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Posts Tagged ‘Alan Rickman’

It’s always a sure sign that the year hasn’t got long left to run when the independent cinemas start cranking out their seasons of traditional Christmas favourites. Frankly, my response to this depends what they show: I was much taken by the Phoenix’s decision to revive Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Company of Wolves a couple of years ago, but more traditional choices seldom light my tree. Perennial over-exposure has left me indifferent to The Muppet Christmas Carol and even It’s a Wonderful Life, while they could put every copy of Love Actually into a shipping container and dump it in the ocean and I would not be especially troubled.

Die Hard, on the other hand – now that’s my idea of a proper Christmas treat, especially back on the big screen. I know that its status as such has been a bit debatable on occasion in the past – ‘it’s not a Christmas movie! It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie!’ is the considered judgement of, er, Bruce Willis – but in addition to leaving you with a warm feeling inside, it is ultimately about a family being reunited, the forces of goodness and justice being triumphant, and people recapturing the joy of living (by the end, Reginald VelJohnson has rediscovered how satisfying it is to gun someone down in the street). It’s still the only Christmas favourite to feature someone being repeatedly shot in the crotch at close range, but that just makes it all the more distinctive.

It seems a bit odd to recap the premise of a film as iconic as Die Hard, but the form demands it. Wiseacre New York cop John McClane (Willis) flies into Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to attempt a reconciliation with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) – see how Christmassy this is already? – and is taken to the skyscraper where she works, where he mingles with various archetypal yuppie scumbags (this is 1988, after all) at her office party – see, yet more Christmasiness. Needless to say, not all goes well at the office party, with the appearance on the scene of a truck full of armed, mostly European miscreants, led by the eminently hissable Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).

Through sheer good fortune McClane manages to evade capture by the bad guys, and soon figures out there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. Very soon the upper reaches of the building become a battlefield as Gruber’s men hunt McClane through the corridors, elevator shafts and air vents of the tower. How long can he manage to stay one step ahead?

Die Hard is one of those rare movies which, seemingly ex nihilo, manages to create its own subgenre – and one which was virtually done-to-death within ten years, with endless new variations on the formula – Die Hard on a train, Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard up a mountain, Die Hard on a battleship, and so on. Yet the origins of the film are remarkably obvious once you become aware of them – author Roderick Thorp saw The Towering Inferno, had a dream where the fire was replaced by men with guns, and turned it into his 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which was eventually turned into this film.

One consequence of this was that, for slightly obscure contractual reasons, they had to offer the lead role in the movie to Frank Sinatra. To say it is difficult to imagine Ol’ Blue Eyes hurling himself about in a vest and blowing away terrorists at the age of 73 is something of an understatement, but thankfully he said no. It seems like they offered almost every actor in Hollywood the part of McClane before they reached Bruce Willis, but reach him they eventually did, much to the film’s benefit. If nothing else this film shows that great Hollywood careers can start long before people reach Hollywood itself, for at the heart of Die Hard are two actors, neither of whom had starred in a major movie before, and one of whom had never appeared in a movie of any kind: Willis’s background was in American TV, while Alan Rickman had been a stalwart of the RSC and the BBC classic serial.

Much of the film’ energy and excitement comes from the clash of these two very different actors, playing very different characters. Hans Gruber is sleek, composed, and has clearly planned everything down to the last detail; McClane is sweaty, frantic, and obviously making it all up as he goes. There is perhaps the faintest touch of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in McClane’s characterisation, but apart from this he is a very different kind of action hero, compared to what had been seen prior to this point – he is defiantly rough around the edges, a blue-collar hero.

This element is essentially carried through into another of the film’s more crowd-pleasing features, namely the way in which it is openly scornful of pretty much every authority figure on the scene outside the tower: police chiefs, news reporters and FBI agents alike are all depicted as self-serving idiots who are really only pawns in Gruber’s elaborate scheme. (The film arguably improves and refines Thorp’s book, where it is implied that if the McClane character had not become involved, the situation would have resolved itself without anyone actually dying.) McClane is there with a pithy, probably profane wisecrack, keeping it real (I believe that’s what the kids are saying), doing what needs to be done to save the day.

McTiernan makes it all look very easy, naturally, although even the most cursory examination reveals that the script for this movie is every bit as clever and intricate as Hans’ brilliant plan to steal $640 million – both of them depend for their success on very specific things happening in a specific sequence. Quite apart from this, the director mounts some brilliant action sequences, which are still genuinely thrilling nowadays.

It is customary, when thinking of how the reputations of some genuinely great movies have effectively been slimed by their proximity to horrid, tossed-off latter-day sequels, to discuss things like RoboCop, Alien, Predator, and The Terminator – it does seem that eighties action movies are particularly prone to this sort of thing. And yet it does seem to me that Die Hard is very deserving of its place on the same list. True, most of the sequels aren’t too bad – although the most recent one was a bloody awful mess – but they still don’t come close to the immaculate near-perfection of the original. A tremendous Christmas movie, but also a film for all seasons, and the ages.

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When an issue becomes grist to the mill of popcorn action movies, you know it’s achieved a certain critical mass when it comes to public awareness. So when you consider that the director of the remake of Robocop announced the film was ‘actually’ about the use of drones in combat situations, the last Gerard Butler action movie was bookended by a couple of drone bombings, the signs are clear – this topic is up for grabs as far as film makers are concerned. (You can perhaps discern this from the way that Robocop attempted to discuss the ethical implications – in an admittedly cackhanded sort of way – while London Has Fallen just used it in a specious and un-thought-through attempt to give the film verisimilitude and sophistication.)

For me, the whole issue of drone strikes, drone bombings, call it what you will – it’s one of those things that happens, and which is clearly significant in the world, but which I have no personal influence over whatsoever. As a result I sometimes feel as though I’ve recused myself from having to have an opinion about it. One almost gets the sense that this is an attitude many governments would like to foster. Hoping to achieve exactly the opposite effect is Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky.

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The use of drone strikes to eliminate terrorist suspects is an enormously big and complex issue, which Eye in the Sky humanises by starting with one very simple situation and letting the audience wonder what they would do if they had their finger on the trigger, figuratively speaking: a mixed group of American, British, and Kenyan terrorists are meeting in a house on the outskirts of Nairobi. They are being monitored by a mixture of British and American military figures, a group of UK politicians, courtesy of a Kenyan intelligence operative in the vicinity. It suddenly becomes apparent that the group are in the final stages of preparing for a suicide bombing attack. The house is in a neighbourhood controlled by the radical Al-Shabab militia, making the use of conventional forces impossible. The only way to stop the attack is to blow up the house using a drone – but a young girl is sitting directly outside it, selling bread, and she will most likely be killed in the blast. What would you do?

Helen Mirren plays the officer in operational command of the mission, and Alan Rickman is her superior, liaising with a group of government ministers overseeing the operation (Jeremy Northam is one of them). Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox are the operators of the drone, and the ones who will actually have to pull the trigger. Barkhad Abdi is the Kenya intelligence agent on the scene. One of the distinctive features of Eye in the Sky is that most of these people don’t share any screen time together, their various interactions taking place entirely via electronic media – Mirren is in a bunker somewhere, Rickman is in Whitehall, Paul and Fox are in a US airbase near Las Vegas, Abdi is in Nairobi. The interconnectedness of the modern world is one of the themes of the film.

Most of the time this is a positive thing, as I’m sure most of us would agree, but it also means that a decision that once upon a time would have been left to soldiers on the scene is now open to scrutiny by higher-ups and politicians, as happens here. The situation in this film is perhaps a little contrived to achieve maximum complexity – there’s a change of mission objective, plus the fact that American citizens are targets, and the complication that it’s technically a drone strike against a friendly country – but not excessively so, and the tense wrangling between the various involved parties that ensues is utterly plausible and gripping. (Even if real-world politicians don’t worry about and discuss issues in quite this way, you would still like to believe that they do.)

The issues involved are of several different kinds – legal, political, and ultimately moral. But even then it’s not as clean-cut as that sounds – the decision as to whether a strike is legal is made by a politician, after all, while even ethical concerns seem to be getting warped by other considerations, such as whether a successful suicide bombing or excessive collateral damage from a drone strike would have the greater impact as a piece of negative publicity. Time and again the film returns to the fact that everyone, except those actually at risk of bodily harm in Kenya, is concerned about covering their own backside – the military need to be sure they are not legally culpable for any wrongdoing, the politicians need to ensure they are authorised by their superiors, and so on. (Here again the modern world intrudes – characters worry aloud about what will happen if footage from the drone ends up on YouTube, and so on.)

This may make it sound like the film is quite talky, and to some extent that’s true, but it never feels less than grounded and real. Partly this is because of the way Hood employs little details to sell the story to the audience – the fact the little girl’s parents have no ties to Al-Shabab and are surreptitiously giving her an education, the way that the drone operators have no idea about the arguments over how to proceed going on above their heads, and many others.

At one point it looks like this is going to be a film about how brave and dedicated soldiers are let down by self-serving political types – lions led by donkeys, again – but once more the film does not take the easy route – there’s a very uncomfortable scene in which Mirren basically bullies one of her own men (he is black, with an Arabic surname, and surely neither of these things is accidental) into manipulating his calculations of collateral damage down to an acceptably low percentage. Is she crossing the line, or simply doing what’s necessary to save dozens of lives? The film permits us to make up our own minds.

I personally did not feel this was a film with an axe to grind as to whether drone bombings are justified or not, but I can imagine how some people might find it a bit too sympathetic to the military-political establishment, who are presented as flawed but human. The film seems to me to simply conclude that this is a complex, complex issue entirely bereft of easy answers. We want our society to be safe, and yet we also want it to be just, and our elected officials and soldiers to be accountable, while still being able to do their jobs. If anything, the film suggests that we can’t reasonably expect all of those things. The final word goes to Rickman, whose final on-screen appearance this is, and he delivers it with all the subtlety and power you would expect from a performer of his calibre, aided by the script, which has been consistently thoughtful and precise throughout: technology may make warfare cleaner and safer (for some people at least), but it doesn’t make it easier. Eye in the Sky grips like a vice, while still managing to be moving and thought-provoking. One of the best two or three films I have seen so far this year.

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A friend of mine tells the story of how she left her home, in a distant land, and travelled many thousands of miles, until her final arrival in Europe. Here she set about partaking of all the most famous cultural and historical experiences available to her. And so it was that she finally came to the Palace of Versailles, one of the world’s great treasures, where – in a somewhat unexpected development – she found herself seized by the overwhelming need to vomit. I don’t know, maybe it was just the French food or something.

Of all the stories one could tell about Versailles and its history, this is probably not the most profound or indeed accessible one, but then again the same could probably be said, with respect, to A Little Chaos, the new film from Alan Rickman (who also stars and co-writes). One wonders how much a factor Rickman’s personal star cachet was in getting this financed at all, because the premise doesn’t exactly scream breakout hit.

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Anyway, we’re in France in the year 1682, and Louis XIV (Rickman, who’s really about 20 years too old for the part in terms of historical accuracy, but whatever) has decreed the construction of Versailles as a paradise on Earth. In charge of the grounds is Andre le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), who sets about interviewing leading French gardeners for the job. One of these is Madame de Barra (Kate Winslet), and the two do not initially hit it off, as they seem to have wildly different ideas when it comes to the philosophy of garden design.

However, le Notre realises the scope of the King’s ambitions require him to adopt the ancient French principle of aller grand ou rentrer à la maison and so he ends up hiring her anyway (if he has an ulterior motive, the film gallantly does not dwell upon it). And so begins a tempestuous story of fountain design, pipe-laying, perennial-bloom selection and water-table draining, as le Notre and de Barra come to terms with their burning mutual attraction (rather to the chagrin of his estranged wife (Helen McCrory))…

I don’t make a habit of reading reviews from proper critics for fear of being unduly influenced by them, but the Telegraph‘s line did catch my eye and make me laugh a lot -‘if you only see one film about 17th-century French landscape gardening this year, make it A Little Chaos’. (I notice they haven’t put that on the poster.) Most of the film’s publicity has concentrated on the central romance and the colourful whirl of courtly life, but in all honesty it does feel like there’s a lot of stuff with people talking about water pressure and soil acidity, with the two leads only really getting together quite close to the end. The film’s title card from the certificators promises ‘moderate sex scenes’ and I would say this was a fair description – but, hey, they can’t all be brilliant.

A Little Chaos is quite a long film, given the slightness of the central story, and you are aware of every minute of it. That’s not to say it is dull, as such, just that you may require a different mindset to fully appreciate it. As director, Rickman seems to have prioritised the performances of the actors and the look of the film over the narrative itself, and the film is pretty much flawless in both departments. He has a fondness for extravagant tableaux in which wigged and costumed actors stand immobile in front of a striking background, and the overall impression is that of a film which is under tight control, with every shot carefully considered and composed.

Alan Rickman is one of those actors with undeniable charisma and an impressive reputation – albeit one which is based on a fairly low output in recent years. His days as Hollywood’s go-to guy to play villains feel like a long time ago, with most of his recent appearances being undemanding but (one assumes) preposterously well-remunerated turns in the Harry Potter series. So I suppose it’s nice to see him back doing a movie in any capacity, even if you really wish he actually turned up on screen in A Little Chaos more often than he does. It is in every sense a stately performance, but one which Rickman invests with real pathos, humanity and wit.

Also more prominent in the advertising than the movie itself is Stanley Tucci as the King’s brother. Tucci comes on in a couple of scenes, delivers a big splash of colour and humour and flamboyance, then (usually) clears off again for a bit. Even so, between them it’s mainly he and Rickman who keep the film’s discreet, tasteful, thoughtfulness from making the whole enterprise lose any sense of momentum. This is not to criticise the performances of Winslet or Schoenaerts, both of whom deliver performances of great subtlety and commitment. It’s just that, once again, these are exquisite miniatures, and it’s sometimes the case that more energy and vitality comes when you paint with a broad brush.

There’s nothing that’s actively bad about A Little Chaos in any department – it’s impeccably acted, photographed and designed – but the story doesn’t really go anywhere surprising and the film offers no real new insights or ideas concerning the world it is depicting. If it has a deeper theme, it’s not immediately obvious, so carefully textured is the story. As a result, the film impresses much more than it actually moves – or, really, entertains. Watching a very well-made film can be a pleasure in and of itself, and there are things to enjoy here, for certain: but I think a little less control and a lot more chaos would actually have served A Little Chaos rather better.

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