27 March 2010

Bloody Fuckin' Yeaah.

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.

Kick-Ass
begins with the musings of Dave Lizewski, a horny and unpopular high-school kid who has just one question- why has nobody ever tried to be a superhero before? It seems to him that everyone wants to help their fellow man, but without superpowers, few have the balls to actually do it. As you would, Dave goes and orders a scuba outfit and a luchadore mask off the Internet and becomes Kick-Ass. With the city of New York in the grip of an unscrupulous mobster called Frank D'Amico, Dave fails to realise that he's not the only hero on the scene, soon colluding with father and daughter crime-fighting duo Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. With no power, comes no responsibility.
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Holy shit. Just... wow. I'm calling it now, there will not be another film as entertaining, as brilliant or as downright demented as Kick-Ass this year. I'd be happy to be proven wrong there, because the only thing on my mind coming out of this was how soon I could see it again, and just one film like this is enough to make 2010 pretty fucking special. It's really that good.

This sets the bar high for all future comic book adaptations in more ways than one. Not only is it hard to think of one yet released that's as great, but it also closely mirrors the plot of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, both mocking and celebrating the structure of that film. Its central mantra (see above) echoes the sombre one-liner delivered by Uncle Ben and there's a parallel with the relationship between the villain and the villain's son.

If the planned Spider-Man reboot (still a bad idea by the way) or any other superhero origin tale sticks to that same structure now, it will pale in comparison with this marvellous and loving parody of those conventions. No longer is it acceptable for Peter Parker to whup ass the very first time he dons red and blue tights, instead of ending up in hospital. Marc Webb has to nut up or shut up on that film, especially after Kick-Ass.

Of course, it's broader than that, also ribbing Superman and Batman in its nebbish representation of the monomyth. Aaron Johnson is terrific as Dave, instantly believable as a high-school pariah and yet you're also able to empathise with him right away. But just as his John Lennon was outshone in last year's Nowhere Boy, so is his title character outshone by Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz.

Yeah, I know, everyone's going to be talking about these two, but there's a fucking good reason for that. They're both incredible, as Big Daddy and Hit-Girl respectively, and I can't stress that enough. I've been saying for a while that Cage's niche is comedy rather than the professorial action roles he's been doing these last few years, and happily I was right. He's a hilariously violent and demented reincarnation of Adam West's Batman, clad in a costume reminiscent of Nolan's Batman.

And of course all of the controversy and hype have equally centred on Moritz. She sells the idea of an 11-year-old psychopath better than you'd ever imagine, and undercuts some of the poignancy around her character's lost childhood by just being so fucking hilarious. She's this year's equivalent of Heath Ledger's Joker- everyone who sees this will go ape-shit for Hit-Girl.

As for the rest of the cast, Mark Strong gives another reliable and villainous turn as D'Amico, while Christopher Mintz-Plasse might actually shake off the stigma of forever being McLovin' from Superbad with this performance as his son. It's fairly distinct from that more famous role, and he certainly holds his own amongst a flood of amazing comedy performances that might have well seen him sink the film instead. Really, he was one of the only things I was worried about when I went in, and he really surpassed all expectations.

You might have gathered that it lampoons comic movies, but there's a realistic undercurrent to all the admiring cartoonishness- in the world of Kick-Ass, you very much have to be rather unbalanced to go around fighting crime in a costume. Dave compares the enactment of his fantasies to being a serial killer at an early point in the film, and much of the central joke for the first hour or so is how outlandish the concept is- how ridiculous Dave looks walking down the street as Kick-Ass in broad daylight. You could never accuse the comedy of merely taking refuge in audacity though, because this is more or less laugh a minute for much of its running time.
When the joke starts to wear off with the idea of real-life superheroes, the emergent storyline picks up the slack. You care about Big Daddy's crusade, and about Dave pretending to be gay to impress the object of his affection, and about Chris' need for his father's approval. In this much, it's a totally immersive film. For instance, you might start out feeling bad for laughing at some of the more insane humour, but it draws you in with likable if not identifiable characters. And you'll stick with it even at its most outlandish.

A lot of people will claim that this glorifies violence, and that no one can really deny that it's not for the weak of stomach. To the latter, yeah, alright- go and see The Blind Side or something else if you're squeamish about that sort of thing. To the former, fuck no. If you think these characters are glamorous and come out of Kick-Ass wanting to be a superhero, seek help. It's sheer entertainment, and with a 15 certificate it's not really pushing the borders of decency anyway. And besides, the fight choreography and editing are really well done, so it's worth seeing for that too, amongst the nice choice of music, the performances, the cinematography, the gleeful deployment of the old Chekov's bazooka trope and... well, everything else about it.

I'll level with you, because if I'd have said this at the beginning, you might have listened and then not read a word I had to say. Critics and reviewers can't tell you about Kick-Ass. The Daily Mail will shit kittens and blame Jonathan Ross as they try to stir up a moral panic. Elsewhere, there might be some more positive rhetoric flying around like "Watchmen and Shoot 'Em Up in Quentin Tarantino's blender" or something like that. If that sells it to you, then fine.

But no, even if they like it, they can't tell you. Go and see this film. There's a pleasing sequel hook at the end that I would really love to see fulfilled if the cast and crew are capable of sustaining even half the level of awesomeness that this film keeps level for a whole two hours. I can only really sell it to you as two hours of sheer awesome, and hope to hell you go and see it. Thank me later. Bloody fuckin' yeaaah.

Kick-Ass is currently previewing in selected cinemas, and goes on wide release from April 2nd. So if you see it, and you bloody should, why not share your comments on the film and on my review below?

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

26 March 2010

Where The Grass Is Greener

Following the quite fantastic step-up in quality that Paul Greengrass brought to Jason Bourne with the latter two films of that trilogy, he's teamed up with Matt Damon once again to bring us Green Zone, an action thriller set around the conflict in Iraq and the search for weapons of mass destruction.

Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller is getting fed up with the unreliable intelligence his investigation is being hindered by. In questioning the veracity of the source, mysteriously named Magellan, he uncovers the political machinations behind the war and goes rogue to uncover the truth. 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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Last week's I Love You Phillip Morris opened with a title card saying "this really happened, it really did", yet somehow this sentiment is more desperately emblazoned across Green Zone. Of course the presumably unforeseen difficulty in bringing the subject matter to the screen is that we don't know everything that happened in the war just yet.

Indeed, the conflict is still ongoing. As yet, it does not have any historical weight, and so as a statement of "this really happened", it has approximately as much value as Titanic.

To say this feels a little harsh on what is essentially a taut and competently realised action thriller, as is expected from Greengrass, but in the wake of The Hurt Locker, it can only be seen that films about the conflict in Iraq are better when they're divorced from the politics.

Moreover, it does border on becoming visually incomprehensible at times. The shaky-cam aesthetic that was so acclaimed in the Bourne films becomes grating here, and certain action sequences are as obscured as watching through the lens of a hyperactive five-year-old jumping up and down in their seat.

This at least is a little more immersive than any 3D film yet released, because if you're really in the middle of a car-chase, there is no tripod holding your head still to calmly take in the action. Nevertheless, using it every time someone walks across a street or gets into a car gets tiring.


There are still some excellent action sequences, particularly the final scramble to extract Magellan from a Baghdad in the midst of a shock-and-awe campaign.

The worst you can really say about Green Zone is that Paul Greengrass makes the best film possible out of a less than inspired concept. The conspiracy element is at its most clunky when it deploys footage of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" fiasco, and it's less a thinking man's action film than a disengaged political statement that often reaches further than it can grasp.

Still, it's technically adept and is bolstered by a number of great performances from Matt Damon, Brendan Gleeson and Greg Kinnear. Jason Isaacs nearly steals the show with some magnificent facial furniture and a flawless American accent.

I have to admit, it's always satisfying even to see a less than brilliant film from Greengrass, whose penchant for realism always results in films that are high in adrenaline and thrills, even if this one is low on actual substance behind its admonitions.

Green Zone is still showing in cinemas nationwide, so if you've seen it, why not share your comments on the film and on my review below?

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

22 March 2010

Adventures in Babyshitting

Douglas Adams famously posited the number 42 as the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Regrettably, there's nothing so profound in the two films the 42nd Mad Prophet review post covers. Instead, we have two fairly lamentable family films, with the downright awesome Jackie Chan having another jab at the English language market in The Spy Next Door and Seth Green being embraced by a gorilla in Old Dogs. 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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Although you'd never know it from the advertising, there's more of a story to Old Dogs than just Seth Green serenading a gorilla after it grabs him and cradles him like a baby. Robin Williams and John Travolta play two life-long friends, Dan and Charlie, who are about to enter into a huge sports-marketing deal with some Japanese businessmen. A chance meeting with an old flame of Dan's throws up the surprise revelation that he once fathered two twins, Zach and Emily. With their political activist mother about to spend two weeks in jail, the impractical bachelors have to babysit the twins, learning about family along the way. Yes, I actually gagged typing that last bit.

Even though it's the hackneyed family-centric hi-jinks that Disney's live-action arm is known for when there isn't a Pirates of the Caribbean film on screens, it's baffling to think this came out of the House of Mouse. Besides being homophobic, xenophobic, ageist and generally not funny, it's about a corporate back-and-forth! You know, for kids! There is little that approaches any recognisable level of entertainment value, with the exception of that Green-gorilla gag, which you've seen a million times if you've seen any trailers or posters, and a nice cameo from Justin Long. He plays a creepy and intense Scoutmaster, and I'm not really doing him justice to describe it that way. He provides welcome titters in the wasteland that is Old Dogs, and acquits himself fairly well.

The rest of the cast? Well, they can do better. The most galling thing is that they all know they can do better. Robin Williams was in Good Will Hunting and Jumanji, exhibiting a great versatility for different target audiences- here he's spray-tanned to the extent that he's mistaken for an Asian guy. Matt Dillon was one of the better parts of the racial tensions potboiler Crash- here he's the less funny foil to Long's psychotic outdoors man. John Travolta... no, fuck him. I'm not a fan, and he's one of the only actors working who I genuinely think needs to stop. The last halfway passable performance he gave was voicing the title character in Bolt, not to mention the fact that he's largely to blame for Battlefield Earth. So between this and From Paris With Love, fuck John Travolta!

Put simply, Old Dogs is garbage. Director Walt Becker seems to be daring reviewers to make the obvious "get it put down" pun with the title, but as I'm showing more ingenuity than anyone in that film, here is a short list of other bits of dog rhetoric that can be attributed this film.

1. It's less fun than rabies.
2. It leaves the taste of balls in your mouth.
3. An old, blind, deaf specimen that's loping around cinemas pissing on the carpet and smiling dopily at the audience as it does.

And I could go on. But this is not worth your time, not worth your money, barely even worth its existence. It doesn't quite count as one of the five 2010 films worse than Valentine's Day that would have me stop going to the cinema, but it comes very damn close.
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Elsewhere, Jackie Chan once again capably demonstrates why he's the best action/comedy star in the world in The Spy Next Door, a demonstration that in no part has anything to do with the lamentable script. But here's the story anyway- Chan plays special agent Bob Ho, who retires from his life of international espionage in order to try and build a normal life with his neigbour and girlfriend, Gillian. As is par for the course in these films, she has three children- Farren, Ian and Nora- who don't like Bob much. Bob's left holding the kids while Gillian's away, but Ian's inadvertent download of a deadly computer program puts all of them in danger.

Have you noticed how, when Jackie Chan is surrounded by dumb Americans in a film, he usually inflicts hilarious violence upon them and gets on with whatever he's doing? Doesn't happen in real life, as evidenced by the utter fail on show from this film's actors, writers and director. But besides all of this, Chan is excellent. He's Jackie fucking Chan, of course he's excellent. Chan has much better comic timing than he seems to be given credit for, and one of the films I'd really love to see in my lifetime would be a Jackie Chan silent comedy. He already has the right sensibilities for it in all of his work, and Hollywood would finally learn how to utilise that talent. In the meantime, my head movies aren't real, and we just have to make do with The Spy Next Door.

Now, I've never hit a kid. I suspect utterly drubbing the work of a child actor would have a similarly upsetting effect if said child read said drubbing, but my word, this film has the worst child actors I can remember seeing in a film. Emo girl is whiny, adorable kid is adorable, and nerdy kid is nebbish until Bob transforms him into... the Fonz? When the hell was this script written?! I'd assumed sometime after the success of The Pacifier, to which this film owes a debt that the Vin Diesel film really didn't warrant. The adult cast don't fare any better than the kids, particularly Katherine Boecher and Lazytown creator Magnús Scheving, who both adopt Russian accents that are sub-Ensign Chekov. Also, Billy Ray Cyrus and George Lopez are in need of a firm kick. Yknow, just for being Billy Ray Cyrus and George Lopez. Chan outshines every single one of them, and very much makes the whole thing worthwhile.

God love Jackie Chan, he keeps making bad films whenever he forays into the English language these days. That makes his part in The Spy Next Door all the more exceptional, drawing laughs out of a mirthless script like blood from a stone. At 55 years old, he's still at the top of his game in the martial-arts stakes, and he really gets comedy too. His next is a remake of The Karate Kid, starring Will Smith's kid. I can but dream of a Jackie Chan silent comedy, because it's the kind of thing that would just complete my life. In the meantime, don't go and see this one unless you're a big fan of Chan or your kids want to know how not to act.
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If you've seen Old Dogs, may God have mercy on your soul. But if you're similarly enthused by Jackie Chan even in spite of his utter misuse by Hollywood, why not share your comments below? If you wanna know what's next up, I imagine it'll be a much-delayed review of Green Zone in the run-up to the anticipated tantric explosion that'll come after I see Kick-Ass on Friday.

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

19 March 2010

Shut My Mouth

Hm, I might just stick to making these review posts every Friday. Brings some regularity to the blog, but then it's possible I see far too many films for one post a week to cover. The reason I've taken so long to get to this post is that I'm going up in the world, somewhat, having written for Den of Geek and I've made a titamaboob of myself on BBC Five Live, more of which later. Back where I belong, I've got reviews of Shutter Island and I Love You Phillip Morris for your enjoyment.
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Shutter Island is based on a bestselling novel, and brings Martin Scorsese back to a genre territory he hasn't roamed since his 1991 remake of Cape Fear. Since then, he's eschewed Robert deNiro as an acting "muse" and instead adopted Leonardo DiCaprio. In 1954, Teddy Daniels, played by DiCaprio, is a federal marshal dispatched to the remote mental institution of the title in order to investigate an inmate's disappearance. Mysteries build on top of mysteries as Daniels battles his own personal trauma and the unorthodox regime of Cawley and Naehring, the head doctors at the facility, to discover where the missing patient has gone. What's the law of 4? Who is 67? And most importantly at all, what is real and what is a pretence?

To offer a little context, this film's release was delayed from October last year, knocking it out of contention for the Oscars and prompting speculation about tensions between Scorsese and the studio. I don't believe that for a minute, because Scorsese is one of the best in the business and this is another masterpiece. Regardless of any changes made in the last five months, I'm really saddened that this film wasn't released early enough to have a shot with the Academy, because with genre fare getting rare recognition this year, the time was just right for a prestige horror film like Shutter Island to garner awards. This is creepy, tense and dreadful- as in full of dread- from start to finish. The second half in particular is a master-class in horror, ramping up the scares to a maximum as Daniels is thrust into a darkened Civil War fort with the most dangerous inmates on the island.

More than that, there's a terrific balancing act at work between horror and mystery. DiCaprio is rather marvellous at the forefront, but only when the film is finished will you fully appreciate how important it was for Mark Ruffalo, (SIR!) Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer and John Carroll Lynch put in the fantastic turn that they do while backgrounded by Daniels' investigation. Elsewhere, Elias Koteas and Jackie Earle Haley each give brief but electrifying and potentially film-stealing performances as two of the more deranged patients. The film's also got a knot of Nazi-phobia at its heart, which informs the most profound horror in Shutter Island- in the post-World War II setting, the Holocaust serves to remind humanity of its worst excesses. It's not a theme that has never been explored before, but the motif of Dachau is indicative of what humans are capable of doing to one another, and plays very well in the environment of the film. And here the traumatised figures it left behind find that violence has very real consequences and implications, a theme that comes to a crux in a scene where the facility's warden chastises God for loving violence so much.

There are only two real problems with Shutter Island. One- the score, assembled from a number of classical composers' works, is intrusive and jarring, and it belies the real value of the otherwise very impressive work. And two- the momentum is snatched away soon after the main twist in the tale, as everyone simply stops to explain all that has happened despite how the twist itself has been telegraphed from near the very beginning of the film. But for the most part, this is just an excellent horror film from a master craftsman of cinema. Evoking Hitchcock all the way in his adaptation, Scorsese pits an erstwhile but unhinged DiCaprio against the Machiavellian workings of Kingsley, the latter giving his best performance in a long while. Scorsese clearly appreciates that horror grounded in reality is all the more scary than supernatural horror, making for an excellently constructed horror drama. Breathtakingly brilliant.
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A story that's unhinged in a different way is the darkly hilarious I Love You Phillip Morris, which opens on a title card assuring the audience that "this really happened, it really did." It tells the apparently true story of Steven Russell, a Texan deputy cop who ups and leaves his wife and daughter behind to indulge his latent homosexuality after a near-death experience. Swiftly discovering that "being gay is really expensive" and becoming a conman in order to pay the bills, he's on a course for prison, where he meets the naive and sweet Phillip Morris. The pair fall in love, but find that Steven's compulsive criminal activities are keeping them apart as they flit in and out of prison over a number of years.

It's a Jim Carrey film, so it can go either way with in the lead role, but happily he's very good in this, pitching Steven with impeccable comic timing and occasionally allows him to be quite intense too. It's surprisingly understated, but he still manages to outshine everyone else in the cast. Ewan McGregor has finally stopped messing about with George Lucas and Dan Brown, and goes into Big Fish-mode in a role that's on the right track to jump-starting his career, and Leslie Mann is needy and memorable in her brief role, but it's definitely Carrey's film. And he carries it off well, not going too over-the-top, too po-faced or too caricatured. Indeed, the joke is never really at the expense of the gay-ness, except in one quite contrived sight gag involving Steven escaping prison disguised in a leopard-print mesh vest and red hotpants.

And what else would you expect from the writers of Bad Santa? Like that film, I Love You Phillip Morris mixes slapstick and the darkest brand of humour very well, making a highly irreverent and well-written comedy drama. Hell, it sort of counts as a romcom, so everyone go and see this at the weekend instead of The Bounty Hunter! Ewan McGregor makes a far better romantic lead than Jennifer Aniston anyway. It boasts what could be a career-best performance from Carrey- Eternal Sunshine and The Truman Show aside- and it's wickedly funny. A plot twist towards the end has to be seen to be believed, and it's an audacious film that's really worth the price of admission, whatever you may think of the tentative approach of marketing to the lowest-common denominator with the trailers.

Is any of this what I said when I foolishly volunteered a phone-in review to Kermode and Mayo's Film Reviews earlier this afternoon? Nope, because with a minute's notice before I went on air, I was more than a little flustered, and I enacted a poor impression of Steven, backed by a fleeting chorus of seagulls. Think of how I described my encounter with David Morrissey from a few weeks ago, then thrust it into the ears of a million BBC Five Live listeners. If you want to know the likely reason that I don't do video or podcast reviews, listen here for the next week, from around 56 minutes in. A video of my greatest wittertainment blunders (yes, more than one) may be forthcoming.
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If you've seen Shutter Island or I Love You Phillip Morris, why not share your views on the films and/or on my reviews (even the rubbish one) in the comments below. The weekend holds viewings of Green Zone and Old Dogs, and I might even go and endure The Bounty Hunter. Anything Gerard Butler found "laugh-out-loud" can't be all bad, right? Right?!

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don'twatchanythingIwouldn'twatch (CAW CAW)

18 March 2010

Mad Prophet, Hero of Sweden



Apparently I'm huge over there.

Um... some proper reviews coming shortly, I promise. To wit, Shutter Island and I Love You Phillip Morris. In the meantime you can check out some older reviews using the snazzy new Index page, or look at some of my other writings about cinema over at Den of Geek.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, ser inte något jag skulle inte titta.

11 March 2010

The Colin Song

The tenuous link between two of this week's releases-Oscar-winning character piece Crazy Heart and Irish fantasy-drama Ondine- is that they both prominently feature singing and Colin Farrell. The Irish actor is something of a paradox in that his heyday was in 2003, and yet the films he's made since have arguably been better. Except for Alexander, which would be unforgivable if it weren't for his career-best performance in In Bruges. So while I'm hardly a fan, I had to give these two films a go.

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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In the week following Jeff Bridges' long-awaited Oscar win for Best Actor, Crazy Heart has made it into UK cinemas. Bridges plays Bad Blake, a country-western crooner who's past his best and finds himself with prolific health problems, related to his copious drinking and smoking. He traipses from gig to gig, making a living and trying to recall the glory days. Continually outshone by the more manufactured strains of his protégé, Tommy Sweet (Farrell), Bad considers writing some new songs instead of relying on his popular back-catalogue. He's further inspired by a journalist and her young daughter, who allow him into their lives and give him a chance to reconnect with people.

Outright, I'm going to reiterate what I've been saying since Sunday- Jeff Bridges' win is well-deserved. Not only for his long career, which I suspect factored into the Academy's decision in this particular year, but for the marvellous performance he gives here as Bad Blake. For an actor who's most distinctive to me and many others as the Dude in The Big Lebowski, this is an entirely tangible and relatable character. Bridges embodies Bad from the moment he hops out of his car after a long journey and pours a milk carton full of piss on the tarmac. Similarly, Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent here, and the romantic chemistry between the two is electric, despite the massive age gap between the two. She was up for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Mo'Nique for Precious (unfairly, I dare say). It's also great to see Robert Duvall, who also produces the film, doing films like this instead of Four Christmases, having been the best part of most of Francis Ford Coppola's films back in the 1970s.

Some of Crazy Heart's critics have suggested it has a cosmetic similarity to The Wrestler, but with country music instead of heel-smacking, forehead-stapling sport. I'd disagree on that count, but would say that it's more similar to another Oscar favourite this year, Up in the Air. Like Clooney's Ryan Bingham in that film, Bad Blake is travelling so often that he can't really form or maintain relationships. But where Clooney slipped away to flirt with Vera Farmiga, Bridges contents himself by shagging groupies he meets at gigs, more advanced in years though they are. And those gigs come across well too- both Bridges, and latterly Colin Farrell, perform their own songs rather than lip-synching or using ADR, which is always good when actors play musicians. Unless, so I'm told, you're Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia.

Crazy Heart is engaging enough that you forget Bad Blake isn't a real person, which is more than I can say of most musical biopics, never mind other such character studies. It's bolstered tremendously by Jeff Bridges, whose tortured soul of a musician is still a million miles away from the slightly similar character played by Mickey Rourke a year or so ago. Bad is a magnetic character, and has a great dynamic with Gyllenhaal's Jean too. Country music isn't my thing, but the soundtrack is excellent too. And if the best sports films make you care even when you don't give a shit about the sport, then this is a musical drama par excellence.
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Colin Farrell takes a more central role in Ondine, where he plays Syracuse, a fisherman and recovering alcoholic who catches an unconscious woman in his trawler's nets just off the coast of his small Irish hometown. Unable to remember who she is and how she came to her current predicament, she adopts the name Ondine, meaning "she came from the water." When she reveals an unusual talent for singing fishes into Syracuse's nets, she enchants his disabled young daughter, Annie. Annie is convinced that Ondine is a selkie- a mythical creature who can live on the land for several years at a time, unless her subterranean spouse claims her back. Selkie or not, someone is coming for Ondine.

Sound familiar? Wondering if I've reviewed this already? Yes, it's Ponyo for grown-ups! But it does manage to be a superior film too, at the very least because it's not nearly as shrill as the dubbed version of Miyazaki's film. It's a well crafted and gorgeously shot folk-tale of a film, that straddles fantasy and drama with only slight unease. With a 12A certificate, it's occasionally shooting for the younger audience, but it also allows for copious swimming scenes with ingénue Alicja Bachleda stripping to her pants, which director Neil Jordan brings forward with gusto. The more rational of the two proffered explanations for Ondine's origins is also on the more adult side of things. To that end, a stock Romanian baddy comes stalking around the small town, slightly reminiscently of Christopher Fulford in Danny Boyle's Millions, another film which married a fledgling crime thriller storyline with a child's perspective on matters.

There's certainly nothing so remarkable as In Bruges from Farrell here, but then it doesn't have to be the best thing he's ever done, and fair play to him for the presumable influence of his star power in getting this film to the screen. Bachleda is appropriately dainty as the title character, although perhaps the tone might have came off better if she weren't so sexualised by Jordan's lens. Elsewhere, Stephen Rea, Dervla Kirwan and Tony Curran all make fleeting appearances as the townspeople with the appropriate level of befuddlement that Ponyo was missing. But the most charming performance on show is by young Alison Barry as Annie, who more or less clarifies Bachleda's airy ambiguity and keeps the central enigma engaging to the audience.

Clinging like a barnacle to a typical three-act structure, Ondine is still a very likable and enchanting film from a country that rarely seems to make a big noise in the cinema unless they're offended by Leap Year. Like its central character, it's alluring irrespective of its origin, and my big failing here is that I saw it so late in the week it was screening in cinemas. In the shadow of the following week's releases from directors like Paul Greengrass and Martin Scorcese, it seems like this is destined to be a one-week engagement for most cinemas. In the hope that it's more broadly seen later on DVD, I can heartily recommend this feast of charm and whimsy, even if it's a bit difficult to discern its target audience.
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Still to come, probably over the course of this weekend, are Green Zone and Shutter Island, both of which seem a little more intense than either of these films. But if you've seen Crazy Heart or Ondine, why not share your comments on the films and/or the reviews below?

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

10 March 2010

The Threat Down

Vague observation of America's Fox News Channel has basically taught me that the American right wing has two major fears- being killed in their beds by the "stoned slacker" government, and God's apparently inevitable reprisal of the book of Revelation. It's slightly unfair to the people of Texas then that both are being catered to in two horror thrillers screening right now- The Crazies and Legion. Political and religious terror aside, let's take a look.

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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In The Crazies, bad shit is happening in the idyllic small town of Ogden Marsh, to put things simply. After a very public incidence of what seems to be suicide-by-cop rocks the community, a number of other deaths and murders begin to cause trouble for guilt-ridden sheriff David Dutton. The febrile terror that sweeps Ogden Marsh seems to stem from a crashed plane in the river, contaminating the water supply, and soon David and his pregnant wife Judy are fighting for survival against everyone they know, but more imperatively, against the government itself.

Horror remakes usually do not pan out. The only other good one is arguably Zack Snyder's reworking of Dawn of the Dead, and so a trend may be emerging in that The Crazies is also adapted from a George A. Romero film. Yes, it's getting a rare thumbs-up for a horror remake. Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell have played roles like theirs before, but manage to make the film about character rather than about the interspersed jump-scares and usually ineffective central conceit. I cared enough about what was going on that I actually forgot how the ending of this film is flagged up in one of the trailers. If the advertising has to spoil the film, it always helps if there's a little more to the finished product, and happily there is.

Although The Crazies surpassed my low expectations, I have to say it's not without its flaws. The aforementioned central conceit should here be that everyone the Duttons know have suddenly gone insane and started killing people. Instead, it's more about the government killing people, which is a much less frightening thread for a film like this- as with most of Romero's films, it worked at the time because of the social subtext. In the wake of Watergate, it was accepted that the US government wasn't always honest, and Romero capitalised upon that. In a modern context, it's only as scary as The Constant Gardener, and the film becomes a little more like an action thriller with some zombified jump-scares every now and then. Not that there's no dignity in jump-scares for the horror filmmaker, it's just that the film doesn't linger in the memory so much for having eschewed the horror value of your close friends coming out to eviscerate you, with no hope of escape or negotiation.

But you know what? The Crazies is a generally solid and diverting horror thriller. The best remakes embed in their audience an interest in the original source, and this one did get me interested in Romero's film. Olyphant and Mitchell gamely rotate between firefights, zombie struggles and interrogations and there are some fairly engaging stunts and plot developments throughout. There's also a skein of dark humour running through the film, best typified by the music that director Breck Eisner opted to play over the end credits. It's not the frenetic or dumb film that its title suggests, and should satiate horror fans and casual film-goers alike.
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Elsewhere, there's the apocalyptically dumb Legion. Adapted from what I think is probably the earliest instance of science-fiction (the Book of Revelation), the film sets the imminent apocalypse in a base-under-siege context inside a remote diner curiously called Paradise Falls. The hotch-potch of people inside include a quarrelling family, a grizzled atheist and a pregnant woman who might just be mankind's salvation. Dedicated to protecting them is the archangel Michael, an Uzi-wielding renegade who finds himself at odds with the Almighty for his faith in humanity.

If I were to say that this is a Christmas film, you'd probably think I was taking the piss. But no, despite the sun-scorched landscape, the date at the beginning of the film is December 23rd. And with a pregnant woman who doesn't know the father of her child and the second coming imminent- if you can't guess where this is going, you're the Holiday Armadillo. The thing is, Legion very often skims around explicitly saying such things outright. The diner being called Paradise Falls put me more in mind of the jungle vistas of Up than foreboding of the end of the world. The majority of the religious stuff seems to linger in the subtext a little, a subtext that is really out of place in a film this dumb.

Yes, you read right- angels carry Uzis in this film. No celestial empowerment going on here, it's just... Uzis. Paul Bettany is a real trooper with the material he's got, but Dennis Quaid and Kevin Durand come off less well by snarling and grumbling their way through. And in fairness, if you don't laugh at the shot of a tall and muscular Durand clad in an armour vest with big angel wings, leaping through the air and screaming as he swings a big CGI mace around, you have no soul. Unintentional hilarity peppers the whole film, particularly in an early bit where a fight with a possessed old lady recalls Spider-Man, but a choice of weapon recalls the slapstick of Reeves and Mortimer.

Elsewhere, Legion is let down by the most leisurely pace imaginable. This is not the kind of film where characters should have time to sit down, stop the plot and talk about their past. If that was going on against the plot, then perhaps, but no! They just stop the plot! In the middle of the apocalypse! A key example of Legion's surfeit of dialogue comes in a scene where Dennis Quaid messes about with the reception on the diner's TV and a channel's emergency placeholder comes up, emblazoned with the words THIS IS NOT A TEST. Chef: "What is it?" Quaid: "I think it's some kind of test." Mom: "I don't think that's a test." Three entirely worthless lines that are undercut by the very words THIS IS NOT A TEST. The audience can read!

For all of its problems, I have to say that when Legion is on form, it's terrifically entertaining. It's bad, but as discussed with All About Steve, that's not a reason to avoid seeing a film. If it's bad and boring, like Knowing or Premonition, two similarly pseudo-religious horrors, then certainly avoid it like the plague. Admittedly, when the plot stops every once in a while, it can get a bit dull. But there's certainly enough inadvertent funnies in Scott Stewart's script that it's still incredibly entertaining. It's distinctive for that, and certainly not for its plot. Its narrated bookends and protector plot line are reminiscent of The Terminator, the base-under-siege by possessed gribblies goes all the way back to Dawn of the Dead, and the whole thing plays like a straight version of Dogma.

No one's going to take its religious themes entirely seriously, and it's almost entirely brainless, but for the sheer audacity of its failings, Legion just scrapes a pass for me. I did mention All About Steve, which won a Razzie for Sandra Bullock this weekend, but if we're using the uncomfortable enjoyment of that review as a yard-stick, this is far more entertaining. It's funnier than it is scary and the action comes in too seldom to make it an action film, but in this mess of a film there's a lot of entertainment value and a brave stab at the whole endeavour from Paul Bettany in the central role. Awful, but not godawful, Legion is a pleasure that's as guilty as sin.
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Of the two, Legion is definitely more fun, but The Crazies is better for thrills and chills, even if it is somewhat outdated. I would recommend either of them, albeit in very different ways, so if you do see them, why not share your thoughts on the films/reviews in the comments below?

Next up, I'll be taking a look at Crazy Heart and Ondine, by the somewhat tenuous link of Colin Farrell's involvement in both. There's a clusterfuck of films coming to cinemas on Friday though, including Shutter Island, Green Zone, The Bounty Hunter and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so I can't really predict beyond that.

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

9 March 2010

The Mad Prophets 2009

It's come to my attention that there were some awards being given out to certain films this weekend. I noticed that, yeah. Seeing as how I gave negligible coverage to the Oscars last year, I decided the beginning of February this year should lend the blog a little more prestige. I couldn't afford a tux, so I donned a jaunty bow-tie and decided to create the inaugural Mad Prophet film awards. This isn't a compilation of my favourite films of 2009, but a more subjective recognition of what I thought were the best in each field last year.

So here's my little awards thing for the period starting March 1st 2009 and ending on February 28th 2010, which is about the same period the Oscars are supposed to cover. Supposed being the operative word, if today's nominations are anything to go by. Also going by UK release dates, a-like so...

BEST DIRECTOR

Kathryn Bigelow- The Hurt Locker
Neill Blomkamp- District 9
Terry Gilliam- The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Duncan Jones- Moon
Quentin Tarantino- Inglourious Basterds

If this had been going for February 2008 to February 2009, Danny Boyle would have been the winner by far and away for Slumdog Millionaire, and that should tell you something of my appreciation for directors that have overcome incredible working conditions to deliver an excellent final product. That's naturally why Bigelow, who filmed in a war zone, and Gilliam, who lost his lead actor during filming and still made a cohesive final cut, made the list without a second thought.

Tarantino is naturally on there because as much as he pays homage to the things he loves in his films, they still feel fresh and Basterds is infinitely rewatchable. Blomkamp and Jones are both recognised for bringing back intelligent and enjoyable sci-fi in precisely the way James Cameron didn't last year. However, the win has to go to Kathryn Bigelow, and that's one of the things the Oscars got absolutely right. There just wasn't a film that does what it does better than The Hurt Locker last year, and it's probably one of the best action thrillers ever.

WINNER- Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Tom Felton- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Christian McKay- Me And Orson Welles
Alfred Molina- An Education
Stanley Tucci- The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz- Inglourious Basterds

In contrast to the female counterpart, Supporting Actor is always a category that's bursting at the seams, because it constitutes a great deal of more subtle performances as well as most villains, and everyone loves a good villain. Tom Felton gets special mention for really giving a remarkable performance as the troubled and weary Draco Malfoy after five films making not much of an impression, to be frank. Elsewhere, Christoph Waltz won the Oscar and many more accolades for his unforgettable performance as Hans "the Jew Hunter" Landa. He's like a Nazi Batman in that film- the world's greatest detective and creepy as all hell to boot.

Off-centre for reasons of Zac Efron, Christian McKay's turn in Me and Orson Welles qualifies here too. His villainy is less obvious as he's more of a rival to the protagonist, but he completely embodies Welles, with all his charisma and talent. On the other hand, Alfred Molina is compelling and wonderful in An Education, but he's hardly the violent type- instead, his performance is excellent for the sense of impotence he brings to his patriarchal character. Unforgettable as Waltz and McKay are, I have to hand it to Stanley Tucci, who's tremendously brave in taking on the role of Mr. Harvey, consummately discomforting the audience with his repressed deviance throughout The Lovely Bones.

WINNER- Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Anne-Marie Duff- Is Anybody There?
Anna Kendrick- Up in the Air
Lorna Raver- Drag Me to Hell
Ok-bin Kim- Thirst
Sigourney Weaver- Avatar

Actresses are often heard to complain that there just aren't enough good female roles out there, and whenever you come to tot up the best female performances of the year, it's never hard to argue with that claim. Nevertheless, it certainly hasn't been a terrible year for supporting actresses. Kendrick made her mark as someone to watch in the future with Up in the Air, while Weaver was one of the best things about Avatar, although I'll be mentioning the film in another acting category too.

Both Kim and Raver gave terrific horror performances- horror isn't a genre I've ever been enormously bothered about, and yet both made for brilliant villains in their respective films. The winner has to be Anne-Marie Duff though, in an understated role struggling to keep her business afloat. You really feel for her not just because her melancholy about the family business and about her husband's mid-life crisis, but because she genuinely sells the character to you with her performance.

WINNER- Anne-Marie Duff, Is Anybody There?

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

District 9

An Education
In The Loop
The Lovely Bones
Watchmen

Both The Lovely Bones and Watchmen were screenplays that came across remarkably well from source material that should by all accounts have been unadaptable- a sprawling murder mystery about a child's perspective on the afterlife and an incredibly complex graphic novel respectively. An Education was urbane and witty while District 9 proved a rollicking graduation to the big screen for Neill Blomkamp's original short film. The award would have to go to In The Loop though- it's gloriously profane and laugh-out-loud funny, and a fine companion to the original series, The Thick of It. And if there were any justice, it would've won the Oscar too, cos Precious was way overrated.

WINNER- In The Loop

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

(500) Days of Summer
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up

The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds both took a side-on approach the war genre. Of the two, Inglourious Basterds is probably the more memorable, for Tarantino's trademark dialogue and for its sheer audacity, but hey, the Academy disagreed and went for The Hurt Locker. This was a very strong category for the last year though. All five of these scripts were excellent, from the pure originality of Up's premise to the incredibly well constructed tragi-comedy of A Serious Man. But, the winner has to be (500) Days of Summer- it's the most original romantic comedy in years, by equal turns endearing and insightful, and I think this should have followed Little Miss Sunshine and Juno for some recognition of well-written and original screenplays. Something is rotten in the state of Hollywood.

WINNER- (500) Days of Summer

BEST ACTRESS

Zooey Deschanel- (500) Days of Summer
Lina Leandersson- Let The Right One In
Carey Mulligan- An Education
Saoirse Ronan- The Lovely Bones
Zoe Saldana- Avatar

Now, hear me out. Andy Serkis was unofficially the Best Supporting Actor in 2002 and 2003 for playing Gollum, a performance that wasn't recognised just because it was computer-generated. Similarly, Zoe Saldana gave a terrific performance as Neytiri, however immersed in pixels she may have been. She's really a more worthy candidate than Meryl Streep, who's seemingly reclined into making films for the same target audience as Loose Women nowadays. That's fine, but stop nominating her for awards anyway! Especially as elsewhere, Lina Leandersson and Saoirse Ronan both performed well-rounded young characters in extraordinary and other-worldly scenarios.

Similarly, Zooey Deschanel put a new turn on that usual starry-eyed persona for (500) Days of Summer, possibly to do with the fact that the excellent screenplay gave her some new material. On the other hand, the very same screenplay didn't really expand upon her character so much as Joseph Gordon Levitt's. Carey Mulligan began as a favourite for this award at the Oscars, but eventually lost out to Sandra Bullock, who won a Golden Raspberry for All About Steve the night before. Swings and roundabouts, but Mulligan lost out. So she gets this one, for what it's worth- in recognition of a performance that rings true and utterly compels throughout. And for not blinking.

WINNER- Carey Mulligan, An Education

BEST ACTOR

Michael Caine- Is Anybody There?
Sharlto Copley- District 9
Jeremy Renner- The Hurt Locker
Sam Rockwell- Moon
Michael Stuhlbarg- A Serious Man

Really, properly, this was the hardest one to nail down. Usually it's the Supporting Actor category, but once I figured the best five performances of the year, it was really difficult to decide on one. Every one of these performances was not only believable but really outstanding. At the Oscars, it was bound to be Jeff Bridges, because he's a tremendous actor who was long overdue a nod. The Dude abides, but there should've been more love for Copley's largely improvised turn in District 9, Renner being dangerous and damaged in The Hurt Locker and Stuhlbarg being utterly helpless to avert various impending catastrophes in A Serious Man.

My favourite performance of the year was Michael Caine's in Is Anybody There? and as much as I love that role, and how much you empathise with Clarence as soon as he wanders on-screen, this is based on the best, not my favourite. This is worsened because so few people will recognise this film, being a low-budget, limited release film. The more criminal oversight of the Oscars though was ignoring Sam Rockwell in Moon. I'm maintaining the self-imposed spoiler embargo on that film, but if you haven't seen it yet, go and watch it now. It's a career-best for Rockwell- the role where he finally got to show off all he could do after years in supporting turns.

WINNER- Sam Rockwell, Moon

BEST ANIMATED FILM

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Coraline

The Princess and the Frog
Up


I've always taken issue with the Academy separating off films into this category, and this year especially, because there just haven't been enough really good animated films for me to mention. Segregating animated films like this is especially ridiculous when you consider that Shit Chipmunk Film 2 qualified in the longlist as an animated film because of animated rodents, whereas Avatar with its CG landscapes and characters for more than 50% of the running time, is live-action. Presumably because it made more money, but it's an incredibly snooty distinction, especially when you consider that Up is approximately a million times better than Avatar.

So yeah, Up wins it in this category and every other similar category, but the only other reason I included this segregation was to praise the other three. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was the biggest surprise of last year for me, combining a genuinely funny script with some talented and worthy voice actors to make a really entertaining family film. Any other year, I think The Princess and the Frog would've won, because it's so vibrant and memorable. And Coraline also stood out from the sequels and the rest of the 3D gubbins to provide an enjoyably creepy film with real visual flair. But Up is pretty damn close to perfection, so...

WINNER- Up

BEST FILM

An Education
The Hurt Locker

Inglourious Basterds
The Lovely Bones
Moon

Best, not favourites. And yeah, I know I'm allowed ten, technically, but look at the good that idea's done in its inaugural year.

While I think The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds did have one or two problems, they're both very technically good, and Basterds has the distinction of being really entertaining to boot. Again, The Hurt Locker won overall, and in those nominations, it was probably second only to Up, which, as mentioned, was segregated somewhat. An Education was picking up the slack from 2009's surfeit of unrealistic and vacuous teen romances on film by subverting all audience expectations when we hear "a minor and an older man" and boasting some of the best performances of the year. And The Lovely Bones is a beautiful film that could and should have gotten more recognition, but I feel was killed by its poor critical response. Bloody critics.

And it's with some awkwardness that I avoid justifying my choice of Moon as the first Mad Prophet winner for Best Film, on account of that spoiler embargo. Go and watch it! You'll enjoy a consummate and personal film that re-establishes sci-fi cinema as a serious dramatic device and gets a tremendous and personal performance from Sam Rockwell. This was the most criminal oversight by the Academy this year.

WINNER- Moon

Join us next year for the 2nd Annual Mad Prophet Awards, to see Robert Pattinson NOT win Best Actor and to enjoy Michael Bay's head getting tap-danced on by Neil Patrick Harris for the opening number.

8 March 2010

Welcome to Camp Victory- 2010 Oscars Postmortem

Ladies and gents, it's always nice to be wrong twice. Because when you have two choices, you can pass it off as "I was right all along!" The Academy Award winners now validate the original sentiment from my Avatar review that...

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

... and we can utterly ignore my more recent assertion 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."

It's really a good thing I didn't put any money on anything. It was a sweep for The Hurt Locker, which picked up Best Picture and Best Director for Kathryn Bigelow. In the end Avatar picked up three awards, all in technical categories. Arguably as it should be, really.

The acting categories were all fairly predictable, with Christoph Waltz and Mo'Nique both being recognised for critically lauded turns and Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock receiving recognition for their hard work in their respective careers thus far. Yes, that Sandra Bullock, who is the only actor ever to win a Razzie (for All About Steve) and an Oscar (for The Blind Side) in the same year, and fair play to her too. She's immensely likable in even the most awful shit, and I daresay she deserves it more than Mo'Nique deserved hers.

I was also pleased to see Up make a strong showing, winning Best Animated Picture and Best Original Score, both very well deserved nods. And Up is the only nominee that might have deserved Best Picture more than The Hurt Locker. I was also gleeful that the make-up work on Star Trek was recognised too, along with a laugh-out-loud presentation from Ben Stiller in full Na'vi make-up.

However, I always have my bugbears with the Oscars, and this year, being the first where I've pulled an all-nighter and watched it live, is no exception. So after four hours of caffeine and speeches, here are the top 5 most annoying, silly and downright bizarre things about last night's ceremony.


5. The acting profiles
While nothing trumped the oddly erotic sound of Sir Ben Kingsley saying "Randy the Ram" last year, this year's ceremony saw an irksome return for the back-slapping profiles on the acting nominees before they got to who'd actually won the buggers. They were seemingly picked for the most tenuous of connections in a couple of cases, i.e. Forrest Whittaker reminding us that he directed Sandra Bullock in Hope Floats, which boded worse for her chances of winning than we actually should have anticipated. With that link, I'm surprised they didn't dredge Chris O'Donnell up to say "George was a fantastic Batman, and I feel another sequel would've really shown that..."

4. The Best Original Score dances
Sure to be the most lampooned aspect of the whole affair, a group of break-dancers took to the stage before the award for Best Original Score was presented. What followed was an interpretative dance routine to each of the nominees. While the tribal dances of Avatar were fairly appropriate, and I think actually imitated the final scene of the film itself, the others were just bizarre. I mean, you can imagine without me telling you how surreal a Hurt Locker dance was. And I don't know why the Married Life refrain from Up warranted a re-enactment of the clockwork musical number from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or why Sherlock Holmes just screams "the worm" to interpretative dancers.

3. The rude orchestra
The formidable Get Off The Stage song is feared by all, and maybe it was only because I've never seen it in use before, but I found the orchestra playing off speeches to be incredibly rude at certain points this year. Most unforgivably, Juan José Campanella was cut off in the midst of a rather marvellous speech after the surprise win by The Secret in their Eyes for Best Foreign Language Film. The guy seemed incredibly endearing and deserved his say as much as Mo'Nique. I for one wanna hear more of Juan José Campanella! Fuck off, you trombone-wielding cads!

2. Lack of love for Moon
And assorted other films that were sadly overlooked. OK, so it would have been more than just a minor upset if Moon had won an award despite not having been nominated for anything, but it should have got something, dammit. And so should The Lovely Bones and Me and Orson Welles, and even some of the films that were nominated but overlooked, like In The Loop or Up in the Air. But I'm always going to disagree with the choices on some level, so I'll be content to post my own picks in certain categories later in the week.

1. The Sky panel

Courtesy of Rupert Murdoch, the UK coverage of the event was chaperoned by a panel moderated by Claudia Winkleman. Said panel comprised David Baddiel, Ronni Ancona and Balls of Steel's Mark Dolan. Way to round up whoever was around the studio, Sky. Those lot obviously know nothing about film and yet minutely explained everything after each ad break. The absolute nadir of the show was a "bawdy" review of the In Memoriam sequence, in which potential Bizarro-Me (Dolan) said that dying was a great career move to get in that montage. At various points, I was moved to paraphrase Avatar. "The Sky Panel have sent us a message... that they will not shut the fuck up. We will send them a message... AND MUTE THE FUCKS!"


So it's over for another year, and it's been a particularly long night for me having watched the whole ceremony. As co-host Steve Martin said, the ceremony lasted so long that Avatar now takes place in the past. If you want to chart my all-nighter on Twitter, through all the suspense, ("I'd happily be declared a turkey fucker if the underdog here won...") from the dizzying highs, ("Oh my God, the Married Life song") to the crushing lows ("Michael Sheen's killed my video stream with awesomeness") then by all means, do so. I tweeted up a storm as a document to my struggle.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, support your troops over the Smurfs.

6 March 2010

Missing Muchness

Avatar has been sitting atop the UK box office since its release on December 18th, dazzling people with its stunning 3D vistas and comparatively negligible story. On the eve of its almost certain triumph at the Academy Awards, a similar competitor has burst onto UK screens, Tim Burton's Disney's Alice in Wonderland by Disney. After arguments between Disney and UK cinema chains getting film fans worried about whether or not the film would ever arrive on these shores, this should really take down Avatar this weekend. If it doesn't, that film needs slaying with a fucking vorpal sword or something, but onwards!

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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As with Disney's A Christmas Carol, Disney's Alice in Wonderland covers ground that the House of Mouse have been to before, but they've enlisted Tim Burton to "re-imagine" the story. There've been hits and misses with that strategy in the past, and the story of this one veers wildly between the two. Alice Kingsley has been plagued by dreams of talking animals and a magical world all of her young life, and while escaping from a dreary but insistent suitor, she stumbles down a rabbit hole and lands in that very same world. But far from Carroll's curiouser and curiouser little girl, observing the absurdities of this fantasy land, Burton's Alice is The Chosen One of Wonderland (Underland?), and is sent on a quest to retrieve a magic sword from the tyrannical Red Queen.

Did this story need a Narnia vibe? It almost certainly didn't, and it has to be said from the start of the review that this decision hobbles the third act entirely. Although the action towards the end is surprisingly well directed by Burton, who's come a long way since the slightly shonky fight scenes in 1989's Batman, it all feels unnecessary in a story that's supposed to be about a dark and whimsical place rather than prophecies and battles. Similarly out of place is the gender empowerment angle on Alice, who ends up wielding a vorpal sword, donning armour and riding a Bandersnatch into battle. Given how it's about the adventure, I doubt Carroll would've minded too much if it had to be "Alec in Wonderland", but Mia Wasikowska can't really be faulted for her winsome and arresting performance.

Another general failure of the film is the depth in which the Mad Hatter's madness is explored. A similar exploration of Depp's Willy Wonka was the most laboured part of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, although the Hatter's reminiscences are mercifully sparse. In that slightly over-hyped role, Johnny Depp is as competent as he always is, but there's really nothing new there. He's good in almost everything, but I maintain that his best performances were as Ed Wood and as J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, and those were relatively normal roles- the wackiness is starting to wear now. As for the other fixture of Burton's films, Helena Bonham Carter plays Miranda Richardson playing the Red Queen, with the actual casting presumably down to Richardson having already done that role. She chews the scenery with aplomb and remains an entertaining villain throughout.

The rest of the rather sterling cast is somewhat obscured by the three leads and by the visuals, much like the early Harry Potter films. Anne Hathaway gives a floaty and fey performance as the White Queen, looking and sounding as if she stepped right out of a fairytale and thus being perfect in the role. Matt Lucas makes a decent comic relief showing as Tweedles dum and dee, looking particularly surreal in CGI fleshy-potato mode. But then Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Frances de la Tour, Christopher Lee, Michael Sheen, Lindsay Duncan, Crispin Glover and Timothy Spall are all lost in the frantic chaos of this unofficial sequel. If anything, that flaw is the closest the film gets to the oddities of its source material- there is so much to take in that it probably warrants repeated viewings to fully appreciate everything.

And there is a fair amount to appreciate. Despite the fact that if you've seen one gnarled tree by Tim Burton, you've seen them all, there's a great visual sensibility at work, if not a unique one. The art direction and wardrobe work as a whole is just astounding, even if the CGI isn't totally convincing if we take Avatar as the new benchmark for computer-generated worlds and creatures (especially in 3D). It also gambols along at an entertaining pace, with the right combination of laughs, thrills and spills to engage most audiences. It taps into that mainstream of oddball that Burton has cultivated over the course of his career, thankfully looking and feeling closer to The Nightmare Before Christmas than to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At the same time, Disney's guiding hand is felt in the battle-oriented radicalisation of the monomyth, and so this still veers close to his studio-mandated Batman.

And once again, I'm saving the 3D rant for the end. I saw it in 3D just to catch a glimpse of the new Doctor Who trailer on a big screen- I am nothing if not an unscrupulous fanboy. I saw it in full knowledge of the fact that it was shot in 2D and then "upgraded", even though the intention was always to release it in 3D. And it really shows. If the 3D in Avatar didn't work, with Cameron painstakingly syncing up the background with the foreground to immerse the audience, it certainly doesn't work here. This is typified by the scenery being out of focus in several scenes, in a technical sight that's only in films, not real life- the real world doesn't slide out of focus when you're looking at someone in front of you. Immediately, you're distanced rather than immersed in the film, and Burton's colourful Underland also suffers as a result of the 30% colour-loss that troubles 3D. There's more eye-popping going on in the film itself, courtesy of a sword-happy Dormouse voiced by Barbara Windsor. Hollywood can shove the money-grubbing technology up their rabbit hole.
Alice in Wonderland is an oddly droopy continuation of Lewis Carroll's tale, ignoring the fact that Carroll wrote a sequel himself. There's always the feeling of a "missing muchness", as the Mad Hatter puts it to Alice. In its darker moments, Burton's work really shines through, but the entire third act could have been much improved by the omission of a destiny angle on the heroine. It feels somewhat like Disney has stunted the potential of Burton's interpretation, but this remains a fun and visually astounding romp that families can enjoy immensely. That said, you should definitely go and see it in 2D if you go at all, or else wait for the DVD release in 13 weeks' time (go Odeon!) Oh, and it lost a whole mark out of five for me when Depp started breakdancing. Urgh. As a whole though, it's flawed, but a rather frabjous effort.

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If you go and see Alice in Wonderland in the next few weeks- and I'm sure you will, this thing is going to be huge- then why not share your comments on the film and on my review below?

Next up: awards speak, probably. The Oscars go out on Sunday night/Monday morning. As for reviews, there's a fair few films in cinemas this week that I haven't covered- Legion, The Crazies, Crazy Heart and Ondine.

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