Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Case for the Last of the Summer Marigolds

On paper, it looks like a dream movie.  Take a whole bunch of first class British thespians, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Peter O'Toole, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy and Dev Patel.  Then give them a script about a bunch of stereotypical stuffy Brits abroad.  And then put them all in one of the most incredibly vibrant and most extreme places on the planet: India. 

And what result did they get?  Gold.  Marigolds, in fact.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a film that my Mum recommended to me, one she saw with a whole gaggle of her silver haired church companions, and they all raved about it.  And I think that sums up the type of movie, and experience, that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ends up as.


There is a lot of humour, quite a bit related to relations in the elderly; there are problems coming to grips with a completely different culture; there is a slightly confusing and tonally inconsistent attempt at coming to grips witht the caste system; there are deep hurts that need to be exposed and resolved; and there is the sheer joy and energy of India every time the actors leave the confines of the hotel and head out into the great chaos in the neighbouring streets (even if they are closed sets).

It's a film that it is very hard to be offended by, unless you find the notion the elderly getting it off every so often repellent.  Dev Patel is hilariously barmy as the gangly nervous young man trying to make a successful retirement village out of his father's old hotel.  Meanwhile, the white cast make the most of the stereotypes they are given, with Judi Dench given the most introspective and most to do as the "narrator". 

I enjoyed myself immensely, and even laughed at some of the amusing bits, though there were some members of the audience whom I thought might require medical assistance afterwards, considering how strongly they reacted to some of even the mildest doses of humour.  Again, it is hard to be too offended by any of it, except for the parts are meant to be offensive. 

One thing struck me watching the film: It's odd how one almost expects the most liberal of attitudes from the older generation.  Basically, it appears that almost any lifestyle lived in a quiet English way is perfectly fine for the elderly, and while different cultures provide a bit of discomfort for a while, this can be overcome by quasi-complete immersion.  But "foreign" culture at home... well, that is a bit harder to swallow.

Verdict: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel provides no surprises, but a lot of chuckles.  It is a completely pleasant couple of hours with some thoroughly wonderful actors having a ball in one of the most beautiful, bewildering and sometimes terrifying places on the planet.  It almost made me want to go to India.  Almost.  Perhaps when I am nearer retirement...  8 Indian-hot curries out of 10.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Case for Hungry Hungry Mockingjays

I really loved the kidult fantasy book The Hunger Games.  I was not alone in this.  And so, with much anticipation and a huge amount of hype, The Hunger Games movie has been released, and, not one to rock the successfully selling boat, it is a basic retelling of the book though there have been several changes to assist in the small screen telling. 

Oh, and before I get into it, there may be spoilers in here, so you are warned.

For a start, the bizarrely named Katniss Everdeen is played not as a slight early teenager, but by the gorgeous Jennifer Lawrence, with chubby cheeks and womanly curves (cue lots of 16 year old females wondering why they don't look like that).  The "boys" are likewise 20-something alpha males (even the characters that are meant to be betas) in the form of Liam Hemsworth (Gale, not really given a lot to do) and Josh Hutcherson (Peeta).  Amongst the "adults", the delightful Donald Sutherland gets to play quiet menace as Dark Father Christmas-like President Snow, Woody Harrelson has hair as Haymitch, Stanley Tucci is all teeth as a TV host, and the magnificent Elizabeth Banks (I adore her current turn in 30 Rock as an uber Republican TV host) dons ridiculous amounts of make up and material and is almost unrecognisable as Effie Trinket.

There is therefore a top notch, easy on the eyes cast to fill the roles, and the book provides most of the structure to the story, so all that is left is to make the look and feel of what is hinted in the book into something visual.

It's in the "interpretation" department that things start to fall down a little.  To give a sense of hardship and urgency (and probably to mask any violence to keep the rating down), the majority of the film is shot in patented Shakyvision, and the start of the film is almost nausea-inducing.  The post apocalyptic world of District 12 is shown as a hick town with banjos playing, which is not quite how I had imagined it, though the Capitol in the Rocky Mountains looks suitably futuristic, in a decadent way. 

The way the characters are presented is also a little disappointed.  Katniss is meant to be a bit distant, but the first person narrative of the book means it is easier to see her point of view.  The film mainly sticks to the story being "all about Katniss" (except for some expository "what TV is saying" scenes), though Lawrence has to let her wide eyed blank expression convey most of what she feels.  However, given the material, she does a great job of making Katniss a reluctant heroine, a tough customer underneath an unassuming exterior.

As all the other characters revolve around Katniss, they have an easier time of things, though sometimes that ease comes at the expense of actually becoming interesting.  Hutcherson, as Peeta, gets a lot of screentime and does a successful job of being a quiet charmer, his manga-like big brown eyes making him a perfect puppy in Katniss's presence.  Meanwhile, Banks is pretty much wasted after the Reaping, though Tucci and Harrelson have a bit more to do in their roles.  And Sutherland... well, he is awesome.
The film also decides to go big on the game effects.  I had not imagined creatures being magically (or should that be, technologically?) created out of thin air when I read the books, but obviously someone else interpreted things that way, and indeed the whole arena looks spectacular. 

As the book, even with a large font, is about 400 pages long, the film has a lot to get through.  Most things are covered in the 2 hour running time, though there is obviously a lot sacrificed (such as minor character development) even then. 

Overall though, the film is good, but I couldn't help but wonder if my disappointments and also my enjoyments were influenced a lot by my perceptions of the original book.  Perhaps people who have not read the book will be able to enlighten me - how does the movie stand on its own merits?

Verdict: Considering the compelling nature of the source material, it is not surprising that The Hunger Games is a gripping movie.  It staggers a little both in its unsteady camera work and under the burden of trying to convey so much in a movie timeframe, but, for the most part, it is pretty successful, aided by a fairly awesome cast.   7.5 odds ever in my favour out of 10.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Case for Marching Ides

Ryan Gosling and George Clooney.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and even a little bit of Marisa Tomei.  If that is not a dream cast of quite different but awesome actors, I am not sure what is.  So, on face value alone, the Ides of March seemed worth the watch. 

It's all about politics and the race for the Presidential nomination for the Democratic Party.  It's a close race, and the two campaign camps are doing everything they can to get their man to the top, including sabotaging the other campaign's employees.  The story focuses around Gosling's character,  Stephen Meyers, an idealistic and talented (aren't they always?) young campaign press secretary, who gets caught up in a swirl of messiness as things come to a head.

With that much thesping power behind it, I suppose my main problem with the film is that it did not blow me away.  It was good, no doubt about that, with the political and psychological game playing all pretty interesting.  The politics and stand of Clooney's Presidential candidate, Governor Mike Morris, were... amusing in how completely different from the Republican campaign it appears to be, and how (the cynic in me says) I would think that even "real world" Democrats would find it hard to swallow, and impossible to elect as President. 

But when things all turn to custard (and I will try not to give away too many spoilers), well, then things kind of get a bit blurry.  I was almost expecting Gosling's character to go all Drive and go on a psychotic rampage - but the Ides of March is not that magnificent movie, so things take a different turn.  

I suppose part of the problem for me was that Meyers' reaction to events doesn't end up particularly compelling.  There is outrage, sure, and a bit of frustration, but the disillusionment that is plastered all over Gosling's square-jawed face is not really shown anywhere else - not in his actions, or his discussions with others (not that he really talks with anyone) or anywhere else.  It is as if he kind of switches off for the end of the film, and as he is the main character, it makes me as an audience member want to switch off as well.

Overall then, I knew I had seen a good movie with great actors and fine performances, but the story itself let the film down.

Verdict: The Ides of March is an okay film, respectable in many ways, but ultimately just a bit underwhelming.  6 interns out of 10.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Case for Liking It Hot

There is just something about Marilyn Monroe.

The beauty, the curves, the childish manner, the allure...  Even now, decades after her death, she is still an icon of Hollywood style and glamour.

Michelle Williams, trying to be Monroe (with extra padding to give her the voluptuous curves, and a body double for the odd "real" butt shot), therefore had big shoes to fill in the film My Week With Marilyn, and has gained widespread acclaim for how well she manages to do so.  Her Marilyn, especially in the public scenes, all smiles and poses and allure, is incredible to behold. 

It is harder for her to capture the innocence, if that is what it was, without making Marilyn seem a bit stupid.  Surrounding herself with yes men and moochers (Zoe Wanamaker has loads of fun as a pushy method acting coach). Marilyn is shown to be manipulated and insecure, which kind of works against what happens in the film.

Because, when she encounters a young British man, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) on his first job in the acting business, she latches on to him and finds an inner strength and charm and the need to break lose from her chains.  The fact those shackles are swiftly put back on seem to work against the whole "true story" aspect to the tale (perhaps "based on" or "embellished" would be more accurate?), but I wasn't there (and apparently, neither was anyone still living) so I couldn't really be sure.

And it's really Clark around which the film kind of starts to drag.  People know what to expect from Monroe, but Clark seems a bit underwritten, his blossoming romance with Emma Watson's character almost pointless in execution (though you know why it is introduced, I am sure).  He is young and bedazzled by Monroe, and that's about it.  Sure, he has a few small "adventures" on his own, but he is pretty empty of anything besides Monroe - unsurprising, but disappointing in the supposed "lead".

Also in the background, but having lots of fun, are Kenneth Branagh as the "acting professional" Sir Laurence Olivier and Judi Dench as Lady Sybil.  It's a shame that the Sybil's offer of a one-on-one read through with Monroe isn't shown, as putting Dench and Williams head to head would undoubtedly be a voyeuristic pleasure, but Clark's memoirs (as this is based on his recollections) do not quite stretch that far into fantasy.

Seeing My Week With Marilyn at the Embassy added to the old style feel of the film.  The comfy chairs also assisted me drift off every so often, as the pace of the film cannot be described as energetic, and the more self indulgent Monroe episodes can fray the nerves.  Thank heaven for Julia Ormond though, playing Vivien Leigh, who lights up the screen and cleanses the palate whenever she shows up - even if she doesn't show up that often.

Verdict: My Week With Marilyn is the chance to see another amazing performance by Michelle Williams.  But, while it occasionally amuses, the lead character is not terribly engaging (though he is definitely "packaged" as being likeable, I think) and so it all ends up feeling a bit empty, even if the thesping talent on display is very impressive.  6 coo coo kachoos out of 10.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Case for My Favourite Martian

John Carter may be based on a book from one hundred years ago, but the special effects of today turn this science fiction tale into an extraordinary visual feast.  The costumes, the landscapes, the craft and the four armed aliens are all beautifully and lovingly rendered, and it's obvious that a lot of money has been spent to make the whole movie look spectacular. And it succeeds.

Pity then, that the story is so damned slow.

John Carter is a retired Confederate soldier accidentally rocketed to Mars, who finds that the planets lower gravity gives him super strength and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  He also finds himself in the middle of an alien civil war.  But somehow all these elements never really gel into something particularly exciting.

It's not the fault of the actors.  John Carter is played with a deep growl and a lack of clothing by Taylor Kitsch, and Princess Dejah Thoris is played by Lynn Collins as a plucky feminist warrior whose only weaknesses are a surrender-monkey father and a soft spot for rock hard abs.  They are a good looking couple for the posters, and both handle the undemanding script pretty well. 

Supporting them ably, Bryan Cranston adds a bit of Malcolm in the Middle humour as a Union commander, while on Mars, quite a few of the actors from the cast of swords, sandals and scandal tele-epic Rome reunite for a markedly more G-rated a romp in what is actually pretty similar territory.  Meanwhile Dominic West from The Wire plays the bad guy Sab Than with a whole lot of camp and another lot of fun, with Mark Strong playing the Sinestro (or just sinister) brains behinds Than's brawn.

No, it's not the actors or the special effects, and not even the story.  It is the pacing, set at a speed not uncomfortable for a snail.  There are big action set pieces that are great, set in beautiful desert locales or on wonderfully retro-futuristic machines, but the bits in between drag.  When I merged from the cinema, I was convinced the film had gone on for around three hours, and was surprised (pleasantly) to find that only two had actually passed.



There were a few people in the audience who laughed at most of the jokes and rolled along with the ride.  I could appreciate the jokes, but the slow meandering through the story meant that I was never really swept along with it - I more just bobbed around in its wake.  Not a bad film, no, but uninspiring, definitely.

Verdict: John Carter is an amazing looking movie, with no expense spared in wardrobe, effects or attention, and the acting is solid if occasionally a bit melodramatic.  A shame then that someone didn't take to the film with a pair of scissors (if that is how one edits these kinds of things these days) and turn this film into something a bit more exciting. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Case for Kiddie Conversations

After seeing We Need To Talk About Kevin, it was hard to see how Tilda Swinton was overlooked for an Oscar this year.

Or perhaps not.  Meryl Streep won for an impression of a pivotal and controversial character in British political history, in an interesting but not always satisfying biopic.  Swinton plays Eva, a woman teetering on the edge, wracked by guilt and universally reviled following the actions of her son.  Which of these is the more palatable?

Of course, Swinton barely needs to act to look close to the edge.  Her incredible, almost alien features, with bulging eyes, pale skin, and harsh sliver of a mouth, convey a huge amount of horror and self loathing.  Add in some severe hair styles and make up that paint her features in as wan a light as possible, and its hard not to be washed up into her nightmare world.


What happens in the film is really not that much of a surprise.  From the start, Kevin is a pain.  A complete nightmare of a child.  He could have been called Damien and you could quite easily believe that this was a remake of The Omen.  The film enjoys showing Kevin, played by several different actors (all of them annoying, in a good way), appear to be a complete brat. 

The film is less successful in tying the origin of those traits to Eva.  Eva is shown as not really being maternal (and considering the trials she had with Kevin, that is perhaps not so surprising), but it is only really at a game of mini golf where Eva's attitudes and how they might have influenced Kevin are shown.

The film jumps around chronologically, so it telegraphs what is coming at the end pretty early on.  Personally, I found the final "What Kevin Does" scene a bit of a let down.  I am not sure what happens in the book, but in the film, it plays out like a rather tragic made for television movie, the "bad guy" walking in slow motion to the arms of the law and then, later, there is wailing and screaming as disorder is let loose again.  And the actual mechanics of how Kevin commits his heinous act is a bit dumb, as, while I am sure he is proficient with a bow and arrow, it would be much easier and (in a way) less intimidating to rush a man holding such a weapon than it would be with a person with a gun.  And how did he lock all the doors and then get to an optimal (and unassailable) firing position with a large bow and a quiver of arrows without anyone noticing something?  I am not sure if this film was sponsored by the American National Rifle Association to show non-firearms as potential terror tools, but the situation felt a bit too forced to me, a bit too unbelievable. 

The thing about We Need to Talk About Kevin is that, well, noone actually does talk about Kevin.  Or talk with Kevin.  His father, his friends (assuming he has some), his teachers (assuming he has some) and of course his mother all seem determined not to talk about him.  Given the complete societal failure to address Kevin's issues and the fact Kevin was a real prick, I found it very hard to "blame" Eva, though I suppose that would not stop a mother from being singled out.  I also found her ostracising a little extreme as well, as even serial killers have their admirers, but then I really cannot talk from experience about the kinds of feelings these sorts of events would generate.

So overall, this is a harrowing and rather good film, marred for me only by a failure of nerve in the end to eschew the Hollywood way of doing things and giving in to a bit of melodrama.  None of that criticism can be laid at the feet of Swinton, who delivers an incredibly powerful and moving performance, and as she is basically in every scene, she completely carries the film.

Verdict: We Need To Talk About Kevin is a gripping, difficult film to watch.  Swinton is amazing, and the supporting actors do a good if ultimately eclipsed job with what little is left in Swinton's shadow.  The story itself is challenging, even if it does at times seem to stick to some fictional conventions.  It is definitely not a film for everyone, but it is a good watch for those who can stomach seeing it.   7 arrows out of 10.