1 December 2008

They Didn't Make Them Like They Do Now...

“For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, 'It might have been '.” - John Greenleaf Whittier

It's a proven fact that old people hate the younger generations. No, hear me out.
In all respects, it can be said that every generation wants to be the last, perhaps out of fear that what comes next will surpass what they did before. And while that sometimes holds true, and is in fact called progress, I'm yet to see proof that artists as popular as The Beatles have been surpassed by that fucking Umbrella song, which spent way too long at No.1 in the UK charts. Score one to the twilight generation. When it comes to cinema, the 21st century has been such a mixed bag that it's difficult to tell. As we speed towards the end of 2008, it's clear that it's been an extremely mixed year in terms of quality films.

2008 gave us the best blockbuster of the 21st century to date- thought-provoking and instructive in the ways of how to dress up as a clown and fuck people up, (yeah, you know which film I mean). At the same time, courtesy of Lucasfilm, it gave us a 90 minute animated rape of one of the most loved blockbuster franchises ever, with comic relief droids and a flamboyant hitherto unmentioned gay uncle alien, (if you don't know which one this is, I hope you remain blissfully ignorant).

But what if we were to put to the test what those aforementioned oldies might say about the cinema output these days. If they had made them like they did this year, how different might they have been? Well in the pursuit of science, my revered readers, I'm going to investigate just that, and in chronological order to boot!

Please beware- in the course of the experiment, side-effects may include MAJOR spoilers for the real films that I've temporally dislocated. Upon your return to 2008, you may find yourself pissed off if you haven't seen any of the five films below and yet know major plot details.

1. WALL·E (1952)

# Gum diddly dewdrops all singing a song/ Consumerism's evil, so please sing along!#

CAST
Walt Disney.................................... NARRATOR

DID I SEE THAT ONE THIS YEAR?
It's the Pixar one set 700 years in the future- planet Earth's been trashed by the ravages of constant spending and wastefulness, and subsequently evacuated, to be left in the stewardship of hundreds of cleaning robots. All but one of those has long since broken, and the sole survivor has developed a personality. Who knew the cutest character this year would be a big, sad-eyed robot?

WOULD IT REALLY HAVE BEEN SO DIFFERENT?
Hell yes. Set on the distant Earth of 2002, WALL·E instead becomes a classic Disney short cartoon in which a playful robot sings and dances with a chorus line of his cockroach buddies, cleaning up the planet while humanity lives on its outer-space moon colony. Ludicrous optimism about the space programme's progress in the next 50 years, plus an ardent anti-consumerism message makes for a heartwarming short narrated by uncle Walt himself in the style of a World War II propaganda film. The anti-consumerism message is somewhat subverted by the final frames- the robot tipping a wink to the camera at the end and reminding us all to visit Disneyland, opening in 1955!

HOW MUCH WOULD YOU RATHER SEE THIS INSTEAD?
Pixar's effort is rather marvellous, as is to be expected from them. Out of sheer morbid curiosity, I'd like to see this one, but WALL·E 2008 = win.
2008- 1
History- 0

2. Quantum of Solace
(1969)

"We're calling it what? Quantum of Sholace? If you were a woman, I'd shmack you in the mouth."

CAST
Sean Connery.............................. JAMES BOND
Sophia Loren......................... CAMILLE MONTES
Deborah Watling................. STRAWBERRY FIELDS
Max von Sydow....................... DOMINIC GREENE

DID I SEE THAT ONE THIS YEAR?
Probably, as it's made its producers very very rich this year. It's the 22nd James Bond one, but the first direct sequel in the whole franchise. Bond is out to avenge his beloved Vesper from the previous film, coming into contact with a shady organisation that goes some way towards explaining that bizarre title, and the most comedy Frenchman ever to be played by an actual Frenchman.

WOULD IT REALLY HAVE BEEN SO DIFFERENT?
Old Bond vs. New Bond... yes, it would. Lots more gadgets, innuendo and casual sexism. Y'know, like a "real" Bond film! Greene would have some hilarious defects- besides him being French that is. His plan wouldn't be so different, as stealing all of Bolivia's water supply is a plan audacious enough to have been in a real Connery movie already. And as for Sophia Loren, I assert that she's just as Bolivian as Olga Kurylenko was, so you can't complain. Don't even get me started on Agent Fields, who I was tempted to cast Julie Andrews as in this experiment- the most ridiculous character in a Bond film for a while, just there for fan service so that Bond can have a token shag and the die hard fans wouldn't get all prissy. Instead it'd be Watling, whose tenure on Doctor Who disproved a previous scientific hypothesis of mine; that hot women were not allowed on telly in the 1960s. Oh yes, and this is a Connery Bond film, so he shags everyone. Except Moneypenny.

HOW MUCH WOULD YOU RATHER SEE THIS ONE INSTEAD?
Well given as how Quantum of Solace was already made in another time and called Licence to Kill, it would be ludicrous to have Connery do a version too. So to selflessly save the Bond producers from having to sue themselves for plagiarism, I'll plump for the Craig version.
2008- 2
History- 0

3. The Incredible Hulk (1973)

"Alright, I'll say it! There is no Ang Lee! 2003 never happened! Now will you let me out?"

CAST
Bill Bixby................................... DAVID BANNER
Lou Ferrigno .................................... THE HULK
Richard Kiel ........................... THE ABOMINATION
Burgess Meredith ............. BOTTLING PLANT OWNER

DID I SEE THAT ONE THIS YEAR?
It's the one with the other big green monster. You know, the one that isn't as big at the box office as Shrek. In a concerted effort to pretend that there was no such thing as an Ang Lee Hulk movie, we get two hours of Hulk searching his soul and then beating the shit out of a big CGI Tim Roth. That's oversimplifying it, it was actually rather good.

WOULD IT REALLY BE SO DIFFERENT?
As with Bond, there was already a series in existence at the point where this film could be made instead. The complaint that the fans had with the 2008 version (and the 2003 version, if it existed, which it apparently doesn't) is that it wasn't enough like the 1970s TV show, which saw Banner travelling from place to place being angered by social injustices and helping out the average Joe wherever he can by turning into his big green alter-ego. This worked as a TV show, but Hollywood now demands effects-driven fight scenes, hence the Abomination being the main bad guy. If The Incredible Hulk had been made in 1973, the 2008 film's opening would be much more central. Banner's a fugitive from the US Army, laying low in a Portuguese bottling plant. While fights with the Abomination might still feature, it seems likely that the main enemy in the film would be the owner of that bottling plant, played by someone like Burgess Meredith, who just looks dodgy. The narrative would thus unfold in this pattern.
1. Hulk gets job in bottling plant
2. Hulk mad about poor working conditions and low pay
3. HULK SMASH!
4. ????
5. Hulk bring better quality of life to Portugal. Hulk walk away to sad music.

HOW MUCH WOULD YOU RATHER SEE THIS ONE INSTEAD?
Sorry, but not at all, really. The TV series is all well and good, but social injustice is not what you want to see a musclebound monster fighting in a Hollywood movie these days. However, Edward Norton's approach obviously isn't too hot either, because the 2008 version still didn't do well in cinemas, unfortunately.
2008- 3
History- 0

4.
The Dark Knight (1975)

"You either die a hero, or you live long enough to direct Changeling."

CAST
Clint Eastwood............ BRUCE WAYNE/BATMAN
Jack Nicholson........................... THE JOKER
Robert Redford....................... HARVEY DENT
Paul Newman...................... LT. JIM GORDON

DID I SEE THAT ONE THIS YEAR?
If you didn't, then shame on you. It's the one with Batman in it. Specifically, he teams up with good cop Gordon and ridiculously awesome DA Harvey Dent to bring down crime in Gotham City. It goes just fine until they become the target of the psychotic Joker. Oh, it's also the best film of the year. Bar none.

WOULD IT BE SO DIFFERENT?

I'd hope that the script would be much the same, because it's awesome, but obviously the very cast would shake things up. For starters, while some reviewers had quibbles with Christian Bale's Bat-voice, that's essentially Clint's voice already. If anything, there'd be quibbles with his Wayne-voice instead. Furthermore, Jack Nicholson would get a run at the Joker at the point when he was all R.P. McMurphy, instead of in Tim Burton's Batman in 1989, by which point he was just doing increasingly bad impressions of himself in each successive film. Except The Departed, where he's actually rather good. And let's face it, Harvey Dent being the emblem of American patriotism that he is, it's difficult NOT to see how Robert Redford could do it. Completing the big transition from British performers to American substitutes is Redford's cinematic partner in crime, Paul Newman as Gordon. Just because Paul Newman is possibly the greatest American who ever lived, and thus deserves a part in a film apparently as American as this one.

HOW MUCH WOULD YOU RATHER SEE THIS INSTEAD?
Fair enough, people have said that Heath Ledger is irreplaceable as the Joker, and yeah, I happen to agree. But if it were possible to de-age Clint Eastwood to the extent where he could play either Batman or Wolverine nowadays, it'd make the perfect film this year even more perfect. Sorry, Bale.
2008- 3
History- 1


5. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
(2004)

"My grandshon's that Transhformersh boy? If he were a woman, I'd-"
"I know, Dad. You'd smack him in the mouth."

CAST

Harrison Ford........................ INDIANA JONES
Karen Allen.................... MARION RAVENWOOD
John Hurt............................. HAROLD OXLEY
Sean Connery................. HENRY JONES SENIOR

DID I SEE THAT ONE THIS YEAR?
If you did, please tell me which side of the fence you fall on in your comments- fun enjoyable romp, or utter travesty. Basically, it's the one where Indiana Jones is wrinkly and has a son who is irritating as fuck. Oh, and there's aliens in it, of all things. It's also marked by being the film that finally proved that George Lucas has forsaken his sense of filmmaking for the sake of a quick buck. Or million bucks.

WOULD IT REALLY HAVE BEEN SO DIFFERENT?
The tragic thing is, this one nearly did happen in 2004- the script is online. Written by Frank Darabont, Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods retained many facets of the 2008 film, such as nuking the fridge and a spaceship at the end, only done better. Marion and Oxley actually have some function other than to introduce Shia LaDouche as Indy's progeny. Indeed, said son does not exist in this version. And best of all, Henry Jones Sr. was in there. Not for a needless cameo, but for two wonderful scenes that bookend the film and totally make sense. Why didn't they make this script, you might be asking? A good question- Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford both said it was the best Indy 4 draft they'd ever read at the time. But it was that KFC Star Wars man who said nay and held the film off for another four years. Thank you very much for depriving us of that, you Jar Jar spawning arsewipe.

HOW MUCH WOULD YOU RATHER SEE THIS ONE INSTEAD?
What do you think? More than anything! I'm a huge Indy fan, and having read the script, I'd have loved for City of the Gods to have been made in 2004 and be absolutely wonderful. In the tradition of searching for long lost relics of legend, perhaps that fifth film that Lucas is rambling about should have Indy searching for his talent. And hopefully kill Mutt Williams too
.

FINAL SCORE

2008- 3
History- 2

--------------------------------------------------
To conclude, 2008 generally beats the rest of cinematic history. In its entireity. Apparently.
No really, while only two of the five potential films explored would be films I'd prefer to their contemporary counterparts, imagine how good those two would be.
So on balance, I have to say that while filmmakes knew their onions "back in them days", they didn't used to make them like they do now.
Next time, "Religion vs. science- which is sexier?"

Mark.

With thanks to Fearn Sobers for the WALL·E art- for more of her work, go to her site, fesoes.net, linked on the sidebar.

The Reel Deal #2

This time around...
Max Payne
Changeling

Reviews may contain some mild spoilers, but where I can, I try to avoid telling you everything that happens in the movie. So instead, sit back and read as I tell you what to watch!

MAX PAYNE (Cert. 15)

Who's in it? Mark Wahlberg, (The Happening) Mila Kunis, (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) Olga Kurylenko, (Quantum of Solace) Chris Bridges, (RocknRolla) and Beau Bridges, (Charlotte's Web)

What's it all about?
Based on the video game series, Max Payne's very name suggests violence abounds as this New York cop crusades against the shady organisation that killed his wife and child in cold blood. In the seedy criminal underground, assassins and super-soldier experiments run rampant as Max (Wahlberg) searches for answers, but is there a more spiritual force at work? Who knows, it's not quite clear what the hell's going on.

Any good?
It's all too tempting to give this post a headline of "video game translates into shitty movie shocker" but sarcasm isn't the best way to approach Max Payne. You know that the first six words of the above summary are not the best premise on which to base any film, but this one in particular is a stinker. Director John Moore previously helmed remakes of The Omen and Flight of the Phoenix, and now he brings this game to the screen. And it's a mess. Having never played the game, I couldn't tell you what the point of all the spiritual gubbins in this film is. One minute, Marky Mark's talking about how he believes in heaven, and the next we're told that it's the side-effects of an experimental drug. It's hardly like the plot is the most cerebral that anyone's encountered in recent cinema outings, so it's Moore's apparent inability to concentrate long enough on such aspects is part of what makes this film such a mess.

I already mentioned "Marky" Mark Wahlberg, who seems to be having a year of shitty script decisions. First came M. Night Shyamalan's eco-horror crap, The Happening, in which he was utterly miscast as a soft-spoken teacher with a ton of crappy lines about outrunning the wind. And now this, for which he just seems to phone it in rather than put any effort in. This is Dignam from The Departed, dammit! The Oscar nominee! Take some better parts, Mark! All the paltry script has to offer him here is random violence and vague longing for his late beloved. As for the rest of the cast, Mila Kunis, who made a great breakout performance in Forgetting Sarah Marshall jars here on account of that aforementioned script. While I never thought about her role on Family Guy while watching that film, it was quite jarring during this one to just keep in mind that this is the voice of Meg Griffin. As in most of Moore's films, she and the rest of the female cast (such as it is) have little to do. What we're left with is a brainless action movie. While brainless action movies can certainly be a good thing, this isn't even a very good one. Even the most brainless of action movies have some sense of direction or plot, but Max Payne careens all over the place, from choppy, joyless action sequence to clunky exposition dump. Then lather, rinse and repeat for 100 minutes.

With an appallingly predictable "twist" near the end, Max Payne just doesn't give even the most committed of game fans the engagement that it probably should. The plot moves like a glacier and the film itself will leave you cold. Riddled with plot holes and set ups that don't pay off, there is little to redeem it, and it's one of the worst I've seen this year. Add a star if you're a fan, but you'd probably prefer to spend 100 minutes playing the game instead to be honest.



CHANGELING (Cert. 15)


Who's in it? Angelina Jolie, (Wanted) John Malkovich, (Burn After Reading) Jeffrey Donovan, (Hitch) Colm Feore, (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and Jason Butler Harner, (Next)

What's it all about?
Based on a true story, Christine Collins, (Jolie) is a young mother whose son goes missing. Over the course of five months, the investigation does not advance, and Christine comes up against the corruption and slackness of the 1920s-era LAPD, when they bring back another young boy and insist he is her son. With the help of a local pastor, (Malkovich) she mounts an unprecedented appeal against the system.

Any good?
Clint Eastwood is perhaps best known for his acting in Westerns, but it's in his latter years that he's really gotten into directing. In recent years, he's directed World War II epic double-bill, Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, and won an Oscar for his work on Million Dollar Baby. The first of his two directorial efforts this year is Changeling, which is quite simply magnificent. A film that very much had the potential to be a melodramatic Oscar baiting prestige picture is elevated beyond such pandering by superb performances and a leisurely pace that draws out the tension. Now before we go any further, I must reveal what many of you might believe makes me a monster- I usually hate films where mothers lose their children, because I just cannot empathise with the mother character. Before you all start booing and throwing rotten fruit, it's for a simple reason- melodrama. Poor performances by actresses, such as Jodie Foster's shouty turn in Flight Plan, can wreck any emotion I feel about the character's predicament, and so I approached Changeling with some apprehension.

I'm pleased to admit that this apprehension was misjudged- Angelina Jolie delivers marvellously as Christine Collins, and it's one of the standout performances by an actress this year. True, it's been a slow year, but she dazzles here. This is possibly the best film I've seen her in, no doubt thanks to Eastwood always getting exactly what he wants from his cast- the man directed Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman to Oscar glory in Million Dollar Baby, and now looks set to fill his mantlepiece with more little gold men come February. The direction here is just beautiful- the set design and costume design perfectly emulates 1920s Los Angeles, and the cinematography is meticulously orchestrated. John Malkovich is somewhat underused as the Reverend Gustav Briegleb, who leads an impassioned crusade against corruption in the LAPD, but that's excusable given how the story belongs to Christine and the search for her missing son. The LAPD themselves are not demonised to the point that some historical films will paint the baddies with swastikas, just so we know they're bad. But Malkovich's sermon about the corrupting effect of their power holds true, and Jeffrey Donovan purveys an aura of menace as Captain Jones even sitting in his office and filing paperwork that will remove Christine to a place where she can't trouble them.

If you've seen the trailers for this film by the way, you should know that there's an entire side of the plot that's unadvertised and yet is crucial. This is something almost unique in these days of dumbed-down advertising appealing to the masses, so I won't divulge details. But trust me, it's genius. It's as haunting as it is gripping, and ensures that Changeling is a film that will stay with you long after you leave the cinema. I can draw favourable comparisons here with one of my favourite films, LA Confidential, but it doesn't really do it justice to compare it to others. A prestige picture that should outshine the others due over the next few months, with the possible exception of Eastwood's second offering this year, Gran Torino, and deserves to win and win big when it comes round to the Oscars. One of the best films of the year and one that finally convinced me Jolie can act, and act very well.



-------------------------------------------------------------
Next time, I'm likely to be reviewing Lakeview Terrace, What Just Happened and/or Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.
Until next time then, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch,
Mark.

20 November 2008

The Reel Deal #1

This time around...
Ghost Town

W.


So as n of these are like those really big event type films that have warranted their own posts in the past, I'm going to make a big post that reviews both, you lucky people. It's a mixed bag here, so enjoy, as I tell you what to watch. I said, enjoy!

GHOST TOWN


Who's in it? Ricky Gervais, (Stardust) Greg Kinnear, (Baby Mama) Tea Leoni, (Fun with Dick and Jane) Aasif Mandvi, (Spider-Man 2) and Kristen Wiig, (Forgetting Sarah Marshall)

What's it all about?
Bertram Pincus, (Gervais) in addition to being the most implausibly named man in the world, is also a dentist whose people skills leave a lot to be desired. When complications during a routine operation lead to a near-death experience, he's left with the ability to see ghosts, wandering about the world with their unfinished business. Dragging him into the duty of resolving said business is Frank, (Kinnear) a smooth talking albeit deceased love-rat who wants Pincus to prevent his widow Gwen, (Leoni) from remarrying.

Any good?
The label 'romantic comedy' usually flashes warning bells for me. Not because I'm particularly detached from my feminine side, but because modern romcoms, like modern horror films, they're almost always crap. The only truly great romantic comedy I've ever seen is Shaun of the Dead, which is so good because it avoids cliches by dropping a whole bunch of zombies into the mix. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Ghost Town uses much the same technique, only with ghosts instead. There is the odd cliche, as is inevitable in this genre, but it has to be said that the romantic subplot doesn't really register until the second act of the film, with more out and out comedy characterising the first half an hour.

The issue of course with this being a romcom is Ricky Gervais in the leading role. He's admitted himself that he's not as good an actor as he is a writer, and he's very much hindered in that early part of the film by the prepossessed image that we've got from his earlier material. Later, he's not exactly leading man material, and at times you wonder if he was perhaps miscast when he's supposed to be romancing Tea Leoni. Nevertheless, he does turn in a rather good performance on the whole, and it's not so difficult to imagine his Hollywood success continuing. Tea Leoni is surprisingly charming as Gwen, while Greg Kinnear is much the same as usual with Frank- his talent for playing smarmy self-confident characters is probably as prolific as that of Gervais, and the two play off each other well.

As a point of interest, Ghost Town is the directorial debut of David Koepp, a writer who previously brought us Spider-Man, Jurassic Park and regrettably, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He also co-writes the film, and it's in that capacity I wonder what the hell he was thinking. The plot and dialogue is sound, but it's like he went out of his way to think of the most awkward names for characters possible. Bertram Pincus doesn't roll off the tongue and not does Frank Herlihy. There's such a thing as being too original with names, and it jars a little in this film. I can't recall Gwen, who we're intended to believe is falling for Pincus, ever actually mentioning his name, because you can imagine how awkward it would sound. In this respect, she sounds like a woman who's forgotten a guy's name but doesn't want to embarrass herself by asking it. While Koepp does apparently think British people still call their kids Bertram, I can't fault his direction in this film. There are some beautiful shots and a great soundtrack that never really intrudes on the action, as some films are guilty of.

To end on a positive note, Ghost Town is easily the sweetest film I've seen this year. There's a scene towards the end of the film that had me feeling all warm inside, which is no mean feat for a cold bastard like me. The film is funny, charming, and rather brilliant. It's the kind of film I wanna watch at Christmas, because it left me in such a good mood coming out of it and also because it's reminiscent of films like It's A Wonderful Life, and to a greater extent, Harvey. Critics have pointed out the difficulties of making it in Hollywood when you're a British comedian, but if Gervais wants to really make a start, this was the right choice.




W.


Who's in it?
Josh Brolin, (No Country for Old Men) Elizabeth Banks, (Zack and Miri Make A Porno) James Cromwell, (Spider-Man 3) Jeffrey Wright, (Quantum of Solace) and Richard Dreyfuss, (Poseidon)
What's it all about? Believe it or not, this is the perhaps premature biopic of that clearly popular and much loved statesman, George W. Bush, (Brolin) cutting between the feelings of inadequacy in comparison to the lofty expectations held by his father, (Cromwell) in his youth, and his tenure as the 43rd President of the United States.
Any good? To immediately dispense with a perhaps inexcusable pun, director Oliver Stone has created a film that beats around the Bush. There, now that's out the way, to the business of what's wrong with it.

Put simply, this is an extremely premature film. Bush doesn't even hand the keys to the Oval Office over to Obama (yay) until January, and yet Stone thinks he can make a reasoned portrayal of the man's entire life already. Indeed, he doesn't even manage that, missing out on dramatising key moments in Bush's administration, such as the controversial recount in the 2000 elections and 9/11. Instead, we seem to cut between two periods- Bush Sr. telling him what a dick he is, and the senior members of the administration as they make the decision to invade Iraq. Oh, and said senior members eat dinner. A lot. There are a ludicrous amount of dinner scenes in this film. If Stone had had just one of these scenes, in which Cheney or Rumsfeld or whoever is calmly discussing the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror, it would've been effective. By the tenth of these scenes, you're hoping Bush will choke on his food again, just to shake things up a bit.

The retrospective scenes are not much better. As mentioned, this film is just too premature to actually say anything conclusive about Dubya's life, and so Stone boils a lot of it down to the simple idea of Daddy Issues (TM). If the film had played it for laughs and portrayed Bush as a complete idiot, it would be worse, but it's utter conjecture to make his entire motivation something like "I'll make my daddy proud, I'm gonna be somebody! Hell, I'll be President!" The shifting around between the past and the present makes the aforementioned omissions from the timeline all the more jarring- would it not have been simpler to go for the traditional cyclic narrative? Show the ending scene (spoilers- it's Bush dreaming of playing baseball in a suit) first and then showing the rest from the beginning, in a linear order? I'm not one to go for simplicity over innovation, but when that innovation just doesn't work, it becomes more doubtful.

The saving grace of this film in fact is the performances of the cast. Josh Brolin does such a good Bush impression, you're submerged in it. You never think something along the lines of "He was good in The Goonies" or "Screw you, I'll go watch No Country for Old Men". It's a truly compelling performance that may well get an Oscar nod in the New Year. In fact, most of the cast are dead ringers for their real life counterparts, particularly Toby Jones as Bush's best buddy and possible evil dwarf, Karl Rove. Other notable performances are Richard Dreyfuss, who doesn't appear in enough movies these days, as a pitch-perfect Dick Cheney, and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell. Now the problem with the latter performace is the material he's been given to work with. Powell is a decorated soldier, and yet Stone portrays him as a total pussy. Yeah, fair enough, his reserved opposition to the invasion of Iraq is covered, but he's stifled by the others all too easily. Same with Brolin, whose performance would be the best of his career were it a better script. If this film had been made by someone else, a few years from now, Brolin would be a shoo-in for that Oscar. Instead, what we've got is a great performance in an ultimately pointless film.

It's impossible to escape the sense that Stone simply rushed this out to get it released in time for the recent presidential elections, more or less marking the end of Bush's two terms. Perhaps he's similarly planning to rush out films about the lives of the 40 presidents he hasn't done films about yet, (having previously directed Nixon and JFK) but I for one won't be going to see the frighteningly-possible biopic, Barack when it comes out in 2010, because it'll probably boil Obama's whole life down to being a wimpy kid at sports. The rating below is for the performances in this film alone, but don't even get me started on the totally random casting of Hornblower as Tony Blair. Was everyone's favourite Blair actor Michael Sheen simply unavailable, or did he object to the film being made at this point on grounds of common sense? If that's the case, Michael Sheen, shame on you! Dubya (apparently) only wants to play baseball and please his pappy!



-------------------------------------------------------------
Until next time then, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch,
Mark

4 November 2008

Quantum of Solace- Review

The title's baffling! The hype's massive! And the name's Bond. James Bond.

That's right, Quantum of Solace has opened in the UK, (two weeks in advance of the USA, I might add- fuck you, Americans!) and I went to see it on Saturday night. It's had somewhat mixed reviews, but this is the one franchise that is absolutely critic-proof. Case in point- Die Another Day. So when everyone loved Casino Royale- and quite right too- it was merely an added bonus. As ever, I'm not going to compare this film to its predecessor because that's not the way to review films in my view. Also because it's not quite as good, but then I really liked Casino Royale. The review may potentially contain mild spoilers, and major spoilers for Casino Royale, because I assume you've seen it if you're reading a review of the sequel.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE

Who's in it? Daniel Craig, (The Golden Compass) Olga Kurylenko, (Hitman) Mathieu Amalric, (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) Judi Dench, (Notes on a Scandal) and Gemma Arterton (Rocknrolla)

What's it all about? Unlike most Bond movies, this is a direct sequel to its predecessor, picking up with 007 (Craig) going after the mysterious organisation responsible for blackmailing and indirectly killing the love of his life, Vesper Lynd. His search for revenge brings him into conflict with an apparent environmentalist called Dominic Greene, (Amalric) who seems to be involved in an oil scam and the reinstatement of a deposed Bolivian tyrant. Along with Greene's on-off girlfriend, Camille, (Kurylenko) Bond is forced to go renegade as his search for revenge threatens to consume him.

Any good?
Daniel Craig keeps telling us that the title Quantum of Solace, taken from an Ian Fleming short story that has nothing to do with the plot of this one, refers to what Bond needs in his relationship with Vesper. Apparently a relationship can't survive without a quantum of solace, which Bond doesn't have because Vesper is dead. So the relationship technically can't survive already. Oh dear, I've picked apart the very title already. So within the film's context, Quantum is the name of the aforementioned organisation that wants... something- more on that later. The solace does eventually show up too, but to elaborate upon that would be a spoiler, so I won't. To call this Quantum of Solace therefore makes... well, not very much sense, but there we are.

Looking at the film as a whole though, it's a terrific way to spend 106 minutes. It's said that every Bond film is around 20 minutes too long, so it's great that they were sensible enough to pick up the pace here and shave off that last 20 minutes. It's action packed, and retains the sense of high drama that seems to characterise Daniel Craig's Bond. The former of these aspects do fall down when held to scrutiny however. Director Marc Forster has previously done fare like Finding Neverland and The Kite Runner. So he knows his stuff, drama-wise, but he's not an action director in my view. Everything feels overedited, with some action sequences being so confusing that you can't tell who's winning any given fight. Some downright dumb camera angles are employed at times- Bond changing gears at one point is shown with a close up of his thigh rather than of the gearstick. Forster does a wonderful job with the film as a whole, but it's these sequences that let the film down somewhat. Not good in a Bond film.

Everything else though is rather good. Starting with the cast. Daniel Craig is by far the most emotionally vulnerable Bond we've ever seen, which befits the fact that he's just started this job one film ago, given the whole reboot. At the same time, he's hard as nails, and no matter what his detractors say, that's a good combination. Jeffrey Wright is underused but brilliant as Felix Leiter, Bond's CIA poker-buddy from Casino Royale, and Giancarlo Giannini also returns as George Lucas-lookalike, Mathis, having an important role to play rather than being shoehorned in as part of the "look the whole gang's back!" trope. Mathieu Amalric does very much as Mads Mikkelson did with his turn as a Bond villain, speaking softly but carrying a big stick. Literally, towards the end of the film, as he starts beating someone up with a big stick. Stressful situations do that I suppose, but at least Amalric manages to restrain himself rather than strip Bond's clothes off and hit him in the bollocks.

The women are of course a huge part of the Bond films, and so they deserve appraisal of some kind too. Judi Dench comes back to do her semiannual job of being furious with Bond again, and there's a great scene that exemplifies the reliance and trust between the two about midway through the film. Perhaps not what you have in mind when I say Bond girl, but she's been there since Goldeneye with Pierce Brosnan in 1995, so she lays a better claim to the title than Gemma Arterton for instance. Billed as one of Britain's rising stars in films, she's depressingly bland in this one. True, her role as Agent Fields would never have scope for an Oscar-calibre performance, but her lines seem to be delivered as though Marc Forster is holding them up on cue-cards off-screen. Olga Kurylenko, being the alternative here as "the chick that Bond doesn't bang" as Camille is a sharp contrast to Miss Arterton, giving a nuanced performance that won't put her in the Bond Girls Hall of Fame, but it's not like that's something all actresses aspire to anyway. I stress that Agent Fields is a negligible role, and that's not Gemma Arterton's fault particularly, but I reckon if she was as good as the hype suggests, she'd have made it more memorable.

The plot, as some reviewers have complained, is intricate but not nonsensical. Those critics who say otherwise might like to look at the one where Roger Moore goes to the moon, or the one where Pierce Brosnan has an invisible Aston Martin. A nice twist in the middle left me pleasantly surprised, as I didn't expect an earlier joke I made about audacious Bond villain plots afte seeing the the trailer to be borne out. On film though, it does serve as a nice callback to some of the more silly plans that villains in this franchise have been known to concoct.

However, the aforementioned oddity of a title aside, it's difficult to know what Quantum actually wants. At least with SPECTRE in the older films doing a Pinky and the Brain and doing the same as they do in every film- try to take over the world!- you know where you're at. If anything, Dominic Greene in this film seems to be working on his own. Sure, he alludes to his organisation making his actions possible, but we don't really see a thing of them. Perhaps they're setting up for another sequel, which I think is a bad idea to be honest. Setting up Quantum to be like SPECTRE is fine, but Bond should not go down what I call the Pirates route. I love the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, but feel the sequels were ruined by some odd desire to unify all the films in a story arc rather than be three standalone films in the vein of the Indiana Jones films. Bond films are the apotheosis of the standalone adventure, with their polygamic protagonist never bringing so much as a love interest along to a subsequent film. It's not spoiling too much to say that Bond gets some form of closure on the Vesper issue in this film, and I thought that was great, but we don't need another direct sequel.

All in all, I reckon comparisons can be drawn between this and the hands-down best film of the year, The Dark Knight, but for the wrong reasons. While it is a great film- innovative and not afraid to be dark or to upset audiences- Quantum of Solace is at the end of the day, a Bond film. I love how the newest Bond films are experimenting with what we expect from the franchise, but I suspect this isn't quite what audiences wanted from 'that difficult second film.' I'm fine with Craig's broodyness, and it was great to see him throw some quips and typical 007 moments in here and there this time around, but let's see him a little more at ease with himself and the world next time around, please. He's apparently got his quantum of solace back, and yes, I am equating that to him getting his mojo back cos God knows what else it's meant to be, so let's see something more fun come The Property of a Lady or Risico... whatever they call it.



--------------------------------------------
I did consider doing reviews of one film for each Bond, having went out to buy two of my favourite Bond films, From Russia with Love and Licence to Kill, on DVD yesterday, but then realised this would mean sitting through the apparently interminable On Her Majesty's Secret Service, something that most film fans seem to be advised against. So we'll see if that comes to pass or not. If not, the next review will likely be Ghost Town, Zack and Miri Make A Porno, Choke and/or W. If I'm feeling generous.

12 August 2008

"The Face of Britain's Falling Standards"- A Pre-Emptive Strike About A-Levels

So, it's that most wonderful time of year again. A-Level results!

You can tell it's this time, because pictures like the one to the left will appear in newspapers or online up and down the country in relation to stories about how much easier A-Level results are compared to when the authors of the pieces were young.

Before we get to that, I'll clarify what I mean by pictures "like these." Think about it- every year, pieces on students receiving their A-Level results are accompanied by photos of usually attractive 18 year old girls grinning and holding envelopes that contain their grades. While I accept the point that no one wants to see lads who look like Austin Powers underneath the mask of pubescent spots that blights their visage, it's remarkable how the media can find titillation even in pieces on education. Being an 18 year old male of the heterosexual persuasion myself, I can find no complaints with such pictures and maybe I'm taking this a little too far, but female readers out there, imagine the sweaty palmed Sun reader who gets a copy of the paper on the day that the reports are published. He's finished with Page 3, where Candy, 18, from Middlesex gets her tits out as a tiny bubble super-imposed to her right proclaims her disapproval of Gordon Brown's foreign policy, even though she probably can't spell "Zimbabwe." What does he find on the next page but a picture of you and your friends, looking all excitable, hugging each other... maybe some girls even caress each other, he thinks.

You see where I'm going with this, so I won't go any further down the "eww, eww, eww" route. I'm no prude, but you will never ever see a photo of a male student who has achieved A grades in all of the sciences and is off to Oxford on a scholarship in the papers, without an accompanying report saying how the exams are getting dumbed down and thus students are getting by with less valuable qualifications. Of course it's a generation thing- someone once said every generation wants to be the last, and thus has a tendency to deride its successor, and the current generation of newsreaders, reporters and journalists all say around this time of year that students have it easy. With youth being characterised so much these days by either yobs or emos, it's a wonder that relations between the young and the old haven't collapsed entirely. By 2030, the first Prime Minister who is from "our" generation will be saying "What's that, Dad? Our generation doesn't know nearly as much as yours? It's all because of A-Levels being easier? Well you have trouble peeing now, so I'll just bring back national service, and that ought to sort the problem out fine."

Of course it's the media's annual reports that exacerbate this issue- there is more evil in the special "Have Your Say" section that accompanies such pieces on the BBC News website than could be gleaned from Darth Vader reciting the speeches of Hitler while slaughtering babies. Last year, the BBC had a video online as a reporter interviews two students- surprise, surprise, they were female- as they open their results. The customary giggling and feminine celebration ensues, as they're both excited about having received the results they need to attend their first-choice universities. Huzzah! But no! One of them has got it wrong. Her face falls as she reads the results again and works out the grade boundaries... she's fell short by a few marks of having the right grades for said university. The smirking reporter turns to the camera as celebrations turned to commiserations behind them and says some aren't so lucky. This begs the question of why the BBC still posted it online. Even that aforementioned Sun reader would have to pull his pants up, realising the video he'd just watched was actually the academic equivalent of a happy slap. Fair enough, this is an isolated case, but one exemplary of these things all the same.

Older readers may be claiming I only care about this issue because I myself await my A2 results, which arrive on Thursday. Perhaps in five years time, I will bemoan how crap the examinations are nowadays, undermining the work of the students of the future. If that happens, someone please fucking shake me. I don't think it will, because I'll have my own beef with the next generation, just as the current older generation don't begrudge their children free love or terrible 80s fashions as their parents might have. Luckily, I'm maintaining low expectations for my results- I plan to defer my entry to university, for which I need at least three B grades, and take a year out to write a novel, get work experience and perhaps travel if I can save up enough money. Of course the media would lead you to believe I will either...

a. change my mind by September 2009 and go stab somebody instead.
b. be killed abroad while travelling during my gap year.
or c. my personal favourite, be one of the first to be press-ganged when Gordon Brown bows to the calls of bringing back national service to fix the whole of Britain's under-21 population.

Hey, perhaps I should try and get interviewed! There's surely got to be some money in becoming the Face of Britain's Falling Standards? That ought to tide me over until I can get a 17 year old pregnant and claim benefits for the rest of my life, eventually becoming a Sun reader who opens his paper around August to see lots of excitable young women!


"Ker-ching!"


The bottom line is, as blase as I and certain others claim to be about our A-Level results, it doesn't mean we didn't work hard for our exams, and it stinks that the media undermines our work and that of the teachers who made the effort to help us out with it. Especially as the general standards of the media in the last 30 years have gone right downhill. Talk about pot and kettle.

Toodles,
Mark

P.S. You may remember if you know me that I had this rant last year in the Evening Gazette, but they cut out a lot of my comments about the media being so shit, funnily enough. I'll probably be back here with more to rant about when said coverage does kick off later this week, and to post what grades I actually did get.
P.P.S. Please remember- if you are an attractive female and a photographer tries to coax you into looking happy with your results for a picture, you'll be doing a great service to The Sun by complying. So stop it!
P.P.P.S. To that guy who wrote in supporting my argument when I did the Gazette thing last year, thanks very much. I can't for the life of me remember your name, but you were an older gentleman and I'm much obliged.

10 August 2008

The Dark Knight- Review

This is it, the big one... The Dark Knight is finally here. For the benefit of those who live in a sealed titanium war-bubble, that's the new Batman film. I'll get to summary in a moment, but the furore around this film has been massive- after just four days of release in the USA, it went to number 1 on the Internet Movie Database's top 250 films of all time, voted for by users, with a 9.5/10 average. Now the vast majority of imdb's users are the most abhorrent on the internet- for instance, some guy the other week was convinced that WALL·E was a threat to the national stability of America, which he called "the greatest continent in the world"... seriously- and some of them are quite pissed about it being above The Godfather, missing the point that by its very definition, being number one means it's also above every other film ever made. Doesn't matter in the long run, because there are two statements I'm going to make about this definitively before my review.

1. It's the Batman film that Batman fans have waited for all their lives.
2. It is the greatest film based on a comic-book character EVER. Sod Spider-Man, Superman (especially Superman- see my previous blog post) and X-Men- THIS is the new benchmark.

That said, off we go- I'll try not to spoil anything in this review, but if you haven't seen it, fucking shame on you. Sorry, I meant to say, if you haven't seen it, the previous two statements will generally give you the gist of my thoughts. Once again for the cheap seats, this review may contain minor spoilers. And because I'm considerate, I'll warn you that strong language also crops up throughout.

THE DARK KNIGHT


Who's in it?
Christian Bale, (The Prestige) Heath Ledger, (I'm Not There) and Aaron Eckhart (The Black Dahlia)

What's it all about?
After the events of Batman Begins, the titular caped crusader (Bale) is working towards bringing down the mobsters in Gotham City by hitting them in their wallets and taking out their banks, with the help of Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Gotham's self-styled white knight, the new district attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart). With Batman closing in, the mob turns to a man they don't fully understand the motives of in their efforts to survive- enter the Joker, (Ledger) who simply wants to see society burn, and become a world without rules.

Any good?
First and foremost here, I have to say that I didn't view this as a Batman film- it's more like a crime thriller that happens to have Batman, the Joker and a couple of other freaks (who shall remain nameless to preserve plot details) running around within them. The trio of Batman, Gordon and Dent attempting to bring down the mob in particular is more reminiscent of The Untouchables or The Departed than the terrible trio that we were subjected to by Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin (which is easily one of the worst films ever made.) The plot twists and turns throughout the two and a half hour runtime- not beyond comprehension, but certainly enough to entrance the audience as the film embarks upon a study of human nature, good and evil and everything that goes with it with astonishing prowess from writer and director Christopher Nolan. And in two and a half hours, I didn't once look at my watch- it's a totally immersive film.

The general opposition of Batman and Harvey Dent in terms of character is set up on both sides of the former's identity- Harvey happens to be dating Bruce's childhood sweetheart from Batman Begins, here niftily recast as Maggie Gyllenhaal, whereas Batman is set up as the hero that Gotham needs rather than Harvey, who is the hero that Gotham deserves. From all sides here, Batman is under tremendous pressure, and not PG-rated Spider-Man 2 pressure where people just don't like him. No, this is pressure to the extent whereby his copycat admirers endanger themselves and others with their ill-advised vigilante tactics. Elsewhere, the blood of murder victims is splattered firmly across Batman's hands by the aspersions of the Joker, who gives him a dilemma in which he will kill someone every day until Bats unmasks.

Yeah, bet you were wondering when I was going to mention him.
To those readers who remain under the delusion that the tabloids started that immersing himself in the Joker was what killed Heath Ledger, rather than the accidental overdose on his legitimate medication, get a fucking clue and then come back to read the rest. Done? Good. Well, the performance IS as good as everyone has been saying- I do think that he'll be up for a post-humous Oscar next February, but contrary to some critics, I think the same would be true if Ledger had never met his untimely death. He's as creepy as Hannibal Lecter, but with none of his reservation, which is more akin to that of Randle McMurphy from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. And that doesn't count as a Jack Nicholson comparison, before you ask. Every minute he's on-screen is captivating, from the film's opening bank heist, ("I kill the bus driver") through the interrogation scene that reveals his insanely-detached worldview and is arguably the best scene in the film, all the way to the film's edge-of-the-seat final setpiece. People will expect from that last turn of phrase a huge amount of action, but happily, the film allows for the finale to explore human nature in a way seldom seen in summer blockbusters, but I'm not telling you how it does it if you haven't seen the film yet, (again, fucking shame on you if that's true.) The truth of Ledger's role though is that it's not the biggest thing in the film- this is an ensemble piece.

That said, the best, but also most underrated performance in this one is probably Gary Oldman. It's wonderful, and this is his best role in years in my opinion- while he didn't have too much to do in Begins, he takes a much bigger role in the finale of this one, with much more personal stakes. Aaron Eckhart too is brilliant here- while previously somewhat typecast as shadier characters, he's a revelation here as Dent, a political knight-in-shining armour- I wanted to go out and vote for him after about twenty minutes on-screen. He undergoes a startling transformation from this later in the film when he's um... not so shiny, (swerving a spoiler there) and works just as well in either capacity. Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman also turn in sterling performances, together bringing into prominence Bruce's life unmasked as well as that of Batman. Caine and Freeman have some good comic relief one-liners in this film too, as they had in the previous film. I can't praise this ensemble enough, including Eric Roberts, who Doctor Who fans like myself will remember as the worst actor to play the Master ever, who manages to be a threatening presence even with the limited screentime his crime boss, Sal Maroni, actually gets. Didn't stop me leaning towards friends and quoting "I always drrrress for the occasion" when he came on screen, even if to this day I don't know what the fuck the Master was talking about at that point.

Alright, one negative thing about the cast, which is still a positive thing- Maggie Gyllenhaal is really good in this film too, also with a limited amount of screentime. The issue is that Nolan wanted her to play Rachel Dawes in the first film, but found she was unavailable and instead cast Katie Holmes. Katie fucking Holmes, who is inarguably the worst part of Begins, actually turned down a chance to reprise the role here due to other commitments. This was in 2005, so I can assume she looked ahead and recognised that her career was now dead, and her biggest commitment was to being Mrs. Tom Cruise. Even fucking Cillian Murphy came back for a three minute cameo, which can't have been hugely gratifying for an actor of his calibre, but Katie Holmes basically fucked up the character for this film. At around the mid-point, when Rachel reaches a big turning point, (that's the most spoiler-free I can say it) there is the feeling that Gyllenhaal's (far superior) Dawes hasn't been on-screen long enough for us to care about her. So Katie Holmes subtracts about a tenth of a decimal point in terms of marks out of ten, which would otherwise make this a more or less perfect movie.

A few more cursory suggestions though as to the content of this movie- firstly, if you like frothy superhero fare, do not expect the same from this. The key word for the tone of this film is in the title- a clue, it's the middle one. Indeed, it's so dark that it must have scarcely avoided a 15 certificate, which brings me to my second point. This is easily the most violent 12A film I've seen since the rating was brought in, back in 2002- it gets away with it on the merit of never showing any blood, which I suppose the studios must have stipulated in order to broaden the audience, but there's never any doubt as to what violent acts are occurring. And usually enacted by the Joker. This is NOT a film for kids- even sans violence, it's a rich and complex tale that may leave anyone less than a particularly clever ten year old scratching their heads and wanting to see
WALL·E instead. Discerning parents will do just that, but go to see this anyway without their less advanced off-spring. The third warning generally is concerned with Christian Bale's Bat-voice. Sometimes it seems a little forced and awkward in this film, and yeah, I've heard that some people found it funny. If you find the urge to laugh, or that it takes you out of the narrative, remember this guy could kick your ass. If you could so easily apply this to Arnold Schwarzenegger's films, he'd be the most revered actor in recent history, but Bale has the acting chops to carry off the role regardless of slightly awkward Bat-voice. Besides, it's better than Adam West's Batman voice in the 1960s TV series, i.e, his own, but slightly more consternated.

To conclude, this is the best Batman movie of all time. There are no bones about it I'm afraid, and given audience response, sheer consensus should overwhelm the Burton/West fans and the single Schumacher fan. It is also the best "comic-book movie", even if I've made my thoughts clear on that classification, because the ending, again without spoilers, takes the film in a direction that you could never ever do with other traditional heroes like Superman. Maybe they could pull it off with Spider-Man, but not if it translates into the likes of emo-Parker in Spider-Man 3, and here, you're left wanting more and more by the time the title on-screen heralds the beginning of the closing credits. As for that IMDB rating, I'm not sure I'd call it the best film of all-time. It needs to stand the test of time for that position, certainly not something that can happen two days since I first watched it, but if I were a betting man, I would wager that it probably will in a year or so's time. One more accolade to throw at it, and an impressive one at that- this is my favourite film of the 21st century to date. Absolutely magnificent.



-------------------------------

There'll be more reviews from my perspective on the way- that's a given with all the movies I watch. Just keep an eye in the sky for the geek signal.

Until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch,
Mark.