Sunday, 18 July 2010

6 mini-reviews from a long-haul flight

So as you can imagine this last week or so has been rather busy what with moving to the other side of the world and all! As such I’ve not really got a lot of blog about. However, what with spending all of about 2 days travelling, I’ve spent rather a long time on long-haul flights in the last week. With long-haul flights comes a chance to catch up on some films that I didn’t get the opportunity to watch when they were in the cinema. These films are no longer in cinemas and there are quite a few of them, so I’ll keep each of these reviews short.

Fantastic Mr Fox

I love Fantastic Mr Fox, the original Roald Dahl story that is. I had it as an audio book when I was younger and listened to it to death. Given the strength of the source material I had high hopes for this film. Inevitably I was disappointed. The problem with the Fantastic Mr Fox is that it is a short story, a very short story in fact, the sort of short story that would only take half an hour or so to tell through the medium of film. This is of course a massive problem when films are expected to last well over an hour. To get over this problem the story was embellished somewhat – Mr Fox was given a family and a much more complex back story and a significant chunk of plot was added to the end.

Up until the end of the original plot I was happy to go along with the additions – the extra bits were charming and complemented the source material. Indeed it served to further develop and examine the character at the heart of the story. However the half an hour or so of material that came after conclusion of the original story turned me against the film – whoever wrote the extra bit was nothing like as good a story teller as Dahl and it showed. Roald Dahl’s stories have always relied on being just absurd enough to be enjoyable without going so far as just to be plain silly. Unfortunately the added bit failed miserably to treat this line and so the story really fell apart. It became increasingly hard go alone with the plot as the character’s motivations stopped being convincing and dialogue got increasingly poor.

If you love Fantastic Mr Fox like I do then this is an excellent adaptation of the story with a very charming style and a decent amount of respect for the source material, but switch it off where the story originally ended and pretend the last half an hour or so of the film didn’t exist.

Law-Abiding Citizen

I went into this film expecting very little. From what I could gather it was a run of the mill revenge flick – short on motivation and characterisation and relying too heavily on big explosions. I was very surprised when I was actually genuinely interested in the plot and characters. I was able to go along with what was, on reflection, a rather farfetched plot which bordered on the absurd because the characters were so strong that I wanted to know what happened to them. The film’s great advantage was that it was very well written (unlike many revenge films), so the pacing was such that the lead characters had time to develop. The viewer was able to get to grips with their motivations and their weaknesses. We understood why the killer did what he was doing and could even sympathise with him, but we still understood that what he was doing was wrong. Similarly we could see the flaw in the main protagonist and how that led to the tragedy that befell him, but this didn’t cause us to resent him because we understood his motivations and even sympathised with them.

Looking back however the plot was slightly too absurd to quite stand up to deeper analysis. The problem was that the major twist was somewhat too farfetched for anyone to guess it. A good twist will be one which comes as a surprise because it is so simple and obvious and yet no-one cottoned onto it. For the viewer it has to have been foreshadowed well enough that he could potentially have guessed it before it is revealed. Unfortunately for Law-Abiding Citizen, the twist was not well foreshadowed so it seemed to come out of nowhere. This meant that the entire plot after the twist fell a little flat. The build up was fantastic, but the end was not all that satisfactory.

I would recommend that you see this film. For a revenge flick it is very well written and much deeper than most. It ends poorly, but it’s still a really good film and well worth seeing. Probably one you should rent rather than buy.

Alice in Wonderland

To my great shame I have to admit that I’ve never actually read Alice in Wonderland. Given that it was one of the ground-breakers in the fantasy genre – a genre of which I am a huge fan – I really should have read it by now. Having seen this film I am resolved to go and read it as soon as possible. The film really is a must see; brilliantly dark, very witty, wonderfully acted and superbly written. Sure the source material is very strong, but Tim Burton works wonders with it. There is no better example of the wonderful aesthetic than the climax, which felt like being hurled head first through a Baroque painting. In it, the shining armour-clad heroin battles a lightening bolt breathing dragon around Neoclassical ruins while white chess pieces do battle with animated heats-suited playing cards on a giant chess board below. Add to this, non-corporeal felines, insane hat-makers, fencing dormice and a love-heart themed palace and you have a truly brilliant film. I’m not sure how much of this is down to the strength of the source material, but even if it is, Burton has adapted it to film brilliantly.

I do, inevitably, have a few criticisms; at times the film felt just a little bit rushed. Some of the minor human characters were not characterised all that well and the ‘good’ side was not really established properly. Indeed there seemed no real reason why the side with the chess pieces should win beyond the fact that the other side were all quite clearly insane. Alice only seems to side with them because she quite likes the hatter, rather than that she sees any real reason to like the queen or support her cause. This might be intentional of course, but it is left too ambiguous to be sure. The film almost seems a little undecided itself – I was left wondering whether we were supposed to like the white guys or not.

Despite a few issues, this is probably one of the best film I’m reviewing today. It really is a must see.

Sherlock Holmes

I love a good murder mystery, so it’s a shame this film is not one. For a film based on one of the most brilliant detectives in the history of fiction, there really is very little detecting done in this film. There’s never really an issue over ‘who dun it’ because it is never in doubt. If you go into this film expecting a murder mystery you will be sorely disappointed. However if you go into this film expecting a clever, well written action film you certainly will not be disappointed. The character of Sherlock Holmes is pretty similar to the original, which is great because he is an absolutely wonderful character. Indeed the film’s real strong point is its characters, which is really unusual for an action film and really good to see. Another good thing is the fairly low key nature of the action. There are no explosions or high octane car chases, no raging gun battles or increasingly unlikely stunts. It’s all hand to hand fights with the occasional pistol in varying locations across 19th century London. This lack of pulse-raging actions leaves room for the important things, like story and characters, both of which are very strong.

As you’ve probably noticed I’ve been tending to put things I didn’t like in this second paragraph, but for Sherlock Holmes I really can’t think of anything. For what it is, it’s really good. What it is, is a plot and character driven action film with a hint of the supernatural (or supposed supernatural anyway). Don’t expect clever twists and turns or hunts for elusive killers, do expect good pacing, superb writing, well thought out characters who actually develop, an interesting plot and a sequel because it was clearly written with another one in mind. Another must-see.


Are you a fan of charming, well-told morality tales set in witty and all-too-shiny dystopian future sky cities? If so then Astro-boy is the film for you. In fact even if you’re not a fan of the above you should still watch Astro-boy because it’s good fun. Yet another adaptation (from a Manga of all things), Astro-boy has a strong story and setting with some interesting characters. It’s well written and witty, but the main thing that sets it apart is the film’s message. The film subtly deals with the issues of what it is to be human by having a robot become so advanced that he becomes essentially no different from any human – he has the same motivations, the same emotions, the same responses to stimuli, the difference is that he can fly and has machine guns in his butt. The film is also about the seductive nature of power and the dangers of playing with forces beyond one’s control. The great thing is that none of these issues are ever actually explained or examined explicitly in the film. There is an old writing mantra that goes ‘show, don’t tell’; Astro-boy does this perfectly. All the issues are raised implicitly; we are shown the issue and pushed gently towards the conclusion the films wants us to draw, without ever being told about it. That is basically the definition of a well told story.

However Atro-boy does suffer from being Japanese in origin. I know that sounds like a terrible thing to say, but hear me out. Anyone who has ever played a JRPG knows what I mean here. The film is far too unambiguous and idyllic; the good guys are all virtuous, peace-loving flower-children, whereas the bad guys are all unquestioningly evil, selfish madmen. Sure the good guys make mistakes, but they all realise them immediately and try to rectify them, whereas the bad guys fail entirely to see the evil of their ways even when they’re staring them in the face. The conclusion is that everyone lives happily ever after in perfect harmony. Essentially this lack of ambiguity gets a little hard to swallow by the end.

Despite this Astro-boy is well worth watching. It really is a charming little film with many more good points than bad.


It’s tempting just to write that this film has got Morgan Freeman in it so you should watch it just for his brilliant performance as Nelson Mandela and finish there, but I like to think that I’m more professional than that. If you’re a rugby fan then you have to take this film with a pinch of salt, because the rugby really is pretty poor, but the film is not really about the rugby, it’s about the events surrounding it and for that it’s a must-watch. It’s a really great feel good film about the people of South Africa trying to adapt to a post-apartheid world. Both blacks and whites are at fault and both blacks and whites reconcile each other by the end. A heart warming true story which is really, really well told, even if the accents are a little sketchy here and there. As you can probably tell I’m rushing through this last one because this post is long enough already so I’ll simply end by telling you to watch this film along with all of the others on this list (if not all of them to their conclusion). Overall it was a rather enjoyable plane journey.

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