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This is a website that I wrote. It's all about peace and love and good happiness stuff.

I'm Rick Booth, mathematician, musician, geek, and occasional ranter. And other things. If you are under 18, this site will give you nightmares and disfiguring acne. Go away at once.

4-4-2011 (archived)

So almost everybody seems to have hated Sucker Punch. Roger Ebert, with whom I normally agree on most things, seems to have hated it judging from his twitter, and he completely got (Snyder's previous) Watchmen, a masterpiece that many disliked - but then Ebert also gave Kick-Ass one star and the remake of Death at a Funeral three and a half on the same day, so he's hardly infallible. It's at 20% on right now on RottenTomatoes, which is pretty damned low. That said, some people liked it. Some REALLY liked it. But I'm not sure they liked it for the right reasons.

I personally think it's a very very interesting failure. Let's talk about why. This is probably going to contain (very very minor) spoilers, if you care.

The story's pretty simple, packed in layers. In the outer layer our heroine is an abused girl shoved into an asylum whose keeper is bribed to lobotomise her before she can testify (fun, huh?). In the first fantasy level she goes to, it's nearly as grim: she's working in a brothel. And when, in that level, she dances for her audiences, she escapes to the action-game sequences full of everything nerdculture loves (kick-ass girls in tiny skirts, zombies in ww1, orcs in ww2, dragons, exploding monorails, wise warrior monks, giant robots) that filled the trailers. Whether these layers are fantasies or dreams under sedation or symptoms of insanity brought on by her situation we don't know.

Let's be clear about one thing: anybody who thinks this film is anti-women is a fucking idiot. Every brave, strong, decent, admirable, person in the film is a woman, and every man in it (with the exception of the Wise Man, who's an avatar and quite clearly supposed to be a projection) is a loathsome excrescence. It is notable that there's not a single scene eroticising these erotic dancers. It's just not that movie. It's not even worth discussing the question.

The uncontroversially and unarguably great thing about Sucker Punch is the visuals. Snyder has had an incredible, hugely distinctive style for some time, and this may be the best effort yet. Virtually any freeze-framed shot in the entire two hours could be an effective comic panel, and there aren't many other films you can say that about (even fewer not made by him). The soundtrack is very upfront and just as stylised, and as a pure pop-culture art piece with no regard to any sort of narrative or concept the whole thing is pretty remarkable.

And I thought it worked remarkably well as an art piece not just visually but conceptually. One of Kermode's criticisms is (from memory, so I may paraphrase slightly) that “the director thought he had made Inception”. Well, I disagree, because there's one thing that's a major flaw in Inception. It's supposed to be all about dreams, and (as Neil Gaiman has written, brilliantly and repeatedly) the thing about dreams is that they are not stories. Dream-logic is not story-logic, which is one reason they're so hard to hold on to when you wake up, and Inception has flawless narrative logic all the way through, with almost nothing remotely dream-like.

But this... everything after that top, horrifying layer works as dream-logic, not story-logic - which is right, because they're dreams. People who've criticized it for lacking narrative coherence have entirely missed that crucial point - that's how it has to be, artistically. It's brilliant.

So why do I say it's a failure? There are a number of problems, sure: that dream-like feel makes it a little slow, and not all the acting's great, and the dream-sequences can be boring because you think that the heroes are invulnerable (wrong!), and an awful lot of it is knitted out of cliches, but in the end there's one big problem. Either every level's supposed to work as story - in which case it's a failure - or my interpretation is right and it's an exercise in dream logic - in which case, since I seem to be the only person who got it, it really failed. But damn, it was gorgeous to look at and interesting enough to make even me sit down and write 700+ words about it, so I guess it didn't fail all that hard.

27-2-2011 (archived)

Well, three years and a day is quite a time. No promises will be made to be breached.

Unusually, this year I have seen almost all of the films nominated in any major category, and all ten of the Best Picture nominations; so while my opinions remain, of course, quite worthless, I am at least on firm ground in putting them.

Best picture: Any of these would be a worthy winner, though I confess to being perhaps the only person in the world unsure about Black Swan, which most either love or hate. It is definitely a very interesting picture, but I'm not sure whether or not it's any good. On the whole I think it probably is. The King's Speech will probably win this, but I think True Grit and Winter's Bone are the two best films I saw this year (the latter has no chance, I fear).

Best director: My two first choices (Boyle for 127 hours, a hyperkinetic story about a man who cannot move, and Nolan for the remarkable Inception) are not on the ballot. Black Swan is a glorious mess, Social Network is flawed (the whole boat-race scene is clearly just there to make it look cinematic), Fighter and King's Speech and True Grit all strike me as perfectly fine films but unremarkably directed. Unsatisfactory. I think, on the whole, Social Network, for making a nerds-in-rooms story so accessible.

Actor: Of course Colin Firth is odds-on for this (he was 33-1 on a month ago and I think that's shortened), and he would be a worthy winner, as would any of the others (with the possible exception of Bardem; I've not seen Biutiful). I think, for my money, Firth is the right choice, though it's hard to ignore Franco too.

Actress: I didn't see Rabbit Hole or Blue Valentine (sadly; I look forward to seeing the latter in particular). Jennifer Lawrence for Winter's Bone is the right winner, Natalie Portman the likely one. There is some talk of Bening as a dark horse, but to my mind she wasn't even the best actress in the film for which she was nominated.

Supporting actor is a refreshing change, because it so clearly ought to go to Christian Bale.

Supporting actress is a strange one. Who was Amy Adams supporting, if not Melissa Leo, and vice versa? Steinfeld clearly ought not to be in supporting, as she was in 90% of True Grit and even narrated the picture, but as the most striking of these nominations perhaps she should win. Adams was also very impressive, Bonham Carter no more so than usual. I didn't see Animal Kingdom. All of that said, I would be tempted to argue that the best supporting actress I saw recently was Keira Knightley, for Never Let Me Go.

Animation: Didn't see The Illusionist, but Toy Story 3 is always going to win this, surely.

Adapted screenplay is a tough one, with many excellent nomanations, of which I think Social Network stands out; but then I am a Sorkin enthusiast. Still, making a type-A borderline-Asperberger's nerd and his unsympathetic acquaintances carry a mainstream film so successfully should not be overlooked.

Original Screenplay: Inception, surely. Original, intelligent, and hugely successful on every critical and commercial level.

Cinematography: Deakins shot True Grit as beautifully as ever.

As to the other categories, I am even less fit to judge, so let me leave you with a trio of my own:

Most under-rated: a tie between the remarkable and remarkably little-praised Never Let Me Go (complete with my best supporting actress), and the wonderful Easy A. I think the latter belongs in "original" rather than "adapted", but it's close.

Best kid's film: yes, yes I know Toy Story is magnificent, but Despicable Me is just SO FLUFFY.

Most entertaining: my film of the year, and possibly of all time, is Kick-Ass. Who could doubt it?

26-2-2008 (archived)

You'd be forgiven for thinking I hadn't seen many of the films involved in the Oscars, but in fact there are only a couple I've missed out on (I just haven't reviewed them yet, due to my continuing bad attack of laziness). My opinions are, of course, without value, but it's my blog so I'm going to talk about them anyway.

Best picture: No Country For Old Men surprised nobody, and is probably the right choice, being almost without flaw. There Will Be Blood is a genuinely staggering film, but imperfect (in a way that frankly adds to the brilliance, I think, but hey ho). It's also a film that will divide people, whereas if you don't like No Country then you don't like cinema. The only surprise here for me was Michael Clayton being on the ballot: it was a good movie, but not on a par with these others. The suggestion that it may be down to Clooney being thought a thoroughly good egg over the writers' strikes seems reasonable.

Best director: Again no surprise in No Country for Old Men, which probably deserved to win.

Actor: Although I feel for Tommy Lee Jones, who turned in a superb performance in The Valley Of Elah, Day-Lewis was the only conceivable winner in one of the best performances I have ever seen.

Actress was the mystery category for me: I did not see La Vie en Rose or Away From Her, the two front-runners. I personally would have found it difficult to vote for a Cotillard, the winner, regardless of how good she may have been simply because, playing a singer, she mimed the songs. I don't understand what Blanchett's performance as Elizabeth is doing here, and the single biggest surprise of the whole process was that Angelina Jolie's Mighty Heart was not nominated. It was the best female performance I saw all year.

Again in supporting actress, I saw only three of the five, and of those three Swinton was the correct winner. I saw four of the supporting actor performances, and again I think the best one won; Bardem truly was extraordinary, though so were all the others.

Best foreign language film is difficult because of the absurd nomination process. I saw The Counterfeiters, which won, and it was fine, but nothing like as good as The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, which was not eligible despite being in French throughout. They need to fix this system.

Animation: Didn't see Persepolis, Ratatouille was far better than Surf's Up, but I still hold fast to my sacrilegious opinion that it wasn't all that great.

Adapted screenplay is perhaps the only category where No Country won and shouldn't have: the Coens made a masterpiece from a masterpiece novel, adapting it almost completely faithfully (which I commend); but There Will Be Blood adapted an, I gather, hugely over-long and badly flawed book into a masterpiece, and I would have gone for Diving Bell and Butterfly, which took an unfilmable novel and made an astonishing film.

Original Screenplay: with the caveat that I have never even heard of “Lars and the Real Girl”, this was the second safest bet after Day-Lewis, and if Juno had not won it would have been a travesty.

Score: Atonement's score was, indeed, brilliant, but I might have been tempted by the overwhelming, tremendous score of There Will Be Blood, which was not nominated.

Cinematography: There Will Be Blood is a worthy winner, but any of these could have won, and in my opinion The Assassination of Jesse James should have.

I have no opinion on the other categories, which is doubtless more fitting. As you were.

15-2-2008 (archived)

Oops. Three love stories seen in early January, then.

Lust, Caution is in many ways a typical Ang Lee film: deliberately paced, emotionally profound, visually rich, and with a rather detached affect. Many scenes were powerful, perhaps especially the messy, inept and horribly protacted killing scene, and the sex scenes were both compelling and brutal. Part of the reason it's taken me so long to post this time is that I was struggling to sum up what I felt about this: I found it rather unsatisfying, and I wanted to make sure I understood why. It is another remarkable film, but it falls short of greatness simply because, unlike Brokeback Mountain, it is just too easy to lose sympathy with the characters.

Dan in real life is a little late; this sort of richly touching family-centred movie should have been out in December for Christmas, really. Yes, it's sentimental, but it's not quite by the numbers and it's lifted well above the ordinary by Juliette Binoche and especially Steve Carell, whose advice columnist comes apart beautifully under truly horrible pressures as his kids, parents, career and love life all hit at once. He's a good and touching actor as well as a comedian with magnificent timing, and he makes this a warm and genuinely moving movie. Not special, but well worth spending a half-evening on.

And then there's P.S. I Love You. I don't think it's quite as bad as it's been painted by most critics, but it is not a film that stays with you for more than a few seconds after leaving (unless you have a serious need to see Hilary Swank or Gerard Butler in their underwear, in which former case leave after the first ten minutes and latter go and buy 300). Lisa Kudrow does a good job of playing a shallow and irritating character, but the other performances are not exactly inspirational and the whole thing is never more than adequate. It's not very romantic, or very funny, or very inspirational, or very moving, it's clumsily and ineffectively manipulative, and it's a waste of the considerable talent in it, and it's half an hour longer than it has material for. It's not horrible. It just isn't any good at all.

9-1-2008 (archived)

I Am Legend is yet another attempt on Richard Matheson's classic short novel, and like The Omega Man the characters are not, quite, vampires. It's not at all clear why they shouldn't be, since they show all the requisite characteristics. Also like the others, it removes the whole point of the movie (and the reason for the title). Of course we still have a disease rendering the population monstrous, a theme that Matheson pioneered but that's been more than thoroughly explored in the cinema, but what we don't have - at least not clearly - is some of the monsters being intelligent (although there is some inconsistency, or if you prefer a massive plot messup, here). Neither is this Robert Neville a determined vampire slayer.

The empty New York here is never as affecting as the empty London of 28 Days Later, but there is a lot to like. Shit Goes Boom very nicely, and Will Smith turns in a magnificent performance as the lone survivor falling apart under the emotional pressure of isolation (the dog also performs well). Until, that is, they start REALLY deviating from the novel and the last reel turns around, and wrong. It's an ok movie with some great acting and Smith's formidable charisma, and has plenty of very effective spring-loaded cats; but there is a truly great, bleak, meaning-laden movie to be made from this book, and this isn't it. It should have been, and the execution is strong enough that it could have been, and that's a crying shame.