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Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Hopkins’

There’s a moment towards the end of Fernando Meirelle’s The Two Popes when Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) decides there is something he really has to get off his papal chest. ‘I’m going to retire,’ he announces.

His companion, the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), is slow on the uptake. ‘Retire? Retire from what?’ he asks, bemused.

(Look, if you think that counts as a spoiler… well, I don’t know what to say, except that I hope that being in the coma hasn’t left you with too many long-term health issues.)

It’s one of many funny moments in the film, which is consistently much lighter on its feet than you might expect. We’re getting to that time of year, after all, when the slower, heavier, and more respectable films start to show up. The Two Popes is a Netflix production, and presumably forms part of the company’s strategy of attracting viewers by being the only place where you can see prestigious, award-winning productions. Of course, in order to win the awards, the film has to get into actual cinemas, which is why it is currently enjoying a brief theatrical run before becoming exclusively available by streaming. I find it hard to find many positive things to say about this way of doing things, but this is an undeniably solid, classy movie.

As noted, the film presents itself as a dramatisation of various events which might very well have happened in recent years. The story proper gets underway in 2005, with the death of the incumbent pontiff, John Paul II. As usual, there is a good deal of politicking about who will take his place, with the hot favourite being the previous pope’s doctrinal enforcer, Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins – the thing with the papal names means that the two lead characters have multiple names across the course of the movie). Mounting an unexpectedly strong, if rather reluctant challenge, is Argentinian cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pryce), a man of an entirely different character.

Ratzinger is duly elected, and a somewhat disenchanted Bergoglio, anticipating the rigid conservatism of the incoming pope, returns home to Argentina to plan his retirement. Years pass, and relations between the two men do not improve. However, the problem is that Bergoglio can’t retire to a quiet life in a parish without the Pope’s permission, which Benedict is very reluctant to grant in case it is interpreted by vaticanologists as an implied criticism of his papacy. The Pope summons the cardinal to discuss the problem – and some other things he has on his mind.

What follows is essentially a two-hander between Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, as the two men talk about theology, their upbringings, the role of the church, and many other issues. Mixed in with this are various flashbacks to the earlier life of Bergoglio, depicting his discovery of his vocation, and other key moments from his past (the young Bergoglio is played by Juan Minujin). It does sound like quite a dry and heavy film when you put it like that, which may be why Meirelles goes out of his way to keep things unexpectedly light: the film starts with a jokey scene with the Pope having trouble booking a plane ticket, and things begin to verge on the downright off-beat as the college of cardinals commence their ruminations on who is to be the new pope with Abba’s Dancing Queen playing majestically on the soundtrack. He manages to maintain this throughout: any film which depicts the two popes watching World Cup final together (Germany vs Argentina, of course) is clearly not likely to be accused of over-reverence towards its subjects.

That said, it’s not afraid to pause and reflect on some of the issues it raises. The difference between the two men is dramatically useful – Ratzinger is cold, inflexible, unworldly, not especially imaginative, while Bergoglio is warm, compassionate, engaged, charismatic. And, of course, they are being played by two extremely fine actors. I don’t think the film-makers need have been too concerned about the fact that this is quite a talky film – when you have performers of this calibre working with an interesting and intelligent script, long dialogue scenes become entirely engrossing.

Now, I’ve enjoyed watching Jonathan Pryce ever since his performance in Brazil, but even so I would admit that he is obviously not as feted an actor as Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins does indeed seem to be reining it in and rather underplaying things as Benedict, but then he has also to contend with the fact that the film is rather making him out to be the bad pope in this relationship: a much less appealing figure than Bergoglio, certainly. The film’s partiality isn’t just limited to the present day scenes, either – we do learn a lot about how Bergoglio came into the church, and his travails under the military junta that seized power there in 1976. You initially think the film is doing Benedict XVI no favours by not exploring his past and character in anything like the same way.

But then you think about it a bit and you realise that, actually, not exploring Benedict XVI’s past is possibly one of the kindest things you could do for him in a movie, because there are many big question marks here. I don’t refer to his time in the Hitlerjugend, but the topic which inevitably surfaces in any discussion of the modern Roman Catholic Church: the child abuse scandals and the suggestions of a systematic, institutionalised cover-up. It has been suggested that Ratzinger’s involvement in this, and the damage its exposure could do to the Church, is the main reason for his retirement as pope.

Obviously the film has to address this, or at least touch on it – and it duly does so. I enjoyed this film a lot and found it to be mostly intelligent and well-made, but you could certainly argue it tries to dodge the issue here – or if not dodge, then certainly fudge. The resulting scene, where Benedict intimates to Bergoglio the extent of his knowledge of what’s been going on without going into too much detail, doesn’t just feel like a cop-out – it makes you suddenly realise the extent to which this film must be fictional, a what-if presentation of possible conversations between invented versions of the two men. Prior to this point the film has been plausible enough to win you over.

Well, it’s never a completely terrible idea to be reminded that a piece of fiction is a piece of fiction, and this at least is an interesting and often amusing one. And The Two Popes is well-enough written, played, and directed to give the impression that there may be a few grains of real truth sprinkled in amongst the invented sparkle, even if that impression may be completely unfounded. Worth seeing just for the performances, anyway.

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There are, I suppose, weirder choices of film projects than blockbuster fantasy versions of tales from the depths of the Old Testament, but not many. I suspect that the fact Paramount have embarked upon such an adventure, in the form of Noah, is not based upon the studio’s confident belief in the bankability of this kind of film, but the past acclaim and success of director Darren Aronofsky and the box office clout of leading man Russell Crowe.

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I suspect you know the story to this one already, more or less at least. The script is by Aronofsky and Ari Handel (based on an idea by some 6th century Judaean priests) and is rather coy about the exact setting of the film – you can treat it as proper history if you really want to, but the fantasy quotient is also comfortably high. Ten generations after the creation of the world, humanity has split into two factions along ideological lines – with those who see the Earth as something to be relentlessly exploited very much in the ascendant, and those desiring to live in harmony with nature living in fear of their lives.

Noah (Crowe) and his family are pretty much all that is left of the latter group, eking out a fairly miserable existence in the wasteland the mechanistic civilisation has reduced the world to. But then Noah has a vision: and, not to put too fine a point on it, it looks like rain…

Not quite sure what to make of this, Noah and his nearest and dearest trek off to the remote hermitage of his grandad Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who fills him in on the finer points of what’s in the offing. With the help of a gang of fallen angels who look rather like cobbled Ents, Noah sets about measuring his cubits and gathering the gopher wood.

Inevitably, as the time of the inundation draws closer, others take an interest in Noah’s little project, particularly Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), king of one of the destructive human nations. Tubal-Cain is quite keen to get a berth on the Ark for himself, and isn’t above attempting to suborn Noah’s kids to do so. Noah himself has other problems, not least the issue of finding wives for all his sons. Sometimes it never rains, but it pours…

There has been some media coverage of Russell Crowe’s industrious efforts to secure a celebrity endorsement for Noah by showing it to the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, mainly (one suspects) because of the sheer size of the potential Christian audience this could help the film tap into. The slightly quirky decision not to use the word ‘God’ once in the entire movie aside, it seems to me that there’s very little here to frighten the Biblical-literalist horses, in the sense that the movie takes the Book of Genesis at face value – for all that it embellishes the story in some fairly eye-opening ways (battles with giant stone angels and so on), there’s nothing here that directly contradicts the scriptural account.

There is something compellingly bizarre about the way in which the film works very hard to treat such an extravagant story so seriously. Tranquility on the Ark, for instance, is secured by doping all the animals aboard it into suspended animation for the duration of the voyage (this also explains why it doesn’t fill up with dung before the end of the film). Noah himself is treated with an unexpected level of psychological realism, but then in these particular circumstances this makes a certain degree of sense. All in all, watching Noah I had a strange sense that this was a blockbuster fantasy film of which the Christian right might well approve.

I’m not sure I was very comfortable with that, and it did make me wary of the environmental message which is central to the story: the subtext of the film is ‘live green or die’, which ordinarily I’d agree with, but not when it’s presented as some kind of religious fundamentalist dogma. (On the other hand, another major theme is whether the planet wouldn’t be better off without the human race, a suggestion which I can’t imagine many religions getting behind.) The earnestness of the film in this and other departments is a bit of a problem, too: Anthony Hopkins does his usual formerly-Welsh twinkliness, but apart from this Noah is an extremely po-faced film, presumably in order to avoid charges from its target audience of irreverence towards scripture.

This doesn’t stop the film being very, very strange for most of its running time. It looks good, as you’d expect from Aronofsky, with the antediluvian world looking pretty post-apocalyptic anyway, and some decent special effects. Jennifer Connelly honestly doesn’t get much to do as Mrs Noah – Emma Watson as the daughter-in-law gets more decent material – but Crowe, Winstone, and Hopkins all bring their customary commitment and presence, as well as a slight tendency to chew on the scenery (in light of which it’s a bit unfortunate that various scenes depict characters wandering about shouting ‘Ham! Ham!’).

On its own peculiar terms the film remains interesting and pacy for its first two acts, but I did find the final third to be rather tough going, to the point of actually being slightly twisted. The stuff with everyone on the Ark, post-flood, does go on a bit, and wanders off into some distinctly unexpected areas (there’s some hand-to-hand combat, for instance, plus Noah threatening to turn into a swivel-eyed murderous headcase). I was looking forward to the bit where Noah says ‘At my command, unleash doves,’ but this doesn’t happen. Genesis 9:23 does make it into the movie though, just another example of the permeating weirdness of the project.

Going in to see Noah I was fairly certain that this was the proverbial win-win scenario: either Aronofsky was going to make an interestingly original and visually sumptuous film, or just a hilariously bad one, either of which I would happily watch. In the end, though, I think Noah is somewhere in between: the conception of the film is deeply, deeply odd, unless you genuinely believe the Flood to have been an actual historical event, in which case you may well take exception to some of the film’s more idiosyncratic embellishments on the traditional story (wondering what happened to the unicorns? Looks like Ray Winstone ate them both). But set against all this, it is a beautifully designed and photographed film with moments of real vision and power. I don’t foresee a full-scale revival of the Biblical Epic as a major genre (though, hey, I’m the guy who predicted that Strictly Come Dancing would be a famous disaster, so what do I know?), nor even a massive box office return for this particular film. But I’ve never seen another film quite like it, and I’ve always found it hard to dismiss originality. Even so, Noah is engrossingly strange more than anything else.

 

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Let us cut directly to the central burning issue of the week. It is with something of a heavy heart that I have to report that Marvel Studios have perpetrated a bit of a cheat at the end of Thor: The Dark World, their latest box-office guzzling extravaganza. One of the incidental pleasures of the various Marvel films is sitting through the interminable credits for the teaser scene at the end which either sets up the next film in the series or (in the case of Iron Man 3) just provides some fan-pleasing comic relief. In a welcome move for those of us who sometimes have to leave the premises sharpish in order to catch the bus home, the credits scene from The Avengers was moved to a mid-credits position; Iron Man 3 reverted to the post-credits position. One of the issues with Thor: The Dark World (and, all right, it’s a comparatively minor one) is that it apparently has both a mid-credits and post-credits sequence.

So what, you may say – well, what happened at the screening I attended was that virtually everyone stayed put as the credits rolled, until the mid-credits bit appeared (this scene, featuring a rather camp Benicio del Toro, will probably baffle anyone not heavily steeped in Marvel arcana and is more confusing than appetising). At this point we relaxed, all got up and went home, missing the post-credits sequence. I wouldn’t complain so much except that my understanding is that this scene resolves a key plot point the film itself leaves hanging.

I’m making a big deal out of this, I suppose, but I think it is symptomatic of my experience of this movie. It has an enormous amount going for it, and simply by virtue of its connection to the other Marvel films can expect a very comfortable level of audience goodwill. And yet I still somehow found it to be a mildly unsatisfactory film on many levels.

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Ken Branagh apparently having shied away due to his lack of experience when it comes to heavy special effects sequences, this new installment is overseen by Alan Taylor, who apparently has an impressive record in that TV show about musical chairs. Thor (Hemsworth again) is leading the forces of Asgard as they restore order to the Nine Realms (apparently) plunged into chaos at the end of the first Thor. Meanwhile Odin (Hopkins again) has been prevailed upon to spare the life of his rascally adopted son Loki (Hiddleston again), following his role in the invasion of New York at the end of The Avengers.

Meanwhile, Thor’s love interest Jane Foster (Portman again) is in London, where she initially appears to be living in a bad romantic comedy film. Luckily her research into Plot Device Mechanics leads her to a hole in the fabric of the script, through which she plummets and discovers an ancient doomsday weapon called the Aether.

This was built by the Dark Elves, whom we have already met in one of those exposition-heavy introductory flashbacks of which big genre movies are so very fond. For reasons best known to themselves, the Dark Elves want to blow up the universe, and the Asgardians confiscated the Aether to stop them doing this. Even though they believe the Dark Elves are all dead, the Asgardians don’t seem to have hidden the Aether in a very sensible place, but such are the demands of the plot.

Of course, they are not all dead, and now that Jane has found the Aether, their leader Malekith (the great Christopher Eccleston under a ton of make-up) is quite keen to get hold of her for obvious reasons. Obviously Thor feels strongly motivated to help his girlfriend out, even to the point where he is obliged to ask Loki for help…

Thor: The Dark World clearly wants to be an epic, wide-ranging fantasy adventure, but the problem is that for its opening section at least, ‘wide-ranging’ actually reaches the screen as ‘all over the place’. Once we’re past that slightly eggy flashback with the Elves, the plot rattles around between various different realms, the actual nature and relationship of which the film doesn’t really bother to explain in any detail. Asgard, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim – it just feels like being bombarded with names and chunks of plot, the significance of which are taken for granted.

You have to bear in mind that the look of the film is a slightly baroque mixture of SF and pure fantasy – there’s more than one fight between people waving swords and other people carrying laser rifles and black hole grenades – not to mention that there are great swathes of CGI on display, and fairly central to proceedings is Natalie Portman. Now, given a good script, Portman can be a searingly effective performer, but without one she often reverts to shop-window mannequin mode, and that’s quite often the case here.

All-in-all, then, the initial sequences set off on Asgard and the other places are frequently horribly reminiscent of The Phantom Menace, as very fine actors in extraordinary hats and hairpieces flounder around inside a script which doesn’t quite hang together, the pain of this being somewhat mitigated by the astoundingly good special effects and production design.

Comparing any film to The Phantom Menace is, I realise, the critical equivalent of hitting the nuclear button, and I have to say that overall Thor: The Dark World is not nearly that bad. Once the plot finally achieves some cohesion in the second half, and Tom Hiddleston (consistently one of the Marvel films’ biggest assets) actually gets to contribute to the story, it picks up very considerably. The problem, of course, is that Loki inevitably overshadows the ostensible villain this time around – Christopher Eccleston just doesn’t get the material to compete – most of his dialogue is in Dark Elvish, which can’t have helped – and Malekith comes across as a dull, cipherish stock villain.

Not necessarily a problem, but certainly slightly peculiar, are the sequences of the film set in the realm of Midgard, or Earth (but, if the films’ captions are to be trusted, known to the Asgardians as ‘London’). Most of the movie takes place elsewhere and these scenes do feel a little bit crowbarred in, not least because they’re tonally completely at odds with the rest of it. Most of the movie is fairly straight-faced fantasy-SF, but the stuff in London is, as I said, like some kind of wacky romantic comedy. Chris O’Dowd gets a cameo, Stellan Skarsgard wanders about in his underpants, Kat Dennings is also trying to do comic relief. Even scenes with Hemsworth in them, including some of the climax, are camp and fluffy in a way the rest of the film just isn’t.

So this is a very inconsistent and choppy movie, but it would be remiss of me to suggest that it’s not at all worth seeing. Pretty much every single scene looks beautiful (possibly excepting the ones with Skarsgard’s pants), and it does effectively conjure up a sense of a vast and diverse cosmos (just not one which actually makes sense). If Chris Hemsworth doesn’t have quite the same charisma as some of the other Marvel leads, well, the film has Tom Hiddleston, which more than makes up for this.

(Conspicuously absent from the screen, by the way, are most of the elements which have connected previous Marvel movies – for example, SHIELD gets name-checked, but none of those characters appear. Possibly the existence of the – distinctly so-so – SHIELD TV show as an entity in its own right makes it harder to work the concept into the actual movies. I note we are promised that the TV show will be doing an episode set in the aftermath of this movie, though.)

While leaving the cinema and missing the post-credits sequence, I happened to overhear other members of the audience talking – ‘Wow, that was so much better than the first Thor!’ was the initial response of one of them. Now, the weird thing is that I could see exactly what she meant – The Dark World is bigger, brighter, more confident and more fun – but I’m not sure I would necessarily agree with her, because I like a film with a stronger plot and better storytelling than is really on display here. Thor felt like a film from a studio ambitious to try something new and excitingly different; The Dark World shows signs of being a project collapsing under the weight of its own grandiosity. It’s a fun, crowd-pleasing adventure, but overall for me it’s the weakest Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man 2. Still, that’s not a bad track record, and it’ll be interesting to see how the next couple of films pan out.

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‘All right,’ I said, ‘you wanted this job as Comparison Wrangler, you got it.’

‘Great,’ he said.

‘But now I’m expecting good stuff from you every time. Waterworld meets City of God and One flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest meets Dirty Dancing set the bar pretty high, but one duff comparison and you’re back to being the blog’s Motorsport and Latin America Correspondent.’

‘Right, I understand.’

‘Okay then – what did you think of the film?’

My newly-installed Comparison Wrangler thought for a moment. ‘The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns.’

It took me a moment to digest that. ‘Your job is safe,’ I eventually said.

The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns – I don’t know about you, but that’s a pitch for a film I’d really like to see. Whether it’s actually a fair description of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock is another matter, for while this movie has its fair share of spectral visitations and performers in heavy prosthetics (which I eventually realised was what the Wrangler was on about), there is a lot of other stuff going on here, most of it highly entertaining.

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The vast majority of this film is set in the late 1950s and concerns one of the most interesting periods in the life of the legendary film director, Alfred Hitchcock. The famously corpulent artist is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in heavy prosthetics that do indeed give him a striking resemblence to Toby Jones, while his long-suffering wife Alma is played by Helen Mirren. Following the success of the slick and glitzy thriller North by Northwest, Hitch finds himself casting fruitlessly about for a new project – the studio just wants him to do more of the same, but he feels the urge to do something completely new, unorthodox, and shocking. In the end he settles on a slightly pulpy horror novel by Robert Bloch, based on the true story of the notorious serial killer Ed Gein. The book is called Psycho.

Naturally, the studio, the censor’s office and some of those around Hitchcock are dubious about the new project – to the point where he and his wife take the decision to finance it themselves, remortgaging their home to do so. However, as production gets underway, the great director finds himself somewhat distracted from his work – not just by his usual fixation on young blonde starlets, but by darker and more peculiar shadows – and, above all, the suspicion that his wife’s loyalty to him is not as perfect as he has always suspected it to be.

I enjoyed this movie a lot, rather more than I honestly expected to, but this doesn’t really change the fact that it is a rather peculiar piece of work. Rather appropriately, it has a bit of a multiple personality problem, changing its tone and focus frequently throughout its length. It opens with a scene in which Gein (played by Michael Wincott) himself is seen committing the first of his murders, which suddenly turns comic as Hitchcock appears in frame and starts addressing the audience directly, in the style of one of the introductions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The idea that this is going to be a knowing piece of metafiction with blackly comic overtones does not last long, as the section of the film is played straight – until there’s another fantasy sequence featuring Gein. The film slides back and forth like this – in some places it’s a weird phantasmagorical comedy-drama, in others a serious examination of the personalities and relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville, in yet more it’s a breezy look at the making of Psycho (James Darcy plays Anthony Perkins, Scarlett Johanssen gives us a perky Janet Leigh, and Jessica Biel is Vera Miles).

Now, it doesn’t actually do any of these things badly – but the frequent shifting between them does leave one never quite sure how to react. The material with Hitchcock hanging out with Gein’s phantom is sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, sometimes just peculiar, but it’s the least prominent part of the film. All the serious acting is going on in the plotline about Hitchcock’s personal issues and his relationship with his wife. I have to say that, despite the best efforts of the make-up people, Anthony Hopkins simply doesn’t look a huge amount like Hitchcock, and his accent isn’t quite there either. If this is a problem, it’s tempting to stick some of the blame on Hitch himself, for making himself such an iconic figure at the time. Hopkins isn’t actually bad, but Mirren is certainly much better, even though hers is the less juicy part.

This is actually a rather sympathetic depiction of Hitchcock, on the whole – his well-publicised tendencies with respect to his leading ladies are acknowledged, and there’s a scene where he attempts to spy on Vera Miles changing, but on the whole the tone is so jovial and celebratory that one comes away a little bemused at just how well he comes off.

One senses that the heart of the film is really only in the behind-the-scenes stuff on Psycho. Many of the famous anecdotes about the making of the film are brought to the screen – although the allegation that Hitchcock didn’t actually direct the shower scene himself is not aired – and even people very familiar with the movie may learn some new stuff; I certainly did. Considering that Hitchcock doesn’t contain a single frame of the original movie, and only uses certain very limited elements of the soundtrack, it all feels surprisingly authentic (there’s a nice deadpan gag where Hitchcock assures the censor that the film will be much less questionable with Herrman’s ‘beautiful, lyrical’ music added to it). The best moment of the film comes when Hitchcock, listening to an audience’s reaction to the film, appears to orchestrate their response like a conductor. If nothing else Hitchcock reminded me of what a toweringly brilliant movie Psycho is.

This is an engaging and very enjoyable film, but I do sort of wonder what the point of it is – it’s not as if Alfred Hitchcock is some forgotten genius, and Psycho a great, lost, unlauded film. People started openly ripping off Hitchcock even while he was still alive and have been doing so on and off ever since, and Psycho is one of the founding texts of the modern horror movie. Hitchcock is ultimately rather superfluous and doesn’t tell us anything especially new – but as redundant movies go, it’s highly agreeable.

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Regular readers may have come across my observation that, in the past, Hollywood shows odd tendencies when it comes to rewarding young actresses who have proven themselves to have considerable talent. Are these women given the chance to shine in thoughtful, mature dramas, that offer us a deeper insight into life when seen from a feminine perspective? They are not. They are, more often than not, stuffed into a big-budget knuckle-dragging special-effects-focussed genre movie. To wit: Halle Berre in Catwoman (and much else besides), Charlize Theron and Sophie Okenodo in AEon Flux, and Anna Paquin in the X-Men series, amongst others. Now you would have thought that recent Oscar laureate Natalie Portman would be spared this kind of treatment, having already served her time in the Star Wars prequels, but apparently not: already in the can when she won, and now erupting onto the screen in boisterous 3D, is Marvel Studios’ latest offering, Thor, in which she is the leading lady.

This is not so much a case of Mallett’s Mallet as Branagh’s Hammer. In line with their usual policy of, er, interesting directorial choices, Marvel have recruited Ken Branagh to bring this movie to the screen. (Still no sign of Edgar Wright’s take on Ant-Man, alas.) The logic behind this seems a little suspect to me but Ken makes a pretty good fist of telling what, at first glance, sounds like an immensely stupid story.

Peace reigns in the Eternal Realm of Asgard, along with Odin the All-father, King of the Gods (Anthony Hopkins, not quite phoning it in). But there is discord between his sons, the proud and braggartly warrior Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the devious and roguish sorcerer Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Jealous of his brother, Loki manipulates Thor into attacking Jotunheim, realm of the Frost Giants, nearly provoking war with Asgard. Odin is not best pleased by this sort of behaviour and not only strips Thor of his rank and privileges but banishes him from Asgard, casting him out into a terrible, primitive wasteland…

…also known as the southern USA. Yup, this is that kind of film. Thor crashes to Earth in New Mexico and is nearly run over by passing physicist Jane Foster (Portman) and her friends. Deprived of his godly powers Thor ends up in the local hospital, while his magic hammer Mjiolnir attracts the attention of the good men of SHIELD, led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), whom you may recall from Iron Man 2 where some of this got set up. While Jane, her friends, and SHIELD are trying to figure out what’s going on, and Thor’s trying to get his hammer back, Loki seizes his opportunity and usurps the throne of Asgard from Odin (who is conveniently laid low by a plot device). Will Thor learn humility and wisdom in time to stop Loki’s evil plan?

Well, it’s difficult to go into too much detail here without spoiling the plot, but Loki’s evil plan is really the weak link in the film: it’s just not the sort of thing you’re really going to care about. One of the film’s major strengths is the way in which it is set in vastly and obviously different worlds – Asgard, Earth, and Jotunheim – and it derives much of its energy from the moments when they brush up against each other – armoured Aesir wandering down the main street of a present-day town, for instance. But, come the climax, events move back to Asgard with no immediate threat to Earth or any of the characters there – and it all becomes a bit of an exercise in special-effects virtuosity without any real grounding in reality or emotional weight.

It’s not even as if Earth and Asgard – the two main settings – are presented as contrastingly as they might. Earth isn’t as grimy and mundane, nor Asgard as soaringly otherworldly, as it could be, and I suspect this is mainly due to Thor‘s nature not as a film in its own right but as the latest chapter in Marvel Studios’ ongoing continuity. In addition to the elements continuing from Iron Man 2, Samuel L ‘Mr Post-Credits Sequence’ Jackson pops up once again as Nick Fury, there’s a heavily veiled reference to the Hulk, and Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner) pops up in a role just too small to be satisfying but just big enough to be slightly distracting. More importantly, the end of the film seems structured to leave several of the major characters in the places they need to be for next summer’s Avengers to work.

Having said that, this is a fun and fairly satisfying film with the epic fantasy element giving it an identity separate from most superhero adaptations. There’s relatively little of the large-scale action I was expecting – the sole examples being an opening-reel battle with the Frost Giants and a final act rumble between Thor and a giant metal Asgardian construct (‘Is that one of Stark’s?’ asks a confused SHIELD agent upon seeing it – one of the moments where the film uses continuity to its advantage). Instead there’s more of a focus on character and humour, and the cast Branagh’s recruited is impressive. Stellan Skarsgard is rather good as Portman’s mentor, and also in the movie are people like Rene Russo (who barely gets any dialogue, sadly), Idris Elba from The Wire, and Ray Stevenson. Rather surprisingly, Branagh hasn’t cast Brian Blessed anywhere in this movie despite the abundance of roles he’d be perfect for. What gives, Ken? In the title role, Chris Hemsworth looks striking enough, and his performance isn’t actually bad, but he’s got nothing like the presence of, to pick a wild example, Robert Downey Junior or Samuel L Jackson. Hopefully Hemsworth won’t have an issue with being blasted off the screen, thesp-wise, in future appearances.

I have to say that you wouldn’t recognise this as the work of a director with a record as distinguished as Branagh’s. For a summer blockbuster the direction is fine, and Branagh seems to have worked hard on performances, to the film’s advantage, but it’s not really what you’d call distinctive. Again, the film’s identity as a Marvel product swamps everything else. But I suppose this is the price one pays for a unique experiment such as the one Marvel are currently engaged upon. I enjoyed Thor, but I don’t think it’s a great film by any means, and I’ll be surprised if it makes the kind of money required to turn it into a genuine hit (then again I wasn’t that impressed with the first Iron Man, which everyone loved). In the end, what is my opinion of this movie? I say thee ‘Mmm, well, okay.’

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 17th 2002:

He’s back in the public eye again, even when confined to his prison cell: a literary phenomenon, a cultured gentleman, and an iconic figure of the dark side of humanity and its most depraved appetites. But that’s enough about Jeffrey Archer, let’s focus instead on the infinitely more amiable Dr Hannibal Lecter, back on the big screen once again in Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon.

In Ratner’s movie Edward Norton plays Will Graham, a retired FBI agent who formerly specialised in the profiling of serial killers. He’s persuaded to take on one more case by his boss (Harvey Keitel) – two families have already been slaughtered by an unstable psychopath (Ralph ‘Mr Sunbeam’ Fiennes, who should really think about doing a comedy or something – although if the results are anything like The Avengers, maybe not) with another set of killings due in a matter of days. As time ticks away Graham agrees to draw upon the assistance of a brilliant forensic psychologist – the only drawback being that he’s currently incarcerated in a secure facility for the criminally insane, put there by Graham himself years earlier…

It’s hard to get past the idea that this is simply one last attempt to cash in on the popularity of Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal. Red Dragon is the second film version of Thomas Harris’ novel in sixteen years, the first being Michael Mann’s Manhunter (the two films actually share some of the same behind-the-camera personnel), a clinically stylish thriller featuring Brian Cox as Lecktor (sic). Cox made a big impression in what was a fairly small part, because Lecter is very much a marginal figure in the story as written.

Red Dragon retells the story in an approximation of the style of Silence of the Lambs – it makes much use of the iconography of Jonathan Demme’s film, recreating Lecter’s cell, the image of him in the mask, and concludes with a pointless foreshadowing of the 1991 movie1. But above all it makes as much use as it possibly can of Anthony Hopkins. This isn’t very much, though, and it’s one of the film’s major problems. When Lecter’s not on the screen things often seem a bit dry, and you impatiently await his next appearance – but when he does appear, Hopkins’ startlingly camp and rather over-the-top performance, while magnetic to watch and very funny, does seem rather out-of-place in a movie that’s trying to sell itself as a straightforward psychological thriller.

Hopkins virtually steals the movie, and you get the impression he was heartily encouraged to. But Fiennes is also very good in a complex role, as is Emily Watson as a girl he befriends. (The two younger Brits seem to have modelled their performances on that of the great man, inasmuch as none of them ever seems to blink, and the array of fixed, glassy eyeballs rather reminded me of The Muppet Show). Norton spends rather too long talking to himself and wandering around crime scenes to be really engaging as the hero, and Keitel’s part is horribly underwritten and two-dimensional. It falls to Philip Seymour Hoffman to keep the US end up with a nice turn as a sleazy reporter.

The plot is quite engaging, though the climax seems a bit contrived and there are a few implausibility’s – about half way through Graham and Crawford make a mistake that has quite horrific consequences, but no-one, not them, not their superiors, not even the media, seems particularly bothered by this. But it’s neither especially scary or suspenseful, and Ratner seems a rather limited director – his main achievement is to keep a film with some very nasty subject matter down to a box-office-friendly 15 certificate (fantastic actor though he is, the most disturbing sight in the film is that of Hoffman in his y-fronts). Its finest moment by some way is the opening, a piece of black, grand guignol comedy reminiscent of a Vincent Price horror movie – but one that’s over all too soon.

Actually, this has much more in common with the horror genre than that of the thriller. Lecter is a fantastical figure, refined, aloof, fearsomely intelligent, his only weakness being his dietary peculiarities. Is there really that much difference between him and the horror icon for much of the last century, Dracula? I don’t think so. Fiennes’ character, on the other hand, is depicted as almost superhumanly strong and resilient, deformed, haunted by an abusive female relative, and drawn helplessly to a young blind girl: there are echoes there of both Frankenstein’s monster and Norman Bates (himself a split personality, a condition with its own fantastical mirror in the form of the werewolf). These are old friends in new skins, and a sign of where this movie is really rooted.

The other way in which this is a very traditional horror film is that in it, evil is presented as being synonymous with sexual ‘deviancy’. Norton must choose between traditional family life and the twisted world of the serial killers for which he has such an uncomfortable empathy, as embodied by Lecter – whose effete, preppy turn of phrase and double entendres (‘I’d love to get you on my couch’ he simpers to Graham at one point) mark him out as the ultimate predatory gay, looking to either turn or destroy his happily married adversary. Fiennes’ character, on the other hand, specifically targets the traditional, nuclear family and is portrayed as a shy, repressed mummy’s boy (another vaguely unpleasant gay stereotype) whose possible redemption comes in the form of a decent ‘normal’ relationship with a woman. Did the film-makers intend to include this homophobic subtext in their movie? I don’t know, but it’s not exactly deeply buried and I’m surprised it hasn’t drawn more criticism.

Unpleasant or not, hackneyed or not, it’s still the most interesting thing about Red Dragon. This is a reasonable thriller, with some good performances, and I quite enjoyed it (though I still think Manhunter is by far the better film). But as a film that’s being marketed and will be judged as an addition to the Lecter franchise, it’s inevitably disappointing. An entirely new outing for the doctor might have been a better idea – but as Hopkins has announced himself retired from cannibalistic service, we’ll never know.

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I think we sometimes underestimate the influence of context on how others perceive us. To my landlady I expect I appear as a quiet, affable, accommodating type, while to my students I suspect I am a more challenging and unusual figure. To the staff of the local art house cinema, however, if I am anything at all, I am that bloke who only seems to go to see Woody Allen movies. Much as I like the place and its ambience (the gents’ lavatory door is marked only by a striking life-size painting of Toshiro Mifune from Yojimbo, for instance) I’ve only got down there twice, on both occasions to see something of Allen’s.

This is not because I am a particular fan of Woody Allen’s work. It is rather that I only go there when absolutely nothing piques my interest at the mainstream multiplexes, and – this may be a coincidence, but may not – these quiet times seem to be when Allen’s work gets released these days. It certainly doesn’t show up in the major chains, anyway. The first time I trotted along to the art house it was to see last summer’s Whatever Works (which certainly didn’t). This time it was for his latest movie, touted as a return to form and entitled You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.

To be perfectly honest, the movie this reminded me of most was Eugene Lourie’s classic 1961 offering Gorgo, in which avaricious chancers capture a giant sea monster and put it on display in the centre of a major city, only for disaster to ensue when the monster’s humungous mother shows up to rescue it. All You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger shares in terms of its plot is the setting, which is London: but in both cases the style and sensibility of a film usually set elsewhere (in Gorgo‘s case, Tokyo; in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger‘s, New York) has been transplanted to the city, with results which seem inexplicably peculiar.

The general consensus is that Allen isn’t the film-maker he was thirty or even twenty years ago, but his ability to attract impressive performers to his films is undiminished. In this one, for example, people like Ewen Bremner, Philip Glenister, Meera Syal and Anna Friel all turn up in minor roles, which is more than a little startling. Further up the cast things are even more glittery.

This is another of Allen’s stories of the complicated personal lives of affluent metropolitan types, based around an older couple (Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones) and their daughter and son-in-law (Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin). Hopkins has a (slightly late) mid-life crisis and divorces Jones, eventually marrying a prostitute (Lucy Punch). Distraught (and tending towards alcoholism), Jones is encouraged to seek solace in visiting a fortune-teller (Pauline Collins) by Watts. Watts is contending with a growing attraction to her art-dealer boss (Antonio Banderas), her desire to be financially secure and start a family, and her useless husband. Brolin is a struggling writer trying to sell a book but increasingly besotted with a woman (Freida Pinto) whose apartment he can see into.

All these threads amble along inoffensively enough for the most part (though the stuff with Brolin essentially letching at Pinto getting changed, with which she seems perfectly okay, felt a bit icky) – as I said, it’s the same sort of affluent-lives-in-crisis material which has powered many of Allen’s other films. It’s very clearly not set in a version of London remotely resembling our own: this is a film so far detached from reality that a minor but pivotal character can be called Henry Strangler without it seeming at all weird.

It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere special for much of its running time: Hopkins’s thread is probably the best, Watts’ the least involving. There are some odd choices of what to show on-screen: ‘Sally decided her marriage was over and asked Roy for a divorce,’ says the chirpy (American) narrator at one point – that’s the kind of scene most films would feel it worthwhile to include, but not here.

But then – and this completely threw me at the time – something really odd happens. (Spoilers follow, so be warned.) Hopkins discovers Punch has been unfaithful to him and the child she’s carrying may not be his. Brolin, who’s stolen a brilliant manuscript written by a friend he believed to be dead, learns his friend is in fact only in a coma and may recover, which would be catastrophically bad news for him. And having encouraged her mother’s mystical beliefs as a way of keeping her happy and occupied, when Watts asks her for a loan to help her start her own business she is refused on the grounds the psychic says it would end badly. Genuine tension and raw emotion appear for the first time in the movie… which then abruptly ends, none of these things resolved, the final scene being given to Jones’s character, who’s the only happy one, being on the verge of marrying an occult bookstore owner.

I couldn’t figure out why Woody would make an hour and a half of faff – which is what the majority of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is – and cram all the interesting stuff into the last ten minutes without following any of it to a conclusion. However, I believe I have figured out what his intention was: this movie is supposed to be about the fact that happiness sometimes walks hand-in-hand with delusion, and it’s supposed to be blackly ironic that Jones’s mysticism has made her happy while all the others’ more ‘realistic’ view of the world has caused them nothing but pain.

Except the execution of the idea kills it. This would only work if Jones was mocked and scorned throughout the film and the others were presented as likeable, successful people in comparison. But they’re not. Beneath the mild and easy-going exterior this is a rather misanthropic film (even moreso, misogynistic: the presentation of Lucy Punch’s character is particularly uncomfortable), and no-one comes across particularly positively. You know Hopkins is heading for a fall from the moment you meet his new bride, and Brolin’s character is just an unpleasant loser throughout. It’s not a sudden reversal when they end up in a bad place. Watts’s character is decent enough, but she never convinces: the fact it’s a British character written by an American and played by an Australian may have something to do with this.  Allen’s point is still there, just about: but you really have to strain to see it and it doesn’t really have much impact once you discern it.

Most of the cast is effective enough, Hopkins particularly so, and there are lots of mildly amusing bits along the way. It’s certainly not as thorough-goingly awful as Whatever Works was: but the fact is that this is a movie which had an interesting idea at its heart, the execution of which has basically been bungled. And that’s just rather frustrating. If nothing else, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger shows that Woody Allen hasn’t completely lost his edge: it just seems, sadly, that he can’t seem to find a way to employ it effectively anymore.

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