Feb 13, 2010

Review Post 64: A Single Man / Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief / The Wolfman

DIR: Tom Ford
CAST: Colin Firth, Nicholas Hoult, Julianne Moore

A Single Man presents an interesting critical problem, because what initially seems one of its great strengths actually becomes one of its most glaring weaknesses. Debuting director Tom Ford has previously been a fashion designer, and this is unmistakably a film by a fashion designer. A Single Man is almost excruciatingly beautiful; every frame is composed to within an inch of its life. Even when Colin Firth is seen sitting on the toilet the world around him is perfectly designed, with clean lines dividing up the screen and giving what is usually a purely functional space an undeniable visual splendour. A key flashback is rendered in crisp black and white, reminiscent of a Bruce Weber photograph, or an aftershave advert and the film’s use of colour is both gorgeous and assured (if, and we’ll get to this in a moment, also massively over literal). This beauty (at times you can almost hear the film sigh as one gorgeous image is replaced by the next) also extends to the casting; there is not a single person in this film who isn’t fabulously beautiful.

The problem with all of this beauty is that it feels deeply artificial, and calls extraordinary attention to itself, making this film feel not like an experience but like going to an exhibition. We’re not sharing in the grief of Colin Firth’s George as he goes through what he intends to make his final day on Earth, determining to kill himself because he’s still unable to et over the death, eight months previously, of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode) so much as we are being given a guided tour of an artistic representation of that grief. It feels stuffy, and just failed to connect with me at an emotional level because the way the film is shot is so minutely designed that it keeps you at arms length from the story.

The thing I found most irksome (and which most clearly demonstrates Ford’s status as a first time filmmaker) was A Single Man’s use of colour. For the most part George’s world is grey and drab, drained of colour by the loss of Jim, but as he goes through this last day he sees things and encounters people that, literally, brighten up his world. In these moments colour suffuses the film, almost to the point of over saturation at times. It’s not a bad idea to begin with, but as the film goes on it becomes clear that this is Ford’s only stylistic idea, and it became very wearing, to the point that I was counting in the moments at which the colour was going to fade up and down, and, having understood the point Ford was making the first time he made it, I began to feel like he was battering me about the head with this stunningly obvious metaphor.

I can’t deny that A Single Man is a well made and well realised film though, and to give Ford his proper dues he does draw an exceptional leading performance from Colin Firth, whose work has been improving at a steady pace as Mr Darcy has begun to go away and he’s started to settle into middle age (he’s 50 this year). Firth is wonderful as a man eaten away, hollowed out by grief at the loss of the man he loved. There are moments in the film that are so raw you can almost feel the sting of them for him (as when he’s told that his partner’s funeral is ‘for family only’ or when his old friend (Moore) says that she wishes that they could have had ‘a real relationship’, instead of what she sees as a sixteen year dalliance). What’s so good about Firth here is that he doesn’t make those moments into the cynical, scenery chomping, Oscar grabs that they could be (ironically this is perhaps one reason he won’t win). Firth does small, detailed, highly nuanced work here, and manages to give us a really rounded and sympathetic portrait of George, helping keep us involved in a film that can often seem standoffish.

The same, sadly, can’t be said of Julianne Moore, whose ten minute turn as George’s old friend Charly, who has been abandoned by both her husband and her son and now spends her days completely smashed thanks to Tanqueray gin, is one of her least impressive. The English accent (which she’s had mixed results with in the past) is note perfect, but her performance is just HUGE, theatrical and false. I’ve seldom seen this fine actress give a performance that seemed more like a performance, so forced, so on the surface, it’s a shame, because she had been coming back to form lately.

All the players bar Firth are really little more than walk on parts. Nicholas Hoult, who I’ve often found wooden in the past, does well as one of George’s students, who is clearly attracted to the handsome older man, but the likes of Matthew Goode (as Jim) and Jon Kortajarena (as a handsome hustler George encounters and shares a cigarette with) are clearly cast for their exceptional handsomeness rather than their acting talents. In a tiny role as the daughter of the family next door 11 year old Ryan Simpkins again demonstrates what a compelling young talent she is.

A Single Man was a rather frustrating watch for me. I could appreciate its technical qualities and I was bowled over by Colin Firth’s excellent leading performance (which is, it should be said, worth the price of admission by itself), but it just didn’t work. There’s a preciousness about the film that kept it from really engaging emotionally, a cold, overtly and overly designed feel that always held me at a distance from what should have been a moving story. At the end of the day, for me, this film was something of a curate’s egg; ornate and beautiful, but ultimately not holding very much within that gorgeous setting.

DIR: Chris Columbus
CAST: Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson,
Alexandra Daddario, Catherine Keener

There are many, many reasons that I love the criticism of Mark Kermode, but his review of this film (in which he came up with several alternative Harry Potter rip off titles) is one of the best I’ve heard for a while. Certainly I’d be more interested in seeing his Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins than I am in any return visit to the world of Percy Jackson.

Chris Columbus’ presumed franchise starter is serviceable. The effects are largely decent, the performances are functional, the story ticks off the set pieces with ruthless efficiency and everything’s wrapped up nicely in just under two hours, but serviceable and efficient is all it is. Like Columbus’ two entries in the Harry Potter series this is magic free, by the numbers cinema, it does just enough to keep the audience awake, but the second it ends the film evaporates, leaving absolutely no lasting impression aside from a vague wondering of where those last two hours went. It’s like watching the results of a survey filled in by 12-year-old boys. The film serves up an adolescent hero (Lerman), who has magical powers thrust upon him (he’s the son of Greek God Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) and a human woman (played by the ever wonderful Catherine Keener, who made me wish this film was about how she and Poseidon had the snot nosed little turd in the first place), then goes off to magic school (well, magic camp) which is run by a long haired, heavily bearded, headteacher (Pierce Brosnan as a centaur, looking like he’s about three seconds away from taking a razor to his wrists) and where he has a wisecracking male sidekick (Brandon T. Jackson) and a female friend (Alexandra Daddario) who is both very pretty and much better at magic and fighting than he is. Is any of this ringing a bell?

So, Percy’s Mum is kidnapped by Hades (Steve Coogan, of all people) who wants to trade her for Zeus’ (Sean Bean) lightning bolt, which he believes Percy has stolen, and which Zeus wants returned, or there’s going to be a war, and this leads to a series of set pieces which bring mythical creatures from Greek legends (Medusa (Uma Thurman), the Hydra, etc etc) into the real world. It’s all very silly, and never for a single moment is it truly engaging or exciting. Logan Lerman, who impressed as Christian Bale’s son in 3:10 to Yuma, and is tipped to be the new Spider-Man reads his lines well enough, but he’s decidedly uncharismatic, and there’s little to root for because Percy just seems like total drip. Brandon T. Jackson is nails on a blackboard irritating as Percy’s Satyr protector, whose every not so wisecrack lands with a resounding thud, the echoes of which are heard rumbling through the cinema and Alexandra Daddario, in marked contrast to Emma Watson, whose lively performances were a highlight of even Columbus’ Harry Potter films, is little more than a pretty void for the girls in the audience to identify with.

The set pieces are executed well enough. Fights with a Minotaur, Medusa and the Hydra show off competent special effects and are at least intelligibly shot. I can’t say I was ever really bored in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, I can’t say I disliked it, I certainly can’t say I liked it though. More than almost any recent film Percy Jackson passed by and left me totally unaffected. I nothinged this film. Nothing about it is good or bad, nothing about it is powerfully dull or particularly interesting. It is, essentially, nothing. It is perhaps the most inert film of recent times, so utterly forgettable that I’m only sure I’ve seen it because the ticket stub is still in my back pocket. There are probably worse things you can take an undemanding 9 year old to see this half term, but really, when The Princess and the Frog is out there, why bother with this?

DIR: Joe Johnston
CAST: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins,
Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving

The Wolfman has been, to put it rather mildly, a troubled production, running through director changes, delays, reshoots, more delays and last minute editing. It’s not a great film, but it’s a minor miracle, given the behind the scenes strife, that Joe Johnston’s monster movie isn’t a complete debacle.

The story will be familiar to anyone who has seen the Claude Rains starring classic (which, actually, doesn’t really earn its reputation). Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) returns to his family home for the first time in many years, only to find that his brother is dead, torn apart by some wild animal. Lawrence promises his brother’s fiancĂ© (Blunt), that he will find out what happened, but while investigating he is attacked by an animal too, and soon Lawrence becomes aware that he’s been afflicted by a terrible curse. What more do you want? It’s a werewolf movie.

When the Wolf is on screen, the Wolfman is quite good fun. Benicio Del Toro is rather ingenious casting, and he’s clearly having a good time behind Rick Baker’s make up (which pays homage to Jack Pierce’s classic work, but updates it convincingly too), but he’s seems bored in his scenes as the human Lawrence, and gives an uncharacteristically flat and lifeless performance. Working with his actors is clearly not Joe Johnston’s strong suit, judging from the variable performances on display here. Anthony Hopkins, playing Del Toro’s father (oh, of course) is shockingly bad. It’s a performance that just screams that he doesn’t give a shit and is in this purely for the money. Hopkins chomps through raw exposition with all the enthusiasm of a man driving to a dental appointment with a toothache, in an accent that takes us on a word by word tour of the British Isles, from Scotland, over to Ireland, back across to Wales, and then into England. Much better are Hugo Weaving, enjoying himself as a Policeman investigating the strange events in the village of Blackmoor and Emily Blunt, whose fine performance actually makes the movie’s otherwise overblown ending play, and even feel a little bit emotional.

The gore scenes are good nasty fun, with this Wolfman getting to indulge in red-wet flesh ripping, rather than just biting someone off screen. It’s here that Johnston and Del Toro do their best work, with the director paying knowing homage to the gothic looks of the classic Universal horror films and Del Toro letting his inner monster fly (though, sadly, the howl isn’t his). Especially entertaining is a scene in which a Freud like psychiatrist displays Del Toro to an audience on the night of the full moon, to demonstrate that Lawrence is merely suffering from a delusion. Guess what happens. The problem is that the film takes a very, very long time to get to the wolf, about half of the film’s 100 minutes are gone before Lawrence is first transformed, and after that it’s still a rather rare occurrence, frankly this film would benefit from a little less ‘man’ and a bit more wolf.

The reshoots show themselves thanks to a rather perfunctory story, which feels both overly leisurely and rushed and to the massive infodumps that the film inflicts on us on a regular basis. It does, just about, fit together, but only in a clunky, slightly unsatisfactory, sort of way. There is fun to be had with The Wolfman, and it’s a minor miracle that its not a great deal worse than it is, but while this is an acceptable way to pass 102 minutes that is really all it is.

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