27 July 2011

300 word reviews - 6 films

I suddenly remembered I have various film reviews I wrote a few years ago. I was a student at the time and saw a lot more films than I do now -I was also more willing to spend time watching films I didn't particularly enjoy.
It was a good exercise in summarising as the aim was to write a synopsis in 100 words or less, and then a review in 200 words or less. Looking back I mostly succeeded to hit the word limit, although I have written more synopses than reviews. Here's a selection, and to prove that I'm not all sweetness and light I'm including some films I didn't get on with.

The Good

Drop Dead Fred (1991)
Pheobe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Rik Mayall
When Elizabeth’s marriage ends she moves in with her mother and starts seeing her childhood imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred. Chaotic, unpredictable Fred is disappointed by the sensible doormat Elizabeth has become and tries to bring out the spirited little trickster she once was. Fred’s antics complicate Elizabeth’s life and although he tries to help her reunite with wayward husband Charley, she ends up taking pills to get rid of him. However Elizabeth’s problems are deeper than she knows and she must take a journey inside herself before she can take control of her life.

Rik Mayall’s manic, slapstick performance is perfect for over-the-top figment Fred, an outrageous character who often evokes laughter. The pranks he and young Elizabeth get up to seem surprising and absurd, but they fit perfectly with the defiant, childish attitude of the film. Bridget Fonda’s controlling, battleaxe mother is a fearsome, relentless figure and the reason Elizabeth lacks control in her adult life just as she did in her childhood. Most of the adults around her display a certain amount of cynicism and their relationships lack the playful openness she has with Fred. Elizabeth must rediscover her sense of fun and independence, and the film warns against taking the trappings of adulthood too seriously. The underlying message about the importance of the inner child is sincere, and even the unpredictable and riotous Fred can be serious when something so important is at stake. Though not a children’s film it has a zany childishness that pokes fun at many adult preoccupations. Twenty years after it was made the message still feels very relevant. The film is light-hearted, fun and very enjoyable.

Night Watch (2004)
Konstantin Khabersky, Dmitri Martynov, Mariya Povoshina, Galina Tyunina
Others, those born with powers beyond mere human scope, must choose to follow either the Light or the Dark. For centuries the two sides have battled but now, under an uneasy truce, each side must police the other to ensure the balance of power is kept. The Night Watch protects humanity from rogue Dark ones including unlicensed vampires and magic-users. Prophecy tells of a powerful Other who will tip the balance of power, but which side will they choose? Meanwhile a supernatural vortex looks set to destroy Moscow, and Night Watch agent Anton Gorodetsky gets his toughest assignment.

This Russian film is quite different to Hollywood productions, and unless you understand Russian it helps if you’re practiced with subtitles and are fully awake. However it’s a very good film, one that isn’t afraid to show many shades of grey, despite the deceptively black and white nature of the concept. It has all the action and suspense of a mainstream blockbuster, but with supernatural elements wonderfully blended into modern-day Moscow. The characterisation isn’t as full as in the books, but then it rarely is in film adaptations. Anton is a likeable character and human enough to overcome the unfamiliarity of his world. The film is gritty and dark at times, but there are light moments, including a boy consulting Buffy the Vampire Slayer when faced with his own vampire problems. The subtitles are impressive and even won a technical award; they’re not intrusive because they’re built into the visuals of the film. The effects are well done, the visuals are consistent and the action is violent but not over the top. A refreshingly innovative and fast-paced action film combined with gritty urban fantasy.

The Bad

The Dark Is Rising (2007)
Christopher Eccleston, Alexander Ludwig, Ian McShane
Will Stanton is the youngest son in a large American family living in England. He turns fourteen just before Christmas and starts seeing strange things around him. After being pursued by the sinister Rider he learns that he is one of the Old Ones; powerful, immortal beings that exist outside of time. Will is the Seeker and he must find the six Signs of Light hidden throughout time. However he only has five days before the Rider’s power peaks and the world is plunged into darkness. His adventures will reveal hidden power and family secrets.

This is a very predictable fantasy adventure film. Will is believable as a young teenager overshadowed by five older brothers and the Stanton family dynamic comes off well even though the older brothers are hard to distinguish. Eccleston is menacing as the Rider however the part isn’t a challenge relying as it does on looking evil rather than character motivation. The Old Ones are fairly stereotypical, however there is warmth between them. Camera work and slow motion are used to emphasise significant moments, but this happens so frequently that plot points utterly fail to be surprising. Although the supernatural elements are unsubtle they are visually successful, the CGI was rarely intrusive. The romantic subplot is unnecessary and obvious despite, or perhaps because of, attempts to make it mysterious. Brief references to the significance of Will’s father and his research are introduced then ignored. The film is very familiar and doesn’t do anything new or spectacular, anyone jaded by fantasy clichés should stay away. It is watchable and will be enjoyed by those who like a simple, heart-warming story. Sadly you can tell there were some genuinely good ideas behind this film - my advice is to read the book.

Passion of Mind (2000)
Demi Moore,
Marty/Marie is a woman who cannot tell her dreams from reality. She is both a single mother living in France with her two daughters and a high-flying New York literary agent, whenever she goes to sleep she switches persona. Unable to figure out which life is real she starts relationships with two men, one in New York and one in France. Both men want her to give up her dream life, and the romance that comes with it, but without knowing which is real she is reluctant to give up on either.

The premise has potential but the film didn’t ever live up to it. I could have been a thriller, SF, maybe even a Rom Com at a stretch, but it didn’t ever choose and so it ended up pointless and dull. The film might have been trying to make a point, but if so I couldn’t figure out what it was. Both of the woman’s lives seem solid and valid with few clues as to which one is real until the end when one is chosen. The concept has room for introspection, surrealism and psychological drama, none of which are actually present. It seemed to be an exercise in getting Demi Moore to play the same character in two different situations, which are almost entirely unconnected. She just goes to sleep on one set and wakes up on the other. Neither life is particularly compelling, and neither version of the character makes you root for her to be real. Even the revelation is disappointing, things get slightly odd and then that’s it. The resolution is fine, but not earth-shattering, and you are left with the feeling that the film was going somewhere but was too uncertain about actually getting there.

The Ugly

40 Days and 40 Nights (2002)
Josh Harnett, Shannyn Sossamon
Matt makes a 40-day celibacy vow after a bad break-up and a string of meaningless one night stands. His friends are sceptical and unbeknownst to him create a website and start taking bets on how long he can go without sexual pleasure. Meanwhile he makes a connection with Erica, the girl of his dreams, who is interested in him but a little put off by his vow. His mounting sexual frustration is not helped by the stunts of his friends and a conniving ex, not to mention the large number of surprisingly attractive young women he encounters.

I missed the first half hour of this film but the plot was easy to pick up. Matt’s near-identical friends are pathetically obsessed with his sex life and their amazement that he gives up masturbation shows just how much they prize that particular activity. The film is ridiculously phallocentric with most of the male characters behaving like sexually frustrated teenagers –they are apparently grownups. The female characters are little better, mostly coming off as either manipulative or slutty. The saving grace is the interaction between the two leads; their on-screen chemistry is endearing enough to make you care. The message -that people can connect without sex- is completely undermined by the massive emphasis all the characters place on sex. Even a priest and a nun get some action. I’m reliably informed that men can survive 40-day periods of abstinence without ill-effects. Matt’s reaction suggests that he has a serious medical problem, not that this is treated as unusual. What the film actually says is that while romance isn’t dead you’d better get your end in once in a while otherwise you’ll probably explode. Amusing if immature, you can’t take this seriously unless you’re over-sexed.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
Eddie Izzard, Uma Thurman, Luke Wilson
An act of bravery gets Matt Saunders a date with the neurotic Jenny Johnson. Their relationship progresses when Matt discovers that Jenny is really superhero G Girl. However the heroine becomes obsessive and Matt realises he has feelings for his colleague Hannah. Breaking up is unbearable as G Girl uses increasingly violent and outlandish revenge tactics. Her arch-nemesis, the embittered Professor Bedlam, enlists Matt’s help in de-powering her. Various complications ensue but the resolution sees everyone getting more or less what they deserve.

There’s an assumption that rom-coms are primarily aimed at women, but this film belies that. The viewpoint character is male and although the lead female is powerful she’s also a clichéd, clingy, hormonal woman. The pervy friend and a totally gratuitous, supernatural breast-enlargement (which is actually in keeping with unacknowledged superhero tropes) keep this from being a chic-flick. The film is amusing if you are willing to accept the premise that women -especially powerful ones- are crazy and irrational, though if the gender roles were reversed it would be horrific. The superhero elements aren’t very inventive, G Girl’s powers are gimmicky and don’t provide as much of a twist as they could. In fact the SF elements are so bland and simplistic you’d be forgiven for missing them, although that may be a conscious attempt to keep the film mainstream despite its SF subject matter. Eddie Izzard’s portrayal of a super villain is amusingly quirky but very familiar, and frankly he can do better. The supporting cast are fairly thin and stereotypical but they serve their purpose and set up the jokes. The film is entertaining enough if you’re willing to ignore G-Girl’s personality, but don’t expect anything heroic.

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