25 February 2010

Alice in... Where? (UPDATE)


Time has shown that Tim Burton's "reimaginings" can often pan out as inferior versions. For every Batman, there's a Planet of the Apes. For every Sleepy Hollow, there's a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In terms of disappointment though, at least it can be said that all of those films made it into cinemas in the UK.

But today, The Guardian is reporting that the three biggest cinema chains in the UK- Odeon, Cineworld and Vue- may actually boycott Burton's latest, a 3D reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, after Disney shortened the wait for the film's DVD release to just 12 weeks after its cinema release on March 5th. This is part of a scheme by Disney to make the turnaround from cinema to home video faster, which is obviously not good for cinemas that sometimes struggle to make a profit in an industry where DVDs don't come out too long after their initial release and piracy is rife.

Personally, I can't see this boycott occurring. Yeah, it's not just a news piece- I'm still whacking you with my views. Alice in Wonderland is projected to make £40m at the UK box office. Moreover, it's one of the most anticipated films of the year, playing in that most steadfast of cinematic gimmicks, 3D. One of the two sides will back down, or else everyone will lose out.

Both sides are pressing their point to make more money out of the film, and so neither are likely to let it rest at a point where they both lose out. Apparently a similar truncation of Up's run was planned so that Disney could release that film on DVD and blu-ray before Christmas, and was stopped when the chains threw their dummies out of their prams by threatening to boycott A Christmas Carol.

However, the one thing these three films have in common is that they're all in Disney Digital 3D, and that exhibits only how the technology has a single advantage- profit for studios and cinemas. With Avatar continuing to rake in money- now in its eighth week atop the UK box office and having surpassed Mamma Mia! as the highest grossing film in UK box office history- studios have been falling over themselves to release things in 3D, and the cinemas are happy to enable them.

I've got no problem with anything that gets more people into the cinema, but there must come a stage when audiences realise the sole benefit of 3D isn't helping them one bit. It's not immersive- it's expensive. The irony of the technology's renaissance is that it's now making its way into homes, with Sky promising a 3D channel later this year, and so the cinema needs ever more annoying gimmicks to draw people away from home entertainment.

This to me is the equivalent of DVDs having a "dickheads' commentary"- the recreation of a night at the cinema in the UK with an audio track of chavs talking, texting and generally being twatty overlaid on the film. It just won't happen. The only reason the chains have kicked up a stink about this is because it's in 3D. If Disney wanted to release The Princess and the Frog on DVD next month, I bet there wouldn't be nearly as much of a problem.

Whether or not Alice in Wonderland succeeds or fails as an entertaining film, with Johnny Depp looking like Madonna and the distinct vibes of Narnia-style action in the trailer, is being overshadowed by how successful it will be financially, and no one can tell me that makes 3D the way forward for film.

UPDATE: Told you so. Alice in Wonderland is released on March 5th, and on DVD 13 weeks later. Stick it to 'em, Odeon- make them wait another week.

An interesting addendum though- Disney have said they want to release the film before the World Cup. Surely for the majority of people in the UK who aren't arsed about England's chances (yes, the majority- those TV ratings don't even encompass a third of the population, usually), DVD releases would serve as effective counter-programming. I have my doubts about Burton's Wonderland, but I'm sure I'd much rather be watching that than a bunch of over-paid and occasionally promiscuous morons kicking a ball around and getting knocked out in the quarter final stages.

22 February 2010

Hand Relief

In this most inappropriately monikered post for a long time (you have to go way back to the Brüno/Public Enemies two-fer for worse), I'm taking a look at the return of hand-drawn animation to the big screen- Studio Ghibli's Ponyo is Hayao Miyazaki's re-telling of The Little Mermaid and Disney have recently dusted off their lightboards to bring us The Princess and the Frog. 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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Ponyo is the sweet and decidedly fishy star of Studio Ghibli's latest, the daughter of a powerful underwater wizard called Fujimoto, who wants to redress the balance of nature so that the ocean-raping humans are wiped out. While this marine coup is going on, Ponyo explores the shallows of the sea, close to the shore of a small island. There she's found by Sosuke, a young boy who loves the sea and adopts Ponyo, mistaking her for a goldfish. By taking her on land, Ponyo is imbued with the ability to become human, which leads Fujimoto to advance his plans against humanity. As bitter old lady Yoshie warns Sosuke, fish with faces coming out of the sea will cause a tsunami...

As a caveat to this review, I should say I saw the English dubbed version of Ponyo, which features the dubious voice talents of Frankie Jonas and Noah Cyrus, siblings of their respective horrid family phenomena. Needless to say, this ruined the film. I get the feeling that watching the film in Japanese with English subtitles, or even just muted, would vastly improve it. It's a shame to see Disney drop the ball on the dub with this when they made masterstrokes like Michael Keaton as Porco Rosso, or basically everyone who did a voice in the dubbed Howl's Moving Castle. Compared to those, the casting of Jonas and Cyrus just makes the film shrill. Horribly shrill.

I said in my Percy Jackson review that a certain crass quality creeps into a lot of American features, but it's never so irksome in any other Ghibli audio retooling as it is here. The song playing over the credits is just ear poison, like Disney is pulling off some Claudian attack to leave the worst taste possible as you race from the cinema. But even for the shrill stuff, there is a lot to enjoy here, as with all Ghibli efforts. Its flights of fancy are bolstered by a beautiful visual sensibility, from landmarks to character design. The story goes through the motions and is almost anti-climactic, but the target audience is children, and I bet they'll adore it. It's leisurely paced, and you'd be hard pressed to hear the understated vocals of Liam Neeson and Tina Fey when you're on the Cyrus wavelength, but this is a film that will appeal to kids without patronising them and it looks dazzling to boot.

The dubbed version of Ponyo is irresistibly cute just so long as nobody's speaking. I'd be very interested to see the Japanese version, because the English dub exacerbates the slightly saccharine aspects of the plot development and Miyazaki's body of work has already shown us that his stories transcend language and culture. Dubbing aside, the very worst you can say about it is that it's the least good Ghibli film- it's too good to be the worst, but not even close to as good as my personal favourite, Porco Rosso. Hayao Miyazaki continues to pioneer new techniques in hand-drawn animation and storytelling, which is no mean feat for an art form that's been around for almost a century.

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.

18 February 2010

Don't Worry About Me


Your Mad Prophet went on the road earlier this week in a fit of journalistic initiative. Having been offered a place at a BAFTA workshop with David Morrissey and a seat at a screening of his directorial feature debut, Don't Worry About Me, I jumped at the chance to do a little bit of film journalism rather than whinging about Michael Bay's 3D romcoms, or whatever.

Sometime soon, I'm planning to adapt this into some kind of feature article to get the word about this film to as many people as possible, thought I'd share the more exasperating and less relevant bits of my day, along with some of my thoughts on the film, with you, my faithful... couple of readers.

The novelisation of the journey would probably be called The Mad Prophet versus The Rail Bastards, having been hindered and mocked by numerous train station employees both to and from Newcastle. At Middlesbrough train station, I missed the 12.30pm train because of some gubbins with a broken vending machine, and thus had to get the train an hour later and arrive at Newcastle train station at 2.55pm. The workshop started at 3pm.

That's not really the story though, because it was definitely worth the sheer stress of that morning and the journey to get to the workshop and the screening. I managed to approach David Morrissey himself at one point, but having never interviewed someone I admire so much before then, let me set the scene for you- there are a ton of other people wanting to talk to him, and I'm clutching a sheet of questions I wrote up on the train, having misplaced the well-researched and clever questions while sitting around in Middlesbrough waiting for a train. With the growing queue, I figured I had time to ask about three questions, and I hadn't yet seen the film I was interested in asking him about. Nerves kicked in in a big way, and so I've since mythologised the conversation that followed in my head as me making an absolute arse of myself.

Putting my star-struck demeanour aside and talking about proper things, I greatly admired his passion for his work. The workshop was informative and engaging, and a great insight into his work on character and directing. Once we came face to face, I think I'm expressing more humility than you're supposed to as an interviewer by saying that I didn't really ask any of the intelligent questions I was aiming for about his working process, and I hope I looked more composed than I felt. Having accepted that I'm no Paxman when it comes to interviews, I went on to the screening of Don't Worry About Me at the Tyneside Cinema. It seems almost surplus to requirements to mention that the cinema was superb, but I loved it. They let me take alcohol into the screening too, a concession I hope I'll be allowed at my local multiplex when Transformers 3 comes out.


And so onto the film. It tells the story of the chance meeting between David and Tina. David is a cocksure London lad who chases a one-night stand to Liverpool in the hope of winning her affections and gratitude. When that doesn't pan out, he strikes up a friendship with Tina, a local girl with a troubled family life, and the two of them race around Liverpool getting to know one another and bickering quite a lot. From the outset I want to say that it's brilliant. James Brough and Helen Elizabeth play David and Tina, and they also adapted the script from their own stage play, something I wasn't aware of from all that meticulous research I mentioned.

The film was made for £100,000 and funded entirely independently of film financiers, and it looks incredible. It doesn't look like a polished HD realer-than-real picture, but that's refreshingly organic, especially as so much work has clearly gone into the development of the script- it looks somehow more real for its visual sensibility, and of course for its tremendous performances. James Brough is somewhat unlikable as David by the end of the film, but I adored Helen Elizabeth as Tina. She's instantly endearing, and it seems almost churlish to suggest I might have believed her so much because I didn't know her from anything else, or because she wrote the script, because she is really really good in this. I actually can't imagine there'll be a more accomplished, heartbreaking or just downright wonderful breakthrough performance this year. Brilliant writing by- and for- a brilliant actress, and both the script and performances mark Brough and Elizabeth as talents to look out for in the future.

Morrissey is credited for his screenwriting- which in the Q&A was said to have included a violent attack on a large plushy teddy bear around halfway through the film- and for his direction. As a portrait of Liverpool, it's comparable to Terrance Davies' Of Time and the City, only I feel Morrissey imbued his film with much more warmth and a much greater sense of what he loves about the city. Hell, I wish someone would make a film in Middlesbrough that was shot half as well, then maybe Phil Spencer and Kirsty Allsop would retract their "cesspit" snarking and bugger off. There are some wonderful visual devices throughout, particularly in the standout scene where the two characters are set apart visually by a confessional box but brought closer together by the dialogue. That scene also has a wonderful monologue by Elizabeth, and I'm deadly serious in reiterating that that woman will go on to do great things. This is a great thing, and I'm anticipating more.

The only real complaint I can think of is that its 80-minute runtime went by too quickly, but I can hardly quibble when a film is so good that I want more of it. Don't Worry About Me is a fine romantic drama and a veritable melting-pot of new talent to boot. If I had to pitch it to you in familiar terms, I'd say it's like Before Sunrise relocated to Liverpool, but it's never derivative enough to warrant "familar terms". Newcastle was the fourth stop on a nationwide tour for Morrissey and Elizabeth, bringing the film to audiences all across the land. It's shameful that the film hasn't been picked up by a distributor and put in cinemas nationwide, but for anyone who seeks it out, it's a terrific monument to what's possible in independent film. It's released on DVD on March 8th, and I whole-heartedly recommend you give it a watch. It really deserves it.

13 February 2010

The Philosopher's Clone?

With Warner Bros having split the last Harry Potter book into two films, a move that has cynics decrying their money grubbing, the search for the series' successor is very much on. Arguably, it's been on ever since Philosopher's Stone grossed $974m worldwide, but the likes of Eragon and Cirque du Freak have failed to launch audience grabbing franchises just the same as more worthy efforts like The Golden Compass or Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Enter Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, a film based, as ever, on "the best-selling books".

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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Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief finds the eponymous teenager discovering he's the son of Poseidon, an uncomfortable and transcendental truth that his mother never really mentioned before. Percy's also thrown by the sudden revelation that his best friend Grover is a satyr appointed to protect him, his paralysed history teacher is a centaur, and that everyone from Mount Olympus to the Underworld thinks he's stolen Zeus' lightning bolt, the most powerful weapon ever created. With Zeus on the warpath and Hades wanting the bolt's power for himself, Percy and his friends must find the real Lightning Thief in order to rescue his mother from the Underworld and prevent a war that would consume the Earth.

Way before Harry Potter, Chris Columbus wrote a film called Young Sherlock Holmes, wherein two boys and a girl investigated a mystery at the boarding school they attended, befriending a beardy bloke and fighting off an enemy that threatens to destabilise the balance of their world. Of course Percy Jackson isn't Young Sherlock Holmes, but you can't help but notice that between these two films and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Chris Columbus is making a killing off of the same film over and over again. As much as I love Harry Potter, I'd never claim that it has the most original story structure ever, because if this is mining anything, it's Greek mythology. We're due a decent Greek mythology film, and for some that will be next month's remake of Clash of the Titans, but for the family audience, it's Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.

In terms of the narrative, I suspect something has been lost from the books. While I generally have no problem with a film carving out its own structure to make it a different beast from the source material, and indeed I usually prefer that, the film suffers for the same stumbling reverence that Columbus brought to the first two Harry Potter films. Big idea-laden sequences unfold around every ten minutes, invariably with big action beats, but it's the bits in between where the film suffers. For instance, Percy's mother is kidnapped very early on, but for a good ten minutes after that sequence, Percy believes that she's dead. Not that you'd know it, given the utter lack of emotion he expresses at this bereavement. It's not that the reasonably likable Logan Lerman is poor in the central role, it's that the script doesn't really seem to provide any real grief for Percy.

As predictable as it is that Percy's mother isn't actually dead, you'll also be able to tell who the Lightning Thief is about five minutes after that character makes his debut. This makes the third act plod along rather than throw up anything of real interest, with the exception of some scenery chewing by Rosario Dawson's Persephone and Steve Coogan's Hades. These two in particular are the standouts amongst the adult cast, with Pierce Brosnan making a fairly thankless appearance and Sean Bean just snarling every now and then but not really conveying any threat. Brandon T. Jackson and Alexandra Daddario make pretty undeveloped Ron and Hermione substitutes, and the calibre of Logan Lerman's performance doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. This film dissuaded me from the notion that he should be the new Spider-Man, as rumoured, though I maintain new Spider-Man is a shit idea anyway.

Oh, and the product placement in this film is awful. An iPhone is used to defeat a monster. Percy wears flying hi-top All Star Converses. A trip to the Underworld is accompanied by AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" and a trip to Vegas by Lady GaGa's "Pokerface". And I think that's symptomatic of the problem with Percy Jackson. Did the young Sherlock Holmes wear Adidas while fighting Moriarty? Did Harry Potter pour Coca Cola on the flaming tail of a Blast-Ended Skrewt? No, because they were both quintessentially British, and somehow a transplant to America fills a film like Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief with brash sequences set in Vegas, or shameless advertising. The fantasy genre does work best when set against normality, but somehow there's a heightened sense of things when you make an American film that draws you out of it. Yes, I'm really saying that Medusa is less believable when she's ogling Apple products, because she is.

You know, I'm complaining about the crass stuff a lot- who produced this anyhow? Ah yes, 20th Century Fox. I mentioned The Golden Compass as a worthy fantasy adaptation above, but one which never went beyond the first of the three planned films because it didn't make enough money at the box office. This was due in no small part to the broad campaign against the atheistic content of the source material in America, spearheaded by Fox News. Fox, who coincidentally had another big family flick called Shit Chipmunk Film in cinemas at the same time, accused the film makers' December 2007 release as "a war on Christmas", a phrase coined by the network's arch-twatbag and pundit from hell, Bill O'Reilly. If The Golden Compass was anti-Christian, then why is Rupert Murdoch's company releasing a film that presents polytheism and ancient religion, except to cash in on the trend they think is so evil?

Fox is currently riding high off the astronomical gross of Avatar, which probably recouped their losses on all the shite they've put out in the last few years. But all of this is quite separate from the film at hand, and I apologise, but their bullshit is not considered often enough. On balance, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is more than the bastion of Darth Murdoch's evil empire. It's not nearly as derivative or pointless as it's being painted and actually zips along for the most part. And the film has its merits too- there are some interesting ideas about old, and I mean very very old concepts, there's another nice performance by Catherine Keener, and there's a decent music score from the usually uninspired and hackneyed Christophe Beck. Moreover, the production design is very strong and the film looks more unique than it probably is.

The kids in the screening I attended seemed to love it, so it has to get a pass. It drags a bit on account of Chris Columbus' erratic pacing and close adherence to set pieces from the book, but the kids in the screening enjoyed it. If you want to watch "the next Harry Potter", you'll be waiting until November, when the first Deathly Hallows film comes out. If you want to see an entertaining family film, you could really do worse than Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, because brashness aside, it's actually quite diverting fantasy fun for half-term. And it's not as bad as Eragon, which was a relief, so you can probably expect to see the next film, The Sea of Monsters in cinemas sometime next year.

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Hand-drawn animation is making a bit of a comeback on the big-screen this half-term, between Disney's The Princess and the Frog and Studio Ghibli's Ponyo. Both will be reviewed in the next post, but in the meantime, if you see Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, why not share your comments below?

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

10 February 2010

The Studio Silver Bullet

Having looked forward to Joe Johnston's remake of the classic Universal horror The Wolfman for a long while, and got in to see it while the iron's hot, I thought I'd drop in to give you my review. 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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The Wolfman is about more or less what you would expect. This new version follows an actor, Lawrence Talbot, as he returns to his family mansion following the death of his brother Ben. Mysterious circumstances surround the death, fuelled by the hearsay of an unearthly beast in the woods. When Lawrence comes face to face with the beast, he's attacked and ends up being cursed with the same condition- he becomes a werewolf. Between full moons, he's beset by the pious villagers, investigated by the imperious Inspector Abberline, and manages his complicated relationships with both his father Sir John and his brother's widow Gwen. All the while he struggles with his monstrous condition as he tries to find out the truth behind his brother's death.

This production has been dogged (pun intended) by studio interference since its inception, and it shows in the final product. Originally scheduled for 2007 without a director or cast, it was pushed back to April 2009 when Joe Johnston came aboard. And then it was pushed back again, to November. And then again, so now it's finally hitting cinemas, after numerous rewrites, reshoots and other such hindrances. The result is sadly perfunctory and confused rather than fulfilling its potential. Universal have been in this territory before with 2004's Van Helsing, a clusterfuck of a film that singularly failed to replicate the fun spirit of their more successful remake of The Mummy. While there are considerably less monsters in this one, the story just seems to coast along with an awful lot going on but nothing actually happening.


While Van Helsing was a largely audience-friendly 12A, The Wolfman has been equipped with dismembered limbs and bloody fountains to appeal to a more hardened horror audience, and it's utterly misjudged. I suspect this is down to the studio interference, seeing as how Joe Johnston's previous works have included family classics like Rocketeer and Jumanji. Those are both fun and exciting romps, and the 15 certificate precludes this film's efforts to be a fun and exciting romp. But it's still trying for that, and so horror fans will be turned off as much as the family audience. This leads to a big discrepancy in tone, mixing anxious jump-scares with occasionally computer-generated blood. Yes, our old friend, computer-generated blood. This is the kind of cheap solution that belongs in Ninja Assassin or Blood: The Last Vampire- not in your big horror blockbuster. The excellent prosthetic work attests to the fact that they wouldn't have bothered with digitally adding gore if they had intended to- they could have had practical effects during filming instead.

As a result of the aforementioned mismatch of tone, there are occasional flashes of brilliance that sink without trace amongst the more predictable and humdrum horror schlock. There's a breathtaking sequence around midway through where Lawrence wolfs up and runs riot through Victorian London, hurdling chimney-pots and derailing trams as the hapless police try to end his rampage. It's brilliantly shot and very well judged, making the wolf compelling and watchable in the exact same way that New Moon didn't, This was the point where I really thought the film was going to pick up in quality. Instead, it settled back down into the same vanilla narrative conventions, proving that films made by committee rather than by the artist never really work. For instance, nobody at the studio thought it was dumb to sacrifice the supporting characters' common sense in return for numerous scenes of them chasing Lawrence while wolfed-up instead of running away from him and waiting til he changes back into a human.

The cast are hit and miss for the most part too, but I blame the script for that, with around a third of the whole thing's running time preoccupied by nightmares, hallucinations and flashbacks as opposed to actual plot. The excellent Benicio del Toro could probably have made for a much more interesting werewolf with half a realistic line, but instead it feels like he's flat and expository. When main characters are expository, there's a problem. Anthony Hopkins makes a decent appearance as Sir John, but it's blatantly obvious where his character is going, and there's a thankless love interest role for the usually brilliant Emily Blunt, whose portrayal is winsome but not particularly memorable. The real standout performance is Hugo Weaving's, making one of his first on-screen appearances since he finished with both Agent Smith and Elrond in 2005. Having spent the interim period voicing penguins, giant robots and masked revolutionaries, it's just terrific to see him as Abberline. I was actually rooting for him rather than Lawrence, about whom the script never really makes you care.

Werewolves currently just stand behind vampires and ghosts as the supernatural gribbly of choice for Hollywood, and The Wolfman isn't likely to bolster their popularity to the levels of Edward Cullen and his ilk. Its final release date just before Valentine's Day seems to position it as an alternative date movie for the weekend, and on that level it might succeed. It has the occasional thrills and scares and a truly brilliant action sequence in the middle, but not really enough story or substance to make it enjoyable overall. Universal should've kept their oar out and this might have been released over a year ago and disappointed me a lot less than it eventually did. While it sounds like I'm being down on the film, it's actually not bad- just not as good as it really ought to be with the premise and the talent involved. I'd be very willing to see a director's cut, provided it brought in some more coherence and gave us something of the romping horror adventure I expected.

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Odds are The Wolfman will be the best choice if you're looking for a film to see with your significant other this Valentine's Day, as the alternatives are the simply-named romcom Valentine's Day, the latest Harry Potter knock-off Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, and the considerably more family-friendly Ponyo. Still, if you do go and see The Wolfman, why not share your thoughts in a comment below?

The next post will likely cover The Princess and the Frog and A Prophet. I did say that last time, but hey, I was really looking forward to The Wolfman. Those other two will be up next, with some of this week's new releases, mentioned above, following on.

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

6 February 2010

Ménage à François

When the news is banal, it's always best to slip into the cinema. As the nation works itself into a lather over where the England football captain's been dipping his wick, Clint Eastwood marries the sport movie with the political biopic in Invictus, the story of the relationship between Nelson Mandela and rugby captain François Pienaar. And if sports and politics aren't for you, another more weedy and pencil-moustached François is available in Michael Cera comedy Youth in Revolt. 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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Invictus finds Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela as he leaves Robben Island prison and becomes President of South Africa. However, the film's focus is much larger. Although apartheid has been abolished, inter-racial tensions are at boiling point. The white South Africans now fear that the black South Africans will treat them with the same contempt they dished out themselves in the years previous. The blacks seem all too happy to meet their expectations, orchestrating a vote to ban the team's largely white rugby team, the Sprinboks. With South Africa due to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela liaises with the Springboks' captain, François Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, in a plan to unite the country by winning the tournament.

Clint Eastwood may never stop. I'm being serious, we need to get some scientists in to project whether or not his career in film will be the first true instance of perpetual motion. At the age of 79, he directs two films a year, which are, almost without exception, distinctive from anything else he's done before. He also acts in some of them, and that the only film he worked on in 2009 turned out to be this year's Invictus is no sign that he's slowing down. Because as with all of his films, it's tremendous. It passes the acid test for all sports films by being more about the story than about whether or not the sports team win, which they usually do. Having no interest in professional sport whatsoever, I still found the film to be irresistibly immersive. Incidentally, Eastwood also swerves the trap that befalls most by biopics- trying to penetrate the psyche of their subject by telling the story of their entire life while also telling the audience what to make of them.

In the pivotal role of Mandela, Eastwood's long-time collaborator Morgan Freeman is really nothing less than brilliant as usual. Instead of spoon-feeding an explanation to their audience, the director and the actor both dally with the personal problems between Mandela and his family, without enlarging them to dominate the film's story. Eastwood has picked the period and the subject for his story, and the film is constrained to the progression of that story rather than anciliary parts of Mandela's life, or Pienaar's. In the latter role, Matt Damon continues to flout the hilarious but unfair portrayal of his acting in Team America, although I wasn't entirely sure about that South African accent. Then again, my frame of reference is Sharlto Copley screeching about "fokkin creatures" in District 9, and I enjoyed Damon's performance on the whole. I'm not sure it's Oscar-worthy, but part of me wonders if that's just the Academy making up for its ignorance elsewhere.

Invictus was hardly snubbed in the Oscar ballots like Gran Torino was last year, and received acting nominations for both Freeman and Damon. I personally don't see any problem with nominating Eastwood for both best director and best picture every year, because he invariably does make the best films. That he's made a film about rugby, a sport largely cannibalised Stateside to become American football, speaks volumes for the scope of his vision. The Blind Side got the Best Picture nomination instead, and I'll be reviewing that when it comes out, but I doubt it's a coincidence that the American football film won out over the rugby film. It's hardly an obscure sport of course, but on a much larger scale, this is a film about overcoming inequality. It may be overly reverent in parts, but Mandela has had an inspiring life. Another tremendous effort from Clint Eastwood.

While Eastwood continues to crank out brilliant film after brilliant film and remain distinct, the much younger Michael Cera is shaking off his typecasting in Youth in Revolt. Nick Twisp is a gawky and awkward young man who doesn't get much luck with the ladies... er, wait a minute. No, he does break that typical Cera role, because after being driven to distraction by his incompetence with Sheeni, the girl of his dreams, he creates a supplementary persona called François Dillinger, also played by Cera. Chaos ensues, as his juvenile delinquency sends him on the run for blowing up half his hometown, all the while trying to win Sheeni's heart.

This film has, for reasons I'm not certain of, been languishing on a shelf for well over a year now, apparently. Now that it's finally found release, its unconventional romance seems less innovative in the wake of last year's (500) Days of Summer. It could have pre-empted it, but instead, it's finally being released after that film proved a hit with audiences and critics, and after Zach Galifianakis, who appears in this briefly, had a huge hit with The Hangover. But in the company of other fare from that genre, I'm not entirely sure Youth in Revolt counts as a romcom- it's really more of an outright comedy, contrary to what the marketing has depicted. The central conceit that you should change everything about yourself in order to attract an otherwise uninterested partner actually seems like it belongs in a much lazier film that this.

It is played mostly for laughs though, with the cooler François spouting suave one-liners like "I'm gonna tickle your belly button... from the inside" like a nebbish Tyler Durden, in contrast with Cera's more mild-mannered screen persona that we all know and were frankly getting a bit sick of. To be fair, I like him as an actor, and he proves here that he's very good when he has a similarly sound script to work from. The real discovery here is Portia Doubleday as Sheeni, who makes the role convincing. She's pretty, but not the traditional porcelain perfect look that some other films have been known to cast as similarly desirable characters. But her acting sells Sheeni as a character for whom Nick/François would go to such extreme lengths. A talented supporting cast includes Steve Buscemi and Fred Willard, but loses points for engaging Ray Liotta to play the exact same character he always does. He just screams asshole in the same way as you immediately know Danny Huston in a suit is the baddy in Edge of Darkness (still playing in cinemas, folks!).

There aren't really many belly laughs in Youth in Revolt, but then it's not Airplane! The humour exists alongside a well executed adaptation of the book it's based on, and it boasts the best performance by Michael Cera since Juno. Admittedly, that wasn't long ago, but some of the dreck he's sleep-walked through since made this a relieving watch. It may be only infrequently hilarious, but that's better than consistently smirkworthy. Laughometer semantics aside, this will be adored by fans of Cera, and this will hopefully find a decent audience after taking so long to make it to cinemas. Having attended a practically sold out screening myself, it looks to be doing alright for itself.

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If you've been to see Invictus or Youth in Revolt, why not share your comments below? Next time will most likely cover Disney's return to 2D animation, The Princess and the Frog, and the much acclaimed and Oscar-nominated crime drama, A Prophet. Never let it be said there's no variety on this here blog.

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

2 February 2010

Blue Will Get Gold- 2010 Oscar Predictions

The nominations for the 82nd Academy Awards have been announced.

Not very many surprises in there, but here goes with my thoughts.


Avatar is a good blockbuster. It was the most enjoyable blockbuster of last year in my estimation, but is it an Oscar calibre film? No! I suspect the Academy disagrees, nominating it as they have for nine awards. It's tied only with The Hurt Locker for the most nominated film at this year's ceremony. The thing is, with its $2bn box office receipts and the massive hype surrounding it pre-release, people are determined to be polarised on the matter.

Internet message boards are full of fanboys who declare it to be the best film ever, and if you don't agree with that to the letter, you must hate it, and thus be blind in some way or other. And vice versa- if you don't despise the film, that makes you its biggest fan in certain quarters. It's an OK film, everyone! And it's OK that it's OK! Story-wise, it's certainly not perfect, and it does suffer from Cameron's seeming inability to cut the flab from the running time of his films. Hell, you can find my original review here. Most of what I said still holds true for me, except for one sentence in the last paragraph.

"It's probably not going to win an Oscar for Best Picture"

Sorry, past Mark, but you were wrong. That was a key case of me underestimating James Cameron's ability to dress Dances with Wolves up as a Direhorse and convince everyone that it the best film of the year. So sadly, with the voters blinded by the 3D-abetted box-office receipts instead of remembering they gave Best Picture to this very film 20 years ago, I predict that Avatar will win Best Picture on March 7th. Not because it's the best film nominated, but because that's what the Academy's like.


The only two films I haven't seen out of the other nine nominees are The Blind Side and Precious, both of which are yet to be released in the UK. Five of my top ten favourite films of last year made the shortlist, but I was most pleased to see A Serious Man, Up and District 9 in there. However, I can't see any of those films beating the sheer hype juggernaut of that blue-cat-people film. Let's just hope Kathryn Bigelow beats her ex-husband to Best Director for her excellent work on The Hurt Locker, which Kevin Smith says would be "a victory for ex-wives everywhere".

To the acting categories, I can't say an awful lot, because I haven't seen The Blind Side, Precious, The Last Station, Crazy Heart, A Single Man, Invictus, The Lovely Bones or The Messenger yet. The momentum seems to be in favour of Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart, Carey Mulligan for An Education, Mo'Nique for Precious and Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds, in their respective categories. A further Avatar related annoyance is in the fact that they didn't nominate the film in one of the categories they actually should have- Zoe Saldana for Best Actress, seemingly opting for old favourite Meryl Streep holding her nose and gurning through Julie & Julia.


As an aspiring writer, I was very interested in the screenplay categories, and was delighted to see In The Loop and A Serious Man get noticed. Up in the Air and Inglourious Basterds are both awards darlings this year, but both will likely be overshadowed in the other major categories by the Battle of the Exes. Expect them to win their respective screenplay categories, though I'd personally have said In The Loop for Best Adapted and A Serious Man for Best Original. But then I don't get to pick- there's probably a good reason for that.

To wrap up then- some of the overlooked films...


(500) Days of Summer
Should have been nominated: For Best Original Screenplay
Why for? It's the most original entry to its genre in years. Besides which, in amongst the bluster (blue-ster?) of Avatar, there wasn't another film this year like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine. Up in the Air was seemingly a de facto entry to that role, but I preferred this film. Good screenplay, well acted- shamefully overlooked.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Should have been nominated:
For Best Animated Picture
Why for? Because Fantastic Mr. Fox was rubbish! I know it probably appeals massively to middle-aged voters, but it also excluded Roald Dahl's target audience completely. Also, Cloudy should be up there because it's a lot better than you'd think- a genuinely funny script with some great voice acting and no pretension about itself. It's a film by "a lot of people", not a vanity project for Wes Anderson.

Moon
Should have been nominated: For Best Actor (Sam Rockwell), Best Visual Effects and Best Picture
Why for? Sam Rockwell is amazing in Moon and this really should have been the role that got his consistently great work in supporting roles some kudos from the industry. It also used visual effects to less showy effect than Avatar and on a smaller budget. The Best Picture thing is probably a stretch, but in an enlarged category, it's a real shame this didn't make it into the top ten, in a year where the stigma against sci-fi has been dulled by the likes of District 9.

Me and Orson Welles
Should have been nominated: For Best Supporting Actor (Christian McKay) and Best Cinematography
Why for? Christian McKay is Welles in that film. Maybe they satisfied their real life figure quotient with Matt Damon in Invictus, but I think McKay brought to the screen all of what made Welles the imposing and legendary figure he is. More than that, this is one of the few films that makes you feel like you're in the theatre for reasons that aren't to do with poor pacing- it's down to the excellent cinematography.

A Serious Man
Should have been nominated: For Best Actor (Michael Stuhlbarg)
Why for? OK, so two nominations, one of those for Best Picture, is hardly a snub. On the other hand, Stuhlbarg hasn't been getting the love he very richly deserves for his breakout role as Larry Gopnik. The Coen brothers have enough gold on their mantle and won't lose too much sleep over losing to the prestige pictures. Stuhlbarg will hopefully go on to do more great things, but I'd really have liked to see him get nominated here.

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With that dirty business over for another year, the next bit of Oscars coverage will probably be on March 8th, the day after the ceremony. Maybe I'll don a tux and do my own bloggy awards. As far as reviews go, the next post will probably cover The Princess and the Frog and/or Youth in Revolt.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't give an Oscar to an anti-corporate film if it makes more money than Jesus feasibly could.

1 February 2010

BLOOD!

If you love your vengeance movies, multiplexes are currently serving up lashings of retribution all over your cinema screens, eyes and, if we've entered the 3D revolution by the time you read this, faces. The makers of V For Vendetta have given us a bright red martial-arts revenge movie, Ninja Assassin, and Mel Gibson goes from spraying the stuff from behind the camera on Passion of the Christ to occasionally getting splattered with it as he searches for the truth in his comeback film, Edge of Darkness. 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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The titular Ninja Assassin is Raizo, a man who's been trained as a deadly warrior by the orphanage where he was raised. After about half the film's running time being dedicated to flashbacks, we can garner that there has been some kind of tiff between them. So Raizo provokes the ire of his adopted family by abandoning them to make his own way in the world. Meanwhile, an Interpol agent called Mika begins to delve into the murky truth behind a number of political assassinations going on worldwide and becomes a target herself. She teams up with a vengeful Raizo to take on her own bosses as well as a horde of angry ninjas.

Now come on. Any film with "a horde of angry ninjas" in the synopsis isn't really going to be Howard's End, is it? The first five minutes of Ninja Assassin will make your mind up about the entire film. It's as audacious and blood-soaked an opening as you'll see at the cinema this year, and it's daft as nuts to boot. It's a film that firmly plants its flag in guilty pleasure territory from the very beginning. Personally, I wasn't really er... pleasured guiltily? Unlike James McTeigue's massively underrated previous feature, V For Vendetta, this one doesn't really distinguish itself from any other film about ninjas. And it's quite a feat to make a forgettable film about ninjas. In the producers' chairs are Andy and Larry Wachowski, and more than ten years after The Matrix, they're overseeing a martial arts film with one of the least original and most clunky scripts I've heard of for a long time.

Naomie Harris and Ben Miles have to wade their way through dialogue with the texture of custard, and it's hard not to feel sorry for them. The film is essentially a star vehicle for Stephen Colbert's nemesis- Korean pop sensation, Rain. He doesn't have to talk much and thus his probably limited acting ability isn't really put to the test. Instead, there's a bit of wire fighting and CGI to make him look brilliant. And there's a hell of a lot of CGI. The fountains of blood pouring from this film's every orifice is largely animated, and while it never reaches the laughably ineffective levels of last year's Blood: The Last Vampire, it does leave the violence feeling almost weightless. However, the comparison to that film is not to be taken lightly, because there are a lot of similarities- two-dimensional characters and somewhat uninspired action.

Ninja Assassin is another attempt by Hollywood to break into martial-arts cinema without pairing off Jackie Chan with a sidekick. It's not nearly as fun as the premise suggests, and is instead an over-familiar retread of many action film cliches. It's never overblown, and it's certainly not bad, but all you'll really remember it for about six hours after watching is the quite spectacularly awful dialogue. I think that there's a scoring system somewhere that counts this film as a point to Stephen Colbert. Then again, Colbert appeared in The Love Guru. The war continues, and James McTeigue's concerted efforts are otherwise sadly irrelevant.


By comparison, you can only call Edge of Darkness a revenge movie in the loosest sense. It's certainly nowhere near as bloody, but I couldn't resist that title for the post. Based on director Martin Campbell's BBC TV series from 1985, this remake is all about Tom Craven, a Boston detective whose daughter Emma is gunned down on his doorstep. The authorities' working theory is that some hoodlum was trying to kill Tom instead, but the involvement of government fixer Jedburgh suggests it's not as open-and-shut as they might expect. Tom seeks out the truth, as the shady operatives of a corporation called Northmoor try to scupper his detective efforts.

Midway through Edge of Darkness, I realised what the film was reminding me of. It's like 2005's The Constant Gardener, only with a lot less subtlety and a grizzled, post-"sugartits" Mel Gibson in the lead role. There's probably a more prudent comparison to be made with the original series, but I didn't have that as a frame of reference while watching. Tom Craven resorts largely to violence and intimidation rather than the impotent indignation of Justin Quayle, but with a 15 certificate, Campbell doesn't really go all out with the violence. And the moments of excessive violence seem almost comical by contrast- see for instance the Team America-esque fall as Emma is assassinated at the beginning. There are more than a few unintentional laughs amidst the melodrama of Edge of Darkness, not least due to the bizarre accent that Gibson has been saddled with.


That quibble aside, Gibson really is very watchable in this. It marks a strong comeback after all the controversy around his private life, even if he is in the familiar territory of the kind of films he made in the 90's. You know, bereaved/concerned parent will go to extreme lengths for justice, blah blah. The camera doesn't flatter him in this film like it has in others, but that lends him more gravitas as Tom. That and the fact that you could believe they just pointed a camera at him and watched him go nuts with bereavement- the guy looks crazy, and always has, really. Ray Winstone and Danny Huston do exactly what Ray Winstone and Danny Huston usually do in films, and it's especially a shame to see the latter having settled into the dastardly businessman typecast in the way he has.

Edge of Darkness veers between melodrama and unintentional comedy, but levels out as a reasonably satisfying conspiracy thriller. I suspect it doesn't hold a candle to the much revered original series, but I couldn't call it for sure until I saw both. What I do know is that the moments of truly visceral violence seem cartoonish in a largely restrained film like this. Especially that climactic scene, which is just unspeakably daft and out of the left-field. Mel Gibson works well with the middle-of-the-road script, but the last film he starred in before this was the remake of another 80's BBC serial, The Singing Detective. Come on, Mel, give us something new! I must say I'm really looking forward to seeing him in is The Beaver, due out later in the year. Until then, his fans can enjoy this as a sign he's back. He's sounding a little like an Australian Peter Griffin, but he's still back.

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If you've seen Ninja Assassin and/or Edge of Darkness, or just want to bitch about the compulsive ease with which I've paired film reviews of similar content in 2010 so far, why not share your comments below?

The Oscar nominations are revealed this afternoon, so I can promise some commentary on that. Yeah, imagine that! From such a soft-spoken film fan as myself. You can probably expect another run at Avatar if it's widely nominated, with some rant-juice bubbling over the course of its meteoric seven-week success at the box office. More than that, I'm sure to be raging at some of the glaring omissions the money-driven Academy like to make each year.

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