Film Review – Sherlock Holmes

It is Holmes, dear friend, but not as we knew him. Director Guy Ritchie delivers a muscular and fun interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary Victorian detective.

The plot concerns a member of the aristocracy, Lord Blackwood, who after being hung for a series of murders associated with his black magic rituals, appears to rise from the grave. Fresh murders of his close associates set the city on edge, (although we never really get a sense of this) and having previously taunted Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) with details of his next dastardly feat, the clock is set by whatever force is at work for Holmes to prevent catastrophe, aided by his trusted friend, Dr John Watson (Jude Law).

My initial prejudices told me Ritchie’s Holmes would be nothing more than a buddy movie; Lethal Weapon set in old London town. The truth is that it is, but it’s not all that bad. There are the usual Ritchie bare-knuckle fight scenes, cockney accents and heavies (one bore a striking resemblance to either Eric Cantona or boxer Nikolai Valuev, but is in fact WWF wrestler, Robert Maillet), but it all finds a fitting home in the glooming of period London. 

The dialogue between Holmes and Watson is punctuated by their good-natured bickering throughout the film, providing a zest to their scenes and also defining their co-dependent relationship.  Watson is an ex-military man with a weakness for gambling that Holmes restrains, a far cry from the genteel character portrayed in previous adaptations, and a suitable foil to his partner in detection. Holmes attempts to see off Watson’s impending engagement with a view to preserving their adventures together, but he also has a distraction in Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the only criminal ever to have ever outwitted him in both mind and heart.  

Downey Jr mutes and moulds himself into a man who suffers his genius and retreats from the ordinary world by necessity rather than choice, into a room darkened with the fug of his own pipesmoke. Watson is essential, being the only person who picks up the detritus of Holmes’ life at home and keep things in order. This rebalancing of power is the most noticeable departure from the characters of the novels. It does however, feed the mutually dependent relationship between the two men, and so the reinterpretation works quite well in this respect. The sub-plot of choosing your lover over your best friend is played out in an entertaining way, but I couldn’t help think it took away the sinister chill of the main narrative. More than once I was reminded of the tone of The Young Sherlock Holmes.

Although the art department has pitched the tone nicely, the film forsakes real cerebral ingenuity and detective work for fight sequences and explosions. As a result, the film is fun, but lacks the creeping sense of foreboding that made the original stories of the great detective so thrilling. As ever, key London landmarks are thrown in for the sake of sales in non-UK markets, and it does feel a little contrived, with one set-piece too many needlessly dragging out the ending. The almost casual mention of Holmes’ ultimate nemesis in the final scenes did not strike the required fear and anticipation into the heart for the inevitable sequel. A darker outlook is required for the next outing. Quickly Watson! To the screenwriters, there’s not a moment to lose!
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Film Review – Avatar

Avatar delivers a subtle and tantalising 3D experience, but it is undermined by weak characterisation, unimaginative dialogue and a clunky plot.

James Cameron delivers a spectacular new 3D world in planet Pandora, where a phenomenal amount of time has been spent creating an entire world of flora and fauna that is at times, simply breathtaking. My initial fears of a garish blue and purple world of token strangeness were banished. Surely inspired by Cameron’s underwater filmmaking in the ocean depths, the forest world of Pandora at night comes alive in a pulsing array of plant bioluminescence, from the veins of the native Na’vi tribe to the patches of lichen that glow under individual footsteps. This is a movie, in part, about the wonder of a complex ecosystem.

The plot is one we are familiar with from many stories; the military man who forsakes his  artificial and mechanised world to join one more attuned to nature. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a Marine paralysed from the waist down, recalled into service to replace his deceased twin brother who was a research scientist in an ambitious interplanetary military force active on Pandora. The expedition is to acquire vast quantites of a desperately needed, naturally occurring mineral, ‘Unobtanium’, from a site occupied by the primitive tribal society of the Na’vi; a blue-skinned, eight-foot tall warrior race who worship a feminine deity that they believe embodies the planet’s life-force. Previous negotiations have failed, so Sully is given an ‘avatar’ body, a hybrid lab-concoction of human and Na’vi DNA, which he controls remotely from inside the military base. This enables him to breathe Pandora’s otherwise toxic air, and to integrate into Na’vi society with a view to convincing them to move their entire village so that mining can commence. He is introduced to the tribe by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the accomplished daughter of the tribe’s shaman. Sully undergoes tribal rituals to become one of them, and inevitably feels a conflict between his affections for Neytiri and her people, and his human, military objectives.

Cameron has spent some ten years realising a 3D world driven by a mysterious life-force, peopled by a race that has its own, convincing language, but this concept is pushed into the background to present us with a very ordinary love story between the principle characters of Sully and Neytiri, and the consequent ‘going native’ of Sully. Now this would work if there was a substantial character arc from Sully the military grunt to Sully the eco-warrior, but he just isn’t ignorant or callous enough at the beginning to render the change meaningful, and so we are left with a very long movie, about something completely unrevolutionary. Not what we were promised. There is an interesting scene where lead scientist, Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is examining the neural communication between plant roots that could form the basis of a theory that Pandora is a giant integrated, organic network. But this plot point is shoved into the background, quite literally, as the camera and sound follow Sully into the undergrowth. The emotional consequences of Sully a acquiring a second-life, being transformed from a paraplegic to a fully mobile person again, when the opportunity to do just the same back on Earth is promised, is never examined beyond a few lines that get drowned out by clichés.

So I begrudgingly accepted the Disney storyline of ‘boy meets princess and learns to respect the planet’, only because of the phenomenal technical artistry of the film’s landscape. Apart from one love scene of surprising tenderness and innocence (I am a soft git at heart), I was filled with adrenaline but no emotion during any of the scenes of destruction and desolation. 

The dialogue is a lazy blend of military grunt-speak and rabble-rousing Braveheart speechwriting that left me unmoved, when I should have been empathising with the characters. Such a shame that after all the efforts to immerse me in the film with accomplished 3D technology, one is instantly thrown out again by banal screenwriting.

Recently I posted on this blog a Fox marketing ‘documentary within a film’ featurette narrated by Weaver’s character. Now make THAT into a feature-length IMAX 3D documentary Mr Cameron, and you’ve got the movie you should have made. At present it’s the world that’s wonderful, not the characters within it. 

Make no mistake, this a movie you should absolutely go and see. But it is a spectacular experience for the eyes, not for the heart.

UK Exhibitor Cineworld Courts Radical 3D Glasses Supplier

UK cinema operator Cineworld claims it will soon ink a deal with Australian company Look3D, to bring the Oz company’s range of fashion-styled 3D glasses to key sites in January 2010.

Look3D announced its range in October of this year, and Crispin Lilly, VP of Business Affairs at Cineworld says that they will be the first to stock them in the UK:

“We are going to enjoy a period of exclusivity. Certainly for the first few months we’ll be the only exhibitor in the UK using or selling Look3D product. We’ll be committing to an annual volume, and then I imagine it will be on a rolling basis. It’s a volume commitment rather than a term commitment.”

“We’re certainly going to be using them as a supplier for the cheaper glasses and doing some tests with them on the premium glasses at our high-flowing sites; possibly Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester.”

3D cinemagoers will be familiar with the dark grey lenses of RealD glasses that are currently used in cinemas worldwide. Look3D have obtained a license from RealD to make improvements to the lens technology. In its premium range, they claim to have created a higher specification lens that is stronger, more scratch-resistant and designed to last as long as a pair of good quality sunglasses.

The full Look3D range varies from the basic Movie Collection to the Designer Collection, which has a greater number of designs and features metal frames for the aviator style, of which Look3D founder Rhett Adam said, “It’s the denim jean of sunglasses, the number one selling design in the world.”

A clip-on set of 3D lenses has been designed for those who wear prescription glasses. Children will be able to buy a range that can be themed according to the movie property, and also that adequately fits their heads.

Cineworld will test 10,000 units of the aviator and clip-on styles at two or more flagship cinemas in mid-January of next year. Lilly said that they will definitely place an order of premium kids glasses in time for the release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in March 2010.

They estimate that the premium glasses will sell for £4 to £8.

The cinema chain has started a reduction on 3D ticket prices in November of this year. Instead of an extra £2.20 on the standard adult admission, punters now pay £1.90 extra per ticket, buying the current RealD glasses at 80p each. Cineworld claim that by buying and reusing 3D glasses, customers will recoup their investment and continue to save money watching 3D movies.

Avatar – Planet Pandora featurette released by Fox

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20th Century Fox has just sent through this latest promotional featurette for the Avatar movie, which as you will no doubt know, is going on general release on 17 December. Narrated by Sigourney Weaver, in character as Dr Grace Augustine, it screens like an inflight briefing on the planet of Pandora, as if from the movie itself. 

What it actually does is take a step back from the military hardware and huge explosions, to show off some of the incredible flora and fauna that the massive art department and visual effects teams have spent several years developing in darkened offices all over the world.

I can’t help wondering how it would have sounded for the UK market with the majestic narrative tones of Sir David Attenborough, but then, alas, he’s not in the movie…extra features perhaps Mr Cameron?

Film Review – Where the Wild Things Are

In his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s similarly titled children’s picture book, Spike Jonze has delivered an insightful film that restrains indie-film kookiness for an honest look at relationships from a child’s perspective. From a source material of just a few lines of story, he has fashioned a convincing tale of a boy who desires loving affection, but is unable to control the wild emotions that rage within him. 

Max (Max Records) is approaching adolesence, and the absence of a father figure has made him at once emotionally vunerable and tempestuous. Living with his sister, and mother (a wonderfully sympathetic Catherine Keenan), he is a solitary character who seems unable to interact with other people (or dogs for that matter) without introducing an element of violence. He lives in his own imagination, building dens from blankets in his bedroom and also in the winter streets from banks of snow. While having an argument with his mother, he bites her. Shocked at what he has done, and by her rejection of his savage intimacy, he runs away into the winter night. Scrambling through nearby woodland, he finds an expanse of sea and the small boat in which he sails to the land Where the Wild Things Are.

Towering monsters of fur and teeth, the Wild Things perfectly resemble the illustrations from Sendak’s book. With only a restrained amount of CGI work to augment facial expressions, the effects department must be credited with creating costumes that embody a forbidding physical presence and also a softness, showing the vulnerable emotional creatures that they are beneath their menacing surface. In effect, the Wild Things are like children that have not learned to restrain their destructive impulses. 

It’s a brilliant evocation of the contradictory nature of playground relationships. Max is violent in his initiation of fights that destroy whole areas of the forest, and another that results in the bullying of the timid Alexander (Paul Dano, previously seen as the mute teen in Little Miss Sunshine), but also constructive in his desire to build a huge fortress that will protect them all from the pain of loneliness. The voice cast brilliantly grumps, mopes and rages, using among others, the voice talents of Catherine O’Hara as the resentful Judith, Forest Whitaker as quiet Ira, Chris Cooper as the pragmatic Douglas and James Gandolfini as Carol, the character with whom Max ultimately empathises. Like Max, Carol has a deep desire to create a new world and change things for the better, but is thwarted by his inability to overcome his more destructive nature, shown by his delicate construction in twigs of a perfect miniature world which he later destroys in a fit of rage. I was constantly reminded of Gandolfini’s more famous alter-ego from The Sopranos, and how similar that character is in his childlike and violent exclamations. The desperate frustration of Carol is perfectly captured in his voice.

The art design is wholly sympathetic to the book, extending the colour palette into landscapes of bright blue seas and skies, a forest of browns and greens, and a perfect desert of golden sand dunes. The CGI rendering of the fortress by the coast is breathtaking in it’s size and simple shapes. Jonze’s introspective eye also allows us to linger on the more evocative moments of childhood, through shots of shallow focus revealing the many ornaments and toys of Max’s bedroom, the tasting of rough crystals of new snow, and Lance Acord’s (Marie Antoinette, Lost in Translation) dreamlike cinematography of low, yellow sunlight blinking through the trees as a sleeping Max is carried by Carol through the forest.

This is a movie made to create a shared recognition of childhood experience, without resorting to beating the audience over the head with platitudes about how it’s good to be nice after all. Some younger children may find the movie a little too talkative, and possibly scary during the rough rumpus scenes, but children aged around ten years old and upwards shouldn’t have any trouble recognising themselves and their friends on screen.

Film Review – Paranormal Activity

Ok. This is the problem I have with Paranormal Activity, it’s boring. Horror films are meant to be terrifying n’est-ce pas? I found that I was so bored during the opening 20 minutes of the movie that I started to berate it to friends via Facebook, something I have never, ever done in a movie screening before. I really wanted to be scared, believe me. I was expecting great things given the hype from Paramount during it’s release in the US, but it may have raised expectations unnaturally high. A lesson perhaps, for overenthusiastic movie marketeers.

Paranormal Activity has been shot entirely in the style of a handheld home movie, albeit on a slightly higher spec camera, to infuse the film with a sense of reality, something we’ve seen before in films such as Blair Witch and Cloverfield. In horror movies it is essential that the viewer makes some kind of emotional investment in the characters and the experience they are going through, so that in turn, it becomes our own. We feel their fear, and also their relief at the false alarms. The problem is that the actors are both so annoying, so unconvincing in their characters, and the pace so stilted, that it just isn’t possible to make that investment.

The male lead of Micah (Micah Sloat) speaks as someone whose sole frame of reference is the screenwriting of Hollywood blockbusters. His speech is infused with such macho cliches as “Don’t fuck with us!” directed at the malevolent spirit. He also has a petulant attitude when dealing with his girlfriend’s fears that brought some of Adam Sandler’s more irritating, mumbling performances to mind. His girlfriend, Kate (Katie Featherston), who is the focus of the poltergeist activity, delivers a slightly more tolerable performance, but is inhibited by a repetitive script that gives her the same lines in response to each paranormal occurrence. Her character suffers a lack of depth and our interest as a result.

The convention of the horror genre is that a threat is established early on, and we then see this manifest itself to greater levels throughout the film so that the denouement is almost unbearable. Paranormal Activity suffers from such a lack of compelling narrative between each of the documented haunted nights, that you will be screaming, not out of fear, but out of boredom and frustration for the next haunting to hurry up and appear on screen. 

A mysteriously placed photo of Kate as a child appears in the house, but we are not told what its significance is in relation to the haunting. In a later contradictory scene, the old ‘consulting the ancient book of the occult’ scene is wheeled out, as is a bit of modern internet research, to reveal that this a random haunting that has no bearing on previous events. Micah introduces a ouijaboard to proceedings, which the camera witnesses being manipulated, then spontaneously combusting while they are out of the house. Micah attempts to decipher what message might have been left by the spirit, but it is inconclusive, and so, completely pointless from a narrative perspective. What results is a the film equivalent of a ghost train ride, peaks of adrenaline padded out by narrative that lacks the necessary development to push a ‘reveal’ of the reason behind the haunting.

The other problem is the unintentional comic value of a spectral entity that leaves the footprints of a giant duck in the powder scattered on the floor. Somebody better check that Big Bird from Sesame Street is still alive. With so many truly terrifying films films such as The Exorcist, I’m confused as to how someone can get the genre so wrongThis would have been an accomplished film in the context of a horror film festival, but it is not deserving of the acclaim, and wide distribution that it has received.