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Posts Tagged ‘Angelina Jolie’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 31st 2008:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. We have a bit of a good news/bad news situation to begin with this week – the good news is that we’re not looking at yet another superhero movie! On the other hand, however, it is another comic-book adaptation.

The opus in question is Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted, which boldly takes the summer action movie to places it has never been before: and indeed to places which may not have actually existed before. Whether or not this is a good thing I will leave to you to decide.

It opens promisingly enough with a solemn caption describing the foundation of a cult of assassins by some medieval weavers. I briefly wondered what weavers needed assassins on the payroll for, deciding that a) the woollen goods trade was a bit more rock ‘n’ roll back then and b) this was just a bit of background colour and not that relevant to the plot. Happily, I have seldom been more wrong.

After the caption we spend a lot of time in the company of hamster-like nobody Wesley (James McAvoy) who has a rubbish job where he’s victimised by his boss, a trampy girlfriend who’s seeing his traitorous best mate, no money, low self-esteem, etc etc. All this changes when he’s accosted in the supermarket by Fox (Angelina Jolie) – it’s not clear if this is actually her name or just a placeholder description they forgot to get back to. Ol’ Air-bag Mouth is there to protect him from an attack by master assassin Cross (Thomas Kretschmann) and does about eight million dollars worth of property damage in the process. After this she wheels him off to a textile mill where a bloke called Sloan (Morgan Freeman, having some fun) basically re-does the red pill/blue pill scene from The Matrix with him, except this time it involves more cruelty to animals. (Wanted sort of revolves around cruelty to animals, on an epic scale. And cruelty to people, come to think of it. It’s sort of comprehensively vicious. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

It turns out Wesley is the son of the world’s greatest assassin, who belonged to the previously-established cadre of weaver-backed hitmen (‘Do you guys kill people or make sweaters?!?’ wails our hero, confused). Wesley’s dad has apparently been taken out by Cross, and Sloan and Fox want him to join the business and exact revenge…

Wanted would like to be The Matrix so badly it hurts, and to be fair it gets much of the way there: the action sequences are extraordinary, although for the most part they’re so ludicrously over-the-top that they’re funny rather than thrilling. However, what really makes this movie distinctive, if that’s the right word, is the whole weaver-hitman angle. You see, Sloan and the gang aren’t your standard mercenary hired guns. They are the Assassins of Destiny, operating on some sort of utilitarian principle – it’s okay to kill one innocent person if that saves a thousand others down the line somewhere. (This moral justification is somewhat undermined by a sequence where Wesley cheerfully offs virtually an entire train full of innocent people in order to get his man.) This would be quite a cool idea were it not for the somewhat unexpected mechanism by which Destiny communicates with them. The mechanism in question is a loom.

No, really. Morgan Freeman keeps the loom in his bit of the factory and by looking at all the little bobbles in the fabric it produces and doing some sort of kabbalah he can decipher who Destiny would like to have shot in the head. This is very probably the most demented and risible idea in the entire history of cinema, but at least it has originality on its side (I was going to put in a name-drop/joke here about once having my palm read by Mark Millar (writer of Wanted), the spectacular inaccuracy of his predictions, and my hopes he has better luck with the loom – but it turns out this bit isn’t in the original comic. Bugger).

Wesley, indeed, has justifiable qualms about this basis for his activities to begin with, but comes around to the company line fairly rapidly. One gets the impression that this is because if he buys the story about the predictive linen he gets to hang out with Fox, shoot guns at people, do car stunts, and basically look cool, and if he doesn’t then, well, it’s back to his old job for him. (The fact that the Loom of Doom keeps fingering rich fat guys for the chop rather than homeless teenage mothers may help – it certainly helps him hang on to the audience’s sympathies.) This lack of any kind of coherent moral underpinning is fundamental to Wanted. In many ways it seems to be an inadvertent illustration of that old saw about power corrupting. No sooner does Wesley learn of his true heritage than he’s telling his boss where to stick it and half-braining his treacherous pal, but one strongly senses that this isn’t because he’s suddenly and triumphantly in touch with his true self, but because Morgan Freeman has just stuck $3 million in his bank account which means he can act like a prong all he likes now without worrying about getting the sack.

This is not, however, one of those movies which rewards too much excavation. It is the purest kind of popcorn nonsense, one of the most thoroughly excessive movies of recent years (though it doesn’t quite reach the astounding level of Crank), and for the most part highly – if guiltily – entertaining. The levels of sadistic violence to man and beast, the quantity of cranial splatter, the cheerful immorality and the borderline misogyny (the female characters are all cyphers, horrible, or both) may leave a bad taste in the mouth for some, though. In general, though, this is a very silly action movie whose only real message is that if you’re going to base your assassination agency around looking at bits of cloth, no good will come of it. And I think we can all learn something from that.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 14th 2004:

I probably don’t need to point this out in the week that William Shatner releases a new music CD, but comebacks can be a risky undertaking. The movie provoking this thought is Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a deliberately-old fashioned romp starring Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow.

This movie seems mainly to have been marketed on the strength of its slightly unusual production technique – basically the actors shot their scenes in front of a bluescreen and everything else was computer-generated. Well, I have to say, that doesn’t sound especially novel given the vast quantity of digital effects work in many recent blockbusters. The fact that Conran’s using it to create offices and laboratories seems peculiar rather than interesting.

Well, anyway. Set in the late 30s (or so it’s implied, in which case all the characters display remarkable foresight as they keep referring to the 1914-18 conflict as World War One) this is the tale of swashbuckling mercenary H Joseph Sullivan (Law), who prefers to be known as Sky Captain, and plucky girl reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow), who prefers not to be known as that woman who made a prat of herself at the Oscars a few years ago. Top scientists are disappearing and scientific supplies are being stolen by weird and wonderful super-scientific creations, and Joe and his old flame Polly set out to solve the mystery. It leads them to the hidden lair of not especially sane scientist Totenkopf and his mechanical minions…

The thing about Sky Captain is that it doesn’t actually have very much in the way of plot. It has the feel of a short film blown up to feature length, without the script receiving a proportionate amount of work. As a result the story is extremely thin, the characters rather one-dimensional, and the dialogue a bit clunky. (That said, there’s a running gag about Paltrow’s camera that builds up to a genuinely funny closing gag.) As this is a loving pastiche of those old 40s movie serials (Flash Gordon, King of the Rocket Men, et al) this is technically perfectly correct, but it’s still less than a contemporary audience has come to expect.

But as an experiment in style goes, Sky Captain certainly looks different. The opening, New York-set section, from which most of the stuff in the trailer originates, has a slightly murky and over-processed look to it, almost like colourised sepia or a rotoscoped cartoon, but the rest of the film is less obviously processed and as such less distracting. The production designs and animation are a bit of a treat, as giant robots march through Manhattan and squadrons of ornithopters lay waste to airfields. It all looks convincingly retro, and this extends to the story, which after a while starts making obvious visual and narrative homages to famous 30s SF and fantasy films: so we get a bit based on Metropolis, then a bit lifted from Lost Horizon, then a bit from The Shape of Things to Come, then King Kong, and so on.

Spotting these in-jokes is possibly the most entertaining way of passing the time during Sky Captain, as once the visual novelty has worn off there’s not much here to stop the mind from wandering. Jude Law is arguably miscast, Paltrow seems a bit uncomfortable, and performances of the supporting cast are variable (Omid Djalili does another one of his fun self-styled ethnic scumbag turns, Michael Gambon is okay but only in it for about forty seconds, and Howling Mad Angelina Jolie still seems to think that putting on an accent excuses you from having to actually act). In fact the only other acting appearance worthy of note is the one which provoked my opening thought: because, ladies and gentlemen, Totenkopf is played by Laurence Olivier.

Well, ‘played’ is probably putting it too strongly as Larry’s actual screen-time is extremely limited. Those expecting a fully CGI’d rendition of one of the greatest actors of all time will be disappointed as he mainly appears as a giant crackly floating head. And, when he speaks, you cunningly only get to see him from the nose up, thus saving the effects crew from having to lip-synch his performance. It’s a bit of a disappointment and smacks very clearly of gimmickry. I expect Larry was advised against it, but these dead guys, do they listen to sense? I guess not.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is so beladen with gimmickry and pastiche, and so lacking in traditional narrative virtues, that it doesn’t really satisfy except on the most superficial level. I suppose making a film like this at all must count as some kind of technical triumph, and it’s never actually boring, but it lacks the wit and charm and energy that other films inspired by the pulpiest of pulp fiction somehow managed to retain. Possibly worth seeing as an oddity, but certainly not the shape of cinema to come.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 11th 2001:

(Much pretentious waffling about the possible impact of the September 11th attacks and the following change in world affairs on cinema has been snipped on the grounds it’s unreadable guff, and turned out to be completely inaccurate.) 

…all this preamble was supposed to lead into a review of the war drama Enigma (clever, eh?), but due to the impressive incompetency of the local multiplexes and some startlingly inaccurate listings, let’s talk about Original Sin instead.

(One of the good things about being a critic, even an unpaid, vanishingly obscure one that about three people in the world read, is that you can excuse slumming it in potboilers like this one by telling yourself it’s for the good of your readers.)

Original Sin is not, I suspect, going to be a blockbuster or even a sleeper hit. Until well into the ‘Coming Soon’ ads I was the only one in the theatre, a pleasure I’ve not had since going to a weekday matinee of Space Truckers back in 1997. Then three ladies of a certain age turned up and proceeded to give a running commentary on events on the screen to one another, which is always a bonus, I find.

Anyway, this is a full-on period literary adaptation, by far my least favourite cinematic genre. It’s got a Caribbean setting, though, which at least makes the appearance of Prunella Scales on a Grand Tour of Venice rather less likely. Antonio Banderas, still smouldering manfully away outside Hollywood’s A-list, plays Luis Vargas, a coffee tycoon in 1880s Cuba. Barely credibly, he can’t find a wife, and so has recruited a mail-order bride. Her name is Julia Bennett, who’s played by Mrs Billy Bob Thornton herself, Angelina Jolie (looking as usual like a couple of airbags have gone off in her mouth). Mrs Billy Bob comes across as all demure and proper to start with but five minutes with Antonio and it’s a different story. (Yes, readers, they do. And for rather longer and in more detail than I thought was strictly necessary even in soft-core cobblers like this.) Antonio’s wedded bliss comes a bit unstuck when his bride suddenly turns into a cigar-smoking, canary-strangling raver and then nicks off with the family fortune, he obligingly having signed her up for a joint account. Antonio discovers Mrs Billy Bob was an impostor and not the bride he ordered, and recruiting a convenient Yankee private detective (Thomas Jane), sets off to find her.

With a title like Original Sin and this sort of set-up you’d be forgiven for expecting a sort of high-quality late-night Channel 5 movie (or so what I’m told about Channel 5 leads me to believe…). And that’s pretty much what you get, albeit with a lot less rumpy-pumpy. There’s a faintly unsavoury feel most of the way through this movie, despite writer-director Michael Cristofer’s obvious belief he’s making a very serious drama about love and lust and identity. The direction is workmanlike at best, the script is crunchingly unsubtle and a little confused in parts, and it’s at least fifteen minutes too long. There is a plot twist about half way through which you may find involving, but dodgy exposition earlier on confused me into guessing the surprise much too early.

There are things to enjoy here if you really look for them. The period setting is pretty good, but no cliche is left unturned – cheerful Creole servants round the hacienda, billowy white lace curtains, far too much flamenco guitar, sugar-cane fields (on a coffee plantation…?), etc, etc. There’s only actually one intentional joke in the whole movie, and that’s about a supporting character getting an eyeful of Antonio’s ahem, but this is more than made up for by a hilarious card-sharping sequence where Mrs Billy Bob starts giving Antonio ‘secret signs’ revealing his opponents’ hands – the ‘secret signs’ appear to be bookie’s tick-tack, or possibly semaphore. And early on someone else says ‘I can’t stand cheap melodrama’ which is only asking for trouble in a movie like this one. The epilogue is laughable too, and seems to have been half-inched from the far superior Revenge of Frankenstein.

Of the three leads, we can dispense with Mr Jane quite quickly; he has a duff part to play and makes a very average job of it. Antonio Banderas, though, simultaneously displays the electric screen presence that should have made him a superstar long ago, and also the dodgy quality control that’s ensured he hasn’t become one. He’s never less than watchable, is certainly the best thing in the movie, and looks very comfortable in period costume. The same can’t be said for Mrs Billy Bob, whom I still reckon is a weird looking kipper at the best of times. She comes across rather like a pneumatic version of Helena Bonham-Carter, even down to the voice, but just didn’t convince me at all. She and Banderas don’t have the incendiary screen chemistry you might expect, either: she just spends all her time giggling or looking torn or staring off into the middle distance.

Still, there are no bad movies, only boring ones, and this one just manages to avoid being a real chore to sit through. What can it tell us about ourselves? Well, probably just that movie producers have dirty minds. Sinful? Yes. Original? Not on your life.

(Nearly ten years on the only thing I can really remember about this movie is that it was the first one I went to see solely in order to have something to write about in the column. Dearie me.)

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