Monday, 31 December 2012

Doctor Who Christmas specials are a hit and miss affair. Under Russell T Davies, the theme was generally “another invasion of contemporary London. At Christmas.” Steven Moffat revamped this by having Matt Smith’s specials based on classic Christmas stories, with festive themes of family and love and all of that central to the story. The first, A Christmas Carol, was definitely a hit. The sloppy second, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, was definitely a miss. This year’s was once again named after a well-known story, but that wasn’t the main feature of its marketing, or even much related to the actual plot of the episode at all. With Amy and Rory still eternally trapped in a timey-wimey plot contrivance, The Snowmen was hyped as the introduction of a new companion in the shape of Jenna-Louise Coleman. 

Coleman’s Clara, a Victorian governess and part-time barmaid, first met the Doctor when she noticed strange things afoot – snowmen appearing out of nowhere across London. But the Doctor, embittered by the loss of the Ponds, was no longer willing to help humanity and refused to investigate. More unusual events led Clara to the mysterious G.I. institute and the sinister Doctor Simeon, to the Doctor’s friends, and, eventually, into the TARDIS.

This story definitely had, like Amy Pond’s introduction, a fairytale feel, with the Doctor retired to the skies above snow-covered Victorian London. “There’s a man called the Doctor,” Clara tells the children she looks after, “he lives on a cloud in the sky, and all he does, all day, every day, is to stop all the children in the world ever having bad dreams.”

Yet despite this festive magic, the plot, compared to the Eleventh Doctor’s previous specials, wasn’t heavily Christmassy. The Snowmen felt like an interesting hybrid of the Davies and Moffat styles, with Christmas itself often playing a background role to the central conflict against the mysterious icy villains and against the Doctor’s depressed state.

There were two main concerns I had before I saw this episode. One was that the cast would be too large and certain characters wouldn’t get enough screen time. Besides the Doctor and his new companion, we had the return of A Good Man Goes to War’s Vastra, Jenny and Strax, Richard E. Grant’s Doctor Simeon, Ian McKellen as an Ice Moriarty, Tom Ward and his kids as the archetypal posh Victorian family, and an ice lady. Who have I forgotten? What Moffat did with this cast, however, was create a rich, gothic world – a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-style Victorian London with fantastic monsters hiding in the shadows and danger lurking on every corner. All in all, this worked, though I would have liked Richard E. Grant, who was born to play a Doctor Who villain, to have had more screen time and character depth. Vastra and Jenny are great returning characters, who I look forward to more adventures with, though I’m still not a fan of the new look Silurians – they’re too humanoid, and at least the eyes should be more reptilian. Strax the Sontaran, meanwhile, was a brilliant source of comic relief throughout. Unlike other fans, I have no problem with the send-up of the Sontaran race. Why not? Because, frankly, it’s very funny. And they were never taken too seriously as villains, anyway. My only problem with Strax was the disappointing lack of an explanation for his resurrection. “Another friend of mine brought him back” will not suffice. That is not an explanation; that is a sentence devoid of content.

The other concern I had was the idea of the Doctor going into retirement. After the dreariness of David Tennant’s Doctor never getting over Rose and dickishly crying about her into poor Martha’s face for a whole series, I wasn’t optimistic about another mopey Doctor.  But, as a development which lasted for one story only, it worked well. “Over a thousand years of saving the universe, the one thing I learned – the universe doesn’t care” the Doctor grumbled from beneath his mawkishly jaunty top hat, and, you know, maybe he has a point. At his age, and after the tragic (if nonsensical) loss of Amy and Rory, he does have a right to be a little grumpy once in a while. And that’s where, bringing in the recently explored theme of the Doctor’s need for a companion to keep him on the right path, we bring in Clara to save him. He’s back now! Doctor Who can continue! And through this, grumpy Doctor also served the function of making Clara immediately a strong and likable character through her renewal of the Doctor's enthusiasm for life.

From her first episode alone, Clara already has an energetic dynamic with the Doctor, and one refreshingly different to Amy and Rory’s. I am still worried that she may be a little too much on the sassy side, and this may get annoying eventually, though I did find her flirtatiousness less of a problem in this episode than in Asylum of the Daleks. I am also concerned about the hints of sexual attraction between her and the Doc. That never works out. Plus, he’s married – River’s still around and we certainly don’t need another love interest so soon. However, the way in which Clara slowly turned the Doctor back to his normal self was touching and elegantly played, making it all the more tragic when the icy bitch lady threw her to a surprisingly non-mushy death. After losing Amy and Rory, having another companion die on him so soon would be the ultimate tragedy for the Doctor and would almost certainly send him back into mopey mode for at least anther century. It’s also pretty morbid for those two kids, watching their beloved governess die when they should be asleep waiting for Santa. Luckily for the Doctor, he realised that there’s some connection between the late Oswin Oswald and the late Clara Oswin Oswald and ended the episode running off with a renewed vigour to find a living incarnation somewhere. I’m already fascinated by this mystery and can’t wait to find out more. No happy ending for the kids though. Christmas will never be the same again for them.

At least they can find solace in the fact that they saved the world. Considering that a massive proportion of the episode was focused on Clara trying to cheer the Doctor up so that he could save the world again, with the conclusion being the Doctor all cheered up and giddily screaming “I’m gonna go save the world again”, I find it heavily underwhelming that the Doctor did not, in fact, save the world. The family did, by crying, and thus telepathically melting Ice Moriarty’s plans. This isn’t the first time that I’ve felt a Doctor Who plot resolution has been rushed, messy, and too reliant on the telepathic projection of emotions. That ending got tiring when it happened for half of the series 6B episodes… 

Up until this resolution, however, the story was an enjoyable mystery. With funny moments, including a knowing Sherlock pastiche, a series of scary set pieces and a great reference to a classic series villain, we can forgive Steven Moffat for the occasional hammy line (“Tomorrow, the snow will fall and so will mankind”). It is Christmas, after all. Visually, the episode made good use of both its icy theme – the teethy snowmen, the frosty governess and the ice zombie Richard E. Grant making kids never want to go out in the cold or near Richard E. Grant again – and its Victorian setting – from the Doctor’s lush purple coat and top hat to Clara’s pretty dresses and Richard E. Grant’s steampunk office. The Snowmen looked fabulously gothic and was a triumph for the design department.

Except, that is, for what’s probably the most important piece of design in the episode. Trying to move on from Amy and Rory, the Doctor had redecorated the TARDIS. To quote the Second Doctor, I don’t like it. The previous TARDIS was vast and mysterious, with its glass floor and its staircases.  The new TARDIS feels closed in, restricted, depthless. The previous TARDIS was warm and friendly. This TARDIS feels cold and harsh – which perhaps suits The Snowmen’s locked away Doctor but I can’t imagine working as we follow the back-in-action Doctor’s friendship with Clara. It’s more retro, and so fitting with the upcoming fiftieth anniversary, yes, but that doesn’t excuse it being rubbish. Surely some of the previous TARDIS’ wonder could have been carried over? This is just a fridge with a spinny bit.

I do like the new title sequence, though. It’s a daring step away from the time vortex of the last seven years and a sexy smorgasbord of pretty space colours and Matt Smith’s pretty face.

All in all, The Snowmen doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by A Christmas Carol, by far the perfect Doctor Who festive special, but it’s a damn step forward from last year’s mess. As a companion introduction story, it sets up a great mystery and immediately brings a likeable new dynamic, but, similarly, it doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by The Eleventh Hour. Nevertheless, like the best Who stories, it’s got a mix of great elements, including humour, horror, mystery, emotion, and, to add to that, it’s a bit sexy. Do all these elements hold together? Not all the time, no, but when they do, it’s a great lot of fun. 

Plus, there wasn’t anything else good on telly this Christmas.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

I rewatched In Bruges on TV recently, and it’s bloody brilliant. Starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as a pair of hitmen in hiding in the titular Belgian city, it’s a funny, moving comedy thriller with a simple but strong concept and well-developed characters and plots which come together very nicely. In fact, it's one of my favourite films of recent years. 

Seven Psychopaths is the latest effort from its writer-director Martin McDonagh. Colin Farrell stars once again, this time as screenwriter Marty Faranan, a writer working on a screenplay entitled Seven Psychopaths (I wonder where McDonagh got this character from...). Marty, struggling and alcoholic, takes inspiration from the real psychopaths around him and soon becomes more involved in the violent world of mafia shootouts and dog kidnapping than he would have liked. Bring in Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits, et al. 

Marty’s a nice central character – he doesn’t want to be involved directly in the psychopathic violence, but, as a screenwriter, is fascinated by it – as are the audience, as Colin Farrell gives a likable performance and leads us through the chaos that unfolds. There’s a host of other interesting characters, though I left with the feeling that some were too over-the-top, such as Sam Rockwell’s manic actor/madman Billy Bickle, and that some could have been made more distinct, such as Woody Harrelson’s dog-loving mafia boss Charlie Costello. Drawing out Charlie's dialogue to be more tense and unpredictable, particularly in scenes such as his interrogation of the employee who lost his beloved ShihTzu, could really have made him richly sinister rather than generic Mafioso. McDonagh can write brilliant villains – just look at Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges – so it’s a shame that Costello doesn’t quite hit the mark. The great Christopher Walken, meanwhile, is one of the film's highlights as Hans Kieslowski, a gentle dognapper with a mysterious past and a stylish cravat.

As would be hoped for from McDonagh, the film contains moments of violent dramatic genius. The opening scene is one that’ll stick in the mind, as is the story Marty tells about a Quaker psychopath. However, the plot as a whole is overly complex, and I got the impression that certain plot points exist only to fit the film’s postmodern “it’s a film about film that knows it’s a film” gag. The characters often remark on the connection between what is happening to them and the script Marty is writing, as if they know they are in a film. “Maybe the second half of the film should be just the characters driving away and talking, without any shootouts” suggests Marty, as he drives away with Billy and Hans to spend a good amount of the film talking. About how Billy thinks it’s an awful idea for a film. Which is like the film we’re watching. So it’s funny. For a bit. No, actually, it gets bloody tiresome. Despite the occasional laugh, the plot would work well with half as much of this sub-par Charlie Kaufman imitation. By the end, I was ready to walk out if Sam Rockwell said “final showdown” one more time. 

Don’t get me wrong, Seven Psychopaths is, when not at its most annoyingly meta, enjoyable and energetically watchable. The problem is, and I’m sorry if I’ve overused this comparison, it isn’t a patch on Martin McDonagh’s previous film. The characters are neither as interesting nor as believable, and the story is messily assembled compared to In Bruges’ simple, well-strung together concept. If you need your fix of Colin Farrell and comic violence, seek out In Bruges and hope McDonagh’s next film is back to its high standards.

Monday, 24 December 2012

On 24.12.12 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments
It's Christmas time, which means only one thing: I'll be found in front of the TV stuffing my face, locked away from the worries of the world, for most of the next week.

Last night the crass shit that is Bad Santa began draining my soul in time for Christmas. Luckily I watched In Bruges afterwards, which is bloody brilliant. This deleted scene makes it even better.

Today is The Muppets Christmas Carol, which ranks alongside Die Hard and Love, Actually as one of my favourite Christmas films, followed by baking.

In contemporary film news, I've reviewed Life of Pi for Reviews in Time and Space.

Have a great Christmas, boys and girls!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

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It’s a week until Christmas day, the trees are up, the Doctor Who Christmas trailer’s on every night,  the chocolate's making us all sick already. You’re probably looking for a light-hearted, fluffy, cheery romantic comedy to indulge in the festive spirit and distract you from any illness or extended family member that you've somehow gathered already.

In which case, don’t watch Sightseers. (Watch Christmas Love Happens)

From the beautifully twisted mind of Kill List’s Ben Wheatley, Sightseers follows Alice Lowe’s Tina, who runs away from her overbearing mother to go caravanning with new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram). As they travel the picturesque countryside of t’ North, the darker side of this trip emerges – Chris is a serial killer who can’t help but murder anyone who annoys him, and draws Tina in to this nasty habit.

A love story of two outsiders on a meandering cross-country murder spree, it’s a very British Badlands, the key difference being the very dark sense of humour. The gore and violence isn’t brushed over lightly, but the hilariously disturbing element is the juxtaposition of this with the trivialities that lead to it. For example, beating Shaun of the Dead for the best use of a certain ice cream in cinema ever, the camera focuses on a man struggling to open a Cornetto before dropping the wrapper on the floor of a vintage tram. His disrespect having angered Chris, this man soon finds himself bloodily crushed under the wheels of the caravan.

Despite the pretty locations (and the “wow, I’ve been there” factor, if, like me, you’ve been there), it’s a bleak film, the representation of the British countryside as sparse and dangerous highlighting this contrast between the dark and the everyday. And despite naturalistic yet comedic performances from the two leads, who also wrote the screenplay, the cold tone of the film and its morally questionable characters prevents much in the way of emotional engagement.

So Sightseers isn’t a film that will thrill everyone, but its macabre central concept is played to the extremes, with bleak stylings, witty dialogue and great performances leading to a film that’ll make you laugh incessantly – if you’re of a certain twisted frame if mind, that is.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

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A Christmas treat from YSTV towers - it's the trailer for this year's Christmas blockbuster, Christmas Love Happens, starring everyone's favourite comedy double act, Apple and Grape. We don't need no shiny Hobbits.

This was part of a live variety show, with me as a contestant in the live quiz sections. Unfortunately, like a modern day Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serial, those live quiz sections were destroyed at some point in the festivities and the recording doesn't quite exist.

But at least the show had a cool name, Christmas Imbroglio. The deal was that I could name the show if I devised a title sequence. I'm quite happy with the result and would like to show that off too:

I'm not showing off the sketch featuring me in a dress. Go find that yourself if you have to.

Have a fruity Christmas!

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The first teaser trailer for JJ Abrams' next Star Trek Into Darkness has been released. I do like the title (numbered sequels are rubbish), but if I were releasing a trailer for a sci-fi film with Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain, I'd want to focus on how sexy and amazing Benedict Cumberbatch is and not distract attention from that with hyperactive fit-inducing flashiness...

Explosion, smash, splash, scared crowd, crash, gurning Kirk, explosion, CUMBERBATCH, massive spaceship crash, explosion, cheesy voiceover, poor imitation of Christopher Nolan, explosion. 

No JJ Abrams, you're not pulling off a Christopher Nolan. (Neither are you, Zack Snyder.)

To be fair, this is only a teaser trailer, and there's every chance that the film will have a higher explosion:Cumberbatch ratio. But if not - Sherlock series three was delayed for this?

Monday, 19 November 2012

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I like being ambitious. What's the point of life if you don't try something utterly ridiculous once in a while? Obviously, I snapped up the opportunity to co-produce a live broadcast linking together student TV stations from across the country.

While technical oopsies out of anyone's control meant that the live broadcast wasn't quite as live as planned, FreshersTV 2012, hosted by YSTV, is now available on demand at:

I even wrote and produced a Neil Patrick Harris-inspired opening. One of those ideas that I didn't really expect to be taken seriously.

Please watch it, I neglected my degree and my social life and basic hygiene concerns for several weeks to make it happen.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

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Last weekend saw the second Aesthetica Short Film Festival hit the streets of York. I put my film critic waistcoat (in fact, my only waistcoat) on and reported on it for YSTV.

Free tickets to a film festival in exchange for bringing a camera with me is a pretty good deal. Here's what I filmed.

This week I also helped out at YSTV's annual Children in Need broadcast, which went brilliantly, and on shoots for the upcoming vampire drama Campus: A Tale of Terrors. After the stresses of FreshersTV, YSTV stuff is going pretty well right now. A successful, stress-free week full of film festivals and baked goods (I found a really nice bakery in town) makes a happy production director.

In my spare time, I also do a degree. I'll be promoting my upcoming short film for that, and probably begging for money, in the near future,

Thursday, 15 November 2012

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For those of you youths too lazy to read my written review of Skyfall, here's a video version I made for YSTV.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

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Bond is back. Again. 

After the spy series had descended into outright silliness for the umpteenth time with the invisible cars of Die Another Day, 2006’s Casino Royale rebooted the series with a newer, grittier aesthetic inspired by The Bourne Identity. Daniel Craig was the twenty-first century embodiment of Ian Fleming’s gruff man of action, replacing the campness of previous Bonds with a hard stare, a moral complexity, and an intimidating amount of muscles, soon becoming many people’s favourite Bond, including my own. What was remarkable was that, as well as rejuvenating the series stylistically, Casino Royale had a story in which Bond actually became emotionally invested; a story which changed him as a person. Surely, this is essential for good storytelling, but it’s an element that previous Bond films had been sorely lacking (except for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but everything else about that film was awful). 

Two years later, Quantum of Solace tried to replicate this success. It failed. Quantum had Casino Royale’s visceral action, and Craig continued to be a great Bond, but its attempts to develop Bond felt like more of a coda to Casino Royale than a film in itself, and the film took Casino Royale’s realism out of ‘gritty excitement’ and into ‘tedium’. The villain’s plan was to steal a lake. Yawn. 

In 2012, Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, the twenty-third Bond film, being released to coincide with and celebrate the series’ fiftieth anniversary, aims to merge this style with a tribute to classic Bonds – and it pulls this off excellently. 

Jason Bourne's influences feel less noticeable than in the earlier Daniel Craig Bonds. Rather, the film has a style that brings to mind the BBC’s Sherlock – there’s a real love for a classic British hero and his back catalogue. This is expressed through a plethora of references to classic Bond films, some subtler than others. One major plot point feels reminiscent of You Only Live Twice, the Goldfinger car shows up, and Bond jumps over a Komodo dragon in a manner that must have been thought up of as a less off-the-wall version of Live and Let Die’s crocodile stepping stones. Craig’s Bond is very much the chiseled, gruff hero of Casino Royale, though we do see many hints of Connery or Moore’s wit and stylistic flourish seeping in, such as the moment when Bond straightens his cuffs mid-action, immediately after attacking a train with a digger. Unfortunately, not all of this works – there’s a one-liner after a tragic event which, coming from Daniel Craig's mouth, seems offensive and distasteful, whereas Roger Moore could have got away with it. Nevertheless, Skyfall has a distinct nostalgic feel and appropriately celebrates the series’ history without ever descending into the campness that Casino Royale aimed to get rid of. 

The story itself is, in ways, very James Bond. It’s an international espionage adventure beginning with the most outrageous and fun action sequence of the Craig era so far - it has a car, a motorbike, a digger, a train, and a digger on a train. We join 007 as he chases the twenty-first century MacGuffin that is a lost hard drive, but the film’s story soon becomes a very deep and personal affair. Skyfall manages to pull off the same level of emotional investment as Casino Royale, and not just with Bond; Judi Dench’s M is, for the first time, explored as an interesting and conflicted character. When Javier Bardem’s villain Silva turns out to be an agent from M’s past, her position as both a mother figure and as a cold, calculating boss is brought to the fore. It’s this contrast that has turned Silva into a vengeful psychopath determined to humiliate the woman he sees as a mother, and which also leads us to a surprising insight into Bond’s past. I never thought I’d say this regarding a James Bond film, but I’ll be disappointed if, come awards season, Dench doesn’t get at least a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. 

Other additions to the MI6 team are Naomie Harris' Eve and Ben Whishaw's Q.  Harris has a smaller part than I expected, as Dench is the real Bond girl here, but she's a tough character who has a real chemistry with Bond, and is sexy but not sexualised - a role it's clear Harris is enjoying. Whishaw brings the quartermaster role generally associated with a much older actor into the youthful internet-saturated world; his take on Q as a nerdy kid is funny, very modern, and, for those of us who don't go for Daniel Craig, sexy. MI6 are sexy again.

Bardem is excellent too; his Silva deserves to go right to the top of any list of great Bond villains. Casino Royale and Quantum’s villains never really made themselves memorable, with the threat of a Spectre-esque organization not quite living up to its potential. Skyfall ditches this arc, for now at least, and gives us a man who is very evil, very physical, and very powerful. A former agent up to Bond’s standards and a computer hacker extraordinaire, Silva’s presence is constantly threatening and engaging, right from his first appearance, in a shot so drawn out and tense that even Bond does a little wee. Probably.

Which brings me on to Sam Mendes’ direction, which, along with Roger Deakins’ photography, gives the film a great visual style. With fast-paced action that knows how to make way for slow-paced tension, Mendes was an inspired choice to make a film as exciting as Bond can be. The film is shot with a rich colour palette, bringing to life both the exotic settings of Shanghai and Istanbul and the labyrinthine underworld of London. 

Does Skyfall feel like a James Bond film? In many ways, yes. The action is perfect, Daniel Craig is a brilliant Bond, Javier Bardem is a brilliant villain. There are however, some narrative elements that make it much more interesting than the average Bond film - it has a thematic heart, and interesting, deeply developed supporting characters. It is, successfully, both a continuation of the twenty-first century Bond introduced to us six years ago, and a celebration of the Bond introduced fifty years ago. Whether or not it’s a better film than the revolutionary Casino Royale is hard to judge; this certainly has a much more vibrant and nostalgic feel, which I really like. Perhaps the hype has got to me, but, for 007’s fiftieth birthday, Skyfall is the perfect Bond film.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

On 31.10.12 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments
Film cynic attention-grabbing headline of the week - Disney have purchased Lucasfilm, giving them control of the Star Wars brand, and intend to revive the film series under a new team of filmmakers and produce Episode VII for 2015, followed by - take a deep breath - a new film every two years.

Despite my fanboy affection for the original Star Wars trilogy, my immediate reaction to this is one of cynicism. The two main reasons for this are the Star Wars prequels and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

The original Star Wars trilogy was big Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking at its best; an accomplished fun adventure. Sure, George Lucas tailored it for a mass audience, and it lacks the distinct charm of British sci-fi such as Doctor Who, but the result is infinitely watchable and genuinely does feel like a lot of care has been put into it; a big budget Flash Gordon, with influences ranging from Westerns to Joseph Campbell and Kurosawa. I even like the Ewoks. Since then, however, the series felt like nothing more than an attempt to milk all the money possible from the series, with no real storytelling care put into the prequels - a jumped up firework display of a toy advert, according a very well argued Simon Pegg.

So where could the new films go? If they're set after the original trilogy, there's a load of expanded universe content to draw upon. There's a trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn called The Thrawn Trilogy which seem like natural successors to the original trilogy; keeping all of its swashbuckling style and expanding on the main characters' lives in a way which feels both truthful and cinematic. The problem with adapting that is that it's perhaps a little too low in scale, with the main villain being a fragment of the Empire already brought down in the film trilogy; Disney will only want to go bigger and better, as those Hollywood types are wont to do. There's also, of course, the practical matter that Mark Hamill et al. have aged considerably more than five years since Return of the Jedi.

The other major piece of post-original trilogy fiction is the New Jedi Order, a massive book series  following a much older version of the original cast and their children as they fend off a galactic invasion from a sinister alien species. The problem with adapting this is that it's rubbish; frankly, this is where Star Wars fiction lost its grasp on what made Star Wars great and descended into dry, overly serious, drawn-out pulp.

So Disney will most likely be wanting to create their own stories and characters, to expand on the Star Wars universe how they see fit. Wherever this would be, my main feeling is that Disney would be milking a series that already lost its charm quite some time ago. Just like they did with the Pirates of the Caribbean series. 

Pirates was a similar situation condensed into a smaller time frame. Pirates 1 was great, Pirates 2 not  entirely awful, Pirates 3 soul-gratingly offensive, and yet they carried on relentlessly in the face of shitness, like a profit-spinning Wile E Coyote. I haven't watched Pirates 4 and don't intend to watch 5 or 6.

To sum up, I'm cynical. On the other hand, they haven't done a bad job with the Marvel banner, so let's keep an open mind, eh?

There is another potential silver lining to this. As Nigel Floyd pointed out on Twitter, George Lucas has, for many years, been stating his intentions to make a smaller, more personal film. Maybe now that he's relinquished his overpriced playground, he'll get around to that.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

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As an aspiring writer myself, should I have a soft spot for films about writers? Barton Fink is one of my favourite Coen comedies* and As Good as it Gets is charmingly funny, if not much about writing. I can’t think of that many good ones, actually. 

New rom-com Ruby Sparks is explicitly about writing. The concept: Paul Dano is Calvin Weir-Fields, a writer, who one day writes about a girl he sees in his dreams, only to have her come to life as the eponymous Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Not much time is given to explaining this miracle, and the film’s all the better for it – it’s a rom-com, who needs scientific explanations? Just don’t let some particular Doctor Who fans watch it... 

Rather, the film asks - how does Calvin cope with having 'written' his own girlfriend, and, consequently and more interestingly, how does the reality of Ruby compare to his writing, and how does he deal with the moral dilemma of his power to change things by ‘rewriting’ her?

These questions are all explored in Zoe Kazan’s competent and affecting script. It’s interesting that Kazan wrote and starred in the film – there aren’t many good writer-actors out there, and Kazan is certainly shaping up as one of them. Kazan and Dano lift the characters out of the screen and pull the film together with performances that are engaging without ever becoming, as some may worry, overly saccharine.

In fact, it’s a testament to the script and performances that Calvin remains likable throughout the film, even after the surprisingly dark turn the tale takes towards the end.  Which I won’t give away. Ruby Sparks can be read as a fable about the controlling partner, and the metaphor is extended through Calvin’s ability to manipulate Ruby with his typewriter, but Paul Dano manages to pull the sympathy in despite this darker side to the character, and audiences should be smiling by the end of the film.

If there’s one thing I really don’t like about Ruby Sparks, it’s an unusual sequence around the middle of the film, in which Calvin and Ruby visit Calvin’s mother and step-father. There’d been a lovely comment earlier on about how perfect, ‘quirky’ girls don’t exist outside of stories – pointing a knowing finger at that contemporary rom-com category which this effectively falls into. Thus when Calvin creates such a girl it’s so unrealistic that it must be a miracle. But his family, as it turns out, are so over-the-top off-the-rails quirky so as to completely null and void this point that the film had previously been making. With a house patched together from a range of spiritual buildings, they’re like something pulled from an early draft of Meet the Fockers before it was asked to be heavily toned down. There’s absolutely no reason for this; indeed, the family’s very presence is superficial, as they don’t have much effect on Calvin or Ruby and hardly appear again in the film.

So, apart from that unusually rubbish sequence, I liked Ruby Sparks. It’s an intelligent but not study of writing and of relationships and of the similarities between them, but not pretentiously so - it knows it's a rom-com and is an engagingly sleek and light-hearted one at that. Zoe Kazan is a name to look out for.

*Interestingly, only now have I noticed the similarities between Barton Fink and The Shining. That’s an essay for another day.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

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I didn’t enjoy Stephen Chbosky’s novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower and attributed this partly to the fact that I’m not in its target audience of early teen girls. The other part of the attribution was given to the fact that I found it clumsily written.

Its narration, as a series of letters from high school student Charlie to an anonymous reader, was an inspired device, which helped steer an otherwise conventional story. Through Charlie’s first person experiences as a lonely and socially awkward teen, the novel did manage to treat the usual range of coming-of-age themes, including drugs, abuse, sexuality and suicide, in a mature manner, but for God’s sake, it had too much crying in it. Someone cried on every page. Which got boring. I also find it hard to empathise with the American High School system. All the inviting girls to dances and ball games and words like sophomore. To be honest, some of those probably happen in Britain too, but I’ll have been too busy watching Doctor Who to notice them.

Anyway, this lack of empathy with the American High School system still stands with the new film adaptation, as do my mixed feelings on the story, as this, directed by its author, sticks very close to the source material.

I can, in fact, only think of two differences between the plots of the two versions – and they are probably the main reasons for my positivity regarding the film.  The first is the addition of David Bowie’s Heroes as a major plot point. Despite the strangeness of none of the three main characters having heard the song before, any film that features Bowie so prominently is fine by me and the song is a perfect fit for the two major scenes it appears in. With this and The Smiths appearing once or twice, the soundtrack is one of my favourite things about The Perks.

The other difference is that the film has less crying in it and can go for at least five minutes at times without any tears. Which is a relief.

One problem that results from the straight adaptation is that the framing story becomes neglected. With the novel, the letters actually are the story. In the film, they appear infrequently as a voiceover and it’s easy to forget that they actually are letters, not a generic narration. It’s hard not to feel that the occasional hints to this device are a little pointless.

A strength of the film is the performances. Logan Lerman as Charlie is a promising young star, Emma Watson isn’t bad, and We Need to Talk About Kevin’s Ezra Miller is, well, actually really good. The direction, meanwhile, a few awkward shots aside – somehow the introduction of Emma Watson’s character felt badly shot in a way which drew me out of the story – is competent enough, if not remarkable.

The overall feeling I was left with was that the The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a more competent piece of work than the novel, albeit, due to the neglect of the unusual narrative style, less individual. It’s an enjoyable story, which deals with the issues that teenage people apparently face in a respectable, unpatronising manner, without stepping over the line which the novel skirted into oversentimentality. And it has David Bowie in.