Enola Holmes (2020)

2020 #214
Harry Bradbeer | 123 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Enola Holmes

The latest screen incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is not really about the Great Detective at all. Instead, Enola Holmes introduces us to his eponymous young sister — not part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original canon, but a creation of author Nancy Springer, on whose series of young adult mystery novels this film is based. (Nor, I feel I should point out, was Sherlock’s Eurus drawn from canon, despite what some hardcore Sherlock fans berating Netflix’s Enola promos seem to believe.) Indeed, the film imagines a whole family for Sherlock and his elder brother Mycroft: a father who died when Enola was young; and a mother, Eudoria, who has since raised Enola to be a multi-talented, independent, forward-thinking young woman.

But when Enola (Mille Bobby Brown) wakes on her 16th birthday, she finds that Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) has disappeared. She summons her brothers, famous detective Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and uptight government man Mycroft (Sam Claflin), and various clues to Eudoria’s actions and intentions are unearthed — but not always shared among the siblings, because the brothers want little to do with their younger sister, resolving to send her to a finishing school to learn how to be a ‘proper’ lady. That doesn’t fit with Enola’s plans, though, so she escapes and runs away to find her mother. On her journey, she runs into similarly young Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), who is also on the run from his family, for reasons that, it will emerge, are even more sinister than Enola’s…

Enola and Sherlock

As a story set in the world of Sherlock Holmes, Enola Holmes is… well… um… Look, I’ve been fond of Henry Cavill since The Tudors, but he’s not my idea of Sherlock Holmes; and apparently Dr Watson doesn’t even exist? Sacrilege! While I can’t forgive the latter, the weird casting decision of Cavill is somewhat justified by the film itself. I’m not sure it was conceived to include a ‘traditional’ Holmes, and Cavill fits the character as he has been written: as an admirable, kindly, almost mentor-like older brother to Enola. Perhaps if they’d cast a more traditionally Holmesian actor then that person would have managed to shift it towards a traditional portrayal, but I suspect that’s not what the filmmakers wanted. Arguably that makes this a bad Holmes adaptation (if you’ve changed the style and nature of the character, is it actually an “adaptation”?), but then, it’s not really about him.

It’s about Enola — as per, y’know, the title — and in that role Mille Bobby Brown proves that her success as Eleven in Stranger Things was not a fluke. In the wrong hands, the confident, capable, and headstrong Enola could have been brattish, but Brown brings enough charm to sweep us along. She frequently turns to speak to camera, like some kind of Victorian teenage Fleabag, which, again, could have been irritating, but mostly works to bring us into her confidence and, occasionally, underscore the fun and thrill of her adventure. However, there’s more room for nuance in how the character is written. Enola is by no means perfect, but we’re rarely allowed to see deficiencies. This works when she’s putting on a brave face to a world that would underestimate her, but a little more sense that she’s new to all this and doesn’t always get it right wouldn’t go amiss.

Victorian teenage Fleabag

So, while I don’t imagine Sherlockians will be inducting this into their favourite screen iterations of the Great Detective, it works as a female-led YA mystery-adventure. Originally produced by Warner Bros for a cinematic release, but sold to Netflix after the pandemic hit, I suspect this might have actually done quite well in cinemas. It’s good fun, accessible entertainment; the kind of thing that once upon a time would have been a PG-rated family blockbuster hit (nowadays it’s rated 12/PG-13, though with their “allow children in so long as they’re with adults” rules, those certs are really the modern-day equivalent of what used to be PG). Now, it looks to have been a hit for Netflix: it seems to have been widely viewed, based on how the number of ratings on IMDb and Letterboxd shot up over the first 24 hours (and kept going), and it’s been the #1 film on Netflix UK for a whole week (and, apparently, set a record for being #1 in the most countries on its release day). I suspect this won’t be the last adventure we see for Miss Holmes…

4 out of 5

Enola Holmes is available on Netflix now.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

2015 #177
Gore Verbinski | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hated by Americans and loved (well, ok, “liked”) by everyone else (well, ok, “by lots, but by no means all, of people who reside outside America”), Disney’s attempt to pull a Pirates of the Caribbean on Western adventure IP The Lone Ranger is by no means as successful as the first instalment in their piratical franchise, but is at least the equal of its sequels — and, in some cases, their better.

The convoluted plot sees us arrive with John Reid (Armie Hammer) in the frontier town where he grew up, where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is now sheriff. Construction of the railroad is running by the town, spearheaded by Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who letches after Dan’s wife (Ruth Wilson); but work is plagued by a band of outlaws led by Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Receiving information on his whereabouts, Dan rounds up a posse and heads out to tackle him, with John insisting on tagging along. Unfortunately it’s an ambush and they’re all slaughtered (oh dear)… except John just about survives, and is found and nursed back to life by a Native American, Tonto (Johnny Depp). He has his own grievances, and together they set out on a mission of revenge.

And if you’re wondering where Helena Bonham Carter is in all that: despite her prominence on many of the posters, her role is really just a cameo. That’s marketing, folks.

I know some people complain about simplistic stories that are used to just string action sequences together, and that’s a perfectly valid thing to get annoyed about, but The Lone Ranger swings to the other extreme and uses an over-complicated story to string together its action sequences. All it actually needs is a little streamlining, because the film is allowed to swing off into too many sideplots. This makes the middle of the film a slog, and you feel every minute of its excessive two-and-a-half-hour running time.

That slog is made worthwhile by what comes before and after said middle: a pair of train-based action sequences that are each truly fantastic. The second, in particular, is arguably amongst the grandest climaxes ever put on screen (providing you don’t feel it’s tipped too far into being overblown, of course). It’s inventively choreographed, fluidly shot, and perfectly scored with just an extended barnstorming version of the Lone Ranger’s theme music (aka the William Tell Overture). It’s an adrenaline-pumping action sequence that single-handedly justifies the entire film’s existence, if you’re into that kind of thing.

With multiple trains, horses, actors, guns, stunts, and copious CGI to tie it together, that sequence must’ve cost a bomb. Notoriously, the whole film was deemed too expensive and Disney insisted the budget be slashed, resulting in delays… and it still cost a fortune. That, quite apart from the negative critical response in the US, is a big part of why it flopped at the box office — a recurring problem for Disney at the minute. To be frank, I’m not convinced anyone made a truly concerted effort to stem the overspend. When a gaggle of CG rabbits hopped on screen, all I could think was, “who allowed this?!” You’ve got a massively over-budgeted film that the studio want cut back, and one reason for that is CG bunnies that have almost no bearing on anything whatsoever! The amount of time and effort that must’ve gone into creating those fairly-realistic rabbits for such a short amount of screen time… it cost millions, surely. Millions that could’ve been saved with a simple snip during the writing stage if only someone had said, “well, those bunnies don’t add anything and they’ll be bloody expensive, so let’s lose them.”

So criticism is not unfounded, but the film doesn’t deserve the level of vitriolic scorn poured on it by the US press and, consequently, public. Discussing this, the “critical response” section on the film’s Wikipedia page is interesting, and this part pretty much nails it:

Mark Hughes of Forbes, analyzing what he felt was a “flop-hungry” press desiring to “control the narrative and render the outcome they insisted was unavoidable” for a highly expensive movie with much-publicized production troubles, found the film “about a hundred times better than you think it is … [a] well-written, well-acted, superbly directed adventure story.”

I’m not quite as effusive as Hughes, but The Lone Ranger is worth the time of anyone who enjoys an action-adventure blockbuster. It’s a three-star adventure-comedy bookended by a pair of five-star railroad action sequences, which make the trudge through the film’s middle hour-or-so feel worthwhile. There was a better movie to be made here — one that was half-an-hour shorter, more focused, and probably several tens of millions of dollars cheaper to make — but that doesn’t mean the one we got is meritless.

4 out of 5

Dark Shadows (2012)

2014 #86
Tim Burton | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Dark ShadowsDirector Tim Burton’s most recent live-action movie is an adaptation of a 1960s soap opera… albeit one featuring vampires, witches, ghosts and sundry other supernatural goings-on. You wouldn’t get that on EastEnders (more’s the pity).

In the mid 18th Century, the Collins family leaves Liverpool for the New World, setting up a successful fishing empire and their own town, Collinsport. The son Barnabas (Johnny Depp) has a fling with the maid, Angelique (Eva Green), before laying his affections on Josette (Bella Heathcote). Little does he know, Angelique is a witch, who kills Josette, turns Barnabas into a vampire, and goads the townsfolk into burying him alive. As you do.

Fastforward 200 years to 1972, where young Victoria Winters (also Heathcote) arrives in Collinsport to become governess for the still-surviving Collins family’s youngest. The fishing business is failing, the mansion crumbling, and the family (Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gully McGrath, plus live-in psychologist Helena Bonham Carter and handyman Jackie Earle Haley) are a collection of odd-sorts. Then Barnabas’ coffin is dug up, resurrecting him, and… Oh, look, I’m basically telling you the whole movie now. It’s quite hard to provide a summary of the introduction to the plot, because there’s actually rather a lot going on.

white-facepainted-weirdo Burton stapleEarly on, it works. The first 20 to 30 minutes offer a serviceable prologue and an engaging introduction to most of the characters. It’s funny, it’s occasionally spooky, there’s a good deal of promise for a marginally-more-serious Addams Family-cum-Edward Scissorhands fantasy (I did say “marginally”). All in all, it’s a skilful and cohesive opening, if nonetheless a little Burton-by-numbers. Sadly, the film doesn’t seem to know where to go with it after that.

The story is hard to summarise because it feels like someone tried to cut a year’s worth of a soap into a movie. There are more characters than the film knows what to do with, meaning we get major developments that come literally out of nowhere, plots that are explained rather than seen, others that are introduced only to be wrapped up, and the nagging sense that a lot of material has been deleted.

Standing out from that crowd are Eva Green, who chews the scenery with aplomb, and Bella Heathcote, who grabs her chance to shine among an otherwise starry but phoning-it-in cast. Depp trots out the latest variation on his white-facepainted-weirdo Burton staple; Pfeiffer seems to wish she was back in Stardust or Hairspray; Moretz almost undermines her rising-star status (and is a little too jailbait-y to boot); Jonny Lee Miller battles his American accent almost as much as his character’s lack of purpose; and Helena Bonham Carter is in it as well, obviously.

Eva Green steals the filmIt’s a tonal grab bag: at times it seems to be a knowing spoof of daytime soaps, at others pushing for drama almost with a straight face; it’s sometimes deliberately and successfully comedic, at others straining too hard for a desperate laugh; it has a strain of bizarre sexuality that may be aiming at comic but is frequently just uncomfortable. This scrappiness leads to the most cardinal sin of any entertainment: it ends up a bit boring; and, in its out-of-the-blue big-battle climax, crushingly derivative.

Burton has spent almost a decade picking projects that are glaringly obvious choices for him. Perhaps it’s a reaction to Planet of the Apes’ failure; perhaps he’s just as predictable as the “Burton-esque” labelling these projects would likely have received under a different director. Whatever, it seems to have led to an artistically-criminal level of laziness — and I say laziness rather than ineptitude because, for all the project’s predictability, some almost-inspired moments do shine through. Just not often enough.

3 out of 5

Fight Club (1999)

2011 #16a
David Fincher | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 18 / R

Fight ClubI used to have a friend who loved all kinds of action movies and rap movies and other kinds of violence-obsessed forms of entertainment. He once tried to watch Fight Club, in the wake of the praise poured upon it and no doubt interested in the visceral thrill of the fighting element, but got bored about halfway through and turned it off. He was not impressed. Please note that halfway through is certainly after the titular club, and all its associated antics, begins.

I start with this story because I’m now going to pick on Roger Ebert’s 1999 review of Fight Club. I don’t know if his opinion has changed in the intervening decade — a decade which has seen Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahnuik’s novel quickly canonised as a generation-defining modern classic — but we’ll take his review as an example of all the critical ones (the reasonably critical ones, anyway — unreasonable critics are impossible to argue against after all), because he’s respected and because I can’t be bothered to trawl through too much more of the big pile of reviews Rotten Tomatoes offers up. But more so, actually, because I’d be here forever batting away criticism after criticism if I did.

Incidentally, the film has there an 81% approval rating. This is perhaps negated by the fact it includes more recent reviews — some are of the Blu-ray, for instance — but a debate about whether it should be an archive of original-release critical opinions or of all-time critical opinions is for somewhere else. My point is, critics who dislike Fight Club are in the minority (29 ‘rotten’ reviews vs 122 ‘fresh’ ones), so it might just be a little cruel to go picking on them all. Though rubbish like “Fight Club undermines any seriousness it might have harboured with an avalanche of smirky cynicism designed to flatter the hipper-than-thou fantasies of adolescent moviegoers,” doesn’t so much need rebuttal as offering of some literature to the reviewer. Plus it comes from a Christian magazine/website so it’d be a bit like picking on a kid with learning disabilities.

So, Ebert.Ebert

Of course, Fight Club itself does not advocate Durden’s philosophy. It is a warning against it, I guess

At least he starts here. To miss that would be… well, I’ll return to that point later. On the other hand, he’s surely using it to preemptively cut-off criticism of his criticism — Ebert is adept at predicting ways people might defend a movie and telling them they were wrong in advance, as we have seen.

Although sophisticates will be able to rationalize the movie as an argument against the behavior it shows, my guess is that audience will like the behavior but not the argument. Certainly they’ll buy tickets because they can see Pitt and Norton pounding on each other; a lot more people will leave this movie and get in fights than will leave it discussing Tyler Durden’s moral philosophy.

…whatever Fincher thinks the message is, that’s not what most audience members will get.

This is the primary reason I’ve chosen Ebert’s review to pick on, and it was this paragraph that led to my opening one. My guess is, the kind of person liable to buy in to Tyler’s moral philosophy and engage in similar fights will get bored by the movie and go watch something that’s more straight-up action (or just go get in a fight, of course). To say that only “sophisticates” will be able to comprehend the points the film is actually making does a disservice to most viewers. Now, I’m not going to be one of the first to jump to the defence of the great unwashed — when programmes like The X Factor rule our TV schedules it’s quite clear their cultural taste is highly questionable — but I don’t think you have to be exceptionally gifted to get what Fight Club’s driving at. Tyler DurdenPerhaps I’m coming at it from too privileged a background? I don’t know. But I still don’t believe people would be so easily led as Ebert implies; and those that might be probably got bored and switched off.

Maybe at the time it was a genuine fear that Fight Club would inspire violence (a different review compares the potential effect to A Clockwork Orange’s over here), but history has proven it near groundless. In over a decade since its release, there have been no more than a handful of incidents one might directly and solely attribute to Fight Club’s influence.

And just maybe, it was already covering the thoughts of a generation — rather than being the spark that set them off, it was reflecting back a mentality that already existed and saying, “look, don’t go this far with that thought”. It’s not groundless to think that: Palahniuk interviewed young white-collar workers while writing the novel and widely found opinions which he worked into the novel, about the influence of a lack of father figures and the resentment of the lifestyles advertising promoted. All of this is carried over into the film.

In many ways, it’s like Fincher’s movie The Game… That film was also about a testing process in which a man drowning in capitalism (Michael Douglas) has the rug of his life pulled out from under him and has to learn to fight for survival. I admired The Game much more than Fight Club because it was really about its theme

Hm.

For better or worse, I think Fight Club is far more tied into its themes than The Game is. Fincher’s earlier film, as I discussed yesterday, is a well-made and entertaining thriller, and it does have a similar thematic basis to Fight Club — Douglas’ character is effectively stripped of his lifestyle to show how hollow it isDiscussion and what he’s lacking as a human being. That just underscores the action, however; it adds something to the film, certainly, but there’s nothing there to lead viewers to “leave the movie… discussing [its] moral philosophy”. Fight Club, on the other hand, is more forward about its thematic points. Both the Narrator and Tyler spout philosophical tidbits at various points, and their differing reactions to the path they take considers this too. It still works as a story — it isn’t just facilitating an essay on the subjects of free will and consumerism — but it’s more present, and presents more to consider, and perhaps discuss, than The Game does.

Later, the movie takes still another turn. A lot of recent films seem unsatisfied unless they can add final scenes that redefine the reality of everything that has gone before; call it the Keyser Soze syndrome.

…the third [act] is trickery

Ah, the twist.

Despite what Ebert implies, Fight Club’s twist works. It makes sense. “Sense” in the sense that the characters are mentally ill and we’ve been let into their experience — quite literally, an unreliable Narrator — but that fits. Clues are littered throughout. You can argue they’re not fundamental to the story — most are lines or asides that hint at it — but I don’t think it’s a nonsensical turn of events. In fact, one could argue that it contains perhaps the film’s biggest point: beneath the veneer of consumer-focused office-working modern life, every man has a Tyler Durden who wants to put society to rights. The question becomes, should he be let out; He likes himself reallyFight Club explores what might happen if he were, but leaves it up to the viewer to decide if it turned out for the best (while strongly erring, despite what Ebert suggests, to the side of “no”).

The twist also calls to mind The Game again. Whereas knowing the end result of that film’s twist (or twists, really) can scupper it after only another viewing or two, Fight Club doesn’t suffer in the slightest from the revelation that… well, y’know (and if you don’t, that’s why I’ve not said it). You can watch it again and pick up the clues and see how it works — and, as I said, it does — but you can also still enjoy the film, its story and its ideas without the need for the twist to remain a surprise. A bit like Se7en, I suppose.

Another point that interests me here is the audience’s reaction to a filmmaker who uses twists. As we’ve seen, Fincher produced three films in a row that had considerable twist endings; two of them often number in lists of the best movie twists ever. So how is it that he didn’t gain a particular reputation for twist endings, whereas M. Night Shyamalan gained one after… well, one film. I’m not complaining about this — the constant need to provide a shocking last-minute rug-pull has gone on to scupper Shyamalan’s career — but the difference of reaction/public perception is intriguing. I’m sure there are reasons — the sheer size of The Sixth Sense’s twist relative to those in Fincher’s films (it’s only Fight Club’s, his third such film, that changes everything we’ve seen in the same way); the way Shyamalan appeared to court the reputation; and so on.

As a means of dealing with his pain, [the Narrator] seeks out 12-step meetings, where he can hug those less fortunate than himself and find catharsis in their suffering. It is not without irony that the first meeting he attends is for post-surgical victims of testicular cancer, since the whole movie is about guys afraid of losing their cojones.

That, however, is some reasonable analysis. I liked this.

Bob's boobsTo round off this defence of Fight Club, let’s call up the BBFC (this is the point I said I’d return to). You may remember they cut four seconds of violence from the film (reinstated in 2007. Incidentally, the MPAA had no problem whatsoever with the violence but questioned some of the sex, such as Tyler being seen wearing a rubber glove. American values regarding sex/violence on film and TV are seriously questionable.) In 1999, when asked to ban the film for glamourising and encouraging the kind of behaviour it contains, the BBFC refused, and in no uncertain terms:

The film as a whole is — quite clearly — critical and sharply parodic of the amateur fascism which in part it portrays. Its central theme of male machismo (and the anti-social behaviour that flows from it) is emphatically rejected by the central character in the concluding reels.

Maybe it’s just me, but such a definitive statement — underlined by the relatively informal addition of “quite clearly” — from an authoritative body, one that is (theoretically) objective about a film’s quality in lieu of deciding which age groups its content is suitable for, feels unusual to me; and, by extension, worth taking into consideration. Not as the be-all-and-end-all of the debate, of course, but if the BBFC are prepared to dismiss such criticism of the film with a “quite clearly” — a “if you missed it, you’re dim” kind of phrase — then you have to think it’s pretty obvious.

A couple of stray points before I go:

Tyler...If you’ve not read it, know that the film keeps a lot of Palahnuik’s novel. The narration often takes it verbatim. With the exception of the ending — changed, for the better — it’s a remarkably faithful adaptation.

Fincher’s films often look great, but Fight Club is surely the most visually inventive. A list of exciting spectacles could be endless, but for some: the title sequence, pulling back from the fear centre of the brain, through the brain, and down the barrel of a gun in extreme close-up; the IKEA catalogue condo shot; big sweeping flybys of tiny things — the contents of a trash can, kitchen appliances, bomb wiring; the meditation cave bits; flash frames of Tyler; the “let me tell you a bit about Tyler Durden” sequence, with the fourth-wall-obliterating to-camera narration and the interaction between ‘flashback’ & narrator; the crazy mutating sex scene… To top it off, the ‘regular’ cinematography is grounded in Fincher’s trademark darkness, as if every shot was conceived as just black and he added only what light was necessary.

And a pet peeve: Look at the end credits. See how Ed Norton’s character is credited as Jack? Oh, that’s right — he isn’t. He doesn’t have a name. The film makes a point of drawing our attention to this point: early on, Marla asks him his name; there is no answer. And that’s because his name isI am not Jack's anything (shh, whisper it) (…oh yes, I’m keeping this spoiler-free). There are counter arguments to that being his real name (his colleagues never call him it, only those who met him… after), but that’s beside the point. Stop calling him Jack. (I believe I read somewhere that, on the relevant DVD commentary, Ed Norton says he calls the character Jack. Not good enough reasoning for me.)

That’ll do, then.

At one point consensus seemed to have it that Fight Club was easily Fincher’s best movie, a generation-defining statement, “the first great film of the 21st Century” despite being released in 1999 (I can never remember who originated that quote). I don’t know if times have changed that as a widespread opinion, particularly with the acclaim The Social Network has received. That’s been called a generation-defining movie too, actually — two in as many decades; nice work. But I digress; such talk is for a few days’ time.

I’ve always preferred Se7en myself. I still do. But Fight Club is nonetheless an exceptional film.

5 out of 5

I watched Fight Club as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.

Terminator Salvation: Director’s Cut (2009)

2010 #72
McG | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 12 / R

Terminator Salvation begins with a title sequence that displays the film’s title twice. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and all that, but somehow it just doesn’t bode well.

However, I was somewhat surprised — after the mass of negative reviews — to discover that I quite liked Terminator Salvation. Sacrilege! But, let’s see if I can explain why…

I’ll begin with the most obvious potential flaw (other than the very concept of continuing the Terminator franchise without James Cameron, that is): director McG, he of the two risible Charlie’s Angels films. Oh dear. But it turns out he’s a surprisingly good director — he certainly does better work than the cheap hack job Jonathan Mostow made of Terminator 3. I doubt everyone agrees on this point, but whatever else you may wish to say about McG, he knows how to put an action sequence together. Most of the time. There’s still some shaky-cam business and very fast cuts, but the sense of geography and what’s actually happening is largely maintained.

This is helped by two things: one, that several sequences involve Giant Robots that benefit from very wide, often aerial, shots to show them off; and two, the apparent inspiration of Children of Men’s long-take action sequences. McG doesn’t quite have Alfonso Cuarón’s conviction in maintaining the single shot for an entire sequence, but he does use it for significant chunks. That said, the latter sometimes backfires. Early on the film feels a bit like watching someone else play a first person shooter, compounded by McG’s habit of sticking with one character throughout sequences that could benefit from a wider perspective, for example Connor’s helicopter crash. That said (again), I’m a little torn what to think of that example: keeping the camera on Connor produces an unusual spin on a potentially familiar sequence, but it’s also a bit disorientating and, as I say, compounds this sense of watching someone else play a game.

Story wise, I thought it fared fairly well. The tale of how John Connor came to meet Kyle Reese and become leader of the resistance wasn’t exactly begging to be told, but if you’re going to continue the franchise into post-Judgement Day future war territory it was probably the best place to start. Terminator 3 proved that the narrative of Arnie/any other Terminator coming back to our present to save Connor/prevent Judgement Day wasn’t in need of reheating again, so it’s also nice to be presented with a slightly more original story within the same universe.

It’s not all fine and dandy though: the behind-the-scenes issues you may have heard about are fitfully apparent on screen, with occasional awkward jumps or half-thought-out developments that smack of an unfinished script or compromised edit. Some of the dialogue’s pretty poor too — considering it starts off pleasantly economical, it’s a shame when characters begin uncomfortably stating the obvious as it wears on.

And even if you hadn’t seen it on the box or heard about it in all the film’s publicity, it’s obvious pretty early on that Marcus Wright will turn out to be a Terminator. To McG’s credit, he plays the ultimate reveal quite well — for those who know, it just about functions as a scene in its own right; for those who still hadn’t guessed, it works as a reveal — but if any filmmaker genuinely thought they’d kept it covered up they were sorely mistaken, and the first half could’ve done with a more knowing rewrite to compensate. Or just delete the prologue.

Littered throughout are numerous nods to the franchise’s history, some of which occur quite naturally, others that feel shoehorned in. I suppose it kept some people happy. The same can be said of the action sequences, though one of the most forced — an attack by a random Giant Robot on an abandoned gas station our heroes only happen to have stopped at — also turns out to be one of the best. Others though, like John Connor taking out a Moto-Terminator with a bit of rope, are more “wouldn’t that be cool to see?” than logical behaviour in the context of the story.

There’s not much for the cast to do either, with a multi-pronged story that leaves everyone feeling short changed. Christian Bale growls a bit and occasionally looks Meaningful as John Connor. At least he doesn’t use his Batman voice. His part was artificially boosted following the star’s casting, which dilutes the focus from where it should be: Marcus Wright, played by the new Colin Farrell (i.e. he’s being cast in everything based on the fact someone said he was The Next Big Thing), Sam Worthington. He’s fine as ever, though his accent seems to waver between American and his native Australian. The same can’t be said of Helena Bonham Carter’s brief turn — her voice hits a constant fake American. Meanwhile, Arnie’s digitised cameo is just that. On the one hand it’s a nice touch, on the other it’s ultimately pointless — Connor doesn’t even react to the familiar face.

Bryce Dallas Howard is severely underused as Kate Connor; one wonders if her part was massively cut back at some point, or if she was just tempted by an exceptionally good payday — considering she usually appears in smaller, better-regarded films, an almost non-existent role in a blockbuster seems an odd choice. That said, she did the same thing in Spider-Man 3 and has since plumped for a role in the Twilight exploitative moneymaker series, so I guess my analysis of her career choices is off.

Finally, then, what of the Director’s Cut? I’ve not seen the theatrical so can’t comment myself, but the changes are few and most are ultimately insignificant. There’s a thorough, illustrated list here. Perhaps the most interesting thing (and you’ll see how I meant that loosely) about the newer cut is what it once again shows about the differences between the UK and the US: over here, it retained its theatrical 12 certificate when extended by just under three minutes to include ever-so-slightly more violence and the briefest of brief nudity; in the US, that bumped it up to an R.

More interesting than these slight tweaks is the behind-the-scenes story of a very different film, which I alluded to earlier. I don’t want to discuss it at length, but this article does. Would that have made for a better film? Christ knows. I wouldn’t count on it. Probably not, even. But it is interesting.

It’s not popular to like Terminator Salvation, that’s for certain, and I suppose it depends what you expect from the film. Is it the equal of the first two genre-definers? No. Is it better than the rehashed hack-directed third? Yes. Did I actually enjoy it? You know what, I did; and considering the reviews had me expecting to hate its poorly-made guts for just about every reason under the sun, it turns out that’s a good result.

3 out of 5

Terminator Salvation begins on Sky Movies Premiere today at 10am and 8pm, and is on every day at various times until Thursday 9th September.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

2008 #30
Tim Burton | 112 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Sweeney ToddTim Burton and Johnny Depp collaborate for the sixth time (as the DVD’s blurb is so keen to point out) for a film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical adaptation of the classic tale of the titular barber who slaughters instead of shaves and sells the resultant meat to all of London in the pies of his accomplice, Mrs Lovett.

As with 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the announcement of Burton as director of Sweeney Todd was one of those “well, of course” moments, despite the vastly different audiences. And with Burton come Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, naturally. But whereas the eventual product of Charlie resulted in a “that’s that done then” feeling of the inevitable, Sweeney is more of an unknown quantity for me — I’m familiar with the basic story, of course, but not this particular version. It’s a dark tale, but told here in a heavily stylised manner — no gritty realism to be found (for that try the Ray Winstone TV movie), but instead there’s bold and striking performances, design, direction, and storytelling. One is tempted to call it “theatrical”, but the direction is anything but and the actors do much more than project for the benefit of the back row. It’s anti-naturalistic in all elements, which suits both the ghoulish and musical subject matters perfectly, but is consequently not to everyone’s taste.

As for the musical elements, Sweeney is done in an operatic style — the majority of dialogue is sung and the story is almost entirely told through these songs, rather than having a couple of numbers peppered throughout (quite how they managed to edit a trailer that was both comprehensible and light on song is near miraculous). Anyone who’s seen an Andrew Lloyd Webber production will be familiar with this way of doing things. Personally, I find it a more immersive style — everyone’s singing from the word go, not disconcertingly launching into song a little way in. The cast’s voices may not be perfect (and I’m far from a knowledgeable judge), but they do the job more than adequately. Rough moments almost add to the film’s style, and the cast’s acting abilities more than make up for them anyway. One casting oddity is Anthony Head, who turns up for a sole inconsequential line. He may not be a regular film actor, but surely he’s bigger (and certainly better) than a glorified extra? He’s not even listed in the end credits. I smell deleted scenes… (A bit of IMDb reading reveals I’m right. Sadly, these aren’t included on the DVD.)

The other striking element of Sweeney Todd is its look. London here is a dingy monochrome metropolis, interrupted only by fanciful fairytale-coloured fantasies like the song By the Sea, and, of course, gallons of vibrant spurting blood. Wisely held off until relatively late in the film, when the blood comes it is all the more shocking. And from that point it flows like wine — or, more accurately, squirts like a stamped-on ketchup bottle — in perfectly judged amounts: it gushes far more than you’d normally see but, because Burton never pushes it to the mad excess that Tarantino did in Kill Bill, it remains on the disturbing side of believable. The stylised theatricality of it almost makes you question the high classifications, but the underlying morals and sheer bloody volume ultimately justify them.

Yet there’s something missing from Sweeney Todd. I can’t work out what it is — perhaps the numerous numbers Burton cut or trimmed have unbalanced proceedings slightly, in some frustratingly ephemeral way? — but despite all this praise and only vague criticisms, I’m certain it’s a four-star film. A very solid four, to be sure, but it doesn’t achieve enough to pass higher.

4 out of 5

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is on Channel 4 tonight, Saturday 9th August 2014, at 11:10pm.

A Room with a View (1985)

2008 #14
James Ivory | 112 mins | download | PG

A Room with a ViewI can’t help but wonder if, back in 1985, there was any audience confusion between A Room with a View and A View to a Kill. One can imagine legions of Bond fans accidentally finding themselves with a witty heritage drama, and legions of old dears accidentally finding themselves with a man twice their age trying to be an action hero. (In actuality the films were released about a year apart — that being just one reason this is a particularly silly notion.)

Putting aside such nonexistent confusion, what of that witty heritage drama? Once again, thanks to the adaptations module of my degree, I’m stuck watching a film straight after reading the novel it’s based on. So far these viewings have supported my long-held theory that reading any novel before watching the film version (especially immediately before) is a Very Bad Idea. However good A Room with a View may be — and it certainly has its share of positives — it still pales slightly in direct comparison to the novel.

The film’s faithfulness is admirable at least, combining events effectively at times and at others leaving well alone. Unfortunately this “copying out” style of adaptation means that the dialogue is exactly as written but sometimes loses important elements through its abbreviation. In the novel, characters frequently mean something entirely different to what they say, but you wouldn’t guess so in the film. Similarly, a lot of the novel’s wittiness is lost — unsurprising, as much is carried in Forster’s narration, which here is largely left unadapted. “Largely”, because chapter names occasionally intrude as intertitles or subtitles. These usually merely skip what would be a few lines of expositional dialogue, but occasionally they’re entirely pointless, and frequently are rendered meaningless by what would otherwise be minor tweaks to the plot. As I suggested at the start, however, a lot of these flaws are only blatant when placed in stark contrast with the novel.

Others aren’t. Julian Sands is disappointingly flat as love interest George Emerson, and he frequently drags Helena Bonham Carter down with him (and not in the “written by Andrew Davies” sense). In my opinion, Bonham Carter is the weak line in an otherwise flawless cast, neither acting nor looking much like my image of Lucy (Sands might not give much of a performance, but at least he looks the part, and Emerson is meant to be quite awkward). This could well be just my personal vision clashing with that of the filmmakers, of course, but there you have it. Those two aside, the rest of the cast are excellent: Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are note-perfect, especially in the handful of scenes they share (it’s a real shame Dench’s character disappears before the halfway mark); Daniel Day-Lewis is the right mix of comical, annoying and unfortunate truth as Cecil; and Simon Callow, Denholm Elliott and a young Rupert Graves are also perfect fits for their roles.

Finally, no Room with a review (ho ho) can be complete without praising how gorgeous Italy looks here. The camera lingers on the art and architecture more like a documentary than a fiction film, taking the viewer on a sightseeing tour just as much as the characters. There are essays to be written (indeed, they have been) on why such spectacle is a bad thing, but if you don’t want to be so pretentious then it’s wonderful to look at. Which, in many ways, sums up the entire film.

4 out of 5