Hello, hello, hello, Dear Readers! Happy Tuesday to all - I hope you've had a good weekend and week so far. If you, like me, are exasperated with what seems to be endless coverage on the death of the elderly and controversial former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, then you'll be delighted that The Zoë-Trope can offer you something completely different!
Lately I've been having a bit of a hard time getting into new books. I think this is mostly because my head is so full of The Name of the Blade bk# 3, but it's also partly because what I really want is to be able to read The Infernal Devices for the first time all over again - and I can't, obviously - so any other new stuff just can't please me. As a result I've been on a bit of a movie-kick, and I thought I'd share some mini-reviews and recommendations with you.
First up is Beautiful Creatures, based on the YA novel and series of the same name by Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia. Fankly I found the book really overlong (and when *I* say that, you know there's some weight behind it) as well as problematic in several areas. But I also often find that flawed books can make the best films, as the need to cut extraneous matter can pull the poor, suffocated story up out of all the unnecessary words and give it a chance to breathe. So I went to see this with an open mind.
The Good: Both lead actors actually had Southern accents, rejecting the book's claim that Lena and Ethan somehow speak perfect, accentless American, which - as a British Northerner with a definite acccent - disgusted me as snobbish classism. The actor playing Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) had a certain unexpected puckish charm which I thought was lovely, too. Watching Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson go for their parts with all the subtlety and enjoyment of pantomime dames was pretty fun and some of the visual effects were clever and interesting.
The Bad: Sadly the problematic aspects of the story were exaggerated by the film, rather than being smoothed out. The fact that male casters (witches, basically) can chose their own fate, and chose to be good even if they are 'Dark' by nature, while female casters are irrational and ruled completely by their emotions to the point where they are unable to chose between 'Light' and 'Dark' and have to be picked by some unknown higher power, is... well, I'm stunned they left that in the film. It's pretty offensive when you think about it for more than a second. My memory of the book isn't pinpoint sharp, due to the aforementioned excess words, but I'm pretty sure that its final third wasn't such a mishmash of badly organised elements, and one of the few interesting plot twists - an unexpected series of betrayals - was either ignored or bungled by the filmmakers.
Overall: Sadly the film failed to move me, and left me with no desire to either re-read the book or any of its sequels, or to buy the DVD. Not recommended.
Next, The Host, based on Stephenie Meyer's adult science fiction novel. I loved the book - I found and still find it hard to believe that it was written by the same author who inflicted Twilight on us all. Reading it was a really emotional experience, and I was looking forward to seeing the film - especially since it had netted such an exciting young cast. But then word of some really *awful* reviews reached my ears. Stubbornly I decided to watch it at the cinema anyway, instead of waiting for DVD release. My attitude was definitely cautious, however.
The Good: Um... everything. I mean it. I have no idea what the critics who ripped this apart were thinking. Apart from, maybe, that they've been ripping Twilight apart for years and no one has listened to them, and the films were huge anyway, so now they have a chance to attack and destroy this other Stephenie Meyer project which is far more vulnerable? Which is a pretty sh*tty motive, if so. I can see that some people might subjectively not care for the film - not everyone can like the same things - but to call the film 'a mess' or the dialogue 'cringeworthy' seems to me so far wide of the mark that it baffles me. I adore mocking bad dialogue; I still snigger over 'The Skin of A Killer!' If bad writing had been there, I'd have been laughing and cringing with everyone else. But it wasn't. This film was great, and I loved it. My friend who came to see it with me was reduced to tears by the end. After we left she confided to me - as we made a hasty visit to a bookshop so that she could buy the book - that she had been expecting a 'trainwreck', but had been completely won over.
Lead actress Saoirse Ronan was breathtaking. She played the dual roles of Wanderer, a pacifist alien who occupies a human 'host', and Melanie, the human host who refuses to fade away and shows Wanderer why humans deserve a chance to live their lives un-occupied, even if those lives are often brutal and scary and full of loss, with incredible maturity and emotion. It was really difficult to keep in mind how very young she is. What a talent. I also loved the performances by the young actor playing her little brother Jamie, and especially the actor playing Ian. He wasn't at all the way I pictured the character after reading the book, but he brought such a thoughtful tenderness to the part that I fell in love.
Overall: The film is beautifully paced, visually stunning, and heart-breaking. Please go see this if you haven't already. It will restore your faith in humanity to know that the author of Twilight actually *is* talented and does deserve success.
Now for some DVDs!
Firstly Total Recall, which starred Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale. This is based on Philip K. Dick's short story 'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale'. I was interested to see this new version because the original film starring Sharon Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger was a favourite of my father's and I watched it many times growing up. As an adult I feel that it was an underrated classic, a brave and penetrating look at the nature of reality, memory and identity that also offered up a fast-paced action thriller and astonishing special effects for the time. However, I'd heard that this new film cut out most of the interesting elements, like the fact that most of the story took place on Mars, and had plot holes you could fly a Boeing 747 through, so I wasn't too hopeful.
The Good: Kate Beckinsale. I know she's done action in various sort-of-B-movies like the Underworld films and Van Helsing, but I had no idea how *good* at it she really was. She's fantastic in this. She makes it perfectly credible that the hero, a beefy construction worker, would be fleeing from her in terror. She is icy and relentless as she pursues him literally across the whole world, slaughtering people left and right without a qualm, and I loved the fact that she's basically this film's 'Big Bad'. Yeah, there's a pompus, wig-wearing politician prancing about in the background talking about his grand plan, but Beckinsale's Lori was clearly the main threat. I also loved her boots. Where can I get some?
The Bad: Um... everything else? Poor Jessica Biel, despite being a very classy and reliable action actor, was completely under-used. Bill Nighy was both miscast AND under-used. Colin Farrell was only convincing when he had his mouth shut. The new storyline that the filmmakers inserted to replace the Mars one was predictable, and any meaningful contemplation on the true meaning of character, memory or identity was lost because the film stubbornly refused to tell us whether Dennis Quaid/Carl Howser had ever actually been a double agent in the first place, or just a dupe. The main plot point of the new story, 'The Fall' was ludicrous any way that you sliced it. And every time that the film busted out the expensive special effects, like for the magnetic car chase, my interest just seemed to fizzle. GIVE ME SOME MUTANTS ON MARS, DAMMIT.
Overall: You can enjoy this film, so long as you detach it from any memories of the original or the short story that inspired it. It's mindless action of a fairly competent type without anything that makes it truly memorable other than Kate Beckinsale's impeccable turn as the hero's fake wife/nemesis. Oh, well.
Given my craving for Mars and Mutants, it's probably not that unexpected that my next DVD choice was John Carter, last year's live action megaflop from Disney. This is based on an early piece of science fiction adventure from Edgar Rice Burroughs (writer of Tarzan) called A Princess of Mars. I had a vague memory of reading a good review of it somewhere, so I got it and put it in with not-altogether-high hopes.
The Good: Almost everything. Wow. This was really unexpectedly awesome. The opening portion of the film, which purports to show the hero's death, intrigued me, but I felt my interest wane when we suddenly flashed back to a wild western setting and one of those My Man Pain Is So Holy Heroes who basically acts like a complete d*ck to everyone around him. BUT! The moment the hero arrives on Mars everything kicks into high gear. I loved the fact that the low gravity atmosphere of Mars was reflected in John Carter's being, at first, unable to even walk without flying through the air and landing face first in the dirt, and then, once he'd got the hang of walking, in his being so strong that he inadvertantly broke and killed stuff all around him. The film bravely went into full space opera mode, with assorted alien races, a dying yet starkly beautiful Mars landscape, and gorgeous spaceships zooming all over the place. The heroine of the piece, Princess Dejah, is brilliant - highly intelligent, sarcastic and also badass. I felt as if the film really ought to have kept the novel's name, A Princess of Mars, because this was every bit as much Dejah's story as John's. In their first scene together John whips Dejah's sword away from her and tells her to get behind him so that he can protect her from her enemies. She calmly takes the sword back and kills her enemies herself, to which John responds, 'All right, I'll stay behind you...' Classic.
The Bad: This did feel a tiny bit rushed in places. For instance, in several scenes great play would be made of chaining the hero to a rock and flinging him into a dungeon, only for his captors to come back and retrieve him from the dungeon and chain him to ANOTHER rock two minutes later. The ending, too, failed to quite satisfy me. I think we were supposed to assume that time on Mars and Earth (or Barsoom and Jarsoom) moves at different rates, and that therefore John would be able to return to Mars not long after he had left it despite a thirteen year sojourn on Earth... but I really wanted that confirmed. A single scene, even a split-second flash of him arriving back, would have been enough.
Overall: If you're in the mood for visually brave and thrilling old-school science fiction, check this out. I thought it was wonderful.
Finally! You may remember that last year I was almost beside myself with excitement about Snow White and the Huntsman, the film which had such a beautiful trailer that it set the internetz on fire and launched a few hundred thousand downloads of 'World Collapsing' the trailer music composed by Danny Cocke. It looked like the sort of story that I would write, and I can't really give a higher compliment than that. But sadly when I went to see it I was disappointed. It was a beautiful but ultimately empty film that offered nothing new in terms of plot or characterisation, and took itself far too seriously. Because of all this kerfuffle however, I completely missed out on Mirror, Mirror, the *other* Snow White film that came out at about the same time, starring Julia Roberts and Lily Collins. I've now finally rectified that.
The Good: Lily Collins and Julia Roberts are both on fire in this film. Lily manages to be charming, innocent and sweetly naive - all the classic Princess traits - without seeming either cloying or obnoxious. There's a sense of blooming bravery about her performance that won me over. Julia Roberts has her own charm here, the charm of a powerful and ruthless woman at the top of her game. She managed to raise a few genuine chills with her smiling and entirely rational evil, something Charlise Theron signally failed to do with all that over-the-top sqwacking in SWATH. Ms. Roberts' English accent is also far better than Charlise Theron's. Just sayin'. The visuals are glorious, especially the stark black and white of the woods and the creepy long-tailed beast. This film seems like a live action version of an animated Disney or Pixar feature, and it's full of the simple humour and simple kindness that make those films so heartwarming. I also fell in LOVE with the mini-Bollywood routine at the end.
The Bad: Squashed between powerhouse performances from the two female leads, the Prince ended up feeling like a little bit of a non-entity, although predictably I warmed up to him when he started acting like a puppy. I also felt that Sean Bean was a bit out of place here in his cameo role as the King; someone smoother and less rugged would have been better suited to the part. And why no on-screen comeuppance for the wicked queen?
Overall: A vibrant visual spectacle with excellent performances and a heart of gold, well worth seeing for anyone who likes fairytales, Disney/Pixar films, or just adorable tales that make you feel warm and snuggly inside.
And that's it from me! What have you been watching lately?