Film

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

It’s easy to imagine the thought processes of the studio bosses.  Here’s a book about a 12 year old with a difficult home life and some special powers…so let’s sign up that Chris Columbus fellow who directed the first two Harry Potter films.

So yes, the the film of (take a deep breath) Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief comes across as a rip-off of Harry Potter.  But don’t assume that the books are the same. Rick Riordan deserves credit for using Greek mythology as the basis for his tales, and with considerably more subtly and wit than Mr Columbus can manage.

In the book, we learn early on that Percy’s father is absent, and there hints about what the real story might be.  In the opening shot of the film, Poseidon strides through the water and on to the land.  Then it’s off to the top of the Empire State building for a quite chat with Zeus, who accuses Poseidon's son of being the lightning thief.  So that’s the plot all sorted out then – and yes, there’s plenty more clunky exposition to come over the next 2 hours.

Bizarrely, Percy Jackson is 16 years old in the film, whereas he was 12 in the first book.  It seems that the money men may have been worried that his age would frighten off adults, so he has consciously been made older and Grover Underwood (his best friend) seems inappropriately leery for what is supposed to be a kids movie.

The lead actors are unknown, but there are plenty of star names - Steve Coogan, Uma Thurman, Sean Bean and Pierce Brosnan (amongst others), and the first two are fine but Brosnan really needs to stop trying to do comedy.

Is it really so difficult to turn childrens’ books into movies?  Prince Caspian was stupid, the Golden Compass was poor, and now this.


Avatar is no Toy Story

It is said that James Cameron spent about ten years waiting for the technology he needed to make Avatar.  You’d think that he might have spent a tiny fraction of that time going to the cinema to watch a Pixar movie or two, just to see how computer animation can be combined with engaging characters and an interesting plot. 

Yes, sure, there are parts of Avatar that are visually stunning, but that isn’t enough to compensate for the wafer-thin plot and the one-dimensional characters.  Oh, and it’s at least an hour too long.  And was unobtanium really the best name he could conjure up for the stuff that caused all the trouble?  


Up the prices

Up is a perfectly decent movie - very good in parts - and Pixar maintain their tradition of well-developed characters and interesting storylines, whereas others in the digital animation world settle for far less (yes, this means you, Dreamworks).

The bad news is that it is in 3D.  That means you have to pay more (higher ticket prices and  normal discounts do not apply), and you have to wear stupid plastic glasses.

So why the 3D?  Toy Story II was not a great movie because of the digital animation, it was great because it used that technique to tell a story with engaging characters.  No need for silly gimmicks, thank you very much.

Unfortunately, the film industry seem to think that 3D is the answer to their prayers - here's something you can't get on pirate copies (or on the DVD) of the movie.  If you want the 3D effect you need to go the cinema to get it.  And pay more for the privilege.

Except I don't want 3D.  If it were possible, I would have watched the normal (non-3D) version.  No need to pay higher prices, no need to wear silly glasses.  But I wasn't given that choice. 

Of course, I'd be quite happy to watch the film on DVD in boring old 2D, and I bet it will cost less than two cinemas tickets.  Which begs the question - is this really the answer to the film industry's problems?  I'm saying no. 


Prince Caspian - a stupid adaptation

Having watched the film (which opened a few weeks ago in Hong Kong), and read the book, I have to say something about the horrible job they have done of adapting this children's classic for the cinema.

In the book, the story starts (as it should) with the Pevensie children.  They are on a railway station somewhere in the countryside, when they are suddenly whisked off to Narnia.  Later they are told the story of Prince Caspian and why he has summoned them back to Narnia. 

The film, on the other hand, starts with Prince Caspian escaping from the castle, and although a rather cursory attempt is made to explain the story, the main focus is on excitement.  And action.  Then Caspian finds the horn and immediately summons the children (something that takes much longer and is given far greater consideration in the book). 

In the film version the children are at Strand underground station in Central London when the call comes.  Presumably they did this because it helps to make it clear that the story is taking place during World War II, but it also enabled them to add two unnecessary plot points - Peter Pevensie being caught up in a fight, and his sister Susan fending off an unwelcome admirer.  These two themes are developed further as the film goes on, with Peter and Susan both falling victim to the screenwriters' attempts to "modernise" the story.

Then there's the way that the Telmarines are given a vaguely Spanish accent just to make it clear that they are the bad guys.  So much easier than giving us the 'back story' that is in the novel, and typical of the unimaginative way that this has been put together. 

Some people seem to think that the basic narrative structure of the book would not have translated well to film.  I disagree, and in fact I think it would have made a lot more sense if they had left it alone - though I suppose we'd still have had the inevitable CGI and extended battle scenes.

Maybe they'll find a decent director for the next one.


Mr Bean's Holiday

I don't know what's wrong with me, but I didn't hate this film anything like as much as I had expected.

In part, I think it was because my expectations were very low.  Not just because the TV series seems to be aimed at 6 year olds, but because the previous feature film (simply called Bean) was so mis-judged.  Transforming a 25 minute piece of slapstick into a 90 minute feature film is quite a challenge, and in this case they got it spectacularly wrong by changing the character of Mr Bean. In the TV series he is child-like, well-meaning and accident-prone, and the storylines involve minor mishaps from which he somehow recovers.  In the film they turned him into an almost tragic figure, way out of his depth and causing total chaos.  However, I have to admit that I seem to be in a small minority in thinking this, because the film was hugely successful.   

It may also be that I have got used to Mr Bean from repeated exposure to the original TV show and animated series.  I have always thought that Mr Bean was a waste of Rowan Atkinson's talents, but maybe Blackadder was never going to make him an international star, and it certainly wasn't going to make him rich (as Mr Bean has undoubtedly done), so I suppose it would be churlish to complain too much.

I notice that the FT's film critic (subscription required) also seemed not to hate the film:

Rowan Atkinson’s inept Everyman grows on one. Like a carbuncle, Mr Bean is unsightly, incongruous and largely noiseless, save for a few strangulated sounds. In his second feature these are mostly in French. (His voice may have learnt this secret passage through silent knockabout from Monsieur Hulot). Yet in Mr Bean’s Holiday the titular twit has become an almost endearing pal. Winning a church raffle, he takes a trip to Cannes, full of pratfalls, prattishness and panic attacks of ineptitude. The good sight-gags help, including a stay-awake-at-the-wheel driving sequence (appalling but funny), a lesson in how to dispose of oysters in a restaurant while pretending to swallow them, and a clever slapstick climax at the Cannes Film Festival.

Bean’s insularity is the joke. The miracle – also a joke – is that this skit on twerpy Englishness has become a worldwide phenomenon. Bean is global, while Atkinson’s funnier TV creation, Blackadder, never got beyond Dover. Reason: you need to translate the latter’s transports of ornate sarcasm, while Bean needs no interpreter. This Home Counties nitwit, inseparable from his tie, patched-elbows jacket and look of button-bright idiocy, was surely swept off the floor of a minor public school. Bean is so throttled with nerdy diffidence that he has developed its opposite as an antibody. He has become a dangerous lunatic, no less surreally at home – a second home – in his flair for unwitting maladroitness edging into witting malice.

Well, I wouldn't quite go that far, but certainly this is better than the first film and shows a far lighter touch that is more in keeping with the character from the TV series.  There is a storyline of sorts, as Bean travels from London to Cannes, but it's mainly an excuse for a series of set pieces.  The BBFC gave it a U certificate but attached the warning that it "contains irresponsible behaviour".  Well, that's the whole point of Mr Bean, isn't it?  No-one seems to come any harm as a result of Mr Bean's stupidity.

Having said all of that, this is a deeply silly and inconsequential film, and most of the jokes are neither original nor particularly funny.  I certainly wouldn't choose to go and watch this film, but if you find yourself dragged along then there's some very nice French countryside and scenery, and some trains, and, er, that's it.


Monster House

I blame Pixar.  Nowadays every movie studio wants to have its own computer animation, but whilst they invest millions in the latest technology they seem to neglect basic stuff like storylines and characters.  The result is terrible old tosh like Polar Express, Madagascar and Chicken Little. 

Monster House was therefore a pleasant surprise.  They seem to have decided that it might be better to start with a good story and decent characters and then worry about the CGI - rather than having all the technology and hoping that this would be enough.

Two caveats - this is a bit scary for young children (hence the IIA certificate in Hong Kong and PG elsewhere), and computer animation still produces very strange-looking people (which would be why Pixar and the rest mainly have non-human characters in their films). 

The house, on the other hand, is terrific, and there is really no reason why computer animation always has to be aimed at very young children.  One of the many things to like about this film is that the writers have managed to resist the temptation to pepper it with jokes that will go over the heads of children.  So, whilst it is probably unsuitable for younger children, it certainly should appeal to those who are a little older.

The two boys featured in Monster House are about 10 years old, and one of the themes of the film is their awareness that they are growing up - brought sharply into focus by the arrival of a girl of a similar age.  Together they explore the house and - well, I'm sure you can guess the rest. 

It doesn't outstay its welcome, it's funny, it's mildly scary, and it has a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Other film makers please note.


Mild peril and frequent jousting

I suppose they're trying to be helpful (from The Guardian)

In 1993, Jurassic Park became the first film to be released with a warning line. It scraped past the British Board of Film Classification with a PG rating because the distributors agreed to admit that it might be "unsuitable for young children". Four years later, the BBFC began supplying "consumer advice lines" on its website, starting with Jurassic Park 2, which it described, less than snappily, as: "Passed PG for scary scenes of violence that may be unsuitable for sensitive children or those under eight."

This information, it has to be said, has become increasingly colourful. There is the ever popular "contains mild peril", which was applied to March of the Penguins, as if it were a film about running with scissors. Then there was "contains mild language and horror, and fantasy spiders", which accompanied Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and even "contains moderate emotional intensity" (Swimming Upstream), a damning review if ever I read one. Anyone thinking of taking their children to the new Jack Black movie, Nacho Libre, should consider that it "contains moderate and comic wrestling violence" - words that might as easily describe an average child's day.

Sadly, following the results of a BBFC focus group, the board is trying to cut down on some of its strangest phrases. "Mild peril", for instance, is being replaced with "scary moments". "Moderate torture" too now finds itself out of favour, as some people see it as a contradiction. "Can you have 'moderate' torture?" asks Clark. How about a Chinese burn? "Possibly ..."

Before I let her go, I ask Sue Clark, the BBFC's head of communications, to settle the controversy over A Knight's Tale. This film's consumer advice line, "contains frequent jousting", is considered a masterpiece among fans of the genre, although there are those who insist the words were never used. According to Clark, that description was indeed considered, but ultimately rejected. "We have to be careful not just to produce a piece of information for the sake of it," she explains, before admitting, "I have to say, I do laugh at some of them."

Not as much as you might laugh when reading the description of a film on a dodgy DVD, but that's another story.


Cars

Disney's recent track record with animated films is not at all good.  Pixar, on the other hand, have turned out a long string of highly impressive offerings in the best tradition of Walt Disney - the two Toy Story films undoubtedly belong up there with the classic Disney cartoons of the past, and every one of Pixar's film has been better than any of Disney's own efforts in the last dozen or so years.  Hence Disney's decision to acquire Pixar and put John Lasseter in charge of all their animation.

Unfortunately Cars does not live up to the very high standards set by Pixar.  Not that's it bad, just that it isn't as good as Toy Story, The Incredibles and the rest.

In many ways, it is Pixar's most ambitious film so far.  Whereas Toy Story, Bugs Life and even The Incredibles were about small groups (of toys, bugs, fish, superheroes) operating within the human world, here we have no humans at all.  Cars (and other vehicles) are the only characters, though within a familiar landscape.  It's also much longer than usual, at around 2 hours.

Visually it is impressive, and the attention to detail is amazing.  There are countless small jokes hidden away, but more good gags would have helped, and they really should have spent more time on the plot.  Pixar movies usually offer adventure, excitement, and surprises along the way, but this one is disappointingly flat. 

I suppose the racing sequences are intended to provide the excitement, but sadly they are dull and add little to the storyline.

Tellingly, the funniest part of the movie comes right at the end, with a replay of some classic Pixar scenes - with cars playing characters such as Buzz and Woody.  One might have hoped that John Lasseter would have taken the hint and realized what was wrong with Cars.  He could have cut out most of the racing scenes, added some signs of human life and a villain or two, and given us a few more decent gags.  Too long, and too clever by half, I fear.

Having said of all that, it's not a bad film, and I'm sure kids will love it.  The animation is superb, there are some interesting characters, and the film does manage to evoke small-town America from years gone by.  It also has a timeless quality that is lacking in animation from Dreamworks and others, but at least they would have given us more gags. 


Memoirs of a Geisha

I see that Mr Fumier and Mr Harbour have both been to watch this movie recently.  Me too.  As you may be aware there seem to be two schools of thought on this one, or maybe three if you include Fumier's perspective:

Criticism has also been made of the crappy dialogue, historical inaccuracies, failure to live up to the book, and the general Holly-woodiness of the film. For me, this is just eggheads carping. We are talking quality totty here - three of the best looking birds around, together in one film. Quality totty is quality totty whichever way you look at it. Rabbitting on about historical stuff is like saying tea tastes better out of a china cup. Pass the sick bag, Alice.

Much has been made of the fact that three Chinese actresses (Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zi Yi) play leading roles in the film, apparently being plenty Asian enough to pass for Japanese as far as Hollywood is concerned.  As Phil says, it has to be an improvement on having an American actress in the part, which is probably what would have happened ten years ago.  As luck would have it, all the other main characters, speak exclusively in English, but minor characters do say a few words of Japanese lest we forget where the story is set.  I can just about live with that, but was it really necessary for them to talk in pidgin English and mumble a lot of the dialogue?

Apart from that, I don't have much to say.  It's a Hollywood movie, with all that implies, and probably better than average.  The cinematography is stunning, but it's about an hour too long (possibly because everyone talks so slowly). 


Chicken Little

As for Chicken Little, it's rubbish, and certainly not worthing braving the appalling AMC booking system.

Disney haven't had a hit for years, and most of their recent efforts have been panned by the critics. Not exactly true, of course - Disney have had several hits in the last 10 years, but all of them have come from Pixar, which makes it rather unfortunate that they have managed to fall out with them. Maybe the deal can be salvaged with the changes at the top of Disney, and some say that the recent deal between ABC and Apple (for TV shows to be made available on the iPod) is part of an attempt to persuade Steve Jobs (wearing his Pixar hat) to change his mind. Anyway, Disney are working on their own computer-generated animation, in the hope of becoming less reliant on Pixar, and Chicken Little is their first offering.

Sadly, it's a horrible mess. It's both too short and too long - too short to properly develop the characters and the storyline, and too long for the plot they have cobbled together. In fact, it's as if it was put together by a hyperactive child who was worried that we might get bored with a simple tale - so that is dismissed in the first half-hour, then it inexplicably veers off at a tangent before delivering an entertaining (but somewhat odd) finale. All very confusing.

It also lacks subtlety. To a large extent the story is about a father and son relationship, but someone must have worried that viewers might not figure it out, so one of the characters spouts psycho-babble about 'closure' that will surely go over the heads of children and annoy most adults. Pixar would have left it for viewers to figure out for themselves, meaning that the kids would have taken it at face value and adults (or at least some of them) would appreciate that there was something to think about.

So what's left? We get fat people gags, and we get a bubble gum gag that is almost a direct copy of a much more effective gag in Toy Story 2, and we get some slapstick.

Yes, I am being a bit unfair, because there are some funny gags, and parts of it are well-written, but this is Disney, so expectations are high, and you can't help but compare it to the Pixar gold standard. Unfortunately there really is no comparison, and the really scary things is that these are the guys who have the rights to make future Toy Story movies.  Please guys, agree a new deal with Pixar!