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Posts Tagged ‘Catherine Zeta Jones’

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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Christmas is coming on apace (drop me a line via the comments if you would like my gift wish-list) and I am aware that some people are harder to buy presents for than others. What do you get, as the saying goes, for the person who has everything?

Well, here’s an idea (i.e. a cheap gag is en route) – get them a piece of card with ‘YOU ARE HERE’ written on it, and when they ask you what it is, tell them it is a fabulously rare and precious gift – nothing less than a life-size map of the world!

Oh well, it’s a bit Zen, perhaps, but I like it. I was reminded of this dubious old gag while watching Traffic, a 2000 movie from the peak period of the Steven Soderbergh collective. This was the year in which the Soderberghs managed to get Oscar-nominated twice in the same category¬†(which I would interpret as meaning that at least one loss was guaranteed to be on the cards, but then again I’m not known for looking on the bright side). This is one of the Soderberghs’ most sophisticated and complex movies, as befits its topic – this is a film attempting to deal seriously with the realities of America’s so-called War on Drugs.

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It’s impossible to deal with a topic this broad and complicated using only a single viewpoint, and the movie doesn’t even try – instead, it has three parallel plotlines, which are only loosely linked, and together they offer a slightly more rounded perspective.

The movie opens with the realities of drug enforcement in Mexico, as careworn cop Benicio del Toro finds himself sucked into the darker side of the struggle with the cartels. Recruited by a high-ranking army officer for some, er, off-the-books work, he finds himself forced to confront the realities of torture and corruption, and the dawning realisation that one of the most active and vicious areas of the entire drugs conflict is the struggle between the various cartels themselves.

Taking place in a more familiar milieu is the story of affluent housewife Catherine Zeta Jones, who doesn’t look too hard at where her husband’s money is coming from. This changes when DEA agent Don Cheadle arrests Miguel Ferrer’s dealer. Ferrer gives up his boss in exchange for immunity, said boss being Zeta Jones’ man. She rapidly find herself not only having to accept her husband’s career choice, but actively involve herself in the business if she’s going to preserve anything of her family and its lifestyle.

Finally, the political angle is considered in a story concerning Michael Douglas’ judge, recruited by the President to head up the War on Drugs. He is, as you’d expect, full of high principles and strong rhetoric, but entirely unprepared for the revelation that his daughter (Erika Christensen) has a serious drugs problem of her own, and her descent into addiction and eventual prostitution compels him to reassess all of his assumptions.

Well, let’s not be under any illusions here: this is a movie featuring numerous mob executions, personal degradation of an intimate kind, torture (both psychological and physical), and very nearly industrial levels of hard drug use. This is not a movie to watch if you’re looking for a relaxing or escapist two and a half hours, as it is a gruelling and fairly demanding watch.

Now, the Soderberghs do their best to make the proceedings accessible – one of their touches is to, effectively, colour-code the three different storylines so you know (broadly speaking) which one you’re watching at any given moment – most of the scenes in the Douglas plotline are tinted a muted blue, while the one set in Mexico is primarily a hellish yellow-orange. This is reasonably helpful, but doesn’t really make any difference to the fact that this is a film attempting to cover an immensely big and complicated topic.

The individual storylines of the main characters are compelling and engaging enough, which is the film’s great strength, but it is also notable for the way in which it refuses to be just a character-based drama or thriller – it insists on addressing the wider issues of the topic. The internecine conflicts of the drugs cartels are just one, as equally under consideration are the effects of drug-related stereotyping on ethnic minorities, the essential futility of everything the DEA, as embodied by Cheadle’s character, are trying to do, and many other issues.

The result is not quite intellectual and sensory overload, but neither is it very far from it. The War on Drugs is a highly complex and potentially controversial topic, surrounded by questions to which there are no easy answers, and by dealing with it so honestly and fully Soderbergh has come up with a film which is highly complex and potentially controversial, full of questions to which there are no easy answers. In this respect it sort of resembles the life-sized map of the world I mentioned earlier.

This should not detract from the impressiveness of Soderbergh’s narrative achievement in making such a sprawling project cohere so well as a piece of storytelling, nor from the strength of the various performances. However, this isn’t a film you would watch for pleasure, nor really for information or a particular perspective on the problem. I think, to be honest, it’s a film you’d watch simply in order to be able to say you’d watched it, and thus capable of discussing it in an informed manner. As sophisticated talking-point movies go, though, it has a lot going for it.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 6th 2003:

A few years ago I took me dear old dad to the pictures for his birthday present. We went to see Gladiator, watched it, enjoyed it, but in the end decided it was a good and efficient film rather than a really great one. The staggering success of the film both at the box office and with the critics was thus a bit of a surprise to us both. In the end I put it down to the fact that this was a film from a genre Hollywood hadn’t touched for nearly forty years, but a genre people still had a great fondness and nostalgia for – and it was a combination of novelty and nostalgia that made it such a hit.

Well, another year, another family celebration and off we went to see Rob Marshall’s Chicago – which also looks destined to do very well come Oscar night, and also rake in a tidy sum. I had my suspicions that this film was riding on a wave of affection for an older style of film-making in just the same way Gladiator did – but then again I’m really not a great fan of musicals.

Chicago is set in 1920s Chicago (do you see what they’ve done there? Clever, isn’t it?). Wannabe star Roxie Hart (the eternally hamster-cheeked Renee Zellweger) is outraged to learn that the man she’s using to sleep her way to the top is in fact only interested in her bottom and has no intention of helping her succeed. So she murders him. She ends up on the same prison wing as bona fide star Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones), who’s in the slammer for murdering her sister and her husband. In order to secure her release Roxie retains the services of brilliant but unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who impresses upon her the importance of keeping the media on her side…

So, an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza set in a women’s prison. The omens were not good. But put all thoughts of Prisoner Cell Block H: The Musical from your mind as Chicago is actually a fantastic night out. Obviously a film like this lives or dies on the strength of the musical numbers and one of the most interesting things about Chicago is its approach to this: rather than employing the standard, faintly ridiculous technique of having characters simply burst into song as they go about their daily lives, the film presents Roxie as a delusional fantasist who sees everything in terms of a musical number of some kind – so most of the songs happen in her head. It’s an interesting conceit and to begin with I thought it was a rather craven one, the film-makers wanting to have all the pizazz and spectacle of a proper musical but without risking employing all the much-derided conventions of one. But it works, and what’s more it allows the routines and choreography from the stage show to be employed pretty much unchanged in many places.

Now I don’t know about you but I didn’t have Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta Jones and Richard Gere pegged as singing and dancing types, but they all acquit themselves pretty well. And when he’s not razzle-dazzling Gere delivers a fantastic performance as the shyster who fights his cases more in the gossip columns than the courthouse. The supporting cast is excellent – Queen Latifah as the formidable warden delivers a showstopper, Lucy Liu has a tiny, non-singing cameo, and John C Reilly – currently making a bid for the title of hardest-working-man-in-cinema – does his good-hearted schmo turn again (but reveals he can sing a bit too).

I find it sickly amusing that the British ‘quality tabloids’ (yup, that’s an oxymoron)¬†are unstinting in their criticism of certain films on moral grounds but have praised Chicago to the skies – odd, seeing that the happy ending consists of enormous success for a couple of amoral, unrepentant murderers. I suppose it’s another demonstration of the power of cheap music. Slight ethical queasiness aside, I did enjoy this film far more than I expected to, and much to my surprise it’s a film with things to say for itself. Its cynical commentary on media manipulation and the nature of celebrity are very much relevent to 2003. A terrific piece of smart, sharp, glitzy entertainment. My kinda town? Chicago is.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 9th 2004:

One of cinema’s master entertainers returns with The Terminal, Steven Spielberg’s theoretically-based-on-a-true-story statement on American national security issues and the nature of modern life. Or so he claims. This is the story of Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a traveller from the obscure eastern European land of Krakhozia (if you’re wondering, it shares borders with Latveria and Markovia) who arrives at New York’s JFK airport on important personal business.

Unfortunately while he was on the way a coup has occurred in his homeland and the visa letting him into the USA has been withdrawn. On the other hand, the new government in Krakozhia has closed the borders and airports so he can’t go back there either. This effectively means he is stranded in the airport departure lounge, a man without a country, until the situation resolves itself. The presence of this piece of human driftwood is inevitably anathema to the career-minded airport administrator Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) who is quite prepared to let Viktor become someone else’s problem if it means getting him out of the terminal.

But Viktor is a principled man who is not prepared to simply slope off out of the airport illegally the first chance he gets. Mainly through his own ingenuity he teaches himself English, gets a rather good job renovating the airport and establishes a circle of friends amongst the airport staff. He even has time to develop a bit of a thing for air stewardess Amelia (Catherine Zeta Jones, a Hollywood leading lady making history by playing a character older than herself). But what exactly has he come to America to do? And will they ever let him out of the terminal so he can actually get on with it?

Well, you could disapprove of The Terminal on principle for its ruthless hijacking and prettying up of the rather sad story of Merhan Nasseri, a mentally fragile Iranian refugee who’s been living in a French airport for the last sixteen years, but you must have been living down a hole if you seriously expect a Spielberg movie to stick to reality rather than going for an artful sugar-rush of sentiment. To be fair, the film opens in surprisingly downbeat and naturalistic style – there’s no big title sequence, no music in the early part of the movie, and it’s shot in realistic colours. This opening segment is rather impressively low-key, even if the exact circumstances confining Hanks to the airport concourse seem a bit contrived. But as the film goes on it almost imperceptibly slopes off into the familiar feel-good la-la land, until John Williams is tootling and parping cheerfully away on the soundtrack, the cinematography is drenched in sunny warmth and the story’s going all-out to make you laugh.

To be fair the movie does this rather well. Hanks gives a very impressively non-sentimental performance in a rather tricky part: he doesn’t overdo the role in any of the ways lesser talents might, keeping the foreign accent and the innocent abroad aspects well under control. It’s very accomplished turn, mixing pathos with broad comedy, and you actually believe that this is a man who would choose to sit in an airport for months on end simply because it’s the correct way to behave. He’s well supported by a ensemble cast of unfamiliar faces, and Tucci makes a villain both hissable and mildly empathetic. Zeta Jones’ character is a bit one-dimensional though, and she seems a bit lost for things to do with it.

Spielberg himself seems a bit lost for things to do with this movie, other than go for gentle comedy. The appeal of making what’s basically a high-concept formal exercise is obvious, and there’s potential here for the film to say things about modern life and modern America, but (clearly realising he’s potentially kicking a wasp’s nest here) Spielberg invariably opts for the most general and vague approach. He neither endorses or condemns current American policy on immigration, or anything else. This is one of those films that raises issues but has nothing to say about them, with the result that it seems a bit shallow and tokenistic. Well, all right, it does subtly point out that the low-paid airport underclass that eventually adopts Hanks is almost entirely comprised of members of ethnic minorities, but Michael Moore this ain’t.

But then again neither does it try (or, I suspect, want) to be. It’s just a slick, witty, fairly warm piece of entertainment, powered along by Spielberg’s unsurpassed technical mastery, Hanks’ undoubted charisma, and a mostly-ingenious script that seems to have been written by someone hiding an impressive knowledge of cult TV. But in the end it seems just a bit too disposably superficial. Very enjoyable while it lasts, make no mistake about that, but nowhere near the best of Spielberg’s work.

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