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Dredd (2012): stylized violent fun in convincingly post-apocalyptic Megacity 1 (Cape Town and Johannesburg).

It’s all in the grimace.

Never let it be said that contemporary South African cities do not provide convincing post-apocalyptic cinema opportunities. Like the fantastic District 9, this film’s Megacity 1 is shot in the very mean streets of urban Johannesburg and Cape Town, featuring a host of extras who look quite at home wandering the streets and slums and apartment complexes of this convincingly realised world. Made this expat almost homesick!

Simply put, this film is an outright artistic and cinematic success; an entertaining blast – especially nice for those of us aging 80s kids who fondly recall 2000AD and the original Judge Dredd graphic novels. It seems to be getting ignored on circuit here in the USA (I can’t really understand why: perhaps the younger generation can’t see it, US kids have probably never heard of Judge Dredd, and it has no ‘big’ stars). The film received an above-everage 77% on rottentomatoes, despite being clearly misunderstood by most of the non-geek reviewers on that site. And it’s especially effective compared with the lame tongue-in-cheek Stallone, Diane Lane version some years ago (Lane was good at least and the visuals were terrific if overly slick). This Dredd is directed by Brit Pete Travis and is a refreshingly internationally-flavoured production (a UK/South African co-production spiced up by New Zealander Urban and UK’s bad-girl Headey). This, of course, is why the film is gritty, authentic and violent, and probably why it won’t do well. It just isn’t Transformers in any shape or form.

Circe clearly no longer looking her best.

In addition to stellar mise-en-scene and effects, the filmmakers keep the plot simple and dark (the screenplay was written by the talented Alex Garland, which is probably why it Is so gripping), and the narrative exciting and R-rated (no pandering to kids here, thankfully). Basically, Dredd and PSI Anderson, a psychic ‘mutant’ rookie, are trapped, with a suspect, in a locked-down megalith apartment complex controlled by a scarred, psychotic drug-addled Lena Headey: Circe (of Game of Thrones) gone quite mad. They are hunted by her scores of minions and must survive with limited ammunition. That’s pretty much it.

The South African film crew are to be commended here, as well as the largely UK-based digital effects team: the film is set almost entirely in the apartment complex, and every surface is rendered in a terrifically tactile, grubby and claustrophobic way, adding tremendous atmosphere to the production. In fact, it is impossible to see any difference between the physical sets and the digital, which is great. The film is thus kinda old-fashioned: sitting in the large, empty theatre (only single guys with huge popcorn) I felt like I was seeing a cool sci fi movie from the 80s or early 90s like Robocop, or Escape from New York. It’s not slick, overwhelmed by slick digital effects: it’s gritty; un-Hollywood. It is satisfying and unsqueamishly bloody but never exploitative and the gore is effectively stylised, graphic novel-style. The production also manages to evoke the feel of this gritty cult graphic novel (Dredd is no superhuman!), without losing anything of the human element (even though its basically a movie about shooting people). And in these days of vacuous teen testosterone action films by Michael Bay and Peter Berg thats just what one needs in a big-screen picture.

Casting is universally great, and again, simply done. There are characters (a few) and cannon fodder (baddies and civilians). Nothing more needed really. Karl Urban is monosyllabic, heroic and unsubtle. He just IS Judge Dredd: iconic, a cipher, a comic-book figure. Convincing stuff from the always-enjoyable and talented Urban who never lets ‘star personality’ overshadow the needs of the character. Dredd’s humour is so dry as to be almost undetectable. But its there, without bringing in that awful self-consciously funny-schtick Hollywood action movies seem to insist on. (Thank god there is no side-kick!) Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who could be ‘just the girl’, is, again, true to the comic and develops as a character just enough to make us care if she ‘passes’ Dredd’s assessment. Her abilities are, actually, also quite useful. Female characters are convincing (no Megan Fox/obligatory model-types here!) elsewhere in the film too: a Very welcome sight! Ma-Ma (Headey) is pretty scary (but could have been even scarier if she was less spaced-out, I think). Headey was born to be bad-ass (and stoned it appears).

I’ll see it again. Probably even buy it. I see cult favourite potential. Now I’m off to go kick something.

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Old fashioned Gothic chills in ‘The Woman in Black’.

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I admit to a great love for all things Gothic and Ghost Story and this pleasantly old-fashioned film fulfilled on every level. Ok, it wasn’t as crafty as The Others (although I may be the only person who didn’t see the big ‘they are the ghosts!’ reveal coming), a film it resembles in some ways, but as a classic ‘Victorian’ English staple it was pretty damn solid – the film definitely feels like it is from another age. Even the ghostly ‘effects’, as hammy as they were (screaming ghostly shrouded faces), worked just fine because they are so much a part of the genre. And while the film isn’t especially scary (I only jumped once) it is effectively atmospheric and creepy complete with suicidal children, graveyards, misty Essex marshes and superstitious villagers (creepy children are pretty much implied by any ghost story). All the ghost story boxes are ticked.

Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps (thankfully freshly graduated from tween fantasy fodder) is boyish and slight-looking yet also curiously impressive and moving as the bereaved father and lawyer. I suppose he must be to carry a successful franchise like Harry Potter. Smaller roles are played with sympathy by fantastic English/Irish regulars like Janet McTeer and Ciarán Hinds. The only problem is that because of the tone and the cast, as well as the intimate, dense scale of the production, it did not have the requisite ‘big movie’ feel and came over a little like an excellent BBC Channel 4 TV film. Not necessarily a bad thing given the quality of most Channel 4 productions.

The film is based on the best-seller of the same name by English writer Susan Hill and it seems it was a faithful translation (I haven’t read the book). (By the way, if you love classic English ghost stories read Sarah Waters’ wonderful, wonderful The Little Stranger.) And I loved the ending, which brought it home to me how good, solid unpretentious film-fodder is such a dying art. Small films made memorable by fine, sensitive performances. Kipps and his lost sadness are perhaps the more memorable part of the story: the woman in black pretty much remains a mystery and is pretty unsurprising: existing purely as a conventional ghost story feature.

Basically a satisfying evening in with popcorn, dimmed lights and the cat on your lap.

More Images For ‘Byzantium’

This up and coming vampire film by Neil Jordan looks amazing. I LOVED Interview with the Vampire – even Tom Cruise as Lestat! And I am a Huge fan of both sexy Gemma Arterton and girl-genius Saoirse Ronan. I think they should continue to put Saoirse in every girl-assasin/fantasy/sci fli flick to come. PS: Anne Rice go back to writing vampire books. Lose the creepy werewolf sex (The Wolf Gift). Really. It’s gross.

More Images For ‘Byzantium’.

Awesome Hi-Res Image For Neill Blomkamp’s ‘Elysium’

Awesome Hi-Res Image For Neill Blomkamp’s ‘Elysium’.

Young Adult (2011): adult failure as tragi-comedy.

ImageThis may be one of my new favourite films. I say that with caution because a) I feel that a lot and b) I would not be able to rewatch this film very often – perhaps not ever.

For starters Young Adult is a dark and often grim exploration of failure, alcoholism, depression and adulthood. Secondly, Charlize Theron’s performance is so subtle, so human, that is almost unbearable. As are many of the other performances (Patton Oswalt, Wolfe). Mavis’ treatment of her dog alone is hard to bear!

Reading viewer comments and reviews I get the impression that a good deal of Cody and Rietman’s narrative and characterisation was misinterpreted or went over people’s heads. Of course, because the film is so multilevelled and nuanced it is impossible to completely know and understand all of the characters’ motivations, or even their truthfulness (in Mavis’ case anyway – did she really miscarry Buddy’s child or is that an invention for dramatic effect, borrowed from one of her overheard adolescent conversations or reality TV shows?). This means that Theron’s performance and the film were both woefully undervalued, despite some nominations and critical praise. Theron’s facial expressions are a picture and her physical shifts from depressive drunk in sweats to blank and mask-like foundation-caked perfection are wonderful to witness.Image

I would even go so far as to say that this film betters the very good Up in the Air, which received much critical love. As a Cody written vehicle it is certainly better than the enjoyable Juno, which wore its cleverness on its sleeve. In contrast this film is sensitive, brutally honest and always sympathetic – qualities that many viewers unfortunately failed to find in Mavis, who has been described as a sociopath or at least narcissistic and is widely considered a deeply unsympathetic, horrible character. Even Theron herself describes Mavis in these terms, and she claims to have channeled her inner bitch for the role (and like many powerful, confident actresses Theron is commonly labelled in nasty-spirited women’s gossip sites like ‘Celebitchy’ as an ‘obvious bitch’).

But this is not what I got from Mavis (and I have many problems with simplistically reducing Mavis’ problems to her being a bitch). I felt for Mavis as a failed, depressed woman – self-absorbed and damaged, yes – desperately looking for much-needed affirmation in the last place one can return – one’s youth, the past and lost love. The fact that the dull, dutiful Buddy is no longer an option never occurs to her. It isn’t even clear it matters: for Mavis Buddy (Patrick Wilson) is merely a symbol, a pathetic ruse to reclaim her past glories and a past Self she was happy with. Mavis gleefully attaches herself to anyone who will listen to her, drink with her and put up with her awfulness. Her parents and the townspeople obviously don’t get her and either loathe or pity her. Mavis’ outrage when she finds out Buddy’s wife invited her to the baby shower only because she felt sorry for her is palpable and believable. I would have felt it too: the indignity of being patronised and pitied by the smug-marrieds, hometown losers from your past. I loved Mavis’ often deluded yet spirited bitchiness. She would never go down without a fight and as a contrast to the sweet suburban moms (also portrayed as real people) this characterisation is especially brave and impactful, helped by Theron’s powerful onscreen personality. But one does wonder what will become of Mavis alone in the world. Because what we are left with is this fact – she is utterly unable to make connections with other humans, she is a drunk, a professional failure and alone.

ImageWhat is wonderful about this film is that there is no easy resolution offered. Mavis is unreformed and unsaved to the last. Yes, she sleeps with the crippled Matt (the fantastic Patton Oswalt) but even this usually predictable cinematic narrative event serves little purpose in this narrative. She needed him at the time is all. Just like she needed his sister Sandra’s pep talk about appreciating her successes in the big city (the ‘Mini-Apple’) and not taking the criticism and failures of small town life and small town people to heart. Sandra’s plea for Mavis to take her with her is one of the saddest moments of the film.

There’s a lot going on in the movie, and much is open to interpretation. It’s main success lies in fine naturalistic performances from a talented and experienced cast on their game, its unshrinking realism without being cynical or misanthropic, and its multitude of painful and amusing small-town and big city moments. The urban and peri-urban landscapes of Minnesota make for a fine commentary on ordinary America without looking down at it. The film does not poke fun at or ‘yokelise’ the locals in the way some indie films do. It does not deify authentic small-town life like many conservative films do. Young Adult is deeply and meaningfully ironic in a way that Rietman’s and Cody’s other films have not been unable to achieve: irony with heart and humanity. A rare thing indeed.

Short Cuts.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011, Guy Ritchie)

This sequel lacks the cohesion of the first film and could be a little slight and zippy for many tastes but the production design, wit and main relationship between Holmes (Downey Jnr) and Watson (Law) make up for any inadequacies. Noomi Rapace as a fighting gypsy woman is woefully underused. The evil Moriarty (Jared Harris) is a little less mythic and terrifying than he should be. A fun ride and directed by Ritchie with aplomb – albeit a little carelessly.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)

My feel-good film of the year. Lacking the self-consciously off-the-wall indie stylings of his other films, Moonrise Kingdom is funny, romantic and utterly unsentimental. Great acting from the pre-teen leads, memorable turns from an array of big names (Willis, Swinton, Norton, McDormand et al), gorgeous scenery and a fond elegiac glance at a bygone age all make for a charming and delicate experience. Accessible and impressively light with sensitive performances. What’s not to like about Boy Scouts?

A Dangerous Method (2011, David Cronenberg)

Fantastic film from a tightly knit, classy and fashionable cast and director all in top form. Mortensen, Fassbender [another great performance!] and Knightley are all faultless as Freud, Jung and the mysterious and misunderstood historical figure and fellow psychiatrist Sabina Spielrein. Some may find it dull, stagey and/or slow-moving but this is an elegantly dramatized interpretation of the origins of psychotherapy and some of the debates surrounding Freud’s theories at its root. Mortensen deserves some critical recognition soon! After The Road I started to suspect a conspiracy to ignore his quiet talent. A serious, provocative and very worthwhile viewing. It’s especially good to see Knightley in another demanding role: I look forward to Anna Karenina.

Haywire (2011, Stephen Soderbergh)

Carano, thespian, at work.

A disappointing mishmash from the erratic Soderbergh. A cast of well-knowns (Douglas, Banderas, McGregor), talented youngsters (Kirsten Stewart’s ex Angarano) and the inexplicably popular everyman Channing Tatum, this classic espionage thriller hangs by a thread on the basis of a performance by its lead, Gina Carano as the capable soldier for hire, Mallory Kane: a betrayed black ops agent on the run. And this is the problem. One of them.

Carano is a fantastic physical presence – a real life mixed martial arts fighter and athlete. Unlike every other woman on film playing a combat professional, Carano is utterly convincing and kicks serious ass in this film. Believably. But. She is not much of an actress. She lacks the star oomph that makes one able to watch the similarly dire Jean-Claude or Chuck Norris (hmm, maybe not him) or Dolph or Ahnold. In fact these men are all worse actors than she is, but she is just so … normal looking. So unmemorable. Beyond the fighting that is. And the bit part walk-ons by Tatum etc are just so slight. So I would actually give this one a miss unless you Really don’t care about characterization. Which sometimes one doesn’t. Carano’s a much better actress; is sexier and more personable than Cynthia Rothrock, that’s for sure. I think its just that one expects more from a proper film director like Soderbergh. Flimsy and unsatisfying.

Whoever thought to cast Rothrock as a sex kitten should be shot.

Prometheus: faith, tentacles and impregnation.(*Spoiler Alert*)

I saw Prometheus today and I’m still recovering. Its an exhausting ride. Initially I was afraid to see it. Like all passionate fans of Ridley Scott, Alien (and all those just praying, longing, hoping for One good sci fi movie, please gods!) I was desperate to see it, desperate to love it and terrified it would be more like the past decade or so of Ridley Scott i.e. slick, competent, visually gorgeous but ultimately disappointing and empty. (And lets not mention Robin Hood.) Well, I’m afraid to say I agree with many of the critics. The writing let the film down. Its memorable, fabulous, fucking terrifying, gross, better than almost all other sci fi out there, but not a true contribution to or reinvention of the genre in the way Alien or Blade Runner were. Perhaps we placed the bar too high? I mean those two films were not free of their faults. But this one…there are just too many things that grate the faithful viewer to ignore. The confounding and odd opening scene alone has sent fan discussion forums ablaze. When creation is an integral part of your film, you know there may be … trouble. The film certainly has its share of inconsistencies and lack of logic. But this also adds to the fun – and the parody potential.

Firstly the good stuff. The film is a respectful and satisfying link to the Aliens canon in several ways. It is definitely a prequel, hell it even references Blade Runner in some respects. (The whole ‘meeting one’s maker’ theme.) The film describes, in a semi-slapdash fashion, the evolution of the zenomorph we know and love – out of the ooze from an alien biological weapons experiment to its ‘birth’ out of the stomach of its maker.  The film expects a lot of scientific logic-jumping from its audience and luckily I know little about evolution; and I’m sure when one’s writing sci fi one can make things up, pretty much, but I Do know that I must Not overthink this one. It just won’t stand up to sustained scrutiny. Anyway, this aspect works well on the whole. Like the so-called scientists on the Prometheus, Alien fans want answers to the story of alien origins. And the filmmakers almost deliver them (just don’t fall into the trap of over-thinking the links, like why in this film was the space-jockey in his control seat – having presumably died in it when the iconic spacecraft crashed to the ground to be discovered by John Hurt and Co. – but in Alien his chest was burst?). Finally, the film is amusing and self-referential. There are so many moments where parts of the four films are evoked it just must be deliberate. Wittily so.

Several critics have complained that the second half of the film is flimsier than the first, when all goes to hell and ‘those things’ are ‘runnin’ around’ (Bill Paxton, where are you?). But I felt the horror elements were the most successful and the great cosmic questions got me down. Be that as it may, the film is a damn good suspense/horror film, and a fine addition to the other 4. In fact, it Must be seen in relation to the others. Its definitely better than the final two, even the Fincher one which I’ve grown to love (after I got over Ripley killing herself.)

I loved the acting, mostly. Like Aliens 3, I felt there were too many arbitrary smart-talking so-called cool characters, who were really there to get impregnated/taken over/die horrifically. This lot were an improvement on those identical-seeming prisoners in that film (except for the wonderful Charles Dance and scenery-chewing Charles S. Dutton) who one just felt were wise-cracking alien-fodder. (Even the poor rottweiler got more sympathy from me in that film than any of those men). But Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green and Michael Fassbender were all great and believable futuristic people. Fabulous casting. I feel Fassbender in particular should get a nomination, an award for this. His careful, athletic gait; his creepy delicate concern, cups of tea and obsession with Lawrence of Arabia are some of the most memorable moments in this film. And Rapace is a fine, committed actress, she nails obsession. (She sure isn’t much of an archaeologist! I know some scientists, even some archaeologists, and Ive never met one like Shaw, or her hot, smug lover Charlie.)  But all of these perfectly good actors did not leave an iota of the impression the cast of Alien did. They barely come close to Jonesy the cat in terms of sympathy or memorability. And of course, it goes without saying its just not an Alien film without Sigourney Weaver and the film sorely misses her commending, competent heroism (I feel Theron’s character came closest to supplying leadership and verve). But Rapace is ultimately suitable because its a different sort of Alien film. In some respects its closer in tone to the Cameron director’s cut of Aliens than to Alien. The one where Ripley has a daughter and she is dead, and Ripley is called ‘Ellen’. Yes, that sentimental drivel. One can take Shaw going on about belief but Ripley? No way man. Ripley was all visceral, no-nonsense. She would have ‘nuked this site from orbit’ in the first half hour.

The visuals, well, they were ground-breaking. Not too much hyper-real CGI; very textural, realistic. Immersive. I can’t add much to the superlatives already directed at this aspect of the film. The ship, well, both of them, were utterly iconic. But then Scott has always been about the visuals and the ships hasn’t he? I thought this was the great strength of the film. For sci fi to really work you need absolutely authentic worlds and technology and aliens. (Will get to that one later.) 100% for the first two.

Now, the things that bugged me: Guy Pearce as the old, dying Weyland. Was having Pearce so important? I did not feel his performance merited ageing him in such a fake manner. Why oh why can’t they just hire good Old actors to play old actors? Arrrgh. And why was he going along? I couldn’t buy his quest for longevity and meaning. Perhaps because we never got to know him and thus could never get to understand his motivations – or his funding a project based on such scientifically unrobust findings (let alone publication!). I have seen additional online footage of a young Weyland/Pearce. They could have used and explained that somehow, worked with it. That would’ve been better.

The human progenitor alien space-jockey (aka: the murderous parent). (Another deep theme. David to Meredith: at some point don’t we all want to kill our parents?) I thought it looked kinda … fake? I mean, it was better than Avatar’s cutesy blue people, don’t get me wrong. The CGI was faultless, tactile. Maybe it’s because it looked so human? It just bothered me. At least the aliens, the zenomorphs, were proper aliens. It’s harder to make convincing human-looking characters. I think I just didn’t want a human-looking alien or any link to the aliens (a match to our DNA!) or the zenomorphs. I found this theme all rather disappointing. I think it can be blamed on the overall cop-out value of the film. It’s like Scott doesn’t want to offend anyone here. (Yes, aliens may have made us, but Someone could have made the aliens…)

The premise: why did it have to be about finding meaning, finding our origins? I know these are supposedly the big questions but I was disappointed. Isn’t there more to the universe than where we come from? The Elba character voiced some scepticism about this and I would have liked the writing to be a little more ambivalent, a touch more complex and nuanced, but Rapace’s/Shaw’s faith and search for meaning is the final ‘moment’ of the film. Despite everything, she still searches. This aspect was so – Star Trek/Battlestar Galactica. I love Star Trek and BG but they are not Alien dammit. Let TV shows search for the meaning of life.

The zenomorph is a singular creation, one of the best monsters in film. It exists, it predates on whatever is in its way. There is commentary, even meaning in that: that we are meat, arbitrary, part of the cycle of life and nature. This film’s meaning-searching seems like a different director stepped in and took over from the Scott of all those years ago. Perhaps the fault lies with Lindelof’s writing? I’m not sure. But the underlying tone and assumptions did irritate me, I’m sad to say. I had similar feelings with Contact all those years ago: going to all that trouble to find alien life and then its all about your father and life and the meaning of it all. Why can’t sci fi just be…sci fi? Simple, visual, convincing, awe-inspiring in every sense of the word?

Stupid things that don’t make sense and irritate intelligent viewers. There were many misused horror movie conventions (yes, many of these tropes appeared in Alien but at least that crew was made up of ordinary people who weren’t Scientists!): like people going into a ship as soon as they land without sending a probe in and taking off their helmets as soon as the air seems breathable and standing in untested goo (I would certainly have examined it more closely for wormy eel things) and facing a threatening alien lifeform that’s just reared up at you out of said goo; and not taking weapons (its science people! we don’t have weapons!); and opening hatches; and trusting the morally ambiguous robot; and the Weyland company spending a trillion whatevers on an archaeologist who when asked how she knows there’s something waiting dismisses the biologist’s query about ‘proof’ and says its because she ‘believes’ (a scientist got mega funding with this? really?). I could go on forever here but you get the drift. It’s fine to suspend one’s disbelief but its asking too much to make supposedly super-clever people behave like idiots, endanger everybody, challenge the logic of every viewer and make you waste watching time distracted by why…why…why?

My viewer companion thought that the grotesque pregnancy scene was too rushed. Other critics have challenged the lack of character development. I thought the film adequately explained and fleshed out and was extremely well-paced. It is damn exciting and frequently horrific. If you thought Scott opened up awful birthing symbolism with Alien, wait till you see this one! I dare women to want to get pregnant after seeing it. In these respects Scott gets it so right, playing to his skills as a master entertainer. Horror and well, duh, aliens are what Alien is all about. This is an implacable alien being: without meaning, without feelings, utterly strange. The ultimate organism, a thing of pure nature. You don’t  Need the metaphysical in a story like this. The zenomorph doesn’t need to be linked to us genetically. It doesn’t need humanity. After all, space Is the great unknown. Little smug, self-important humans sending in shake’nbake colonies and marines and science officers are no match for Nature and the universe. Now Thats meaning! If they follow this film up with Shaw finding a race of silver people at One with the universe then I just don’t know. I’m too afraid to even contemplate where Scott can go after this. Nowhere good by the look of things.

In a movie like this, that hinges so on the little believable things, you just cannot afford to not pay attention to them – the niggly things that intelligent fans demand. (The people who make your film a cult film and last decades and prompt several director’s cuts – those people Must be satisfied. And they are, to a large extent in this film.) Any old viewer can pay $20 at an Imax and make back the budget with enough hype. You want and need longevity, resonance, sense. And a less is more score. Much has already been said about the intrusive, unsubtle, unmemorable score. It contributes to the overall lack of subtlety in the film’s execution. Alien was bare bones scary. Memorably Real. In this film a good deal of that – and it is there! – is lost in the hocus pocus/meaning of life/anti science bits.

Yes, this film features many shots of people staring incredulously out of the ship’s front window.

Will this film stand the test of time like Alien has? I don’t imagine so. One gets the impression Scott and co. rushed over some things that needed attention and care. A bit of laurel-resting perhaps? But Ridley Scott at his most casual in sci fi still beats everyone else hands-down. This film is truly sci fi for grown-ups and even its failures are incredibly impressive. That and the fact that he is the only director out there who lets cool, competent women survive and lead. These facts make Prometheus a classic in my book.

The Vow: love in a time of no charisma. (Or sex appeal.)

Warning: There is a cute, perky wedding in this film.

Like being allowed to cry at my own party, because its my blog I’m allowed to be completely inconsistent. In an earlier post I wondered why Channing Tatum has a career. Let alone a successful career. Since writing that, he has, in fact, prospered, appearing as a star[!] in bigger and better-directed vehicles (Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike etc). So it was that I decided to actually pay ($4.99) to watch The Vow – but with a certain degree of trepidation.

This part of the trailer, and Efron’s rear end, sure wasn’t in the book…

While watching this film I became (erroneously) convinced, that The Vow is an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. Now it must be said I am no fan of Nicholas Sparks, oft-filmed romance novelist, or adaptations of his books. But because I’m in search of a good chickflick, I saw The Notebook relatively recently after ‘dicovering’ I have a fondness for Ryan Gosling (I discovered Not in The Notebook!) and I saw Nights in Rodanthe (what was I thinking? Richard Gere? I had wanted to see Diane Lane in Something. But this was clearly not it.) That was enough. And the good chickflick? Well, suffice it to say it hasn’t yet been made.

Then I saw the trailer for The Lucky One and read that book (in a moment of weakness on the basis of Zac Efron’s state of undress, I admit). But oh dear, what a pedestrian read it was. Biggest problem: it had No good descriptions of sex. In the biggest, most sex-potential scene, she knocks on the door, goes inside, they kiss, cut to the next morning… What? Is that it? Consider me unfulfilled.

This is as exciting as it gets folks…

What’s the point of a romance with no sex appeal? Are women these days so lame, so ruled by adolescent tastes, that they will read a romance with no, erm, Romance? I don’t think that’s it, after seeing the popularity of the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ S&M/”mommy-porn” series –  on the NYT bestseller list no less! (I hear the film is being made. On the plus side, I imagine it may be hard to make it without sexual content. It’s hard to imagine how Hollywood will deal with S&M.)

It is clear that women should write ‘romances’ and not men. Sparks, in typical man-mode, skips no-nonsense-like ahead to ‘plot’ and skims over the sexy bits. Even the Mormon-written ‘Twilight’ had more throbbing desire per page than this excruciating plod through small-town dating (subtitle: Love After Divorce). I do hope the film does better with this issue. I’m not asking for heaving mounds, trembling peaks, probing manhoods etc. Just some, Some … erotic interest, sexiness, chemistry etc. Surely women do not read romances for the boring bits about war buddies, dog training, floods, lost children and ex-husbands. Do they? Well, obviously they do! Inexplicably, Sparks’ (now there’s a misnamed author if there ever was one!) novels remain high up on the bestseller lists. Why? Are women so hard up for normal, ‘real-life’ lurv? They must be.

Anyway, I was feeling susceptible (already rendered brain-dead by an episode of Tough Love: New Orleans) so I watched The Vow, seeking Romance. I’m not a big fan of Rachel McAdams either I must confess. She’s perky, cute etc. But dull. Dull. Dull. Dull. I never was attracted to the Girl Next Door. Now whoever puts Rachel McAdams And Channing Tatum in a romantic drama is just lacking imagination on every level. Both are unable to do drama, for different reasons. McAdams is too darn sunny and Tatum is too inexpressive.

Or, if you like this sort of thing.

I suppose you can see the casting logic. Who is relatable, pretty and ordinary enough for Mrs Everywoman to root for as a heroine (plus has been in The Notebook). Oh! Lets cast Rachel McAdams. Who is relatable (um, kinda), handsome (in a lunky way) and has been in another romantic film? Hmm, Gosling is too much a critical darling now. He won’t do it. I know! Channing Tatum! He was in Dear John after all. But, unlike Zac Efron who, despite being dreadfully embarrassing offscreen, has a peculiar sexual mojo with leading ladies (its his One Gift – now that he doesn’t sing) – seemingly of every age and type. Channing Tatum has no discernable sex mojo onscreen, unless you’re turned on by ‘Nice’ or ‘Unthreatening’ or ‘Shirtless Hunk’. (I reserve judgement for his stripper routine in Magic Mike. At least he seems willing and able to laugh at himself.)

Judging from the postesr, trailers and casts alone, The Lucky One and The Vow do have an awful lot in common. And although The Vow is not Sparks, it may as well be. It is pretty to look at, but utterly devoid of any energy, edginess, complexity or soul. If a film cannot even convince you why two (real) people should be together, then it can’t have been very good, or very romantic. And oh so many stereotypical supporting characters. As soon as I saw squinty Sam Neill as The Father, blowsy Jessica Lange as the long-suffering mother, and nasty-looking Scott Speedman as the scheming ex, I knew exactly what to expect.

I see that The Lucky One (one star on rottentomatoes) has made a respectable yet not fantastic $56 million in its USA run while The Vow (based on a heart-rending true story we are told) made $125 million. I don’t think it’s the acting. Perhaps Channing Tatum appeals to older women? Maybe women find Zac Efron unbelievable as a hunky marine? Maybe viewers trust Rachel McAdams more as a name and a personality than The Lucky One’s Taylor Schilling (Schilling is definitely less terminally perky)? I’ll have to wait till I can get the film On Demand and do a comparative analysis to find the answer.

Art means never needing to remember anything.

Yes, its The Lucky One and the mother is…arty.

Anyway, The Vow was pretty harmless. Dire in parts and endlessly, insufferably cutesy (I don’t know why but memory-loss films just make me want to slap the characters. And why are these bloody women always artists! And why do they live in such quirky, cool apartments?) but … Channing Tatum was considerably better than he usually is. In fact, he was the most relatable, sympathetic person in the entire film (despite looking like an off-duty Chippendale and nothing like anyone’s husband)! I think I am going to upgrade him to a lunkier, less pretty, less exotic version of Keanu Reeves, i.e. of the ‘no-talent but possessing star quality nonetheless’ type of actor. Star quality transcends acting ability and sometimes even looks. Its an aura, an almost mystical ‘thing’ that some popular actors have. In Tatum’s case is when your star-ness and your everyday appeal makes you more memorable and more sympathetic. And this is where Channing Tatum can be found now, in this comfortable realm of star-next-door. It certainly explains why he is getting roles beyond GI Joe.

This guy is wet, wet, wet.

But if I were him I’d get it in my contract to never star in another romantic movie ever again. It’s one thing to work and improve and star in safe, soppy melodramas. But being in films this terminally uncool and treacly can only kill a man’s career.

(Watch me have to eat my words.)

Florence woos (and wows) Santa Barbara in a cat-suit and cape.

Florence and the Machine paid a short musical visit to Santa Barbara last Saturday evening, appearing in the impossibly picturesque Santa Barbara Bowl – a venue accommodating just under 5,000 people, nestled in a natural amphitheatre in the Santa Barbara hills and surrounded by leafy trees. This venue, known for its fine acoustics, was especially suited to Florence and the Machine’s kind of live performance, and Florence’s vocals-driven act in particular. Florence performed material from her latest album, Ceremonials, with a few fan-favourites like Dog Days are Over thrown in. The performance was her first in the USA for this tour.

Florence is known for her visual literacy and it was expected that the show would look good. This stage set was a chic homage to Art Deco design with a strain of Florence’s hippy/alternative aesthetic. She complemented the design with a silvery bodysuit and flowing ethereal cape (good for twirling) – and bare feet.

Florence is an interesting stage presence. She whirls, she twirls, she hops up and down (as did her audience), resembling a graceful praying mantis from afar. In her interactions with the crowd she manages to walk a fine line between fey-cutesy and fey-eccentric, and her onstage persona is cool, intimate, respectful and appreciative without crossing the line into suck-up. She donned the flower headdress made by a front-row fan and touched the hands of all she could. Her vocals, occasionally strident and overwhelming her accompaniment, were generally glorious and occasionally transcendent, well-matched by a skilled, professional band and backing vocals. 

The very best thing about this concert was the audience and the vibe. Florence attracts a very woman-centric (and gay woman-centric) crowd, mixed in with curious locals and youngsters of college age. Her every song, and comment, was greeted with appreciative woops and yells and the small, around 4000-strong crowd seemed stadium-sized at times. Having seen The Hunger Games the evening before, it was a wonderful girl-power double whammy of a weekend, and all the more memorable and affirming for it.

So, on the whole, as good as the album, if not better, in my opinion. With real musicians and innovative performers, live always is.

The Hunger Games

It is almost hard to review a film that has made so much money. It’s success is a done deal and it seems obvious that most viewers liked it (if not the critics, who seem compelled to compare it to Twilight). When my friend “Kylie” and I went to see it in LA last week at least half of the audience were men, which implies it’s appeal does transcend that of Twilight. And I know a lot of middle-aged women who loved the books and have gone to/plan to see the film.

I don’t come here to criticise The Hunger Games, I come only to praise it. In my opinion it’s a fantastic, empowering film in a completely believable manner, in a way that so many female action-driven films are not. From Angelina Jolie’s twig-like arms to Zoe Saldana’s twig-like legs, how are audiences supposed to believe these women are able to hold a gun, let alone jump atop vehicles or round-kick antagonists? Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen is utterly utterly competent and believable as a heroine. There is not one moment one could doubt her ability to survive, and win the Hunger Games. Lawrence completely embodies the literary version of Katniss: her introverted, socially prickly nature, her ambivalence towards the men and the adults in her life, her fierce protection of her little sister Prue – and clearly all other little girls needing help – and her essential morality and tenderness. Beastly critics have called Lawrence ”too round/sexy/fat” to play supposedly starving Katniss, which is just insane. She is slim, firm, active, normal – above all, strong. It is obvious, having seen the excellent Winter’s Bone why Lawrence was cast in this role. The bow sits comfortably in her hand, she is utterly one with the forest. She has grit, an unwavering eye. I’d have bet on her to win the Hunger Games for sure.

“Kylie” had a problem with Gale’s (Liam Hemsworth’s) casting (too obviously, conventionally good-looking) but because I do not find the actor so, this did not bother me. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta was well-studied and executed, complete with all of Peeta’s subtleties and disguised motivations. Peeta could just be playing the game, couldn’t he? Woody Harrelson is also an excellent take on drunken Haymitch, even if perhaps he is a little too young, healthy and sober in the film’s version of the tale. But Harrelson has enough darkness in his history and under his skin to suggest these complexities, even if he has been cleaned up. Much racist hate and criticism has been directed at the casting of black actors as Rue and Thresh – completely unwarranted, the casting decision feels right and not merely PC. The Capitol and the Arena were exactly as one would have imagined. Basically fans of the book should not have been disappointed on any level. Even if the heroes did not look exactly as one pictured them while reading, well, they never do do they? Each actor just Was each character.

What does worry me is director Gary Ross’ departure from the series after this film. He did such a good job, one wonders with trepidation who will come next. The film was so multilayered, it used silences and pauses to good effect in contrast with exciting action sequences. It did not pay lip service to emotions and was certainly no mere action or tween franchise film (no matter what cynical critics may say). The soundtrack was suprising, folksy and memorable (another good job by T Bone Burnett). Author Collins’ critical intentions were definitely well-served by this production.

As the books got harder to read so will the film get harder to watch – Collins’ is no easy narrative despite its Young Adult origins and perceptions of the remainder of the book series are very mixed. The next installments will have to be helmed by someone sensitive and skilled enough not to sell us fans out, or flounder with the subject and its complex directions. So much sci fi film falls into the derivative trap (so many Blade Runner-lites out there!), and this particular dystopian, Orwellian-type scenario could go so badly wrong, in the wrong hands. There are many scenes in this series which require the right ”look”, the right production values and special effects. The staging is key, especially in the scenes requiring the depiction of their futuristic world.

Films like this are essential to women and the future of the movies. From the young girls who watch these performances (faced with ‘Teen Mom’ on the TV) to the always hotly debated (non-)existence of good roles for women in cinema, the fact is because Lawrence naturalises her dominance of the screen it becomes more possible for others like her to do the same, in a manner that is no longer questioned; that is taken for granted. I love Twilight, I admit it. But I also agree that Bella is lame, and limp, and probably not to be emulated (although for Pete’s sake, its a romance movie!) Katniss has no such problems as a character.

The film’s theme of reality TV gone mad is probably lost on many if not most of its younger viewers. That said, it’s a timely theme nonetheless with reality TV taking over as the most bankable form of entertainment. Flicking through channels one can barely find an actual show, and when one does, the best ones usually have to fight for survival, or last only one season.

I’m sad that the sharks are already picking on Lawrence. I hope she survives and appears again in complex, epic, heroic roles. I hope she stays the size she is. I don’t want frail Angelina Jolie, and her emaciated younger replacements, as lovely as they are, to be my only action stars. I don’t want Sex and the City, and its model of so-called ’empowered women”, to be my only onscreen heroes.

So: may the odds be forever in Jennifer Lawrence’s, and The Hunger Games‘, favour.

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