films and utterly forget to write any jokes that raise anything louder than a small titter.

This film is balls. Trevor Eve, the elder Eve, is well-renowned on British television for taking the lion's share of close-up shots and he appears here with his daughter playing her dad in the film as well. It looks like Alice Eve has inherited his thirst for the limelight, because She's Out Of My League is cinematic onanism for her. More disappointingly than anything else, it is a romantic comedy without romance and without any real laughs. I can feel myself forgetting it even as I type. It's not awful, but it's not sweet, original or likable either, and from the writers of a film I previously enjoyed, it's especially unforgivable.
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If you've seen 4.3.2.1 or She's Out Of My League and want to share your thoughts on the film or on my reviews, please comment below. If you want to rest assured that I'll stop mentioning Sex and the City as a frame of reference from here on out, have no fear- we're done with that.

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


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