Tag Archives: review

Reel Talk Episode 23: Spider-Man 3 was Actually Good


This week on Reel Talk, I said something I now regret. I said that Spider-Man 3 was a better movie than Captain America 2. I was of course wrong to say this. It was dumb. After all, what kind of objective basis is there to state one movie is ‘better’ than any other? Just because I thought Spider-Man 3 was a visually inventive, stylishly-cartoonish, glorious fuck-you to interfering moneymen and the expectation that all comic book movies must be serious dramas, and thought Captain America 2, while functional, was completely nondescript, does not mean I can make any sort of objective statement about their comparative worth. While I do believe you can take aspects of an artwork and compare them with the same aspect in another artwork (like for example, the fact that the CGI in Spider-Man 3 is total balls, while in CapAm2 it’s really great), the value placed on a piece of art experienced as a whole is a completely personal matter (as this piece so persuasively argues). However because that experience, in being personal, is total, I find myself using objective language to describe films all the time. Most of the time that’s fine. It’s understood that any time anyone is talking about art they are expressing an opinion, and so objectivity is reflective of passion not rules. But declarations like one movie being ‘better’ than another go beyond mere opinion. They attempt to institute rank where the only true measure of worth is personal feeling. In short, they have no place in movie discourse.

I do love Spider-Man 3 though.

I also love Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley’s masterpiece, and get very enthusiastic about it. Special Guest & New FilmSoc President Klara gets passionate about Captain America 2. Zhana really liked Drinking Buddies, and Pete is nothing but excited about the assless chaps of Mad Max 2. So, what are you waiting for? Listen at the link below, or subscribe on iTunes!


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Review: A Field in England

A Field in England is an understandable, yet incomprehensible film.  At once a fantasy, a period drama and an acid trip, this is not your everyday summer flick. Of course, the everyday has never particularly interested director Ben Wheatley.

The best I could make out, this film is mostly about three characters: two deserters from the English Civil War and a wizard’s apprentice. These people are then forced at a henchman’s gunpoint to serve said wizard’s other apprentice, who has gone treasure hunting. Said service consists of digging a bloody great hole in a field. I’m not sure what they were digging for, nor do I think it matters much. This is not the kind of film concerned with reasons. This is a film about characters and sensory brutality.

Recently, Warner Bros released a movie about Superman. It was bad, in a supremely stupid way, with the absolute dullard moment being a scene where Pa Kent runs into a tornado to save a dog. Sure, it makes sense in a broad way (Pa Kent is good, good people save dogs), but think any deeper than that and you realise that a man with a family who loves him and needs him, just gave his life to save a dumb animal. That’s not a well-considered action. Of course, if we in the audience had first been briefed that the dog was a massively important member of the household, vital to the emotional stability of Superman or some such thing, then the action would have been more heroic. We are never given this briefing though, and without such a personalised motivation, we are left to watch Pa Kent throw his life away in the most ridiculous manner possible.

The contrast with A Field in England is that there are no generalities within Ben Wheatley’s film. The script (by Wheatley and Amy Jump) is sharp enough to chop vegetables. The beginning of the film is a disorientating whirl of period costume, with the black-and-white film’s absence of colour serving to remove any immediately distinguishing features. Yet, my initial inability to tell people apart did not matter. Within minutes of the film’s beginning, I had a clear grasp of all introduced characters. There was the gentle, cowardly Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), the gruff, independent Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), the clownish Friend (Richard Glover) and the over-friendly Cutler (Ryan Pope). These characters then proceeded to act and change in a sensible fashion. Jacob for example, develops from a prideful loner to Whitehead’s comrade, through first sympathy, then genital-centric gratitude. The result is that the little bit of the human mind that finds robots creepy, the bit that knows when another human is not quite right, was not triggered by A Field in England. This is film with characters that can be believed in.

However, this is not to say A Field in England is an easy watch. As was clear from his second feature Kill List, Ben Wheatley has a real penchant for sensory overload. The sewer sequence of Kill List, which remains in my memory as a mess of dark tunnels, pale flesh, terrible masks, glinting knives and the sound of demonic howling, is a work of horror that clings to my mind even now. A Field in England is similarly sticky, possessed of sequences of alien chaos and fork-on-pottery discomfort. Sometimes, watching the film, I felt as if I was watching Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared on an endless loop. Like that nightmarish short, A Field in England aims to flay the nerves and batter the mind until it reels. It’s completely disorientating, an effect which, when combined with the excellent character work, is a little confusing. Is the film trying to engage us, or alienate us?

Honestly, I suspect it’s trying to do both. I don’t get the impression Wheatley imagined A Field in England as a neat narrative, and I’m particularly happy he didn’t. This is not Mud, not a film to rent and enjoy for the simple competence of the storytelling. This is a film that intends to leave an impact. You’ll laugh, you’ll squirm, you’ll wonder why act breaks are marked with impromptu posing, and you’ll remember those experiences long after you leave the cinema. I still have no idea what was going on in A Field in England. However I also know that, beyond the opaque symbols, the film worked magnificently.

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Cosmopolis & Cerebral Filmmaking

Cosmopolis is all that’s wrong with cerebral filmmaking.

The magazine Little White Lies takes an excellent approach to reviewing films. It scores them on three separate counts: the reviewer’s anticipation for that film, how entertaining the film was while it was being watched, and the lasting impact of that film. It’s a good system, because it allows a film’s intelligence to be evaluated separately from how engaging it is.

Had I reviewed Cosmopolis for LWL, I would have given it a 3/4 for impact. For actual fun, I would have slapped it with a 0-1. I feel this nicely encapsulates the problem of Cosmopolis. In trying to be intelligent, it sacrifices entertainment.

Cosmopolis is a pretty effective (and, given the fact that the source material was written in 2003, goddamn prescient) criticism of modern capitalism. Its central character, Eric Packer (R-Patz), is one of those modern billionaires whose wealth is not earned by the production of things, but in playing the rises and falls of a global market. The film charts his headlong downfall, in a New York rocked by insane protests, where 99%-ish types throw rats at people (everyone apparently having read the same poem by Zbigniew Herbert, wherein rats become a unit of currency). This is a world where the insubstantial nature of wealth has divorced the rich from reality, and the real majority is mightily annoyed at the dominance these aliens have.

In short, this dark fictional world is an effective, angry critique. Or it would be, if the film was not completely rubbish.

As a whole, I have hated movies more than I hated Cosmopolis. It is not so offensively crass or dumb as Transformers or Battle: LA. It’s not as up-its-own-arse as Himizu or Mitsuko Delivers. But still, those movies I came to hate over their duration.

I loathed Cosmopolis within five minutes.

This is partly down to the dialogue, which is just awful: winding, overcomplicated and pretentiously rhetorical. It’s the kind of speech that belongs in the mouth of a jowly man on a soapbox, projected out with gouts of spittle and much facial wobbling. The kind of dialogue that has meaning, but is so aware of that meaning it sounds affected and artificial.[1]

But pretentious gibberish does not always hit the ears like the aural equivalent of a cheese grater. Case in point: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It and Cosmopolis actually prove to be fairly similar films. They are both thematic critiques. Fear and Loathing is an excellent criticism of post-60s America, capturing the glittering spiritual void that the USA became in the wake of the decade’s failed revolution. Its lead character, Raoul Duke, is a raving philosophical nutjob, and the dialogue has many of the features that annoyed me about Cosmopolis. But what director Terry Gilliam manages to do is parcel that dialogue in a way that makes its self-importance palatable.

Part of the parcel is Johnny Depp, whose paranoid, terrified delivery makes Raoul Duke’s ravings sound naturalistic. By contrast the emotionless delivery of Pattinson and Sarah Gadon (who plays Packer’s wife Elise Shifrin), made the language sound artificial and affected. They didn’t sound like people. They sounded like actors reading from a script they did not understand. Only Paul Giamatti managed to deliver his lines with the naturalism they so desperately needed, his speech animated by an entire proletariat’s worth of bitterness.

So, Cronenberg clearly got casting all wrong (from an artistic standpoint at least: R-Patz at least encourages ticket sales). But that’s not his only misstep. Thematic films inspire a detached audience viewpoint. When a piece of entertainment is more intent on delivering an intellectual message rather than cathartic thrills, total engagement is never a real possibility. But when you hold an audience apart in some ways, it is common sense draw them in in others. In Fear and Loathing, what draws you in to the movie is not the rambling dialogue, but Gilliam’s fantastic visuals. Whether it’s the joy of seeing Depp’s crazed, drugged-up performance, the sheer weirdness of Duke’s fantasies (giant boozing reptiles: hell yes), or simply Gilliam’s accomplished camerawork, the visuals of Fear and Loathing are interesting enough to counterbalance the alienating dialogue.

Cronenberg’s visuals for Cosmopolis on the other hand are dull, dull, dull. There is nothing really very interesting happening on screen. The camera is sedate rather than energetic, holding shots and moving only in slow sweeps. It all smacks of purposeful detachment, of a director choosing to address the intelligent critique at the heart of Cosmopolis in a studious, analytical matter, rather than trusting that the critique will shine through a more dramatic surface. What Cronenberg has made here is not a film. It’s an essay.

Of course, it’s only in my personal judgement that Cosmopolis is a failure. I know there are dissenting opinions on this score: check out these reviews by Ross Miller and Robbie Collins as example. Just because Cronenberg made an essay with light doesn’t mean it isn’t a good essay. You could even say that the film achieves its purpose: it wants to be detached and analytical and that’s what it is.

My reply to this is simple. That may be the film’s purpose. But the idea you have to minimise engagement in order to better analyse an underlying theme is ridiculous: the definition of great fiction is that it does both. True, the critical community often attributes highest value to thematic fiction over purely dramatic fiction. We like films that make us think. But this inherent value judgement is misleading. It implies that the purely cerebral film is the ideal, when nothing could be further from the truth. We like intelligence. But we also like drama, the ability to lose ourselves in a story. Cosmopolis does all it can to prevent this from happening. It believes that being intelligent is more important than being fun.

No-one in their right mind believes that.

[1] Yes, I appreciate the irony OK? Rest assured, if Cosmopolis had any beneficial consequences, it’s that I now double check everything I write to make sure I haven’t fallen into the same trap

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