Cine world: Pixels, Paper Towns, The Gift

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It’s been a little while since I last did a film review, in which time I’ve seen quite a few films, so I’m going to break them down handily into two categories: those that concentrate on the problems of men and those that concentrate on the problems of women – and we’ll begin with the guys and catch up with the women tomorrow.

Pixels is such a bizarre film. I’d love to know how on earth it was concocted and who let them go through with it in the way they did. The plot, such as it is, is essentially quite a fun one: aliens are trying to invade Earth via the mechanism of engaging the planet in a head-to-head battle using old computer games on a grand scale. Anything this high concept needs to just run with it and be super silly and super fun to make it work. The scenes whereby the characters engage in the gaming battles are a lot of fun: lovely visuals, well-paced and exciting. With the concept and these moments, you basically have the recipe for a feelgood family film that harks back to the 80s PG high-concept comedies like Three Men and a Baby, Turner and Hooch, Vice Versa, Big and so on. Judging by the audience in the cinema, that is also what they were expecting-although it’s a 12A, there were lots of children distinctly under that age with their parents. It should have been a silly comedy where adults work with kids/teens to defeat the baddies and celebrate old school videogames.

The problem is, it is only partly that kind of film. The other kind of a film is something it really shouldn’t bother trying to be. The male characters, all fortysomethings – a combination of horrible-personalitied losers and winners (one of them is, implausibly, the president of the United States), are having those midlife crisis, nostalgia moments. Again, this would not be a problem for the film and you could do this in a way that would make it fun and appealing to adults and kids alike – probably by involving younger people as well (one youngster is involved, a bit, but he’s underdeveloped). However, these characters are more like the type of man you see in films such as the Hangover or Hot Tub Time Machine, i.e. aiming for a very different audience than families. There is quite a lot of sexual innuendo, crude jokes and so on, which are not a problem in of themselves in a film, they just don’t really fit with the high concept silly family feel of the other parts of this one. Although it is, sadly, male dominated, there are moments, although they are brief, where a couple of female characters get to shine, including a female Prime Minister of the UK (played by Fiona Shaw – a true sign that this film should be a family caper if ever there was one) – it’s very white though.

I just want to shake the people behind this film and ask them what they were doing and why on earth they didn’t go back to the drawing board and reinvent it as the proper family fun picture it should be. The pre-credits sequence with the men as 80s teens was quite fun. Perhaps they should have set the whole thing then and abandoned the loser 40-something-idiots altogether. That way we wouldn’t have had Adam Sandler in it, which seems like a win.

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I didn’t have particularly high hopes for Paper Towns. I have read The Fault in our Stars and thought it poorly written, clunky, clichéd and predictable. I know John Green has a massive following amongst young people, but I really didn’t get it on the strength of that novel, nor of the film made of it. However, the trailers for this one looked. quite interesting and I wanted to give it a shot. I do like a good rite of passage film when it’s done well.

I heard some teenagers in the queue moaning beforehand about how unrealistic it was (and dishing up plot spoilers left right and centre. WHYYYY?), but you really have to abandon any pretence of realism in order to get this film. It centres around Q (Quentin-all the characters in this film have stupid names), an 18-year-old on the verge of leaving school, who has what he perceives as a magical experience one night, when former childhood best friend Margot takes him out on an adventure. He believes then that he is in love with Margot-but she disappears and he and his friends then try and find her via following a series of clues and taking a ridiculous but fun road trip.

In a lot of ways, the film does what you’d expect, although some may be marginally surprised by the way it ends. However, what’s refreshing about it is it combines the road trip film, the coming-of-age film and the romance film into one neat little package-and for a film that is largely about one young man, it has decent roles for girls too. Okay, Margot aside, the women in this film tend to be mothers or girlfriends-but they are more well-developed than in some films I could name and you could argue that the boys don’t even pass the reverse Bechdel test because they mainly talk about girls. And points for bringing the girls on the road trip and it not just being the three guys – it certainly made for a different take on the genre, giving it a bit of a 21st-century Famous Five feel.

The film is centrally about friendship, as well as about the point in life where you transition into adulthood and think about your future. The promos might make it seem that it’s just about boy meets girl, but actually that’s not really the central emphasis unlike the schmaltz of the Fault in our stars.

I’m not gonna lie, this isn’t the most original film you’ll ever see. Some of the narration (probably taken from the novel itself) borders on the cheesy, it’s super fantastical and bears no resemblance to being an actual teenager in many ways. However, it’s quite sweet, engaging and the storyline keeps your interest. I wouldn’t rush out to see it, but if there’s nothing else on that you fancy, this one is worth a punt.

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The Gift is such a frustrating film, as well as one with a title that’s been used a bajillion times before. It has a really good premise: a couple (Simon and Robyn) move to a new town, the man meets an old childhood friend who turns out to be a bit creepy and chills and see you. The setup of the film works well-it’s not particularly new or original, but the performances are good and you can easily buy into the ‘is Gordo a bad guy or simply misunderstood’ question.

Initially, all signs are fine for a chiller-by-numbers: Simon doesn’t like Gordo, Robyn thinks he’s okay and the audience aren’t sure. The weird things that happened to the couple are your standard creepy thriller fare. But as the film plays out, it just becomes something that they really shouldn’t have done.

Caution, beyond here lie spoilers.

The first twist, that Gordo isn’t the only one after Simon, but someone else wants to scare him, is okay, but it comes rather out of nowhere and is glossed over pretty quickly, so ultimately feels a bit pointless. Okay, it cements that Simon is a dick, but we can know that Simon is like that from the moment we first meet him anyway. He isn’t really a character that engages the audience’s sympathies at any stage.

The bits that really got me were the revelation of why Gordo hates Simon and the last part of Gordo enacting his revenge. When it’s revealed that Gordo hates Simon because Simon spread a rumour about him being raped as a boy and this apparently made everyone think Gordo was gay and hated him, this is bad enough. Rape being used in such a trivial manner is always a tricky area and there could have been any number of reasons the writers could have turned to instead. However, the worst comes when Gordo reveals that he may have raped Robyn and that the baby she gives birth to at the end may well be his child. This is troubling on a number of levels, regardless of whether or not the rape took place. Firstly, it doesn’t fit with the way Gordo as a character has been established-he wants revenge on Simon, but he has never seemed to have anything against Robyn.  I am sure Edgerton and his team probably think that the point is Gordo was trying to get to Simon by urging something Simon loved, but there are so many other ways he could have done this and this just makes the female character an extension of the male character, his property.  The impact is not, therefore, on the woman who was raped (if she was), but on the man whose property was somehow tainted. It’s not even clear whether she would ever find out. It’s just an appalling way to treat a female character-and even the male characters, for that matter. There is no need for this to happen to the plot to make sense and it just leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The notion of Robyn being little more than Simon’s possession is made worse by the fact that she doesn’t even seem to have a job and is at home all day living off her husband’s income and ready to play victim, which is pretty insulting to the audience, as well as to Rebecca Hall who has to play her.

Edgerton does a decent job of directing and starring in his own film but he really needed someone else on board to temper his excesses and help him with the real issues in his story.

Overall then, cinema’s portrayal of men’s stories is currently a mixed bag. All three of these films had moments where they were likeable, but all of them fell short. Paper Towns is definitely the pick of the three, the one that makes most sense and has a good idea of its target audience. It’s also the one with relatively well-developed female characters and some characters who are not white. It’s an average rite-of-passage film, but unlike the other two, it knows who it’s for and it does what it should without offending people along the way.
The other two could have been brilliant if the writers had only thought through what they were doing a little bit more.

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