Sunday, 20 January 2013

Cruel Intentions (1999)

“You can put it anywhere!”

This is a first; a film which my girlfriend persuaded me to blog in the hope that I‘d slag it off. She hates it. Yes, it’s partly her intense dislike of Sarah Michelle Gellar, but it’s also the slowness, dullness and, yes, poshness of all the characters. This is a modern update of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and all the rich New York protagonists are quite as obnoxious as any aristocrat from pre-revolutionary France.

There’s an awkward tension pervading the film, in fact; the plot is adapted from a play written in the 1780s, and the intricate structure of the storyline very much feels like it. This fits very awkwardness with the modernity of the setting, the characters and the social mores./It’s well-executed, but Les Liaisons Dangereuses doesn’t fit well with the modern high school movie. The film is not bad, but it’s hard to admire, and easy to mock. I’m reminded of Not Another High School Movie and its piss take of the lesbian kiss scene- a scene which, incidentally, makes both myself and my bisexual girlfriend go “Euuurgh!”.

Sarah Michelle Gellar is good, as always, although one note, as always. She’s a good actress, but not very likeable. Ryan Philippe is… meh. Reese Witherspoon is really rather good, admittedly. But perhaps it’s not the performances; none of the characters are remotely likeable. They’re all arseholes. Kathryn and Sebastian are cruel and arrogant, Cecile is self-centred, while Annette, for all her self-proclaimed “morals”, thinks relationships matter so little that we needn’t bother finding out whether we’re sexually compatible with each other before getting married.

Admittedly, the direction is good. The oddly British indie soundtrack (Placebo during the opening titles, the Verve’s overrated Bittersweet Symphony, and Blur’s Coffee and TV during the lesbian kiss- interesting choice) is ok too. But the whole thing is hard to take seriously, with so many sex scenes which need to be filmed at weird camera angles to avoid showing too much. And this is set in a world of privilege with which it’s hard to identify. Oh, and the late ‘90s were a fashion wasteland, but you knew that.

This isn’t an awful film, but it isn’t essential either. I’m not going to disappoint my girlfriend: Cruel Intentions is kind of meh.

The Nightmare before Christmas (1993)

“Attacked by Christmas toys? That's strange, that's the second toy complaint we've had.”

I watched this on Christmas Eve and it’s now 20th January. Still, better late than never, eh? After all, it’s not as though people are sick and tired of all things Christmas at this time of year, right?

I now fully realise how culturally impoverished I was not to have seen this gothic, glorious little jewel of a stop motion animated musical before now. The first of the songs, I learn, eventually found its way into Marilyn Manson’s set list, while Henry Selick’s stop motion animation is the best since Ray Harryhausen. The art is not yet dead. And yes, I know, it’s yet another musical. I seem to be losing my credentials as someone who doesn’t like them.

This is a Henry Selick film; he directs and does the stop motion animation. Yes, Tim Burton supplied the storyline, but it’s not the storyline that makes this film so extraordinary. It isn’t a Tim Burton film, however close it may be to his sort of aesthetic.

The whole concept is completely mad, of course, and bizarrely abstract. Halloween and Christmas are both towns, naturally, with appropriately weird inhabitants, and Halloween decides that it’s going to do Christmas instead, with unfortunate results. That’s it. But around all this we get set pieces and visual treats galore, making this short film a piece of Christmas Eve perfection.

All the characters look great. There’s Jack, of course, but I particularly like Sally, created out of cadavers by the superbly named Dr Finkelstein. Best of all, though, is Oogie Woogie. He’s the coolest, the best singer, and made out of insects. What’s not to like?

So, yeah, good film. The next review might not be so gushing. It certainly won’t be so much of a wait…!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Finding Neverland (2004)

“But I’m not Peter Pan. He is.”

There are two types of films starring Johnny Depp: those which are directed by Tim Burton, and those which aren’t, and on average the former category is better. This is definitely an exception, and shows once again that Depp’s acting range is phenomenal. He’s not just a pretty face, but possibly the most talented leading man in Hollywood today. It’s either him or Robert Downey Jr.

Depp plays the childlike yet wise J.M. Barrie, true eccentric and creator of Peter Pan, with a Scottish accent that sounds flawless to this Sassenach; he has a real talent for accents. He isn’t obvious casting, but makes the role his own with his trademark attention to external mannerisms. There’s also a superb performance from Kate Winslet, and a puzzlingly small one from Dustin Hoffman.

The film chronicles the innocent relationship between Barrie and widowed single mother Sylvia Davies, and the increasingly close relationship between “Uncle Jim” and her four children. His relationship with both mother and children is entirely innocent, but a brief scene with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at a cricket match makes it clear that suspicions were held even in 1903, decades before Jimmy Savile was born. It’s unfortunate, these days, that the main character is an Uncle Jim.

The children are the inspiration for the play Peter Pan, but the film gradually darkens with the realisation that Sylvia is not well, and the children are fated to be orphaned yet again. The most interesting of the children to the theme of the film is Peter, a boy who rejects imagination and storytelling, finding it hard to disentangle them from the lies he has always been told about the seriousness of both his parents’ illnesses. It is fitting that, of all the children, he seems to be the closest to “Uncle Jim”.

The climax of the film is deeply moving. Ok, if you must, I’ll admit that I cried, dammit, in the most manly way possible. Still, at least my girlfriend didn’t point and laugh. Much.

The Social Network (2010)

“Your best friend is suing you for $600 million dollars…”

Like everyone else, I’m trapped on Facebook. It’s socially impossible not to be on there- I’d miss out on everything- but the whole thing is a constant battle to defend my privacy against that bastard Mark Zuckerberg. All of us users of Facebook need to realise that it is not we who are the customers, but the entities that pay for access to all of our personal private stuff. And this film, scripted by the great Aaron Sorkin, purports to show how it all started.

I say “purports” not to diss this excellent film  but to recognise that it’s a fictionalised version of real events, a very different animal to an actual depiction of real events. This film isn’t the absolute “truth” and doesn’t make any such claim; how could it? The broad details of how Facebook came to be are known, but the finer details are murky, shrouded in legalistic fog, and highly disputed. Sorkin, quite rightly, has to a large extent decided to print the legend.

This film is superb. The script, as one would suspect, is excellent: a non-linear narrative, with scenes framed by later court scenes in which facts are disputed, and with all of Sorkin’s trademark wit. The soundtrack, too, is excellent, as one would expect from the great Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. But the film rest on three superb performances from Jesse Eisenberg as the insufferable genius himself, flanked by Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake (yes, Justin Timberlake) as the rogueish, washed-up founder of Napster.

It’s tempting to wonder how close the real Mark Zuckerberg is to the highly annoying, focussed, borderline Aspergers business genius depicted here; it’s tempting to conclude “quite a lot”, but the real Zuckerberg is a mysterious figure. Rather hypocritically, he guards his privacy jealously. Interestingly, the film presents him unsympathetically part of the time, but also allows him to be sympathetic at times; as viewers, we’re rooting for him against those insufferable Winklevoss brothers.

The film ends, in a scene shot in the real Facebook offices, with Zuckerberg symbolically alone in front of a screen. He’s wealthy, successful, but in contrast to the free-spirited Sean Parker he seems unable to enjoy the fruits of his success. Doesn’t your heart bleed for the poor billionaire?

I enjoyed this film hugely. If you’re a fan of Sorkin, witty dialogue, or good writing, or also trapped on Facebook, then so will you.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The Illusionist (2006)

“Everything you have seen here has been an illusion.”

This is the first time I’ve seen this film, but I well remember the awkwardness of its coming out at much the same time as The Prestige, which slightly overshadowed it and was largely seen as the better of the two films about Victorian magicians with massive twists. That’s a pity. The Illusionist, considered on its own merits, is a fine film.

The film is set in a semi-historical Vienna of 1900, in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and has an interesting political subtext. The villain, Crown Prince Leopold, is fictional (although the emperor is clearly Franz Josef) and at the head of a disturbingly hierarchical class system with the Habsburg monarchy at its apex. The emperor is far more than a figurehead, and the snobbery of the system is seen in various ways- Eisenheim’s romance with the Duchess Von Teschen is star-crossed and forbidden, while Chief Inspector Uhl is limited in his career paths through being far too common to advance much further, especially given the further handicap of his integrity; Paul Giamatti is outstanding.

And yet the Habsburgs are the glue that holds this multi-ethnic empire together, protecting it from the dangers of nationalism and ethnic conflict which would plague this area throughout the Twentieth Century, from the Holocaust to the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia. The empire is archaic and moribund, but the future without the Habsburgs is ominous. Another slight theme is the association of the Crown Prince with rationalism and empiricism and Eisenheim with Madame Blavatsky style spiritualism. This is a little uncomfortable for the sceptics among us, but heigh-ho.

The film centres mainly around an audacious, brilliant and twisty-turny plot with a still, dignified, mysterious hero in Eisenheim (Edward Norton gives an undemonstrative performance but this seems appropriate), a truly unpleasant villain in the Crown Prince (a suitably slimy Rufus Sewell). I shall try to avoid spoilers, but the plotting is glorious and the ending truly satisfying.

The direction, from Neil Burger, is also impressive. I admire the colours in particular, with the sepia element to the opening titles and the pre-Raphaelite look to the flashbacks contrasting with the realism of the “present”. It’s a mystery why the largely American cast should feel the need to adopt vaguely British accents for characters who would have been speaking German, a rather odd Hollywood habit, but otherwise I can find little to pick at. The score, from none other than Philip Glass himself, is also superb.

As far as I can recall this isn’t quite up there with The Prestige. But it deserves better than to be unfavourably compared to a slightly better film. The Illusionist is a superb film in its own right.