24 January 2010

The Twin Dilemma

January is traditionally a dreary month in the cinematic calendar, and you could say it's been a bit one note, falling back on the traditional tropes of vampire films, music biopics and post-apocalypse films. Right at the end of the month, we have two romantic comedies, Up in the Air and All About Steve. 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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Up in the Air is obviously not to be confused with Pixar's Up, in a title-related oversight that's only surpassed by last year giving us post-apocalyptic animation 9 and musical luvvie-fest Nine. Semantics aside, Up in the Air is all about Ryan Bingham, a specialist contracted by companies to fly around America firing their employees for them. This jet-setting lifestyle is without strings or attachments, and that's just the way Ryan likes it. His life is disrupted by the arrival of Natalie, who threatens to ground him with her more cost-effective proposal for Ryan's company. Ryan aims to prove that a personal touch is needed by taking Natalie with him as he works, despite lacking anything close to a personal connection himself.

Jason Reitman's latest is closer to Thank You For Smoking than to Juno, covering similar ground with George Clooney's Ryan being a middle-aged man who has problems relating to his relatives because of his job. Up in the Air is a considerably lighter film, veering towards romantic comedy rather than delivering harsh satire. Although my previous exasperation with the worst shortcuts of the genre have been well-documented, I found there was a lot to enjoy in this.

Clooney isn't really straying outside of his comfort zone as an actor to play Ryan, but then he's played enough oddballs and idiots in recent films to warrant a return to his tried and tested formula. The last time he was playing "typical Clooney", he was an animated fox, so I'll cut the guy a break. He is the only cast-member of Batman & Robin I've forgiven to date. Besides which, it's the script that makes Ryan such a sympathetic character rather than the performance.

In fairness, I can't go without mentioning Anna Kendrick's excellent performance as Natalie for one major reason. It was bugging me all the way through because I recognised Kendrick from something else. I gave her IMDB a look, and it turns out she's been slumming it as a supporting character in the Twilight films! One of the really superfluous characters who exists to praise Bella! And yet she can give performances like this!


My incredulity at this really knows no bounds, but suffice it to say that she's one of the few performers in Twilight who I actually rate, and she's brilliant in this. Her chemistry with Clooney is totally platonic, and really complements the sparkling and witty script.

Vera Farmiga and Jason Bateman are on fine form too, and the film enjoys the traditional 20% extra quotient of awesomeness that I award any film for featuring Sam Elliot. The man's a legend, and I have no problem with the fact that he seems to be channel that scene he had with Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski in this.

On top of the central character study of Ryan though, there's a motif around what it is to lose your job. Ryan goes from place to place firing people, with Reitman casting people who had actually lost their jobs as the unfortunate victims of Ryan's schtick. And then of course Ryan is in danger of becoming obsolete himself if Natalie's proposal is accepted by his bosses.

In this economy, it's a particularly timely subject for a film. Although it's just not practical to do what Clooney does and embark on an affair with Vera Farmiga, the underlying message is that your job shouldn't define who you are as a person. It's not just grasping at the heartstrings like your bog-standard romcom- it's actually really profound. Maybe my personal enjoyment of the film is down to having lost two jobs during the recession, which they're now saying is over, but it's like Vietnam or a particularly timely joke- you had to be there. That aside, it is still a very well-crafted film.

Rarely predictable and highly enjoyable, Up in the Air is that elusive beast that I'll always praise whenever it appears- a romcom that doesn't glamorise deplorable characters or resort to cookie-cutter formula, and instead tells an enjoyable story. Clooney's playing a character whose line of work is becoming obsolete, but in real life, he's continuing to pick interesting projects like this one instead of resting on his laurels. Despite an utterly schmaltzy last line that made me feel physically sick for a couple of minutes, this is a satisfying and likable romantic comedy.


Now, what to say on the subject of All About Steve? It follows Mary Horowitz, a relentlessly twee crossword constructor who lives with her long-suffering parents while her flat is being fumigated. They set their daughter up on a blind date with Steve, a news cameraman who is frequently on the road. When Steve tries to let Mary down gently, she misreads the signs and sets out across country to er... stalk him. Yeah, really. Hilarity ensues, I say with the largest dollop of irony your web browser can support.

Tonally, it is all over the place. With its subject matter, I reckon that with the raw footage, an editing suite and some creepy music, even a monkey could transform it into a very passable horror film. Maybe reshoot all the scenes with Mary's parents so they're tied to a bed, Misery-style, everytime they appear. In trying to set up a message for individuality, what the writer has actually done is cast Sandra Bullock as an overbearing and unlikable woman.

More than that, there are two films at war with each other in All About Steve. There's the aforementioned horror film of Mary's character, mixed in with some element of genuinely funny satire of 24 hour rolling news culture. I wouldn't say a whole film around Thomas Haden-Church's conceited newsman would be funny, but I did laugh at some of the jokes involving him for the same reason I laugh at Charlie Brooker's Newswipe. What this film does is take two films that would be fairly mediocre and merge them into a gestalt of incredibly inventive rubbish.

Early on in the film, Mary 'hilariously' ponders whether brain cancer is better than a lobotomy, or vice versa, and for a while I was thinking I'd prefer both to watching any more of the film. I'd went in expecting to hate the film, come back here and make some Kermodian declaration that if I saw 10 films worse than All About Steve in 2010, I would quit reviewing.

Don't get me wrong, it is absolutely awful, but when I'm constantly complaining that romantic comedies have a cookie-cutter formula that means you can tell the ending of any given film just from watching the trailer, this is something different. It goes to absurd and asinine extremes to be different, but I can't deny it's different.

It circumvents "so bad, it's good" and settles back in "bad" territory again, but there's something incredibly entertaining to watch about that. I can't really fault the performances so much as the writing, and although this may just be me finally having snapped, I have to make this statement- this film is the reason why I go to the cinema.

Let me put it this way, to conclude- All About Steve is like the dark twin of Up in the Air. Reitman's film subverts the traditional romcom template with likable characters and relatable situations. This film does it with cartoonishly abhorrent characters and a set piece where some deaf children fall down a mineshaft at a funfair. Reitman's film is great, and All About Steve is just awful. But my God, it's trying.

It's a one star out of five film, make no mistake, but it did make me laugh, which was way more than I was expecting. For sheer innovation of awfulness, and the fact that it's actually challenging me to write objectively about a film I really ought to hate with every iota of my being, I have to give some small acclaim. Very small. Really, don't pay to see this.

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You're probably all horribly confused now, but that's why this post is named for a similarly rubbish Doctor Who story from 1984. Basically, if you want an unequivocally well made and well judged romcom, see Up in the Air. If you want to challenge yourself a little more, join the ranks of the four or so people in the UK who've been to see All About Steve. And if you've seen either, why not share your comments below?

Given the absolute chaos of advertising that seems to be going on with The Lovely Bones, I have no idea if that's out this Friday or next month. That aside, the next trips to the cinema are likely to cover Ninja Assassin, Precious and/or Edge of Darkness.

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

21 January 2010

And I Feel Fine...

The world has taken some beatings on the big screen, not least at the hands of global bullyboy Roland Emmerich. Every now and then, you get a film that takes place after the fact, and armageddon has been and gone. Of course sometimes, two films come along at once, and a very thematically rigid January at the cinema brings us The Road and The Book of Eli. 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.


The Road is set after an unspecified cataclysm that devastated the world, killed most of the population and has every day becoming colder than the last. In the midst of this chaos, a father and his son make their way across America to the coast, a destination that the father believes everything depends on. The Book of Eli looks, to all intents and purposes, like a video game-friendly alternative to this film if you go by the trailers and posters. It follows a Man With No Name type (except he's called Eli), as he carries a precious cargo across, again, the post-apocalyptic waste that used to be America. This cargo is the titular book, and with the promise that it could bring civilisation once again amongst the few surviving humans, it doesn't take a theologian to figure out what book it might be. When Eli chances upon a small Wild West town, he clashes with its ruler, Carnegie, who has long sought to control the book's power.

The Road came first though. These films are so similar in plot that I thought I might as well synopsize them together. They are of course wildly different in tone, and this is a dramatic two-hander between Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father and son. Yeah, so there are other survivors along the way and flashbacks to the now-absent mother of the family, but it's largely all about those two. Mortensen is really, properly good in this film, understating his role as a devoted father with real sadness and determination. You can believe this is a man who has watched the world go to hell, and that he'll do anything to keep his son from the dangers in the chaotic aftermath. McPhee is less convincing, and director John Hillcoat hardly sold the casting by telling everyone the kid was cast because he looked like his screen mum, Charlize Theron. McPhee is at his best when pondering the moral implications of the lifestyle he and his father lead, but beyond that, he just doesn't come across as a kid born into this world.


I haven't yet read the book that this is based on, but there's one major thing I didn't think was made clear in the film. What's so great about survival when the world is as bad as this? There is at least some purpose to their striving for the coast, but even that falls through once the purpose of the journey is revealed. Maybe it's made clearer in the book, but after they've traversed the country avoiding cannibals and freezing to death, what's the point in suffering. Perhaps I'm a little fatalistic, but that's the key problem with The Road in my estimation. It also covers similar ground to Hillcoat's previous film, The Proposition, as the bonds of family are set against a hostile and unforgiving landscape, and Hillcoat uses the same make-up techniques used on that one to visually put his performers through the wringer. This film still has its own identity despite those similarities, but it's too bleak to be enjoyed and not memorable enough to be really appreciated.

That's really not to say I think The Road is a bad film, and believe it or not, I got a laugh out of it at one point. Obviously not from the film, but from a guy sitting a few rows ahead of me in the cinema, who realised he hadn't picked the right date film about half an hour in when his girlfriend started crying her eyes out, and continued to do so for much of the rest of the film. It's obviously a film you're meant to admire rather than enjoy, and while having read the book might enhance the expereience for most viewers, you may be as ambivalent about the film as I was if you haven't read it. Viggo Mortensen is truly brilliant and Guy Pearce follows The Hurt Locker with another very memorable cameo role, but the crux of the thing is that while I thought the film was good, I don't think anyone will really like it.

I had very low expectations of The Book of Eli, but while the content isn't as thoughtful as in John Hillcoat's film, this one is admittedly a lot more fun. This is somewhat bizarre, as it's certainly bleak enough to stand up to others in the sub-genre, but it's also a well executed action thriller. More than that, it's unpredictable. Dyou know what? I actually really liked it! Beyond what I said about the particulars of the book being fairly obvious, there are some absolutely killer twists throughout the film that kept me engaged for the duration. More than that, it explores the power of ideas rather than force. As many explosions and gunshots as there are in the action sequences, they won't shake Denzel Washington's Eli as long as he has his mission to focus on.

And it is a rather terrific performance from Denzel Washington. You could scarcely call it a career best, but that's because he's a very good actor who's been in some very good films. What you can say is that he's having a whale of a time, even if his co-star Mila Kunis doesn't quite measure up- she's a capable actor, it's just that she doesn't fare well in action films, (see Max Payne... or rather don't see Max Payne) A number of Harry Potter alumni round out the supporting cast, dominated by Gary Oldman as a well rounded villain with actual motivation as opposed to plot necessitated evil-doing. Besides that, there's an utterly bizarre non-sequitur with Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour doing a bit of comic relief in the middle. Tom Waits also shows up, typically making a memorable turn with a limited amount of screen time. It's a high calibre cast, and it's clear that they knew a good script when they saw it. I'm much happier to see these actors in this film rather than in 2012, for instance.


The Book of Eli isn't going to set the world alight. Indeed, the action begins after the world has been set alight by the sun's rays getting through a big old hole in the o-zone layer. The point is, this is a lot more fun than you could really expect a film with this subject matter to be. It has some strong central ideas and great performances, and aside from one admittedly minor quibble that took me out of the film momentarily (I thought he locked that door?!), I enjoyed it a lot. Although its release date means it'll be upstaged by its colleague in the genre, it actually works well as counter-programming. If, like the unfortunate young man and his girlfriend, you find The Road to be too bleak, you can give The Book of Eli a look and find a decent action thriller that isn't too emotionally taxing and doesn't treat you like an idiot either. Amen!

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One film for cinematic connoisseurs, and another for the crowd who just fancy a night out at the multiplex. I need more days like this. If you've taken in a double dose of doomsday recently, why not share your comments below?

I'm currently intrigued by a film called All About Steve, because it seems to be a romcom that actually plumbs the depths of how bad it is possible to be in a film. I'm actually drawn to it by its terribleness- probably penance for wimping out of Shit Chipmunk Film 2. Or It's Complicated. Or Did You Hear About The Morgans? Eesh, I'm letting you all down lately. On the positive side of things, I've also seen Up In The Air, so a review of that shall be coming shortly.

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

15 January 2010

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Musicals have been popular enough for decades, but the musical biopic is an entirely different beast. The first biopic of a musician was 1946's The Jolson Story, but it's since the success of Ray and Walk The Line that the film industry has been tripping over itself to make similar stories about musical legends. This week I went to see Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, and also caught up with one of the much loved documentaries of last year, Anvil! The Story of Anvil.

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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Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is based on the life of Ian Dury, the founder of the punk-rock scene in 1970s Britain. Dury, played by Andy Serkis, was stricken with polio at an early age and was very much at a disadvantage in the early stages of his career on account of his disability and his unique performances. The film charts his rise to fame, and the effect his abrasive personality has on his wife and children. The spark has gone from his marriage as he turns to a younger woman, Denise, and his son feels neglected by his largely absent dad, but Dury is largely concerned with the stratospheric rise of his band, the Blockheads.

If there's an obvious statement to make about Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, it's that Andy Serkis is just terrific in this role. He embodies the impresario in Dury perfectly, but it's also a very personal performance. Someone who's never heard of Dury or his music before seeing this film could very well come out of it feeling that they really know the guy. You might not like him, but you get a great sense of his character. I say that because I didn't know much about Dury except that I liked a couple of Blockheads songs. Naomie Harris and Bill Milner are typically reliable as Dury's mistress and son respectively, with Milner soldiering through the latter half of the film with the worst haircut worn by an actor since his screen-dad David Morrissey in last year's Is Anybody There? Outside of the performances though, it's a shame that this doesn't really leave much of an impression.

Music biopics these days, to quote Johnny Cash, walk the line. They always follow a massively familiar narrative structure, even though they're often about very different people's lives. I reviewed Nowhere Boy a few weeks ago, and was interested to learn when seeing this that both John Lennon and Ian Dury had nightmares about their childhood, handily illuminating the audience about their back story. It's a sub-genre in danger of becoming over-saturated now, and if I see that shot of a singer on stage in silhouette with an audience clapping before him, I think I may scream. The only real innovation here is the inclusion of Dury telling an audience about the story of his life, as a framing device which might have been more effective if given a little more prominence. When biopics are so similar, they can only be as interesting as the person they're about. Thankfully, Ian Dury was very interesting, so even though the script goes through the motions, it scrapes through and is actually fairly enjoyable.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll should be remembered for Andy Serkis' tour de force performance- he's a terrific actor who ought to be getting more recognition for his actual on-screen roles than for putting on a motion-capture suit to play Gollum or King Kong. His Gollum was good, of course, and will be again when The Hobbit comes out, I'm sure. But here, he is just dazzling, gleefully showboating his way through Dury's life, on stage and off. The script is burdened by familiarity and by a bizarre sort of grimy mawkishness about its subject, but it's the performances that make this worth watching. Awards for Serkis, please!

When I went home after watching Serkis tell the audience never to let the truth get in the way of a good story, I caught up with Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a documentary about a Canadian metal band trying to make it in the music business. The unusual thing about the titular band is that they've actually been around for 30 years, playing gigs alongside Bon Jovi and Whitesnake at the prime of their career. For frontman Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, the band is a labour of love, and the film follows the production of their thirteenth album, "This Is Thirteen." Record companies don't seem to appreciate them, promoters don't reach their audience and Anvil goes through a hell of a lot as they continue their search for fame and recognition.

Yes, it's real. The drummer might have the same name as the director of This Is Spinal Tap, a film this shares more than a few similarities with, but Anvil is a real band. I knew that in advance of watching it, but I have to wonder if I would have believed it otherwise. Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a very funny film, but it's even funnier when you know it's real. But more than that, it's the best type of documentary- the type that has a real appreciation of its subject. The director is a long-time Anvil roadie, Sacha Gervasi, and he never patronises the band or makes them figures of fun. At the same time, he's not afraid to show their bad days, and that's where most of the hilarity comes from. The band is horribly mismanaged, frequently missing trains on their way to gigs and not getting paid as a result. Furthermore, Robb is given to quite Spinal Tap-like interactions, best shown in the scene where a lawyer and fan of the band tries to point out how terrible their management is.

But as I said, the film isn't taking the piss out of Lipps and Robb. Lipps in particular is very passionate about the band, and even though I largely hate metal music, I really found myself rooting for them because Gervasi gets under their skin so well. The whole thing is oddly inspiring, with these 50-something rockers still soldiering on. Gervasi is never overly flattering or self-indulgent, and the result is a refreshingly honest documentary. Anvil! The Story of Anvil is by equal turns heartwarming and hilarious, but it also manages to be an effective appraisal of the cutthroat music industry. It's also heartening to know that the success and critical acclaim for this film has finally given Anvil some recognition and high-profile gigs, and this stands as a charming tribute to their struggle.

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Music isn't exactly my field of expertise, so if you have any comments on Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll or Anvil! The Story of Anvil, why not share them below?

Vampires and music are fairly reasonable links, and there's another to follow in the next post, as I take on double doomsday in the form of The Road and The Book of Eli.

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

9 January 2010

Suck Harder

It's an unavoidable fact of blogging on the latest cinema releases that I will spend a lot of time talking about vampires. The beginning of 2010 throws up two more vampire films for me to have a look at in cinemas- the big-budget Spierig Brothers action-thriller, Daybreakers, and last year's highly acclaimed Korean horror, Thirst. Different in tone, sure, but still propagating one thing- film-goers fucking love those pasty-faced bastards.

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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Daybreakers inhabits the far-off futuristic world of er, nine years from now, when 95% of the Earth's population has been converted into a bloodsucker after the outbreak of a vampiric epidemic. The shortfall of this is that the other 5% is a bit difficult to hunt down, and blood supplies are dwindling fast. Haemotologist Edward Dalton is looking for a blood substitute when his path intersects with Audrey and Elvis, two humans who offer something even better. Elvis used to be a vampire, but not any more, and that suggests only one thing- a cure to vampirism.

The high concept of Daybreakers is a breath of fresh air following more staid and unoriginal interpretations of the vampire legend. This year will see the release of another Twilight film, and doubtless holds a number of other lower profile vampire films I haven't heard of yet. So it's nice to kick the year off with something that's actually trying. The trouble I found with the film is that it's taken that idea and made another Underworld film with it. This doesn't occupy the same universe as Underworld, but it is very difficult to distinguish much between the way they look. That's not to say there isn't a lot of thought put into other aspects of the film, especially in the implications of a world that is almost entirely vampiric.

Coffee stands sell beverages that are four parts coffee and one part blood, news reports make mention of forest fires being started by infected animals who go out in the daylight and a "subwalk" system runs beneath the streets so vampires can go out and about in the daytime. All of these details embellish a scenario that has clearly been well thought out by the Spierig brothers. I'm not familiar with their work, but apparently they're bright young things in the horror genre. Their first mainstream feature musters a number of reliable actors, with Willem Dafoe continuing to be memorable just by being Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill making an all-too seldom appearance and Ethan Hawke doing that relative naivete/reluctant saviour thing that has especially prolific in most films like this since The Matrix. Also of note is Isabel Lucas, not for her acting because that's still rubbish, but because while she's still not that hot, she at least looks like a human being without scary levels of tan and pouting.

Beyond what you've probably already seen in the trailers, Daybreakers doesn't bring an awful lot of originality to the table. Its high concept and attention to detail make it mercifully closer to The Twilight Zone than to Twilight, but the plot deals in a number of slightly tired devices and goofy twists rather than sustaining the promise of the original concept. If you love vampire films, you may well love this. Personally being a bit tired of them at the moment, I don't think there's much to remark upon in this reasonable but familiar piece.


Elsewhere, world cinema is once again proving there's life in the idea yet. Thirst is the latest horror film from director Chan-wook Park, and follows Father Sang-hyeon, a Catholic priest who volunteers at a local hospital, as he attempts to cure an incredibly debilitating virus. In the process of his research, he contracts the virus and dies on the operating table. However, the doctors unwittingly provide him with transfusions of vampire blood, and he's resurrected. The virus will keep returning unless he drinks the blood of other humans, and the man of faith finds himself on a course to self-destruction as long suppressed desires reawaken.

The very title should give you some idea of the film's central theme. Sang-hyeon is as pious as they come, and he's put in a position where he thirsts after human blood without wanting to kill anyone. The priest's desperation is palpable in the excellent performance by Kang-ho Song, who undergoes a transformation from looking a bit like Harry Potter to being a cool, confident creature of the night. Song's performance really stands out amongst an excellent cast, with Ha-kyun Shin, as a childhood friend of the priest who irritatingly parades around with his snuffy nose and wearing a green onesie like a giant baby. His wife Tae-ju, played by Ok-bin Kim, is driven away by his behaviour, and into the arms of the sexually-awakened Sang-hyeon. Their relationship dominates much of the film, and their dynamic is what makes it distinct from other vampire films.


Some will compare this to the other vampire film that came out of world cinema last year, the excellent Let The Right One In. The major difference is that Tomas Alfredson's film is just about the only vampire film ever that isn't about sex on some level, instead centring on two young children. Thirst is very much about sex. Chan-wook Park knows better than to glamorise vampires, or to sanitise them for a teenage audience. Make no mistake- this is an absolutely brutal film, but it's the sense of right and wrong that distances it from mere smut. There are some incredibly grisly bits in this film that aren't related to sex, and though I'm not one to swoon over a bit of fake blood, some bits of this one had me looking away involuntarily. There's a story beneath the horror though, and a very compelling one at that. One of the few drawbacks is that Park is quite breviloquent in his pacing, which paradoxically makes the film drag a little bit. It feels a fair whack longer than it actually is, and I wonder if it might have left more of an impression on me if it were even ten minutes shorter.

For the most part though, Thirst boasts a very interesting and innovative application of the vampire archetype. Kang-ho Song gives one of the best performances of the last year, brilliantly evoking the sense of repressed power that Park's screenplay demands. The idea of Catholic ideology clashing with vampiric necessity is arguably a much more intriguing idea than Daybreakers has to offer, and it's handled more competently too. This was my first experience of Chan-wook Park's work, with other reviewers applauding this for being more restrained than his previous works, like Oldboy or Lady Vengeance. I remain very interested in catching up with those, because Thirst exhibits his original sensibility for horror. More than that, it's a film that compounds the emergent truth about vampires on film- world cinema has superseded Hollywood in the sub-genre.

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Another month, another coupla vampire films. On the plus side, I heartily recommend Being Human, the second series of which starts on BBC Three tomorrow evening at 9pm. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts and most importantly, brilliant writers and actors, if the first series is anything to go by. You can probably count on a review of The Road later this week, but in the meantime, why not add to the raging torrent of vampire discussion on the internet by commenting below? Preferably about the films at hand, not who would win in a fight between Lestat and Edward Cullen.

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

4 January 2010

A Brit Inconsistent

With 2009 more or less over and done with for this blog, there's enough time to cover two late entries to last year's cinematic catalogue, and they're both British efforts. People might have noticed that half of my top 10 films of last year were British productions, which might suggest that we're getting better at it. Or that I'm intensely patriotic. Either way, I can't really put Nowhere Boy or St. Trinian's- The Legend of Fritton's Gold even close to any of those five films in terms of quality.

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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Fresh off the back of his departure as "Doctor Who", David Tennant launches the plot of St. Trinian's- The Legend of Fritton's Gold as the misogynistic Lord Pomfrey, the leader of a secret sexist society called AD1. He and his ancestors have been at odds with the Fritton family since the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and is prepared to unleash hell upon headmistress Camilla and her niece Anabelle. He's after a secret treasure that the Frittons stole from the Pomfreys centuries ago, but the students of St. Trinian's school rise to the challenge and try to get to the treasure first. It's apt that this film's plot is all about chasing money and riches when its predecessor was one of the most successful British independent film of the last decade. There's no other reason to make this bugger.

Yeah, David Tennant is brought into prominence in that summary, and that's possibly because I'm a Doctor Who fan, but it's mostly because I honestly have no idea why he's in this. He's the RSC's Hamlet! Ironically, the very script seems to rub this fact in his face, with the climax being set at the Globe Theatre and staging a "hilarious" performance of "Romeo and Juliet", with a be-dragged Rupert Everett being an impromptu Juliet. "Christ, this is interminable", says Pomfrey, and it's almost like Tennant has just realised where he is and broken character. More than that though, I bring Tennant to the fore to point out the key contradiction of the film- we're presented with a villain who hates women. This is a film about girl power, because women are individuals too, and that's why the Nerdy One, the Chavvy One, the Ditzy One and the Twins have to stop him! Come on, it's already hard enough to root against the fucking Tenth Doctor, without the cookie-cutter heroines seeming to prove his archaic views about women!


Of course I'm aware that women aren't silly or uniform, and that's why it's one of the key failings of The Legend of Fritton's Gold. Then again, I can list many more of those flaws- it's over-long, not very funny and still quite leering about its nubile young protagonists. It also does that really desperate trope of referencing Proper Films in an effort to prevent the older and saner audience from trying to drown in their large Coke. A reference to The Exorcist in a film aimed at pre-teen girls? Really? These are pretences that the film is anything more than a sexed-up piece of nostalgia for the original St. Trinian's films of the 50s and 60s and a cash-in on the success of the more recent 2007 remake. Some of the more talented cast soldier on well by camping their way through it, especially Tennant, Everett and Colin Firth. Neither can I really fault Tallulah Riley or Monserrat Lombard, the latter of whom gave me the only laugh of the film.

St. Trinian's- The Legend of Fritton's Gold is formulaic filmmaking, specifically the formula of its predecessor. If a St. Trinian's 3 were forthcoming in 2011, you could almost call this the cinematic equivalent of panto. Uncomfortable to sit through, with its cartoonish stereotypes and Rupert Everett in drag, and rolls around semi-annually at Christmas. Throw in a glut of bawdy jokes and all you have missing is for the audience to start booing David Tennant, who I hope will now go in a different direction with his film career than this. Co-starring with Sarah Harding off of Girls Aloud, and she really might have been credited as that, isn't the best start. The high camp factor is generally harmless, but the film really has very little to recommend.


Nowhere Boy
is a study of the eighteen-year-old John Lennon, and also covers the formative years of the Beatles. John is something of a repressed genius, living with his uptight aunt, Mimi. When his beloved uncle dies suddenly, he's thrown into turmoil. Shortly after, he discovers that his biological mother, Julia, lives just around the corner from Mimi and begins meeting her in secret. The two of them share a love of rock and roll that brings them together, but the shadow of their separation so early on looms large, and John eventually becomes determined to find out the truth.

I'm not the biggest aficionado of The Beatles, but it's one of my resolutions for 2010 to finally get around to listening to their full back catalogue. I know several people who could probably tell me all about John Lennon's early years and why I shouldn't enjoy listening to "Octopus' Garden" as much as I do, but I hope that prepared me for Nowhere Boy a little better- the film should embed an understanding of Lennon. As a precaution though, I went along with two Beatles fans as a barometer. One of them said afterwards that they'd fabricated much of the backstory for dramatic purposes, and in my capacity as a reviewer, I'd say that's possibly one of the film's failings. Sure, we see plenty of the lairy Lennon haring around 1950s suburbia being cooler-than-thou, and newcomer Aaron Johnson's performance is fair enough, but this isn't the most probing biopic you'll ever see.


On the other hand, it's refreshing to see that Lennon isn't entirely idealised to enamour new audiences with some legend of his life. Johnny Cash's estate probably sold more records following the release of Walk the Line, but this quite rightly sticks with the period it's chosen, with the clever exception of an opening twang of "A Hard Day's Night", retooled to become more foreboding than was ever intended. More than that, I'm led to believe that Lennon was a well-reputed arsehole, and that arrogance is transposed to Johnson on-screen well enough. The problem for me was that I'd really rather have seen more of Anne-Marie Duff and Kristin Scott-Thomas as Julia and Mimi, the two sisters feuding for John's love. That's where the real story is in Nowhere Boy, but these two are sidelined by almost Walk Hard-esque introductions to the young Paul McCartney and the young George Harrison. If you want to know why Ringo Starr's not there, witness Lennon's cavalier attitude to getting a drummer for his first band, the Quarrymen. There's not a lot of Ringo love.

Quite aside from the quibbles about accuracy, both Beatles fans seemed to enjoy Nowhere Boy, so on that count I can only give it a thumbs up. I'm sure I'm not the first person to be telling you about this film if you're a properly paid-up Beatles fan though, so shall say this to those who don't know the ins and outs of the band's members and their lives. It's a very likable film indeed that's very easy to relax into. The trouble is that the emotional content of later scenes jars with the happy-go-lucky stuff earlier on. It's not a bad film, but with its unlikable teenage protagonist, it does feel like an episode of "Skins" transplanted into the 1950s. With some of the Beatles in it.

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Right, now we can start 2010 proper. I'm thinking I might skirt around Did You Hear About The Morgans? purely because I don't need that kind of pain in my life, but this week sees the release of Daybreakers and The Road, as well as the arrival of Korean vampire horror Thirst at a cinema within reaching distance of your faithful reviewer. Expect reviews of those films shortly, but in the meantime, please share your own thoughts on Nowhere Boy and St. Trinian's 2 if you've seen them in the comments below.

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

2 January 2010

2009- The Mad Prophet's Top Ten Favourite Films

With the bad stuff out of the way, there's some time to recognise that last year really wasn't so bad. I've complained on numerous occasions that the summer of 2009 was pretty lousy on account of the writers' strike finally catching up with Hollywood. The only two standout films of the summer had actually been pushed back from their respective release dates at the end of 2008 by panicking accountants at the studios. Appreciably though, there were some real gems in 2009. Indeed, so many that I'm going to give honourable mention to numbers 11-20 below so you can see what happened to some of the glaring omissions from the top 10...

20. Frost/Nixon
19. Watchmen
18. Gran Torino
17. Inglourious Basterds
16. Drag Me To Hell
15. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
14. (500) Days of Summer
13. Star Trek
12. Me and Orson Welles
11. Let The Right One In

Moving onto numbers 10-1, I get to present the much-mooted special project in all its semi-botched glory. Below is a video compilation of my top 10 favourite films of 2009 for your perusal and enjoyment. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on 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.



Or... for those who want to forego the slight technical problems and missing narration of that video, I'll give you a breakdown of the list. Starting with number 10!

10. A Serious Man

As you might guess from the calibre of the films that made my top twenty, I had to give some thought to what would make it to number ten on my list. Many people will say that A Serious Man is a film that's too complex, too bleak or indeed, too Jewish for them. But the Coen Brothers elevate audience discomfort to a high art and just bombard any and all expectations. It made number ten purely because it stuck with me so long after watching, especially that alarming final shot of the film. It's a comedy that's remarkably close to tragedy, and you have to think about it a little bit- the trouble is that you won't be able to stop thinking about it.

9. District 9

Following the most lacklustre summer film schedule in recent memory, District 9 was a shining light. Adapted from director Neill Blomkamp's own short film Alive in Jo'burg, the film was made for a mere $30m, an amount that the likes of Michael Bay routinely fritters away on exploding tits or something. And yet despite the relatively small budget, the visuals are just as strong as the script. There's also a terrific breakthrough role by Sharlto Copley, shrieking every iteration of the word fuck that you can possibly imagine. This is what a summer blockbuster should be- it doesn't treat you like an idiot, but you don't have to think too hard about it either.

8. In The Loop

Every now and then a TV series will make the leap to the silver screen, usually with a feeble cry of “Let's set it in America!”, and it ends up being absolute rubbish. This is not just any TV series though, this is Armando Iannucci's big screen iteration of "The Thick of It", and it's absolutely hilarious. The plot may become a little inscrutable towards the end, but that's really obscured by the always marvellous Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, doing some real world-class swearing for Queen and country and trying to hold everything together through the political shitstorm his bosses have landed themselves in.

7. An Education

Carey Mulligan is quite rightly making waves as a result of her lead performance here as Jenny, in this truly remarkable coming-of-age story about a young woman who is seduced away from her studies by a charming playboy. It's always baffling to me that Twilight does such huge business when this is a much more subtle and competent portrayal of first love and its intensity than Stephanie Meyer could ever hope to create. Sadly this didn't play in even half the number of cinemas that New Moon did, and so you'll have to keep an eye out for it when it arrives on DVD in March. You won't forget it because it's sure to whip up a storm during awards season. A terrific ensemble and an engaging script together make An Education one of the best British films of the year.

6. Zombieland

Many zom-coms have followed Shaun of the Dead in the hopes of recreating its success and few have even come close. That Zombieland comes just a hair's breadth from matching the genius of Shaun is the highest compliment that I can afford it. Like Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright before him, director Ruben Fleischer has made a film about how people deal with the zombie apocalypse rather than about the zombies themselves, and the result is very original for a zombie film, as well as enjoyable and incredibly funny. There's plenty more to enjoy in Zombieland, so give it a look if you haven't already.

5. Moon

The bluster and spectacle of Avatar aside, the real comeback for science fiction this year was mustered between District 9 and Moon. Duncan Jones wrote and directed this loving throwback to 1970s sci-fi such as Silent Running and 2001, and it's a consummate piece of filmmaking that shows a lot of promise for Jones' future projects. It's essentially a two-hander between Sam Rockwell and a robot voiced by Kevin Spacey, but it's also one of those films where to explain the plot is to ruin it. You really have to see this for yourself, because Sam Rockwell is utterly spell-binding in it- Moon is an enjoyable nostalgia piece that still breaks new ground without bombarding its audience with CGI. It's about ideas, rather than spectacle, and revives the sci-fi genre in a big way.

4. Up

Join in if you know the words- Pixar can do no wrong. Having seen their latest effort no less than four times in cinemas (in 2D of course), I can vouch that Up stands up on repeat viewings as a terrific film for all the family. It's sad, funny, compelling and utterly brilliant. The characters are all perfectly drawn, and more than that, it has another in a long line of extremely creative plots from Pixar- an old man flies his house to South America and ends up picking up a boy scout and a talking dog before starting a feud with his childhood hero. I defy you to find me a more innovative premise this year than the one that Up has going for it. It's just an utterly delightful film, and at the same time, it's more mature than most so-called grown-up films.

3. The Hurt Locker

Entirely on the opposite end of the scale to Up, this is Kathryn Bigelow's arse-clenchingly tense character study of a bomb disposal expert in Iraq. This is the only film in which I can honestly say a windscreen-wiper made me jump out of my seat- it is an utterly exhausting film to watch because you're never allowed to sit back and relax in your seat unless you want to jump out of it a few minutes later. One of the great things about this is that Bigelow cast largely unknown actors- she clearly didn't want to have Shia LeBeouf play a soldier just so the film makes more money. Those actors that are recognisable are used sparingly, and the central performance by Jeremy Renner is just a tour-de-force. The Hurt Locker is by far the best film around about the current conflict in Iraq, and it's not really about the current conflict in Iraq. It's about the bomb disposal guys, and why they do what they do, and you'll struggle to find a more gripping action film than this.

2. Is Anybody There?

Based on director John Crowley's own childhood experiences, this is the story of a young boy who is obsessed with the hereafter as a result of living in an old folks' home. Michael Caine plays a retired magician who might hold some of the answers, and this film showcases some of his best acting ever. I'm a huge Michael Caine fan, measuring at about 6'5 last time I checked, so I don't say that lightly. More than that, he has a terrific dynamic with Bill Milner, who is hands down the best child actor working today. They have a great script to work with too, with dark comedy and a heart-wrenching conclusion. It's simply marvellous, and it's the biggest shame of the year that it was eclipsed by having simultaneously opened with both Wolverine and Hannah Montana, meaning that approximately no cinemas showed it. Is Anybody There? is doing the rounds on DVD, and it's down to you, the filmgoing public, to make sure this overlooked gem gets more recognition.

1. Slumdog Millionaire

This was one of the first films released in 2009, and it's also my favourite of the year- it just works on every level. I'm not entirely sure it's the feel-good film it's painted to be, what with the child slavery and general misery going on there, but Slumdog Millionaire is incredibly directed, acted and written. To even stage a film shoot in the hectic Mumbai area is amazing, but it's also a gripping romance and coming-of-age story at the same time. Danny Boyle holds the narrative at a moderate distance from melodrama or cheesiness, and the result is infinitely watchable. The only bad thing to come out of this film is that bloody Jai Ho remix, which has been assaulting me in the earholes all year now. Even that I can tolerate, because Slumdog Millionaire is truly an achievement in cinema, and for me, it sits at the apex of 2009 cinema.

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I hate to end on a bum note, but I have to report that I've seen St. Trinians 2, and a review will be up in the next few days. I went to see it under the same duress as I saw the first one and am beginning to feel like James Woods in "Family Guy". But for now, I hope you enjoyed the countdown, if not the video- there'll be a more well prepared version for the top 10 of 2010, I promise.

The future looks bright in any case, with Kick Ass, Iron Man 2 and Toy Story 3 amongst the films the cinema has to offer this year. But similarly, there's another Twilight film and a film from the writers of Made of Honour, this time set in Ireland. No rest for the wicked, eh.

Until the end of the year, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

2009- The Worst of the Worst, The Most Hated and Cursed

For every bit of positivity on the blog, there's a whole chunk o' rant. As I've said before, I'm not here to hector or browbeat you, these are simply my opinions. That people turn around and say I think too much about these films is ludicrous- unless you're living in some bizarro dimension where everyone thinks too much and there's no enjoyment of anything anymore, then you're just advocating entropy. I'm suggesting that certain films that make a lot of money really properly shouldn't be, because no one will try any harder than that in film making. And in any case, I'm not that bad- I'm the guy who enjoyed G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra! Even though it's really bloody silly!

My point is, I try to see and review as many films as possible in cinemas. Mostly in the hope that some of you will be entertained or interested, but also so you don't have to see the really bad ones, provided you take any stock in my opinion. So for a handy catch-up, these are the top 10 worst films of 2009. It wasn't a bad year for films by any stretch of the imagination, but every year has at least a little dreck. Here goes, then!

10. Final Destination 4

A horror sequel?! But Mark, they're always brilliant! It's exactly the same as Final Destination 3, except a little worse because we've already seen Final Destination 3. Cinema-goers could have it presented in eye-popping 3D, but as we've discussed, that's a gimmick, and one that won't carry over to DVD and blu-ray. That means Final Destination 4 is little more than a piss-poor retread of its predecessors, and you know you've gone wrong when its infuriatingly plain characters take 45 minutes to catch up with the audience.

9. Fast and Furious

Yes, another four-quel, and I think this one in particular can go and four-quel itself. I might have liked it more if I hadn't seen the trailer, which shows three of the only good five minutes of stuff in the whole thing. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker indulge in a bit of massively premature nostalgia for the first film, and then generally spend an hour and a half doing car porn. This film would have been a million times better (read as: funnier) if it had been made in 2039 rather than 2009, when Diesel and Walker would be old and fat, but still kicking it old-style. But then rubbish films always end up better in my head.

8. 17 Again

Zac Efron was in another film this year, Me and Orson Welles, that came very close indeed to being in my top ten of the year. That film rests just outside that list, but he also made this one, which is at the heart of this list. It's a comedy devoid of laughs and another spin on the body-swap/body-aging subset of film that really just needs to die. Leslie Mann and Thomas Lennon can really do better on this, and the worst thing is, so can Efron, at least if Me and Orson Welles is anything to go by. Not funny, not entertaining, just bleh.

7. Surrogates

It was the sum of every other film like it ever made, but equal to less than its parts. Bruce Willis appearing only to collect a salary is one of the saddest sights in the world, especially given the general quality of his films. I could barely stay awake watching this utterly pedestrian sci-fi actioner. It comes from serial offenders Michael Brancato and John Ferris, who also spewed Terminator Salvation at us in 2009, so I really should have known better. Daft, derivative and er... deniable. I literally deny its entertainment value.

6. Sorority Row


A horror remake?! But Mark, they're always brilliant! You're getting the idea, but this is the second worst of its type from 2009. The plot was more nonsensical than most of the films on the list when it was The House on Sorority Row, so in the time it's had to distill since 1983, it's actually got worse. The only real value of films like this is in the occasional funny death of a vacuous and boring character, but unlike Final Destination 4, it even takes long to get to that order of business. It fails on almost every level and we're only at number 6. Oh dear...

5. The Firm

Remaking a Gary Oldman film without Gary Oldman was always going to be a foolish endeavour. But you can't help but think that something's been lost in translation, as director Nick Love has much more affection for this most pointless and stupid facet of football than is palatable. He does try to drown that out with a torrent of utterly irrelevant 80s music which doesn't so much inform the setting as chase your ears inside out into your skull. Une filme de chav.

4. Knowing

Aliens! There you go, I think I'll have a cup of tea now. Maybe go and catch up with some Christmas telly on iPlayer and... what? What do you mean, why aliens? Is it not enough to just fling in aliens as the explanation anymore? Fair enough, I'll elaborate a little more- Nicolas Cage continued his rise as the best comedy actor working today by making this po-faced nugget of garbage about a sequence of numbers marking out a calendar for disaster. The only missing numbers were the release date of this film.

3. Friday the 13th

A horror remake?! No, not just a horror remake. A horror remake, courtesy of Michael Bay. One of the few films on the list released at a time when the bloggy reviews weren't frequent enough for this to warrant coverage, so here it is in a nutshell. The trademark Bay impatience and pornographic sensibility come to the fore in this condensed version of the first three Jason Voorhees films, with the hockey-masked killer's menace largely being reduced to voyeurism over holidaying teens. By-the-numbers and er... rubbish- don't forget that Bay was responsible for this too, just because certain bigger droppings were left closer to your vicinity in 2009.

2. Couples' Retreat

It almost doesn't feel worth mentioning this, because in a few years' time, this will be dated beyond the possibility of enjoyment anyway, on account of its shameful product placement. It won't even have much nostalgia value, as no one can call the 2000s' situated culture particularly memorable anyway. More than that, it's the most stultifying comedy I've seen in a long time. That's right, Vince Vaughn has topped (bottomed?) Fred Claus.

1. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

If you have read this blog for more than a week, there was probably no tension whatsoever about the build-up to my least favourite film of the year. Michael Bay's travesty of a blockbuster is possibly the worst film I have ever seen- I'm really finding it hard to think of a film I hated more. Indeed, I find it very difficult to have enmity for a film, full-stop, but this swollen, leery and offensive mess just invites disdain. I think I'm actually building up an immunity in my readers by thrashing it so much, so I'll leave it to speak for itself, because it is just awful. I recently rewatched it to make sure I wasn't being awfully unfair to it, and I found whole new dimensions of crappiness. I refer you to my original review, in which I said this--

I actually caught myself enjoying the film for the first 45 minutes or so. There's an interesting diplomatic set-up with the Autobots and the US Government, and Sam's comic-relief parents are used sparingly and with slightly better effect than in Transformers.

I realise now that I was actually trying to salvage some positivity from this debacle, because upon my second viewing, I hated the opening too. And everything else. My hatred was amplified by about a million Griffins on the BNP-o-meter upon putting myself through that ordeal once again. Damn this film. DAMN IT.

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So there you are, that's all the negativity about last year's cinema in one manageable bloggy thing. The best is yet to come. Literally, the list of the best films of last year is forthcoming, in one form of another. The special project I've been alluding to for the last few weeks is a video montage counting down the top 10, but it hasn't really come together as I'd hoped. Works well enough as a compilation though, so might post it sans narration and do some text to accompany it.

Until next year, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch!