Tuesday, 9 April 2013


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?


Rebecca Lindsay said...

I completely agree with you regarding The Host! I'm not going to lie, I quite like the Twilight films and enjoyed the books the first time I read them, but I was weary about picking up The Host. I wasn't entirely convinced the author could pull off the synopsis. I decided to go and see it in the cinema anyway, and I loved it! I thought it was brilliant! I can't wait to read the book.
I also watched The Hobbit recently. I loved Richard Armitage as Thorin and got shivers at the 'Lonely Mountain' song. I don't think it is as good as Lord of the Rings, but I still think it is great.

Zoë Marriott said...

Rebecca: I was actually going to use Twilight as an example of (in my opinion) a film that really tackled and fixed a lot of problematic issues from the book. I liked the first Twilight film and found it very entertaining. I thought they all went a bit downhill from there, tho :( I agree with you totally about The Hobbit, btw! I didn't mention that one because I went to see it last year and the memories aren't as sharp as they could be, but I'm looking forward to getting the DVD.

Jessica said...

I quite liked that Total Recall didn't actually answer the big question. Was it all a false memory? Was it real? The fact that you can walk away from the movie and not know actually says more about how our memories define our being than if they'd answered the question.

I did think the idea of the Fall was just brilliantly bad though.

I read A Princess of Mars after watching John Carter and in a lot of ways, I liked the film more than the book. It's not often I say that. I agree that they should have kept the title. Apparently, they didn't think it would appeal to a male audience if they kept the original title.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jessica: By the end of Total Recall my mind was made up that it was all a false memory and that really he was having a paranoid delusion back at the Recall offices. It was the only way that I was able to enjoy the film!

But the question I was really talking about was: Was Carl Howser a hero or a villain? Was he implanted with the false identity of Doug Quaid with his full knowledge in hopes of getting close to Matthias so that Matthias could be assassinated? Was all his work with the resistance before that, and his relationship with the resistance girl, all fake? That was the twist in the original film and short story - that Carl Howser was the true villain of the piece, the mastermind behind everything that had happened to Doug. But the Doug Quaid personality, though it might have been fictional to begin with, was still strong enough to prevail over this evil plan in the end and to outwit Howser.

In the new version we're told that Coohagen had Howser's memories backed up before he went into the resistance operation, which seems to hint that Howser's memories were then altered to make him susceptible to betraying his original master, setting the whole sequence of events in place. The fact that Doug fights so hard against having those original memories returned seems to back that up, as does the tellingly specific series of clues and videos left behind by Carl that lead Doug directly to Howser. But at the end, the idea seems to be that while Doug doesn't really remember being Carl, he and Carl are still essentially the same person, and Carl was still A Good Guy. Which is just a far less interesting conclusion than the original, and seems a real shame.

Phoenixgirl said...

I heard there's an extended-edition DVD of The Hobbit coming out in December!

Zoë Marriott said...

Phoenix: Gah, really? No, I'm not falling into that trap again - I have two of each LotR film because I just had to have the DVD when it first came out and THEN the extended versions too. No. I'll get the regular version and then buy the extended 3-part boxset when it comes out after ALL the films have been released!

Alex Mullarky said...

Totally with you about the Host - people need to give it a fair chance! My only qualms were that there were some very cheesy romantic moments and the script could have used some improvements (in my view) but otherwise I really enjoyed the film, and I really do love the book.

Zoë Marriott said...

Alex: I'm looking forward to seeing it again on DVD, so I'll see if I can spot the cheesy bits. But sometimes I like a bit of fullblown cheesiness, I admit :)

Phoenixgirl said...

Oh, that sounds like a smart idea, waiting on the Hobbit DVD until all three parts are out. I was thinking about putting it on my Christmas list come December, but perhaps not yet...

Rebecca said...

Sorry if this seems really out of place here, but I have a question about writing. Like you, I am writing a trilogy. I have finished the first draft of my first book and I am steadily going through it and improving areas. I really want to get my first book polished up and perfect but I have a strong urge to write book two straight away. I really like my first book but I have been looking forward to starting the second book for a long while because a lot of exciting things happen. I know I should knuckle down and get the first book re-drafted, but it is really hard to resist beginning book two. Did you experience this problem when writing your trilogy? Did you encounter any other challenges, and how did you overcome them?

Lori M. Lee said...

I really enjoyed John Carter, and so did nearly every person who has seen it. So it makes me really sad that the movie was a "flop" and there won't be a sequel :(

Zoë Marriott said...

Lori: The review I read - which I think was on 1o9 - praised the film but said it was sure to be a flop because Disney and its distributors had completely botched the marketing. Everything from the name of the film to the trailers to the posters was wrong to capture the audience the film *should* have. And it turned out the reviewer was right. Such a shame.

batgirl said...

Mark and I saw John Carter in a near-empty theatre. All few of us enjoyed it immensely. Yeah, it went on a bit long, and some things were glossed over, but it was heaps of fun.

The manpain was irrelevant to the plot, but I did feel that the intercutting between the battle scene and flashback of his burnt-out home was really effective.

Zoë Marriott said...

Batgirl: My problem with that scene (although it WAS effective!) was that he was basically slaughtering those guys wholesale in the midst of his flashback, and it felt a bit like they were trying to justify the slaughter via the manpain. Like 'The aliens *deserve* this for making John Carter so sad, poor John Carter, oh, look how he suffers!' Even while literally hundreds of aliens - who are supposed to be intelligent, sentient people - are getting sliced up and dying around him. Surely at this moment *their* suffering is greater than his? This brought back rather worrying memories of scenes where brave cowboy types slaughter the evil Injuns in revenge, sort of thing. Never a good idea to use whole races of Other Folks as a prop to show off how strong/tortured your white male lead is.

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