Saturday, November 30, 2013

Big fat film review - 7 films. I'll be brief I promise.

Here are some thoughts on 7 films I've seen recently. There are mild spoilers throughout.

The Way, Way Back
I went to see this at Chapter with my friend Nigel. It's an American family drama about a boy called Duncan who goes on holiday with his mum, his mum's domineering new boyfriend, Trent, and Trent's daughter who is a couple of years older then Duncan. Steve Carell plays Trent. It's a straight role, and I wish he played more 'straight' roles because he is excellent in this as a passive aggressive bully who lectures Duncan on how relationships are founded on respect while at the same time belittling him.

Duncan then ends up at a run-down water-park away from the beach when he meets Owen played by Sam Rockwell, who doesn't take life too seriously. At first the wise-cracking Owen seems like one of life's wasters, but then as the film wears on, it becomes apparent that he has more depth to him, and through offering respect to Duncan is a better role model than Trent. The acceptance and trust that Owen places in Duncan transforms Duncan from a shy teenager to a young man.

The film has moments of real quality. There is a strong supporting cast including Toni Collette as Duncan's mum, Alison Janney and Amanda Peet.

Stand-out scene: Owen intervenes when Trent verbally assaults Duncan, simply by standing between them. Trent, a bully by nature, isn't going to get involved in a fight he might not win, so backs off, revealing his true cowardly nature.
Rating: 7/10

The Adjustment Bureau
This is a couple of years old and Cathy and I watched it on TV. Matt Damon plays David, an aspiring politician who meets a professional dancer, Elise, played by Emily Blunt. They fall for each other, but mysterious 'agents' of the 'adjustment bureau' intervene to keep them apart. The bureau exists to make sure that people adhere to the plan for their life.

David and Elise are not meant to be together and the agents track them to make sure they don't meet up. It's a weird concept and there are plenty of interesting points to make about fate, love and choices. If David and Elise stay together they will miss out on their destinies to become President and a world famous dancer, respectively. What choice will they make?

I could see how the metaphysical questions would put many people off. I thought it was fascinating. The film is excellently shot and Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are both brilliant in it. Yes, the story is weird. All was almost explained though when 'Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick' came up at the end.

Stand-out scene: David is told humans were given the freedom to decide their own fate and it all went horribly wrong. So 'The Chairman' (a thinly veiled reference to God?) retook control.
Rating: 8/10

I went to see this with Cathy - she got free tickets, somehow. It's not a film I'd have gone to see otherwise, which would have been a shame. Steve Coogan stars as real-life journalist turned spin doctor Martin Sixsmith, reeling after being sacked from his job advising the government. Trying to get back into work, he takes a 'human interest' story when he is introduced to Philomena Lea, played by Judi Dench.

Philomena was 14 and pregnant in mid-century Ireland. As a result she was sent to live in a convent, where she had the baby and worked in the laundry to earn her keep. When her boy, Anthony, was three, the nuns sold him to a childless couple from America. She asks Martin to track her down.

It's safe to say the nuns do not come out of this film in a good light. Obsessed that Philomena 'enjoyed her sin' they with-held all information from her for years, destroying their records so that she and other women wouldn't be able to trace their children. A trip to America uncovers Anthony's life, but the story's resolution is, amazingly, back in Ireland.

Considering the story is based on Martin Sixsmith's real-life experience of investigating what happen to Anthony Lea, he is remarkably honest about his own flaws. He doesn't come out of the film as the hero. Steve Coogan plays the role dead straight and is very, very good. There's an emotional punch at the end that I found very hard to take.

Stand-out scene: Philomena watches home movies of Anthony's life and we, the audience, discover the lies she has been told before she does.
Rating: 8/10

The Eagle
I watched this on TV. It was dreadful. Channing Tatum stars as a Roman general who wants to find out to his father's legion that went missing North of Hadrian's Wall twenty years or so previously. Setting off with his British slave, Jamie Bell, they travel to Scotland to recover the 'Eagle' - the standard of the missing legion, that is now in the hands of the savage natives.

I reckon whoever acted as a historical advisor on this should hand their money back. It was obtained under false pretenses. Apparently druids rode chariots into battle and Scotland was inhabited by 'painted people' who look more like Mohicans or the weird Mayan remnant in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Stand-out scene: A panning 'map-shot' or Roman Britain included Viriconium - now known as Wroxeter and about 15 miles from where I grew up. Seriously, that's the only bit worth watching for.
Rating: 2/10

Mean Girls
We watched this on DVD after being leant it by our friend, Clare. Lindsay Lohan plays Cady, a girl who is suddenly dropped into high school after years of being home educated on the African Savannah. There's some play there on how high school is a more hostile environment.

I'm sure everyone reading this will have seen Mean Girls. The main plot point is that Cady is adopted by the superficial queen-bitches of the school, known by their detractors as The Plastics. Initially intending to bring the Mean Girls down, Cady slowly morphs into one of them, until she realises what she has become.

With strong support from other great teen actors and Tina Fey as a teacher (she also wrote the screenplay), Mean Girls has a lot to say about the tribalism and sheer ferocity of school life. There are also a number of unexpected moments, most memorably involving a school bus.

Stand-out scene: The incident with the bus near the end.
Rating: 6/10

Thor: the Dark World
The Marvel / Avengers franchise spins on its merry way with this sequel to Thor. Much has been said on the film forums about Chris Hemsworth's (Thor) lack of charisma. Cathy argues that this works though, because in her view, most of the 'big gods' in the old pantheons were a bit dim anyway. Tom Hiddleston excels as Loki, the trickster and Thor's adopted brother, while Natalie Portman, as Thor's human love interest, Jane, had very little to do in the film, really, but did it quite well.

I'd like to see Natalie Portman actually lead a blockbuster. She has been a key figure in a few, but like the Star Wars prequels, her main role seems to be to give the hero something to think about and relate to. She's a better actress than that, but isn't given the space to show it.

The film is basically about the re-emergence of the Dark Elves, who want to destroy all nine worlds of the known multi-verse and re-establish the primordial darkness that existed beforehand. Thor and Loki have to team up to stop him. It fits nicely into the Marvel Avengers story arc and includes plenty of references to the other films, along with plenty of humour. There's also a marvellous cameo from one of the other Avengers.

Stand-out scene: Thor busts Loki out of the Asgardian prison, and one-by-one all his friends tell Loki that if he betrays Thor they will make him pay.
Rating: 7/10

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology
Bit of an odd one this. I went with my friend Ollie to Chapter to see it, at his suggestion. It's basically two hours of philosopher Slavoj Zizek deconstructing the 'ideology' that infuses our world (i.e. capitalism) with the aid of clips from famous movies.

It starts with clips from John Carpenter's 'They Live' to illustrate how ideology isn't a pair of glasses we put on. We actually have to put the glasses on to see the ideology that we don't otherwise notice. It then jumps incongruously to clips from the Sound of Music and and interesting critique of Catholicism as an institution, not as a faith.

I would probably have found this easier to watch in 15-20 minutes sections as I found my brain couldn't keep up with all the ideas knocking around in it. It is very cleverly shot, with Zizek 'inhabiting' various movie scenes to explain the ideology they contain. He confirms my disgust at The Dark Knight's nihilism, pulls apart the upper class parasitism on the working class as evidenced in Titanic, and uses long clips from Nazi and Soviet propaganda films to make further points.

Well worth a watch, but not an easy one. It left me with an awful lot of questions. I didn't really get the bit with the Kinder egg.

Stand-out scene: Using Willem Defoe's performance as Jesus in Martin Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ, Zizek argues that the only path to true atheism is through Christianity, because in dying on the cross, Jesus set humanity free from dependence on God, and therefore humans are free to determine the meaning of their lives and actions. Big stuff.
Rating: 7/10