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The Departed (2006)
Not really a Scorsese film
The title above is nonsense, of course, as it clearly is a Scorsese film, both in tone and style. The problem, though, is it ought not to be.
For those who haven't seen Infernal Affairs the film on which The Departed is based - the plot revolves around two men. An undercover cop, infiltrating a mob gang in Boston (DiCaprio) and an undercover mobster (Damon), who has infiltrated the police force at the arrangement of the appallingly psychotic Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).
Frenetic action ensues as the two warring tribes tear each other apart in order to find their respective moles. Meanwhile, both undercover men are struggling with their identity. But which one will crack first? Taking aside the remake issue for a moment, does the film work on its own terms? Partially. The story is excellent and involving, and while it is a long film at nearly 2hours 30min, it keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. The characters are very well drawn, and there is clear movement in both characters, which helps to engage the audience. Leonardo DiCaprio is truly excellent as Billy Costigan, the mole for the Boston Police Department; and a special mention must also go to Mark Wahlberg, who manages to steal just about every scene he's in.
However, despite these notable strengths, I completely failed to leave the cinema feeling wowed. Entertained, with out a doubt, but this is a long way from being Scorsese's best work.
Part of the problem is the juxtaposition of violence and humour. While being an excellent director in almost every respect, Scorsese is no Tarantino when it comes to violence and humour. The humour worked fine on its own terms (Wahlberg, in particular, was hilarious) but it was used in a clunky way, and disrupted the mood and the pace of the film.
Another problem was Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello. Jack is unleashed in The Departed and not in a good way. He seems to think he's playing The Joker again. I'm not quite sure what either Nicholson or Scorsese though they were doing with all those rat imitations. In these circumstances, the insanity of the mobster would normally intimidate the other characters and the audience (c.f. Mr Blonde in The Reservoir Dogs). Here, either the chemistry between Leo and Jack was wrong; or the scene was badly written or performed (I suspect the later). It just didn't work.
So to the remake issue. In many respects, The Departed is a photographic negative of Infernal Affairs, which suffered from poor characterisation, but had spectacularly slick plotting, and a coherent tone.
It would be wrong to expect a remake to mimic the style of the original. But in this case, where style and substance are so inextricably fused in the original, it can be dangerous to mess with it.
Unfortunately, Infernal Affairs had Michael Mann written all over it. It needed a highly stylised treatment and, dare I say it, California. Something just doesn't ring true in The Departed. It was a good film, but something was just wrong.
Gedo senki (2006)
Suffocated by its source material
Films experiencing production hell are rarely as good as they might have been, no matter how good the director is (c.f. Gangs of New York and AI) and this one is no exception.
Taken on its own terms, Tales of Earthsea is a competent, if not breathtaking, start for Miyazaki junior, and bears comparison to the lesser Gibli canon without scaling the heights of its major work. It is unfair to compare it to My Cousin Totoro, Spirited Away or Graveyard of the Fireflies; but it is also a shame for the fans of Earthsea. They didn't get a top director at the top of his game.
The principal problem with the film is that it doesn't seem to know what to do with the books it is based on. Are they source material to be pillaged? Are they stories to be adapted? Are they concepts to be explored? In the end Miyazaki opts for a mix: the narrative structure is broadly based on the third novel (The Farthest Shore), with a significant sub-plots from both the first (The Wizard of Earthsea) and the fourth (Tehanu). Into the mix he throws some recognisable manga/anime formulae (the arch-enemy; the ronin henchmen; the violence) which cut across the major themes explored by the novels and alluded to by the film.
If this all sounds like a disaster, it isn't exactly. The plot functions: evil wizard, through pride, upsets the balance of Earthsea forcing archmage, Sparrowhawk, in the company of a young prince, to do battle to restore the balance, destroy the evil and face down their own demons. Had Miyazaki been more ruthless all would probably have been well for anime fans anyway. But there are too many blind alleys, lose ends and needless distractions all nods to the books - which make the first half of the film in particular feel like a second rate brass band meandering painfully around a Brassed Off version of Adagio for Strings. The narcotic Hazia, for example, which dominates the beginning of the third story, is introduced early in the film and then simply abandoned. Later, Tenar's back-story fades into nothingness leaving the audience with a forcible impression of a producer impatiently looking at his watch. The whole effect is not homage, but distraction and a film that it is at least 40minutes longer than it needed to be.
Ursula LeGuin, who wrote the Earthsea novels, had suggested to (Hayao) Miyazaki that he create new story for Ged, uncluttered by her previous stories, set in the many years between the first two books. This would have made for a less ponderous film.
Regarding the technical side of animation; it appears the younger Miyazaki was aiming for the dreamlike quality of animation so characteristic of his father's work. Again, he has some partial success in this regard, although it is undeniably more clunky than other Gibli titles. But a lot can be forgiven for his reliance on hand-drawn animation, and there are some moments of real beauty windblown grasses, rocks on the seashore and chill sunsets. This, along with some strong characters and a much tighter second half, make Tales from Earthsea watchable film, if a slightly underwhelming one. But better than Disney. 6/10
Children of Men (2006)
More of a mystopia really
You certainly have to credit Children of Men with originality. Rooting a dystopian vision in a real life social or political problem is just so
Apparently by 2027 women can't conceive anymore (isn't that always the way). Women have destroyed the world again; when will they ever learn? Civilisation has, predictably, broken down. The world beyond the English Channel has descended into howling, woad-smeared anarchy. Oh, and the government is evil because it doesn't like refugees.
The problem with Children of Men is that it seems to have been assembled backwards. Most dystopias start with a topical problem or issue they want to explore and then build up to an extreme conclusion. Orwell and Bradbury had totalitarianism; Huxley and Burgess had social dislocation; Atwood had chauvinism; Niccol had genetic enhancement. Children of Men, though, appears to have begun with its funky dystopian backcloth and then realised half way through that it didn't actually have anything to say. Thus we have to listen with increasing impatience to all this guff about hating 'fugees (this caused me a momentary confusion: "don't like The Fugees? So what, I mean, who does?")
Now don't get me wrong, I'm a liberal kind of guy; I like immigration (as I discovered the disconcertingly confusing contraction of refugees to mean). But this Salford Poly, bed-sit politics is a bit preposterous in a post-apocalyptic society don't you think? Somehow, I don't think Neil Pye from the Young Ones would have survived the post-infertility thought police holocaust. Just guessing.
What Children of Men does, it does quite well. It develops atmosphere and pace well and there are some good performances (particularly Clive Owen and Michael Caine) to set against the slightly hammy performances of the NUS fish warriors (I'm not kidding). But in the end it is impossible to escape from the infuriating, TV-shaking pointlessness of it all. Fecundity problem? For Pandas, yes. Are we Pandas? Government doesn't want to turn Britain into a hostel for the entire population of the world? How could they not; what would the Guardian say?
Esta película de Puta Madre!
Matador is one of the strangest, darkest, (and yet compelling) early films from Spanish master filmmaker Pedro Amoldovar.
It is completely nuts.
Pour in equal measures of sadism, masochism, bullfighting, perverted sexuality, and sexual violence. Add in a splash of comedy and soupcon of star-crossed lovers (if, for a moment, you thought pairing Tybalt and Lady McBeth qualified as star-crossed) and you have what passes as characterisation. Mix dark nights with gaudy flamenco colours and you have some striking cinematography. I'll come to the plot in a minute
Amoldovar was clearly enjoying Spanish cinema's new-found, post-Franco sexual and artistic liberalism. The prudish among his audience might suggest he was positively wallowing in it. Whatever the truth, Matador is a masterpiece of his style, if not, indeed, a whole style in of itself.
The plot or possibly a better description, the tapestry over which the characters move is a murder hunt. Very few prizes will be won, however, for guessing the culprit/s. Two people are quickly in the audience's frame because they are shown er murdering people on camera. A third person (Banderas, in to my mind his best Amoldovar role) confesses to the murders in a fit of insecurity and remorse over an attempted rape ("some girls get all the luck" comments a female duty officer dryly, proving that feminism wasn't that big in Spain back in the 1980s). Nevertheless, the net soon closes on the crushingly obvious culprits (who in the meantime have developed quite a crush on each other). As previously mentioned, completely nuts.
Matador's strengths are in its characterisation and its sheer bare-facedness. Amoldovar has, as usual, assembled a character list of freaks and proceeded to humanise all of them to the point where there is a genuine whiff of tragedy in the final act. To mention the great performances is really to rehearse the cast list. Assumpta Serna, Nacho Martinez, Antonio Banderas and Eva Cobo are all excellent. And it really is worth seeing, just for the young Antonio.
There are some interesting points made in the film about outsiders, liberalism, sexual politics and gender politics (as always with Amoldovar). I'll let you pick through them. It is, though, not so much a film as a giant red rag to the raging bull of conservatism, deftly whisked aside to the ragged applause of an admiring, if somewhat perplexed, audience. A positive Jimi Hendrix of a film, unpolished, with some definite dud notes, but undeniably the work of a genius. 8½/ 10
Jiao zi (2004)
I've swallowed worse
Ever wondered what the sound of the crunch of teeth on
well, never mind. You'll find out.
You may not be surprised to know that this recent Extreme Asia flick isn't really about cooking. Well, not entirely anyway. You may be more surprised to know that it's not really a horror film. It is pretty disgusting though; so don't think about watching it unless you've got a strong stomach.
It's impossible to explain the plot in any detail without giving away the gruesome surprise. But fortunately our director, Fruit Chan, has explained all. It is, apparently, all about modern women's obsession with staying young. Well, possibly, although to judge by the camera-work it's more a feature length homage to Ling Bai's chest than her gift for experimental cooking.
What it really boils down to is that classic, older man married to older woman falls for younger woman who turns out to be old enough to be older woman's mother but has discovered an evil formula for staying young involving, well, never mind, you'll find out , story. Nothing complicated there.
Tony Leung Ka Fai gives Ling Bai's chest (along with the rest of her, his wife and his other lover) his customary and lascivious attention. So it's pretty much as you were all around.
But what the hell, I enjoyed it. It's well acted (with relish, in fact), pretty well plotted, has a couple of suitably gruesome plot twists and I felt genuinely involved with the characters. My faith in Christopher Doyle's camera-work has been given a partial rebirth after the cheesiness of Hero. And, of course - as a man it was nice to feel vindicated in the belief of ones total non-responsibility for at least one of the world's ills.
As a genuine discussion of the issues of feminine youth obsession, it might come across as a bit shallow. But then it's basically a fable. Fables need a simple message. And this film has just that: blame women.
So, if you're a woman, just remember this is all your fault. Nothing to do with men like Leung Ka Fai at all. It's you all down the line, you evil swine.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Alien, but a bit fishy
As concepts go, Deep Blue Sea's might be described as your basic no-brainer. "It's kinda Jaws meets Alien meets 28 Days Later" drawls Finland's answer to Michael Bay, Renny "The Marlin" Harlin; "Kinda, Samuel L meets uber-babe meets blond surfer dude meets wacky ship's cook with these cool one liners" he adds redundantly as the next Woody Allen Project is quietly shelved and the studio's finance director reaches for his corporate cheque book. Who said modern cinema was formulaic?
On the bright side, such sparse imaginative furnishing does leave room for putting ones feet up, getting in some popcorn-related girth enlargement, and deriving passing amusement from betting on who is gonna get scragged next.
And, believe it or not, working out who is live bait is no mean task, mainly due to a moment of inspired plotting early on, where a prominent member of the cast is sent for a figurative and literal early bath. Streuth, is no one sacred.
The plot? Ho, hum. Well, let's call it a premise rather than a plot. Marine-based scientists developing a cure for Alzheimer's genetically engineer huge, hyper-intelligent, hyper-aggressive mako sharks for ooh, something or other. Hey, what could happen next?! Can someone smell fish?
Actually Deep Blue Sea is not that bad for a brainless action movie. Harlin the Marlin at least copies effectively; so while the audience may be forcibly reminded of Alien, it could be a lot worse - it could be being reminded Alien Resurrection. Harlin also keeps us on tenterhooks with some well-paced action interspersed with a totally gratuitous yet very welcome shot of Saffron Burrows stripping down to her grundies. Once the fan has proverbially been hit, the audience finds out lots of lovely things about various cast members, which keep us at least half on the side of the tooth team; all things considered, just as well. Chomp, chomp.
So it depends what you want. Big it may be, but Deep Blue Sea is certainly not clever. Jaws was based on Enemy of the People; Deep Blue Sea well, isn't. On the positive side, the sharks are lovely (no floating rubber in this film); the action is well paced and there is a certain, knowing, disaster movie tongue in cheek. Is this enough to salvage the wreck? Just about.
Kabul Express (2006)
Two great films neatly wrapped up in a terrible one
Kabul Express is not a hideous failure. It's just not very good.
Two Indian journalists head into war-torn Afghanistan to interview a Talib for an exclusive scoop back in India. Quickly they fall victim to the very thing they went to find, and end up on a nightmarish road trip in the custody their putative rebel, played very effectively by Salman Shahid. Along the way, sidekick Jai frequently berates hunk Suhel for "another fine mess he's got him into", starts a shooting war with his Talib captor about whether Kapil Dev or Imran Khan was the greatest all-rounder, and witness (and photograph) the death by beating of two runaway Taliban prisoners.
Kabir Khan might have made two good films out this material. Instead he chose to combine the two, which just didn't work. The opening moments of the film promised a harrowing docu-drama (including what looked like a real life execution of a veiled woman). In the next scene we have our two heroes doing a Laurel and Hardy routine. This pattern was repeated (and certainly repeated on me) for the rest of the film.
Juxtaposing violence and humour is no bad thing of course. But Khan lacked the inclination - or perhaps the experience - to make an effective black comedy. His film is at its most assured during its comic phases. Some of these touches are memorable (the cricket fight, the donkey etc). The film is at its worst when indulging in bizarre, cod-serious non-sequiturs on the futility of war, love or photojournalism usually from the mouth of the appalling (in this film) Linda Arsenio. Possibly it's not her fault her dialogue was also the worst in the film, but she didn't improve it.
The film could have been redeemed by a powerful message, but Khan couldn't quite bring himself to show a Talib fighter as a real human. So what we got instead was a cheap shot at the Pakistani government. To me, this symbolised the whole film. It was a missed opportunity. It had all of the elements for a great black comedy, and all the elements for a serious study of war. But in the end it was just a mess.
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Full of Gillian-isms, Empty of Willis-isms - in a good way...
There is a story (possibly apocryphal) about an exchange between Bruce Willis and Terry Gilliam at the start of Twelve Monkeys. Gilliam (allegedly) produced a long list (think about the aircraft one from the Fifth Element) and handed it to Butch Bruce. It was entitled "Things Bruce Willis Does When He Acts". It ended with a simple message saying: "please don't do any of the above in my movie".
There is a fact about this movie (definitely true). Gilliam didn't have a hand in the writing.
I would contend that these two factors played a huge role in creating the extraordinary (if not commercial) success that is The Twelve Monkeys.
Visually, the Twelve Monkeys is all that we have rightly come to expect from a Gilliam film. It is also full of Gilliamesque surrealism and general (but magnificent) strangeness. Gilliam delights in wrong-footing his audience. Although the ending of the Twelve Monkeys will surprise no one who has sat through the first real, Gilliam borrows heavily from Kafka in the clockwork, bureaucratic relentless movement of the characters towards their fate. It is this journey, and the character developments they undergo, which unsettles.
I love Gilliam films (Brazil, in particular). But they do all tend to suffer from the same weakness. He seems to have so many ideas, and so much enthusiasm, that his films almost invariably end up as a tangled mess (Brazil, in particular). I still maintain that Brazil is Gilliam's tour de force, but there's no denying that The Twelve Monkey's is a breath of fresh air in the tight-plotting department. Style, substance and form seem to merge in a way not usually seen from the ex-Python.
Whatever the truth of the rumour above, Gilliam also manages to get a first rate (and very atypical) performance out of the bald one. Bruce is excellent in this film, as are all the cast, particularly a suitably bonkers - and very scary - Brad Pitt.
It's been over a decade since this film was released. When I watched it again, I realised that it hadn't really aged. I had changed, of course. And this made me look at the film with fresh eyes. This seems to me to be a fitting tribute to a film that, partly at least, is about reflections in mirrors, altered perspectives and the absurd one-way journey through time that we all make. A first rate film. 8/10.
El laberinto del fauno (2006)
A fey, beautiful and dark masterpiece
Set during Franco's mopping up exercise after the Spanish Civil War, Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is a wonderful, dark fairy tale that, in a metaphor for Spain itself, teeters on the edge of nightmare dreamscapes of corruption, violence and the death of innocents.
This film is definitely not for young children. Although the fantasy sequences are gorgeously realised, and are fairy tales in the truest sense (in that they are dark, fey, dangerous and violent), most of the story (about three quarters of it, in fact) exists outside of the dreamland, in the even more frightening (and sometimes shockingly violent) world of a real life struggle of ideas and ideology.
Sergi Lopez is excellent as the brutal (and possibly sadistic) Falangist Captain tasked with routing out the remaining leftists from the woods and hills of Northern Spain. Into this precarious situation come his new wife (a widow of a former marriage, who is carrying his son) and his stepdaughter Ofelia (played to absolute perfection, by the then 11 year old, Ivana Baquero).
Uncomfortable with her new surroundings, suspicious of her stepfather and desperately concerned about the worsening condition of her mother, Ofelia uncovers a strange alternative world, and the chance to escape forever the pain and uncertainty of her everyday life.
Thus the film alternates between the world of Civil War Spain and the increasingly bizarre, dark and frightening world of the Pan's Labyrinth. As the twin plots progress, they intertwine, with the tasks of Ofelia becoming the choices faced by a Spain at the crossroads. The poignancy of the film lies partly in the fact that the victories of the child are reflected so starkly by the failures of the adult world.
Apparently Pan's Labyrinth won a 20-minute standing ovation at Cannes, when it was shown. This may be a little bit over the top. I suspect when the furore has died down some will choose to swing the pendulum back and criticise it for its more obvious faults. Much of the film is derivative. There are few ideas in the film's magical dreamworld that haven't been seen before. There are also few ideas in the film's depiction of the Civil War that can't be read in Satre or Orwell; can't be viewed in Picasso's Guernica; or can't be watched in Land and Freedom.
For all the evident truth of these observations, to accept them would be to entirely miss the majesty of Pan's Labyrinth, which doesn't lie in its originality but its absolute mastery of execution. People will watch Pan's Labyrinth in a way that most won't watch Land and Freedom. In doing so, they will also discover a world of fairy tales which existed before Disney sunk its claws into them: a dangerous world, where nothing is as it seems and every step is a possible death a place which may leave even adults shivering under the duvet, part in terror, part in wonder. And all this backed up by the finest cinematography I've seen.
The only real faults I am prepared to allow for this film is a slight tendency (particularly at the end) for a Narnia-like moralism, and the fact that the faun is, perhaps, is not quite wild enough! These are eminently forgivable, though. This is easily the best film I've seen this year, and a must see on the big screen.
Mad Mel's Mrs Dies Again! (This is not a spoiler)
You know, you'd have to be seriously worried if you were Mel's wife in film. Black men in 1970s action flicks have a more tenacious grip on life. At least they generally cark it at the end of the film, gallantly laying down their lives when victory is at hand so the goody-goody white boy can ride off into the white-only sunset with a tasty bit of crumpet.
Mel's wives/girlfriends/love interests rarely make it past the opening credits.
Yep, Mad Mel has lost his Mrs and is mean as hell. But this time its god he's p* ssed with. Can even Mad Mel mess with the messiah? Sure he can.
Oh, and there are some aliens as well Ho Hum.
Signs is the third of the almost invariably enjoyable M Night Shyamalan films. It is a long way from being his best.
This is not, as many have said, because the film contains little in the way of "twist". Last time I checked, many great films had no twist at all and were still great. And Shyamalan's style is far more dependent on building suspense than pulling an unusually coloured rabbit out of the hat at the end of the last real. But such is the joy of Hollywood. Make one film with a great twist, and be forced to repeat it.
Shyamalan once again does a great job with suspense. Once again, family is integral to the plot. But the real core of this film is faith. Mel, you see, has a dead Mrs, and he knows who's responsible. Apparently, it's none other than god. Phwewee, somebody's gonna get hurt. Reeeal Bad!
Okay, this is mildly diverting for a while. Mystic Mel does a pretty good job of the whole "I'm not wasting another moment of my life on prayer" thing. Possibly the pain of him having to say these lines happily coincided with the pain of the character. Or am I being cynical? Mel can certainly act when he can be bothered, as he frequently showed sometime south of 1986.
The supporting cast is also superb. Joachim Phoenix is excellent, as are the two kids. Cherry Jones does an excellent job as the benevolent, Fargo-esquire local copper shorn of all the Coenisms.
There was some great comedy. Mel walking into his living room to find Joachim and the two kids on the sofa with two boxes of bacofoil on their heads was a fantastic touch. And, dare I say it, Mel's personal leitmotif the untimely demise of his better half left a genuine lump in my throat.
But there are two fundamental problems with the film.
The first is the aliens. They just get in the way. Okay, they provide the basis for the suspense. Okay, there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between faith in god and the nutters out looking for aliens in prairie country. And I suppose the fact that the nutters are right in Signs adds some significance to Mel's own character development. But I can't help thinking that it is attempting to juxtapose the essentially frivolous with the deadly serious - and not very well The Village does it much better. So, in M Night's film the nutters are right. But we all know (don't we?) that in reality, they're just nutters. So is it an apt metaphor or just all hogwash? The second problem is the finale. I'm biased possibly but to me it just didn't make sense. "The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away seemingly on the basis of his own personal whimsy". I'm not convinced that this is a good basis for the massive character shift undergone by Melvine the Terrible, and you're left with the conclusion that either he's not a very clear thinker at all, or he's been throwing a rather childish tantrum for most of the rest of the film. Neither lend the script credibility.
Watch the Village is my recommendation. It's a massively under-estimated film (possibly Shyamalan's best). In many respects it is a half-remake of Signs, and is somehow less trite.
A minor work of a very good filmmaker. 6/10.
Mou gaan dou (2002)
Compelling but missing something
Infernal affairs is definitely one of the better triad films to emerge from Hong Kong.
Staring Andy Lau, and the incomparable Leung Chiu Wai, the aptly named Infernal Affairs concerns two men. Lau is a triad plant in the Hong Kong Police force working for your typical big-boss-bad-guy (Eric Tsang). Meanwhile the cops have a plant of their own (Tony Leung) a man who's been working under cover for so long, he's beginning to forget who he is.
Not a naturally stable position, and it is not long before all hell breaks loose as both sides tear themselves apart trying to find the moles.
This is, of course, a hugely interesting set up not least because Tony Leung is not the only one with identity problems. Lau, aided by that most powerful force for moral rectitude known to man - The Wife (Singer and actor, Sammi Cheng) - is also suffering from late onset conscience. What possibly can happen next?
Infernal Affairs is the classic example of a film that is a victim of its medium.
It is a gangster movie. Moreover, it is a Hong Kong gangster movie. It needs to deliver on action. It needs plot twists. It needs fortune cookie rambling on the nature of good and evil. And boy, does it deliver on these things. If you want a gripping, tortuously plotted gangster movie with some amazing, stylised, set piece action you're going to score this as an 8 or 9 at least.
As a genuine exploration of character (which it promises to deliver all through the film) it will score less well. I really wanted some depth and some signs of development in the characters. Unfortunately, all the character development seemed to happen when the guns were being re-loaded.
On the box to the UK version of this film there is a quote which says that Infernal Affairs "Out Heat's Michael Mann".
It is possible that Infernal Affairs is better plotted than Heat, which rambles a bit, has a soggy mid-section, and at least two characters too many. But the ground that Heat loses in plotting it more than makes up for in characterisation.
Both films play on the idea that the cops and robbers are just two more warring gangs. Both suggest depths to the lead characters. But what Infernal Affairs alludes to, Heat explores. This means we care for the characters so much more.
Infernal Affairs is a good film. It's a hugely entertaining film and definitely worth a look before looking at The Departed. 7/10.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
Hard not to like
Mr & Mrs Smith fails to work or, in fact, add up on so many levels. Probably the most trying suspension of disbelief required is the notion that two chronically paranoid assassins take a whole 5 or 6 years to figure out that they're sleeping under the same roof. Or, from a crude perspective, that it takes Brad 4 or 5 years to put Angelina's lips to work on anything more saucy than a peck on the cheek. Yeah
But none of that matters. No, really, listen to me, it doesn't. Because dwelling on such trivial matters as plot flaws, character inconsistencies, continuity problems and the like, you might fail to appreciate the majestic, hilarious nonsense of it all. Which would be a shame, really, as that's the whole point.
Think of it this way: Mr & Mrs Smith is Day of the Jackal meets Pirates of the Caribbean. It's bonkers (it would appear this is both literally and figuratively true). Leave all cerebral engagement, rumination and cogitation for later (it will only get in the way); lie back and think of Angelina - or Brad or both - depending on your proclivity and/or stamina.
Mr & Mrs Smith is saved from the Chris de Burg Award for Hollywood Mediocrity by two critical factors, neither of which alone would have been enough to save it.
The first is the extraordinary chemistry between two fine actors. There is a point early in the film where Angelina, who is wrapped in a sheet with a flower in her hair, approaches Brad after a night of well, you get the idea. Brad looks at her with what one might generously describe as raw, naked lust. It was a look that could have impregnated the unprotected from 30 paces. Someone really needs to bottle that and give it to Orlando Bloom. Anyway, I digress. What this does for the film is help you overlook some of the knottier problems with the characterisation like that fact that these two are, presumably, not very nice: y'know, the whole assassin, killing-people-for-money thing. To take another example, the whole Brad-cheerfully-and-repeatedly-kicking-his-wife-in-the-stomach (albeit off camera) thing.
The second saving grace is the dialogue. Fractious couples have been done comedically before, of course. But the counterpoint of marital strife and cold-blooded psychopathy has probably never been so funny. Think of the car chase in the Terminator, then think of it being used to relay two back stories not one. Then imagine it being played for laughs. It works, it really does. It's a skill.
There are some really deft touches too. Watch out for the lift sequence, and following dinner engagement. Watch out, also for the nice little reference to Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid at the end. It's worth remembering that the director was also responsible for a real spy movie The Bourne Identity, so he knows what he's doing on that score. And definitely watch out for an hilarious turn from Vince Vaughan now there's a man who knows how to spot an opening! Is this film high art? Erm no. Is it extremely difficult not to like? Yes it is. It's genuinely entertaining, and there has to be a place in cinema for that.
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Cruise Control slips into third gear
Ooooh scary and that's just Tommy's collection of teeth. There simply must be a scene with Tom (from Tom & Jerry) playing them like a clavichord after the Cruiser gets biffed with a frying pan.
But I digress Following the first MI, dumber US teenagers, who appear to be the staple of Hollywood screen tests, complained that the plot left them confused. Poor loves! And so MI:II was born: simple plot (Face Off, for teletubbies); premise summaries every five minutes (in case you've got bladder problems or are trying to watch the film and play Grand Theft Auto) and a director whose reputation for brooding cogitations on the dynamics of the human psyche fell somewhat short of, say, Tony Scott.
Fortunately MI:III is a definite improvement on John "Hard Boiled" Woo's bewildering (if impressive) collection of clichés and personal leitmotifs. It starts, oooh, dark; it messes around with a non-linear storyline (well, almost); it's got something more than a comedy villain in the fantastically sadistic Philip Seymour Hoffman; and overall it could just about pass as a decent, if slightly bonkers, spy thriller except
there are many, many jarring and incongruous moments in the film.
Take for example the opening sequence. Excellent acting, some wonderful (if brief) suspense building up to an emotive final gunshot. Screen goes blank, cue jaunty opening theme. Hmmm. Don't get me wrong, the opening scene is a cracker, and the theme tune is necessary. But put them together and it just doesn't work.
The film is full of these mistakes. Take, for example, the comedy. Used wisely, comedy can lighten the mood, allow an audience to draw breath, and generally introduce some dynamic range. Done badly, however, and it jars painfully with the rest of the material. In MI:III it is done badly. In fact Ethan Hunt's mood changes quicker than a hormonal, sofa-jumping celeb on Oprah. One moment he's ruthless, single-minded and driven, and the next he's cracking a joke.
While we're on the subject of life mirroring art, why is Ethan's wife a spitting image of whats-her-face the bland one from Dawson's Creek? The Cruiser is a great actor (if a bit lazy recently) but, frankly, I could have done without this forcible reminder of his freakshow of a personal life. We paid to see Ethan Hunt, not Tommy K.
Finally, there's the valedictory last scene. You know the one you get on American Soap re-union specials: Cheers, for example, where they all stand around and wave? Yeah, it was that horrible. Not as horrible as the end of The House of Flying Daggers, but Not Good.
Which is a shame, because it's a jolly entertaining piece of cinema when it's not buggering it up for the sake of "humour" and/or sentimentality. MI films are never going to be cerebral, and I thoroughly enjoyed it when I wasn't scaring the natives of West India Quay, E14 by slapping my forehead and screaming Noooooo! in a very loud voice. Tom slipped briefly out of Cruise Control and into 3rd. Big Phil alone justifies the price of admission. I don't think I recall seeing anyone in a mainstream movie so thoroughly and believably vile. Good film. Go and see it. Take a sick bag for the ending.
Oh yes, and (spoilers) waking up from being dead is not the same as waking up from a bad dream. Please can you remember that for next time? I laughed. I know I wasn't supposed to, but I did.
Xiao cai feng (2002)
This Sino-French film breaks no particular new ground, is not strong on action or drama, and is unlikely to move you either to great joy, or to tears. Despite this, there is something innately satisfying about watching it, which defies casual analysis.
The story centres on two young men, Ma and Luo. Coming from "reactionary bourgeois" families in the city, they are sent by the Chinese authorities for "re-education" to a beautiful yet achingly backward and isolated community in the mountains. There they undertake menial work, live in comparative squalor, but predictably find love in the form of the same woman known throughout the film simply as "the little seamstress".
While "Balzac " will win few originality awards, its strength lies in execution.
Sijie Dai manages to tell his story (which is semi-autobiographical) in a straightforward way. The local party chief is ignorant and officious without ever descending into malignancy. Ma and Luo are engaging without being overtly benevolent. The "peasants" are ignorant without being stupid. As love blossoms, the emotion of the film moves from repression to longing.
There are some wonderful, poignant moments in the film too, which underscore the mood. The local party chief exclaims early in the film "revolutionary peasants will never be corrupted by filthy bourgeois chicken"; Ma and Luo are sent to the cinema with instructions to tell the story to the village on their return; the little seamstress comments wistfully that she can "see planes flying overhead, and wonder to what far cities they are going" reminding us painfully that this is the 1960s not the 1860s.
Mostly, though, the audience is reminded of the futility of repression; the insatiable thirst for knowledge and new ideas, even among the villagers who are transfixed by the basic choices to be found in a city-boy's cookbook.
The cinematography is also wonderful. Apart from the flood sequence at the end, there is nothing flashy about it (and, given the scenery, it's possible that even I could do a fair job of making the film look pretty) but it is precisely the understated nature of the cinematography that I loved.
If the film has any particular weakness, its end (at least in terms of the Phoenix Mountain segment) is abrupt and seems not to follow logically from what has gone before. This is a small criticism though.
Many films today, even the good ones, seem to force their themes upon the audience by brute force, yet upon leaving the cinema, there seems little to talk about or ruminate over. "Balzac ", at least for me, was the opposite. Its light touch has worked its way into my unguarded consciousness. It is a welcome guest, and long may it stay.
Faa yeung nin wa (2000)
Wonderful Hong Kong Art-house.
Two people living in the same flat complex find their partners are having an affair with each other. As they try and piece together how it happened, they also embark on an emotional journey that aches for a resolution
Building on his previous success with Happy Together and Chungking Express, Wong Kar Wai gives us this rather old fashioned and marvellous story of reawakened passions, yearning and unrequited love.
Possibly, In the Mood for Love is not to everyone's taste. It wanders in rather lazily at 98mins: not particularly long for a film, but it appears longer because not a lot really happens. But this lazy feel conceals a quite tightly constructed film. Most of the story is cunningly woven around a series of set piece role plays, where the characters act out presumed scenarios between their respective spouses, trying to work out how the affair started. I say cunning because, of course, this makes it difficult for the audience (and the characters) to tell what is "in-role" and what is genuine.
If all this sounds rather arty and self-conscience, that's because it is. Unashamedly so. And it is played to perfection by two of Hong Kong's finest, Maggie Cheung and Leung Chui Wai, with some excellent support from Ping Lam Siu and Rebecca Pan.
It is also a virtuoso performance by Wong Kar Wai, who treats the audience to a sensory, and sensual, overload. Bringing together Christopher Doyle (who later deployed his lush, over-ripe style on Hero) and Pin Bing Lee (whose beautifully understated style can be seen on Springtime in a Small Town) was cinematographic genius. It has all the bold beauty of Doyle, without, frankly, the Athena-poster cheesiness of his work on Hero. The music, as always with Wong, is prominent. From Nat King Cole singing in Spanish, to the haunting strings of the main theme, it perfectly matches the eclectic beauty of the images.
All in all a top film, whether judged on plot, acting, cinematography or soundtrack. Similar to, but more accessible than, Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, this is a beautiful, old fashioned story about love lost and regained.
And watch out for Tony Leung's hotel room 2046, which presaged Wong's recent film of the same name.
The Jackal (1997)
Big Gay Bruce and his Big Gay Death Cannon
Roll up! Roll up! It's Big Gay Bruce and his Big Gay Death Cannon! Plausible plot? Unnecessary! Decent acting? Unnecessary! Respect shown to its mighty progenitor? Unnecessary! Yes it's another offensively stuffed turkey in the Butch Bruce canon.
I mean where do you start with this film? Okay, let's begin with the woeful misapprehension people might have that this was, in some way, related to either the book or the original film, The Day of the Jackal. It's not. In fact it's so different (and so bad) that Fredrick Forsyth asked to have his name taken off it. Now I'm not necessarily a stuffy Brit who can't hack Hollywood remaking British films. Well, okay, maybe I am a bit like that, but fortunately it's a redundant point in this case. This film is so different to the original that the name and the odd reference are the only things that survive.
Now let's move to the premise. Cheesy Russian gangster gets killed in a Moscow police raid (somehow involving the FBI although no one bothers to explain why). In revenge, brother of gangster decides to wreak vengeance by killing the wife of the US President (although again no one bothers to explain why this is a good move although to be fair it was pre-9-11, so he wasn't to know it would have resulted in the US airforce carpet bombing Eastern Europe). Gangster hires "nasty" killer (Willis). Police hire "cuddly" killer (Gere), "cuddly" killer tracks "nasty" killer. Police fanny around and periodically get killed. "Cuddly" killer kills "nasty" killer. First lady is saved and we all realise that the IRA are just this bunch of real sweet guys y'know, who just happen to want to kill innocent people. Nice.
Let's put to one side the distasteful Hollywood habit of playing in the troubles of Northern Ireland like it was a sandpit in a theme park (I deal with this point more extensively on the message boards). If Hollywood directors want to cast the Belfast butchers as hookers with hearts of gold, that's up to them. I, of course, reserve the right to despise them for it. It's a free country.
More egregious, however, is the fact that the film manages to patronise and insult the Irish while trying to support them. That's not politically distasteful, it's far worse: it's incompetent. It's no wonder, for instance, that Gere still looks so damn good, given that he slept through the entire six months it took to make this piece of cra*p. The fact that Gere's accent is not only Southern Irish, but an appalling parody of Southern Irish shows that the filmmakers weren't looking much beyond America to make money from this film. Then there is that lovely scene at the end where Sidney Poitier (a complete waste of space in this film) says he's off for a coffee, offers to get our "cuddly" IRA man one, then casually says "Ah, but then you guys drink Guinness don't you". Yeah that's right Sidney; the Irish live on Guinness and potatoes.
While we're on the subject of Poitier: why? In the original film the detective is the tracker. In Jackal, Gere is the tracker. So what does Poitier do? Well, he just hangs around and looks like a tw*at of course. He's got absolutely nothing to do apart from call in the marines at the end, and he only does this because the nice IRA man tells him to.
While we're on the subject of Gere: why? I suppose it's only a matter of time before Hollywood remakes Gandhi with Vin Diesel playing ex-Mujahideen Commando Mahatma Gandhi beheading his way through 1940s and 50s India (he is, after all, a bit dark of hue and therefore very likely to be a Muslim fundamentalist). Let's not forget that Gere's character is a killer and therefore a nasty piece of work. And if he's not, why does he know The Jackal? If he's not, why does he know all his moves? And if he is, why is he such a limp biscuit and such a "loveable" person?
All this goes to show that the makers of this film couldn't be bothered to (a) think about the plot (b) have the characters making decisions that were in keeping with their character(c) avoid cheesy stereotypes like having the big boss bad guy kill his own friend I honestly thought this had turned into a Bond movie (d) give the "central" characters something to do (e) credit the audience with a modicum of intelligence.
This film is an insult to the British and Irish killed at the hands of terrorists, it's an insult to the Irish people, it's an insult to not great, but pretty good film it rips off, and an insult to the intelligence. But most of all and most unforgivable it is an insult to my a*rse for having to sit through the over two hours of run time it took to finish. Honestly, you'd think with no plot, no characters and no dialogue, it would be over in no time. But they didn't even have the decency to quit early.
Star Wars (1977)
An insult to everyone's intelligence
The best film ever made, period! Allow me to take a contrary view. Not the best film ever made (Les Enfants du Paradis, The Godfather, The Bicycle Thief). Not the best science fiction film (2001, Bladerunner, Gattaca, Code 46) Not even the best film about periods (Carrie).
Star Wars brought two things to the audience for the first time; decent sound and visual production and mass marketed toy tie-ins. The first is laudable; the second is where you suspect George Lucus' real talent lies.
Like most adults in their early thirties, I got my first taste of Star Wars when I was too young to know better. We were too poor to afford the cinema then, so I watched it on the small screen and still liked it. But now I know better. Star Wars contains some of the hammiest, crummiest dialogue ever uttered by respectable actors. "Feel the force, Luke!" Yeah, whatever. If that wasn't enough, Lucas then went back and mucked up that tiny amount character consistency which made it out of the first cut.
Star Wars, made at the height of the Cold War and the nadir of American foreign policy, is the good ole story of good ole America spreading its good ole values against a dark, satanic empire. Sound familiar? It's also the story of a poor orphan boy who runs away, rescues a beautiful princess and saves a kingdom from an oppressive tyranny. Sound familiar? Oh yes, and on the way he meets an old man with strange powers, an untrustworthy adventurer and a band of rebels hiding in a forest. Sound familiar? Of course, there is a reason for this. A simple reason. A long time ago in, well, America, Mr Lucas picked up a copy of Campbell's A Hero with a Thousand Faces. This book outlines the fact that all stories have a core of elements in common. Indeed, at a plot level, most stories are essentially the same. Excellent, thinks Lucas, that means I can legitimately rip off better films like the Hidden Fortress and the Dam Busters, better stories like Hamlet and Robin Hood and bastardise Buddhism and Confucianism into the bargain. No need for any original thought whatever, in fact.
And thus it was to prove. From the ghostly mentor to the father bearing a terrible secret, Star Wars rehearses every conceivable cinematic (and indeed sub-literary) cliché. Along the way, it inflicts upon us some truly awful dialogue and a paper-thin plot.
But these are not the biggest crimes of the film. The worst is that Lucas did not even copy effectively. He forgets, for example, that perfect characters are uninteresting. Mark Hamill may be a fine actor, but his goody-goody clean-cut character grates after just a few minutes of screen time. Harrison Ford fares rather better as Han Solo so why does Lucas go back and make him fire second in the space bar? It's not just petty, it's puerile.
Possibly I should relax, hang loose, go with the flow and not get so uptight. But I just can't help getting irritated. Star Wars is puerile nonsense of the worst kind. The best you can say of it is that it brings the McDonalds experience into the cinema. The worst it is a borderline insult to everyone's intelligence.
Great horror, but is ultimately lacking in purpose
Considering it is by some margin the best contribution to American horror since Se7en, Saw is a strangely unengaging film.
It is certainly slick enough. Throwing you right into the action you awake, along with the lead character (Adam) in a Fincher-esque, dingy underground bathroom/dungeon. You soon find Adam is not alone. Across the room another is another man. Both are chained by the ankle, taken by the mysterious jigsaw killer. The room contains a dead body, a gun and two saws. To survive, one of the men must kill the other by 6pm. If not, both die. Problem is, the saws won't cut the chains. To make it out, you must not only be prepared to kill; you also have to saw off your own foot Nice.
Don't get me wrong, there are some good, if not terribly subtle, twists in the film; told mainly through the flashbacks of Adam's fellow captive, Lawrence. And the film has one or two moments that will be relished by the gore-fest lovers. There is some pretty good acting here too, especially from Leigh Whannell (Adam) and Danny Glover (Detective Tapp).
The problem mainly lies in the fact that the film is such an obvious homage to Se7en - many of stylistic devices very reminiscent of the Fincher film without any of the substance. Fincher manages the neat trick of wallowing in the murky side of the human psyche while appearing appalled by it as well. Saw just seems to revel in the brutality. If you're expecting moments that force the audience to be introspective, you won't find them here. Saw just isn't interested in discussing apathy, or greed or even the value of life that the killer talks about. The jigsaw killer is just another sick f*ck, complete with Thomas Harris name, eerie doll, dank warehouse apartment and kitsch slasher movie hang-outs (like subterranean car parks).
All this leaves the film feeling a bit devoid of purpose. In style very much life Se7en, in execution, more like Friday 13th. Which is a shame, because there really is much to enjoy here if you're a fan of the red stuff. 6/10
Falling open-legged between two stools
French cinema used to have a reputation in the socially backward UK for being essentially about two people in a room having sex. In reality it was far more likely to be about two people in a room talking about having sex, but that didn't stop British distributors marketing the work of our more enlightened cousins as inherently dirty.
Well, that was then. Now, the marketing geniuses behind Irreversible, Romance and Baise Moi have decided it would be great if French cinema really was about two people in a room having sex.
This is all very perplexing
Baise Moi is essentially the younger, more disturbed suck and f*ck sister to Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise. "This is Art you know" you seem to hear the director saying. Well, possibly. It's certainly an achievement; getting general release permission for a hardcore film past the most scissor-happy censors in Europe. But art? Erm, no.
All of that said, the film could have been worse. The acting is actually rather good, considering the fact that although having a huge body of films behind them the stars are more usually credited as performers than actors. The rape scene at the beginning is one of the most harrowing (and I suspect realistic) on film. There is nothing remotely romantic or titillating about it. The message about how a bleak, mean life invokes nihilism is not new but it is well made, and at least the film tries to have a message.
Perhaps, if there is a virtue to the graphic sex, it is that it stops the audience having to engage their imagination. May be the sheer mindlessness and pointlessness is the point. But far too much of the film ends up as mere exhibition, and therefore falls firmly between the stools of art and pornography, probably pleasing neither camp.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Dirty Dozen for the 90s
There was a time when Spielberg felt the film-making fraternity had overlooked him. Those days may be over, but the reasons why it happened, sadly, are not. The lesson seems to be, make a film about the holocaust and be magically transformed into a critical heavyweight.
The sad fact is that Schindler's List is (in my opinion) a very good film, but not a great one it is too heavy handed. I am in a minority. Likewise, bolt on 20 minutes of startling cinematography (which was not part of the original Spielberg grand plan) and transform a fairly pedestrian, unoriginal war-is-naughty-but-devilishly-exciting flick into a major cinematic event.
Can someone who loves this film as Art (I choose capitals for its ironic effect) explain how it was that the film managed to spawn a whole series of computer games? Were Spielberg's motives so noble, so pure and so righteous that he had to further propagate his "war-is-naughty" message to the fans of first person shoot-em-ups? Now you may argue that it is hardly Spielberg's job to worry about such things. This may be true but you have to wonder why it was that Saving Private Ryan is so eminently suited to such a transfer. It is difficult, for example, to anticipate a Thin Red Line or Apocalypse now video game. It would also difficult to paste scenes from Thin Red Line onto, say, Star Wars (the Millennium Falcon coming out of the sun, for example) and not be able to spot the difference.
At best Saving Private Ryan is a lukewarm, melodramatic, overly sentimental paean to good ole America, good ole family and the importance of killing nasty Germans before they kill you. The beach landing is extraordinary I'm not denying it. But pardon me if I'm holding out for something more subtle. 5½ /10
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Tasteless and tedious - a real let down
Clankity clank, bang, bang, bang, swear, clank, ping, swear, twirl, swizzle, swear, pan in slow motion, clank, clank, clankity clank, clang, bang, frown, swear, bang, bang, BOOM! (Funky music with opening credits) Clankity clank, bang, bang, bang, swear, clank, ping, swear, twirl, swizzle, swear, pan in slow motion, clank, clank, clankity clank, clang, bang, frown, swear, bang, bang, BOOM, swear, swear, stare moodily into the distance, clang, band BOOM! Repeat
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it. To say that the Kill Bill lacks depth is a bit like saying that dogs lack table manners or the primordial swamp lacks a good opera company. To say that it's a bit tasteless and tacky is a bit like saying Californians need to sit voting exams.
I fear Kill Bill proves only two things. Never assume that just because a man has made three great films he is not capable of something as crass as this. Secondly, never, ever listen to Uma Thurman when she says she has a great idea for a film. 3/10
Take it out back and shoot it
Every now and then I get an urge: I don't like to talk too much about it, but there it is, lurking
this urge. I can't tell my girlfriend, and once I've satisfied the urge, well, naturally, I feel quite disgusted with myself. You understand, though, I can't help it
I should explain. Mostly the urge involves turning down the lights, flicking on the TV and baying snobbishly and unpleasantly for 90minutes at films like Cobra. So far, I haven't found a support group for this compulsion, but I'm looking into it.
So I suppose in some ways I should feel grateful to Cobra because if films like this didn't exist, I should be forced to watch Star Wars again. And while this would undoubtedly sate my feelings of smug superiority, it would nonetheless be masochism, and I have enough of a problem with my urge as it is.
I suppose I should feel grateful, but part of the problem with my condition is that I can't. Cobra has to be one of the worst films ever made. If the illegitimate child of Miami Vice and Dirty Harry mated violently with the less poetically inclined twin of the Death Wish brothers it might bear nagging resemblance to Cobra. Cobra is living proof that, were it possible to surgically remove the 1980s from the sphere of human history (thereby losing my childhood, Gandhi, Bladerunner and Live Aid) it would be a price worth paying.
Both dialogue and delivery make the fromage of Bruce Willis positively Shakespearian in comparison. Take the following line as a sample: "Hey dirt bag, you wasted that kid for nothing. Now I think it's time to waste you!" or perhaps the following (Killer)"The court is civilized, isn't it pig?" (Sly) "But I'm not. This is where the law stops and I start - sucker!" Sly got a screen writing "credit" for this film, by the way. I mean, Rocky isn't exactly Hamlet, but what a comedown. It's incredible to think that two scant years later Die Hard was in the cinemas.
What is more extraordinary about Cobra is that the performances, camera-work and score are more lame than the script.
Anyway, unless you suffer from a similar compulsion to mine, avoid this film. It shares the credit with Commando for being the sphincter of 1980s cinema and boy as mister 'cott would say - that's saying summut. 1/10
Flash Gordon (1980)
Hotpants in Hotspace - The turbo-powered love rocket story
A blonde, whip-wielding man in red PVC hotpants. A sultry brunette temptresses in a (red PVC) catsuit. A dastardly skullcapped villain with a penchant for S'n'M. A horny, malevolent robot-man called Klytus (a cross between coitus and clitoris?) with a penchant for young ladies. A phallic war rocket Ajax looking like a model 747 decked out with spikes and fins. No: this isn't a 1990s porn extravaganza; this is Flash Gordon the early 80s camp comic classic.
What a film! Sorry, I mean what a film? It's impossible to convey the qualities of this film in a short review. Indeed, I'm not entirely sure I understand on what level (or planet) this film works. Mainly I think it works because everyone is having such fun, from the gloriously camp Max Von Sydow (my all time hero) to Queen (who seem not so much responsible for the soundtrack as the spiritual progenitors for the film itself).
I should mention that I have fond memories of this film from childhood. I remember sneaking downstairs to watch it late at night aged about 8. From that moment, my childhood fantasies usually came (so to speak) in the form of Princess Aura (Ornella Muti and the now famous red catsuit). I should also point out that the film has very few other obvious things (apart from exuberance) going for it. It is possibly one of the daftest films ever made, only slightly redeemed by the fact that it doesn't take itself seriously note the Houdini reference and the casting of Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan as proof of this, not that you'll need any proof after five minutes of watching it. Indeed, the only ones who don't seem to be enjoying themselves are the humourless Timothy Dalton and the limp-wristed, wet as a haddock Melody Anderson proving once and for all that rampant Euro totty spank the ass (so to speak) of all American girls.
Anyway, I digress. Flash Gordon is essentially a pantomime with an all-star cast (for Max Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless, think Sir Ian McKellem as Widow Twanky). Viewed objectively it's a moderately, if not abjectly awful film. If you just unhook your critical consciousness for 90 minutes you are sure to be rewarded by a high camp, high-energy slice of high grade Camembert. And Mistress Muti she's still a kind of magic! 5/10
The Pledge (2001)
A fine, thoughtful film
The Pledge is one of the few films directed by the now respected (if not by the makers of Team America) actor Sean Penn, and it manages to simultaneously remind us why he should direct more, and that Jack Nicholson can act.
Let's face it, it's been a while our Jack acting, that is. Most of the time he just tilts his head, gives us a manic stare and says "Here's Johnny" in that patented (exclusive rights to Nicholson and his younger avatar, Slater) drawl.
Ostensibly, The Pledge is a detective story, with Nicholson playing a retiring police officer (Jerry Black) trying to track down the killer of a young girl. Quickly, a Native American is brought in and induced to confess, although we're never sure whether the confession related to an earlier crime. He then shoots himself. Job done, according to most of the police officers, but not Jerry. He doubts the confession, and has pledged a solemn oath to the girl's mother to find her killer.
The Pledge is not really a detective story, though, and there will be no prizes for guessing the killer's identity. The staggeringly obvious choice of Tom Noonan (of Manhunter fame) is proof enough of that. Admittedly, Hollywood is capable of just such crassness of casting where suspense is required, but not, I suspect, Penn.
But suspense is at best a distant second in this film; it is more a study of pursuit and how a goal can blind us to the present, and to our actions. Nicholson's performance is truly breathtaking, and one wonders how it could have made barely a ripple when the film came out. Gone is the trademark uber-performance. In its place we are given subtlety, a man playing his age with dignity, and an uncompromising take on obsession, loneliness and folly. If there is a problem in the film it is in his relationship with the much younger Wright Penn. It's implausible, but somehow the gravity defying Nicholson manages even to make that convincing.
The film is watchable for Nicholson's performance alone and it could easily have been a vehicle project. Credit to Penn, though, that he was able to assemble such a distinguished cast for. Robin Wright Penn (okay, maybe she wasn't so difficult), Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave and Mickey Rourke all give fine vignettes. But perhaps the most amazing performance was Benicio Del Toro as Toby Wadenah, the accused Native American. I knew he was in the film (one of my reasons for watching it) but I had to double take when I saw him. His performance was breathtaking and worth watching the entire movie, just for the 5 minutes he was in it.
Sean Penn's directorial style is similar to Clint Eastwood's. He leaves a lot of space in The Pledge and the film proceeds at a measured pace coming in at just over two hours, which allows the actors plenty of room to work. His characters are mainly working class or lower middle class. The camera-work is starkly beautiful rather than pretty, and focuses on a bleak America that gets little airtime from the soft focus brigade in California.
Penn is also, like Eastwood, brave enough to tie up the ends loosely at best. The ending may be downbeat, but it is uplifting to see that American cinema is still capable of making films like this. 8/10
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Ealing's finest hour
The best and most loved of the Ealing Comedies is also the darkest. Kind Hearts and Coronets is probably most famous today as "that film in which Alec Guinness plays eight characters." That said, it is Denis Price as Louis Mazzini, the charming, urbane serial killer, who really steals the show.
The film opens in prison, with the Louis Mazzini D'Ascoyne, Ninth Duke of Chalfont awaiting execution for one of the few suspicious deaths in the film he wasn't responsible for. On that, his last night, he is completing his memoirs, which act as a framing device for the rest of the film, as well as allowing for a dry, witty narration from Mazzini himself.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is everything modern cinema is not. It is not laugh-out-loud comedy, but a biting wit that often leaves you wondering whether you should be laughing at all. The screenwriter takes seeming delight in the precision of the dialogue, with no unnecessary verbiage. This culminates in an astonishing minimalist performance from Price when he finds himself in the dock of the House of Lords, being tried by his peers.
I suppose you could look at Kind Hearts and Coronets as a form of social commentary. It was made after WWII, after the Beverage reforms, and may reflect a growing restlessness with the stuffiness of the old social order. Certainly, Louis is presented with such sympathy, and his nefarious endeavours told with such gleeful abandon that it is difficult for the audience not to identify with him.
You could regard it as a form of social commentary but, frankly, why bother? It's just glorious fun and, despite a certain English post-war feel, surprisingly modern and anarchic there can be few films, even today, which cast a multiple murderer so firmly in the hero role. And there can be few modern films were the dialogue is so witty, for instance, when excusing his flustered state of mind after his first murder by saying "furthermore, I am not naturally callous".
Of course, everyone talks about Alec Guinness' acting tour de force playing all eight other members of the D'Ascoyne family; from young Ascoyne D'Ascoyne to the hilariously named Elthelred D'Ascoyne (presumable unready for the fate that awaits him), the Eighth Duke of Chalfont. In reality, few of these characters receive more than a footnote in the film. But this is more than made up for by the splendid cast of other leading British actors Denis Price, Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood being the notables.
This remains not only my favourite Ealing Comedy, but right up there with Dr Strangelove as one of my favourite comedy films ever made. A wonderful, heart-warming tale of multiple murder. 9½ / 10