Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Belated Reviews

Penned upon the 17th of December, 2007

In the spirit of Films I Personally Enjoyed (Even If Others Didn’t) I thought share some reviews of releases which have been out for quite a while – call them rereviews, if you like, or just call me late to the party. As these are old releases (generally just hitting the weekly shelves,) I shan’t be sparing with the spoilers.

Miss Potter
Starring Renée Zellweger & Ewan McGregor

A biopic of the children’s author, Miss Potter has all the requisite period drama elements – a disobedient heroine, alternately disapproving and supportive parents and some harumphing society figures – in this case, wealthy publishers with big beards. The stars put in some rather good performances as awkward, socially inept dreamers – not an easy role to play, I imagine, and to make it watchable.

The thematic swerve to supporting traditional village life over agribusiness in the final quarter of the movie seems a little forced – it could easily have been planted earlier with reference to the animal characters – but it’s still fun. The rah-rah go-Beatrix-ness of the effort is hampered, though, by the implication that Beatrix killed McGregor’s character by making him go out in the rain – essentially, that a woman’s love is poison which destroys a man from within and damns her to his family! His character, Norman Warne, actually died of leukemia – so why on Earth blame Beatrix?

The Illusionist
Starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti

The Illusionist was always going to draw comparisons to The Prestige, because, well, it was supposed to. They were deliberately released at the same time, presumably to compete to fulfill the public’s sudden need for stories about Belle Époque stage magicians. Truth be told, though, there’s not much similarity beyond that. The Prestige is a tragedy, The Illusionist is a romance. The Prestige is more 1895, with World’s Fairs and embroidered vests, The Illusionist is more 1905, with decrepit royal families and heavy, practical coats. The Prestige puts all its component elements on the table, both in the tricks and feats of science performed and the mystery of the plot, leaving the viewer to put them together; The Illusionist has big exposition scenes explaning the main points but leaves the details impossible to guess. There’s a geared mechanism here, a chemical concoction there but you’d never be able to put it together yourself.

So, The Illusionist isn’t a proper mystery, despite its mystery-style format – just a story of heroes overcoming villains, escaping the confines of family and class, and winning over the conflicted police and public. It’s romantic, it’s adventurous and it is rather well done indeed. Norton’s acting is very strong, always seeming about to let on something but thinking better of it. I didn’t know he had it in him, truth be told. Rufus Sewell is grand as the troublesome Hapsburg, presenting an actually rather scary absolutist. It’s all very pretty, excellent costumes, nicely cluttered sets. It doesn’t take to too much analysis but I’d certainly watch it again.

Becoming Jane
Starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy

Another film about a writer, Becoming Jane is less a biopic than a piece of historical speculation, verging on fiction which happens to feature real-life characters. In fact, it really seems more like two films than one. One concerns Austen’s development as a writer, meeting a dark young man who shares his own sex-and-death work with her, and includes some intelligent historical moments behind the facade of Regency formality (a priest performing humourous cunnilingus; the shock of overt swearing; the prospects of a deaf-mute; the plight of poor Irish families.) The other is a fairly predictable tale of unfortunate lovers, stern patriarchs, inspiring but cautionary role models, betrayals, elopements and what have you. Some plot points make no sense at all – the villain is foreshadowed as being the villain by being effeminate and bad at sport. A director’s cut, Bladerunner-style, could make a much better film out of Becoming Jane.

Mullet
Starring Ben Mendelsohn

Not a period drama! No, Mullet is a small Australian art film which received poor reviews by fools who went in expecting a comedy about a fellow with an unfashionable hairdo. I enjoyed Mendelsohn’s work in Cosi alongside Barry Otto, so I was happy to enjoy Mullet – and indeed I did. It’s a subtle film – not heavy on plot at all – about a small town and a man who left and then came back. It’s about the troubles people keep within themselves, about how they communicate, about how they tie themselves down into lives they don’t want – or how they find the life they do want, but feel pressured by others into seeking out something more.

It plays with expectations a lot – the characters who talk the most don’t manage to reveal or resolve anything, while the angry, brooding, shut-off characters you feel sure are going to get in big trouble suddenly come out with the right things to say. The female lead (such as there is – everyone gets more or less equal sceen time, but she does the narration) invites Mendelsohn to stay the night, then gets angry when he doesn’t have soulless sex with her and sneak out. The use of music is interesting. Characters sing a lot of what they can’t say – not musical-style, just singing to themselves or around the house, as you do, and not well, but it’s extraordinarily touching and revealing. I’m putting Mullet on my list of Australian films which are well worth keeping – as well as the aforementioned Cosi, there’s Dead Letter Office, Spider and Rose, He Died With A Falafel In His Hand, Crackerjack, Bad Eggs and the utterly fantastic Peaches.

Hitman: Blood Money
For PC, Xbox and PS2

I’m including a videogame review because I’ve been playing it recently and it’s quite an interesting little piece. Blood Money is the fourth in the series, so they’ve had time to work out a lot of the issues which made earlier installments either unreasonably difficult or preposterously simple. The stealth engine is even stronger, there’s more emphasis on preventing bloodshed – non-targets can now be sedated indefinitely to get them out of the way without them waking up and blowign your cover – and hits can be made to look like accidents to allay suspicion. There’s a clever system of avoiding leaving evidence or being punished with increasing police and public recognition which builds across the course of the game. The plot is well-done, if a trifle underworked; the voice acting is top-notch, the graphics are very nice and some of the puzzles are really quite good.

Blood Money is thus a fun, well-balanced action/stealth game which lets itself down in three ways. One is that it is, simply, hugely sexually exploitative. Of all the female characters in the game, an easy 99 in every 100 are impossibly slim and buxom, wearing tops so low-cut there’s no way they’d actually stay worn short of invisible travelling skyhooks. Certainly, one mission takes place at a pornographer’s ball, so there at least it can be attributed to the surgeon’s knife, but the rest of the female cast we can assume to be misused as eye-fodder for the wretched he-nerd. Not unheard of in videogames, no sir, but it’s otherwise so well-done that I’d actually have expected better of it.

Secondly, there remains the curious fact that the main character, Agent 47, looks so scary that there’s no way he’d ever actually be able to sneak in anywhere, whatever disguise he came up with. He’s an enormous man with a skull two sizes larger than his face with no follicles and a barcoded head. The only restricted area he’d ever really blend in to is the VIP Lounge at the Frightening Bastards Convention. The third flaw, and I admit this is splitting hairs, is that the quality of the graphics show up that the designers obviously based 47’s clothes on something lurking at the back of their own wardrobes, and so we have a stunningly-rendered model of a cheap, bad suit. 47 dresses head-to-toe in black, like a good assassin should, but his jacket doesn’t fit around the collar and bunches up around his bum. And it’s buttoned up wrong. The man earns half a million dollars in an afternoon; he can afford to visit a tailor. He could even kill the poor chap afterwards, so that he can boast NO-ONE ALIVE HAS MY INSIDE LEG MEASUREMENT. Pillock.


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