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Raggedy Adams is an alien dwelling in Birmingham, living vicariously through the flickering of a projector on a white screen. He's drank the Kool-Aid of modern cinema. Will you?

Sunday, 18 December 2011


10. Splice

Days behind review schedule: Nearly a month. Ugh.

Alternate Title: “Grow, Dren, Grow!”

The Gist: The Fly gets raped by Hollow Man… in a good way. :S

Currently listening to: "There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards" by Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

The Experience: As I said in my previous blog, never underestimate the value of friends who generously gift you with things you normally wouldn’t spend money on. In this case, I received a rather generous gift card of two months free movie rentals and streaming from Lovefilm (end of plug), and I’ve since been making it my business to catch up on as many of the films I hadn’t watched or needed to rewatch as possible. And so, we come to a film that I’ve been meaning to watch all year: Splice, a quirky science-fiction body horror film from Vincenzo Natali, who also directed the similarly quirky Canadian sci-fi horror film Cube.

If there is a moral at the heart of Splice, it’s that appearances, like Canadians, can be deceptive; sure to your face they’re obliging and friendly almost to the point of naiveté, but the second you turn your back they’re back to clubbing seals and selling tar sand as

starship fuel to the highest bidder, and I say that as someone with immense pride in their dual Anglo-Canadian citizenship. By a similar argument, if you create a completely new species of animal using all the best bits of other animals, chances are you’re going to get either a delicious Christmas dinner or some unexpected side-effects.

That, unsurprisingly, is what happens when husband and wife scientists Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley decide to take their genetic research to the next level by creating an animal-human hybrid, despite their corporate sponsors not really having the stomach for yet another weird mutant test-tube baby on site. So, like any good scientists, they decide to go ahead and do it anyway, because hell, you only live once, right? What emerges from the artificial womb starts off as an angry-looking sting-ray thing, which in turn sheds its skin to form a weird fleshy bipedal hamster thing, before rapidly developing into an adorable little bald girl with hyperactive intelligence (fuelled by what I can only assume are the Canadian equivalent of Tic-tacs) and legs that do not obey the laws of physics. While all this is going on, Adrien and Sarah aka Clive and Elsa go through weird marriage issues, which are amplified by the fact that their rapidly aging “child” has a barbed tail.

Tolstoy said that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, and Clive and Elsa’s marital problems make the Simpsons look like the fucking Waltons. Over the course of the compressed lifespan of Dren, as the little bundle of mutant chimera joy comes to be christened, both parents oscillate between loving and wanting to kill her, particularly unnerving given Clive’s sudden shift from infanticidal pragmatism to some (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT!) freaky-ass incest.

So yeah, it’s one of those “like The Fly but” movies, in this case “like The Fly but with more tits”. There’s really not a lot I can say without ruining the film, as many of the sequences actually do exceed my ability to do them justice, except to say that some of the more icky moments of the movie are not purely due to gore. Vincenzo Natali seems to be determined to be the David Cronenburg of the 2000s, and Christ on a cucumber does he hammer that impression home with this film, along with some very troubling home truths about parenting.

 Okay, look, that last paragraph feels like damning it with faint praise, but the simple fact is this is another one of those films that needs to be seen to be believed. Sure, saying that a film is “like” another is fine as long as it stands on its own merits, and Splice more than justifies its own existence. And, since it’s now out to rent or own on DVD and can be streamed through programs like Lovefilm (I swear I’m not being paid to plug them), there’s not really any excuse for you not picking it up immediately. But then of course I’m one of those people who doesn’t “get” modern horror films, so maybe you’ll be happier rewatching the Saw films back to back, you craven douche.

I drank the Kool-Aid. So should you.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Kool-Aid Double Bill: Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Tinker Soldier Spy

9. Kool-Aid Double Bill: Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Days behind review schedule: nearly three whole weeks. Argh, the guilt!!
Alternate Title: “What? It’s September Already? Quick! Inject The Genius Serum!”
The Gist: Andy Serkis continues to reinvent the acting wheel and Gary Oldman continues to grow into an elder statesman of cinema.
Currently listening to: "You Don’t Know My Mind" by Hugh Laurie/"Head Like a Hole" by Nine Inch Nails.

The Experience: Well, fuck-a-doodle-doo! Two visits to the cinema in less than a week! Clearly this is the dawning of the Golden Age of Aquarius. Call me out on my sarcasm if you must, but the fact that I recently spent most of August moving into a new house and the looming spectre of my second year of Performing Arts has precluded almost all my reviewing activities. Not that I wasn’t without a plethora of films to write about before that; quite apart from the usual summer blockbusters like Harry Potter, Thor and Captain America, (all of which I saw quite happily in two-dimensions,) I’d also finally gotten round to watching both The Damned United and 127 Hours. However, since all those films had either been widely seen in the cinema or were otherwise available on DVD by that time, and my attempts to generate a retrospective feature on here continuously fails to materialise, I decided to hold out until late August/September when things quieten down in Movieland and we get such strange ducks as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a reboot/prequel/relaunch of the franchise that seems to have frustrated most people by actually being a pretty good movie.

The placement of Rise in the late August bracket is particularly telling in that Fox, formerly known for its big, blustering summer tentpoles has been playing it rather more coyly of late, ducking and weaving the big hitters and putting some uncharacteristically good films out in this late summer slot where the competition is a lot flimsier. Last year it was the Predator franchise that got the revamp; this year, ten years on from Tim Burton’s damp squib, it is Planet of the Apes that’s getting a fresh crack of the cinematic whip. Starting out as a spec script called Caesar, the latest (Heston-less) instalment of the series, as directed by British newcomer Rupert Wyatt, is essentially a prequel to the original Planet of the Apes whilst also retconning the events of Escape from and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, if you care about that sort of thing.

The set-up is relatively simple (given the convoluted back-story of the original Apes movies and the weird remake) and begins with a group of only very slightly computer-generated looking apes being rounded up in Africa to become test subjects for a pharmaceutical company were scientist James Franco is trying to create a virus that causes primate brain tissue to repair itself (because viruses in films have never ever gone awry). His motivation is that his father John Lithgow is in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease and said virus will hopefully cure him, but soon finds himself becoming the unprepared foster parent of one of his test subject’s offspring, a baby chimp dubbed Caesar, after his mother’s attempts to protect him are interpreted as her having gone bugnuts from the drug-testing and getting sent to monkey heaven.

As Caesar (Andy Serkis in all but flesh and facial hair) develops into a cheeky little primate teenager, it becomes apparent to Franco that his foster chimp-child is not only vastly more intelligent than any ape has any business being, but that he is dealing with a whole set of existential problems that cannot be reconciled by simply having a father and son chat, and pretty soon Caesar’s negative interactions with unsympathetic humans result in him being confined to a hellishly bleak animal shelter run by the effortlessly skeezy Brian Cox and his dick-spurt son Tom Felton. From this point on, the movie shifts tone rather abruptly from a light science-fiction coming of age tale to a bizarre primate reinterpretation of The Shawshank Redemption, with Caesar as Tim Robbins and a circus orang-utan who can perform sign language filling in for Morgan Freeman.

Whilst the rest of the film plays out pretty much as expected, I was surprised by just how much time was devoted to the “prison” section in the second act. Whilst it never outstayed its welcome, and the interaction between Serkis’ intelligent but socially awkward Caesar and the other apes was riveting, it struck me that there was more than enough opportunity for him to escape earlier than was depicted. However, what that results in, as Watchmen’s Rorschach would say, is that whilst Felton’s cruel overseer thinks Caesar is locked inside with him, the reality is quite to the contrary, with Caesar slowly but surely building a reputation as the alpha-chimp before leading his motley crew of apes in revolt against mankind.

If the film seems a little thin on the ground as far story goes, that’s only because everything you would otherwise need to know about the film is right there in the title: there are apes, on a planet, and they rise. There’s not really much margin to cock things up. What the film therefore lacks in complex twisty-turny plot points (cocktease references to the original movie series and blatant attempts to string together a vague timeline of possible sequel notions appear thick and fast virtually from the first act) it more than makes up for in being breathtakingly shot and paced, with a wonderful mix of character moments and set pieces all building towards a remarkable final confrontation on the Golden Gate Bridge. Not enough can be said about all the apes in this movie, quite apart from Caesar as an individual standout performance. The fact that the only thing distinguishing the apes in this film from the genuine article is the irrevocable artifice of CGI is proof that, as a medium, motion capture is just as much a discipline as voice acting. Overall it feels like a handpicked group of people got together to make the cleverest, most technically impressive, cinematically well-rendered Planet of the Apes movie that money can buy, and for the most part they succeed.

Andy Serkis by now should have been Oscar nominated twice over for his continuing work in the performance-capture industry, and if there is any justice in the world the Academy will take note of his achievements and give him a bona fide Oscar category of his very own to compete in – something like Best Performance Through Use of Technological Wizardry or some such; they could put him in with Chris Evan’s anorexoscopically shot Steve Rogers from Captain America, Ralph Fiennes’ vanishing nose as Voldemort and the guy who keeps putting Patrick Dempsey in things. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the other half dozen hero apes were not only characterised equally as well as Caesar was, (particularly the aforementioned orang-utan,) but that some of them were (crucially, in my opinion) being performed by actual character actors of relative note, rather than anonymous techie guys as in video games and previous mo-cap heavy films; I was baffled to discover that the scarred and aggressive gorilla Buck was played by British actor Richard Ridings. You know, the guy from Fat Friends who wasn’t James Corden? And the ugly bar patron from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He was in the film version of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon as well? No-one? Fine, fuck off, then! I happen to like him. The point being, at a time when all-mo-cap productions are increasingly seen as risky ventures (Mars Needs Moms, anyone?), this film lends credence to the notion that the medium need not be restricted to lavish blockbusters like King Kong or Lord of the Rings in order to turn a profit or connect with audiences.

The weak link to the film, then, seems to be the human characters, in as much as so much development is spent on the apes that the audience never quite gets round to caring about anyone else in the cast. Many have criticised Franco’s lead as sleepwalking through the role, something I feel is only partly true; his will always be superior to his Spider-Man castmate and original choice for this film Tobey Maguire, by virtue of the fact that his was the only character the films who had a genuinely discernable character arc beneath all the sturm und drang. And yes, whilst there are elements to the film, such as the tacked on romantic subplot involving him and Freida Pinto’s sympathetic primatologist, that never quite ring true, the interactions between him and his father feel genuine and heart-warming as well as heart-breaking, particularly as it becomes clear that his quest to save him may be in vain. At the other end of the spectrum, Cox and Felton do what they have been doing most of their respective careers and will probably continue to do, filling out the easy villain slots in a film that doesn’t need nor ask much more of them than that.

Beyond that, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is exactly the kind of movie that fans of the series have been waiting for: something that reinvigorates the franchise for a new generation without forgetting the lessons of its predecssors. And while many will still carp about the human element of the story being an afterthought, we should all know going in that the real showcase here is the apes.
As I said earlier, my cinema-going tends to peak and trough depending on the time of year, as well as month to month. To a degree, it depends on what is out at any given time, but as a student it usually comes down to income. Tickets aren’t cheap these days, and chances to see multiple films in a day or even a week are thin on the ground at best. So imagine my surprise when, not two days after I treated my fiancee Jojo to seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and whilst out eating, drinking and carousing with my best friend Tarnveer, he asks if I’d be interested in going to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Of course I would be, I said, but I couldn’t afford to go until the following week.

“What about tonight?” Tarnveer said.
“Tonight?” I replied, already quite tipsy and aware that it was already getting late.
“Yeah, man,” he enthused, “we can catch a late one.”
He began flicking through listings on his phone, to reveal that AMC at Five Ways did indeed have an 11.00 pm showing of the film.

Experience, dear readers, has taught me many things over the years. For instance, if one of your best friends really wants to pay for you to go see a two hour long spy thriller at a ridiculous time of the night, after already splitting the bill on a meal and several drinks, he’s clearly on to something.

Neither I nor Tarnveer (as far as I knew) were especially familiar with the John le Carré novel on which the film was based nor the Alec Guinness-starring miniseries that preceded it, but within minutes we found ourselves quickly up-to-speed on the particulars of this grimy, anti-Bond film: it’s the early 1970s and Gary Oldman’s George Smiley, a retired spy for MI6 stand-in The Circus, has been called upon by the government to root out a Soviet mole in his former workplace, thanks to a tip-off from Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy).
To do this he enlists the aid of seemingly half the character actors in Britain to keep tabs on the other half. The prime suspects consist of new Circus top banana Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, working yet another funny accent into his oeuvre), second banana Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds channeling Gordon Brown) and snivelling Hungarian emigre Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Flashbacks and interrogatory glances ensue, and it is revealed that Smiley’s late former-boss "Control" (played by John Hurt’s fag-encrusted lungs), also suspecting a rat in the house, had been ousted following a botched mission in Hungary involving Circus man Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong in a wig) getting a bullet in the back and tortured at the hands of the KGB and their spymaster Karla, Smiley’s Soviet counterpart and unseen nemesis.

It’s a mark of a well put-together film that I have not spoiled any of the myriad plot twists and reveals in the film whilst still only just touching on the dozens of brilliant turns by quite possibly the best British film of the year (despite it being co-financed by a French studio and directed by a Swede). Hurt’s Control, Kathy Burke, Roger Lloyd Pack and Stephen Graham all shine in too-brief cameo roles, whilst Benedict Cumberbatch, as Smiley’s loyal protege Peter Guillam is fast shooting up my list of favourite British actors of the moment.
All this would mean nothing, however, if it weren’t for the remarkable script and the directing powers of Tomas Alfredson, making his English language debut following his acclaimed vampire film Let the Right One In. The colour palette throughout is consistently dreary and nicotine-stained, the sky a constant ugly bruise, each room a brown, tarry prison for the men and women within them. And whilst the film is no doubt a slog for those expecting a pacy romp in the vein of Casino Royale may find themselves disappointed, the film none-the-less manages to make the notoriously dense novel translate well to the screen.

Look, you don’t need me to tell you Tinker is a masterpiece; there are already dozens of critics doing exactly that. What you need me to tell you is if you, uninitiated reader, will be able to go in and enjoy it without reading the book first or having taken a correspondence course in Russian. Well, put it this way, both me and Tarnveer came out of that screening still slightly tipsy but none-the-less alert to the fact that we had just witnessed something uniquely well put-together. Tarnveer said he might have to rewatch it in order to make sure he’d understood what had gone on, and that in my book is a recommendation. Any film that engages people’s brains whilst still being a great piece of entertainment is exactly what people should not only want but expect from their visit to the cinema.

Both of the films get a healthy swig of the old Kool-Aid, though perhaps with a little rum to taste.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Alternate Title: "The Long and Winding Road... Part 8".

Cigarette intake since viewing: Zilcho.

Currently listening to: "Road to Kingdom Come" by Lindisfarne.

The Gist: Teenage wizards fight other wizards. Duh.

The Experience: I wasn't going to do this review for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I like to think of myself as a champion of underground and independent cinema, and with my Stake Land review looking less and less likely to materialise, reviewing what is going to doubtlessly be described as the best film EVAR feels like navel-gazing. Second, a practical issue: in a time when people who spoil plots are treated with uncharacteristic disdain by creators and fans alike, trying to review ANY Harry Potter movie without giving the myriad of potential spoilers away feels like a good way to give myself an aneurysm. But, for good or ill, I feel that as a self-described cineaste I have a duty to throw in my two cents on at least one Potter movie, and since Deathly Hallows was the only one of the books I actually read cover to cover, I'd say it's the only one I'm qualified to review on that basis.

So, plot. Starting literally where the first part left off, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes in usual fine villaining form) has just obtained the Elder Wand, the most powerful Macguffin in all of Macguffindom, Harry and pals are trying to find and destroy the last few magical Macguffins that are keeping Voldemort alive, and the whole thing culminates in one of the most epic battles in the history of cinema.

That's the best I can do as far as non-spoilers goes. To be honest, though, this film jettisons plot less than a half hour into the proceedings, as if the director decided that from that point on he was going to make the most blisteringly good magical-themed effects-driven war movie of all time. And on that front, the movie is indeed successful. The vistas, as with all the Potter movies, are suitably vast and well shot, the pace is brisk without feeling rushed, and the action keeps a good balance between the kinetic, urgent sequences of the Death Eaters swarming Hogwarts to the scenes of the embattled Harry and co rushing from one bombed-out corridor to the next trying to find this all-important Horcurx or learn that all-important piece of exposition.

Any other film trying to do this juggling act would falter; even the Lord of the Rings movies, vast though they were, had to sacrifice character development in places in the interest of pushing the plot progression. But having had seven films to develop most of the principals beyond one-note caricatures, Deathly Hallows Part 2 is able to play a lot fast and looser with the cast due to the level of reinforced attachment to even seemingly minor characters like Luna and Neville.

Which brings me to one of the things some fans will still have a problem with: unlike the aforementioned Tolkien adaptations, which are available in exhaustive extended editions for the completists among their fandom, the Potter movies tend to be a lot more ruthless in their trimming of the fat, and for the most part this has sort of worked in the series' favour. However, there are a couple of key plot points involving characters and their arc that are either skirted over or clumsily omitted early on only to be referred to later in the proceedings without the benefit of context. Whilst these omission are never so glaring as to be inexcusable, it does betray the fact that, whilst David Yates is arguably the best directorial fit for the series, his and Mark Day's editorial process is perhaps a little too ruthless, and that a little more build up in the first act might have alleviated the breakneck pace of the Battle of Hogwarts. Other critics have noted that as a complete film, Parts 1 and 2 do in fact give the impression of one film presented in two parts, and that it works better in that context; however I feel that this is a pandering response to the issue of length, and that Part 2 should be able to stand on it's own merits.

And, in spite of my criticisms, it does. Not only are Dan Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint still consistently strong, but we finally get the moment most of us have been waiting for: Matthew Lewis' Neville Longbottom (still a silly name) getting to King Arthur the Sword of Gryffindor out of a hat and get his five minutes of badassery. And that's not even mentioning the talents of Alan Rickman, Ciaran Hinds, Julie Walters, Maggie Smith, Warwick Davis, John Hurt, Helen McCrory, Jason Isaacs and all the countless others involved. There is absolutely no reason why you should not see this movie at least five times and if you haven't already you probably have no soul.

I drank the Kool-Aid. Nuff said.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance

7. Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance

Alternate Title: "Shiny Happy Alien Battling Robots Teen Force 2".

Cigarette intake since viewing: One, but only because of college stress.

Currently listening to: "Magnum Force" by Lalo Schifrin.

The Gist: Teens in mechs beat the crap out of aliens, have personality issues and listen to too much Radiohead... again.

The Experience: One of my unspoken goals with this blog is to champion films that people wouldn't ordinarily go see at the cinema, which is why this week I'm doing this review of a film out on DVD and not burbling on about Green Lantern like every other critic and their dog.

The film in question is the second installment in the ponderously titled Rebuild of Evangelion series, whose persistence in returning to the screen over a decade after the original series ended is matched only by it's increasingly mind-boggling titles and protracted gaps in the release schedule. In an age when sequels have to be churned out every eighteen months to two years to make as much money as possible before the bubble pops, Evangelion's rate of knots between domestic and international release would make a particularly lazy sloth or Duke Nukem Forever look speedy and efficient by comparison; Evangelion 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance for instance has been sitting around twiddling it's thumbs waiting for an dubbed release for TWO CUNTING YEARS. However, good things come to those who wait, and as with the previous installment, the time taken on the films has been well spent on giving everything the full HD makeover and ironing out little niggles like providing decent ADR material.

The premise I previously described waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back in my review of the previous movie still largely fits: "It's (STILL) half past the future... Tokyo 3 is being attacked by the Angels, a race of unearthly behemoths intent on bringing about the end of humanity for… some reason. The only thing standing in the way of this happening is the titular Evangelion Unit 01, a bio-mechanical suit of powered armour which occasionally has a mind of its own, which is piloted by Shinji Ikari, typical teenager by day, agent of NERV and whiny bitch every other waking hour." Normally at this point in the review I'd say that it's probably a good idea to have seen the previous film first, but in Evangelion's case you may as well watch the whole series as well for all the good it will do. Shinji is still you're classic Luke Skywalker-esque fish-out-of-water protagonist, he's still shacked up with his hot commanding officer, his dad's still an incredible asshole, and he's still the only one standing in the way of total annihilation. Same as it ever was.

Whilst the overall arc of the film's story isn't massively different from the series, picking up roughly were the first left off but covering a condensed version of episodes 8-20, one of the main divergences from the original is that Shinji's character progression gets a bit more attention paid to it; whilst he still has all the charisma of a wet lettuce leaf as before, his constant whining has been toned down a bit, making him less of a pussy and more of a cunt.

We also get reintroduced to familiar characters such as serial womaniser/triple-agent Kaji (who, I might add, is responsible for me discovering that chicks dig pony-tails and stubble) and ball-busting Eva Unit 02 pilot Asuka, who likewise has been given a bit of a redrafted (i.e. changed drastically) character arc. Much of the appeal of Asuka in the series was her near-total belligerence towards Shinji interspersed with moments of angsty pubescent sexual tension which served to underpin her fractured personality, stunted emotional development and tangled family relationships. Here, we get precisely none of this, and whilst the post-credits teaser indicates she will inevitably be part of Evangelion 3.0 You Can (Not) Be Serious whenever that comes out, her fate at the end of the second act was a letdown and struck me as being dangerously close to a classic example of Women in Refrigerator syndrome, a bad habit that series overseer Hideaki Anno still hasn't outgrown.

The one genuine case of a completely new character is Mari, another Eva pilot/eccentric young girl who is in the film for all of 5 minutes at the start and 10 minutes towards the end. Whatever we're supposed to know or feel about her is never made clear, other than the fact she's a slightly more approachable (if no less weird) addition to the cast of gawky teens with personalities handpicked from the works of Oliver Sacks. The fact is, at this point, she is little more than fanservice: window dressing for the otakus and fanboys, another hot chick to collect the action figure of or to feature in slashfiction. In a franchise already top-heavy with gender stereotypes and a focus on teen sexuality that would make J.K. Rowling unsettled, it's difficult to find merit in there being even more women to objectify. We also get a bit more of resident nancy-boy Kaworu sitting on things with his shirt off for the lady-boy lovers, so let it be said that this film at least gives equal shrift to both the male and female fanwank demographics.

Still, this much has proven to me that, whilst the sturm und drang of the battles is suitably epic and the visuals are cleaner and executed better than ever, the franchise hasn't really matured in any meaningful way. For every step it takes towards developing the characters imaginatively, it takes two steps back by either remaining too slavish to the original plot or by not giving the characters ample motivation or traceable development. Plus the whole Shinji shower gag that worked in the series and was redone both in 1.0 and now creepily with Asuka in 2.0 is getting a bit repetitive and showing its age. And no matter how much gratuitous cleavage is on display, an uninitiated viewer really shouldn't have to take the online equivalent of a correspondence course to understand what the fuck is going on or why you should care.

BUT the fact that I keep coming back to the well that is Evangelion means that either I am irrevocably incapable of outgrowing my Pink Floyd and anime phase or that there is still something to be taken away from this film series as we reach the half-way mark. It's neither as childish and pandering as the Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Ohs of anime nor as mind-numbingly deep and ponderous as Akira or Ghost in the Shell; it's only handicap is its protracted history of fiddling with itself (literally and figuratively). I'm not saying this film will change your view on anime or make you a fan of the series, but it's a strong case for Evangelion becoming a genuine staple of the genre, jailbait T&A and all.

I drank the Kool-Aid, but I'd understand if it's not for you.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Social Network (Belated)

6. The Social Network

Alternate Title: "Confessions of a Billionaire Social Retard".

Cigarette intake since viewing: Zilch. Surprised as you probably are.

Currently listening to: "Egomania" by Elmo Sexwhistle.

The Gist: Jesse Eisenberg proves he is not a Michael Cera clone, Fincher gets hip and topical, and Aaron Sorkin finally penetrates my defences.

The Experience: What did you do when you first heard that there was going to be a film about Facebook directed by David Fincher? Chances are, if you are like most sane people, you would have done double, triple and quadruple-takes before dismissing it as yet another product-placement project that would probably never happen like the much touted film versions of Battleship or Monopoly or Halo (sorry people, but I’ll believe it when I see it). However, as Fight Club, Seven and Alien 3 proved, David Fincher is not only insane, but has that rare mercurial talent for making seemingly unfathomable concepts into masterful pieces of film. And with the script being penned by The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin, you know that you’re in for something masterful.

The film, in typical biopic opening sequence tradition, sees Mark Zuckerburg (Jesse Eisenberg channelling Egon Spengler), a socially paraplegic Harvard student of seemingly unfathomable intellect, getting dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) for being… well, to be blunt, a needy asshole who is obsessed with kudos and being accepted by others. His response of getting hammered, writing a “fuck you” blog and putting together a webpage which quickly goes viral and crashes the campus servers brings him to the attention of preening über-jocks Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played uncannily by Justice League reject Armie Hammer) and their weedy token nerd partner (Max Minghella, son of the late Anthony). They clue Zuckerburg in on their social network concept Harvard Connection, expecting him to come on board and help build it in return for a stake. Instead, Mark (arguably) takes their idea and goes on to set the groundwork for what would become Facebook. The rest, as they say, is recent history: lawsuits, lots of boardrooms and people screwing each other over, under and sideways.

As a primer, I should note that I am by no means a member of Aaron Sorkin’s faithful fanclub; I’ve seen exactly none of The West Wing and the only one of his screen credits I’m familiar with is A Few Good Men, and even that I haven’t seen in years or all the way through. However, what is evident from scene one is that he knows how to make two hours of people sitting in a room having rapid-fire conversations riveting. Likewise, whilst some have cited the film’s sexing up of Zuckerburg and company’s antics as being an example of creative license, the fact that the spiky central figure of Zuckerburg is able to come across as sympathetic in spite of his almost appalling inability to relate to anyone is an extraordinary feat. However in the hands of Jesse Eisenberg, we are able to understand, if not necessarily accept, his flawed but insightful take on relationships and communication.

In a movie full of great supporting characters, standouts take the form of Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, Mark’s long-suffering partner and friend, who later sues him for screwing him out of the company he helped build, and Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker, the bad-boy Pied Piper who leads Zuckerburg to fame, fortune, and ultimately, loneliness.

But the character that penetrates every inch of this film, more than any other, is the score by Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Harking back to the moody ambience of Broken and The Downward Spiral and the layered, dirge-like instrumentation of The Fragile, it is a perfect companion to a character study of someone who gains the world but still struggles to find something approaching happiness.

Raggedy Adams drank the Kool-Aid. So should you.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

X-Men: First Class

7. X-Men: First Class

Alternate Title: "Austin Powers Meets the Superfriends".

Nicotine intake since viewing: Two pieces of nicotine gum.

Currently listening to: "Summertime Blues" by Guitar Wolf/”Psyche Rock” by Pierre Henry.

The Gist: Mutants get a prequel with some ‘60s kitsch and retcons for all. Fifth time lucky?

The Experience: Since my glowing review of Scott Pilgrim pretty much sucked all the critical juice out of me last year and my return to college last September, many of the movies worth reviewing ended up in my ponderously huge To Do pile. However, unable to put it off further, I've deigned to return to the world of movie blogging on the proviso that I get all the really positive things about X-Men: First Class out of the way first. It's well cast, beautifully shot and features stand-out performances from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto respectively. The visuals and effects are pretty and involving if a little bit familiar to long-term fans of the series and there are cameos and references to the comics and other films for those that care about that sort of thing, and in spite of all the mean things I'm about to say, it's at the very least the best Marvel movie to come out of Fox since the first installment. Right, that's the good news. Let's talk shitiness.

As anyone (and especially my therapists) will probably be able to tell you, my relationship with the X-Men films is at best complicated and at worst totally fucking mental. At the core is an interesting if well-worn concept and the seemingly endless permutations of the core line-up is a license to print money as far as comics go, and whilst some people trumpet on about the Spider-Man movies being better, (in spite of them actually being rather formulaic in comparison,) X-Men was the one that proved that people would pay to see a bunch of weirdos in leather slicing, blasting and hitting each other for 2 hours without feeling slightly dirty afterwards. So here we are, after two good entries, one iffy but not without merit third and then the abortive shit sandwich that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine (this series’ obsession with pretentious subtitles has no end in sight), staring down the barrel of the latest offering, X-Men: First Class, a prequel/reboot/origin story to the only Marvel property Fox seems to have any clue how to keep going.

The plot starts as it means to go on, by shamelessly mining footage from the first film's opening, wherein we get a nice neat little reminder that the boy who would be Magneto started off as a concentration camp inmate, and showing how his powers are tortured into maturation by arch-dickspurt Nazi doctor Kevin Bacon shooting his mother in the head. Fast-forward to 1962 where we meet a young Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy and characterised here as a young Oxford professor who just happens to be able to read minds, which he demonstrates by (wait for it) drinking people under the table and hitting on girls despite the disapproving looks of Mystique, here taking the form of Jennifer “Winter’s Bone” Lawrence, and weirdly retconned as his sort-of adopted sister whom he looks after in a totally platonic way, if you can believe that for two seconds. McAvoy’s Xavier distinguishes himself right off the bat by being what the filmmakers clearly thought would be a hip, laddish, fun-loving version of the character to contrast with the serenity of Patrick Stewart’s performance but mostly just comes off as a bit of a twat, a David Cameron-esque toff trying to fit in with the proles; it's only McAvoy's own charm and wit that keeps this element of the character from defining him and despite a rocky start, he actually manages to imbue Xavier with depth, if a little at the expense of being able to relate to him in any realistic way.

Meanwhile, a now adult Magneto is travelling from one exotic locale to the next looking for Kevin Bacon (now going by the name Sebastian Shaw and kitted out like a homicidal Frank Sinatra) for revenge Mossad-style, little knowing that CIA agent Rose Byrne is also investigating his links to the hip and groovy Hellfire Club, a Las Vegas front for a secret society of mutants that seem to be in cahoots with top ranking officials in both America and Soviet Russia, and seeks out Xavier’s aid as he did his doctoral thesis on genetic mutation (and won’t shut up about how positively groovy it is; come on, James, you can do better than this!) in order to better deal with the threat of Shaw’s plans to blow up the world and rule whatever crawls out of the radioactive rubble.

Yes, this movie wears its inspirations very clearly on its sleeve and the main one at work here from a story and visual perspective seems to be “James Bond with superpowers”. You're probably thinking at this point "Adam, you Callipygian superman, what kind of talk is that? The sixties Bond was arguably the best era of the series and anything like it should be equally good." But that's the point: it isn't just like a Bond film, it IS a Bond film. True, the movie does keep a lot of the vestigial structure of the other X-Men films to aid fill in the various back-stories and introduce familiar elements such as Cerebro, whilst very clearly co-opting the plot progression (if not the tone or taut storytelling) of Batman Begins, but there is no denying the potent miasma of Connery-era Bond inflicting its influence over the proceedings for better or worse. Indeed, for most of the first act, Michael Fassbender’s accent when speaking English was almost indistinguable from the man himself, and I consider it no coincidence that he gets numerous opportunities to sneak around harbours, threaten henchmen eloquently and mack on Mystique despite clearly being a homosexual in later films.

This brings me neatly to what may or may not end up being the thing that decides the movie’s fate: continuity. Continuity is a tricky thing in comics; everyone - writers, artists, editors, readers have their own completely different relationship with continuity. For decades comics have been writing and rewriting the histories of its characters, to the point where it's often difficult to say what the definitive version of events is when any story can be instantly unravelled by a single retroactive erasure or alteration. And when it comes to films it’s even worse; very few comic book film franchises last longer than two films with the same director, let alone writing staff, and the X-Men series is no exception. Whilst X-Men 3 fumbled elements, leaving the possible continuation of the story on shaky ground, at least it didn’t take massive liberties with the principle character’s backst-oh wait, yeah, sorry, it did a bit. But still, it was nothing next to Wolverine’s brobdignagian level of idiocy. Not only did it completely skim over anything remotely like the “origin” element of the story, it was a film completely devoid of any kind of logical context for any of the action, taking place in a sort of weird uncanny valley version of the ‘70s that in its nondescript trappings looks too bland to belong to any particular era. For all its kitschy period fixtures and blatantly telegraphed influences, First Class at least knows when and where it’s meant to be set; what it seems to struggle with is why it’s there and not in the ‘70s (arguably much more suited to the character’s ridiculous outfits) or underwater or in space. Because the movie never quite makes the bold step of establishing itself as its own film in its own right with its own rules, cut off from previous attachments, it makes the whole “fresh start” aspect of the film seem a bit hollow.

Thing is, good continuity can only help a story, not make it. The inherent problem with any kind of television or film adaptation of a team-based intellectual property is that it's going to suffer from a potential lack of proper character development, and even the better X-Men films feel positively stuffed to the gills with cute little cameos and references that make the universe feel bigger and more inclusive but fails to deliver anything close to a long term character arc. For this reason in particular, X-Men: First Class was always going to a quintessential “popcorn” summer movie. The true measure of it, however, was whether it was going to stand on its own merits or sink slowly and painfully into the ocean of shittiness. And in spite of my complaints, it does. Mostly.

Okay, I admit I am being overly mean, but that's only because I know the series can do better. The movie itself isn’t bad; how could it be? Its best stuff is bloodily ripped off from the better parts of the series, none of the secondary characters apart from Nicholas Hoult’s young version of Beast are more than one-note, and the end is a foregone conclusion. But, it does still hold the distinction of being the first X-Men film I’ve seen since the original that was at least as enjoyable as when I saw it eleven years ago and hasn't made me want to gouge out the eyes of everyone involved. What I’m straining towards is a recommendation: it's not perfect, but what is? At its core, First Class is a giddy trip down memory lane, kept above water by a strong central pairing in McAvoy and Fassbender, and if you can get over the fact that it was never going to fit neatly into the pre-established film series it’s a fun little jaunt with plenty of chuckles, set pieces and mutant goings on to keep most people involved. If you’re expecting anything deeper than that, you’ve clearly not seen any of the X-Men movies due to being in some sort of cryogenic chamber for the past eleven years. In which case, welcome to the 21st century, puny homo sapien, we've been expecting you.
I drank the Kool-Aid. Maybe you should too. Or not.