Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Film Review: Young Sherlock Holmes [1985]

EDIT (2013): WARNING - I wrote these reviews aaaaages ago and possibly don't even agree with them any more.  I have since discovered that one sentence reviews are a lot more fun.  Please see One Sentence Film Reviews tab.


What would have happened if Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson had met as schoolboys?  I can take an educated guess that it wouldn’t have been anything like this pointless film.

It opens by showing us a mysterious hooded figure (clearly a woman) shooting a man with a dart.  He trips out and ultimately kills himself in an attempt to get away from his hallucinations.  Seeing this means we lose out on any deduction and detection that might have been interesting to watch, in this, a detective story about the world’s most famous detective. 

Although don’t get your hopes up about the said detective.  Holmes mumbles his lines and lacks any charisma.  When you look into Holmes’ eyes, you should see fiery intelligence; in Nicholas Rowe, you see sleepiness.  This is a terrible piece of miscasting and really drags the film down.  Not that the film exactly soars particularly high without him.  Watson is better, and at least watchable. 

Not so for the narration of an older Watson, which thoroughly ruins every scene it talks over.  He constantly chuckles, despite the events of the film being quite horrific and scary for the children involved, and he fills gaps in the script where having some film would be better.  He actually narrates what Holmes is telling Watson, while Holmes is telling Watson, so that Rowe has to be faded out in order to hear.  This truly is the most ghastly narration I have ever heard.

But it’s not as if what the narration is ruining is that good anyway.  In general, Young Sherlock Holmes is boring.  SPOILER ALERT.  It’s obvious who the villain is, because there isn’t anyone else in the film.  It is obvious that Holmes’s girlfriend Elizabeth is going to die, because we all know Holmes isn’t interested in love when he’s grown up.  And yet, among this obvious plot, we are supposed to swallow ancient Egyptians.  What?  Why?  Ancient Egyptians, in a pyramid, in London, sacrificing young women?  What the hell is going on?  Oh, and of the five women who are going to be killed, all five of them are killed.  Well done there, Holmes.

It’s a silly yet boring and predictable story, with some awful decisions (like the narration), and bland characters who pretty much fail to save the day, lacking any of the points that make Sherlock Holmes so well loved (like charisma, intelligence or wit).  Still, hang in there won’t you, for the post-credit sequence.  Yawn.

Film Review: You’ve Got Mail [1998]

EDIT (2013): WARNING - I wrote these reviews aaaaages ago and possibly don't even agree with them any more.  I have since discovered that one sentence reviews are a lot more fun.  Please see One Sentence Film Reviews tab.


The romantic comedy.  A genre that ignores that practically every story ever told involves at least a little romance and comedy, so how can that be all there is to your story?  A genre that is so flat that nine times out of ten the ending is plastered on the poster, possibly going for ‘it’s not how the story ends, but how it gets there that is important’, but inevitably forgetting to write that part of the story.  That confuses not getting on with someone with sexual chemistry and follows a rigid template of fill in the blanks (name, career, setting) and never deviates from film to film, just to insult the intelligence of the audience who are familiar with both romance and comedy on a day-to-day basis, so really can’t be fobbed off that easily.

Is it possible to actually construct something watchable from this doom of a genre?

Well, there’s You’ve Got Mail. 

It’s a remake of The Shop Around The Corner.  Just this fact seems to get reviewers’ backs up.  And sure, there is a similar theme of enemies who unwittingly fall in love through the written word and one whole café scene is direct homage, but other than that?  The situations and set-up are completely different and the romance is far more central to the plot.  It’s a romantic comedy.  In fifty-eight years, a similar idea is bound to crop up.  These days they can’t go fifty-eight seconds without dragging out the same tired ideas.  You’ve Got Mail is allowed a mildly similar theme without being ripped apart by ravenous I ♥ The Shop Around The Corner critics. (NB I am a huge fan of The Shop Around The Corner)

So what’s so good about You’ve Got Mail?  Let me explain.

The rom-com: The biggest cliché fest this side of the action flick.  You could watch one with your eyes shut and still be able to tell exactly what is going to happen in the next scene.

You’ve Got Mail: takes these romance and feel-good film clichés, and handles them refreshingly, intelligently and believably.

The rom-com: The scripts are dull and talky yet manage to reveal little depth as they swerve from turning point to cliché at a reliability you could set your watch by, while attempting some kind of quirky style and analysis of the human condition and coming off as boring or irritating.  Of course, they also have to be funny (that’d be that com part) and either miss, falling flat into slightly uncomfortable straight drama, or are filled with lame squirmy one-liners and sniping.  Handling of all emotions is clumsy and unconvincing; bizarre, considering everyone involved in making it has those emotions.  You’d think they knew what they were for.

You’ve Got Mail: With a witty and bouncy script and style, this whisks the audience along in a pleasingly fun feeling and is full of nice details, particularly how in love the meaningless becomes meaningful.  Meanwhile, humour and wistfulness is balanced against heartbreaking despair in a skilled and enthralling storm on the emotions while retaining a whimsical magic. 

The rom-com: characters are cardboard cut-outs, usually with some ‘kooky’ personality trait to differentiate them from the million other rom-com characters while anyone unlucky enough not to be the lead is dropped in for a rude comment or plot parallel that gives the lead someone to look down on and is swept insultingly aside when they have fulfilled this purpose. 

You’ve Got Mail: characters are heavily developed albeit with an air of the fairy tale, lending believability that the leads live full lives interacting with friends and family off screen.

The rom-com: Lovers at the start of the film are ruthlessly used and dumped for no reason (suddenly they’re too uptight; then why were you dating them for five years?), simply to make the minutes before the film climaxes with the image on the poster phonily harder to trudge to. 

You’ve Got Mail: Kathleen and boyfriend Frank come to a natural end, unaffected by the central romance of the film.  Both this relationship and that between Joe and girlfriend Patricia are subtly set up to show why the couples are together, but that there is no possibility of the long term.

The rom-com: The leads start as bickering enemies, then switch abruptly to duvet-wrestling lovers with little explanation. 

You’ve Got Mail: actually broaches the friendship stage that would surely have to bridge the gap for the relationship to have any vestige of longevity. 

The rom-com: is never deep.  There is however, the tediously inevitable falling out scene where the somehow wronged lead storms off, they both wander around to sad music and then run into each other’s arms having magically got over whatever it was for no reason.

You’ve Got Mail: Joe suffers for the pain he causes the woman he loves.  He is a fascinating romantic lead.  A callous businessman, with depth and humour as a person.  His horror at discovering his anonymous lover is his enemy, the inner turmoil bubbling beneath his eyes for what he has done and his desperation to befriend her and be forgiven when he knows it is too late are all superbly acted by Tom Hanks. 

The rom-com: The ending is obvious and unsatisfactory, obliterating personalities and reality for the freeze-frame kiss.

You’ve Got Mail: Ah.  And here the film slips up, sabotaging You’ve Got Mail’s chances of being a classic.  SPOILER ALERT.  Towards the end, the film switches almost entirely to Joe’s perspective, as he tries to become Kathleen’s friend.  This throws off the delicate balance that has been the structure so far.  The last scene, in which Kathleen waits to meet her anonymous lover and is presented with Joe, doesn’t work.  The ‘surprise!’ tactic is tasteless, as is confirmed by Kathleen bursting into tears.  Not the happy ending desired.  Then instead of these two witty, intelligent, deep people, so recently bitter enemies but now close friends, discussing the coincidence, irony and subterfuge of this situation, they just kiss.  A kiss?  That’s it?  This isn’t a Disney cartoon.  An intelligent audience needs more than that.  It’s an awful lot of build up for such an abrupt ending.  Can anyone say unsatisfied?

So is it possible to construct something watchable from this doom of a genre?

Watchable?  Yes.  But something that overcomes the stigma of its genre and works as a film in its own right?  If so, this isn’t it. 

You’ve Got Mail is certainly one of the best rom-coms, but the ending brutally stops it being a perfect film.  Still, if one must watch a rom-com, make it this one.


****

Film Review: Zombieland [2009]

EDIT (2013): WARNING - I wrote these reviews aaaaages ago and possibly don't even agree with them any more.  I have since discovered that one sentence reviews are a lot more fun.  Please see One Sentence Film Reviews tab.



Basic premise: the same as 28 Days Later...  Guy in post zombie-apocalyptic world, meets a few survivors, they do nothing for an hour.  News Flash: doing nothing is boring.  Now, if the world really ended, there might well be nothing to do with our lives other than continue to exist.  But this is a story; make a damn plot up. 

The only alternative Zombieland proffers to nothing is people vomiting blood.  Stuck between nothing or blood vomit, it’s clear there isn’t much going for the film. 

Certainly not the characters.  There’s nothing to like about them, but that’s because there’s nothing to them at all.  They don’t even need to be there, so little an impression do they manage to make. 

Romance rears its ugly head to the extent that there is a male and there is a female in the film, at which point surely someone involved should have been fired.  Have we not advanced beyond the pathetic need to add romance where romance there ain’t, simply because two beings have interlocking genitals and there might be girls in the audience who must be fed this vapid nonsense because they can’t possibly enjoy a story unless hooked by a whiff of marriage?  Perhaps that is too large a complaint at the media, and this failure to launch should be blamed on how utterly uninteresting and devoid of chemistry the characters (and actors) are. 

The one attempt to hook the audience is through the mild gimmick of the main character and (shudder) narrator Columbus having a list for how to survive living in zombieland.  It’s telling of how basic and worthless is the script that his list comprises over thirty points, yet we only hear about five of them, but have to hear those five over and over, until one might wish this plotless and characterless bland-fest didn’t have a gimmick at all and just sank into the obscurity memory will surely flush it down when the credits role.

As for the zombie stuff, it’s deliberately gross and occasionally sick, with a callous attitude to death that passes for the ‘comedy’ part of the comedy horror.  Luckily, it’s all so dull, it’s impossible to feel offended.

What really bugs me about this film is that I shouldn’t be able to predict with 100% accuracy every line, every tedious observation, every gag, every character progression, every outcome to every lame event before it happens.  But I can.  Every ounce of this film is mind-shatteringly obvious.  Maybe if it was made in 1900 and no one had seen a magical moving picture yet, it would hold some kind of interest for simple folk who didn’t know much about fiction because they were blind and also never learnt to read, and heck, were deaf too and lived in a cave under a rock.  But this film is from 2009 and it does nothing inventive, interesting, subverting or remotely entertaining.  And this isn’t helped by the narration.  By the end, I found myself crying in monotone, “Please, no, tell me more,” every time Columbus drew breath to tell the audience what had been blatant since the opening scene. 

No matter how hard a film tries to look good or have quirky ideas, if it is obvious, it is boring.  The only positive I can think of to sitting through this paint-by-numbers childlike attempt to create a piece of fiction is: at least it’s short.

*

Film Review: Zulu [1963]

EDIT (2013): WARNING - I wrote these reviews aaaaages ago and possibly don't even agree with them any more.  I have since discovered that one sentence reviews are a lot more fun.  Please see One Sentence Film Reviews tab.


So what do you think of my pitch for a film about a battle between four thousand Zulu warriors and only a hundred British soldiers?  Obviously, you have studied 1870s African colonialism wars.

What do you mean no?  Fine, but I think most people are very familiar with this period of history.  Well I am.  Right, so that settles it, I’ll just assume everyone knows exactly what is going on and not bother explaining the historical setting at all.  Good.  That’ll work.

And just to add to the all the whats and whys that will be lying around, I thought I’d put in a million characters, so it’ll be littered with whos as well.  Yes, this is definitely a good plan. 

Well, whatever; there’s always the acting to fall back on.  No it isn’t camp.  Stop giggling.  Look, with a plethora of characters like this, the audience are bound to like one of them.  At least one of them.  Oh, come on. 

Fine, if they’re bored by those characters, what about the seventeen hours of Zulu warriors dancing, and singing, and preparing for battle I’ve planned?  It’ll take an awful lot of effort to coordinate, so basically, I want it all to make the final cut.  Of course it isn’t boring; there’s lots of fighting to keep the audience awake.  I presume battles involving lots of skewering on spears and bayonets is just like a big, harmless game of tag, isn’t it? 

Look, I think you’re being very negative.  I’ve always wanted to see a film about a historical battle and I’ve got exactly what I asked for.  I can’t think of a single other reason someone might watch a film so I definitely don’t need any other levels to the story.

Oh, how have I handled the colonial angle?  I thought I’d make it exactly like a Western, you know, that focuses on homesteaders versus Native Americans.  The small band in the wagon circle being beaten down by an expert warrior race who are on their own land and yet feel like the villains.  No, I never represent the Zulu warriors as bad; in fact, I constantly praise them.  You know, like how they willingly sacrifice their own men just to test the enemy weaknesses.  Well, I don’t actually want the audience to side with them!  I’ve got some cracking scenes towards the end of the British getting some organised firing lines in action and I don’t want the audience to feel conflicted.

So what’s the point?  SPOILER ALERT.  The point is everyone loves the underdog, and a film of one hundred men being slaughtered by four thousand men will never be made, so it’s just a matter of sitting it out to see how these few will defeat the many.

Great?  So you’ll release it?  Still worried about no one having any interest in watching it?  Don’t worry, I don’t need any advertising; in the future people will just buy it because it has some guy called Michael Caine in it.  Apparently, he’s going to be big…

**½

What Is It All About?

Once upon a Christmas I got £25 so I spent it on the latest editions of the various writers’ (writer’s?) books, despite these already being months old.  A good start to the New Year.  I have been going through the ‘Stories – Complete’ folder to make sure everything is up to standard and taking word counts so I can see what can be sent where. 

I have had The Hair cut (I have an irrational fear of hairdressers.  Or is it irrational?  Maybe they do all hate me), although for some reason can’t photograph it.  I stood in the bathroom this morning (afternoon), looking in the mirror, holding up the phone ready to take a photo.  I am looking at two images of myself at once, so why is the one in the mirror quite nice and the one in the phone horrible?  They are of the same thing at the very same time.  Maybe it’s like how when I record something on TV on to video, it suddenly becomes thinner (good news for actors). 

I have a dentist check up on Friday (time for the annual floss) and I intend to actually get a doctor.  I went outside of my own accord to indulge a hobby; the D-Day museum showed a series of films from the war.  Definitely a good start.

I even applied to the old job, who always said I was welcome to return, so I could use that to supplement the income rather than relying on the JSA.  And how pathetic am I?  They said no.  I can’t even get a job that I did for four years, that I was a manager of.  But then, I have to be that pathetic.  That’s me.

I don’t think all the complete stories are that good.  Should I send them off anyway?  Is that a waste of my time, or am I just bored of stuff I’ve read a zillion times and really, they’re fine?  There’s Inflatable Church, which came from a timed assignment in the first year at uni, in which we had to write something inspired by an article about an inflatable church.  I think it’s obvious.  Not bad exactly, but I don’t think it puts me in a very good light and it certainly never goes anywhere. 

I still think that As High As Ten the piece about tourists visiting Auschwitz is lacking in something, no matter how many times I rework it.  Last night I watched Schindler’s List, and that just made me even surer the story isn’t working.  Now I’ve moved the first sentence, so the first word is Auschwitz, so it’s more in mind for when the actual visit happens at the end, but then that overshadows the rest of the story, which on a basic level is about the relationship between two people.  Or is it just a list of anecdotes from a holiday in Poland?  Maybe it would help if the Czech Republic hadn’t slipped in to bolster The Memories.  Maybe it would help if I were able in any way to recreate realistic emotions with words.  I’m a writer, dammit.

Working Title: Handy about a dismembered hand (Thing-style) is much less interesting than I remember.  I guess that’s partly the joke. 

But then there’s Working Title: Not-Wedding, which I wrote in year 2, reworked a lot (now it has a specific style, which is never a good idea) and it builds to a punchline.  Really?  A punchline?  Again, maybe it’s okay, but I think generally I’m more sophisticated than that.  Or less so, but different anyway. 

Most of my short stories that I like are more like novel extracts.  And isn’t that a problem, because then I want to write entire novels, often based on no plot.

Speaking of no plot, The Housemate has finished critiquing my war ms, Working Title: The Road To Confidence, for me.  I haven’t actually read his comments yet, but his verbal ones are rather uplifting.  Apart from the no plot thing.  He liked it.  Although to an extent, I think he’s biased.  I did research for a historical setting, so that impresses him.  With Working Title: Timing, it was about a woman’s marriage, and he kept using that as an excuse; it wasn’t that he didn’t like it, but it wasn’t the sort of thing he’d read.  Now, because he hasn’t that much knowledge of WWII, suddenly he must like this story because it knows more than he does. 

I’m blunter than that.  I don’t think genre is an excuse and I don’t think ignorance is either.  If I watch an action film or read a fantasy story and I am bored, I don’t think it’s because explosions or silly names aren’t my thing, I think it is because it wasn’t well made/written.  There’s no need to stick to genre clichés (maybe marketers feel differently).  Any story can be good if it’s written well. 

Some random stranger once launched into an attack on me because I don’t like 2001: A Space Odyssey (film).  He said just because he doesn’t understand a piece of art doesn’t mean it isn’t good.  I think that’s nonsense.  Art is entirely subjective, and if I don’t like it, then in my opinion it’s rubbish.  I’m not going to admire something just because I don’t understand it.  That’s ridiculous.  People seem to think if they don’t understand a film, it’s because they’re stupid and therefore the film must be genius.  Perhaps the film just wasn’t very well done, but that doesn’t occur to them. 

And yet, people still moan that Back To The Future Part II isn’t that good because it’s confusing.  It’s not confusing.  It’s time travel, they already did that in the first film and no one complains that’s too hard to understand, and besides all that, Doc actually draws a diagram on a blackboard to explain it to Marty.  Are these people seriously suggesting they’re less smart that Marty McFly? 

Anyway, I don’t believe films are art.  I believe they are entertainment.  Primarily, at least.  I also think it’s rude to have a go at a stranger.  You should be polite to strangers.  Be rude to your friends.

And it has made me very hesitant to write this blog.  I have the temptation when someone real or fictional starts going on about inner feelings or opinions for no reason, to say, “Jeez, get a blog.”  And I’m terrified of that.  I am blunt and very opinionated.  And in a sphere where there is no one to argue against, or no weirdoes to pop up and ask for the examples (met someone like that last year, needed you to back up every statement.  Got to the point where everyone in the room would shut up rather than stutter and mumble, “uh, well, I heard it somewhere…”  Even well thought out opinions seem to crumble under scrutiny), with no boundaries, I’ll just be ranting out my opinion.  Cathartic, yes, but also liable to turn people off if they disagree.  And a blog is intended to have an audience.  If it was just for me to keep track of what I’m doing, firstly, why’d I need to do it on the internet, and secondly, that’s what the brain is for.

That’s why I haven’t been on yet this year.  I wanted to determine what the blog was actually going to be.  A chronicle of the writing, yes of course.  But possibly a little sharper.  Less internal rambling?  Something people might actually want to read?  But who wants to read something about stuff that doesn’t even exist yet? 

I was so sure I had lots of important amusing essay-style articles floating around The Mind that a blog was the way to go, and instead I find myself doing nothing, to avoid sounding like an idiot who hasn’t thought through their arguments.  Or is it just that said articles involve research and the ol’ L-A-Z-Y gets in the way?

Right.  Sod it.  I’m going to post some film reviews.