Film review: Liberal Arts

Have you ever watched a poor magician? Spotted them shoving cards up their sleeves, tugging on invisible threads and swapping props when they thought you weren’t looking? Hopefully not. But you can imagine how it rather spoils the magic.

Watching a poor film can be a similar experience. When characters, or the fates themselves, behave not because that’s how they would in reality, but because the filmmakers are clearly trying to push the film or the audience in a certain direction – when you can see the sleeve-shoving, the prop-swapping and the invisible threads as the filmmakers desperately try to make you feel a certain way or, sillier, make characters act out of character to further the plot – it rather spoils the magic of the film. You feel cheated. When I see such a fudged attempt at manipulation, it’s just as difficult to engage and enjoy on screen as it is at that magic show.

Writer-director-star Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts is full of such poor sleight of hand:

  • When conflict arises it’s clumsy and unnatural – clearly written in because the writer desired conflict, not because it was inevitable or even likely in the scene in question.
  • Characters dispense (dubious) wisdom not because the moment is appropriate, but because the writer wanted to make a film Full of Wisdom.
  • And then there are the Close-Ups at Emotional Moments. You’ve seen them before. Liberal Arts presents them without shame; there you are passively staring at a pedestrian medium shot, when the director wants you to notice that the characters are experiencing something Emotionally Poignant, and suddenly their faces are in yours, ten feet tall. This cut is your cue, audience: care!

But, of course, it’s almost impossible to care when someone is incessantly shouting “care!” at you. Liberal Arts breaks the golden rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell. Show me why I should care and I will. Tell me to care and I can’t.

For what it’s worth, Elizabeth Olsen and Richard Jenkins play their parts gracefully. Olsen is believable as a confident, wiser-than-her-years young go-getter, though her role as the innocent virgin the older man must decide not to dirty makes for uncomfortable gender politics. Jenkins is winning as a professor who changes his mind about retiring, but his is a pointless subplot with no resolution. Radnor the actor encounters three other minor characters:

  • Zac Efron pretending to be wacky (clues: he wears a woolly hat and does martial arts at inappropriate moments), an obviously marked deck who exists solely to deliver Radnor the bland epiphany that “everything is okay”
  • Allison Janney as a nihilistic professor who unconvincingly seduces our hero – as usual Janney is great value but her impact on the film or our hero is almost invisible
  • And a suicidal student who I think exists only to make Radnor the actor feel even better about the character he’s playing. None of these characters has any bearing on the plot or themes of the film; they act solely as disappointing distractions.

Radnor the director attempts a couple of cinematic showpieces but they don’t hit any high notes – a montage of New York shots set to classical music turns out to be just a montage of New York shots set to classical music; a scene where opera makes everyone appear more beautiful is more amusing. The rest of the film is taken up with characters navel gazing at one another (but really at the audience); there’s not much to look at, if there’s anything to listen to.

Then there’s the plot itself: Radnor the writer spends most of the film building up a relationship between two well-matched characters, in typical rom com style (the awkward first meeting – featuring I-like-you-lots Close-Ups; the adorable first few dates; the disapproving minor characters; the relationship-jeopardising tiff; the reckless revenge; the grown-up make-up), then in the last 20 minutes discards it for something else altogether. I suspect he’s trying to impart a lesson about growing up or moving on, but it’s difficult to care, I’m so thrown by the fact that what started as a card trick has turned into a juggling act – and so disappointed that he’s made such a poor effort to make me believe in it in the first place.

Film review: The Dark Knight Rises

Let’s play a game. How many action movie clichés can you name? Write them down and we’ll come back to them later.

Christopher Nolan did a great thing with Batman Begins, and an even greater thing with The Dark Knight. For all its horribly duff dialogue, the first film in Nolan’s trilogy turned the superhero film into a respectable yarn with a complex narrative and identifiable characters in whom it was worth investing some time to explore. The Dark Knight was arguably as good as a superhero film could be, gracing the world with Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as The Joker and introducing Nolan’s subtly brilliant plots and set pieces.

Expectations, then, were high for the culmination of the trilogy. It would be unfair to judge The Dark Knight Rises by the outstanding success of The Dark Knight. To what, then should we compare it? Batman Begins is a much better film. Tim Burton’s Batman? A better film. A summer’s day, which by dint of being entirely incomparable with a blockbuster movie shouldn’t even be on the same chart, is unequivocally far superior to The Dark Knight Rises; Nolan’s latest film, alas, is neither lovely nor temperate; its lease hath all too long a date.

Plot holes are the first and easiest flaw to haul up in the trial of The Dark Knight Rises. Why would it take days to prove that a share purchase made during an infamous raid of the stock exchange was fraudulent? Could there really exist only one person in Gotham capable of disarming a nuclear bomb? Why does Bane spend the first 90 minutes going to many elaborate lengths to get hold of such a bomb when he’s plainly capable of doing so by military force alone – as evidenced by the fact that, later on, he does? Where has the smartness and conspiratorial wit of The Dark Knight gone?

Expecting your audience to disregard lazy writing is the second flaw. Bruce Wayne is sent to a prison regarded as “Hell on Earth”. Here he dwells in a sunny open plan environment decorated with keepsakes and knick knacks, chats with friendly, supportive inmates, and is treated by his own personal chiropractor. It’s more like South Kensington than Hell. Wayne also randomly and unconvincingly falls in love with two emotionally undesirable women, one of whom had the potential to be a strong, independent female character and is instead reduced to a latex clad love interest; later – while wearing his full protective Batman outfit – he succumbs to a knife wound, only to later survive a nuclear explosion almost literally in his arse.

There are some pleasing moments. Ironically, given the blockbuster criticisms to follow, the best scene is one in which, simply, everything blows up. Alfred and Wayne have an unexpectedly moving quiet exchange which is almost certainly the film’s only positively memorable piece of writing. It’s all beautifully shot. And there’s a wonderfully restrained, powerful moment in which brutish antagonist Bane places his little finger on an indignant character’s shoulder and asks him, “Do you feel in charge?” If the film ever feels too long, it’s not because it drags or is paced badly – it’s just because it’s not very good.

Indeed, most of the film is thoroughly disheartening. Upon Batman’s appearance at the final fight, Bane remarks with an admirable attempt at wit, “So, you came back to die with your city”. Batman’s brilliant response is, “No. I came back to stop you.” This disappointingly lacklustre, boring retort is sadly indicative of the whole film. So much promise; so much expectation; and a flat payoff that seems to have taken the filmmakers the minimum time and effort to concoct. Batman – and the film – are the dweeby schoolkid you so desperately want to smirk, “even artichokes have hearts”, but instead giggles into his Coke and trips into the doorframe.

So, to that list. How many action movie clichés could you think of? Remember as you read my list that the director of this film is the man who wrote the blisteringly engaging and challenging Inception. Herein is revealed the heart of my disappointment with The Dark Knight Rises; for all of the following lazy, silly, frustrating vices – glaring hallmarks of a film made in haste, lethargy or ignorance – are painfully present:

  • Bad guys locking up good guys to die slowly. I thought Austin Powers dealt with this trope 15 years ago (“I’m going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death”).
  • Good guys turning out to be bad guys without the filmmakers leaving any clues to their double identity.
  • Good guys dying in nuclear explosions then inexplicably turning out to be fine after all.
  • Bad guys putting their most devious plans on hold purely so that they coincide with the movie’s dramatic peak.
  • Characters randomly falling in love because it’s exciting for the audience.
  • Liam Neeson as a ghost.
  • The line, “This device, which a few moments ago was decidedly not a nuclear bomb, is now a nuclear bomb.” (I have paraphrased, but do not underestimate the cinema-wide laughter that the accurate rendition of this line prompted.)

Leave me your action movie tropes in the comments. I bet they’re in The Dark Knight Rises. I don’t believe Nolan’s lost his powers, and I can’t wait for him to get back to his exemplary filmmaking and deliver another Inception, Insomnia or Memento. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to forget this strange blip in the career of a usually brilliant artist.

Book 12: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a novel written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, first published in November 1962 in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir (New World). The story is set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s, and describes a single day of an ordinary prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Its publication was an extraordinary event in Soviet literary history – never before had an account of Stalinist repression been openly distributed.

– From Wikipedia

Book 12, and I’m enjoying myself again. I have a like-dislike relationship with historical novels (or novels that are broadly based on true history) as they frustratingly highlight my ignorance while satisfyingly denting it (if only slightly). On the other hand, I have no time for films that (honestly, at least) claim to be “based on true events”; I find it never gives a film any greater context or value.

Do you prefer “historical” novels? “True” films? Or would you rather not know at all?

Film review: The Hunger Games

“Too much games; not enough hunger” is the snappy description of The Hunger Games given by a listener of Radio 5 Live’s “Wittertainment”. It’s an apt description, as this adaptation is a film of two halves.

The first 40 minutes, which introduce our heroine, display her impoverished lifestyle, see her volunteer to take part in the titular Games in place of her younger sister, and watch her become a supercelebrity in the build up to the Games’ commencement, are shocking, dark, lucid, touching and visceral. It’s a fascinating conceit, well realised, and Jennifer Lawrence plays her part with winning subtlety and nuance. There are moments that engage and frighten, and I found the knot in my stomach ever tightening as the Games approached.

Then the Games begin, and eat up the rest of the film. From here on, the film is episodic and dull, as the writers drop our heroine into deadly situation after deadly situation and contrive sillier and sillier means to extract her from them. Some of these contrivances (such as the nest of genetically modified wasps serendipitously hanging from a tree our heroine climbs to escape some attackers) are guilty only of being rather too convenient; others – such as the characters and creatures who suddenly and unexplicably become dramatically suicidal or life-savingly benevolent – are visible examples of the writers’ desperation to maintain the tense energy that was so powerful before the games began, or, worse, undisguised attempts to save the lead character from situations from which they clearly should have planned more plausible escapes. It feels rather like each scene was begun by one writer and completed by another, all against the clock, with no conversation between the two.

Lawrence keeps up her uniquely quiet character throughout (alongside a rather plain love interest – of sorts – who apparently learned to be the best makeup artist in the world by working in a village bakery), but sadly has to play against broadly characterless “good” kids and overpreening, blandly evil “bad” ones – with Big Evil Grins and Big Evil Snarls to make it clear that they’re Big Evil Characters (so it’s okay to kill them). I came out thinking a far more interesting film would have been one that introduced several of the contestants and explored each of their lives and personalities, and left us wondering who would survive, and how, and what it means for a sado-voyeuristic society to pit them against one another. Instead, it’s just so much substandard action trope with only one possible outcome. (Despite this, the big finale is a surprisingly underwhelming and colourless scene in which two teenagers threaten to eat some berries.)

The world outside the Games, a futuristic neon city of high society, is, if a little too startlingly wacky, visually quite interesting; but the characters inhabiting it are little more than Big Evil Viewers snarling and grinning in much the same way as the Big Evil Kids: poorly encoded nasty meritocrats operating in a repressive regime that is dull in its universality. Stanley Tucci puts in a good performance as a winningly manipulative television host, but the filmmakers broadly seem to be shouting at us: aren’t they bad bad people?

Yet I couldn’t help wondering how we, the audience, are any better than the one-dimensional coiffured voyeurs of the film, supposedly finding entertainment and pleasure in the banal and inevitable destruction of the poor. In truth, we’re most touched and engaged by the moving reality and humanity of the poverty in the first third than by the contrived attempts to excite and entertain in the latter sections. The filmmakers initially well represent the hunger and should have prioritised it over the games, just as they initially well represent the emotion and should have prioritised it over the action.

Film review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? Worst Exotic Marigold Hotel, more like.

That’s about the standard of the jokes throughout this film (with perhaps ten surprisingly very funny exceptions). Imagine it delivered with the flatness of a sheet of paper, tempered between set-up and punchline by a languorous pause during which the editor might as well run into the cinema, attempting to tickle random members of the audience with camp condescension and leering, “waaaaaiiiiiit foooor iiiiiit!”

This just about sums it up.

But you are waiting for it. You saw it coming, it would seem, long before the writers themselves. Had you been in a position to do so, you would have raised your hand and said with quiet solemnity, “No. That’s not funny.” I implore you, if you’re invited to see this film, to do precisely that.

Please don’t mistake me for the kind of person who enters a film such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel expecting a great cinematic achievement; don’t think that I’m merely a dusty high-brow cineaste for whom only the severest of standards will suffice. I was prepared for a simple, heartwarming, predictable tale of loveable Brits learning life lessons in a colourful setting. This film manages to defy the very lowest of expectations (and be assured, in case you have somehow misjudged the tone of the review so far, it does not defy them felicitously). I’m generally loathe to make sweeping claims containing “most” or “worst” or “wittiest” ever, but The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel warrants it; it is unequivocally one of the most ill-judged comedies or dramas I have ever seen. It’s like watching a flailing first-time stand-up fluff all the punchlines to a series of old knock-knock jokes – but worse because you know that, had they really tried, they could have been a blazing success.

Because there is potential and talent here. It would have been wonderful to see a charming, well-written, well-paced film about elderly people. Three of the seven (yes, seven) central characters are played with respectable skill and patience, by Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson. None of them are given much to work with – every character in the film is wafer thin – but these three manage to be, respectively, graceful, charming and touching. It’s a shame that one of the side-effects of their admirable performances is to draw more attention to the one-dimensinonality of the rest of the cast, from the four remaining retirees who just shout (Penelope Wilton), look startled (Maggie Smith) and gurn (Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup, who, for no reason I can discern, play the same character), to the hotel owner and his acquaintances, who are determined to extract drama from the most mundane situations. “My feelings for you are too great for one word,” says Dev Patel’s character, simply so he can have a denouement when he finally dose profess his love. I don’t mind that everyone saw it coming, but I mind that it’s not remotely interesting.

Gosh, that paragraph went in too many directions at once, didn’t it? I struggled to refrain from dumping all the criticisms I wanted to make into one overlong, ugly sentence. But perhaps it was naïve of me to think that I could deal with seven-plus characters and their various plots and narrative arcs all at once. Yes, perhaps that was a poor writing decision on my part. I was in danger of undermining all my points by dedicating so little time and attention to any single one of them that, not only did they not have time to grow, but I felt inclined to resort to cheap clichés and lazy stereotypes just to muddle through to the end of it, and losing your interest along the way because you couldn’t possibly care about such hastily and poorly-written characters.

The preceding paragraph, by the way, represents the single, cloying, totally misplaced visual metaphor (a slow motion bird flying away to represent the release of death) that suddenly appears in the middle of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, accidentally highlighting how devoid of craftsmanship every element of every other moment of the film is.

For the sake of my blood pressure, which I feel rising at the mere prospect of writing more about how dismal this film is, I shall quickly summarise its flaws in bullet points and examples.

Lazy, clogged up writing:

  • One of the seven supposedly central characters (Imrie’s gurner) isn’t even granted an ending to her story.
  • Nighy makes a clunky segue from a perfectly good line to a completely irrelevant one in order to give Dench an opportunity to bed in some exposition.

Poorly-judged/-timed/-written jokes:

  • Wilkinson bumps into Dench one night and asks quizically during an otherwise serious scene, “can I show you something”? A few audience members titter, unsure whether this is a bad, poorly-timed double entendre or a bad, poorly-timed unintentional double entendre.
  • “I’ll give you your money back,” says Patel. “Right now?” asks Wilton. WaitForItBeat. “Right now. In three months.” says Patel. It’s hilarious.

Pointless subplots:

  • Patel’s hotel manager has to save the hotel from closure, convince his mother to accept his girlfriend for who she is, and tell the same girlfriend he loves her. None of these have anything to do with the main characters. None of them are interesting.

Characters stating clearly and eloquently what they’ve just learned:

  • Honestly, the actors might as well have just turned to the camera and told the audience the moral. Oh wait –

Infuriating cod-moralism:

  • Dench is forced to narrate with endless monotonous proverbs that sound like someone entered the closing words of various episodes of Sex and the City into Google Translate and selected the language “dull”. These lessons, like the film (which is at least 30 minutes too long) never seem to end.

Endless clichés:

  • Potential partners Nighy and Dench find themselves in an awkward tight embrace after a near-miss road accident.
  • A young lover’s difficult mother finds her heart suddenly opened by a perplexing reminder of her own (never-before-mentioned) past.
  • An old woman learns the Important Life Lesson™ that racism is wrong because, I don’t know exactly, an Indian woman gives her some Branston Pickle, or something.

“Words fail me,” croaks Smith during one of the film’s few clever exchanges, when asked to detail what she likes about the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I can think of three – Dench, Nighy and Wilkinson – but their performances can do little to save this otherwise dreadful, dreadful clunker of a film. What do I like about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? Maggie, I’m with you.

Art and honesty: Truth in advertising

Yesterday at the cinema we were treated to a trailer for The Iron Lady. Having seen the film only a few days ago, I was struck by just how dishonest this particular piece of marketing was. The trailer clearly implied that The Iron Lady is the story of Margaret Thatcher’s political career, when the film is (as I’ve noted with great frustration) anything but political. In truth it is a film about a senile old lady recalling a series of newsreel montages.


I don’t pretend to be so naïve as to believe a film trailer is made with the intention of giving audiences a genuine sense of a film, to help them make an informed decision about whether to see it; I’m fully aware that it’s just another marketing tool carefully and conventionally designed to coax ticket buyers into parting with their pennies. But where is the line? Could the distributors of Michael Winterbottom’s sex ‘n’ songs docudrama 9 Songs have edited a trailer containing only live music performances, or only quasi-pornographic sex scenes – that is to say, concealing half of the nature of the film – and claimed to have honestly represented their product? This is effectively what the marketers of The Iron Lady have done.

I’m a wannabe film director. I find, when I think about the challenge of publicising my films, that my ideas fall into one of two categories: art or honesty. The few ideas I have for trailers are works of art in their own right; they (if successful) stand alone but invoke the same emotional responses as the films they represent. These ideas are rare; I’m a wannabe film director, not a wannabe film marketeer. My inclination regarding the films for which I have no such inspiration is to make some sort of mini-documentary in which the filmmakers tell the audience about the film. Here’s what it’s about; here’s why we made it; here’s why we like it. I would love it if all trailers were designed to conform to these categories. (But, of course, that’s not the nature of marketing. Most films are awful, and while I don’t expect distributors to be quite so frank as to admit that, it would probably be difficult to talk honestly about the concept and making of a terrible film without giving away some of its flaws.)

What do you think? Is the truth in advertising more flexible when selling art? If not, how could we ever regulate it? Do you have any other examples – cinematic or otherwise – of brazenly dishonest advertising?

Film review: The Iron Lady

In Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone neatly lampooned the film convention of the montage (“… show us a passage of time / we’re gonna need a montage … show a lot of things happening at once / remind everyone of what’s going on … to show it all would take too long / that’s called a montage …”). I wish someone had played this song to Phyllida Lloyd before she began editing The Iron Lady. I didn’t count the number of montages in the film but I’m confident there were at least 10 – perhaps closer to 15. That’s ten to fifteen lengthy sequences of cobbled-together news footage representing selected events that occurred during Margaret Thatcher’s political career, often without introduction, explanation, or follow up. “To show it all would take too long”, I suppose. To show something, though, would at least be courteous. Including one montage is (arguably lazy but) passable; sitting through ten in a row is less like watching a film than having a list of events read out to you.

Not just a list, though: a checklist. With each 80s newsreel, it feels like the filmmakers are ticking off significant historical moments to cover themselves when someone inevitably points out that a (seemingly biographical) film about the most divisive politician in Britain otherwise steers lightyears clear of any political action. Some viewers – and some of the filmmakers – would counter that this isn’t a biopic about Thatcher the politician, but a broadly fictional piece about a once-powerful woman coming to terms with the loss of her power. If that’s the case, the question rings loud and clear: why is it about (the decidedly non-fictional) Margaret Thatcher at all?

Most of the few non-montage sequences to which we’re treated are shot with bizarre – and entirely inappropriate – horror-film techniques: all canted angles, shaky handheld shots and extreme close-ups. In the middle of one such scene we cut to a shot so up close and out of focus that it’s little more than a blur of fleshy colour, before returning to the scene itself. Is this the editing equivalent of a typo? Or a failed attempt to create an effect? The whole film feels misjudged in this way: there are two catastrophic explosions, the consequences of which are dealt with in no more than 20 seconds; we’re constantly reminded of the huge significance of Margaret’s husband’s absence yet his decline and death is never shown and barely referred to; Thatcher’s declaration of war with the Falklands is shown but the consequences are barely felt by her or the audience in the few minutes dedicated to the subsequent events (and guess what film convention the filmmakers use to present those events…). There’s no plot, no narrative – nothing for the audience to hold on to besides Streep’s performance.

Which brings us to the film’s only saving grace. Those pervasive, infuriating montages are interspersed with scenes of Meryl Streep and Alexandra Roach playing Thatcher as, variously, an aspiring politican, an MP and (most of the time) a senile elderly lady. Streep and Roach both do excellent, compelling impersonations of “the iron lady”, Streep with the help of some profoundly detailed prosthetics (though once or twice you get the impression her face wants to move rather more than the make-up allows). There are also one or two touching moments – Thatcher’s blank dismissal to her daughter during an emotional exchange the most notable – but the film is otherwise completely undone by poor editing, lazy plotting and a naïve refusal to acknowledge that Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is neither her attachment to her husband, nor her senility, nor a series of anonymous newsreels. Thatcher’s legacy is her politics; an element that, along with a plot and a structure, is fatally absent from this film.


Oh, and, for good measure: