Saturday, March 24, 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES - eheu o me miserum!

HUNGER GAMES plays like a po-faced, de-fanged version of RUNNING MAN and BATTLE ROYALE. In a dystopian American future, the tyrannical 1 percent demand each district volunteer two kids to fight to the death in a gladiatorial reality TV show. Predictably, the two kids from the poorest district work together to game the system and survive - the only spin being that they become as manipulative as the game they are in to succeed - feigning teen love (or are they?! - who cares) to win public sympathy.  Clearly, the franchise, based on a trilogy by Suzanne Collins', is gearing up for a finale in which the triumph of the 99th percentile inspires a revolution of the Plebs. Which begs the question why, with all their technology, cash, and cunning, the 1% allows them to survive so long. Frankly, any ruling elite so utterly incompetent deserves to die by dingleberries. Dr No, sorry, Snow, is giving us a bad name. 

Anyways, what can we say about this film. It has less pretty lead actors (Josh Hutcherson, Jennifer Lawrence)than the Twiglet series but equally pitiful dye jobs.  (Picture the Celebrity Death Match between Josh Hutcherson's blonde highlights and Twiglet's Nikki Reed!) The acting is better in THE HUNGER GAMES, basically because Jennifer Lawrence can communicate so much nuanced and conflicting emotion without saying a word. But this is offset by some truly shitty production and costume design - so over-the-top, so absurd, that it looks cheap and trashy and completely undermines the attempt at portraying earnest emotion. The worst victim of this is poor Elizabeth Banks in what one can only call the Parker Posey Memorial Role, as inspired by Helena Bonham Carter. By contrast, Lenny Kravitz hardly looks like he's trying at all, and one can imagine an hilarious conversation between the rock musician and the make-up department where he just refuses to go with it. Finally, the direction (Gary Ross - THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX) is also pretty pedestrian.

But my real problem with the whole show was its hackneyed premise coupled with a pretty superficial use of Roman names and concepts.  The world really just doesn't need a desaturated RUNNING MAN. It's like the whole problem with Twiglet: vampires who don't have sex are about as compelling as a Death Match where studio economics require a PG-13 certificate, so that all violence happens off-screen. Apparently the books are more savage, which is great, but then again, Suzanne Collins does try to palm us off with a kind of lo-rent tipping-of-the-hat to Rome.  Clever, clever to call a food deprived land "Panem", and to keep the plebs happy with circuses, but you just can't call major characters Cinna and Caesar without following through. It all felt highly disrespectful coming from a woman who purports to have serious influences. Moreover, where's the subtle satire on reality TV? Where's the subversive politics? The film seems to pick up so many interesting, dangerous concepts, but doesn't seem to have the balls to follow them through.  Oh, and one final thing.  Why give your heroine a name that sounds like "catnip"?

THE HUNGER GAMES is on release pretty much everywhere except Chile and Vietnam, where it opens on March 30th; South Korea and Lithuania, where it opens on April 6th; South Africa, where it opens on April 13th; Spain where it opens on April 20th and Italy, where it opens on May 1st.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

BEL AMI - corruption and decadence in fin-de-siecle Paris

Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, better known as theatre company Cheek by Jowl, have brought a gorgeous new adaptation Guy de Maupassant novel, BEL AMI to the big screen. Rachel Bennette's adaptation is faithful to the spiky, scabrous, but ultimately tragic tale of a a young man's corrupt rise to power in decadent, politically slippery late nineteenth century Paris.  The result is a film that begins as a beautifully costumed frothy, sexy, jaunt but slowly and satisfyingly develops into a much darker, deeper film.  I thoroughly enjoyed it - luxuriating in Odile Dicks-Mireaux's wonderful costumes and Stefano Falivene's cinematography.   But most of all, I enjoyed the quality of the ensemble cast.  Robert Pattinson is genuinely impressive and charismatic as social-climbing, narcissistic, capricious George Duroy, an ex-soldier who arrives in Paris without a penny and shamelessly uses his contacts, and their wives sexual frustration, to his advantage.  (It is a far more credible transition to post-franchise adult drama than Daniel Radcliffe achieved.)  But the real fun comes with the three women who Duroy exploits. The first is pretty little housewife Clotilde, played with infinite vulnerability and subtlety by Christina Ricci in heart-breaking performance.  The second is Kristin Scott Thomas' pious, pathetic Virginie, wife of Colm Meaney's newspaper editor.  It is rare to see Scott Thomas look undone by love, as opposed to her characteristic froideur and supreme control, but she is completely convincing.  And finally, there is Uma Thurman as the beautiful, brilliant Madeleine Forrestier - in what is surely a career-best performance. Thurman is simply maginificent.  She perfectly articulates the constrictions placed on an intelligent political woman in an era when she had to exercise her influence through men.  The resulting film, and tragedy, is as much Madeleine's as Georges', and I would love to see Thurman offered more roles like this.

BEL AMI played German 2012 and is on release in the UK, Portugal, Belgium, Lithuania, Ireland and the UK. It opens on the 22nd March in the Czech Republic, it opens on 29th March in Russia, Singapore and Estonia, on 5th April in the Netherlands, on 13th April in Italy, on 26th April in Germany, on 24th May in Australia, on 8th June in the USA, on 27th June in France and on 18th October in Argentina.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

JOHN CARTER - Disney's ginger stepchild

JOHN CARTER is a movie so unloved by its studio that before it was released it was almost possible to recast it in its own Hollywood "underdog story".  Over the past six months, articles in the trade press have bemoaned Disney's lack of marketing strategy - the pre-commitment to the 60 second Superbowl ad (which was underwhelming at best) - dropping the "OF MARS" from the title.  The studio chief seems to have been backing his way out of the door, pushing blame for this fiasco on his predecessor - and, make no mistake, this movie IS a fiasco. A tent-pole movie whose budget is a reported £250m plus marketing, with no A-list stars and no brand-name recognisable source text.  Even a superbly made movie would struggle to earn this kind of money back, and JOHN CARTER isn't superbly made.  For that, I guess we have to blame writer-director and Pixar golden-boy Andrew Stanton (UP, WALL-E, TOY STORY, FINDING NEMO).  A director who has come across as so defensive on his UK press tour as to alienate his potential audiences.  His basic stance seems to be "we make the movies we wanna make: so screw the audience and the studio.  Steve Jobs told me we were hired for our taste."  Sub-text: if we, the humble ticket-paying audience don't like the movie, it's on us - we just aren't tasteful enough. It's also completely disingenuous to suggest that Stanton makes movies without studio pressure. If so, why the extensive re-cutting, the expensive re-shoots, the change in title, the retro-fitted 3D?  All of which are the studio's desperate attempt to get back more cents on the dollar than investors in Greek sovereign debt.  (Prognosis - probably about the same i.e. 30 cents on the dollar.)

All the negative press had made me perversely desperate to like JOHN CARTER - to become its champion. But sadly, the movie didn't give me anything.  It was just dull over-produced nonsense - a sort of trashy sci-fi B-movie that, despite its egregious budget, still managed to look pretty cheesy - a movie that hinted at action-adventure serials in the FLASH GORDON or INDIANA JONES or STAR WARS style, but failed to live up to any of them.  (Not that there's anything wrong with B-movies - we all love FLASH GORDON - but there's no need to spend more than, say, £70m, on a B-movie).  Apparently, the movie is based on an early twentieth century serial by Edgar Rice Borroughs (he of TARZAN fame) that ran to some 13 instalments. I have no interest in seeing any more.

So what's it all about, Alfie?  John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Confederate cavalryman, mysteriously transported to Mars where he uses his new super-strength (thanks to low gravity) to intervene in the war between Helios (good guys) and Zodanga (bad guys). He does this by enlisting the help of the hitherto neutral Tharks (the Ewok/Na'avi of this flick).  In the process, Carter falls for the Helios' Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) saves her from a forced marriage to the Zodanga Prince Sab Than, foils the manipulations of the mysterious Thern (Mark Strong) and brokers a reconciliation between a Thark father and daughter (Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton). Not bad, huh?!

This is your basic sci-fi, space-romance story in the B-movie style.  All good fun.  So what went so horribly wrong? Well, for a start, it just isn't fun to watch! The dialogue and delivery is remarkably po-faced and earnest.  The only actor who looks like he's having any fun at all is James Purefoy as a Helios General in the HBO Rome Mark Anthony mould.  Purefoy is a scene-stealer, and left me wondering what this movie had been like if he had been cast as John Carter instead of pretty boy and ex-Friday Night Lights star, Taylor Kitsch. Purefoy would've been more age-appropriate for a start, and has so much more charisma than Kitsch, who comes across as a whimpering pasty bouncing ball.  

Which brings me to the next problem: the look of the actors.  The movie is set on Mars, so of course, the Martians have to have red skin. Problem is, they just look like they've have had Essex-style bad fake tans (orange-heavy) and their costumes are so plastic-fantastic they look like cheap action figures.  Which brings me to the next problem.  Poor Lynn Collins - the female love-interest - is made to where a series of revealing costumes that are clearly catering to the same teen-boy fantasy as Princess Leia's bikini.  This sits ill with the fact that Collins is not a conventional beauty. I applaud that casting - it makes the fact that the Princess is a science geek more credible than, say, casting Megan Fox - but it seems hypocritical to make so much of her brains and fighting smarts, while dressing her like Martian Barbie. 

And this uneasy juxtaposition brings me to my final, and biggest problem with the film: its need to bely its B-movie status my pumping up the emotional gravity. Do we really need the father-daughter angst in the Thark storyline, for instance? Cutting that could've got the movie down to a 90 minute run-time for a start. And worst of all, the most crass scene is one where John Carter in battle is inter-cut with a flash-back to him digging his wife's grave on Earth.  No-one needs that kind of crass emotional manipulation in the midst of a good old-fashioned punch-up.  The inter-cutting was utterly unearned and utterly unsuccessful. Much like the rest of this unloved ginger stepchild of a movie.

JOHN CARTER is on global release in all bar Portugal, where it opens next weekend, and Japan, where it opens on April 13th.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012


THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL is a movie of questionable taste and worse political judgement.  It's a testament to its charming cast that it manages to slip down rather easily, all the same. 

The basic concept is that a bunch of middle-class English pensioners move to a ramshackle Rajasthani hotel and experience epiphanies. The recent widow (Judi Dench) learns independence; the retired civil servant (Bill Nighy) and his wife (Penelope Wilton) learn that they do not love or even like each other; the two desperate singles (Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup) learn that are still sexually attractive; the racist (Maggie Smith) learns tolerance; and the gay high court judge (Tom Wilkinson) finds peace. 

The problem with the film is the typical problem that modern England has in viewing its colonial heritage. On the one hand, it simply has to acknowledge the dirt, disease, discrimination and general chaos of modern India. On the other, it is faintly embarrassed of this disapproval given its own guilt regarding the Raj, and still has a deep-seated love of the country whose culture, language and cooking have so influenced the home nations. The result is a depiction of India that is at once patronising and awe-struck.  India is the country of spiritual revelation and ancient wisdom.  But it is also depicted as a country of almost child-like innocents who believe in happy endings, ideally set to a musical number.  This absurd juxtaposition is best summed up in the movie SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - marketed as a "feelgood movie" despite scenes of child beggars deliberately blinded, capped off with the obligatory song-and-dance number straight after a scene where the hero's brother has shot himself.  

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL isn't quite as crass as SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. And indeed, in one storyline, we see a reconciliation between ruler and ruled played out as a reconciliation between two homosexual lovers - one a colonial, one an Indian. That at least shows some self-awareness on the part of the film-makers, although it falls far short of the kind of self-examination seen in the novels of E.M.Forster.  But at the end of the day, this is just another movie in which India is a colourful, exoticised backdrop against which pampered Westerners can gain "self-knowledge".  There's no real concern with what life there is really like. And the self-knowledge is easily gained - in the case of Maggie Smith's character, the personality alteration so swift as to beggar belief. 

Still, as I said, the movie is a surprisingly pleasant watch, mainly because it's cast is top-notch and charming, partly because where the movie is on "home soil" it is actually quite insightful.  In other words, when focusing on the disappointments of old age, the movie actually has interesting things to say about the way in which the middle classes are seeing their pension income eroded - their healthcare costs increase - the shock to discover the welfare state and corporate pension simply aren't enough - the indignity of realising one's sex life might be over - the desperation of knowing that the chances to turn one's life around are limited, if they exist at all.

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL is on release in the UK and Ireland. It opens on March 15th in Germany; on March 22nd in Australia; Norway, the Netherlands,  New Zealand, Russia, Estonia, Finland, Spain and Sweden; on March 28th in Belgium; on March 20th in Italy and Lithuania; on April 12th in Portugal; on May 4th in India and the USA; on May 9th in France; on May 11th in Brazil; on May 17th in Hong Kong and Singapore; and on May 24th in Argentina.