January Variety Pack (1)

I know, it’s been a while. My apologies; my excuse is that I was lazy. Not a very good one, is it? In any case, I thought that rather than write one long update on a film I’d recently watched, I’d do some shorter ones. So without much further ado, here’s the first of my variety packs – the second is to follow very soon…

Four Lions

I have to say, when I heard about the film I was both intrigued and worried. It’s not that I think there are topics that can’t be treated by satire – but I also find the equal-opportunity-offender satire of, say, Trey Parker and Matt Stone neither particularly funny nor all that perceptive; in aiming at all targets, it rarely achieves more to my mind than a general, “Well, all positions can be a bit silly, can’t they?” Also, being offensive for its own sake is such a lazy way of satirising a subject. Which, let me hasten to say, Four Lions doesn’t do. In fact, for satire it is far from offensive in one important sense: as it opens its subjects to ridicule, it also evokes sympathy for them. It humanises its protagonists, the Muslim suicide bombers, as it shows them to be deeply flawed and silly in their motivations and reasoning. And it’s exactly this element that makes the film so funny and chilling in its strongest moments – rather than saying, “Those guys are our enemies and need to be destroyed” it asks us to see them as fellow human beings, albeit misguided ones… which may be much more subversive: love thy enemy.

But, apart from that, Four Lions is one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a while, asking the very important question: “Is a wookiee a bear, Control?”

P.S.: In terms of its darky humorous yet sympathetic tone, Four Lions reminded me of the Danish black comedy Adam’s Apples. Also highly recommended!

Never Let Me Go

Since I liked Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel a lot, I was curious about the film version by Mark Romanek of One Hour Photo semi-fame. I was also worried; would the novel’s delicate, moody tone survive the transition to the big screen, and more importantly, would it survive La Knightley? I’m not her biggest fan – I do think she’s talented, but more often than not film makers make the assumption on the part of the audience that we fancy her like mad, and they then become lazy when it comes to letting her act. Instead she ends up doing her portruding-chin shtik that signifies, “My character is feisty, passionate and won’t take crap from anyone!” All too often she doesn’t portray characters on screen so much as do a slight variation of what she’s done in other successful films. Since I don’t find her particularly sexy (I was definitely Team Parminder in Bend It Like Beckham) Keira being Keira just isn’t enough.

I wasn’t particularly fair in this fear, at least when it comes to Never Let Me Go. The adaptation isn’t perfect: it would need some more time for the implications of what’s going on to sink in and be as quietly devastating as in Ishiguro’s novel, and the writing (the script is by Alex Garland, whose work I tend to find compelling and frustrating in equal measure) is a little too on-the-nose at times, assuming that the audience is too thick to get it. But the casting, including Keira Knightley, works perfectly. Yes, both Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan aren’t miles from the parts they usually play, and it’s not as if Knightley is miles away from other parts she’s done, but the actors fit their parts to a T, with Garfield especially delivering a performance as poignant as that he gave in Boy A. I could imagine that my first criticism is less of an issue for those who haven’t read the novel – the film isn’t rushed by any means, it just doesn’t give its audience quite as much breathing space, which is what I missed a bit.

Confessions of a sneaksy, thiefsy crash test dummy

Well, for once I won’t write about last night’s episode of Lost (titled “Catch-22”). Why? Because it wasn’t very interesting – but neither was it so horrible that I have to share my eye-gouging terror with the world (and the Keira Knightley fans who may want to eviscerate me after yesterday’s entry… Just kidding!).

So, instead let me regale you with my current PC gaming choices: Colin McRae DIRT (which I’ve mentioned here before) and Thief: Deadly Shadows. The latter is a game that I originally played when it came out, but now, two computers and three videocards later, it runs much, much smoother than it ever did. However, the game bears sad witness to who I really am: someone who gets a kick out of skulking in the shadows, waiting for people to pass, and then hit them over the head with a blackjack and rob them blind.

Yup, that’s me. I prefer crouching in the darkness and waiting, and then knocking out my enemies. With almost any shooter game, if I have the option to put my opponents to sleep, that’s what I’ll do. There are few things as satisfying in a game as a totally non-lethal headshot with a tranquiliser dart and then dragging the motionless body behind a wall or some rocks… and then waiting for the guy’s buddy to turn up, looking for his mate – and do it all over again.

Now, as far as DIRT is concerned… I’m not bad at it. Not totally bad, at least. But sometimes… well, sometimes my driving looks pretty much like this – and (moving) pictures say a lot more than words in this case:

Stick insect: overrated after all?

Well, at least when it comes to her latest hit… We went to see Atonement yesterday. I think the book’s one of the best novels to come out of England in the last few years; it’s intellectually stimulating as well as moving, with some grandiose setpieces and a lot of subtlety in its characterisation. (The only Ian McEwan novel I didn’t like so far was Amsterdam, the one he won his Booker Prize for.)

It’s a hell of a book to adapt to the screen, though. So much of it – its narration, its style, its themes and motifs – is, at its heart, literary. It’s a novel about writing and about fiction, and some of this is likely to be spelled out or left out in an adaptation. Nevertheless, it’s disappointing to see how often the movie chooses to be bluntly explicit when a more implicit approach would have made things more interesting. Like the trailer embedded below, the film version at times seems to be written in large capitals telling its audience what is going on: Imagination! Accusation! Betrayal! And a hard-boiled egg! (Okay, I made that last bit up.)

Distressing how aesthetic war tends to be in the movies…

 Also, I honestly don’t see why people keep praising Keira Knightley’s performance in this film so much. I liked her Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice, but there’s nothing much in her Cecelia Tallis that we haven’t seen before. There’s stuck-up Keira, passionate Keira, angry Keira and languishing Keira, and that’s about it. Frankly, I thought her performance was fairly similar to Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean films – not one of the Top 10 performances in movie history, in my opinion.

All in all, much of the first third of the film didn’t work that well for me. It takes a special skill in an actor to pull off “upper class” without falling into a caricature of the “upper class twit” worthy of school theatre and Monty Python. Many of those ageing RSC actors can do it, but in Atonement my main thought was, “If that’s what the British upper class is like, then the masses would have chopped off their heads hundreds of years ago… or otherwise they deserve them!” Every actor seems intent on showing the audience, “Class snobbery is wrong! These people are hateful, hateful idiots!” Which, frankly, I don’t need spelled out in ten-foot letters underlined three times.

However, the film gets a number of things very right. Many of the wartime scenes, especially the already famous long tracking shot along the beach, are quite stunning. There’s a dreamlike quality to some of these scenes that is miles removed from the literal-mindedness of the beginning and ending. The same goes for the scenes in hospital which do not flinch away from the horrible wounds of the soldiers coming home from France. While the cinematography is beautiful, it still gets across the ugliness of war in a few very effective shots.

Still, while there were things to admire, I have to wonder in the end: is such an Easy Reader version of Ian McEwan’s intricate, beautiful novel really necessary? And is it enough to be able to say, “Well, they didn’t screw it up too badly… They did quite okay”? And why, oh why, are so many reviewers infatuated with Keira Knightley?

P.S.: If my suspicion is correct, merely mentioning Keira Knightley in this blog entry should get me lots of hits.

P.P.S.: Sad, innit?

In which I revise my opinion on Hollywood’s favourite stick insect (slightly)

About a week ago I was informed by my love that we’d be watching Pride and Prejudice on Friday. Not the BBC six-hour extravaganza – that’s still on the menu for later – but the recent film version with Keira Knightley and Matthew “I’m an MI5 agent – get me out of here!” MacFadyen. Since I’d heard good things about the film, I resigned myself to my fate with rather less grumbling than might be expected. After all, I’m secure enough in my sexuality to watch a Jane Austen film without fearing to catch “the gay”.

No, no, no… It’s not what you may be thinking now. I wasn’t secretly thrilled at the thought of 2+ hours of Keira Knightley being all witty and sarcastic and sexy. Thing is, I don’t find her very sexy at all. She’s not ugly, but a) she’s too girlish and b) she’s too thin. Back when I saw Bend It Like Beckham, I thought that there’s a very attractive woman in this film, and her name is Parminder Nagra. Keira? I wouldn’t mind cooking a proper dinner for her, but that’s about as far as my feelings towards her go.

C’mon… which one would you go for?

Also, I never thought that she was a great actress. All the films I’d seen her in, she was basically the same character: feisty heroine/modern grrrl who can hold her own with the boys. I mean, like, hello! Boring! (Or something to that effect.) However, I must say after watching Pride and Prejudice that there’s more to her, provided that the director and cinematographer and make-up artists and producers don’t keep telling me, “You must desire this woman! If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you!” Her Elizabeth Bennet was far more interesting than any of the other characters I’d seen her as.

In general, the film was surprisingly good. Now that I’m no longer teaching at an English Department, I can perhaps confess that I’m not too keen on Jane Austen. Sure, she’s witty, but I wish she’d written only one novel or perhaps short stories. Admittedly, I’ve only read Emma, but with the Austen film adaptations I’ve seen I always felt déjà vu. The 2005 P&P film has its faults: the pacing is off, with the beginning feeling rather rushed and the middle too leisurely; some of the more modern camera moves and edits fail because the film tries too hard to be “contemporary”; and there’s entirely too much giggling! But at least in the European version, there was something nicely understated about the romance: as a matter of fact, many of the romantic couplings are less about brainless passion than about a mutual liking combined with a sense of pragmatism. Or, in one case, about stupidity. And the film doesn’t try to gloss this over.

Finally, talking of gloss, or lack thereof: while the film looks lovely much of the time, it doesn’t go for the Heritage look where even dirt is disconcertingly clean. There’s mud, there’s geese and pigs (with big dangly man-bits – what a strange scene!), and things aren’t antiseptic. The film didn’t have the picture postcard look, the “Wish you were here in the 19th century with us!” feel that so many costume dramas insist on, and it was all the better for this.