Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

Film Log: Pacific Rim

Details here

It might seem odd to criticise a science fiction film on the grounds that it was implausible, but there are just too many things in this film that don’t add up. It begins with a long montage-with-voiceover serving to establish the conceits of the piece, and it doesn’t do a very good job. It’s not clear why the best defence against giant sea monsters is giant robots, as opposed to, say, ground to air missiles, or why those robots need two pilots sitting inside them attached to neural interfaces, as opposed to one pilot with a joystick and a remote control, or why the neural interfaces allow people to share memories which is, quite frankly, a much more interesting technological advance than the ability to fight giant sea monsters. A Mecha-Kaiju movie needs to establish a need for a lot of these elements, but the way Pacific Rim does this is at best perfunctory and at worst a waste of time that could be taken up with actual drama.

The montage, the unconvincing grounds for the conceits, and the problems with the science (confronted with an underwater nuclear explosion, holding on to something really really tight just isn’t going to cut it) all indicate a laziness in the script which makes itself felt throughout the film. There’s a lot of shouting but no real drama; caricature but no comedy; and a stream of clichéd set pieces where the plot should be.

I’d like to say at this point that the film made up for these failings with its aesthetic – this is, after all, a piece which provides no end of opportunity to impress us visually. And indeed, this is a pretty film. But pretty films are no longer difficult to make, and there is nothing here which is innovative either technically or aesthetically. The robots and monsters are competently done, the cityscapes are recognisable and the scenes of destruction and devastation are realistic, but there is nothing to make us sit up and take notice.

Again, this leaves us with a sense that the film isn’t trying hard enough. Similarly with the casting: There are no big names here, apart from Ron Perleman, whose presence merely points up the relative weakness of the cast as a whole. Hunnam, Elba and the rest give perfectly good performances but very much at the standard of a better episode of Dr Who than a feature film.

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Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Man of Steel

Details here.

All superhero movies face the problem of how to generate sympathy for the protagonist; after all, it’s hard  to feel sorry for someone with superpowers. The recent trend of “reboot” films face the additional problem of how to tell a story which the audience has already heard in such a way as to give the retelling some artistic purpose or at least, to feel worth the effort.

Man of Steel felt to me like two films: everything up until Zod’s arrival at Earth and everything thereafter. The first part offered no very good solutions to the first problem, falling back on the old and implausible stand-by of Superman unable to use his powers for fear of his identity being revealed. I was hopeful, after a promising start on Krypton, and a cut straight to an adult Superman rescuing survivors from an oil rig disaster, that we would be spared the tedium of a whiny childhood in Smallville; but a few minutes later we were in flashback central, subjected to the secret identity cant overlaid with the traditional but slightly troubling proto-fascist “what the world needs is one really strong man” narrative.

The first half did, however, add some interesting ideas to the Krypton backstory in a way which laid the ground very nicely for the second half. This was rather better, developing the basic idea that Superman had to choose between saving his own race or defending humanity, adding nicely to the well-known story while also giving our (super)hero a genuine moral dilemma and a reason for us to care about him which didn’t depend on his refusal to man up and get on with his life. It didn’t go as far with this as it might have done, but this part of the film was a fairly satisfying by-the-numbers alien invasion romp and too much philosophy would probably have made it a lot less fun than it was.

Having been fairly ambivalent about the first hour of this flick, the second part won me over, right until the unnecessary five minute coda where Superman and Zod slug it out and destroy huge swathes of Metropolis in the process. Like the rest of the film, this was technically very accomplished, but uncertain, from a storytelling point of view, quite what it was doing.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Star Trek Into Darkness

Details here

This film starts in the middle of the action, with Kirk and Bones being pursued by angry natives, and the action never really lets up. It’s visually very impressive, but there are no lingering camera shots showing off the special effects – almost every moment is used in telling the story.

The story itself is a bit rag-tag, and at times it isn’t clear who knew what and who deceived whom, but there are no inconsistencies and it makes up in energy what it lacks in clarity. The script plays predictably with Spock’s lack of emotion and Kirk’s dedication to his instincts, but doesn’t linger here (or indeed anywhere else).

The film re-imagines material from the original series and movies and here I couldn’t help feel it was a little too clever; the emotion of the final minutes was obscured because one couldn’t help sense the presence of the author, orchestrating echoes of familiar material. Of course, to anyone unfamiliar with the franchise, this wouldn’t matter at all.

In its conclusion, the film says some pleasingly liberal humanist things about America’s relationship with terrorism and justice, re-articulating the values of the original series and (more so) Next Generation. It’s a shame no-one had the courage to make it ten years ago.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Brave, Puss in Boots, and Hotel Transylvania

Details here, here and here.

All three of these films do a little bit more than it says on the tin. They’re all basically light-hearted and inconsequential animated comedies with a family oriented premise, and none of them tries to be anything else. All three succeed, though, and do so without collapsing into sentimentality or insulting the intelligence of their audience. There are some very funny moments in all three films, and Puss in Boots in particular does a good job of building a whole character and indeed film from a Shrek sidekick. Not having any children I can’t comment on how suitable they would be for watching with a younger audience, but if you want something undemanding and amusing to do for a couple of hours, you could do worse than watch one of these.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: The Bourne Legacy

Details here.

This is a sequel to The Bourne Ultimatum in the sense that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a sequel to Hamlet. Set synchronously with Ultimatum (and borrowing footage from it), Legacy tells us what is happening off-stage during the former film as characters mentioned in Ultimatum work through the consequences of its events in a largely independent narrative punctuated by them. Unlike Rosencrantz, Legacy doesn’t do anything intelligent or satisfying in making a drama from what is essentially a footnote to another work, instead inviting us to invest in the main conflicts of Ultimatum while failing to provide any resolution to them. I’m not sure how much the writers expect us to remember of Ultimatum, and this is part of the problem: the references to the other film are disorientating and undermining, as it’s never clear how much we are supposed to infer from them. Worst of all, the villains of Legacy don’t really get brought to book, but you’re left uncertain if you’re meant to infer that this is something that happens in or as a consequence of events in Ultimatum, and is simply an abbreviation, or whether it is a deliberate statement about the power of government conspiracy.

The film has a much slower pace than its predecessors, and for the first twenty minutes I wondered if it was aiming at a Tinker Tailor sort of feel: we see a lot of conversation, and very little action. It does pick up but the relaxed, wide-shot camera work undermines what excitement there is. This is particularly true in the lengthy, formulaic and perfunctory motorcycle chase towards the end of the film, where we are more or less watching a (rather tastefully shot) documentary of three people on bikes rather than experiencing the danger of fleeing an assassin in a crowded city.

The action in the first three films is driven by Bourne’s amnesia, his desire to avenge the death of his lover, and his determination to expose the Blackbriar conspiracy. The action in Legacy is driven by Cross running out of the pills provided him by Operation Outcome (in effect, Blackbriar’s successor), on which he is dependent. Not only does this sit badly with the mythology of the previous films – Bourne is presumably subject to a similar or inferior medical regimen but has no dependence on it – but it makes us feel like we’re watching an addict trying to get his fix rather than a hero. Only half-way through the film do we have the sympathy-provoking reveal that if Cross doesn’t get his dose he will be reduced to a gibbering wreck, a fear with which, with more than an hour of the film left to go, we can easily empathise.

Renner (as Cross) and Weisz (as love interest and side-kick Shearing) carry their roles well and have some real chemistry, and things pick up no end while they are on screen together, which luckily is most of the second half of the film. On the other hand, Edward Norton is woefully unconvincing as the villain, coming across more as a slightly overworked primary school teacher than a sinister retired USAF colonel.

To be fair, Matt Damon’s refusal to take part in Legacy, while wanting to take part in any further sequel, posed the writers a unique challenge to which Legacy’s move of documenting the voices off during Ultimatum is not a bad response. However, that response creates an unfavourable set of constraints under which the film struggles to succeed, and which undermine it to the extent that otherwise forgivable weaknesses become far too noticeable.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Skyfall

Details here.

At some point, someone decided that Bond films should be About something. I’ve always believed this to be an error; the early Bond films are just Christmas crackers stuffed with leftover items from Boys’ Own annuals for Boys old enough to drink, smoke and at least think about having sex. Contrary to what Daniel Craig once said, they really were about the toys. Skyfall, on the other hand, is About staying relevant as one gets older and the changing nature of intelligence and national defence, themes which have been handled rather better in Red and Page Eight 

The problem with films which are About something is that they tend to take themselves seriously and end up being a bit po-faced. This is certainly the case with Skyfall, which is almost entirely humourless, despite a couple of old-fashioned Bond throwaways in the script. This might be a deliberate attempt at sombreness, given the themes at work; certainly it fits well with the slow pace of a lot of the film, the emotionally restrained feel to the acting (which borders on woodenness) and the bleak spaciousness of the photography in the last act. Similarly, the complete absence of chemistry between Craig and Harris (Moneypenny) may be a consequence of unfortunate casting or an effort to leave room for the film’s real love story, that between Bond and M. In the end, this love story is more-or-less convincing, and there is some real pathos in the final scenes, but it’s a long time coming.

The question that springs to mind is why the writers, if this is the film they wanted, open it with a lengthy (and slightly dull) set-piece action sequence. This is the second problem with a Bond film which tries to be About something – it has to fit its themes in around the sine qua non of the series. While Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy has room to examine the subtle political machinations of the Circus with little more than a series of conversations, Skyfall has to explore loyalty, aging and sacrifice through the lens of car chases, exploding helicopters and a cartoonish supervillain. The result is a rather unsatisfactory compromise.

Visually, the film makes a lot of effort to be beautiful, sometimes self-consciously so, and makes good use of its locations and indeed of Craig’s torso. The latter also features briefly in a rather curious and disconnected flirtation between Bond and the villain, which I guess was a last-ditch attempt to do something interesting in a script which is otherwise too constrained by its own ambitions to every really get off the ground.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Mr Nobody

Details here

This film is set in a future where most humans are immortal, and shows us the last mortal, Mr Nobody, looking back on his life and the three marriages he might have had. The film does nothing with the conceit of immortality, instead presenting us with the twists and turns of Mr Nobody’s life in an intelligent and stylish way, rather as if Luc Besson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet had gotten together and remade Sliding Doors. The diverse strands are eventually tied together into a single narrative, and despite the length of the film (2 hours and 21 minutes) the result was very moving and IMHO worth the wait.

The film is visually beautiful and a little quirky, with occasional nods to The Fifth Element, The Matrix and in a roundabout way The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Jared Leto does a fine job carrying the central role and all the acting is eminently watchable. This isn’t a film that will thrill but it will delight, and is well worth settling down in front of for an evening with some good friends and a bottle of wine.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Red

Details here.

The publicity shots for this film feature Helen Mirren holding an Absurdly Big Gun, and that is essentially all you need to know about it. It’s basically a vehicle for Mirren, Willis, Malkovitch and Freeman to have fun, supported very ably by Mary-Louise Parker. The result is a very enjoyable couple of hours in which a lot of perfectly predictable things happen in an artless and engaging way. The plot has no problems but has nothing in it to keep you on the edge of your seat or even guessing about what will happen next, and pretty much every other aspect of the film is similarly competent but unremarkable. If you like the leads, you will enjoy this film only marginally less than sitting in the pub with them for an hour, and if you don’t then it is likely to strike you as a bit of a waste of time.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Details here.

This film gives a good sense of the ripping yarn silliness of the books, but garners its plot from a number of unrelated stories which is a bit disorientating if you’re familiar with them. To give the plot a more recognisable emotional arc, it foregrounds Haddock’s family history, making his quest to recover the treasure also one to restore his family’s name and fortune.

This means that Haddock is the hero of the tale and that it is he, not Tintin, who faces the villain in the denouement, which is a bit of a let-down. It also means that the Haddock name gets bandied about a lot more than in the books, with such gems as “It will be wonderful to have a Haddock in charge”, “Haddocks don’t flee” and “Call yourself a Haddock?” peppered about the script with no apparent sense of irony.

The script captures the characters well (although it’s a shame not to see Professor Calculus) and has some very funny moments. I’m sure it would work well for anyone not familiar with the books or the animated series.

The film is, of course, entirely CGI, and I wasn’t sure what this brought to the party. It goes some way to capturing the look of Hergé’s drawings, but isn’t particularly faithful (the characters are recognisable but quite different in detail) but on the other hand it never develops a distinctive visual style of its own. And the fact that the characters are animated certainly takes the punch out of the “stunts” in the big action sequence.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log – Melancholia

Details here.

I can’t decide if this is a terribly clever film or a clever, terrible film.

Let’s start by saying that this film simply doesn’t function as science fiction, and that probably, no-one involved in its production is bothered by that, and say nothing more about that aspect.

The film is divided into two parts. In the first, we see Justine, who suffers from depression, implode and generally have her world fall apart on her wedding day (a background of joy and life) while her sister Claire tries to hold things together. In the second half, Claire falls apart as planet earth is destroyed (a background of pain and death) and Justine tries to hold things together. So there is an overarching symmetry: two worlds are destroyed, one literally and one figuratively; the sisters exchange roles; and it is melancholia – in the first case the condition, and in the second, the planet of that name – which is to blame in both cases.

The film has many clever ideas like this, some of which quite frankly went over my head (the significance of the 19th hole on the golf course, for example,  is still lost to me). The acting is very sophisticated, with the naturalistic, understated feel of many recent “serious” US films, and the photography has that shakey, slightly unplanned documentary quality that makes us feel that the cameraman is responding to the action rather than anticipating it.

The problem is that none of this adds up to a film with any real passion or direction. The characters do what is necessary to make the symmetry work, and in the end lack credibility, let alone empathy; and while the film looks lovely, it never develops anything like a visual language or even a distinctive style. It takes itself so seriously that at times it edges into parody: at two points in the film we have the figure of the bride, in her wedding dress, driving into the distance in a golf cart to the sound of Tristan and Isolde, aparently without irony. Justine’s depression is rather poorly observed, and the relationships between the central characters are clearly stated but never explored or developed. Everything, in the end, is simply a vehicle for the intellectual exercise: an aesthetically pleasing, and well-executed vehicle, but one that is largely devoid of any real drama. Perhaps this is intended to be a reflection of the flatness of Justine’s emotional state, so we are immersed in her numbness for 135 minutes; or perhaps not.

A few years ago, I visited the Tate Modern and sat for twenty minutes in front of a Rothko mural. I had no great spiritual awakening, and experienced nothing profound or especially moving. Yet for those twenty minutes I had the sense of being in the presence of something beautiful, and that was a feeling worth having. For me, Melancholia felt too contrived to accomplish this, but the best I can say for it is that it might do it for you.

Filed under: Film + TV

My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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