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Posts Tagged ‘Bill Nighy’

Every now and then I do like to go to the cinema with my parents, partly because I think it’s nice to share one’s interests, also because I imagine it’s a bracing experience for them to watch the latest Fast and Furious or whatever. Of course, we also go to see things that they are genuinely looking forward to: last autumn we went to see the Downton Abbey movie, and just recently we saw Autumn de Wilde’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. (This movie has been slightly irksomely styled as Emma. in some places, with the final . apparently indicating that this is a – wait for it – period piece. I think we should put a stop to this sort of thing.)

I don’t want to engage in lazy generalisations any more than is absolutely necessary, but watching the new Emma I found myself sort of flashing back to the last time I was out with them. Maybe films aimed at – how can I put this delicately? – a more seasoned audience have this much in common, by which I mean that both Downton and Emma seemed to me to have a definite ‘comfort viewing’ quality to them. It is almost obligatory for the makers of new films based on famous, well-loved books to announce they have found a bold, exciting new approach to the material resulting in a movie the like of which has never been seen before. Not only does this generally turn out to be palpably untrue, but it would be a bad idea even if they could somehow manage it: the kind of person who goes to see a movie based on a Jane Austen novel is not, I would suggest, looking to have a startling, world-upending experience. They want to see something with pleasant-looking people attending balls, riding around in carriages, and swanking about in top hats and Empire-line frocks, a wedding at the end and no bad language.

Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is unlikely to outrage the sensibilities of its target audience, regardless of what the marketing department has come up with. Anya Taylor-Joy, who up to now has mainly distinguished herself by appearing in horror movies, plays Austen’s heroine on this occasion. Emma Woodhouse is the wealthy, comely, and brainy daughter of an eccentric country gentleman (Bill Nighy), who – finding herself spared most of the usual imperatives compelling young women to seek an advantageous marriage – is quite content to stay single and amuse herself. This usually takes the form of trying to organise suitable matches and otherwise orchestrate the lives of her friends and neighbours. Most of them, such as her new friend Harriet (Mia Goth), are sufficiently dazzled by Emma’s beauty and wit to go along with this, even when it causes them some personal inconvenience. The only person who seems to be less than entirely thrilled by Emma is her neighbour and close acquaintance Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn).

However, the social scene in the area becomes rather more complicated, with the arrival of a startling number of eligible young bachelors and nubile young ladies, and Emma begins to find herself on the verge of actually doubting her own cleverness and understanding of everything that’s going on around her. Could an opportunity for learning and personal growth, and maybe even romance, be on the cards?

Well, whatever else you might want to say about Emma, it is certainly a very agreeable film to look upon: the compositions are lovely, and the costumes and sets are also of a very high standard. Given all this and the period setting, I found myself thinking ‘There’s almost something of Barry Lyndon about this’ – the crucial difference being that there is no sense of the film’s visual style being part of a thought-through creative vision.

My understanding is that Autumn de Wilde has come to film directing quite late in life, and that prior to this (her debut film) she has paid the bills by working as a photographer. She certainly does seem to have that facility with the visual image that I mentioned earlier, but hasn’t quite yet acquired an accompanying sense of how to establish character and tell a story. There is a fair deal of plot to contend with here, and various Messrs. Knightley, Elton, Churchill and Martin to keep track of: I would suggest it is sometimes not always as easy to follow the story as it ideally could be. Nor does the story really to spring to life: it just sort of ambles along, not disagreeably, for a couple of hours.

That said, it should still probably do quite well for itself, as it does contain the appropriate quotients of top hats, Empire-line dresses, balls, carriages, etc. It is absolutely ticks all the boxes when it comes to being a standard-issue Jane Austen movie, and whether or not that is a problem is really up to the individual viewer to decide. The only surprising creative choice I could discern is the use of traditional folk music on the soundtrack – I liked this a lot, but it has an earthy, genuine quality entirely at odds with the carefully-managed visual style of the rest of the movie. If nothing else it does present Johnny Flynn, a brilliant musician in addition to being an able actor, with an opportunity to sing as well as play the lead. (Flynn gives a very decent performance, along with most of the rest of the cast, but if you ask me he would be a slightly more obvious choice to play Heathcliff than a polished Austen love interest. Still, I suppose this is a bit of a step up for him.)

I found it very hard to warm up to Emma – it’s an agreeable film, obviously, and decently made, and no doubt it should do very well with the audience it has been made for. But it feels strangely inert and unengaging; it’s not particularly funny, nor is it lushly and sweepingly romantic – it honestly does feel like the story was very secondary to the look of the thing. It does look good, but a satisfying movie needs more.

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I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly keen Scrabble player, nor an expert on the game, but there was a point a few years ago when the unruly searchlight in my brain locked onto the game of bag and tiles and I found myself playing hundreds of games over the internet (not quite Scrabble itself, but a copyright-baiting near-clone). I recall one red wine-fuelled face-to-face session which eventually disintegrated into what I can only describe as Scrabugeddon (always agree in advance on what, if any, the time limits on play are going to be, and also how the seating arrangements will be decided), and also Boxing Day 2007, when Mama and I spent about seven hours solid playing in front of a Two Ronnies marathon (at one point I got three bingos on the trot and was nearly disinherited). So, obviously, the lack of genuine Scrabble-based cinema has occasionally been a source of just a tiny amount of angst for me.

And now just such a film has come along, in the form of Carl Hunter’s Sometimes Always Never. I get the impression that the film had the working title Triple Word Score, but I suspect they couldn’t justify the licensing expense, hence a title which is catchy but almost meaningless in this context (apparently it is an old dictum concerning the disposition of a well-dressed chap’s buttons).

In the film we are introduced to Alan (Bill Nighy), who we quickly learn is a slippery and devious fellow, albeit in the most benign and affable-seeming way. As the film opens Alan is meeting up with his son Peter (Sam Riley), as they depart on a rather grave family mission, and the atmosphere is not helped by the obvious tensions between the two men. Peter clearly thinks that Alan’s generally dry and idiosyncratic demeanour has not made him a good father, especially considering that he was a single parent following the death of Peter’s mother.

Their trip turns out to involve a night away, which is a surprise to Peter but not Alan, and their stay in a B&B takes an unexpected turn when Alan starts hustling the other guests at Scrabble for eye-watering sums (old favourites like Muzjiks, Griot and Esrom all make an appearance on the table).  (Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny play Alan’s victims in this very funny sequence.)

However, the father-and-son road trip proves fruitless, and Alan and Peter are left to contemplate their relationship, and the others within their family: Peter has a wife (Alice Lowe) and son (Louis Healy), all of whom have impressive Scrabble skills of their own. The irony, of course, proves to be that for all the massive vocabularies the family possess, their actual ability to communicate meaningfully is almost non-existent. Perhaps it was this that drove away Alan’s other son, Michael. But now Alan has found himself playing online Scrabble against someone with an eerily familiar approach to the game. Could it possibly be Michael, trying to get in touch?

The writer of Sometimes Always Never is Frank Cottrell Boyce, who has an eclectic and rather variable CV, if we’re honest: he started his career on the long-defunct soap opera Brookside, went on to various big-screen collaborations with respected directors like Danny Boyle and Michael Winterbottom, wrote a few novels, and won last Christmas’s celebrity University Challenge match between Keble College Oxford and Reading almost single-handed, Reading scoring no points whatsoever. Personally, I find that for every Goodbye Christopher Robin on the list, there is also a Butterfly Kiss; this film is probably towards the top of the pile, for it is amusing and engaging and only occasionally irritatingly mannered and affected.

That said, you are never in any doubt of the fact that you are watching a quirky British film which has clearly been made on a punitively tiny budget. There are various scenes of characters driving back and forth across the north of England, which are mostly realised using obvious back projection, while one plot development which was obviously beyond the reach of the financing is depicted using stop-frame animation. The director works hard to make this look like part of the film’s general quietly off-beat style, but I doubt anybody will be fooled.

I find myself wondering how much of the film’s general tone and identity is the result of an actual creative decision and how much is something necessitated by the lack of money. The setting is mostly suburban, with various scenes in pubs, cafes, kitchens and bedrooms; people sit in cars and caravans as they talk. But there is a lot of talk and not a great deal of the characters actually doing much, unless you include them playing Scrabble with each other. The film has a low-key, deadpan quality which is quite endearing but not especially cinematic – this is one of those films you could watch on the TV without really missing anything. There is nothing especially cinematic about it.

That said, it is still quite watchable, mainly as a result of Nighy’s contribution. To begin with I wasn’t sure about the rather Ringo-esque Scouse drawl he adopts for the role, but it works for the character and I did get used to it. And it is a very funny performance as a man whose apparently laid-back inscrutability masks an implacably ruthless knack for getting whatever he wants. You can tell that deep down Alan is a decent man whose heart is in the right place – but you’re also entirely sympathetic to Peter, who clearly considers him a nightmare to be around.

The problem with the film, if problem it is, is that even the various excavations of the two men’s difficult shared past are so low-key and off-hand that they don’t feel as though they’re carrying much dramatic weight. The film is much more obviously successful when it is trying to be funny than in its more serious moments, which only adds to the sense that this is ultimately something rather lightweight. You can certainly see why Bill Nighy would choose to get involved in this project (he exec produces as well as stars); the film is built around him and it is a brilliant showcase for his talent. And, as noted, the film is often very funny and never less than pleasant to watch. It’s a nice film. The problem is it never feels like it’s more than that, nor even as if it’s really trying to be.

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It’s not very common for a film to make it all the way into cinemas without me seeing a reasonable amount of publicity for it – if it’s a film that falls within my (fairly undiscriminating) area of interest, anyway. And yet this is what happened with Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem. Two questions obviously leap to mind – why did your correspondent go and see it, based on nothing but a title, a cast list, and a vague capsule description? And is it genuinely receiving some kind of stealth release, or can the producers just not be bothered to pay for an ad campaign?

Second things first – and the honest answer is, I’m not sure. The film had its world premiere nearly a year ago, and while twelve months isn’t an exceptional period of time for a film to sit on the shelf, it doesn’t really indicate a distributor bursting with confidence either. I’ve commented in the past on the fact that trailers tend to appear before a film of the same general kind, and The Limehouse Golem is an extremely tough movie to categorise in some ways – is it a period detective story, a grisly splatter horror movie, or a slightly more niche drama? The other question is a little easier to answer – we’re going through a quiet period release-wise at present, I’m loathe to waste an afternoon off by not going to the cinema, and this looked like it might be agreeably Hammer horror-ish. Which, I have to say, only goes to show…

The movie is based on the book Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by the noted authority on all things Londonian Peter Ackroyd – which seems to be one of those novels which flaunts its erudition by including all manner of historical figures as characters, some famous, some much more obscure. On some level I suppose this therefore qualifies as another Victoriana mash-up, along the lines of Anno Dracula or Dickensian, but it’s less user-friendly than either of those.

The year is 1880 and Londoners are living in fear as a savage, brutal killer walks amongst them, slaughtering prostitutes, Jews, and whole families, seemingly at will. Installed as the fall guy on this challenging case is police detective Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), along with his sidekick PC Flood (Daniel Mays). Kildare’s investigations lead him to the reading room of the British Museum and a list of four men, one of whom must surely be the killer who has been given the nickname of the Limehouse Golem.

However, one of the suspects has recently died in suspicious circumstances, and his widow Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) is on trial for his murder. Is there a connection? Kildare finds himself obliged to delve into the history of a string of grisly murders, while trying to uncover the truth about Elizabeth and her own unsettling personal history…

I am sure that Peter Ackroyd is a very erudite man. However, the screenplay for this movie was written by Jane Goldman, and while I’m sure she has many fine qualities, erudition and subtlety are not necessarily the ones that immediately leap to mind based on her previous work (Kingsman, The Woman in Black, Kick-Ass). How to best describe The Limehouse Golem? Well, one thing you can say about it is that it is never knowingly under-wrought.

Another is that there is something genuinely refreshing about a film which so comprehensively cuts loose from normal conventions of movie storytelling. There were whole sequences in this film which had me slack-jawed and goggling at the screen, confounded by the sheer audacity and weirdness of the thing. Is it a period procedural about a set of murders clearly intended to suggest the Ripper killings of 1888? Or is it a rather different kind of film about a young woman’s rise from extreme poverty to success in the music halls of Victorian London, and the pressures on her even after becoming a star? The film ping-pongs back and forth between them like a cross between a particularly gory slasher film and an episode of The Good Old Days (younger readers, ask your grandparents).

If this movie were a pudding submitted for the Great British Pudding Showdown, I rather imagine that the first note from the judges would be ‘Easy on the eggs in future’. It opens at such a pitch of near-strangulated tension that it really finds itself with virtually nowhere else to go, and practically the whole film takes place with every element – script, performances, direction – elevated to an extreme level; naturalistic this movie is definitely not. At one point there’s a particularly startling sequence in which Karl Marx – yes, that Karl Marx – dressed up in a top hat and cape, saws the head off a prostitute. And this is not much more startling than most of the rest of the movie, which is stuffed with baroque dialogue, double-entendre-laden musical numbers, dwarfs, transvestitism, kinky sexual practices, severed body parts, and repressed libidos. There also seems to be some sort of LGBT subtext going on here, but as this is the one element of the film not rammed into the audience’s frontal lobes, it’s a little difficult to tell what message it’s trying to communicate beyond the obvious and pedestrian one.

Does it actually work as a movie, though? Well, you can always rely on Bill Nighy to deliver a superb performance, and I’m starting to think the same is also true of Olivia Cooke, who has never failed to impress me in any of the films I’ve seen her in. In terms of simple production values, British companies are simply very good at this kind of late-Victorian period piece. The Limehouse Golem is never less than arresting viewing, and rattles along energetically. But, at the same time, the film is so all over the place that I’m not quite sure what it wants to be or say, and it does feature the kind of plot twist which is simultaneously outrageously unbelievable and rather predictable.

In the end, The Limehouse Golem is really not very much like a Hammer horror film, but neither is it much like anything else I can remember seeing recently, either. There are lots of good things going on here, along with much that is baffling, some that is startling, and a few things that are actively silly. In the end the whole confection is probably a bit too bizarre and phantasmagorical to really succeed as a movie, but you could certainly argue that this is one of those movies where the incidental pleasures of the journey just about make up for the fact that the destination isn’t anything particularly special.

 

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In the closest thing to miscegenation you’re likely to find in a mainstream multiplex, Universal Pictures (producers of the Fast and Furious series, amongst other high-powered blockbusters) have come together with Screen Yorkshire (producers of a wide range of generally quite miserable low-budget films) to make Oliver Parker’s Dad’s Army, a new version of the legendary British sitcom. Does that sound weird? It should. But in a good way or not? Well, if I tell you that in the new Dad’s Army an innocent young woman is clubbed into unconsciousness and lovable old Corporal Jones shoots someone in the head, you may get some inkling of how horribly astray the new proceedings go.

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In rather the same way that the historical existence of the British police box is now only widely known thanks to Doctor Who’s TARDIS, so I suspect the British Home Guard – a military organisation in existence between 1940 and 1944, made up of men too young and old for the army, intended to assist in the nation’s defence in the event of a Nazi invasion – would long since have become a footnote of history were it not for Dad’s Army. Even having to explain what Dad’s Army is feels very odd, but anyway – the sitcom ran between 1968 and 1977, clocking up 80 episodes, repeats of which have been a staple of the schedules pretty much ever since. In the UK it is genuinely beloved and instantly familiar in a way that is matched by only a tiny handful of other programmes.

So you can kind of understand why people might think tapping into the vast well of affection the public still have for the series was a sound commercial idea, despite the fact that virtually the entire original cast has been dead for decades (two members are hanging on and are duly wheeled out for cameos here). Certainly this film assumes familiarity with the Dad’s Army set-up – unlike the 1971 film version, which depicted the formation of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon, this one starts with them as a going concern.

In command is the fussy, pompous Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones), assisted by the terribly smooth Sergeant Wilson (Bill Nighy). In the ranks are panic-prone old soldier Jones (Tom Courtenay), young and callow Pike (Blake Harrison), wide boy Walker (Daniel Mays), grumpy Scot Frazer (Bill Paterson), and terribly nice old gent Godfrey (Michael Gambon). As a military unit their effectiveness is close to absolute zero, but they do try hard.

Walmington-on-Sea is sent into a very mild state of shock with the arrival of glamorous reporter Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta Jones, who probably qualifies as an imported Hollywood star even though she comes from Swansea), intent on doing a story on the unit. It turns out she and Wilson have history of a sort, which only increases Mainwaring’s normal inferiority complex. Even more important, however, is the revelation that there is a Nazi spy operating somewhere in the town, just as the Home Guard have been charged with protecting a vital supply depot…

Hmmm. You may be expecting a clever twist when it comes to the identity of the spy. You will not get one. You may in fact be expecting all sorts of things from the new Dad’s Army, for this is a film based on an undeniable classic, filled with brilliant actors from many different film, TV, and theatre traditions. But if your expectations are at all positive, a mighty disappointment is coming your way.

We seem to be having a mini-boom in the production of movies based on British sitcoms, possibly fuelled by the unreasonable success of the two Inbetweeners films (two of the Inbetweeners regulars have snagged roles here), with not just this but a movie of Absolutely Fabulous on the way. However, anyone making even the most cursory survey of Brit sitcoms on film will instantly see that these films are almost always utterly awful, and it is this tradition which Dad’s Army proudly, grimly, upholds.

Honestly, in 96 long minutes I felt the urge to laugh twice, mildly both times. There are a lot of talented people on this film which inevitably leads one to wonder just what the hell has gone so badly wrong. The obvious answer is to say that it’s simply because the original series had such unique, perfect chemistry between the cast, and such strong writing. Well, that’s true (though I have to say I often find the series to be rather too broad and sentimental for my tastes), but it’s not just the case that this movie is trying to copy the TV show and failing. This movie is a rather different beast.

The TV show, and indeed the 1971 movie, were both ultimately quite cosy and soft affairs, ultimately driven by a deep affection for the characters: a sort of ongoing cartoon or music hall sketch, delivered by wobbly videotape into people’s front rooms. In the new movie, someone gets shot dead in the first few minutes, which tonally feels terribly wrong for Dad’s Army. But it’s more than this: writer Hamish McColl doesn’t even seem to like the characters that much, and has felt the need to give most of them psychological issues and back-stories that are new to this version. There’s a undercurrent of harsh emotional realism and angst that somehow makes them all pitiable at least as much as lovable.

And this new-found realism does not sit well with the broad slapstick and sight-gags which are traditional Dad’s Army fare and which the film also works hard to include. To be honest, it kills most of the humour and the film often feels slightly childish as a result. You can’t be traditional Dad’s Army and something darker and grittier at the same time; one would have thought that was obvious. But apparently not.

I suppose some people might also take exception to the inclusion of Mrs Mainwaring as an on-screen presence (played by Felicity Montagu), arguing that the whole point of the character was that she was left to the viewer’s imagination – perhaps even to the fact that the womenfolk of the town play a rather more significant role than they ever did on TV, to the point where in parts it’s almost more like Last of the Summer Wine. The Diversity Police have paid a visit, I suppose, but given this is by far less incongruous than the badly misjudged tone of the film I find it hard to get very exercised by it.

The structure of the film is, I suppose, solid, and it does provide a showcase for the various performers to a give a virtuoso display of how one uses brilliant acting technique to avoid being embarrassed by substandard material. But the fact remains that it’s nowhere near funny or warm enough to be worthy of the Dad’s Army title – and, as a result, it’s actively depressing more than anything else.

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As you may recall, about three years ago I went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on its original cinema release. One slightly noteworthy thing about this was the speed with which the showings seemed to be selling out: my companion and I planned on seeing it at the Phoenix, but even several hours ahead of start time, every seat was full, and we were obliged to relocate to the coffeeshop instead. The movie went on to recoup its budget well over ten-fold, which is why a sequel is currently doing the rounds – with, it seems to me, equally formidable success (the weekend matinee I attended was well on the way to being sold out).

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Like the original, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is directed by John Madden, and concerns the doings of a group of predominantly crinkled people living in a residential hotel in Rajasthan. Muriel (Maggie Smith) has been redeemed from her former state as a comedy bigot, and is now a comedy curmudgeon who is helping to manage the hotel. Owner/co-manager Sonny (Dev Patel) is looking to expand, but his impending nuptials are a source of stress and distraction. Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Evelyn (Judi Dench) are proceeding with an intense (and intensely British) non-romance. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup have come back as well, and have their own, rather less well-developed plotlines as well. The big new addition for the sequel is Richard Gere (looking not unlike Judi Dench himself these days, it must be said), as an American staying at the hotel whose agenda may or may not be mysterious and significant.

And… well, you know, I saw this one with my folks and they were of the quite sensible opinion that if you hadn’t seen the first movie, you might struggle a bit with this one. It’s not that the plot here is such a seamless continuation, although I suppose you could possibly make a case for that. It’s that the film trades so heavily on the affection established in the first instalment. It’s all the same lovely people again! the film seems to be shouting, delightedly. They’re all doing pretty much exactly the same things! How wonderful is this?

The plot is, to be generous to it, about as underpowered as a tuk-tuk and consists of… well, not very much happening, but it happens (or not) in a very warm and life-affirming way. In an attempt to provide a few new ideas and a bit of incident, the film draws on some interesting choices of inspiration: a subplot about Sonny believing a guest to be a hotel inspector and fawning on him outrageously inevitably recalls Fawlty Towers, while a Ronnie Barker comedy playlet appears to have donated a plotline about one of the guests accidentally putting out a contract on his partner.

Most of the comedy is broad, most of the more poignant and character-based stuff is a little predictable, India remains a good-looking theme park with no other apparent purpose than to provide well-off white people with moments of personal epiphany, with the main Indian character a comic goon: in short, it is all pretty much identical to the first one, with the difference that Tom Wilkinson isn’t in it (for fairly obvious reasons). As you may be gathering, this is a sequel which differs from the original by the minimum amount possible.

In fact, this almost feels like a film shying away from actually doing a story as much as possible. There are inevitably some wedding- and hotel inspector-related shenanigans, but in terms of the main characters, the script really seems to be digging its heels in. Perhaps the Nighy/Dench relationship gets resolved, but not to the point that we actually see them being meaningfully intimate with each other. In a similar way, every single flag the film sends up about one character telegraphs the fact that they are heading for a terminal exit. And yet this doesn’t come to pass. All the signs end up leading nowhere. Perhaps the film-makers decided it would just be too downbeat an ending – or it may just be that they want to preserve the status quo as far as possible, in case a third sequel proves viable.

I wouldn’t rule it out, because for all that I have been pretty lukewarm about this film – if not actually negative – it’s actually incredibly difficult to be actively nasty about it, simply because it is stuffed with charming, likeable actors doing their very best to give some rather trite dialogue and underpowered jokes genuine impact. For the most part, they actually manage it. Maggie Smith can steal scenes in her sleep; Judi Dench can do beautifully subtle nuance while anaesthetised; Bill Nighy could probably do a technically astonishing double-take from beyond the grave.

This is not a great film. I get the sense that if the film-makers could have got away with simply re-releasing the original film under a new title, they would, and that this was the next best option. But it’s not actually a bad one. It is totally innocuous, very easy on the eye, and doing a sterling job of keeping many of the UK’s finest actors gainfully employed. I just find it very difficult to get excited or enthusiastic about it. Hey ho.

 

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If, like me, you’re one of those people who feels like they’ve spent a fair chunk of their life trying to impress upon people the fact that, no, the iconically flat-topped and electrode-necked techno-revenant whose creation was documented by Mary Shelley is not actually called Frankenstein (that honour, of course, going to the Genevan medical student responsible for the beast), then you are going to be entirely exasperated by Stuart Beattie’s I, Frankenstein, which is troubling cinemas as I write. On the other hand, if we’re discussing popular misconceptions, this film is halfway there.

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Victor Frankenstein himself is briefly in the movie, played by Aden Young, but only at the very start. He pegs out somewhere arctic while pursuing his creature, who has taken the shine off Frankenstein’s honeymoon by strangling his bride. The cobbled-together creature is played by Aaron Eckhart, which just leads one to wonder where Frankenstein found its chin. But anyway.

So far, so surprisingly faithful to Shelley (relatively speaking, and bearing in mind this is up against some very dodgy competition). Needless to say, I, Frankenstein rapidly casts loose from the anchor of authenticity, and quite possibly coherence, when the Creature is attacked by demons in human form while burying his creator. Things look bleak in the ensuing battle until he is rescued by… oh dear… some angelic gargoyles.

The gargoyles, who spend their non-CGI’d moments looking like a bunch of models, whisk the Creature off to their headquarters, which is a big cathedral in an unspecified major city. There we meet the Queen of the Gargoyles (Miranda Otto) who delivers a big and slightly steaming info-dump – another of those hidden supernatural wars is raging, on this occasion between the Queen of the Gargoyles, who basically works for God, and the Prince of the Demons (Bill Nighy), who presumably is in the employ of the other chap. For some reason the demons want to get their claws on Frankenstein’s Monster, and the gargoyles are opposed to this on principle. The Creature himself declares he has no stake in the matter either way and clears off into seclusion.

Two hundred years later he changes his mind though: not for any particularly good reason on his part, but from a marketing point of view it at least stops this from being a costume picture. In the meantime Nighy has recruited a comely young electro-neurologist – does anyone honestly believe that’s a real job? – played by Yvonne Strahovski, intending to replicate Frankenstein’s work. The reappearance of the original creature is bound, therefore, to have some influence on the unfolding events…

Radical reimaginings like Splice notwithstanding, we’ve been waiting a couple of decades for a really imaginative and interesting new version of Shelley’s famous and hugely influential classic. And the wait continues, for I, Frankenstein is thorough-going cobblers of truly epic proportions (having said that, I must express a certain gratitude to the film-makers for limiting the thing to a commendably brief 90 minutes or so in length).

I mean, here’s the thing – we’ve already got the Underworld series floating around in our collective consciousness, and it’s not all that long since the Blade franchise was a going concern, either. So why would you possibly think that making a film which closely apes the look and style of both these things was a good idea? It’s not just derivative, it’s actively dull: and it’s not even as if the makers of this film can claim ignorance, given that I, Frankenstein and Underworld share the same writer.

They also share the same murky modern mise-en-scene and total lack of anything resembling a sense of humour about themselves, not to mention the presence of Bill Nighy as the main villain (it must be said that Nighy’s ability to lift this sort of lamentable material is in and of itself virtually supernatural). Beyond this there is little overt acknowledgement of the rich history of screen Frankensteins – there’s a nod to the famous ‘It’s alive!’ moment from the James Whale version, while a mention of electric eels may be a wink to the Kenneth Branagh take on the story – nor much sign of any real understanding of what makes Frankenstein work as a story.

It seems to me to be a much-overlooked fact that Frankenstein’s Creature is potentially a really good part for the right actor, given the right script. Too often, however, he’s just a grotesque, grunting brute (the Hammer movies in particular were repeat offenders on this score), and the only actors I’ve ever seen give the character the right mixture of intensity and pathos are Boris Karloff (of course) and – here comes an out-of-left-field pick – Michael Sarrazin. Did Aaron Eckhart ever have the potential to join this select band? Well, maybe; Eckhart is a likeable screen presence even in a dog of a movie like this one. But he doesn’t get the material or the direction he needs.

The Frankenstein story is about a lot of things, which is why it has lasted for centuries: it’s about paternal responsibility, man’s relationship with technology and the environment, and so on. But what it isn’t about is endless 3D battles between the CGI’d forces of heaven and hell. You can do a lot of very interesting things with Frankenstein’s Creature, but turning him into a demon-stomping martial arts superhero is not one of them. The action sequences are unengaging and Eckhart isn’t allowed to give the character the presence he requires, nor really the depth – we’re repeatedly reminded that this is someone who once murdered an innocent woman, but the Creature’s moral responsibility isn’t addressed.

I could go on and on. I know this is just meant to be a genre action movie, and not meant to be taken seriously, but if you’re going to use the name of a serious classic novel then you’re opening yourself up to serious criticism. I recall recently bewailing the glut of heavy, lengthy, based-on-reality movies that have been filling up the cinemas of late, and hoping something solely intended to entertain would come along. Well, this may be an attempt in that direction, but it’s a thoroughly botched one. I, Frankenstein sets the bar for this year’s silly action fantasies impressively high – or, depending on your point of view, startlingly low. Steer clear.

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Hello, and welcome to another installment of what’s in danger of turning into Cinema Refurbishment World. This time our beady eye settles on the big screen at the coffeeshop in Oxford city centre, where all the seats in the balcony have just been replaced. Well, to be honest I’m not struck on the new chairs – I liked the old sofas with accompanying tablettes, and in the admittedly unlikely event of someone turning up who was prepared to be physically and emotionally intimate with me I would have enjoyed sharing a super-premiere sofa with them. As with so much else in life, not to be. Hey ho.

As it was, the first film I enjoyed (by myself) in an atmosphere smelling rather like the interior of a new car was Len Wiseman’s go at Total Recall. I myself can recall my mild surprise at seeing the cover of a movie magazine with the caption ‘Classic Sci-Fi Remake Special! Total Recall! RoboCop! Starship Troopers!‘ My friends, whether or not those movies constitute classic sci-fi is a knotty question, but it certainly constitutes a ‘Paul Verhoeven Remake Special!‘ To be honest, the 1990 Total Recall is my least favourite of the Dutchman’s excursions into SF, and I was further mildly surprised to discover it was being remade at all.

And it initially appears to have departed even further from Philip K Dick’s short story. My heart always sinks a little when an SF movie kicks off with captions and graphics setting up the backstory, but at least the backstory here is engagingly preposterous. The world has been devastated by chemical weapons (oooh) and become totally uninhabitable (ahhhh) except for two regions (phew): what appears to be an extremely small section of central London (put it this way, Big Ben’s in the habitable zone but the Post Office Tower isn’t) and an unspecified chunk of Australia. Needless to say, the United Federation of Britain (no, honestly) is oppressing the Colony (don’t get your hopes up, this is as deep as the political subtext gets).

Every day hundreds of workers from the Colony get up and commute all the way to London to work in the UFB’s factories making robocops (settle down, that remake’s not due until next year). That’s a bloomin’ long commute! you may be thinking. Yes, well, but they’ve taken a few hours off the trip by drilling through the centre of the Earth and installing an elevator. (More like a theme-park ride, really, but I digress.) Yes, twice a day people travel through the core of the planet to get to work and back. Wouldn’t it just make more sense to build the robocop factory closer to where the workers live? Ah, an elementary mistake: applying reason where it has no sway.

Amongst these workers is Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell), a somewhat dissatisfied robocop welder despite the fact he is married to lovely nurse Lori (Kate Beckinsale), to whom – the movie implies in possibly its most startling moment – he is an intimately attentive husband. Feeling an odd sense of ennui Quaid trundles off to the dodgy Rekall clinic, where memories of wild fantasies can be electronically implanted. But zut alors! No sooner is he wired up than troops are flooding the place, and he finds himself shooting them up like a good ‘un. Things get even worse when his wife starts literally trying to kill him! Is this real or has the memory implant gone spectacularly tits-up?

Well, this is a big-budget remake made by a company called Original Film, but that’s about as close to irony as the movie gets. I’m tempted to say that the 1990 Schwarzenegger Recall was a big, daft, memorable movie with a big, daft, memorable star, while the 2012 Recall is a bland, good-looking, mindless movie with Colin Farrell, but this would be rather unfair to the lad, as he does the best he can with the material he is issued. The same goes for Jessica Biel as the love-interest, Beckinsale as their well-coiffured nemesis, Bill Nighy as silly-accented plot-device character, and the rest of the cast.

This would be the place to rail against the fact that Philip K Dick, one of my absolute favourite writers, has possibly the worst track record when it comes to adaptations of anyone in history – but after Screamers, Paycheck, and The Adjustment Bureau, to name but three, this surely goes without saying (and all you Blade Runner fanboys can clear off too). Dick’s complex, quirky, deeply original and endlessly imaginative stories about the vicissitudes of modern living enter the Hollywood script machine and emerge transformed into formulaic chase movies featuring odd forms of transport and things blowing up.

And so it proves here. For much of the running time watching this movie is like watching someone else playing a video game, as it goes from protracted, complicated chase to plot-installing dialogue scene, then back to another long chase or action sequence, followed by Farrell getting another plot coupon… And the characters are so thin and the actual story so underdeveloped it’s all a bit boring. Apart from the most basic rudiments of the plot, very little from previous versions is retained (although, and what this says about the target audience I’ve no idea, the triple-breasted prostitute has been retained for no reason supported by the plot). Beckinsale’s part is considerably beefed up, for no reason I can detect – but this must have been nice for her, and also her husband, the director.

The movie pays lip service to the classic Dick themes of identity and reality being up for grabs, but it’s painfully obvious that the movie’s always going to opt for the simplest, most straightforward answer, because it’s equally obvious these moments are just inserted to try and give the film some kind of intellectual heft – the story isn’t about them the way it would be if this had been, say, Christopher Nolan’s Total Recall. This movie isn’t about the nature of identity or reality. It’s about Colin Farrell being chased around by Kate Beckinsale.

The intellectual vacuum at the heart of Total Recall extends to the basic set-up. The two main locales are called the United Federation of Britain and the Colony, but they may as well have been called Ning and Nong for all the relevance this has to the script. Everyone still has an American accent. The only effect this has is on the architecture and the basic look of the thing, which is admittedly impressive – both areas look rather more like the comic-book Mega-City One than the city in the new Dredd movie. But it’s just about appearances and design and movement rather than any kind of thought-through story.

I’m aware I’ve sort of gone off on one about a film which no-one surely had high hopes for anyway, but in every department but the art direction and production design this movie is just incredibly pedestrian and uninspired, without even Verhoeven’s mad energy  and excess to distinguish it (the 1990 film was an 18: this one inhabits the absolute top end of the 12 certificate). No-one seems to have made any effort to produce anything beyond an utterly vapid and mechanical runaround. It may be that things have got to the point where audiences simply don’t deserve any better, but I refuse to believe it – and even if we don’t deserve better, I’m damned certain Philip K Dick does.

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When I was living in Asia, I spent a lot of time in the company of other ex-pats, and most of the time this was a very enjoyable experience. The only thing that sometimes angered me was the fact that some of my fellow visitors appeared to be treating the country in which we were living as some kind of vast theme park, existing more as a venue for them to have excitingly new and daring experiences than as a real place occupied by real people with real lives. To me this is about as bad as a blanket rejection of any kind of foreign experience, and it verges on the worst kind of poverty tourism.

I was reminded of all of this stuff by John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which a Magnificent Seven of veteran British acting talent is assembled for an undertaking which is intent on warming our hearts or dying in the attempt. Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup play a collection of ageing English types, who are forced by the generally crappiness of modern life to relocate to a retirement hotel in Rajasthan, run by ambitious but clueless entrepreneur Sonny (Dev Patel). They are all there for various different reasons – Dench has been widowed, Wilkinson is on a deeply personal quest, Nighy and Wilton are financially embarrassed following some bad decisions, Smith is there for a hip replacement, and Pickup and Imrie are there seeking to put it about a bit. Needless to say their exposure to Indian life leads all of them to reassess their lives, view the world in a different light, etc etc etc.

Well, the cast is the major draw of this movie, which seems to be doing rather well – I couldn’t get into a showing at the arthouse and had to go and see it at one of the local multiplexes (recently converted from proper cinema to coffee-shop-with-movies-showing-in-the-back), which also seemed to be doing jolly good business. That a movie with these big names involved should do well is not a surprise – what’s slightly bemusing is how they got them all in the first place.

This is just a very long-winded way (sorry) of saying that the script is nowhere near as good as actors this talented deserve. Most of the best bits are in the trailer, and practically all of the really funny bits. I didn’t laugh much at all through most of this movie, and, to be perfectly honest, was slightly disturbed that other people did. A lot of the mirth-provoking material early on comes from Maggie Smith’s character, who is basically just a nasty bigot. I am sure the film-makers’ defence would be that she’s a silly comedy nasty bigot and that people are actually laughing at her rather than with her. I’m not so sure, I sensed a degree of warmth towards her coming from around me. Needless to say she is rehabilitated by her subcontinental experiences, along with everyone else.

Once everyone pitches up in India the film does become rather episodic, with some of the cast members dropping out of sight for quite long periods. Some of these threads are rather insubstantial – to be honest, the whole film is really incredibly slight when you step back and look at it properly. So we get Judi Dench giving matronly (and not at all patronising) advice to the workers in the world’s least believeable call centre, Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie on the prowl, Tom Wilkinson doing something I’d better not spoil, Maggie Smith becoming less of a nasty bigot, and so on, prior to a vaguely mechanical and definitely predictable conclusion.

A lot of this is broad and knockabout stuff, not especially engaging but not actually offensive either, on its own terms, but the problem with this material is that it gets in the way of genuinely interesting and thoughtful stuff about some of the other characters. As one might expect, Judi Dench is particularly good in a slightly heavier role. However, it’s Tom Wilkinson who is the best thing in the movie: there’s a moment where Wilkinson gently expresses his incomprehension at another character’s refusal to engage with India in any positive way that is simply terrific. On the other hand, Bill Nighy really gets very little to do compared to the others, which was a bit disappointing.

This sort of leads us to one of the issues with the film, which is that some of these actors simply don’t look old enough to be considering life in a retirement community – Celia Imrie is still in her 50s, for crying out loud. More important, however, is the fact that the film is supposedly set in India, but could just as easily be occurring in Narnia.

If we’re discussing modern British movies about India, then two words slouch implacably towards the conversation and those words are Slumdog Millionaire. Dev Patel is in both movies (though here he’s playing much more of a stereotype), which makes the comparison virtually obligatory. Slumdog Millionaire is set in India, but treats it as a real place, where complex people live complicated, difficult lives: it doesn’t indulge in spurious exoticism. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel does exactly that – in this movie India is essentially a plot device, exposure to which allows the characters to indulge in a bit of cathartic self-realisation. Most of the Brits in this film are hardly rounded individuals, but they get a better deal than the Indians, who are virtually all ciphers.

And as a result, detached from reality and mostly bereft of any genuine sense of loss or pain, the film doesn’t earn the life-affirming pay-offs it’s clearly angling to achieve. The cast is very good, and mostly do the best they can with what they’re given: but what they’re given is rather ‘safe’ comedy and predictable, Richard Curtis-inflected emotional beats. One emerges with the overwhelming impression that, for these characters, India’s importance is solely as a catalyst for Emotional Growth – and in the modern world, as a basis for a movie, that’s surely every bit as blinkered and outdated as any of the attitudes we’re supposed to laugh at when they’re produced by Maggie Smith’s character. A slight movie, made worth seeing by the actors, Tom Wilkinson in particular. But only just.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 9th 2006:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that would just like to thank its agent, its mother, the guy who drove the catering van and thirty-seven other people before being dragged offstage by a big hook. Yessirree, it’s Oscar time again, and while the constraints of deadlines and whatnot mean that I’m writing this the day before the ceremony, I thought it would still be appropraite to have a look at a picture with a slim chance of Oscar gold. (Alas, the halcyon days when all the Best Picture nominees had already been reviewed here by this point are long since gone.)

Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener is up for four statues of varying degrees of significance. Based on a novel by John le Carre, it is the story of British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph ‘Little Sunbeam’ Fiennes). While on a posting to Kenya, Quayle becomes increasingly concerned about what exactly his young wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is up to — supposedly helping out at the local medical station, she is in fact involved in rather more dangerous forms of activism. When she is killed on a trip up-country, Quayle is forced to reconsider how well he really knew her, and embarks on a relentless search for the truth about her death. It takes him into a shadowy world where life is cheap and the lines between national governments and big business become blurred.

Well, as you can probably tell, not a lot of jokes in this one. It certainly lacks the exuberance of Meirelles’ last film, City of God, but that’s hardly inappropriate. In its place there is a greater emotional depth. The almost palpable sense of outrage at the tribulations suffered by the deprived that permeated City is still here, though, and if anything it’s even stronger. Whole evenings of worthy telethon documentaries don’t pack the same kind of punch as this two-hour film.

The Constant Gardener works on a number of levels — as a thriller, as a romance, and as a polemic — and manages to combine these elements pretty flawlessly (it reminded me a bit of the 1980s classic Edge of Darkness, without the plutonium or the mysticism, but my mum said she thought it was like The English Patient, which just shows how two people can view the same film in a completely different way). The thriller plot is complex and twisty, and Jeffrey Caine’s script does a fine job of keeping it from completely obfuscating itself. The romance is more dependent on the performances of the actors, and both leads are very good. I am a little surprised that all the critical plaudits are heading in Weisz’s direction, however, as Fiennes seems to me to give a slightly better performance in a considerably trickier role. Quayle begins the film as a slightly awkward and insecure man, consumed by the demands of his career. His progression through shock and grief towards a new resolve rings absolutely true throughout, with Fiennes managing to avoid his usual faintly detached and robotic style of acting except where it serves the story. The supporting performances are impressive as well: Donald Sumpter commands the screen as a world-weary spook, Pete Postlethwaite plays a dodgy doctor (though thankfully better dressed than the one from AeonFlux) and Bill Nighy turns up as a shady grandee, giving a performance that’s very, er, Bill Nighy-ish.

Beyond all this is a rich and sweeping portrait of Africa that doesn’t stint in displaying either the sheer beauty of the place and the vibrancy of its people or the depths of its problems — catastrophes so immense they almost defy comprehension. The film makes it very clear that most aid activities in the continent are little more than than exercises in putting elastoplasts on bullet wounds and suggests that they are little more than token gestures born of post-colonial remorse. And it’s very clear in articulating that the civilised response to this situation is perhaps very different to the humane response. The film unashamedly comes down in favour of the latter.

So, given that this is supposedly the year of the political Oscars, with serious movies like Brokeback Mountain, Crash and Munich racking up the nominations, how good are The Constant Gardener‘s chances of bringing home the gold? Well, having considered this at some length, I can confidently say I haven’t a clue. I am not entirely surprised it hasn’t scored better in the ‘big’ categories, given that this is a film about Britain and Africa which kicks off with Weisz’s character giving Fiennes a comprehensive and clearly heartfelt (if slightly hackneyed) bulwarking over American foreign policy. There may also be the fact that it doesn’t offer easy answers or allow anyone the chance to feel smug about themselves at the conclusion. But in the end the awards are surely immaterial: this is a very fine, serious film about the world we live in today. Recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 25th 2003:

The remarkably derivative nature of Len Wiseman’s Underworld has already been widely commented upon. And the film-makers, quite respectably, aren’t bothering to dispute this much, as Underworld is a film which wears its influences very openly on its sleeve: the opening seqeunce alone sees the main character wearing a full-length black coat while engaging in a bit of pistol-in-each-hand action. The Blade movies also appear to have been watched in some detail, and – while this may be a coincidence – the basic setting and plot are very reminiscent of the World of Darkness role-playing setting.

In a city of seemingly perpetual rain and darkness (probably Manchester) an age-old war between vampires and werewolves is being played out. The vampires look elegantly wasted, like the better class of goth, while the werewolves just look like roadies. Our protagonist is Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire warrior dedicated to exterminating the ‘lycans’, as she calls them, a task which seems to mainly revolve around posing and looking concerned. But events take an unexpected turn when, just prior to the arising of a slumbering elder vampire, she discovers the werewolves are pursuing young doctor David Corwin (Scott Speedman). Is their interest connected with the rising of the elder? Can the two sides ever learn to get along? And did Selene remember to put enough talcum powder inside her rubber catsuit before getting dressed?

Well, anyway, concepts don’t get much higher than this one, and with some terrific cinematography and art direction, and a ferociously ambitious script, this should have been a terrific piece of action-horror. The fact that it’s merely fairly watchable is therefore a real disappointment. Part of the problem is that the story has virtually no grounding in reality – nearly every character is a vampire or werewolf, thus depriving the story of that vital frisson which happens when the fantastic and the mundane interact. And while the script is by no means simplistic or dumb – quite the opposite, the story has loads of characters, each with their own agendas and backgrounds, and incorporates vast chunks of back-story remarkably well – the characterisation is rather one-dimensional.

In particular, while Selene cuts a very striking figure, all handguns and reflective buttocks, we’re given no hint as to her background or motivation until well into the film, which makes it difficult to empathise with or care about her. It doesn’t help that Kate Beckinsale is (sorry, Brian, if you’re reading this) arguably badly miscast as an icy undead killer, resembling more closely a nursery school teacher who’s got lost on the way to a fetish party. That said, Michael Sheen isn’t half bad as the leader of the werewolves and Bill Nighy (an actor long respected in our house for his brilliant performance in the BBC’s Lord of the Rings) adds a much-needed touch of class as a ruthless vampire lord (though he looks a bit awkward in his fight scenes).

And, as I said, it does look very good, and the special effects and makeup are very impressive and imaginative. It’s just a pity the script can’t match this level of ingenuity: the set piece battles between vampires and werewolves should be breathtaking and surprising, but (with the odd honourable exception) they all boil down to people in leather jackets firing automatic weapons at each other from opposite ends of corridors. Yawn. It’s a failing that pretty much sums up Underworld – nice idea, shame about the execution. But commendably ambitious all the same.

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