Their Finest (2016)

2018 #223
Lone Scherfig | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Sweden / English | 12 / R*

Their Finest

One of three Dunkirk-related movies released in 2017 (which is a bit random — it wasn’t a particular anniversary or anything), Their Finest is adapted from a novel by Lissa Evans called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which is a much better title. “Their Finest” is kinda bland and meaningless — slap it on any wartime film and it’d work just as well. The original title is a neat pun, though, mixing the famous saying (which comes from a 1940 Churchill speech, if you didn’t know) with the common running time of a movie, thereby indicating when the story is set (World War 2), what it’s about (the making of movies), and indicating a tone (it’s a pun, but not an outrageous one, suggesting lightness without going full-blown comedy). Maybe someone noticed this runs nearer two hours and didn’t want to give audiences the wrong idea…

Their Finest Hour and a Half stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a young woman in wartime London who finds work writing female characters’ dialogue in movies — “the slop”, as it’s derisively called by her combative superior, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). When a news story about twin sisters who took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk is fast-tracked into production, with a cast that includes fading leading man Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), Catrin and Tom wind up on location with the film, hastily rewriting to include changes mandated by the War Office. Despite Tom’s standoffish attitude and Catrin’s marriage to a good-for-nothing war artist (Jack Huston), who’s jealous of her newfound status as the breadwinner, affection begins to blossom between the two writers…

Hooray for the writers!

Yeah, much of Their Finest follows the expected shape of a story like this (the love triangle; the woman coming to be respected by her initially dubious colleagues; etc). Two things work to stop it feeling too staid: an engaging lead cast, and some weightier developments and subplots. The latter includes at least one wholly unexpected twist, which helps make this a more powerful film than the potentially-light “people go on a jolly to make a movie during the war” premise initially seems. There’s a somewhat classical balance of comedy and tragedy there, which is reminiscent of movies from the era the film’s set. Frame it in 4:3, shoot in black & white, and give everyone RP accents, and parts of it could almost be a ’40s melodrama.

Talking of accents, why oh why did they lumber Gemma Arterton with a Welsh one? It isn’t bad, exactly, but I did find it constantly distracting. Presumably it’s because the story is loosely based on the life of Diana Morgan, a Welsh screenwriter whose wartime work for Ealing Studios mostly went uncredited (though she does have one on the famous propaganda film Went the Day Well?, amongst a handful of others), but, considering it’s not actually a biopic, surely there’s no need for the accent? Well, other than to attract funding from the Welsh Government’s Media Investment Budget, I suspect… Anyway, it’s a minor complaint (as I said, her accent isn’t bad), and even with it Arterton is typically charming, generating good chemistry with Claflin, who plays a Mr Darcy-esque role as the initially-unlikeable inevitable love interest. As usual, Nighy threatens to steal the show, hamming it up just the right amount as Ambrose. He gets a significant subplot about his hard-fought transition from leading man to character actor, which also brings in Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory — just two more high-quality actors helping round out a strong cast, which also includes Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, and Jeremy Irons, among others.

She's holding a pencil, she must be a writer

Ambrose is another man who initially misreads Catrin but eventually comes round to her. I suppose the “a woman proves her worth” element is another that’s been well-worn, but it seems fitting here, given that women in the film industry are still struggling to be treated equally. In this case, it’s using the “women suddenly in the workplace” reality of WW2 to make it both feel relevant to the present while remaining era-appropriate, unlike so many period movies that project present-day values onto eras where they don’t truly fit. It’s not as heavy-handed in its moralising as others can be, either.

Indeed, I’d say the entire film is very well pitched. It straddles the comedy-drama divide skilfully, entertaining as a jolly romance set in the world of moviemaking, but with enough grit from the reality of wartime to give it an edge. Everyone involved has, I’m sure, given it their finest hour-and-a-half(-and-a-half).

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Their Finest is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm.

* It’s rated R for “some language and a scene of sexuality” — there’s a couple of “fucking”s and a brief glimpse of one practically-silhouetted breast. God, the MPAA are daft. ^

Murder Mystery (2019)

2019 #96
Kyle Newacheck | 97 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Murder Mystery

Murder Mystery is a murder mystery in which there is a murder under mysterious circumstances, and it falls to vacationing NY cop Nick Spitz (Adam Sandler) and his murder-mystery-loving wife Audrey (Jennifer Aniston) to solve these mysterious murders.

I’m no great fan of Sandler, and he’s probably the least funny person in this film, but I also didn’t find him outright objectionable. His character — an underachieving middle-aged beat cop who pretends to be a detective to his long-suffering wife — seems like the kind of guy who’d think he’s funnier than he is, so Sandler’s attempts at humour mostly come off as in-character. Put another way, it works in spite of itself. Of the two leads, Aniston is definitely the one doing the most work for the film, both in terms of actually being amusing and giving it some kind of emotional character arc.

Detectives or suspects?

The actual mystery plot is no great shakes — there are two glaring clues early on that give most of the game away, especially if you’re well-versed in watching murder mysteries and spotting such hints. That’s somewhat beside the point, though, because there’s enough fun to be had along the way to make up for it, and there are still some reasonable red herrings. The fact the cast is staffed by an array of experienced mostly-British thesps, many of whom have no doubt appeared in their share of ‘real’ murder mysteries — the likes of Luke Evans, Gemma Arterton, Adeel Akhtar, David Walliams, and Terence Stamp — definitely helps keep proceedings afloat.

There are a few of action-y scenes — a shoot-out, some hijinks on a hotel ledge, a decent car chase for the finale — that keep the momentum up too. Plus it mostly looks suitably luxuriant and exotic (the odd bout of iffy green screen aside), matching its high-class backdrop and French Riviera setting. Altogether, it makes for a suitably easy-watching 90-minutes in front of Netflix.

3 out of 5

Murder Mystery is available on Netflix everywhere now.

The Voices (2014)

2015 #96
Marjane Satrapi | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

The VoicesJerry (Ryan Reynolds) is a nice guy living in the small town of Milton, working in shipping at Milton Fixtures and Fawcetts, where he fancies the English girl in accounts, Fiona (Gemma Arterton), and doesn’t notice how much another girl in accounts, Lisa (Anna Kendrick), likes him. He also talks to his dog, Bosco, and cat, Mr Whiskers, and they talk back. That’s why his psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) encourages him to take his medication, but he doesn’t. When he accidentally murders Fiona (as you do), it’s Mr Whiskers that encourages him to cover up the crime.

The Voices isn’t your usual kind of film — obviously. In the special features, everyone’s very keen to talk about how it exists outside of genre, and they’re right. From some of the premise (his pets talk!) and marketing, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just a comedy. It is a comedy, but a very black one. A very, very black one. A total-absence-of-light black one. The laughs do not come thick and fast, though there are some, and there’s a left-of-centre worldview that is comedy-quirky — if you tried to play this entirely straight, it wouldn’t work.

However, it is also something of a psychological crime thriller. Jerry is clearly a very messed up individual, and so we’re always wondering what he will do next, “Oops.”what happened in his past to make him this way (flashbacks and hints are scattered, leading to an eventual reveal), and how will it all end for him? We’re conflicted here, because he’s a nice guy who we like, but he’s also a murderer, in horrific fashion, and so surely justice is due. Screenwriter Michael R. Perry and director Marjane Satrapi (of Persepolis fame) tread a fine line here: they do want us to like Jerry, but are certainly aware that can be an uphill struggle given what he’s done.

They’re aided in no small part by Ryan Reynolds’ first-class performance. Reynolds has coasted along in minor, generic, average-to-below-average action-thrillers (Smokin’ Aces, Safe House), rom-coms (Just Friends, The Proposal), and, mainly, comic book movies (Blade: Trinity, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Green Lantern, R.I.P.D.), but a couple of more recent performances seem to have shown his range. Firstly, Buried (which I’ve still not seen), where he carries the film trapped alone in a box, and now this. And last weekend’s Comic-Con trailer for Deadpool, which looks like it might be awesome. Here, he essays a multitude of characters: working on the theory that the voices are all in Jerry’s head, Reynolds voices Bosco, Mr Whiskers, and a couple of other animals to boot. This isn’t just an affectation: he gives different performances as each, offering a kinda-dim but good-hearted Southern gent as Bosco the dog, and an evil bloodthirsty Scot as Mr Whiskers the cat. The dog is good and the cat is evil? Sounds about right. That’s not to undersell his main performance, in person as Jerry, a socially awkward guy who really does want to do the right thing, but can’t help being led astray.

Threesome?Able support comes in the form of three women in Jerry’s life. Gemma Arterton has a ball, first as a bit of a bitch, then as a ludicrously-chipper super-English talking head. Anna Kendrick, meanwhile, is sweet and likeable, and while we may be on Jerry’ side when he accidentally slides his knife into Fiona, we’re keen for him not to make the same mistake with Lisa. Whether he does or not is where the real battle for his sanity lies. The third is Jacki Weaver’s psychiatrist, who is central to the climax but also has the least to do of all three, really. Never mind.

Satrapi delivers a film of mixed tones, which clearly doesn’t work for every viewer, but I thought handled the shifting styles well. There’s a kind of kooky comedy to it all, but also horror movie-level disgust at points, and the complex psychology underpinning Jerry’s actions. I thought all three were mixed well, though I can see why it’s not to everyone’s taste to have such apparently-disparate genres co-existing; certainly, the darkness of the humour will be beyond some. DP Maxime Alexandre nails the visuals for all this, though. Off his drugs and in his delusions, Jerry’s world is perfect and sunny, but the cleverness here is that it isn’t beyond the realms of reality, it’s just a bright, sunny, polished, happy reality. When he takes his meds, the dark, grey, grim, hoardersome, blood-soaked, shit-stained reality of his life comes in — and his two best friends look really miserable and stop talking to him. No wonder he’s tempted to the dark side. Alexandre has form in horror movies (The Hills Have Eyes, The Crazies, Silent Hill: Revelation), so no wonder he can do the latter, but the majority of the film is on the shiny side, and he’s got that down pat too.

Murder in mindThe Voices is the kind of film you say is “not for everyone”, which are often the best kind if they are for you. For me, it wasn’t quite funny enough — I’d’ve liked more of the dog and cat, who get the lion’s share of the best material. I also felt that Jerry’s backstory, the reasons for why he is how he is and does what he does, weren’t explored quite enough. The Blu-ray’s deleted scenes hint at more of this, particularly with an alternate climax, which was perhaps cut because there was too little material specifically building up to it. Rather than losing that ending, it would’ve been better to keep it and find more scenes that contributed to it.

And talking of the ending, I haven’t even mentioned the finale! The more out of the blue it comes the better, I think, so I shall say no more. As a capper on everything, though, it’s darn near perfect.

The Voices is not an unqualified success, then, but it’s one of the more unusual films I’ve seen in a while, with a good few appreciable qualities, and I enjoy that. Recommended with caution.

4 out of 5

Runner Runner (2013)

2015 #23
Brad Furman | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

Runner RunnerSometimes, films are so maligned that you feel you just have to see for yourself. Or I do, anyway. Crime thriller Runner Runner, with its 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is one of those occasions.

Set in the world of online gambling, it sees Justin Timberlake’s college student and gambling expert being scammed by a casino website. After flying down to the site’s Costa Rican HQ to confront its owner (Ben Affleck), he finds himself with a job that entangles him in the business’ illegal activities. FBI agent Anthony Mackie wants Timberlake to turn on his new employer, under threat of punishment himself, while he learns from Affleck’s right-hand-woman and love interest Gemma Arterton that he’s being set up to take the fall for everything. However will he extract himself from all that?!

More importantly, will you even care? Well, no, because the film gives you no reason to. It’s fatally marred by flabby storytelling, which substitutes voiceover and aimless montages for plot, with a pace that’s shot to hell — some of it rushes by, too fast to comprehend, but then later it just drags on. Director Brad Furman, who previously helmed excellent thriller adaption The Lincoln Lawyer, has tried to make a con thriller, indulging in the genre’s schtick of keeping characters’ plans hidden purely to play their success as a series of twists later. Unfortunately, it just feels like the film’s failing to elucidate necessary information. That includes all of the gambling rules and concepts, which are simply poorly explained — if you don’t know the world already, parts of the film will run away from you instantly.

Everyone in this photo deserves better than this film. Yes, even him.Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s screenplay is packed full of dreadful dialogue, which isn’t helped by phoned-in performances from all the principle cast, in particular Affleck. I guess he needed a payday between his Oscar-winning directorial efforts. I’ve seen some assert that the dialogue and delivery are meant to be mannered and stylised, but I just don’t buy it. Unless the style was meant to be “cable TV cheapie”, anyway. The Puerto Rican filming locations are quite prettily shot by DP Mauro Fiore, at least, but that’s scant consolation when everything else is so woeful.

There can be entertainment found in poorly-reviewed films: sometimes, they’re an undiscovered gem; sometimes, they’re just quite funny; but sometimes, they really are trash. There is no quality to be found here, though. If there’s such a thing as a lover of gambling-related thrillers, I guess they might find some enjoyment from the mere fact this film even exists. Otherwise, avoid.

2 out of 5

Runner Runner featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Byzantium (2012)

2015 #21
Neil Jordan | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Ireland / English | 15 / R

This review alludes to some spoilers.

Byzantium18 years after he adapted Anne Rice’s seminal vampire novel Interview with the Vampire into a seminal vampire film, director Neil Jordan helmed another tale of two inextricably-linked immortal bloodsuckers. However, while the older film was a lavish, luscious, romantic fantasy, Byzantium is an altogether seedier, baser view of eternal life.

The narrative unfurls in two timelines: the present day, where vampire mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) and daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) find themselves in a washed-up seaside resort while on the run from who-knows-what (well, Clara knows; Eleanor doesn’t); and 200 years ago, when a young Clara found herself entangled with a pair of military officers (Jonny Lee Miller and Sam Riley) that led to… well, you can guess what. Between them the two strands hint at a rich mythology; one we seem to be witnessing a side story of, rather than the usual epic world-altering confrontation of most fantasy cinema. Screenwriter Moira Buffini (adapting from her own play, A Vampire Story) retains enough familiar vampiric tropes to be recognisable to aficionados, but also offers unique twists and tweaks to keep us engaged.

Although the past storyline has its pros, and merges with the present day in time for the climax, the less mythologically-minded viewer will see the meat of the film as being Eleanor’s story. The forever-16-year-old is becoming disillusioned with her secretive existence, longing to share her truth with someone. When she twice bumps into genuine-16-year-old leukaemia survivor Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), it’s easy to see where the broad strokes of their encounter will lead. A back-cover pull-quote describes Byzantium as “the best vampire film since Let the Right One In” — their relative qualities are a separate point, but this adolescent ‘love(?)’ story is an obvious point of comparison nonetheless.

WhorehouseThe most effective part of the movie isn’t so much its plot or its mythology, though, but its atmosphere. Vampire movies take place in castles or drawing rooms, or high schools in more modern iterations. They are grand and sensuous. Any glamour in Byzantium is discarded and decrepit, like the titular hotel that Clara reshapes as a whorehouse; faded and left to ruin. The seafront is characterised by graffitied concrete, the glaring lights of arcade machines, heroin-chic Eastern European prozzies. The pier appears to have burnt down at some unspecified previous time and just been left. The only people left behind are the ones without a means of escape, stuck with their miserable lot. Clara and Eleanor fit in almost seamlessly.

Some have picked up on an apparent lack of change or development in the lead characters’ personalities over 200 years, calling it out as a plot hole. Is it? Or is it part of the point? These two haven’t become wiser and more experienced over their long lives, but instead have become stuck in a rut, repeating the same lies and performing the only roles they know. That’s why Clara still works as a whore; why Eleanor still struggles with the guilt from her religious upbringing; why they stick together as protective mother and innocent daughter. It’s just as true of the other immortals we ultimately meet, an organisation stuck in outmoded patriarchal beliefs, who have held a grudge for two centuries. Here, the immortality of vampirism seems to mean not only staying physically the same, but mentally so as well.

Bloody tastyOther alleged faults include the film not giving enough time or heft to facets individual viewers want it to cover. For one example, someone criticised it for not fully exploring the issue of voluntary euthanasia. I’d argue it doesn’t explore it at all, because it’s not trying to. That Eleanor chooses to only kill people she perceives as wanting to die is not her making a moral statement on a contentious issue, but finding a way to marry her conscience and upbringing with the necessities of her vampiric life; and it’s probably practical, too. That’s not to say a vampire movie can’t be used to explore a topic like voluntary euthanasia, but if you want that I’m afraid you might have to write your own.

I don’t wish to imply that Byzantium is faultless in its execution of every point it raises, however, as some do fall by the wayside. Not least of these is Frank’s leukaemia, which has its useful points (bloooood), and I suppose it’s a good thing we’re spared the “wants to become a vampire to survive fatal illness” trope (because his cancer is in remission), but it also feels like it’s there for that trope, and by dodging it the film has nowhere else to go with his illness. A similar fate befalls the character of Frank’s mother, probably by association. What does she think of her sickly son disappearing off with some girl he just met, possibly forever? We’ll never know…

Soulless beautyTechnically, DoP Sean Bobbitt grants us some gorgeous cinematography. There’s a cruel, aptly soulless beauty to the faded town, while some countryside vistas, both past and present, offer more traditional scenic pleasure. A remote rocky, misty isle — central to the mythology and so repeatedly visited — is particularly notable. Captured entirely on digital cameras, it seems sometimes that Bobbitt tried to push his equipment too hard: some shots during the climax look flat-out weird, as if someone has applied a Photoshop “comic book” filter or something. Also of note is the score by Javier Navarrete, which makes particularly good repeated use of The Coventry Carol.

Byzantium is a particular kind of experience. It’s the kind of film that hints at an epic mythology but doesn’t explore it, which some will be glad of and others regret; personally, I feel both at once — there’s a grander story left here, but I’m not sure I want it told. The narrative the film does contain is grounded in a melancholic reality; one that finds a kind of splendour in forgotten things and places; that almost elevates the shabbiness of a half-abandoned community to desirability, while acknowledging that it’s nothing of the sort. It takes vampirism and its associated immortality as something tempting but terrible and fantastical but tangible, and finds reflections of that in real-life experiences and locations. Darkly lovedFor all its dual-period storytelling and its grubby settings, it’s a resolutely modern kind of take on vampire mythology.

There’s little doubt that the film’s brand of melancholic beauty is not to all tastes — an array of poor and middling reviews are easy to find — but it has qualities that must be recommended, and the potential to be darkly loved.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Byzantium is on Film4 at 9pm tonight.

It placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

St. Trinian’s: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold (2009)

aka St. Trinian’s 2*

2014 #74
Oliver Parker & Barnaby Thompson | 101 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | PG

St. Trinian's: The Legend of Fritton's GoldI found the first St. Trinian’s reboot to be a bit of a surprise; a good-for-what-it-was entertainment rather than an abominable write-off. Sadly, the law of diminishing returns applies to this hasty sequel.

Clearly aiming for a slightly younger audience with a lower PG certificate (the film was initially rated 12A, like the first one, but the distributor chose to make some cuts), the plot sees the anarchic schoolgirls on the hunt for a treasure hidden by the piratical forebear of headmistress Fritton (Rupert Everett), racing against a secret society of women-haters headed by said pirate’s rival’s descendant (David Tennant). Cue hijinks.

Despite an occasionally slicker appearance, including some CGI-aided pirate-y flashbacks, and bigger sequences, like a commando raid on the school or a large flashmob musical number at Liverpool Street station, the whole doesn’t come together quite as well as the first movie. (Plus, the use of the term “flashmob” instantly dates it.) Everett is still having a ball, but Colin Firth’s role feels contractually obligated and Tennant, hot off his time on Doctor Who, performs at the level of his Comic Relief appearances rather than, say, Hamlet. Which I guess is appropriate.

St Trinian's girlsThe rest of the cast are a mix of old and new — clearly, some managed to wriggle out of a second go-round. Talulah Riley, Tamsin Egerton and Broadchurch’s Jodie Whittaker weren’t so lucky, while Gemma Arterton, since moved on to bigger and better, has managed to get her appearance reduced to a cameo. The new recruits include Girls Aloud’s Sarah Harding making a failed bid to transition into acting (though she’s no worse than anyone else), as well as Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton as the head of the chavs and Love Soup’s Montserrat Lombard as the top Goth, both at least bringing some comedic chops to their ensemble-cast roles. Plus there’s an increasingly rare chance to see Juno Temple go a whole film without taking her clothes off.

St. Trinian’s 2 isn’t without merit, offering the occasional laugh or amusing sequence; but even if you found the first to be surprisingly entertaining, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the same from the second. Unless you’re an under-12 girl, that is — and they are, in fairness, the target audience.

2 out of 5

St. Trinian’s 2 (or whatever else you want to call it) is on Film4 today at 6:55pm.

* Although commonly promoted as St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, the actual title displayed on screen at the start of the movie omits the numeral. I’m a stickler for accuracy. ^

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

2011 #81
Mike Newell | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Prince of Persia The Sands of TimeDisney’s attempt to launch a second franchise in the mould of Pirates of the Caribbean, this time based on a long-running series of computer games, seemed to sink without trace last summer. Despite that failure, it’s not all bad.

To give a quick idea of its quality, Prince of Persia is analogous to an average entry in the Pirates series, only without the craziness and humour provided by Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. This probably explains Persia’s relative lack of success: Pirates began with an exceptionally good blockbuster flick, and has since coasted on goodwill and affection for Depp’s character; Persia has neither of these benefits.

There’s not much to get excited about here, however. Like On Stranger Tides, it suffers from a surfeit of ideas that are equally undeveloped. Even though this shares no writing credits with that film, it’s what it most reminded me of. There’s an adventure story that wants to reach an Indiana Jones-esque style but fumbles it. It often feels like the genuinely important bits of plot and character development are quickly brushed over, instead spending inexplicably long stretches on barely-relevant asides. It jumps about like a loon too, feeling like a lot of linking scenes or establishing shots have been excised for whatever reason.

Fiiight!There are some good action beats, but there’s also plenty of disorientatingly-edited, CGI-enhanced sequences, as per usual for the genre these days. For the former, see for instance Dastan’s climb up the wall into Alamut (or whatever it was called), or the knife-thrower-on-knife-thrower battle near the end. For explosions of CGI, see the massive logic-shattering ‘sand surfing’ sequence in the climax. Visually they’re clearly trying to evoke 300, but without going quite so far in the stylization stakes. Also worthy of note is the opening, the latest CGI-enhanced rendition of the opening sequence from The Thief of Bagdad and Aladdin: Westernised Middle Eastern streetchild-thief chased acrobatically through streets of Middle Eastern Town by Middle Eastern Guards. (None of the above pictured.)

As this is a Hollywood version of the ancient Middle East, naturally everyone is a Westerner with deeply tanned skin who speaks with an English accent. Everyone in the past had an English accent. Jake Gyllenhaal’s accent is actually very good, in my opinion; Gemma Arterton’s voice doesn’t grate as much as it seemed to in the trailer (I have no problem with her in any other film, but there was something about the Persia trailer that made her sound… weird). That’s probably the best that can be said for either of their performances. They’re not bad, just not in anyway endearing. Dastan makes a fairly bland hero — I think he’s meant to be something of a cheeky chappy, but they didn’t get close to achieving that — whereas ArtertonNot Keira Knightley has the role Keira Knightley would’ve played five years ago. I think she’s meant to be a Strong Independent Princess but, much like Dastan, we’re told we should be inferring it rather than seeing any evidence of it.

Alfred Molina has the best shot at creating a likeable supporting role, but it’s a part that resurfaces for no good reason, acts inconsistently, and all his best elements are cribbed from better films. Like most of the film, then. An attempt is made to conceal that Ben Kingsley is the villain, and it might have worked if anyone else was in the role — heck, I almost believed it even with him… but only “almost”. Like most of the story, it’s all a bit stock-in-trade. It’s good to take inspiration from other action-adventure classics, but it also means that it all feels very familiar. The time travelling dagger, the film’s truly unique point, is too powerful as a plot point, meaning rules have to be established that limit its use… which means that the one unique element doesn’t actually turn up very often.

Prince of Persia is riddled with flaws, it would seem. Its characters are unmemorable, their relationships unbelievable; its plot is disjointed and, while always followable, still half nonsensical; the other half is by-the-numbers predictable; its action sequences occasionally shine, but are largely whizzily edited or CGI burnished (though, in fairness, they’re far from the worst example of either problem). I should probably dislike it quite a lot, yet while part of me says I should rank it lower than even the Pirates sequels (owing to the lack of charming characters or any trace of humour), looking back I kind of liked it. It’s not Good, but it is sort of Fine, and it’s by no means bad enough to inspire genuine hatred.

Glowing daggerPlus, the sword-and-sandals milieu makes a bit of a change. I know we’ve had plenty of swords-and-sandals-flavoured movies in the wake of Gladiator, suggesting this is hardly unique, but whereas they’ve all unsurprisingly shot at the Gladiator mould, Persia is aiming for the PG-13 adventure-blockbusters style. It’s a shame that it’s not better, because said milieu and some of the talent involved could have produced a film in the vein of quality of, say, The Mummy, if we’d been lucky.

If you’re less forgiving than me, knock a star off. Or if you think you’d like the Pirates films better without Depp’s silly captain, maybe leave that star on.

3 out of 5

Clash of the Titans (2010)

2011 #23
Louis Leterrier | 102 mins | TV (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Clash of the TitansThe thoroughly blockbusterised remake of ’80s fantasy favourite Clash of the Titans came in for a sound critical drubbing on its release last year, much of it focused on the post-production cash-in 3D applied to the film. I didn’t watch it in 3D so won’t have much to say about that, but I found the film itself to be passably enjoyable.

Firstly, it’s brief — little more than 90 minutes before the credits roll. That can feel stingy in cinemas these days, where we have to pay so much for a ticket getting your money’s worth is important, but at home especially it’s suited for a quick bit of fun. Still, Titans could’ve done with more length to allow characters to grow — at times it feels like a genuinely epic tale reduced to a lengthy plot summary, speeding over the fine details in search of the next big plot beat.

There’s a fairly impressive cast — nearly everyone is famous or at least recognisable — and all of them are massively underused. Perseus’ team are dispatched in various fashions, but we don’t really care because their group dynamic has only been built a tiny bit. And I wanted to care, because there were actors I like and characters who had potential — even if most were built from band-of-warriors stereotypes — but the film didn’t do enough to allow me to. Every time it produces a good bit, it throws in some groan-inducing sentiment or cheesily pompous dialogue.

FiiightWhat the film is built to do is provide action sequences, though these are passable and rarely more. They’re fine while they’re happening, but pretty much forgotten after — none of it shows a great deal of inspiration. The history of film is littered with far worse examples, but that’s about the best I can say. I can see why it would be painful in 3D too: quite aside from the use of always-criticised post-conversion, and the apparent rush job on that, Letterier favours the modern action style of handheld jiggly shots and fast cuts, neither of which lend themselves to the 3D experience. Heck, even Michael Bay acquiesced to adapt his similar style when shooting Transformers 3 in 3D, so you know it must be true.

In fact, the action sequences would probably benefit from the expansion of character I mentioned before: caring about them would add jeopardy when their lives are in danger and some emotional impact when they snuff it. As it stands, Titans is an emotionally empty experience, much more so than, say, Inception, which was frequently criticised for similar shortcomings. In fairness, this is probably because critics thought Inception might deliver in such respects, while no one expected a pre-summer blockbuster like Titans to bother. And they were right to an extent, but while it’s never going to be an affecting human drama, it should bother more than it does.

The FerrymanDesign is probably the film’s strong point, particularly sequences that feature the three witches and the ferryman. Clearly these dark, borderline-horror-film settings are the design team’s strongpoint. Elsewhere, the gods have an appealingly retro lens-flared-silver-armour look about them — I don’t remember the ’80s original very well, but one could imagine this iteration of the gods being dropped in without anyone noticing.

The CGI is complaint free, as with most well-budgeted modern flicks, apart from one glaring exception: Medusa looks almost as fake as the Rock’s Scorpion King from The Mummy Returns, which you may remember was lambasted even at the time — “the time” now being ten years ago. Oh dear. Maybe the passing years and abundance of CGI has affected my critical faculties here — that is to say, maybe side by side this Medusa would look a lot better than the decade-old Scorpion King — but, in the context of the rest of the film, that level of distracting fake-ness sprang to mind.

I’m laying into it almost as much as anyone now, but in spite of all that I sort of quite liked Clash of the Titans. It’s massively flawed in many areas, but good bits occasionally shine through. Unlike most blockbusters of the past few years, which tend to be bloated affairs in need of a good chop down, it would actual benefit from being a bit longer — Dear Godssome plot elements could do with greater clarity, most of the characters could do with some depth.

It’s probably all the studio’s fault for forcing major last-minute changes and reshoots. While I wound up enjoying what we got, the other version — as detailed by CHUD.com — does sound more interesting.

3 out of 5

My Quantum of Solace Film Season

In case you’ve somehow failed to notice, Quantum of Solace, the 22nd official James Bond film, hits UK cinemas this Friday. I’m more than a tad excited (and considerably annoyed that I won’t be able to make it to the first screening in my area thanks to a seminar), and to celebrate I’m having myself a sort-of mini-ish film season-thing. Which I have dubbed My Quantum of Solace Film Season. You might’ve guessed that from the post’s title.

The selection process is quite simple: one film a day, each representing a different key member of QoS’s cast, plus one for director Marc Forster; and, to comply with this blog’s normal rules, all films I’ve never seen before. Well, that was the idea, but as with any good plan some changes have had to be made — there’s no film for Judi Dench, for example (well, other than a certain already-seen previous entry in the franchise), and I initially forgot Daniel Craig. Ha! Luckily I could switch him in for Jeffrey Wright by virtue of the fact they both appeared in The Invasion. Then there’s a double bill to try to get (almost) everyone in, and a film I’ve seen before too. “Oops.” (It was also entirely unintentional that all but the first and last films are from 2007.) Naturally, things come to a close with QoS itself on Friday, so thanks to only having thought of this plan yesterday my time to watch things is rather limited.

Anyway, you don’t really care about all that. Here’s the schedule:

  • Sunday 26th October: The Director
    Marc Forster’s Stay.

  • Monday 27th October: The Villain
    Mathieu Amalric (‘Dominic Greene’) stars in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

  • Tuesday 28th October: The Girls
    A double bill for Bond’s two new women. Gemma Arterton (‘Agent Fields’) stars in St. Trinian’s, followed by Olga Kurylenko (‘Camille’) in Hitman.

  • Wednesday 29th October: The Spies
    Daniel Craig (‘James Bond’, donchaknow) stars — with support from Jeffrey Wright (‘Felix Leiter’) — in The Invasion.

  • Thursday 30th October: The First Part
    As has been (very) widely reported, QoS is the first Bond-sequel, starting within an hour of Casino Royale’s climax. As such, it seems only appropriate to watch the preceding film the night before. (I’ve seen CR several times but will be reviewing it anyway, in light of having seen QoS, if that makes any difference.)

  • Friday 31st October: The Point
    Ba-da, dum… ba-da, dum… ba-da ba-da-da! Phonetic renderings of iconic theme tunes aside, Bond is back! Hurray!
  • The exact order is subject to change depending on how readily I can get hold of the films (I only own two of the six), but that’s the plan. Last time I tried to watch a film a day I failed miserably, so we’ll see how this goes. (Incidentally, reviews won’t appear on the said days, or even follow shortly behind — check out my ‘coming soon’ page to see how backed up I am with reviews.)