Sunday, February 23, 2014

Little Dorrit

This is a spoiler-free review.

Andrew Davies, adapter of many many classic period dramas writes yet another winning screenplay with only one little hiccup in the entire 8 hour run-time. I wish I could say I love how faithfully he adapted Charles Dickens' story -- and I'm thinking he probably did -- but since I haven't read it yet and can't critique any adapting choices, I can only say that the plot he wove was involving and interesting and flew by effortlessly, and was brimming with wonderfully complex and realistically flawed characters. Eight hours yet it never comes even close to tedious.

Ah -- those costumes! If I didn't know better I might think that's the only reason I like these sorts of movies.

But I mentioned a tiny hiccup.

There were seven and a half hours of pleasant, easy-going pacing, and then a rushed last half hour, resulting with very little anticlimax, and a few story lines left hanging. Since this happened at the end it is what stuck in my mind most, but is the only flaw I can remember noticing, and it's a relatively small one, and a relatively common one as well. It hindered my enjoyment only in the tiniest degree, and with a second viewing, I doubt it'll hinder at all, but an extra half-hour of run-time or some better time management wouldn't have gone amiss.

Also, it's partly my own fault, but the mystery's reveal took some work to understand. I usually pride myself on being able to understand those wordy sentences and accents, but this plot was so easy to follow at first I wasn't expecting to have to concentrate, and the result was more than a moment's confusion near the end. The scene probably could have been written more clearly, but it is something that will disappear completely upon a second view, so it's hardly a problem.

I even like the men's costumes.

The filming style felt perfectly like Dickens, with the gorgeous, dark and gritty look, and an ominous, mysterious undertone. I loved how the camera would roll to subtle angles sometimes, amplifying some of the more uncomfortable and creepier scenes. The writing and filming styles were very complementary together, giving out silent, intriguing hints to the plot and characters.

Our heroine and title character is little Amy Dorrit, played by Claire Foy. I have never seen or even heard of Foy before, and it made her embodiment of the character even more complete. She made an ideal main character for the story -- perfectly sweet, kind and gentle, but produced spirit and determination when she needed. Like a Disney Princess of Dickens' world.

And very pretty too.

You may know that I do not at all like Matthew Macfadyen's version of Mr. Darcy in the '05 Pride & Prejudice. I have, however, always disliked it to his credit, assuming that he is such a talented actor that the dull, unsavory performance was only exactly what the director wanted it to be, and that he had obliged him. I hold that opinion even more firmly after seeing his delightful performance as Mr. Clennam -- a worthy actor for a worthy hero.

I still don't think he's Mr. Darcy material, but does he need to be? Absolutely not!

In stark contrast to Amy is the rest of her family. Her father William Dorrit (Tom Courtenay) is a sad older man, more than a little touched in the head, and annoyingly pompous in spite of his situation, but besides his stupid ideas he's a mostly kind and loving father. Her sister Fanny (Emma Pierson) is stuck-up, affected and selfish, and wears the perfect makeup to match her personality -- it's awful, but I love it, and in the one scene when it's off, she seems actually human and I liked her. And Amy's brother, equal to Fanny in selfishness, plus rude and lazy to boot is Edward, played awesomely by Arthur Darvill, and is the complete opposite of Rory -- no noticeable redeeming qualities.

"Rory and the china doll."

Now the villain, Andy Serkis. Whoah-ho-ho, Andy Serkis! He's no stranger to villainous characters, but this one is uniquely impressive, firstly because it's not a motion capture job, (ha) and seriously because this villain has such a slithery dramatic flair. Rotten to the core, and a Frenchman too -- Serkis' looks are perfect, as is his accent, and the creepy factor is off the scale. It bothers me that he is often type-cast as the villain (my family can't even recall his non-sinister roles) but it doesn't help his case when he's this good.

Voila, bad guy.
This was quite the show for a game of "Name That British Actor." I gleefully recognized too many more faces to even mention them all, but they most interestingly include:

Russell Tovey -- of Sherlock and Doctor Who, and from which I could tell he's a likably intense actor, but I was still impressed with his performance of poor love-struck John. I recognized supporting man Eddie Marsan first as Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes (you may recognize his from many other assorted films) but henceforth I'll be remembering him as Mr. Pancks, because as Pancks he finally stood out, and demanded attention. Still technically a supporting character, but a memorable, finely tuned one. Freema Agyeman (yet another from Doctor Who) was a little too odd and annoying with her character; and Anton Lesser was of course, very, very good.

I'd know those ears anywhere -- Russell Tovey.

I wonder why it took me six years to finally get around to watching this fantastic "little" gem.

Now if you'll excuse me, there's a certain, rather thick book sitting next to me that is long overdue in its wait for someone to begin reading it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Austenland

Austen fanatic goes to Austen themed retreat where actors are paid to act like Mr. Darcy. Obviously, chaos ensues.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any Jane Austen fan must be crazed, obsessed, and in love with Mr. Darcy...

From the premise you can see at least three things:

1. This is a movie catered to fans of Jane Austen.

2. It will be very, very silly.

3. In the end, our heroine Jane will end up with her very own Mr. Darcy.

The first is obvious, and typically I won't fall for that sort of thing. As a Jane Austen fan, I'm required to hold strong opinions about the adaptations of her work, and one of my strongest is that "Austen fanfiction" is guilty until proven innocent of being -- for lack of a better word -- sacrilegious. Since Austenland never at any point actually takes place inside an Austen narrative, it passed the basic test, and even had more draw besides the authoress, like yes, the premise, and the cast. In short, they succeeded. I felt catered to. Evidenced by the fact that I watched the movie.

Jennifer Coolidge, the clueless, strictly comic character, Keri Russell, the heroine, and Georgia King, an actual period drama actress. I'm currently watching her in Little Dorrit.

The second is fairly obvious too, and not so much a bad thing as you may think, especially if you, as I did, expect the silliness, and plan to enjoy the silliness. In fact, silliness was the only way to go -- it would have been awful if it tried for one second to be serious, but no, it winks and nudges its way admirably through the whole hour and a half run-time making it a mostly pleasant diversion. (Whenever it wasn't being awkwardly and modernly inappropriate.)

If you roll your eyes, does that mean you were not charmed?

The third I knew as confidently as the others at first, but then there was a little snafu, because Bret McKenzie is just as awesome as JJ Feild. Feild is, of course, Mr. Tilney from Northanger Abbey, but McKenzie is from New Zealand, and was Figwit (aka Lindir) in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, and is an Oscar winning songwriter. For The Muppets, no less.

Spoiler warning!

So while Jane (Keri Russell) was being all proud and prejudiced against stick-in-the-mud Henry (Feild), a charming grounds worker Martin (McKenzie) who can't keep away from modern conveniences like iPods and sunglasses is wining her over. Eventually Henry warms to her and begins the romancing charade, but Jane's not interested in getting her promised charade anymore, and at that point even I'm hoping that maybe the movie isn't as predictable as I thought -- although there's something shady about that Kiwi accent and those elvish features.

Which will win the lady?

And in the twist that confirms the predicted predictability, it turns out that Henry is, in fact, not an actor at all (why he didn't make that clear is a convenient mystery since Jane made it obvious that she knew he was) and Martin was the pretender, assigned to romance her.

In due time my slight disappointment in that fact was appeased in the cheesiest fashion as the two fellows fight over her in an airport. The scene ends with an actual fight after Henry insults Martin by asking him if he couldn't get a job in The Hobbit. Oh the hilarity.

If there was a moral to all the silliness it'd be along the lines of "don't expect a romance straight out of an Austen novel." Right, very good, one problem though; they drive the point home by giving the heroine a "perfect" Pride and Prejudice style romance? Right... So I guess that just about sums up my point.

I couldn't call this a good movie, but since I can "delight in anything ridiculous" I got plenty of amusement out of the deal, and that is a worthy enough result.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Ender's Game

This is a spoiler-free review.

Based on the thought-provoking kids' 1985 sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game falls into one of the most common category of flaws for book to movie adaptations; length. Two hours is not enough time to flawlessly translate the entire story, but with all the time in the world, it may still have fallen short of being as compelling as the book itself. While attempting an exact copy of the book, director Gavin Hood never risks adding the unique personality the film deserves.


Asa Butterfield is the young protagonist, Ender Wiggin, brilliant, calculating, loner, literally bred to be the means of saving the Earth from impending alien invasion. The one thing I was confident about this movie was that Butterfield was the perfect choice for the inverted character, and I was not a bit wrong. His portrayal is a near exact match to the book's, and he is (not surprisingly) the most developed and memorable character -- a solid lead, and a good reason to watch this story as well as read.

The rest of the characters make less of an impression. The acting level as a whole is nowhere close to bad, but there was no engaging spark. I hardly even noticed that Harrison Ford was even there his character was so generic. Ben Kingsly was better, but had less screen-time to help out. Typically great actresses Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin also don't use their usual special brand of charm, and aren't any more memorable than the unknown young actors with equally-sized roles.


Next to nothing was changed from the book, only excluded, so as the plot whizzed by in a paint-by-numbers fashion, many intricacies of the book were glossed over. I was frequently bombarded with the urge to pause the film and explain to my family the details of why something happened, or the thought process behind a decision, or why a particular moment is important. I really missed the sense of time progression, how Ender gradually hones his skills, works hard to get to the top, and redefines the way the games are played. They're only details, but the dimension is lacking without them.

Maybe if they deviated from the original more -- I know, that's a phrase that should never be uttered -- but maybe then they'd have found the freedom to take some creative risks, and not ended up with just a perfect shadow of the edgy, unique tale they were attempting to replicate.


I realize this is less of a movie review and more of a book to movie comparison, but it's hard to separate the two. The best I can say for the film alone is that it was well-cast, with good visuals and sense of intensity and drama, and it conveyed its ideas. As a book adaptation, it's technically flawless besides the time problem, and even somewhat managed to capture the excitement, a bit of the heart, thoughtfulness and the grand and grim cheesiness of the novel. But in the end I was left feeling not wowed, as I was after the book, but mostly just... indifferent.

Ender redefines fight training with the idea that there is no up or down in zero gravity. Ender's Game is a zero gravity story, but this telling, while making a good effort, stubbornly endeavors to only face "up."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sherlock Series 3 - His Last Vow

Major spoilers within!

So I was watching some Sunday night telly when Steven Moffat strolled up to me and ripped my heart out. He waited a few minutes, and crammed it right back in. Then he topped it off with a slap to the face and a wink -- all the while giggling maniacally in a Scottish accent.

So how was your weekend? Catch the big game? It was on.

It all began how I was afraid it might -- it's been a while since John and Mary tied the knot, and Sherlock has been slipping out of their lives, and the excuse of his being undercover is not acceptable enough. But of course, since it's a Sherlock episode, he drops back in within a perfectly acceptable time frame. Then the classic, witty, banter-y Sherlock starts up, just with a strangely more ominous undertone than the previous two episodes. John impresses and amuses with self-defense skills. Sherlock confuses by being in a relationship with Mary's maid of honor and acting suspiciously normal about it. And a bad guy is introduced; Charles Augustus Magnussen, a creepy, controlling blackmailer and businessman.

Played by Lars Mikkelsen.

Following is a fantastic scene of crime-solving (crime-committing) fun -- John learns how to break into an office the Sherlock way, complete with sneakiness, fore-planning, morally questionable trickery, and lots of wit. This is exactly what I love about Sherlock. So obviously, from there, things go completely sideways.

If you read my reviews for The Empty Hearse and The Sign of Three, you may have noticed a strong pattern of unreserved approval of the character of Mary Morstan/Watson. She charmed me from the very first second, even though I saw the word "liar" mixed in with her other characteristics Sherlock deduced. I ignored it, but in my defense, so did he.

I was severely less charmed when she shot Sherlock in the chest after he caught her about to murder Magnussen. She's not the person we were led to believe her to be, and the previously ignored word swirls around in the minds of audience and dying protagonist alike.

A la Star Wars: "NOOOO, it can't be true! That's IMPOSSIBLE!"

At this point I had to put my shock aside to be impressed, yet again, with the representation of Sherlock's mind palace, as he deduces his way out of death. His friends appear and help him, telling him what to do, and silently speaking volumes to his growing character -- in the first two seasons the cold, superior, sociopath Sherlock only ever saw data in his palace. (This is also where Benedict Cumberbatch's impressive acting skills are most obvious. They're never anything less than impressive of course.)

Sherlock stands with Molly over his body as she calmly explains what's happening and how to survive it.

Then, back to panicking.

Check out this cute picture from The Sign of Three. Of course I don't notice the HORNS until now... that wasn't accidental. Things in Sherlock never are.

Moffat's signature feather-ruffling style of writing has never been more effective on me, but eventually, and to great relief, he let us off the frazzling rollercoaster and restored Mary's goodness with believability. The drama finished off with a flourish -- a lovely scene between John and Mary as they return to being the charming, lovable Watsons. A huge round of applause to Amanda Abbington -- never before has anyone sold Moffat's trickery so convincingly. Martin Freeman also delivers as we've come to expect, with both the betrayed Watson, and the adorable, forgiving Watson.

He puts up with so much...

Now, only two more twists to cover. One, Magnussen's glasses, the twist being that they don't feed him data in a far-fetched futuristic manner as implied. This one's simple; instead, as he said, he has a great memory. We witness two neat mind palaces in the episode.

And two, is Moriarty back? I won't fall for it until it's proved beyond all doubt, and an animated photo of him with the voices of other people saying "did you miss me?" is not nearly enough evidence. Alternate theories are everywhere; it's Moriarty's brother, or, it's a different villain pretending to be him for attention. Here's my first thought: you know when John's all like, "Sherlock, you have a plan, right?" Well, he did.

I suppose it goes without saying that anticipation for the fourth series has already graced us with its persistent presence. So just one last thing 'til next time:

Good one, Moffat... good one.

You got me.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sherlock Series 3 - The Sign of Three

Warning: Mild spoilers.

If I had one even slightly significant complaint for the first episode of the third series of Sherlock "The Empty Hearse" it would be concerning the lack of attention the mystery of the episode received. In that case, this review, for episode two, should be considerably shorter, because it was just as great as the first, but with the addition of a typically and aptly puzzling, involving mystery. Here, as per usual for this fantastic show, we're given enough information to figure it out ourselves, but we don't, and when all the separate elements of mystery fall into a connected pattern at the end we are wowed.

Although, to be fair to myself, I did figure out a couple of little things.

But that's not to say the rest of this episode was exactly like the giddy, fan-serving first episode. Not at all, in fact, this is probably the most unique Sherlock yet. It takes place entirely during John's wedding to Mary, mostly while Sherlock gives a long, and occasionally surprising best man speech, while flash-backs gradually fill in details, and the mystery blends together with equal parts of charming development for our beloved characters.

No so much these guys, but here's a picture of them anyway, so they won't be left out.

Sherlock and John's brotherly relationship is back in order now, and there's not anything else to add -- they're simply as great as ever. But Mary... I love Mary. I could go on and on about her. She's a wonderful and helpful and hopefully permanent addition to the crime-solving group. There is one thing in particular that I adore about her, that makes me wholeheartedly approve of her; she likes Sherlock, and, Sherlock likes her. It doesn't seem like it'd be a big deal, but after the train wreck that Mary was thrown out of in the latest Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes film, the fact that Mary and Sherlock not only tolerate, but actually enjoy each other just makes me giddy with fangirly happiness. This episode had a theme of Sherlock worrying about entering the status of third wheel, but honestly, those three fit together just as perfectly as they did as two, and if he does move out of their life, I might be annoyed because I can't see it making any kind of sense.

"We go together like rama lama lama..."

Snappy and stylish filming is everywhere in this episode. The moving freeze-frame of the bridal party captured the joyful moment splendidly, and the time-lapse of food disappearing was delicious-looking way to show time-progression. I loved the portrayal of Sherlock's mind palace as a courtroom as he converses with several people on the internet -- a brilliant and impressive look into his mind.

The scene where Mary plays John and Sherlock telling them separately that they should encourage the other to begin a case in order to get them out together is another great example of her amazing, playful character, and a very amusing scene. The disastrous stag party sequence is also very amusing as John and Sherlock get stupidly drunk and then attempt to go sleuthing, with much hilarity ensuing.

The new quintessential "Sherlock" hat?

And then things get serious with Sherlock continuing to grow more "human." It is an interesting curve-ball that I never saw coming, and continuing to grow boldly since the first sign of it in "The Empty Hearse" but always, staying within the character, to perfection. For a model example, notice the scene where Sherlock recounts the moment when John asks him to be his best man. And watching the way the character handles the change is almost as awesome as watching the actor supply it. Benedict Cumberbatch is a master at his art, leading this immaculately crafted show to amazing heights. Bravo!

Sherlock Holmes has never been more relatable.



Saturday, February 1, 2014

Upcoming Movie Roundup -- February

Looks like February is set and ready to live up to its tradition of continuing January's slow season of unexceptional and mediocre movies. Bring it on!

The Monuments Men
Feb 7th; PG-13
Written and directed by, and starring George Clooney, along with an all-star cast of Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and Hugh Bonneville, this history pic about WWII soldiers tasked with rescuing art from the Nazis is already disappointing a majority of the critics. It never really caught my fancy to begin with, but apparently it uses its premise and Expendables-style cast to succeed in not much more than being the poster-child of this month's traditional mediocrity.




The Lego Movie
Feb 7th; PG
I expect this movie will be the most popular and highest rated movie of the month. Why? Because kiddie movies aren't as affected by the awards season. While everyone who wants to see serious movies skips The Monuments Men to catch up on all those films getting Oscar attention, kids (and discerning adults too) who just need some fun and silly escapism will hopefully find this to be exactly what the doctor ordered. The trailer is very funny and promising, so hopefully it'll deliver, and didn't use up all the good jokes.




RoboCop
Feb 12th; PG-13
I have never seen the original film, and haven't been following the production of this remake (which seems to have a lot of people talking about it with very strong opinions) so my impressions are pretty uninformed. My main impression is that the only thing that caught my attention and seems to hint at this being anything other than another unnecessary remake is Gary Oldman, because he is awesome... but I doubt it'll help. My second impression is that I don't understand the plot at all. Oh, remakes.




Winter's Tale
Feb 14th; PG-13
Aha, another defining feature of February movie releases: Valentines Day movies! This one looks confusing and complicated (apparently involves time travel of some obscure variety) but mostly it looks sappy. Overwhelmingly sappy. Sappy romance, sappy drama... Colin Farrel making sappy faces which you'll never notice because you're too distracted by his awful sappy hairstyle. I wouldn't even have included it here except for one thing; Jessica Brown Findlay. My one consolation for her leaving Downton Abbey is that I'd get to see her in movies... and then she does this.




Pompeii
Feb 21st PG-13
Okay, I can't figure out this one. At first I thought for sure it was going to be a overacted, cheesy and melodramatic romance with an underdeveloped backdrop of Pompeii used as a device, but then I actually watched the trailer and was surprised to discover that it has all the signs of being a two-bit disaster flick. That was unexpected. My impression now is 2012, but with Romans. I can't decide if that makes it more interesting or less...




Non-Stop
Feb 28th; PG-13
"Liam Neeson's plane gets taken" -- someone that was not me. Actually, a more accurate movie to compare this new Neeson mystery-thriller to would be Unknown since it is by the same director. Unfortunately, Unknown was considerably less popular than Taken although it was only slightly less well-reviewed. I liked it alright, and this looks even more promising and unique and stylishly filmed. (Notice they're using the Sherlock text-message-floating-in-the-air trick?) The addition of Michelle Dockery in the cast is a big plus too. Still, it seems like a awful lot of the plot was revealed in the trailer...



So, is February the month where you catch up on seeing Oscar nominated films, or are you holding out for a new-release?