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Posts Tagged ‘Cameron Diaz’

‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen Being John Malkovich,’ said Bloke From Next Desk.

‘I didn’t say I’d never seen it, I just said I haven’t seen it in a very long time. Fifteen years or so,’ I said.

‘No problem,’ he said (I’m not entirely sure he actually heard me). Within a couple of days he had brought in his copy of the film on DVD for me to watch. He is a thoughtful fellow, even if I find him rather too inclined to be generous towards Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

So, anyway, Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, which reached the UK a short while later, as tended to be standard in those days. I was living in the north of England at the time, many hours from the nearest art-house cinema, and so I could often only listen and sigh as London-based film critics extolled the praises of bold, brilliant, unusual films, that I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of actually getting to see on the big screen. Ah, my wilderness years; however did I make it through? Being John Malkovich was just one especially notable example of this – there was a distinct buzz about this film, presumably because of both its startling premise and relentless originality.

John Cusack, that dependable and likeable screen presence, is cast rather against type as Craig, a struggling puppeteer who is married to obsessive animal-lover Lottie (Cameron Diaz, who is also cast very much against type). At Lottie’s request, Craig puts his unusual dexterity to use in a steadier job, working as a file clerk for the mysterious LesterCorp. Here he meets and is instantly attracted to the spiky Maxine (Catherine Keener) – she, quite sensibly, wants nothing to do with him.

All this changes when Craig discovers a mysterious blocked-up doorway in the file room. Going through it results in him being sucked down a passage and finding himself in the mind of the distinguished American actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). For fifteen minutes he gets to experience life as a famous thespian, before he is disgorged onto the side of a road just outside New York.

Craig and Maxine decide to make the most of their discovery, by selling tickets to Malkovich’s mind for $200 each (as you would). Needless to say, there are dozens of interested parties, and it looks like the pair of them have a good thing going – until Lottie discovers that occupying Malkovich allows her to live out her fantasies of being a man, and engages in a relationship with Maxine from within the actor. Malkovich himself becomes suspicious of the odd events happening around him, and decides to find out just what is going on…

These days, you look at Being John Malkovich and think, ‘aha, a Charlie Kaufman movie’, for the writer has gone on to carve out a unique furrow as a purveyor of existential strangeness in wildly original and blackly funny films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa. It’s almost enough to make you suspect he has some kind of superpower when it comes to persuading A-list actors to appear in very, very strange films.

So it is with this one. If you haven’t seen it, you may be wondering how on Earth the film goes about selling the notion of a metaphysical portal into someone’s mind to the audience – well, it is a ridiculous idea, but Kaufman and Jonze make it work by setting the whole film in a ridiculous world. No-one in the film behaves entirely normally – Craig is forever getting punched in the face for putting on age-inappropriate puppet shows in the street, the LesterCorp receptionist appears to have some kind of bizarre problem with her hearing, and the company itself is on the Seventh-and-a-Half floor of its building, with the result that everyone has to go around stooped over all the time. Given that all the characters accept these various elements without questioning them in the slightest, the existence of the Malkovich portal seems relatively less weird when it first appears.

Not that this makes the presence of John Malkovich himself in the film any less astounding – getting him to participate at all is possibly its greatest achievement. ‘If the film is bad, my name’s not just above the title, it is the title,’ Malkovich reportedly complained to Jonze, ‘and if it’s any good, everyone’s just going to assume I am this character.’ It’s not even as if this is a particularly flattering depiction of Malkovich – there’s a running joke about how he is universally acclaimed as a great thespian, but none of the other characters can actually name any of the films he’s appeared in. The fictional Malkovich takes himself very seriously, too – which presumably the real one doesn’t, or he wouldn’t be anywhere near it (apparently the studio head would have preferred Being Tom Cruise, as well).

If you’re the kind of person who likes to try and guess what the theme of a film is before watching it, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is essentially a comedy about our contemporary obsession with fame – everyone gets their fifteen minutes of Malkovich, after all. And while this is a consistently funny film, if you come to it with the right attitude at least, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It may sound like a comedy, but it doesn’t behave like one – neither the performances nor the direction do anything to suggest that this is anything other than a straight drama, admittedly one with an outlandish element of fantasy, perhaps even of horror: after all, the plot resolves itself as ultimately being about a secret immortal who has hit upon a method of vastly extending his life by overpowering the free will of unsuspecting victims. Only the deadpan seriousness of the presentation makes it funny (an engaging paradox).

You can’t fault the film for its entertainment value, or endless inventiveness – as Roger Ebert said at the time, this is one of those incredibly rare films which is as surprising in its last thirty minutes as it is in its first. It is consistently funny, surprising, and… well, I’m not quite sure I’d call it thought-provoking, but it does delight in throwing strange ideas at the audience. The problem is that the price of this is that the film departs from any kind of recognisable dramatic structure – who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Just which way is this going to go? Bereft of any of the usual signposts or markers, my memory of this movie after my initial VHS encounter was one of a collection of wildly disparate individual bits rather than a coherent narrative, and I’m not sure meeting it again on DVD has done much to change that impression. A very well-made, very funny film, but a total oddity on nearly every level.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 15th 2004:

The original Shrek won such notable popular and critical acclaim (even to the point, it’s rumoured, of AMPAS creating a new ‘Best Animated Feature’ Oscar just to stop it winning in the main category) that the arrival of a sequel – imaginatively entitled Shrek 2, and directed by Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon – shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. Nor, really, given the quality of said sequel, should the fact that it’s already crowbarred its way into a spot high up on the all-time box office smash list. This, coupled to the fact that it seems to be the most widely pirated film in history, leads me to believe that you’ve probably already seen it and don’t need me to tell you what I think of it and whether or not it’s any good.

And so let’s move on to a much less ubiquitous movie from Japan… hmm, well, on the other hand, I suppose I may as well say a few words about Shrek 2, just for the benefit of those visually-impaired h2g2 members who never actually go to the pictures but still enjoy having film reviews read out to them. Let no-one say I ignore minority interests in this column!

Shrek 2 picks up pretty much where the original concluded, with curmudgeonly ogre Shrek (an uncharacteristically muted performance from Mike Myers) on honeymoon with his new bride Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). However, the dread moment soon arrives when Shrek must meet his in-laws, the King and Queen of the distant realm of Far Far Away (John Cleese and Julie Andrews). And so off they set, in the company of the faithful (and deeply annoying) Donkey (Eddie Murphy).

Shrek and his bride’s parents do not hit it off. And things deteriorate still further when Fiona’s Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) shows up, very unhappy with the King. Her son Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) is the one Fiona is supposed to marry. So the King is forced to hire the feared swordskitty Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to dispose of his new son-in-law…

Well, with a cast like that and a willingness to go just about anywhere in search of a punch line, it’s no surprise that Shrek 2 is very funny indeed. This time around, however, there seems to be a bit less interest in lampooning fairy-tale clichés and a lot more enthusiasm for more contemporary satire. Far, Far Away is, of course, a dead spit for modern Hollywood, with a Starbucks on every corner, while the film and TV parodies come thick and fast throughout: Lord of the Rings, Zorro, Cops, Alien, and many more (for me, the Cops spoof – along with the opening titles – was the funniest bit of the movie). The fact that this is a million miles away from the average family cartoon is only reinforced by some very off-the-wall gags and presence of a Buzzcocks cover on the soundtrack.

CGI animation has now reached a point where a film like this can cover the whole range of comic possibilities: rather than just sticking to cartoonish slapstick and sight gags, the facial expressions are now subtle and inflected enough for genuine character-based wit and interaction to be possible. Maybe this why even the performances seem a bit of a step up from the average film of this type. (The UK release of this film has actually re-voiced a couple of minor characters using local celebs rather than their US counterparts, a slightly odd undertaking as the presence of Jonathan Ross in an American blockbuster is, let’s face it, deeply incongruous. I notice the filmmaker’s haven’t bothered amending the credits to reflect this manoeuvre either.)

But, having said all this, there are a couple of sequences which don’t quite gel as well as they might, and the more contemporary style does detract a bit from the original Shrek‘s charm. It also seemed to me that this time round the emotional core of the story seemed a little bit forced, rather than arising solely from the characters. However, these are quibbles and quibbles only (and it would be extremely anal of me to start pointing out plot holes in animated comedies).

I don’t think there’s another current film genre where the average level of quality is as impressive as it is where CGI features are concerned. Sure, they’re not going to change your life, they’re very rarely subversive, and they’re not exactly deep, but when it comes to technical ability, performances, and just stringing very decent jokes together non-stop for ninety minutes, the only objective reaction is to be deeply impressed. And Shrek 2 is amongst the very best of the lot. Recommended (like it matters).

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 16th 2003: 

Hello again everyone, and let excitement be unrestrained, let joy be unconfined, because after a slightly shaky start 2003 hits its stride with a long-anticipated epic from one of the screen’s most accomplished, yet elusive artists. Yes, that’s right, Cameron Diaz has finally made another movie!

Well, perhaps not. The movie in question is Gangs of New York and while Diaz undoubtedly plays a key role, most people will be slightly more interested in the contributions from director Martin Scorsese (who arguably hasn’t been on top form since 1993’s The Age of Innocence), Leonardo DiCaprio (absent from our screens since 2000’s The Beach – not, as you might think, out of shame, but mainly because Gangs was so long in production), and Daniel Day-Lewis (who supposedly retired from acting five years ago to become a cobbler before being tempted back for this role).

Gangs of New York is set during the birth of modern America, in the mid-nineteenth century. In a terrific opening sequence, savage combat is fought in the streets of New York between rival gangs, one made up of descendants of the original European Protestant settlers, the other of more recent Irish Catholic immigrants (Scorsese doesn’t need to stress the parallels with Ulster or other religious conflicts, nor does he). The Irish are defeated and their leader, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson, obviously in a cameo role) is killed. His young son is sent to an orphanage upstate, from which he emerges sixteen years later vowing revenge on the man who murdered his father – a psychopathic crime lord known as the Butcher…

From here on it’s a slightly routine revenge-drama with a few gangster-movie staples thrown in for good measure, but it’s made extraordinary by its setting – this is a period of history that seems never to have been portrayed before (or maybe the film just makes it feel that way). New York is depicted as lawless, terminally venal, and locked in a permanent state of chaos – even the rival fire brigades engage in pitched battles on the street in order to claim the ascendancy. The city is split from top to bottom, along lines of ethnicity, religion, and wealth. The richness, vibrancy, and detail of the movie is remarkable.

The screenplay recognises that America’s greatest strength, its diversity, is also its greatest weakness. The film occurs before the great Polish and Italian immigrations and strips this theme down to its barest form – that of the English and Dutch set against the Irish. (Ironically, the original settlers refer to themselves as ‘Native’ Americans.) The film’s final message on this theme is (perhaps deliberately) a little unclear – the final conflict is never really consummated but at least it avoids cheap flagwaving and sentiment, instead choosing the slightly more ominous suggestion that while the past may be forgotten, it never loses its influence over the present.

Scorsese’s flair and deftness with the camera is as masterful as ever and the editing is also frequently superb. The gang battles which bookend the film are tremendous, as is the depiction of the Draft Riots the latter one coincides with (an event which until less than eighteen months ago remained the single largest loss of civilian life in American history). Elsewhere the film is less accomplished, but it’s never less than very watchable.

This is largely due to a towering, bravura performance from Day-Lewis as Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting. Looking like a bizarre hybrid of Will Self and the Mad Hatter, he swaggers through the movie, effortlessly acting everyone else off the screen. Cutting is one of the more complex characters to appear in a major release in recent years, but Day-Lewis nails the part, managing to be grotesque, funny, and chilling simultaneously. He dominates the film, even to the point of eclipsing Jim Broadbent (who appears as a crooked politician). Broadbent is only one of an outstanding supporting cast, including John C Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, and Henry Thomas (clearly sticking to a ‘one big movie every twenty years’ regimen). Those wondering what David Hemmings and John Sessions have been up to recently will find their questions answered too.

But what of Leonardo? And, come to think of it, Cameron Diaz? Well, I hate to say it, but if this movie has a weak point performance-wise it’s in the leading couple. Diaz’s part isn’t as meaty as DiCaprio or Day-Lewis’s but she does the best she can, although she’s saddled with a ginger wig that makes her look dismayingly like Heather Graham. Both she and Leo deploy Oirish accents direct from County Leprechaun. Furthermore, Leonardo just never feels right as a street-hardened gang leader out for brutal revenge. Whatever the numbers this film does, this isn’t the acting showcase he probably intended it to be.

There are a few other problems with Gangs of New York. The plot does feel a little rushed in the final third of the film, probably due to vigorous use of the editing suite at the behest of producer Harvey Weinstein. Like DiCaprio’s last big hit (you know, the one with the boat in it) it falls into the usual Hollywood trap where the residents of the British Isles are concerned, sentimentality regarding the sons of Ireland (Irish good! British bad! shrieks the subtext, accompanied as usual by penny-whistle tootlings on the soundtrack). And I know I’m not the only one who’s startled by Leo’s ability to recover from having his face head-butted to a pulp before being branded with a hot knife (this probably isn’t a film to take elderly relatives to see) with barely a scar to be seen.

The good outweighs the bad. This isn’t the all-conquering masterpiece some people have claimed it is, but it is a vaultingly ambitious, highly intelligent, and exceedingly well-made film. Martin Scorsese’s contribution alone would be worth the price of a ticket, as would Daniel Day-Lewis’s. Together they ensure that movie standards for the year to come have been set high early on. The gauntlet is thrown down.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 24th 2003: 

Odd things occasionally happen to foreign movies when they reach the west – the original Godzilla had thirty minutes of wholly superfluous Raymond Burr edited into it, for example – so it’s hardly surprising that strange fates sometimes befall English language cinema when it ventures abroad. Most commonly these take the form of eccentric re-titling: in Hong Kong, A View to a Kill was renamed The Indestructible Iron Man Fights The Electronic Gang, and the Lancaster/Douglas comedy Tough Guys got the less succinct moniker Archie And Harry, They’re Too Old To Do It Anymore. But the most famous of these occurrences is the South Korean version of The Sound of Music, which the distributor decided was far too long and, in a stroke of genius, shortened to a more acceptable length by cutting out every last one of the songs.

I’ve never seen this promising-sounding edit but I was reminded of what it might be like while recently watching Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, which resembles nothing so much as an hour and three quarters of MTV with all the actual music excised. And most of the plot, too, now I think of it. Like its predecessor, this is un film de McG.

This kind of misappropriation of the possessive credit is usually one of those things I get oddly irritated by but in this case it seems very nearly justified as without McG’s frenetically glossy direction there wouldn’t actually be a film to review. The plot is gossamer-thin gibberish, kicking off with Cameron Diaz riding a mechanical bull in a Mongolian bar and concluding with Demi Moore swooping through the streets of Los Angeles in a bat-winged frock, rather like the Wicked Witch of the West. In between there’s a lot of to do about some rings with secret info on them (McG probably stands for McGuffin), not that it matters much or makes any kind of sense.

What this film is all about is outrageously flashy camerawork and editing, and manoeuvring our three fully emancipated heroines into as many different improbable disguises and situations as possible – vets, wrestlers, nuns, lap dancers (this bit isn’t dwelt upon nearly enough, if you ask me), motocross racers, car-wash attendants, rodeo riders, and surfers, to name but most of them – before forcing them to engage in fight sequences from the Gerry Anderson school of kung fu. Even then the movie is utterly shameless in going off on wild tangents to incorporate a wide range of guest stars – Luke Wilson, Carrie Fisher, surly popstrel Pink, Matt LeBlanc, Bruce Willis, the Olsen twins – or engage in sledgehammer satire of other action movies, or even just grind to a halt for a dance routine paying homage to MC ‘Reverend’ Hammer. John Cleese plays Lucy Liu’s father, and Bernie Mac plays Bill Murray’s brother: that’s the level of credibility we’re operating on here.

Personally I found it all rather enjoyable: this is a film with no pretensions to depth or art whatsoever, but everyone involved is clearly giving of their best. McG’s hyperactive direction has no truck with things like sense or credibility, just as his action sequences ignore trifling concerns like logic or the laws of physics: one startling shot has the three butt-naked Angels erupting out of a marble frieze within which they have somehow secreted themselves, only – seconds later – to have found themselves sturdy yet stylish T-shirts and jeans, ready for the next bout of ass-whuppery. Bullet-time, slo-mo, impossible zooms, ridiculous wirework – yup, they’re all here and the film rather profits from trading style for substance.

Of the leads, Producer Angel Drew Barrymore appears to have pulled rank and secured for herself virtually all the serious dramatic material that the film possesses, while Blonde Angel Cameron Diaz once again displays a hugely impressive talent for self-mocking ditzy slapstick. Quite what Ethnic Diversity Angel Lucy Liu brings to the mix, I’m not certain: her role is rather akin to that of Emile Heskey in recent England sides, in that it’s not really clear what she’s doing, but one is certain it’s in some way fundamental to the whole success of the undertaking. She does get the film’s funniest scene, breathlessly recounting her latest escapade to an appalled Cleese, who – understandably – is under the misapprehension his daughter is a high-class call girl.

Most of the guest stars acquit themselves fairly well – Justin Theroux’s terrible Oirish accent notwithstanding – but a few words about one in particular seem justified. Ever since her mid-90s heyday I’ve followed the career of Demi Moore with a kind of appalled fascination. Her movies have been one creative train-wreck after another, yet she has always emerged with her profile and salary somehow boosted. Her relentless pursuit of stardom, powered only by sheer willpower and the efforts of her personal trainer, inevitably elicits my horrified respect. Here she turns in another performance carved of the finest Formica, but she does get a kung fu fight with Diaz, and if you’re not going to go to the cinema to see that, what are you going to go and see? You will probably be pleased to hear that the ‘Demi, if it was artistically justified, would you consider keeping your clothes on in a movie?’ joke is still not past its use-by date.

Full Throttle really turned out to be pretty much what I was expecting it to be – a bizarre amalgam of Carry On film, live-action Bugs Bunny cartoon, and hair-care products commercial. The cinematic equivalent of drinking a crate of Bacardi breezers and then pummelling yourself into a coma with a glittery handbag: it may seem like fun at the time, but in the long term it surely can’t be healthy.

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We appear to have reached an interesting point in the evolution of the superhero picture as a distinct genre in its own right. This kind of movie now seems to be enough of a fixture for film-makers to be able to start playing with its conventions without worrying about the audience not getting the joke. To be fair, this has been happening for a quite a while – most notably in 2008’s Hancock – but I was reminded of it while watching Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet.

In the UK, at least, the Green Hornet’s name-recognition factor probably rates around the same as that of characters like Archie the Jungle Robot or Captain Hurricane, which is to say he’s incredibly obscure. To be strictly accurate, the Hornet isn’t really a superhero at all, originally appearing as a masked vigilante in a pulp-derived radio show in the mid-1930s (and thus predating the first true superheroes). Still, these days he tends to get lumped in with them and Gondry’s movie is no exception to this.

Oafish slacker Britt Reid (Seth Rogan) finds his life changes forever when his newspaper-publisher father (Tom Wilkinson, sort-of slumming it) dies, leaving him in charge of the family company. Now an oafish millionaire, Britt takes to spending time with his employee Kato (Jay Chou), but when a prank takes an unexpected turn the two find themselves unexpectedly becoming vigilantes – a role Britt is keen to pursue further, adopting the persona of faux-villain the Green Hornet and enlisting Kato as his accomplice. After all, they make the perfect team – Kato bringing his coffee-making skills, and also expertise in weapon design, vehicle construction, and spectacular martial arts to the partnership, while Britt brings… Britt brings… well, basically he just shouts a lot and falls over. Little does Britt realise that his activities as the Hornet are causing some turmoil to local crime boss Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), only exacerbating the mid-life crisis the poor man’s already going through. Sure enough, a show-down between the two is soon on the cards…

As you can probably tell, The Green Hornet functions at least partly as a comedy, which is a brave way to go with an established and indeed venerable character. A few years ago, plans to do a comedy version of the DC character Green Lantern starring Jack Black were rapidly abandoned when they were met with bared fangs from the fanbase – so either the Hornet’s fanbase just doesn’t care or there aren’t enough of them to be worth cultivating.

It’s the comedy element that makes this film distinctive, anyway. It’s not what I’d describe as a mainstream comedy – it’s a little more oddball and deadpan than that in places, as one might expect with Gondry on the case. I found Waltz’s performance particular droll, as he experiments with various increasingly absurd gimmicks and catchphrases in an attempt to be a more interesting criminal. Elsewhere things are a tad more conventional, as Cameron Diaz shows up to deploy her comedic skills in the usual charming way, and Seth Rogan… well, shouts and falls over a lot. (Also in the cast, James Franco is uncredited, Edward Furlong is unrecognisable, and Bruce Lee – whose association with a previous version of The Green Hornet may be the only reason the character’s endured – is given due reverence.)

That said, this isn’t a pure comedy by any means, and in places the film does make a grab at moments of genuine gravity and emotion not entirely unlike some of those in The Dark Knight (a brave move, given that that film has set the gold standard for superhero movies). As a result the tone is extremely choppy in places, as the clashing styles bang into one another. The script, overall, does the job, although some of the storytelling just isn’t up to scratch (characters have dialogue like ‘As you know, I was your father’s most trusted employee for thirty-five years…’ So why are you telling him that, other than for the audience’s benefit?). It improves as it goes on, and the cheerfully destructive climax picked me up and swept me along by virtue of its sheer energy and bravado.

The Green Hornet isn’t what you’d call a truly great movie, and some elements of it definitely work better than others, but on the whole I was rather entertained by it. If there’s a place amongst superhero comics for more left-field fare, as well as the big-name characters, then hopefully the same is true for superhero movies too. Anyone interested in funding my expressionist rom-com adaptation of Squirrel Girl?

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