Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Life of Pi’s nice, warm, spiritual B.S. is still B.S.

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Life of Pi

I read Life of Pi years ago and I thought it was a pretty stunning book (at least once you get past the turgid first 100 or so pages – seriously ugh so boring). The film adaptation, released in Australia on New Year’s Day, is also pretty stunning. But it’s frustrating for the exact same reasons the book was frustrating.

Spoilers ahead.

Life of Pi is, no shit, the story of the life of Pi (played as a teen by Suraj Sharma and as an adult by Irrfan Khan), who survives several hundred days floating on a lifeboat after the freighter he was catching sinks en route from India to Canada. That’s already pretty incredible, but the real hook of Pi’s tale is that he says it will make you believe in God, because he offers two different “interpretations” about what happened on the lifeboat.

In one, Pi was stranded with four zoo animals his father was transporting to Canada, including a fearsome tiger named Richard Parker; in the other, Pi was stranded with four of the freighter’s human passengers, including a brutish cook who murdered Pi’s mother in front of him, and who in turn was murdered by Pi in revenge.

Those who listen to Pi’s story all believe he was stranded with the tiger – because it’s better to believe a bold, fantastic, impossible story than to acknowledge the mundane (at best) or horrific (at worst) truth. It’s better to put faith in God, or gods, than to confront nihilistic reality.

Well – no, it isn’t. A story that’s warm, cuddly B.S. is still B.S. It’s nice to believe that a jolly bearded man who rides a sleigh pulled by reindeer brings you your Christmas parents, and they’re not just purchased by your consumer-driven parents, but you wouldn’t expect anyone but a child to swallow such a concept.

Life of Pi posterLook: Life of Pi‘s vision of God – this benign lodestar of kindness and love, free of dogma and hatred – is lovely. If I were into religion or spirituality, I’d be into that (probably because it’s so harmless. Anyone could accept Pi’s God without really having to put in any effort). But it’s rooted in the assumption that without faith you can’t have wonder, that nothing is wonderful unless it can be explained by the guiding hand of God. Which… no. Emphatic no. If Pi survived purely by chance, or by his own skill, by something that can’t be dismissed as merely “some deity did it” – that is wonderful.

The frustration is the good kind of frustration. I like that Life of Pi is thoughtful about its depiction of faith, that it offers something to chew on, that it makes Pi an unreliable narrator (in addition to claiming that he drifted into a floating carnivorous island populated by meerkats, he claims that as a schoolboy he memorised Pi, the mathematical symbol, to about a billion places – which both cast him as a fanciful liar). But it offers a choice between two different versions of reality, one with God and one without, and I’m not convinced by the one it chooses.

Quartet: Movie review

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

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 Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Movie review

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

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.

Pitch Perfect: Movie review

Saturday, November 17th, 2012

Pitch Perfect

Musicals, all of them, benefit a lot from their music. Not just because it wouldn’t be much of a genre without music. Song lends them an emotional shortcut: Instead of all that patient careful build-up, you just get a couple of big swelling numbers to do the heavy lifting for you. Pitch Perfect is very dependent on these kinds of shortcuts. If you took all its music out, it might be a pretty unremarkable movie. But there’s a ton of a music in it. So it’s not!

(Sidenote: The ultimate movie-musical-that-seems-great-at-first-because-of-its-music-but-later-you-realise-it’s-total-crap? Rent.  The Chris Columbus version. First time I saw that I was like “THIS IS AMAZING,” but later after I listened the shit out of the soundtrack and re-watched it I was like… this.)

Actually Pitch Perfect wouldn’t be that unremarkable because it has Anna Kendrick in it and Anna Kendrick is pretty terrific. (If you’re not convinced of her terrific-ness, please please watch her sing “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” when she was like seven. LIKE WOW.) She plays Beca, this character who is kind of a butt except for the fact she’s played by Anna Kendrick. Beca is “alternative” because she wears earrings and eyeshadow and hates everyone for no reason and she super wants to be a DJ in Los Angeles, except her dad is forcing her to go to an awesome college for free to get a sweet education for free. Oh he’s a monster.

To fill the time between boring college and DJ superstardom (worth adding, to underscore how cruelly unreasonable Beca’s father is: He makes this deal with her where she only has to go to college for a single year and then he’ll bankroll her move to LA. Boy is he just awful), Beca sulkily joins an all-girl a capella group called The Bellas. Their leader is this uptight snot called Aubrey (Anna Camp, very pretty but too old to play college), who butts heads with Beca because they have different musical visions and can they resolve them before the big singing championship in New York and if this is all sounding a lot like an extended episode of Glee that is an astute observation because this is basically Glee: The Movie and they even go to Regionals.

Not, I rush to add, that comparisons to Glee are a bad thing. Yes, in 2012 Glee is pretty much a pop-culture punchline, but back when Glee was good it was really good, and Pitch Perfect shares a lot of those really good elements. Its characters are arch, its LOLs sharp and many (thank screenwriter Kay Cannon, who cut her teeth on 30 Rock, for those), and its soundtrack really is great. If the mark of a good musical is that it makes you want to start singing, Pitch Perfect is a good musical.

Pitch PerfectThose musical numbers and the witty one-liners really do a good job at disguising the fact there’s not much to the story. This is a very standard teen movie arc: Beca goes to college, meets a cute boy – Jesse (Skylar Astin), a member of the rival all-boy a capella group the Treble Makers – faces some obstacles, alienates cute boy via contrived drama, then overcomes obstacles and pashes cute boy. (Spoiler alert, I guess, if you’re an idiot who’s never seen a movie before.) There’s some trying-a-bit-too-hard-to-be-meta references to teen classics like The Breakfast Club, but mostly they just serve as reminders about how formulaic Pitch Perfect is.

It doesn’t really matter it’s formulaic, though, when the formula is so much fun and sold so well. Especially by Rebel Wilson, who is doing her usual Rebel Wilson schtick playing “Fat Amy” (if you want to see Rebel Wilson not doing Rebel Wilson, see Bachelorette: it’s good) but doing it with every bit of energy she has. When I say she dominates every scene she’s in, it is absolutely literally seriously-I mean-this not intended as a lame fat joke. She’s rad. And she deserves all her Hollywood fame and Zac Efron kisses.

(Also: If you’re wondering what Freddie Stroma‘s been doing since he played Hot Blond Kinda Douchey Guy in Harry Potter 6, he’s now playing Super Hot Blond Kinda Douchey Guy in Pitch Perfect. So now you know!)

Argo: Movie review

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Argo

(Fact: The weekend after watching Argo I watched Fargo! I would’ve kept going but all the other -argo movies looked kind of bad.)

Argo‘s trailer makes it look kind of like an Ocean’s 11-ish caper: Zany CIA agents pretend to be zany Hollywood filmmakers to sneak into Iran and free some zany hostages! Wacky hijinks ensue!

Actually it’s a solid political story, based on the Iranian hostage crisis of the late 1970s and early ’80s. You can Wikipedia the details, but basically: When the American embassy in Tehran was overrun with Iranian protesters, a small group of Americans secretly escaped and, unknown to Iranian authorities, housed themselves in the Canadian embassy. Seeking to rescue them, the CIA sent in “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to pose as the producer of a tacky Hollywood’s sci-fi film, part of a (zany!) scheme to sneak the “Houseguests” out.

I only had hazy memories of the hostage crisis, gleaned from high-school history classes. But even if you already know how the story ends, watching Mendez and the Houseguests barely escape from Iran (history! Not a spoiler!), with revolutionaries on their heels, is tense business. And while the film’s focus is squarely on the Americans – the Iranians are mostly straight-up bad guys – it does a pretty decent job of explaining how Iran got so screwed up/over.

Argo‘s biggest problem: flat characters. I’ll forgive that in Affleck’s case, because he’s playing a serious CIA-type. But if you have a flat leading man you need a vibrant supporting cast, and Victor Garber (as a Canadian ambassador), Tate Donovan (one of the Houseguests), Bryan Cranston (some CIA guy) and the rest… they’re just kind of there. The only Houseguest with anything resembling personality is the one played by Clea DuVall, who’s actually allowed some sparse characterisation. John Goodman and Alan Arkin, playing flamboyant Hollywood producers, lift the story whenever they appear.

Argo posterAffleck shrugged off that “doltish pretty boy tabloid fodder” thing a while back (yes, I know he got his break co-writing, starring in and winning as Oscar for Good Will Hunting, but for a long time – mostly during what I’ll politely term his “Lopez Years” – there were rumours about Matt Damon having done most of the heavy lifting on that one), and he does a solid job directing Argo. The opening scene depicting the invasion of the U.S. embassy is terrifically matter-of-fact, the plot clips along nicely, and the aforementioned escape scenes are great.

But what happens after those escape scene – boy, schmaltzy. Once the Houseguests are safely rescued, there’s soaring music (clashing terribly against the rest of the brown ’70s dagginess) and nicely-tied-up happy endings for all – even the Iranian housekeeper at the Canadian embassy who never let slip about the Americans hiding there. She manages to slip into Iraq. Where they all lived happily ever after!

So Argo really should have ended about 10 or 15 minutes before it actually does. Despite that: Argo see it. Then Argo fuck yourself.

Movie review: Looper

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Looper

Time travel as a premise is so inherently rife with plot holes and paradoxes that the trick, I think, is building a story that keeps our attention focused away from them till after the credits roll. Looper, for the most part, pulls off the trick. This is a dense, dirty, smartly realised time-travel film.

It slots into the “Know as little about this movie as possible before you watch it” category (whose king, sidenote, is The Cabin in the Woods – if you haven’t seen that one, you should definitely see it, and you should definitely avoid reading anything about it before you start). So here’s the barebones: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a hard-mouthed, playboy “looper” – the name for the assassins tasked with disposing of men who are sent back in time by criminal overlords of the future. Bruce Willis is also Joe – the 30-years-older version, who’s sent back in time to be disposed of by younger Joe. Older Joe escapes; cue cat-and-mouse chase.

From there Looper jumps in unexpected directions, presenting a distinctive and not gratuitously convoluted take on the rules of time travel (particularly in a memorable early scene involving Paul Dano‘s character) – which is one of the reasons it’s best not to know much about the plot. One other thing worth giving away, though: Emily Blunt is in it. Emily Blunt is pretty great.

Gordon-Levitt is, no surprise, also pretty great, nailing Willis’s affectations with eerie precision – especially the twist of the mouth. I feel like Gordon-Levitt is this powerful actor you watch without getting a sense he’s acting; contrast him to Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s also a powerful actor, but also an Actor. If you’re coming to Looper for Joseph Gordon-Levitt eye candy, though, you’ll leave disappointed: he’s made up to resemble Willis, but the make-up job on his nose and his brow is distractingly strange. I kind of wish the film had gone with an attitude more like, “Hey, we know Gordon-Levitt and Willis don’t look that much alike, but they’re meant to be the same guy so you’re going to just have to suspend disbelief and deal with it, okay?”, rather than put the former in some weird uncanny valley.

Looper posterWriter/director Rian Johnson (who also worked with Gordon-Levitt on 2006′s Brick, which I remember enjoying a lot) prods about the implications and ethics of time travel without imbuing them with that forced grandness all too common in sci-fi (cough Prometheus cough boy that was a shitty movie cough touch touch touch cough). Credit to him for (I assume deliberately) not giving away too much about the rules of this messy, grim future he’s working in. There’s a big exposition dump in the first third of Looper, but once that’s out of the way Johnson more or less just runs with it.

That lack of details is sure to spark Inception-level analysis about what’s going on behind the story – at least, after I left the cinema my friends and I spent the entire ride home spinning increasingly far-fetched theories about the implications of the time travel.

(Quit reading now if you don’t want to read something that could be construed as mildly spoilery, but, up there in the first paragraph when I said Looper avoids plot holes “for the most part”? Here’s the only biggie I noticed: Eventually, young loopers all end up having to dispatch the older versions of themselves, known as “closing the loop”.  It’s implied that it’s not that uncommon for the ritual to go awry, when the youngsters can’t bring themselves to kill their older selves. So why not just to get another looper to kill and older looper? Wouldn’t that solve a lot of time and trouble. Anyway. Just go see it.)

Movie review: Total Recall

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Total Recall
The number one reason you go see Total Recall is to check out the woman with the three boobs. So of course I missed the woman with the three boobs because I ducked out for a toilet break during her bit. Sorry I missed your moment of glory, three-boobed woman.

Not that I can be blamed for ducking out. Most movies, the toilet break is something you avoid, or at least try to time right so you don’t miss anything. Total Recall, it doesn’t matter when or how many toilet breaks you take. You’re not going to miss anything (aside from the aforementioned woman with three boobs). It’s impossible to overlook any important plot points. There aren’t any.

So the set-up (and really this film is just set-up) is this: Colin Farrell plays factory worker Douglas Quaid, who inhabits a not-too-distant dystopian future where most of Earth has been destroyed by chemical warfare. There’s hardly any space for the surviving humans to live, though Douglas and his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale, who I’ve only recently learned is not actually called Kate Beckinsdale. I’ve been calling her Krandle!) still have a pretty massive apartment.

Anyway. Douglas is totally bored with a hot wife and a job that affords him plenty of leisure time and a nice house. So he visits Rekall, which is basically a whorehouse where your memories get fucked instead of… you know. But! When the goons at Rekall go to plant some awesome fake memories in Douglas’s head, it backfires because it turns out all his memories are already false. Gosh! Douglas Quaid doesn’t exist: He’s actually a super-spy called Carl Hauser. Lori isn’t really his wife: she’s also a spy, who’s been assigned to keep an eye on him.

I haven’t seen the original 1990 Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger. But I assume (thanks, Wikipedia) that it was kind of relevant that Quaid/Hauser visited a place that offered him false memories – because it raises questions about whether his discovery that he’s a spy is actually real, or just another illusion. There are no such dilemmas in 2012′s Total Recall, which never seriously suggests that Colin Farrell’s character is stuck in an artificial memory. It’s barely relevant that he even goes to Rekall. Because you wouldn’t want to trouble bonehead modern audiences with any kind of is-this-really-happening-or-not intellectual conundrum, right? (And, as I cynically suggested after I walked out of the cinema, if it turned out Quaid/Hauser was just dreaming the whole time, it makes it harder to sell the all-important potential sequel.)

Total RecallThis lack of anything resembling nuance or intellect pervades the whole of Total Recall. Everything here is surface. If you think about just about any of its storylines or exposition even for a second, you’re in danger of falling into scores of plot black holes. Like, Hauser’s boss is some guy called Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the ruler of the United Federation of Britain, who’s evil because he wants to build a robot army, or something, to take over another country called the Colony (aka Australia, LOL), or something? Because the UFB is enslaving the Colony? And that’s bad? Or something? Instead of fleshing any of this out – which might give us even the tiniest inclination to care about what we’re watching – Total Recall just bounces from action scene to action scene, occasionally tossing out half-assed explanations about whatever apparently happened in the preceding minutes.

(PS: It kind of bugs me that the movie is called Total Recall yet he goes to Rekall. Just like how it kind of bugs me that it’s called True Blood but they drink Tru Blood. Pick and stick with a spelling, please.)

Farrell does a pretty great job… at being hot. Beckinsale also does a pretty great job… at being hot. Actually, that’s unfair: They’re both decent, in addition to lookin’ fine. However. Their co-star Jessica Biel, who plays Melina, Hauser’s spy partner/girlfriend/whatever? Well, she’s also lookin’ fine. But you could lift her entire character out the movie and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. So it’s kind of hard to objectively judge Biel’s performance, when all Melina does is stand around doling out exposition and generally being utterly useless. I didn’t even know her name was Melina till I looked it up to write this. (Also: I waited the whole movie for there to be a pay-off explaining the decision to cast two female leads who look almost identical. There isn’t one. Spoiler alert!)

So, in asking yourself whether you should go see Total Recall, here’s what you’re really asking: How badly do I want to see a woman with three boobs on a big screen for two seconds? If the answer is “Really, really badly,” then I guess go check it out. And remember not to take a bathroom break during that bit.

Movie review: Snow White and the Huntsman

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

I have this theory that one of the reasons Hollywood likes fairytale reboots so much – aside from their built-in brand recognition – is because it gives them an excuse to cast movies without any of those pesky brown people. Snow White and the Huntsman is set in medieval times! So it’s totally not racist that it’s populated exclusively with white faces! Right?!

Anyway. I didn’t really have high hopes for this, and it more or less met my expectations. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just… blah. It’s nothing-y. It never sinks into awfulness but it never rises into anything much, either. Think Lord of the Rings without the bonds between the characters, or Game of Thrones minus the political intrigue.

Snow White and the Huntsman is visually pretty terrific, but its problems lie with the limp story (oh, wow. A Hollywood movie with a shitty script. Big surprise), which tosses some grit and some feminism into the familiar fairytale but forgets to add any actual human emotion. Example: the love story between the title characters. I say “love story”, but Snow White (Kristen Stewart) and the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) have less chemistry than water stirred into milk. I think I actually yawned at the bit where he resurrects her with true’s love kiss, or whatever, because there’s no sense of any actual true love – or even any one-night-stand-see-you-later love. The kind-of-wimpy Sam Clafin plays a duke’s son who’s sort of the huntsman’s romantic rival, but he doesn’t share a spark with Snow White either.

(Spoiler alert: The film ends without Snow White winding up with either the huntsman or the duke’s son, which feels kind of… weird. I’m sure some viewers will be all, “She doesn’t choose either of them because she’s a strong woman, and feminism!” But I suspect the real reason for Snow’s lack of choice is so that the love triangle can be dragged out in potential sequels, Twilight-style.)

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why it’s called Snow White and the Huntsman and not Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, it’s because said little people basically have nothing to do with the core storyline. They’re there (played by several well-known actors, whose heads were controversially grafted on to dwarf bodies or something), but they’re just shoehorned in. You could cut out all their scenes without affecting the main storyline any. (And Snow White doesn’t have a convincing bond with any of them, either.)

Snow White and the HuntsmanMuch is made of Stewart’s acting talent, or lack thereof – I saw a lot of people groaning when she was deemed the year’s highest paid actress. Honestly, I don’t think she’s terrible. Sure, she relies too much on the same old tics – the lip chewing, the blinking, the doe eyes. But there’s some weird inverse charisma to her: You can basically project any emotion on to her blank face and (almost) believe she’s actually emoting. (The same trick makes her so perfect at playing Twilight‘s personality-void heroine.)

Hemsworth is fine, even if did seem to pick up his (Scottish? Scottish-ish?) accent from watching Shrek a bunch of times. The best of the cast is easily Charlize Theron, as the corrupted wicked queen. She’s over-the-top, she’s melodramatic, she’s ridiculous (and at times her dinner theatre English accent sounds dangerously reminiscent of the mentally retarded character she played in Arrested Development, who was also a Brit). But boy, she throws herself right into it. If Snow White and the Huntsman is remembered for anything, it’ll be her.

For the record: Of this year’s two Snow White movies, I’m giving this one the edge over the boneheaded Mirror Mirror.

Movie review: What to Expect When You’re Expecting

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

What to Expect When You're Expecting

Look: You already know you aren’t going to read a glowing review of What To Expect When You’re Expecting here. The most positive thing to say about this movie is: It’s not any worse than you think it’s going to be. (The trailer really does tell you what you’re in for.) We probably all agree Hollywood is yet to master the “ensemble comedy”, and Expecting meets the standard set by previous efforts like Valentine’s Day and He’s Just Not That Into You.

Like that last movie, Expecting is also “inspired” by a non-fiction book that didn’t have a plot. So it invents several women, each preparing for a kid in different ways: Elizabeth Banks finally conceives after trying for a while, and discovers pregnancy is kind of super-gross. Anna Kendrick is knocked up after a one-night stand with Chace CrawfordJennifer Lopez is adopting with her reluctant husband Rodrigo Santoro. And Cameron Diaz is the host of a weight-loss reality show who falls pregnant to the guy she’s paired with in a celebrity dance competition (hers is the most relatable plot).

(The actors play characters with names, obviously, but as if anyone out there is calling Jennifer Lopez’s character “Holly” and not just “Jennifer Lopez”.)

I admit I’m way outside Expecting‘s target demographic. (Though I did eat a massive burrito the other week, which provided a valuable insight into what it’s like to know your body is inevitably going to expel something huge and squishy.) This maybe explains why people in the cinema laughed at scenes that I responded to with an expression that looked a lot like this. But a movie about pregnancy should have something interesting to say about pregnancy. And this movie about pregnancy… doesn’t.

Example: Banks endures a spectacularly awful, everything-that-can-go-wrong-does-go-wrong, she-pees-herself-a-lot gestation period.  She learns the miracle of life isn’t actually that miraculous – until she gives birth, and learns it’s exactly as miraculous as every movie ever says it is and basically her entire storyline is swept away! Worse example: Kendrick and Chase don’t want their kid, yet they never talk about abortion. (There’s one scene where it seems like they’re talking about it, but it turns out they’re actually pondering whether they should get married.)  That’s not just unrealistic. It’s cowardly. And it’s boring.

Like… no financially stricken couple struggling with the cost of having a child? No same-sex parents trying to fit into traditional family roles? No single mum attempting to do it on her own? No one deeper and more thoughtful than the milquetoast (yesssss I love when I get to use that word) lot on parade here?

Ugh.

Expecting has so little to say about pregnancy that it has to pad out its nine-month 110-minute runtime with subplots about the male characters. I guess these were included to make the film more accessible to men or whatever, though all the guys onscreen are so lame it has the opposite effect.

Especially Santoro’s plot, which provides the weakest, dumbest scenes in the movie: His character tries to get excited about fatherhood by joining a dad’s group, whose members are walking comedy routines. (One of them is played by Chris Rock, whose lines are basically just stand-up bits cobbled from lame ’90s sitcoms.) These so-called men are emasculated by their wives. They have pathetic man-crushes on alpha-bros. They bitch about the burden of their families. Oh, but it turns out deep down they’re all super-happy, like, of course they are because life is simple and uncomplicated and parenting is just the best ever.

I haven’t read the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting (I did leaf through it when my sister was growing my nephew; it’s full of icky revelations about how pregnant women’s toenails bleed mucus or whatever. Respect, ladies), but I know for a fact it doesn’t have any of that kind of embarrassing dad’s group B.S. in it, because no way would it’ve become a popular bestseller if it did.

Honestly, I walk away from movies like this thinking two things. First: Hollywood is really not trying hard to make smart films about women. We are not in a post-Bridesmaids lady-movie renaissance, you guys. Second: Christ, it’s good to be gay. Like, seriously, this is the model for heterosexual behaviour? These are the gender roles and expectations straight couples are told to aspire to? Ugh. Gross. I feel sorry for you breeders if that’s true.

Movie review: Dark Shadows

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Johnny Depp

Very short review: Tim Burton’s new film Dark Shadows is rubbish. “The term ‘hot mess’ was probably invented just to describe this film” rubbish.

Somewhat longer review: I feel like I’m pretty qualified to dub it rubbish. In the last couple months I’ve watched many many episodes of the original 1960s soap opera the film is based on, and I’ve watched the short-lived 1991 revival. (This makes me the second biggest Dark Shadows fan I know; the biggest fan I know is my friend Mat, who’s watched more than 24 hours of the original series – which, no shit, is still only a tiny fraction of the whole thing. There is a lot of it.)

The ’60s series is a tricky thing to pin down: it revolves around the Collins family, proprietors of a spooky old manor, and their servants, friends and enemies. Usual soap stuff. On the one hand, the show is shoddily made guff rife with laughable dialogue, cardboard characters, and plots that are somehow ludicrous and tedious. On the other hand, those things are what makes it so amazing. It’s camp, but not knowingly “ha ha look how funny we are” camp. It’s stupid, but endearingly so. And it’s really, actually kind of twisted – characters get murdered and kidnapped and mind-fucked. It’s a lot of fun!

Dark Shadows poster

Dark Shadows was, apparently, a pop-culture phenomenon in its time – it really took off after the introduction of the Collins’ vampire ancestor Barnabas (Jonathan Frid, RIP!), who ushered in an era of stupidly brilliant supernatural storylines. (Think Passions, in black-and-white.) It’s weird hardly anyone nowadays has heard of the show! And it’s a super-shame Tim Burton’s mishmash is the first introduction most people will have to it.

If you’ve seen any of Burton’s films in the last five years you know what to expect: first, Johnny Depp, who plays Barnabas, doing his Johnny-Depp-acts-kooky thing. Johnny Depp is good at acting kooky! But spaghetti tastes good, and nobody wants to eat it every night, right? Try something else, Depp! Second: Helena Bonham Carter… who is actually pretty great, so. Third: lavish cinematography, sets and costumes. The film looks stunning – but it looks identical to every other Burton flick (at least it’s not in 3D, I guess), and those beautiful visuals are really let down by…

Fourth: a rotten script. Really, truly, honestly lousy. Dark Shadows doesn’t have a storyline; it has a string of dumb, plodding scenes and never-very-funny jokes that limp towards a climax so stupendously boneheaded you’ll wonder whether the filmmakers actually watched the original series or if they just scanned the Wikipedia page in an airport lounge this one time.

Look, the original Dark Shadows is not Shakespeare. It really isn’t. It had its share of dumb, plodding scenes. But there are things I’ll forgive in an low-budget soap from the late ’60s that I can’t forgive in a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster released in 2012. Avoid the film, pick up the TV show and a bottle of vodka, have a really great night.