Saturday, December 29, 2007

28th Dec 07 - Enchanted

It’s Christmas, the season of eating more food than necessary, doing sod all, and watching guilty pleasures at the cinema. And so, with nary a glimmer of self consciousness, I strode into a toddler-filled cinema with my adult friends to watch a Disney film. It’s what all the cool kids do. I’m almost positive.

Enchanted is just what a post-Christmas afternoon needs. Easy on the eye, simple to understand, quietly charming and occasionally amusing. An experience akin to playing Junior Pictionary with Orlando Bloom. Listen with a fraction of a brain cell as he explains the rules in a big, clear voice. Gaze at his curly hair flopping over his simple face. Chuckle as he accidentally eats one of the crayons. It’s what Christmas is all about.

Anyway, Enchanted sees the story of Giselle, a typical Disney princess who lives in a wood, is friends with animals, likes to sing and falls in love with a big bland prince. But the prince’s evil stepmother chucks Giselle into a magic well (bear with me..) and sees her emerge into “a world without a happily ever after”. That’d be our world, then. Poor Giselle is transformed into a real person and plonked into New York (oh look, New York as the setting for a film! Wow, what a pleasant change) where people don’t really like each other, don’t break into song and certainly don’t believe in happy endings or true love. A bit bleak for the tots, but it’s good to expose them to the reality of life. That’s Robert’s philosophy too, as a divorce lawyer who’s also a single parent. He ends up taking Giselle in until her “prince” will come to save her, and your typical fish-out-of-water hilarity ensues.

Rather than poke blatant fun at Disney clich├ęs ala Shrek, this film embraces them and gives them a little twist. So Giselle’s wildlife friends are distinctly more urban in her new world, and when a musical number breaks out, Robert questions how it’s possible that everyone can know the words to the song. But there are no big winks to the adults - this is a predominantly child-friendly film, and much more rooted in the genre than the more grown-up flavours of Ratatouille, or the dummed-down science of last week’s aggravating Golden Compass. The animated segments are cheapo bargain-bin quality and lack real humour so prove a little tough to sit through, but it’s the performance of Amy Adams’ Giselle that’ll win you over in the real world. Wide-eyed, wide-smiled, with a child-like innocence and yet conflicting emotional core, it’s easy to see how the lovely Patrick Dempsey’s Robert could fall for her. James Marsden also strikes gold, swapping his yawn-fest performance as Cyclops for the hammiest prince in the land.

There’s some refreshing thoughts dealt with in what is essentially a child’s rom-com. Robert says you can’t fall in love straight away, but he falls for Giselle - true love does exist afterall! Hurray! But, Giselle had originally fallen for her prince. Can she just write that off and say this new love is now the real-deal? What happens with the next dashing man she meets? I think Robert needs to seriously sit down and consider the ramifications of his relationship, not to mention the hurt it will have caused his weird-jawed girlfriend of five years. Did those five years mean nothing to him? Can he just flush them all away for a mentally-challenged homeless person who wandered into his house?

Ok, maybe I’m looking too deeply into this, and I may have just trampled over the entire sentiment of the film. But hey - it still made me smile, I had one of the songs stuck in my head for a day and any film showing Patrick Dempsey in a half-open bath robe is a winner in my book. Sweet, silly and uplifting (if you don’t dissect it to pieces) there’s no doubt this is a pure kiddy film through and through. But if you’re after an Orlando-Pictionary moment, and don’t have access to either, then this is a great alternative for a lazy afternoon. Enchanted notches up a CF0, but imagine the rating all pink and fluffy and tasting like sugar. Seriously.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

19th December 2007 - The Golden Compass

Back in July I watched the stagnant interlude that was Harry Potter number who-cares, and said as far as children’s book adaptations go, I was much more interested in “a little girl called Lyra and her big fuck-off armoured bear”. Well here comes said girl and bear, in the adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, a trio of deliciously dark novels with an abundance of imagination and a fantastic way of sticking a middle finger up to all ruling religions.

Naturally I was quite excited to see Pullman’s work on the big screen, but as the release date approached and stories emerged of a “toned down” content and “made for kids” vibe I started to get wary. Though dubbed a child’s book, The Amber Spyglass (changed to “The Golden Compass” for film as thickos wouldn’t know what a spyglass was) deals with complex ideas, violence and some nasty occurrences - a staple of any good story in my eyes. Unfortunately, some idiot made the decision to aim this film squarely at the tots, following in Narnia’s footsteps and ignoring the vastly superb example set by Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

So we’re left with “theology on Sesame Street”, with every subtle symbol explained VERY SIMPLY, with ickle words and puppets (ok, not the last part). I half expected them to announce “this scene is brought to you by the letter ‘D’, the number six, and a thinly veiled attack on the Catholic church." Granted, the film doesn’t have the luxury of a few hundred pages to gradually introduce themes and encourage interpretation, but it doesn’t half feel lazy to explain every little thing via voiceover, diagram or handy character monologue. The kids wouldn’t get what it was about if it didn’t explain everything. But, let’s be honest. Who cares? I’m an adult, make this film for me, and if the kids don’t get it - fuck ‘em. They won’t remember tomorrow anyway, with their little under-developed brains.

I’m veering toward a Simpsons-style review again, so let’s get back to the film. Dumbed-down aside, the majority of this film is pretty good. The effects are superb, especially on the demons (they are the SOULS of PEOPLE as this is an ALTERNATIVE UNIVERSE) and big ol’ Iroek, the armoured bear, is pretty ace. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards does a stirling job as Lyra, capturing her defiance and confidence without being a brat. Nicole Kidman is fantastic as creepy lady Mrs Coulter, playing the role almost pantomime style, but stealing the scenes she’s in, even when her creepy little monkey is on her shoulder. And Daniel Craig is as brief as his character in the book, but a welcome addition to any screen as far as I’m concerned.

But the film’s biggest flaw is in trying to achieve a coherent story from a complicated book in less than two hours. Jackson made films that last for bloody days, but he gets the story in, paces it, and we can all handle it fine. Director and screenwriter Chris Weitz slices out any real character interaction, leaving a trail of events that probably don’t make any sense to a non-reader. Up to the end I was enjoying the film in an average sort of way, but then they did something utterly ridiculous. Those who’ve already read the book will know the ending is dark, pretty shocking, and sets things up for the second book nicely. That ending doesn’t happen in this film. Skip a few pages back and stop right there. Just before the real darkness begins. Just as things are all happy-happy. Just as not very much has been concluded yet. It’s a pathetic ending to the film, a wimpish “ooo don’t upset the kiddies” cop-op, and I was nearly as outraged as I was at the end of Pirates Two - and that’s saying something.

Golden Compass would’ve got a CF1 for doing a reasonably good job of bringing a brilliant book on screen. But by pandering to children and ignoring the book’s stronger points, it drops down a point, just clinging to a CF0. Read the book. Watch the film. Be disappointed. I hope you’re happy, children. I hope you’re bloody happy.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

8th Dec 07 - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Critics have swooned over our Jesse and his chums, so to up the ante I went to see this during the afternoon while tired and recovering from a “couple” of drinks the night before. The last time I watched a film in this state was Lost in Translation, which succeeding in matching my soft-focussed, languid view of the world and had a similar effect as staring at a lava lamp for a few hours (having re-watched it when fresh and awake it soon transpired that the lava lamp would have more depth and less pretension.)

Anyway, this is the story of Jesse James, famous wild west train robber who was assassinated (oops - there’s a spoiler) by Robert Ford. The plot follows Jesse in his last year, and the ins and outs of his unstable relations with a bunch of his robbing friends, including Bob Ford. Although it may be dubbed a ‘western’, this is more a simmering character study, both on Jesse himself - a crumbling man made infamous by his exploits - and Robert Ford - the “coward” who helps Jesse kick the bucket.

Brad Pitt sails through as Jesse. It’s not particularly difficult for him to play a charismatic lead with a twitchy temper, and though he does the job well, he fades into the background when Casey Affleck appears as Ford. Creepy, vulnerable, desperate and greedy, Affleck gives several shades to Ford, promoting sympathy and revulsion all at the same time. If I was big bro Ben I’d probably be jealous, although Casey has slightly weird teeth. There’s something for you to cling on to, Ben.

The film is directed by Andrew Dominik, whose previous film is the superb Chopper, which regular readers with massive brains may remember managed to encroach on to the Little Fish review last year (because Chopper wowed and Little Fish sunk). Dominik chooses a bit of weird way to go about things, though, starting the film with gorgeous cinematography, moody lighting, framing each shot carefully, having Jesse stand with coat billowing in reflected steam during a train robbery scene full of style and danger. Great. But as the film moves on such devices are completely forgotten about, like all the great ideas ran out, or Dominik got too involved with characters and less involved with how he was showing the story.

A healthy mix of the two styles may have made the film feel more balanced, instead of a slightly disjointed feel that confused the direction of the plot. What is this film about? Jesse James? Robert Ford? The complex interaction between the whole gang and resulting mistrust and backstabbing? The odd effect of fame? Perhaps a second watch with a clear head might make things a bit more focussed, but for now it doesn’t feel completely cohesive.

However, the presence of Affleck and to a lesser extent Pitt, the periods of more inventive direction, and the strength of the story itself all mean this is still a rewarding film with plenty to ponder, especially the bizarre way a murdering thief is heralded as an American “hero”. Perhaps not as super as expected, but still worthy of more than a banal recommendation, Jesse James gets a CF2. Not long left in the year, and not one single CF5-rated film. Poor show, 2007. Poor show.