Victims of Success
Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. This time we have a couple of high-profile literary adaptations to get our teeth into, although the Japan time warp regrettably means they've both been out in Europe and America for ages. Hey ho...
The first thing to be said about Stefan Fangmeier's Eragon is that it is not quite the worst film 24LAS has ever reviewed (that accolade still goes to Sex Lives of the Potato Men, and it'll take something very special indeed to change this) - but it is probably the most unforgivably bad movie of the last five or six years. Low-budget British comedies starring people off the telly are one thing, but nearly-all-star adaptations of heroic fantasy novels with $100 million budgets are quite another - it takes dedication to be as bad as Eragon is, particularly when you consider that it's blatantly ripping off its style and setting from the biggest movie trilogy of all time, and its plot from one of the most successful films ever.
Which film I refer to should become clear if I outline the plot. Our hero (Ed Speleers walks around pretending to be him - acting is too strong a word for it) lives on his uncle's farm. The world is in a pretty bad state as an evil dictator has overthrown the good old days with the aid of his henchman. However, a rebel alliance (ahem) is determined to put a stop to this and a brave young princess is on her way to their secret base with important news she's just nicked. Grabbed by the nasty henchman she bungs the secret off to our boy. The local mad old hermit suddenly reveals himself to be a hero of the old order gone into hiding and pledges himself to train the young hero as he comes into his birthright.
No, honestly, it really is that blatant a copy, but it appears to be a copy where stupid people were in charge of every department. The rot begins in the script, which has villains called the Urgles, for example, and would probably be even more crypto-fascist than that other movie I was alluding to were it not so utterly confused. (There's a cod-Arabian rebel leader called Ajihad, which is at best a tasteless name and at worst a downright inflammatory one.) The thing kicks off with a voice-over which doesn't so much fill in the back-story as simply describe what's happening on the screen. The special effects are average at best, which given that the director's proper job is as a special effects man is not all one could have hoped for. He may also be a part-time blackmailer as I can't otherwise imagine how he got respected thesps like Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Robert Carlyle and Djimon Hounsou to appear in this wretched farrago. They adopt various strategies to protest against their involvement - Irons varies his character's accent not just from scene to scene, but from one line to the next, while Malkovich just over-enunciates every-single-word-he-says. Just when you think things can't possibly get any worse, on comes Joss Stone in a silly hat.The only marginally interesting or well-performed character (a truly heroic effort by Garrett Hedlund) gets virtually nothing to do and his story is almost wholly undeveloped. Maybe it is being kept in reserve for the sequel which is clearly planned (quite simply, they don't bother with a proper ending and the expectation that massive success will lead to future installments is almost palpable).
There are many things in the world for which there are not proper words in widespread use. To this number I would like to add really good creative people or works of art that are massively and deservedly popular, but which provoke so many money-grubbingly awful cash-ins that the quality of the original is in danger of being eclipsed. It happened to the print Lord of the Rings, it happened to Star Wars, and now it's happening to the Lord of the Rings movies as well. I just about managed to sit through the first Narnia movie, but if this keeps up I shall run amok in the cinema next winter. No-one, I would hope, really wants to see me charging about yelling incoherently and frothing at the mouth, but it would have one thing to commend it - it would have more depth and entertainment value than Eragon does. Ugh.
Moving swiftly on, we turn to Sofia Coppola's follow-up to Lost in Translation, which I was not surprised to learn would probably not have been made had that movie not turned out to be such a hit. If you walk into the offices of film companies (even ones owned by your dad) and announce you want to make a bio-pic of an 18th century aristocrat, starring an actress best known for playing Spider-Man's other half and with a soundtrack somewhat derived from Malcolm McLaren's back catalogue, it helps to have a big hit and an Oscar in your recent past.
Kirsten Dunst indeed plays Marie Antoinette and although the chronology of the movie is rather vague, it covers her life from her arrival at the court of Versailles in 1770 to the Royal Family fleeing the premises at the onset of the French Revolution. In between come many scenes concerning court ritual, her initially-non-consummated marriage, very big wigs, and lots of shoes, but not a great deal of plot as it is traditionally understood. We had a bit of an excursion to see this at the Serial Killerplex in Chiba (mainly, it must be said, because we weren't aware that The Departed was already showing) and afterwards the consensus was that that this movie would have been much improved by things like a story and some decent dialogue.
The tone is rather uneven, with some bizarre casting decisions - Marianne Faithfull plays the Empress of Austria, Steve Coogan her ambassador to Versailles (Coogan is rather restrained in this role) and Rip Torn is Louis XV. (Everyone uses their natural accent, which is arguably a mistake. At first this just looks like a rather dull costume drama and then about half-way through everyone starts dancing to Bow Wow Wow and Siouxsie and the Banshees as Parisian Balls. And this is another film that doesn't really bother with an ending - I'm not saying I feel cheated of seeing Kirsten Dunst get guillotined, but I did come out wondering what the point was.
That said, it is interesting that, for a figure synonymous with decadence and excess, Marie Antoinette is presented entirely sympathetically throughout this movie. Dunst plays here as a sweet girl who finds herself helplessly sucked into the wild debauchery and bedhopping frenzy of court life (a bit like the expat scene here come to think of it), much more likable than (for example) the Duchess de Polignac, one of her cronies, richly played here by the lovely Rose Byrne (interestingly, she and Coppola both have stints as Naboo handmaidens in their past careers). The film's depiction of overindulged rich girls with outrageous dress sense and obsessions with tiny dogs seemed to me to be drawing an explicit parallel with the likes of Paris Hilton. If this is intentional, then the movie is in some way suggesting that many often-excoriated aspects of modern culture are in fact nothing be ashamed of. This is not a point of view I am much inclined to agree with, but it's one I'm prepared to listen to. That said, it's not particularly well-presented here.
I'm not entirely sure if this is a bad movie or not. It's certainly diverting and passes the time pleasantly enough, but it does seem rather superficial and Dunst doesn't quite have the chops to pull off a role as significant as this. She gets a number of decorous nude scenes which are bound to raise her internet profile, but I think the one who should be worrying about cries of 'The Empress has no clothes on!' is the director.