Thursday, May 26, 2011

Gnomeo & Juliet (Kelly Asbury, 2011)

William Shakespeare’s timeless tale of star-crossed lovers gets an animated makeover, with our characters now gnomes of two next door neighbours who hate each other – reds and blues. Gnomeo is a handy lawnmower racer and Juliet is desperate to prove she’s not “delicate” like her dad believes. Cast as the eponymous couple are two bright young British stars who also happen to be two of my favourites – James McAvoy and Emily Blunt.



From top to bottom, Gnomeo & Juliet is an unqualified failure. The in-references to other Shakespeare plays are forced and will be lost on their target audience anyway. None of the characters draw you one; one of the main things that appealed to me about the play was how Romeo was such a hopeless romantic, as well as Juliet’s sense of isolation and malaise. Needless to say, by making their characters gnomes, we lose all sense of characterisation and they just become, well, cartoon characters.

This flaw would be easy to overlook were they at least drawn well, but the way every gnome resembles one another with very little distinguishing features just smacks of laziness. Each character is crudely rendered and has nothing interesting to say; at one point, Gnomeo makes a “let’s go kick some grass” joke, which was funnier than first sixty times I heard it in other cartoons. The overall quality of the writing is extremely poor.

Furthermore, taking the Ocean’s 13 approach – cramming as many famous actors in to do the voice work just makes the endeavour even more embarrassing. Ashley Jensen epitomizes this as Nannette, Juliet’s nurse figure. In this film, she’s a frog, and she loses all of the lovability she had as Extra’s Maggie. Emily Blunt and James McAvoy are left to do very little other than read their lines and pick up their pay checks without cringing too hard.

If I try really hard, I can find a few things I didn’t despise about this “film”. Jason Statham has good fun voicing the Tybalt character, and Michael Caine is less annoying here than he is in Inception. Also, I greatly enjoyed Stephen Merchant belting out his version of Your Song, which was corny, but vaguely entertaining. But to be honest, I couldn’t warn you off this film hard enough. It physically pained me to see Shakespeare being bastardized so much – Juliet’s spin on the “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” was clearly scribbled on the back of a napkin. Translating the spine of Shakespeare’s stories into children’s films can be done, as illustrated by the heavy Hamlet overtones in the masterpiece The Lion King. But for it to carry off, love and time must be invested into the project. Here, the amount of time making the film seems to be proportional to the time I would spend attempting to glue back a broken gnome; that is to say, very little time at all.

One final note -- if you amalgate James McAvoy & Emily Blunt's names, you get James Blunt. I adore these two stars separately and I so hope so hard that one day they can collaborate on something that isn't such a piece of turd, but if you were to ask me to pick between listening to James Blunt sing or watch this piece of trash again, I'd probably opt for the former. And that ain't a compliment.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Apprentice, episode 2.

Second episode in, 15 contestants left. The participants are awoken at the figurative crack of dawn via a recorded message on a laptop. Alan Sugar tells the group of their new challenge – to market and sell a new mobile phone app. I liked this challenge a lot, in this day and age, a huge majority of people are fiddling with apps on their phone when on the tube, and there seems to be an app for almost everything, however weird or wacky, so it would be an interesting thing for the teams to do. Once again, they’re grouped boys vs girls, the ladies have a man advantage.

When picking Project Managers, Leon puts himself forward, although he has an agenda; in the last episode, Alan Sugar had commented that he wasn’t involved enough, so he wants to prove Sir Alan wrong. Several other men volunteer to be PM as well, but eventually it goes to a vote and Leon gets the role. The boys are moving along at a good pace and before long have decided on their app – Slang-a-tang, an app that gives soundbites of people from all over the UK, as well as over the world.

Things are going considerably less smoothly over at the girls’ team, where Susan gets herself into a bit of a mess when trying to pitch her idea. She says something along the lines of “Imagine I’m here, and you’re there. And I’m me and you’re you-” Needless to say, the team are massively underwhelmed with her idea and Project Manager Edna tells her to pipe down, which Susan refuses to do. When she’s finally silenced, Susan sulks in a fashion dissimilar to a spoilt child. It’s impossible to warm to the woman.

Time’s running out for Edna’s team, and finally they settle for the rather mediocre sounding app which gives out a range of sounds, whether it be annoying, congratulatory, or animal sounds. They call it Ampi-App, which is apparently a play on words, but I’m struggling to think what pun it is. Whilst the women drive off to get their ideas developed, Susan tried a bit of shit-stirring by bad-mouthing Edna, but Melody, who is sat next to her and practically draped in cheap make-up, isn’t having any of it and practically ignores her.


Could she look any more like a five dollar hooker?

In the boy’s group, four of them, Glen, Jim, Vincent and Alex cast themselves for the app, taking on a range of personas from cockney sparra, Scouser, Welshman, etc. The Wales soundbite is “has anyone seen my sheep?”, and the Liverpudlian one is “How’s your wife and my children?” which I found hilarious, but can see why people would find it offensive. Nick observes the boys indulging in laddish banter, not overly impressed, remarking he finds their product a little on the asinine side, “Unless I’m too old”

Back to the girls, their app is going into development and it really isn’t setting the world alight. Admittedly, the boys’ app isn’t the most inventive thing in the world either, but the girls’ one is dumb for a 13-year-old, let alone busy adults in a rush. “I think we could be heading for a bit of a disaster,” Susan remarks, and she is struggling to keep the glee out of her voice; one senses that she would take her team failing just to see Edna fail and get fired.

Overnight, the teams sleep whilst the computer boffins do their magic to put the ideas and components into the finished product. In the morning, the two teams work on their pitches. The boys team’s pitch is pithy and witty, albeit with a play on the word “app” too many. Leon, Vince, and Jim, suited and booted, get to the pitches, although there’s a bit of tension because Gavin clearly wanted to help pitch too. In terms of the pitches, they start fairly well, Vince initially taking centre stage, but at one point he fudges it up and Jim, cool as a cucumber, swoops in and rescues the pitch.

Jim is calm and collected in his pitch, and, furthermore, completely unafraid to address the difficult questions, which is that of taste; amusing as the boys team’s product is, it can’t be denied that it isn’t in the best of taste. There’s an awkward turtle moment when one of the men at the Online Magazine considering taking the app queries about the racial stereotypes, Jim denies as such. But what of the Australian man in the funny hat? “That’s just to show he’s Australian!” Jim protests. Er.

Over at the girls, Melody’s pitch is absolutely awful. She tries to butter up the company by giving them some stats about themselves; saying they have a following of 70-something-thousand. It’s actually several million, which the man isn’t at a lack to tell her. Fail. “The pitch is as good as the product,” Melody comments after she’s embarrassed herself, which just smacks of someone who’s getting their excuses in early.

The two teams then go online to see if their product has made it on the websites of the companies they have pitched to, of which there are three in total. The boys make it onto two of them, the girls, the remaining one, however, the website that they made it onto has a substantially bigger following than the other two.
The two teams then head to a technology expo , in which there are 500 bloggers, twitterers and technology experts, eagerly awaiting to hear about the two apps that the teams have on offer. Edna delivers the talk as if she’s selling some groundbreaking product, but from the reaction of the audience as well as the boys, who can scarcely believe their good luck, it isn’t that great. More pertinently, Edna fails to explain to the audience how and where to download the app from, which is, needless to say, quite a big deal.

The boys don’t make such a mistake, and their talk, in which two of the men have dressed up and take to their roles jovially, engages the audience a lot more. One dresses up as a Scouser, the other, a Cockney, and judging from the reaction of the audience, they’re loving it. The boys crank up the charm offensive by offering the audience doughnuts in return for downloading their app, which they show the crowd how to do.

So, all signs would seem to point to a resounding boys team success. However, it’s the figures that do the talking, and, in the boardroom, Karen and Nick are the ones with the figures. And, bombshell of bombshells, because the women come out triumphant winners, with 10,667 downloads, in the face of just 3,951 downloads for the boys. So that horrid, horrid women’s group, headed by the massively unlikable Edna and the two even more infuriating Melody and Susan, are treated to a delicious meal cooked especially for them. “Is that… victory I taste?” Melody asks, smugly. Urgh.

Back in the boardroom, the boys are as shocked as we the audience are to their failing. They had far more team rapport than the women from the start, I personally preferred their product (though an app that rates how smelly your faeces is would be more useful than the piece of crap the women came up with), and their pitches were more intelligent. But, humanity is an odd, odd thing, and the masses went with the women’s monstrosity. In the boardroom, the boys are in a hurry to lay blame with each other. Jim explains that he thinks the failing occurred when they didn’t get the deal with the bigger magazine, but Alan Sugar questions that even if they had gotten it, would their product have been downloaded anyway, as, whilst popular in the UK, it lacked global appeal. The boy’s Achilles heel in this challenge, I think, was their naivety.

Anyway, Leon, as project manager, has two pick two more people to bring into the boardroom with him. He contemplates picking Jim, which I think is an awful idea, and Jim also knows it, and isn’t afraid to defend himself, and that he does, vociferously. So Leon changes his mind, and goes with Alex and Glen. It was Glen’s idea for the project, and he picks Alex because he felt that Alex shirked his responsibilities. In the boardroom, Alex gets bold and bigger than life in fighting his own corner, but the wool isn’t pulled over Sir Alan’s eyes. He figures Alex, rightfully, I feel, meaning that Leon and Glen get to go back to the house, to live another day. App-solutely fabulous!

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011)

She's on the right track baby, she was born this way
Flashback 4 years ago. I’d blagged myself tickets to a preview screening of Joe Wright’s Atonement, meaning that, I’d, rather smugly, gotten to see it before most of the British population, and I could not wait to gush about it on my blog. James McAvoy, according to me, was flawless, the score, musical genius, the cinematography and costumes, divine. However, I’d gone into the film expecting an acting masterclass from Romola Garai, and, whilst she was indeed very good, it was the younger incarnation of her character in the film – played by blue-eyed Irish lass Saoirse Ronan that really, really impressed. Briony Tallis is one of my least favourite literary gals of all time, yet Ronan’s depiction of her, whilst capturing how annoying and meddling her character was, managed to do something that I felt Ian McEwan was unable to do in his book – humanise her. It was, I felt, the most impressive performance by a child actress of the new millennium, and I went on to wax lyrical about her acting in The Lovely Bones, which, like Atonement, was a book that I didn’t particularly care for and wasn’t even originally intending on watching, but when I heard that Ronan was cast as the lead, I just knew that I had to. I had a whole list of problems with Peter Jackson’s film, writing, somewhat bitchily, “But the problem with that is that the source material, weak as it was, was so memorable because it was so dark, and in showing us montages of pretty yellow trees and giant penguins, we’re transported to this whimsical, child-like universe. Then Jackson tries to modulate the tone to child murders. It doesn’t really sit, to be honest, and if you were to ask me and my friends if we’d rather watch this film again or get murdered, we couldn’t truthfully say we wouldn’t pick the latter”, but Ronan was a shining star. When I first walked past the poster for Hanna in the London undergrounds, I checked my walk just to give it a second look (which, if you know Londoners, you’ll understand is saying something) when I realised that it was Miss Ronan on the front. Truth be told, there’s been a few too many female assassin films in recent years for my liking, but the fact that Saoirse Ronan was starring in Hanna meant that I knew I was gonna watch it.

Quality-wise, of the film, I’d say it sits comfortably in between The Lovely Bones – extremely poor, and Atonement – excellent. One can’t help feeling that Joe Wright wished he could have made a more violent film, but was constrained by the need for commercial success – and hence the lucrative PG-13/12A rating. Indeed, some of the fight scenes are definitely the most violent scenes I’ve seen in a 12A rated film, but they are staged excellently, with a kind of gusto that reminded me of the jolly fight scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean (the first one, before they turned bad.) Eric Bana and Saoirse Ronan sport these bizarre sounding European accents that made it somewhat difficult to take the things that they said seriously, but in terms of bad accents, Cate Blanchett takes the biscuit. In fact, she should take the whole cookie jar in terms of poor acting, because the woman was not good. A lot of the casting in this film confused me, to be honest, and I’m torn between the joy of seeing some of my favourite stars and the confusion of seeing them in such poorly written roles. Nobody exemplified this better than Tom Hollander, who, if you remember, I loved so much that I went through an entire month of watching films with just him in. In Hanna, he plays a crooked sort of-Mafia character, and spends the film in the weirdest range of tracksuits that look like they've come from Primark (and at one point, these skimpy white shorts that leave nothing to the imagination, lol) and his German accent is so camp that I refuse to believe he didn’t do it with a lol inside his mind. I love Hollander and I love how he isn’t afraid to take a role and make it his own with silliness – his Mr Collins in Pride & Prejudice is one of my most endearing memories of his acting – but in Hanna, the fact that he’s meant to be a character to fear, yet he’s wearing all this Primark-style tracksuits and looking dangerously like he’s wearing mascara; it doesn’t all come together, really.

As with Atonement and Pride & Prejudice, the musical score is amazing. Dario Marianelli scored the former two, but his celli strings and piano surges may have been somewhat out of place in a child-hitman film, so the Chemical Brothers were employed instead, and, as with Daft Punk’s score to Tron, the aurals were so strong that it often made me forget about the pictures. One scene in particular, when Hanna is being pursued by Tom Hollander and his two not-altogether-very-effective goons near a building campsite and there’s a whole lot of running away on her part; the music is just incredible.

And of course, Hanna herself. The film begins with Hanna, out in the wild, shooting a dear for food. Her arrow wounds the deer and kills it, but, as she pulls the arrow out, she notes “I just missed your heart.” The screen fills with HANNA in white-and-red writing, to eerie effect, and without giving too much away, the symmetry around this gives the film a nice sense of closure. But to be honest, that’s the only sense of closure we get. Hanna sports more holes in a plot than a piece of Swiss cheese, and it gets to the point where I can’t just brush them under the carpet. But the main character is never not beguiling. Saoirse Ronan really does have the most electric, arresting blue eyes, and the camera picks up on that, and, indeed, much of Ronan’s subtle acting is in her eyes. Emma Watson should take note of this. The eyes, not the eyebrows, lady. :p And, although her character is a killer, it is, as the film points out, out of survival. There’s an engaging subplot in which Hanna latches on to a marauding bohemian family and their somewhat spoilt teenage daughter, Sophie. The blossoming friendship between the two is sweet and moving, although I felt the scene in the tent – in which the two share a Sapphic moment – was indulgence on Joe Wright’s part rather than any kind of strong storytelling. It’s a shame, because some of the more understated scenes between Hanna and Sophie were a joy to behold, and captured the dynamic of culture clashes and budding friendships well, and then that somewhat out-of-place lesbian undertone killed that off and made it somewhat ~laddish~ and seedy. The fight scenes were well-staged but on the storytelling side, I felt Hanna lacked depth. But even in the face of poor directing and poor writing, Saoirse Ronan is never not a queen. She is the film’s anchor, its emotional core, and without her, Hanna would be a fine, fine mess. As it was, it was managed to be a fairly interesting action thriller that was too flawed to take seriously, but definitely had some good things going for it.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Key of Light (Nora Roberts)

Mythology and modern day come together gloriously in Nora Roberts' delightful creation. Malory Price, on the cusp of getting sacked from a gallery she has given many years of loyal service to and in an economic situation that could best be described as "precarious", she sees nothing to lose in attending an unusual cocktail party at the ominously named Warrior’s Peak held by the even more unusual odd couple of Pitte and Rowena, who don't look dissimilar to characters from a Celtic myth themselves.

In the meeting, she meets Dana and Zoe, two women just as in the dark about the invite as she is, and who, like her, are in dire financial straits as she. Pitte and Rowena tell the three a tale of trapped demi-goddesses and an evil spirit who keeps their souls locked, and offers them a very generous cash prize if each of the three women can successfully embark on a quest to find the three "keys" to unlock them. Malory, Dana and Zoe are given an initial deposity of $25,000 alone just for trying, and for the women, it seems too good to be true.

Malory, selected as the first up, on further research, discovers the story is darker and more tragic than she could have imagined, with the story of the three trapped goddesses being told in various paintings. Luck would just so transpire that the owner of one of the paintings turns out to be a huge dish, local reporter Flynn Hennesey, who also turns out to be Dana's step-brother. The convenient plot turns just keep coming when another painting is owned by Brad Vane, Flynn's mate (who is quite taken with Zoe) and another owned by Jordan Hawke, sexy and successful fiction writer whom Dana once dated but parted terms with acrimoniously. No prizes for guessing where these little match-ups are headed, but they are depicted with enough conviction and male/female repartee to be a delight to read. Key of Light, which focuses on Mal's journey, deals more with her budding romance with Flynn, who despite having the semblance of being an everyday cheery guy, has the odd proverbial demon in his closet, and it is up to Malory to unlock those, in the same way she is to unlock the first lock. I have only other read one other Nora Roberts novel, small-town murder mystery Carnal Innocence, and the main thing I remember about that (aside from its oh-so-obvious plot twist; Agatha Christie this woman ain’t), was it's t’rifficly steamy sex scenes. It was mainly what urged me to buy this book, to be quite honest, and Roberts does not disappoint; the romance scenes between Flynn and Malory are appropriately hot and juicily detailed.

The rest of the book is also perfectly good; there are some engaging subplots and supporting characters (Flynn's dog Moe always seems to pop up at the most inconvenient of moments, and there's the token gay best friend who comes out with some zingers), and the focus on the three women's budding friendship and their plans to build a hybrid gallery/bookshop/hair salon makes for some sweet sorority. The banter between Dana and Jordan hints at a delicious love/hate relationship that should make for some wonderful hate sex in the sequel, and the relationship between Brad and Zoe (he, an uptown boy, she a struggling but kind-hearted single mother who only has room in her life for one man – her son) is written adorably; Brad, for all his millions, just can’t get it right with Zoe and there’s an odd sort of pleasure in that. Of the two mystical characters Rowena definitely interests more than her male counterpart, and she is painted as the very figure of loneliness behind a veneer of calm. Lastly, the dastardly villain of the trilogy, Kane, is a great conviction, almost a Voldemort for adults, if you will. Nora Roberts is best when she's intermingling the minutiae with the macrocosm, and Key of Light is a huge success; i will hungrily search out Key of Knowledge and Dana's story.