Quartet: Movie review

Quartet film cast

So before I saw Quartet I kind of had this idea it’d be The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2: Marigold Returns – a pleasant but blandly conventional, mostly forgettable comedy starring Maggie Smith that you won’t really enjoy unless you’ve drawn up a will and started paying attention to funeral insurance commercials on afternoon TV.

But: My impression of Quartet was wrong! It is not bland. It is lovely. Like Marigold was ho-hum maybe because it was a film about old people whose problems didn’t really extend beyond being old (same goes for gay films that navel-gaze at Homosexual Themes, as if they’re all that preoccupy homosexuals). Whereas Quartet is a film about old people – cute, charming old people – whose problems are timeless.

It’s set in a retirement home (which, OK, not so timeless), but not one that’s all grim loneliness and dusty blankets and fogies staking themselves good spots at the staring window. Beecham House is the most awesome retirement home ever! It’s a posh English mansion and the residents are jolly good former musician sorts and the staff are tasty young bits of crumpet. You want to be in this retirement home when you’re decrepit.

The residents include Reg, Wilf and Cissy (Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins), retired members of an operatic quartet renowned for their rendition of a Verdi classic. Smith is Jean, the fourth member of their quartet, who moves into Beecham House. Hey, say Wilf and Cissy, how about the quartet reunites to perform that song everyone likes? Except Jean refuses to perform because she’s afraid of embarrassing herself because she’s old, and Reg refuses to perform with Jean because they used to be married and she cheated on him. Will they put aside their arguments and put on a show that will raise enough money to save the cash-strapped Beecham House?

Yes. Of course they do. Obviously.

Quartet film posterQuartet is not trying knock you down with any weighty themes, or seed an aggressive fear of ageing in your heart. (If you want an aggressive fear of ageing seeded in your heart, watch Amour. Oof.) It just wants to let you know: Hey, isn’t an appreciation of art a nice thing to have, at any age? And isn’t it kind of nice to grow old if you’re surrounded by loved ones and doing the things you love?

The “Growing old does not mean abandoning your passions” theme is doubled up by Dustin Hoffman, who directed Quartet. It’s the first feature he’s directed and he’s 75! Plus many supporting roles are played by actual former musicians who are now very elderly. So watching this film makes me feel like becoming ancient might not be so bad, as long as I end up in a luxurious retirement mansion surrounded by brilliant peers where no one ever seems to wet themselves by accident (fingers crossed).

Also: Michael Gambon is in this too, basically playing the fruity old queer version of Dumbledore. Like in half his scenes I swear he’s just recycling his old Dumbledore costumes. It’s pretty fantastic. Also: yes I’m aware that Dumbledore is technically the fruity old queer version of Dumbledore. Shut up then look at this adorable picture:

Quartet Maggie Smith Pauline Collins

Aww. And now watch these wise words about Maggie Smith:


The Ruby in the Smoke, Philip Pullman: Book review

The Ruby in the Smoke coverWhat a captivating, enthralling, terrific book!  The Ruby in the Smoke is the kind of adventure I’d tentatively describe as “ripping”. (But not if it makes me sound like a dick?) As I read this I crossly thought: “Why wasn’t a book like this around when I was a child?! What a rip!” Later on I discovered it was published in 1986, when I was a (very small, still-several-years-from-learning-to-read) child: “… oh.” At least I got to enjoy it as a manchild an adult.

Here are some things that make Ruby a great book. One: Its heroine, Sally Lockhart, who is clever and resourceful but not easily reducible to adjectives like “plucky” or “feisty”. Two: Its dirty and sinister Victorian London-setting, which is crawling with crims (…? Is that era-appropriate slang? Is “crims” the sort of thing a late-1800s London resident would say?) and opium dealers and other grubby reprobates. Three: Its complicated and cunningly told mystery, which scuttles from the eponymous stolen gem to Indian mutinies to Sally’s dead father to frightening crime matriarch Mrs Holland.

And: It is written by Philip Pullman, who wrote the His Dark Materials trilogy. And basically everyone who’s read those books thinks they’re awesome. (Well unless they’re Catholics or religious-types or whatever I guess.) He cleverly keeps readers guessing about whether the puzzle will have a supernatural resolution or not. Finding out is a lot of fun.

One strike against the series: It isn’t available as e-books. (Well – they’re available as e-books in Spanish. And my Spanish is, how you say, muy inelegante.) Isn’t that annoying.

The Ruby in the Smoke

Afterwards I watched the BBC adaptation which stars Billie Piper as Sally (and Matt Smith as her friend and ally Jim. It was his first TV role! And it’s kind of weird seeing him in this because Jim is only about 13 in the books and Smith was like in his early twenties when this thing was filmed). It’s pretty good! And well cheap on iTunes.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Movie review

The Hobbit Martin Freeman

I like how so many reviews of The Hobbit include a synopsis of The Hobbit – like, der, it’s about a hobbit. And as if is there is anyone who doesn’t know already it’s about a stumpy fellow named Bilbo Baggins who goes on a quest blah blah magic ring yada yada dwarves and elves flim flam dragon.

The true reason it’s unnecessary to summarise the plot of this film is: there isn’t one. Sure, there’s lots of events. Lots of action. Lots of exposition. But no plot. This stems from splitting up J.R.R. Tolkein‘s slender children’s book in three greedy Hollywood-machine money-over-art films, which means a straightforward storyline about going there and back again doesn’t even get there.

Despite this you will go see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, because you liked The Lord of the Rings. And you will think The Hobbit is… fine. It’s not like this is some impossible-to-endure colossal failure of cinema that will skim off the top of your soul and feed it to wargs or direwolves or whatever. There is plenty of stuff to like. Martin Freeman is charming as Bilbo. I could watch Ian McKellen act out scenes from Gandalf Sits Quietly For Three Hours Without Speaking Or Moving (spoiler alert: this is the plot of the third instalment). Cate Blanchett, why are you so beautiful. The dwarves are well cast – some of them are even nice to look at. (Attractive dwarves! Can you imagine!)

It’s just that The Hobbit is as cynically padded as you think it’s going to be. This is evident from the very first scenes, where Ian Holm reprises his role as Old Bilbo to explain to us that he’s writing down his adventure for his nephew Frodo, and then Frodo actually wanders onscreen all like “Whatcha doin’ there, Uncle Bilbo? It’s me, Elijah Wood, from those LOTR movies! Here I am for a bit!”, and then Bilbo explains that he’s writing down his adventure for Frodo to Frodo, and then they talk about Bilbo’s upcoming 111th birthday party (HEY THAT’S FROM FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING GET IT), and Old Bilbo fusses around some more why is any of this stuff in the movie can the unexpected journey please begin.

The entire movie is like this. (The dwarf musical numbers you might have read about in other reviews aren’t as mortifyingly long as I was dreading, but there are two of them, both within about the first 45 minutes, so.) Like remember, back when Peter Jackson and co. weren’t just pumping out movies just to make money, how they wisely cut that awful Tom Bombadil shit out of FOTR? The Hobbit is like they kept that shit in – then shovelled in some more. Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Blanchett) pop up in Unexpected Journey because, hey, why not? (I get why they added Galadriel, actually. Without her the film would be 100 percent sausage-fest.) Some wizard chum of Gandalf’s called Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) zooms around on his bad-CGI sled pulled by bad-CGI rabbits to warn everyone about Sauron’s comeback. I half-expected Aragorn to saunter onscreen and make some “Darth Vader built C3PO”-type meta-reference – everything else is crammed in there.

All this bloat really steals away any urgency from the story. The dwarves want to reclaim their home mountain cave from some dragon who’s taken it over*, but so what? In two-and-a-half hours they hardly get anywhere on completing their quest. I can’t imagine taking a kid to see this, unless kids’ attention spans are suddenly magically enormously long.

(*Remember how the dwarves were the least glamorous characters in the first LOTR trilogy? Like everyone wanted to be Legolas and no one wanted to be Gimli? Well, The Hobbit is focused almost entirely on Gimlis – 13 of them, few of whom I felt I got much of a sense of – so if you don’t like dwarves, it’s T.S. for you.)

Serious question: I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Jackson say he’s doing an extended DVD cut of this movie. How. This is already an extended cut. Watching an extended-extended cut honestly sounds like a tedious chore – I’d rather they release a contracted DVD cut with all the filler chopped out (it would run for five minutes). I have no idea how he’s going to spin two more movies out of what little plot remains, even with all the Middle-earth backstory tacked on, but I have a feeling it’s going to feel “thin. Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

The Hobbit poster

In addition to splitting The Hobbit up into three movies, Jackson filmed it at 48-frames-per-second. As far as I know it’s the first feature that’s been filmed this way. Boy I hope it doesn’t catch on. The very best you can say about the effect of the increased frame rate is that you get used to it, eventually. At first it’s super jarring – because it just doesn’t look like a film. It looks like a video game cutscene, or a cheaply done reenactment from a dodgy pay TV crime doco, or a showroom-floor television with those dreadful motion enhancement settings jacked up to max.

Probably future generations of cinemagoers will look back and laugh at how us primitive 2012 audiences recoiled from The Hobbit‘s boosted frame rate, like we look back and laugh at those bozos who leapt out of the way of projections of trains rushing right at them. Well: cram it, future generations. 24fps looks better. 24fps looks like a movie. 48fps looks… plastic and artificial. The computer effects look like computer effects. The stunning New Zealand landscapes* look like IMAX tourism commercials, and not in a good way. The actors clash with the beautifully painted vistas behind them. You should actually go see The Hobbit at 48fps, just to witness its effect yourself.

(*Hilarious joke: How can you tell The Hobbit is filmed in New Zealand? Because New Zealand will tell you. Again and again.)

The first LOTR films worked so magnificently because it’s so easy to get lost in them and forget you’re watching a movie. The Hobbit never stops reminding you it’s a movie, that it’s padded and bloated and strange-looking, that its Middle-earth is built with green screens and computers. It’s not the epic disaster some critics are making it out to be. There are some good, solid, enjoyable scenes – especially Bilbo’s confrontation with Andy Serkis‘s Gollum (which, of course, goes on twice as long as it needs to). But there’s just not a lot of magic here.


City of Lost Souls, Cassandra Clare: Book review

I was near the end City of Lost Souls while I waiting for a coffee at my local place and one of the waitresses asked me what I was reading. I told her it was trashy teen fantasy. “Oh,” she said, “like Twilight?” “Well… kind of,” I replied, “but it has a better plot.” But then I thought about it and added: “It’s still the kind of thing I should be ashamed of reading, though.”

Which sums up how I feel about all the books in Cassandra Clare’s series The Mortal Instruments. I’m not embarrassed about reading young adult books in general, because then I’d be embarrassed about half the stuff I read. But something about this series… It is not great. It is kind of embarrassing. Yet I keep reading it.

(FYI: there are spoilers ahead for the end of this book.)

Anyway, you’ve read the rest of this series so you know the formula for City of Lost Souls: a team of angsty teenagers, all either Shadowhunters (humans descended from angels, empowered with strength and stamina they use to fight demons, etc etc), vampires or werewolves, over-analyse their romantic feelings for each other while battling some rising evil.

And oh man do the characters in this book looooove to overanalyse their romantic feelings for each other. I don’t mind talky books, but some of the chapters here are less plot drivers and more recaps of the characters’ previous conversations about their problems. Our heroine Clary our endlessly wonders whether she still can still love her perfect boyfriend Jace even though he’s possessed by her evil brother Sebastian (… yeah). Simon, Clary’s best friend, endlessly thinks about how loyal he is to her. Isobelle, Jace’s adopted sister, endlessly frets about her blossoming feels for Simon, while her brother, Alec, endlessly frets 0ver his boyfriend Magnus (an immortal warlock whose magic power is apparently tolerating all these moody adolescents).

All that repetition (Clary and Sebastian’s resemblance to their parents is mentioned every other page – I’m barely exaggerating for comic effect about this) (Oh! And in case you forgot what everyone is wearing at any particular moment, that’s also repeated on actually every page) sticks in the plot’s wheels. There’s no suspense. And too much of the story’s thrust relies on someone doing something stupid or unlikely (“Let’s rush recklessly into danger! Let’s summon a demon! Let’s summon an angel which apparently isn’t difficult!”). That’s a big problem, coupled with the book’s general sense of “middle instalment in a trilogy” syndrome: you know Sebastian’s devious plot will be foiled, paving the way for the really devious plot to unfold in the final act, and you know complications will arise just as everyone comes thisclose to finding true love.

Clare, when she’s not detailing what everyone is wearing at any given moment, can be a beautifully descriptive writer. And she is obviously deeply, admirably invested in the world she’s writing here. But that investment just doesn’t leap off the page. I guess the prime exhibit of this flatness is Clary. We’re told a bunch of stuff about her without really feeling it: she’s an artist (she doesn’t make any art), she’s interested in anime (she never watches any), she’s a Strong Female Character battling her inner darkness (not really).

Ditto her brother Sebastian. He comes so close to being a complicated villain (like maybe he really does believe he’s the hero forced to do bad things for some greater good), till it’s ultimately revealed that, nope, he’s just as two-dimensionally evil-because-he-likes-being-evil as you suspected the whole time. Probably his sadism is meant to make him wildly sinister, but it ends up having the opposite effect. He’s boring: whatever he’s got cooked up for the next book, City of Heavenly Fire, will just wind up being the most predictably evil thing. Snooze.

And yet I will totally still read that instalment too. I suck.

Previously: Book review: City of Fallen Angels, Cassandra Clare