Posts Tagged ‘Adrien Brody’

Tom George’s See How They Run is a film about a film based on a play. Initially I thought it was a film based on a play about a film based on a play, which would obviously have been a much more pleasingly symmetrical arrangement. But it turns out that See How They Run (the movie) is not actually based on See How They Run (the play, originally filmed back in the 1950s); who would have been so foolish as to think something like that? So perhaps (in the name of absolute clarity) we should say that See How They Run is a film not based on a play about a film (which, come to think of it, never gets made) based on a play (which does get made, and is indeed still being made eight times a week at St Martin’s Theatre in London). I’m glad we have got that straight.

The movie opens in London’s theatreland where celebrations are underway to mark the fact that Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has just had its 100th performance (these seem a touch lavish considering that 100 performances indicates the play has only been running for about three months, but I digress). Everyone is there, from producer Petula (Ruth Wilson) to star Dickie Attenborough (Harris Dickinson – it’s not the actor’s fault, but this isn’t a particularly flattering or respectful portrayal). Also around and non-fictional is film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), in real life possibly best remembered for The African Queen (possibly due for a remake as The African Woman King, who can tell) and Oliver! (though lovers of the weird and obscure will also be familiar with the magisterial TV hoax Alternative 3, which he executive-produced). In the movie Woolf is very interested in making a film adaptation of The Mousetrap, and various people associated with this – the screenwriter (David Oyelowo) and the director (Adrien Brody) are also at the party.

This proves to be a bad move by Brody, as – after a fracas at the party – he is murdered backstage, his corpse left on the set of the play. As he was a fairly disagreeable character, no-one is especially surprised, but the police still have to be called in. Leading the charge of the forces of law and order are lugubrious old hand Detective Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his eager young assistant WPC Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).

What ensues is a whodunnit in the classic style, as it turns out that various parties had good reason to bear a grudge against the dead man, and various secrets are uncovered. The light of suspicion is shone into some quite unexpected places, and there is a bit more incidental mayhem, before all is done and dusted (but the film is only 98 minutes long, so there’s a limit to exactly how convoluted everything can get).

On paper is does look like a very ‘straight’ murder mystery, but from the very beginning the film has a jaunty, slightly screwball air about it which makes it very clear that we are in comedic territory at least some of the time – the presence of performers best known for their comic pedigree (Shearsmith, Charlie Cooper, Tim Key) is also a pretty big tip-off. It’s certainly not a film crying out to be taken seriously, or naturalistically – the setting is a idealised version of 1953 which in some ways more closely resembles the present day than post-war Britain (one of the film’s other historical characters, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, is played by Lucian Msamati, for instance).

If you twisted my arm and asked me to suggest a film that See How They Run is a bit similar to, my answer would not be one of the many other Christie adaptations or pastiches that have appeared in recent years – it’s actually more like Shakespeare in Love in many ways, by which I mean that the script is very carefully pitched – there is a fair degree of quite broad slapstick and wordplay, but also moments of genuine wit and erudition carefully sprinkled in (some of the jokes are so obscure that only a handful of audience members were responding to them at the screening I went to).

One of the writers on Shakespeare in Love was Tom Stoppard, and this may be partly where Sam Rockwell’s character got his name from. However, various other things – up to and included a line of dialogue where another character is described as ‘a real hound, inspector’ – lead me to suspect that this may be more a homage and reference to Stoppard’s 1968 play The Real Inspector Hound, partly a satire on The Mousetrap itself. In many ways the most distinctive thing about See How They Run is the extent to which it is stuffed with this kind of knowing self-referentiality. In the midst of one of the flashback sequences which pepper the film, a screenwriter archly proclaims that he despises the use of flashbacks in movies; he goes on to criticise the use of captions as a storytelling device – and this is, inevitably, followed by a caption. See How They Run itself starts turning into The Mousetrap adaptation Woolf is looking to produce – one of the cleverest and most impudent things about it is the way it frequently seems to be threatening to copy and thus reveal the big plot twist in Christie’s play, but in the end never actually does so. There’s a casual reference to the Rillington Place murders which really took place in London in the early 1950s – a film about them featured a notable performance from Richard Attenborough, who (as mentioned) features here as a character. There’s even a minor character who’s a stuffy butler named Fellowes, which I’m assuming is a reference to Julian Fellowes, whose Gosford Park (his best work, if you ask me) is another updated pastiche of the country-house murder-mystery genre.

Of course, once you start heading down the rabbithole this way it can be difficult to drag yourself out – the slightest little thing starts to look like a fiendishly clever in-joke. It’s also worth pointing out that the film is fast, funny, and silly enough to satisfy most audiences, regardless of their familiarity with this genre or theatrical metatextuality, mainly due to a very game set of performances – Sam Rockwell underplays things, for once, while everyone else seems very happy to put the pedal to the metal. Dame Agatha herself briefly appears, portrayed by Shirley Henderson; it is a sweet little cameo in a film I can imagine the most murderous woman in history quietly rather enjoying, if not quite admitting to approving of. It’s a rare example of a good comedy film which makes a virtue of its own cleverness, and is thus something to be applauded.

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Not for the first time recently, we went on holiday only to find our arrival coincided with regrettably unseasonal weather conditions: ‘WINTER STORM EXPECTED SUNDAY PM/MONDAY AM’ flashed every roadside information board all the way from JFK into Manhattan. Probably just a coincidence, and I suppose it could have been worse: it was only the first day or so of the trip, when we were taking it fairly easy and trying to get over the jet lag.

The prospect of spending the evening in the hotel room was brightened a bit when Travelling Companion spotted that the movie on BBC America was King Kong. This seemed (potentially, at least) a very appropriate film for the situation – it’s one of the great, iconic New York movies, and we were staying just round the corner from the Empire State Building. The only slight cause for uncertainty was that there was no way of finding out which version of King Kong we were going to be treated to, because personally I find that my mileage differs radically (I have written in the past about my very unfashionable fondness for the reviled 1976 version). Well, we settled down in front of the TV, and I have to confess that my heart sank a bit when it became clear we would be going through the experience that is Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of this classic tale.

Surely everybody knows the basic plot of this archetypal fable: it is the early 1930s, and many Americans are struggling with the consequences of the Great Depression. Amongst them is vaudevillian Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who is out of work and struggling to even eat. Hope glimmers when she encounters maverick film-maker Carl Denham (Jack Black, playing the part as Orson Welles at his most Machiavellian), who whisks her off to star in his new movie, to be filmed on location on an uncharted island. Also shanghaied for the trip is earnest young playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Soon enough (well, maybe not, but we shall return to this) everyone sets sail for Skull Island, little anticipating the unusual ecosystem that has survived there: arthropods of unusual size, relict dinosaurs, and a large gorilla population (there’s actually only one gorilla, but it is very large).

Well, the natives take a fancy to Ann and end up sacrificing her to the ape, known to them as Kong (Andy Serkis does the mocapping essentials). Even as her colleagues mount a desperate attempt to rescue her, Ann finds herself realising that Kong is not quite the savage beast he first appears to be, while Carl reaches the conclusion that the ape could be just what he needs to make his career – all he needs to do is get Kong back to New York. What could possibly go wrong with an idea like that…?

Peter Jackson is quite open about the fact that the original King Kong is his favourite film of all time – well, there’s nothing wrong with that, it is an essential classic and one of the foundation texts of the fantasy and monster movie genres. He initially wanted to make it in the late 1990s, when I seem to recall it had acquired the title The Legend of King Kong, but for various reasons the project got put on hold while he pushed ahead with his noted jewellery-related triptych.

Personally I would quite like to look into that parallel dimension where Jackson made King Kong before Lord of the Rings, as I think the version they have there would be very interesting and quite possibly better. For me the extant version feels very much like the movie equivalent of one of those brick-sized mid-to-late Harry Potter novels written when J.K. Rowling had become so successful she could do anything she wanted and nobody, it seems, was brave enough to suggest that more is sometimes less.

It’s hard to imagine that the pre-Rings Jackson would have been indulged in making a version of Kong that runs for over three hours, nearly twice the length of the original film. Certainly, the 1933 film moves along at a brisk clip and skimps a little bit when it comes to things like characterisation, but it’s a pulp monster movie and that is the source of most of its charm. Blowing the movie up to proportions even vaster than that of the title character changes it entirely, making it ponderous and a source more of bathos than genuine pathos.

It is, for example, an hour into the movie before they even arrive at Skull Island, and obviously more than that before we see any monsters: Jackson has cast a trio of hot young stars (Brody was relatively fresh from his Oscar win, making this a curious inversion of that phenomenon where successful young actresses are almost instantly cast in fantasy and superhero movies – cf. Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Brie Larson, etc), but they struggle with a script that simply feels bloated – Peter Jackson and his collaborators clearly have their hearts set on making an epic movie, perhaps rather in the same vein as Titanic, but they struggle to find anything appropriately profound to say, and the film feels like it’s taking itself very seriously considering it is essentially about an island full of dinosaurs and a giant gorilla rampaging through Manhattan. It also feels like there’s an awful lot of filler (a subplot about Jamie Bell and Evan Parke’s characters doesn’t contribute much of anything and could easily be snipped entirely).

Despite being essentially a homage, the movie seems to have a curious and by no means uncritical attitude towards the 1933 film. There are, of course, a number of in-jokes and references scattered throughout it, but one gets a general sense of Jackson and his writers attempting to update and ‘fix’ the original story. This is fair enough: the 1933 Kong‘s presentation of the islanders is horribly awkward and dated, which the newer film acknowledges by modelling Denham’s ugly and garish stage extravaganza on these scenes. But again, this is hardly done with the lightest of touches.

The really successful element of the 2005 film, at the heart of the sequences where it genuinely feels as if it’s coming to life, is its handling of Skull Island itself: what’s a fairly generic ‘Lost World’ backdrop in the original has obviously been the source of much (maybe even too much) thought and imagination, with new species of dinosaur and creepy-crawly developed to populate it. The bits of the film where Jackson genuinely feels like he’s enjoying himself all derive from this, and diverge considerably from the source: the sauropod stampede, the nightmarish chasm scene, and the fight between Kong and the vastatosaurs.

The special effects are, of course, state of the art, but again one has to wonder about some of the creative decisions involved – it’s shorthand to describe King Kong as a gorilla movie, but the makers of most films involving this character have played it a little fast and loose when it comes to presenting the giant ape – the most recent Kong movie, for instance, opted to make him more bipedal and humanoid, simply because this suited the feel they were going for. The Jackson-Serkis Kong, on the other hand, is the most authentically gorilla-ish Kong in movie history, but it’s not really clear what dividend this pays.

What does feel like a definite misstep, motivated perhaps by that decision to go for a Titanic kind of vibe, is the choice to make Kong an almost entirely sympathetic character from much earlier in the film. It’s only comparatively late in the 1933 version, when it becomes obvious he is doomed, that Kong becomes the icon of pathos and tragedy he is best remembered as – prior to this, he is an ambiguous and often frightening figure. Jackson and company clearly want us on his side all the way through, one of their main tactics being to get Naomi Watts to do her sad-open-mouth face whenever Kong is in trouble (which she ends up doing a lot). The problem is that by trying to solicit pathos rather than thrills, the film usually ends up generating neither.

Despite all of this negative talk, I would still have to agree that King Kong is a case of a great director producing a magnificent folly more than an outright failure. There is all the material here for a potentially great fantasy film, but there’s just too much of it, along with plenty of other stuff which wouldn’t ever normally appear in a conventional monster movie. In the end, this is a lavish, impressively-assembled film, but it’s saddled with an inappropriate tone and a misconceived sense of its own significance that makes it a tough slog to get through.

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I find I have an odd relationship with the modern horror movie: stick me down in front of a Hammer film from the 60s or anything by Romero or Cronenberg from the 70s and I’m as happy as can be, but when it comes to new films in the genre, especially American ones, I’m usually the first to give them a miss. I can’t actually remember the last time I went to see a new horror film at the cinema – looking back, I see it was Sightseers, which is at least as much a black comedy as a horror. Before that, neither The Wicker Tree nor Berbarian Sound Studio are strictly full-on horrors, either. Perhaps it’s best to say that there’s a certain flavour of mainstream horror movie, strong on torture and cliched gore, that does not appeal to me on any level.

That said, I’m still as interested in a decent SF horror film as I ever was, and lurking in the pile of to-be-watched DVDs for an age now has been Vincenzo Natali’s 2009 film Splice. Canada has an extremely honourable heritage of intelligent and deeply icky SF-horror fusions, and – very appropriately – Splice is one such hybrid.


Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play a couple of painfully cool and ominously self-assured genetic biochemists working for a pharmaceutical company in a very near future. Their success has extended to the creation of artificial hybrid lifeforms, which bear an unfortunate resemblance to large ambulatory todgers, and now they are planning the next phase: the splicing of human DNA into the mix and the inception of a wholly new being.

Unfortunately, their backers are more interested in the bottom line and cancel this line of experiments. Incensed by this curtailment of their freedom, Brody and Polley decide to proceed anyway, in an unofficial sort of way, just as a thought experiment. Of course, the thought experiment becomes a viability study, and the viability study becomes a full-blown laboratory specimen: Dren, a rapidly-growing, semi-humanoid creature made from the genetic material of half a dozen different species, human included. Their initial plan to dispose quietly of the result of their experiment is somehow impossible to follow – and their fast-developing bond with Dren is another unexpected factor.

Well, there is a sense in which Splice is not much more than a set of classic old genre tropes: you just know the two scientists are going to be consumed with hubris, set about playing God, and you know that there are going to be various complications, setbacks in their official work, and so on, and so on.

And yet, for all that this is very clearly at heart just another take on a very well-known and iconic story, Splice does manage to put a powerful new spin on it. When you think about it, given that Frankenstein is on one level a story about a parental relationship and the accompanying responsibilities, and one which was written by a woman, it’s peculiar that the perspective of the book is so wholly masculine. Splice could be looked at as a riposte or an amendment to Frankenstein, if not from a maternal point of view then at least a more balanced one.

This is not deeply buried subtext: most of the film is basically an extended metaphor for the trials of starting a family and the stresses this can place on a relationship. This is not especially subtly done – a scene early on where Brody and Polley discuss having a child in the conventional manner flags up the territory we’re in, fairly blatantly – but it is intelligently written and well-played. I get the impression that this is one of those films where the vast bulk of the budget was spent on CGI, and well-spent too: most of the various forms of Dren are convincing, but also convincingly real (this is possibly a rare example of the uncanny valley effect being employed to a film’s advantage). An effective mime performance from Delphine Chaneac as the adult Dren helps considerably too.

Of course, we are dealing with a much-told story here, and as the film continues the question becomes one of how it is going to conclude without becoming hackneyed and obvious. Up to this point the film has been, for the most part, thoughtful, convincing, and engrossing, but there’s a bit of a wobble at the start of the third act when the central metaphor is extended to include things like patterns of abuse from one generation to the next, and the consequences of semi-incestuous relationships. It does recover from this, and appears to be heading for an unexpectedly low-key, but still effective ‘soft’ conclusion.

But then the basic horror DNA in the film’s make-up becomes well and truly dominant, as thoughtfulness, restraint, and even to some extent logic all slip into the background and we are presented with a climax which is all about running, screaming, gore, and violence (some of it sexual). The film does a workmanlike job of ensuring this doesn’t come completely out of left field, in plot terms, but as far as what the film has really been about up to this point is concerned, it’s a complete shift of emphasis and tone.

Prior to the last ten minutes or so, I was very impressed with Splice – though not wildly original in any way, script, direction, performances and production values are all very strong, and it finds some new and interesting angles on an old story. The climax dumbs it all down quite horribly, and while I can see how this must have seemed necessary, simply as a matter of genre convention, it still feels like rather a shame. The bits of Splice I liked least were the bits where it felt most like a mainstream horror movie – but there was enough good stuff in the rest of the movie to make it a worthwhile watch.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 26th August 2004: 

Hello again, everyone, and it’s time for one of our occasional non-review reviews, which may be annoying to read, but – let me assure you – are a lot more annoying to have to write. The person responsible on this occasion is, of course, M Night Shyamalan, who’s built up quite a nice little reputation for himself as a purveyor of quality suspense films. It could probably be argued that Shyamalan does nothing more than crank out pretentious genre movies, and that his fame is mainly due to his penchant for sticking a flippin’ great plot twist into each one of them.

The problem with this as a trademark, as I may have said before, is that a twist is only really going to surprise people who aren’t expecting and trying to anticipate what it might be. (Knowing The Sixth Sense has a big twist ending makes it quite easy to guess what it’s going to be, ten minutes into the movie.) You can’t really make a career out of doing twist endings – well, not in the cinema, anyway. But Shyamalan seems to be trying anyway, as his new film amply demonstrates.

This is of course The Village, the tale of a rural community living in fear. The people live simple lives, but their lives are overshadowed by the knowledge of the presence in the woods surrounding their town of… creatures. Reputedly savage and terrifying, they have always stayed in the woods while the villagers stay in their own territory. But, following the untimely death of a village child, Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), a young man of the community, wants to venture through the woods to one of the nearby towns so he can fetch medicines to avert any future tragedies of this kind. The village elders (amongst them William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and Brendan Gleeson) refuse his request, and a brief foray by Lucius into the woods is followed by a terrifying incursion into the village from outside. With the village in turmoil, Lucius woos – or is wooed by – Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard, a leading lady rather in the tradition of Rosanna Arquette or Callista Flockhart), the blind daughter of the chief elder. But village idiot Noah (Adrien Brody, hamming it up a bit) takes against their betrothal and soon it seems Ivy will have to brave the woods – and whatever lies within – in order to help the man she loves…

Now looking back at that last paragraph, I can’t help thinking it constitutes a bit of a spoiler no matter how I word it – but this is a film it’s difficult to discuss in any detail without spoiling the story in some way. This is sort of a reflection on Shymalan’s style of storytelling, which relies on a very solid grasp of the importance of atmosphere, strong performances, and a good deal of sleight-of-hand and misdirection on the part of the script and direction. And it seems Shyamalan is aware that audiences will be coming into this movie looking for a twist, and adapted his style accordingly: you go into the movie expecting the big twist to come from one direction, but when it actually materialises it’s of a different tenor entirely.

Opinions seem to be violently split as to whether the big surprise is any good or not. Now I can see both points of view on this. It is, one the one hand, both massively implausible and somewhat predictable (I’d considered it as a possibility, but dismissed it as being too much of an anticlimax, and so was a bit surprised when it actually happened). But on the other hand it’s refreshingly different, and it’s clear that Shyamalan doesn’t intend his tale to be taken solely at face value. In fact, it gives the story a subtly allegorical quality that sits well with its general air of thoughtfulness (though it’s an element the film’s publicity has shied away from, probably quite wisely given the furore that’s surrounded another film apparently expressing vaguely similar sentiments this summer).

However, the fact that your opinion of The Village seems to depend wholly on your opinion of the twist indicates that this is a film with problems not shared by Shyamalan’s earlier pictures: I thought Unbreakable‘s twist was rather contrived, but I still thought it was a classy, well-made, atmospheric film, with a strong story. With The Village I seriously get the impression that the director thought up a set of cool plot twists and then wrote the story around them – in other words, the twists are the story…

And while what precedes them is well-mounted and photographed, it’s not that great. The top-quality cast give solid performances (well, Brody is a bit embarrassing). Hurt and Weaver (clearly not wanting to let her old sparring partner have the only hit of the summer) are particularly good. However, both the performances and the rest of the film are suffused with a subtle but still oppressive sense of their own importance. It’s clearly not enough for The Village to be appreciated as a piece of classy summer fun: this is obviously intended to be Significant Art. This pretentiousness is probably another reason why a lot of people have taken against it, because to be honest it’s a lot less deep and profound than it obviously wants to be.

It isn’t even particularly scary, apart from a few moments: Shyamalan wheels his monsters on quite early (admittedly in the background and out of focus), and it’s a smart ‘what the hell is that supposed to be?!?‘ moment. For a lot of the rest of the time, though, there’s little palpable sense of menace or mystery about proceedings, just lots of loving depictions of village life (which admittedly has numerous quirks of its own). Towards the end it even seems like the film is taking its cues from The Blair Witch Project, a very dubious course of action even for a director of Shyamalan’s skill.

I’ve heard The Village described as a really long big-budget episode of The Twilight Zone, and that seems to me to hit the nail bang on the head. It’s basically an extended joke with a punchline that isn’t quite up to scratch. Shyamalan’s ability as a storyteller is undeniably impressive but he needs to give serious thought to a change of tactics in his next project, as the twist-schtick is fast running out of steam. The best twist he could utilise in his next film would be for there not to be a twist at all.

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