Sunday, 30 December 2012

Doctor Who: The Snowmen

“I said I’d feed you. I didn’t say who to…”

Gosh, there’s so much to talk about, isn’t there? 2010 aside, Christmas episodes are usually fluffy, light, and aimed at a larger and more drunk audience than usual. There’s an element of that, mind, but there’s also lots of other cool stuff that we’re obviously going to talk about. So I’ll just quickly get the actual “review” part of the review over with so we can do that.

This is a fun, exciting and magical piece of family Christmas entertainment, with a mix of scares (the Snowmen, with their sharp, pointy teeth- bloody scary), wonderment (the TARDIS is on top of a cloud, reached via an invisible staircase: the Doctor gets more and more like a good wizard all the time), good villains (Richard E. Grant and the voice of Ian McKellen) and laughs (Strax: Moffat is his usual comedy genius self and Dan Starkey is a bloody good comic actor). It’s exceedingly good. There. Let’s move on to the geeky stuff, shall we?

There’s a shiny new theme tune, which seems ok so far: I need time to get used to it and make a proper judgement. There are new and brilliant opening titles,which look to be 3-D ready and, in a nicely retro touch, feature a glimpse of Matt Smith’s face. Best of all is the retooled TARDIS interior, which kicks arse.

The Doctor is far from over losing Amy, moping in Victorian England ostentatiously refusing to do Doctorish things while his supporting cast Madame Vastra, Jenny, and their rather funny Sontaran butler Strax keep him company. According to Vastra he “prefers isolation to the possibility of pain’s return”, and is doing sod all. Of course, all this leaves a suspiciously large gap for a massive retcon; I won’t be surprised if Moffat later reveals that the Doctor has been up to something important in the London of 1892.

Moffat, being the co-creator of Sherlock, gives us a bit of metatextual fun, establishing that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character in the Doctor Who continuity, probably based by Conan Doyle on the exploits of Madame Vastra and her lady wife. This also functions as a nice little shorthand as to what sort of adventures they’re getting up to while the Doctor, apparently, isn’t having any.

But let’s get to the point: Jenna-Louise Coleman making her debut (again) as Clara, as a dress rehearsal until she presumably debuts for good at the start of the next series. I like her. She’s ingenious, resourceful and, as my girlfriend remarked, similar to Alice off of Alice in Wonderland in the way she just accepts all these wonders and investigates them. I still reckon there’s a germ of truth in the charge that Moffat tends to write his women in a certain way, with River Song being as good a template as any, but much of that is down to the demands of the genre: the female lead in an adventure series is bound to possess certain traits.

Clara / Oswin so beguiles the Doctor that he invites her to travel with him after a ridiculously short period of time, until Moffat goes and does his misdirection thing and (eventually) kills her. Again. But by now the Doctor has realised: she’s the same person, twice. What is going on? He needs to “find” her, and seems possessed with a rejuvenated urge to adventure.

Some last uber-geeky things: The baddie is the Great Intelligence, making this a prequel to TheAbominable Snowmen, which aired back in 1967. The 1967 London Underground map rather tends to indicate that The Web of Fear was set in this year, which buggers up UNIT dating delightfully. And the origin story for the Great Intelligence here rules out the Lovecraftian theories as promoted in the Virgin novels back in the ‘90s.

Black Swan (2010)

“Get ready to give me more of that bite!”

This is only the second film helmed by Darren Aronofsky that I’ve seen ( I reviewed π a fair while ago), and already he’s threatening to become one of my favourites. The previous film, an early effort, was low budget and independent, while this is a big Hollywood film, but the directorial style is just as uncompromised. This film, essentially, rocks. It’s intense. It’s clever. Once again there’s a focus on the inner life of one character, although I suppose I‘d have to see more of Aronofsky’s films to know whether this is a thing of him. But this film rules. Sod it, it’s about ballet, and I loved it. Do you have any idea how little I knew or cared about ballet?

In reality, though, this film could be set within any milieu where the competition is intense and overpowering. It’s hard to see a more extreme example of this than in the life of the ballerina, though; out of a large chorus there are only a few who make it big. The dietary restrictions are impossibly draconian. Joints are cracked as part of a regular ritual sure to guarantee consequences later in life. The sacrifices made are huge, and yet it may lead to nothing, as was the case with Nina’s mother, who simultaneously places her hopes in her daughter and jealously puts her down.

This is not a healthy lifestyle in any sense. In the case of Nina there is disturbingly graphic self-harm, sexual favours given for the sake of a good role, and ultimately derangement of a kind which is beautifully demonstrated throughout the film; only towards the tragic denouement do we realise just how many of the events have happened only in Nina’s imagination. The film is a slow unravelling of one obsessed young woman’s life, and it’s riveting.

Natalie Portman carries the film, with credit also due to Mila Kunis as the grounded and stable Lily and Vincent Cassel, so great in La Haine, as Maestro Thomas LeRoy, in the first time I’ve seen him in an English language film. LeRoy is a deeply creepy individual, using his power over these desperately ambitious, attractive young women in ways which are desperately predictable. Also worthy of praise is Winona Rder as Beth, whose fate prefigures the horrors which await Nina and point towards the meaninglessness of such obsession. Only those such as Lily, with a sense of perspective and a life outside ballet, survive relatively unscathed.

The climactic scenes, of Nina’s performance, are deeply clever, sublimely directed, and lead us to question much of what we’ve seen. This is a very clever, very visual and delightfully weird film which takes an art house sensibility and puts it into the relative mainstream. It’s a must see, whether you follow ballet or not.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Hide and Seek (2005)

“I don’t wanna play with Charlie any more!”

There are two points to make before I begin. One, this film is based around one massive great big revelation so, y’ know, THERE BE SPOILERS. Two, this is the ninety-third film I’ve reviewed for this blog but only the first to feature Robert de Niro. How on Earth did that happen?

De Niro gives an extraordinary performance in a role which absolutely requires one. Like a certain part in The Usual Suspects which I shan’t spoil for those of you who haven’t seen it, it requires two performances in one. De Niro has to convince as David, the well-meaning bereaved father who’s trying to do the right thing, and as Charlie. The film structures itself around the revelation well; I, for one, didn’t guess, and was shocked. I have my doubts about basing a film so thoroughly around one big twist, if you guess the twist, the film is ruined for you. That wasn’t the case for me, though, and like all good twists I felt that the clues had been there.

The film moulds itself well around the twist, even to the point of having a character, Mr Haskins, who exists only to fulfil the role of red herring, almost to the point of parody. Aside from De Niro, though, the standout performance is from a very young Dakota Fanning, who fulfils the trope of the creepy kid with aplomb.  

The climax, in which De Niro, as Charlie, chases his daughter through the house with an axe, may be clichéd, but it was the only place to go after the revelation. And the final scene, in which one of Emily’s drawings seems to suggest that she too may have multiple personality disorder (Hollywood thriller version) is delicious.

It’s weird seeing this so soon after Drop Dead Fred; for a while, it appears as though we’re getting a very different spin on the concept of imaginary friends! It isn’t quite up there with the best, relying as it does on that one big twist, but it’s a good film nonetheless, and De Niro is superb.

Hard Candy (2005)

“Does your mother know you cut off men’s balls?”

That Ellen Page is a bloody good actress, ain’t she? She was superb in Juno and she’s just as superlative her. I suppose that in both cases she’s playing smart, eccentric characters, but look beyond the superficial and they’re two very different parts. She also seems to be good at choosing scripts. Both of the films I’ve seen so far in which she’s starred have been bloody good. So, obviously, I bloody love this film, in spite of the disturbing subject matter. And, it must be said, the castration scene, especially for those of us burdened with a Y chromosome.

This is a low-budget film, utilising limited sets and very little location filming; this script could be performed in a theatre with minimal alteration. It’s a two-hander; aside from Ellen Page as Hayley, a very clever fourteen year old girl, and Patrick Wilson as Jeff. It’s a few minutes into the film, after we see their online flirting and the first few minutes of their date, that we learn her age, and realise that Jeff is a paedophile. Not for the last time, the film subverts our expectations uncomfortably.

Hayley is highly intelligent, extremely well-read and exhibits a quirkiness that both fits with and draws attention from the big revelation: yes, Jeff has lured her to his home for sick and disgusting purposes, but she’s no helpless damsel in distress. She, not he, is the predator, and the bulk of the film consists of her discussing his sick proclivities, with extraordinary psychological insight, as she slowly tortures and kills him. The dialogue is what makes this a great film. There’s an extremely good scene in which Jeff tries to insist that, yes, he may be a paedo, but he’s also done work for environmental causes, much as Jimmy Savile did an awful lot for charity. Hayley may probably be insane, but I like her. I’m sure she was lying about liking Coldplay, too, so I won’t hold that against her.

This film has an awful lot to say about the subversion of gender roles in popular culture, about the male gaze, and about power. What’s particularly nice is that Jeff has to reveal all sorts of deep, dark secrets to Hayley, but he (and the viewer) ends up knowing nothing about her- not her motives, the whereabouts of her parents, or even her name. Hard Candy starts out seeming like another version of the old trope of men objectifying women- or, in this case, girls- but ends up subverting that; all along it’s Hayley, not Jeff, who has the agency.

I suppose the film could be criticised for promoting vigilantism and capital punishment, both of which I passionately oppose, but I think that would be overly harsh. This is a thriller, and genres have conventions. I recommend this film highly. It’s just the thing for Christmas Eve.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Thirteen (2004)

“I think my nose is melting off. Ew!”

This is a film I most likely never would have seen if my gorgeous girlfriend hadn’t introduced me to it a few days ago; thirteen girls in 2004 are a very alien species to a thirteen year old boy from 1990. It is, as one would imagine, a rather scary watch for someone who expects to become a father in a few years’ time. I should probably admit that a fair few of the thoughts in this review, especially about the direction, are shamelessly nicked off things said by my girlfriend while we were watching it.

This is helmed by Catherine Hardwicke, who did a rather unimpressive job in directing Twilight, which was largely ruined by the dullness of the washed-out colour. Here she does a much better job but, interestingly, what works so well here is very similar to what failed in the other film, namely the use of colour. At the beginning of the film, with Tracy doing well at school and living a safe and relatively happy life, the film is brightly coloured. But the colours wash away throughout the film until, at the end, there is nothing but a blue tint. There is also a billboard which becomes more and more distressed-looking, mirroring Tracy’s decline as a kind of Dorian Gray painting in reverse.

This isn’t a pleasant film to watch. The actresses may have been eighteen, but it’s extremely disturbing to see thirteen year olds being so sexualised. The peer pressure is awful too; I may not have been one of the cooler kids at thirteen, but I never wore any designer labels or the like; I dressed like the child that I was. Still, I don’t exactly wear designer labels now, so I’m probably not typical. I’m uncomfortably reminded of the fact (I’m 35) that I’m not as young as I was. But I’m reminded of a simple fact: being a teenager is horrible, and too many of us forget that later in our lives. Intense pressure from all sides is combined with a total lack of experience in how to handle this, plus there are hormones on top.

There’s use of LSD and cocaine in this film, shoplifting, a certain amount of sexual activity and, worst of all, graphic and horrible instances of self-harm. There’s thankfully no paedo stuff or sexual abuse, but everything else that parents worry about is here. Most terrifying of all is the powerless of Tracy’s well-meaning but weak mother, who has no way of responding to her daughter’s tantrums and, worse, has a fair idea of what is going on throughout. The climax, when she discovers her daughter’s drug abuse and scars from self-harm, is utterly terrifying to watch. Depressingly, Tracy’s father, well-off though he is, is neglectful and useless. Once again it’s the woman who has to cope while the man does nothing.

The fickle nature of teenage friendships, and their terrible cost, lies at the film’s core, as Tracy’s new “bad girl” friend Evie betrays her. Yet there are shades of grey; Evie’s claims of abuse may easily be true. There are no easy answers, and there is no resolution at the end, a brave choice.

This isn’t a film to enjoy. It’s natural audience may, perhaps, be limited, and I worry about its central message being scarily easy to Daily Mail-ify. Nevertheless, it’s an extremely well-made film. What didn't impress me, though, was the lack of subtitles on the DVD: there's no excuse for this.