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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Walken’

Regular readers may be a little surprised to find a mainstream Disney family film popping up on a blog which is, more often than not, just a little bit more niche, if not actually obscure. Then again, sometimes you’re just out contemplating what film to see with a person of somewhat gentler tastes. ‘Okay, so there’s a political thriller about the ethical considerations of using drone strikes against terrorists, or a musical about talking animals,’ I said, leaving the choice up to them. So Jon Favreau’s new take on The Jungle Book it inevitably was.

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I suspect that the reason many people are so familiar with The Jungle Book – surely Rudyard Kipling’s best-known work to modern audiences – is the simple fact of the existence of Wolfgang Reitherman’s fully-animated 1967 adaptation. Certainly it has a very special place in my own memory, for all that I didn’t actually see it in its entirety until I was 19 – a fairly sumptuous storybook illustrated with pictures from the film was one of my fondest possessions as a small child, and I recall painstakingly copying out many of the backgrounds, let alone the main characters. So, as you might expect, I was even more dubious about this semi-remake than usual.

You probably know the story: Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a young lad who has been raised by wolves, so to speak… no, hang on, he’s literally been raised by wolves, in a reassuringly non-specific South Asian jungle of some kind (everyone calls it a jungle rather than a rainforest throughout). Mowgli hasn’t quite managed to fit in with the wolves, but soon he has more serious concerns as the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), undisputed apex predator of the area, learns of his existence and makes it very clear that man-cub is on his own personal menu. Mowgli’s mentor, the panther Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley), decides that the only thing to do is for him to go back to live amongst other humans – but along the way Mowgli encounters the extremely laid-back bear Baloo, who suggests there may be another, much less energy-intensive option. But Shere Khan is on his trail and has no intention of letting his prey escape…

The first thing I suppose one should say about the new Jungle Book is that, at its heart, it does seem to have a sincere desire to respect Rudyard Kipling and his original stories. These are rather darker and more serious than you might expect if all you know is the Reitherman movie – they read not entirely unlike a rather more erudite and polished precursor to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels (I feel compelled to share with you Kipling’s claim that Burroughs wrote the first Tarzan just to see ‘how bad a book he could write and get away with it’).

The virtually non-stop near-photorealistic CGI of the new Jungle Book allows the film to have moments of gravity and seriousness without simply coming across as weird – these are about as convincing as talking CGI animals get. Shere Khan, the main villain, is genuinely impressive and genuinely scary, on the very limit of what you can reasonably include in a family film without drawing accusations of actively seeking to traumatise small children.

So the film tones it all down a bit, and departs quite considerably from Kipling in the process, by turning the levels of cutesiness and sentimentality in many portions of the script up to tooth-rottingly high levels. Not to mention, of course, that most of the animals speak with American accents and using idiomatic American English. The results are, needless to say, a bit difficult to process at first.

If the new Jungle Book struggles to assimilate the competing demands of being faithful to Kipling while staying viable as a family blockbuster, this is before we even consider its somewhat confused relationship with the 1967 film. It goes without saying that this has obviously been a major influence – Mowgli closely resembles his animated counterpart, and the characterisations of Baloo and Bagheera, for instance, owe much more to the previous film’s script than to Kipling’s writing. The plot follows roughly the same sequence of events and there are numerous moments which I suspect will seem odd and incongruous unless you’re aware of the animated version.

Yes, I’m mostly thinking of the songs, which primarily seem to have been included because everyone knows the songs from The Jungle Book and would, presumably, feel cheated if they weren’t in this version. But the fact remains that it is very obvious that they have literally floated in from a different film entirely – Bill Murray’s crack at ‘The Bare Necessities’ seems rather perfunctory, Scarlett Johansson’s oddly tepid version of ‘Trust in Me’ has been banished to the closing credits, and then there’s…

Well, there’s one moment which defines just how mixed up this version of The Jungle Book is, but it’s also the moment which above all others justifies the price of the ticket. Mowgli gets kidnapped by the monkeys of the canopy and dragged off to their lair in a ruined temple. The script refers to them as ‘the Bandar-Log’, something drawn directly from Kipling, and yet they are still led by King Louie, which is pure Reitherman. This version of King Louie is a hulking, menacing anthropoid of colossal size (he claims to be a gigantopithecus rather than an orangutan, which is supposedly in the name of ‘realism’ – there are no orangs in India – but I suspect is more to help some of the revised lyrics scan better), played, rather in the manner of a mafia don, by Christopher Walken. The whole tone of this sequence is one of threat and jeopardy…

…and then Walken launches into a (it probably goes without saying) very idiosyncratic rendition of ‘I wanna be like you’, rather in the manner of William Shatner doing one of his dramatic recitations of a pop classic. It is just magnetically bizarre – the weird thing is, I know I would have felt it was a complete chiz if Walken hadn’t done the song, but at the same time it just felt horribly wrong to do it in quite this way. A few moments later the same wonderful song is, incomprehensibly, rearranged as a cue to accompany an action sequence. Kipling and the legacy of Reitherman and Jon Favreau’s own tendencies as a director of CGI-intensive action movies are engaged in a peculiar three-way battle for supremacy, and I’m still not sure who actually comes out on top.

Still, at least casting Walken as the ape removes any chance of the film being accused of open racism, by sensible reviewers at least: diversity quotas are also surely satisfied by Bagheera being Asian, Shere Khan being black, and Kaa having had a sex change. Modern sensibilities should also be assuaged by the virtually-obligatory insertion of a subtext about environmentalism and protecting the environment.

This finds its culmination in the climax of the film, which is where it comes a little unravelled: Kipling’s story is about growing up and taking on responsibility, but you get a strong sense that, thematically, this film would much rather be about the importance of family and friendship and not destroying the environment. I’m not saying the film entirely fails to resolve all of these themes, but it has to put itself through some fairly severe contortions to do so. I was also left very unimpressed with how the film ultimately resolves itself – the priority seems to have been keeping the option of doing a sequel well and truly open, rather than, say, concluding the story in a satisfying way.

This isn’t a bad film by any means: it looks sumptuous, the cast do good work with the roles that have been written for them, and when Favreau is allowed to do one of his big action sequences it is usually pretty good. But the various influences of Kipling, Reitherman, and action-movie doctrine never quite cohere. There are probably enough good bits in The Jungle Book to make it a worthwhile and entertaining watch, but I can’t imagine anyone already familiar with the story finding this completely satisfying.

 

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Just when I thought we’d broken free from the clinging embrace of fact-based film after fact-based film, and were now contending with dozens of slightly dubious remakes and sequels, along comes yet another: Eddie the Eagle, directed by Dexter Fletcher (I remember him as a child actor in the likes of Bugsy Malone, The Long Good Friday and The Elephant Man, and look at him now).

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I also remember the story of Eddie the Eagle when it was actually news, although at the time (February 1988) I suspect I was slightly more interested in the first episode of Red Dwarf, which was broadcast around then. The story is… well, Michael ‘Eddie’ Edwards went to the Calgary Olympics as the sole British ski-jumper, came a resounding last in both the 70m and 90m jump events, and yet somehow became a media celebrity and one of the biggest stories of the Games. This was the same Games that saw the even-more-unlikely appearance of a Jamaican bobsleigh team (Fletcher’s film alludes to this), who were the subject of a movie over 20 years ago, so once again you could argue that Eddie the Eagle has come a spectacular last.

The font of the movie’s title sequence is almost identical to that favoured by any number of cosy 70s British sitcoms, while the soundtrack comes as close as possible to copying that of Chariots of Fire without causing Vangelis to actually reach for his lawyer, and these two choices define the scope of the film’s ambition rather well. The credits inform us this is ‘based on the life of Eddie Edwards’, but I would argue this is pushing it a bit. Pushing it quite a lot, actually.

Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton, who to me sounds like a character from a badly-typed Terry Nation script, but I digress) grows up as an Olympics-obsessed lad somewhere in the UK (his parents have vaguely London-ish accents). Eventually becoming a fairly decent downhill skier, he is nevertheless not selected for the British Winter Olympic team, primarily (the film suggests) because he is not posh or handsome enough.

Never one to be easily deterred, Eddie yomps off to Germany to become the first British Olympic ski-jumper since the 1920s, although progress is limited and various arrogant Nordic types are unspeakably beastly to him about his efforts. He does, however, end up befriending the local groundskeeper, Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), whom he learns is actually a former champion ski-jumper who left the sport in disgrace some years earlier. Could it possibly be that together they will form a bond, that Eddie will rise to become a genuinely competent ski-jumper, and that he will go on to realise his dream of representing his country at the Olympics?

Well, like I say, based on a true story, although Edwards was actually born in Gloucestershire, failed to qualify for the downhill event in the 1984 Games based on his times not his background, learned to ski-jump in the US, not Germany, qualified after representing Britain in the 1987 World Championships… I could go on. You can almost hear the film creaking and grumbling as it is forced to include something factually true (Edwards’ successful career as a downhill skier), as it really cuts against its presentation of him as a loveable, well-meaning clown.

On the other hand, it makes up for this sole concession to reality by including Hugh Jackman’s character, who is as fictional as Puff the Magic Dragon, and it’s almost impossible not to conclude that both the character and Wolverine himself are both here in the hope it will help the film-makers get the film international distribution. Peary’s background and personality (I repeat: he is wholly made-up) comprise a significant chunk of the film’s storyline (a bemused-looking Christopher Walken plays his estranged mentor), which is kind of the final nail in the coffin of the idea that this film is in any way about the ‘real’ Eddie Edwards.

I mean, Egerton gives a committed and vanity-free performance, although it does seem to largely consist of his peering through coke-bottle glasses and sticking his chin out in a vaguely mournful fashion, but in terms of sheer presence and charisma he is effortlessly blown off the screen by Jackman, who spends most of the film in first gear. Say what you like about Jackman’s range as a performer (and I have in the past), but he is always very, very watchable, to the point where you want to see more of him and less of the putative star: the result is that Eddie Edwards seems rather like a supporting character in his own film.

And if you’re going to cast loose from the anchor of fact quite so enthusiastically as this film does, you’d better be doing it for a good reason – making it an all-out comedy, for instance. But the thing is that Eddie the Eagle is just not that funny, unless you find endless scenes of Egerton stuffing up his landings and cartwheeling down the slope to be comedy gold. It’s all just a bit too contrived, too broad, too obvious to work. Also, this film is a product of Matthew Vaughn’s company Marv. Last year Vaughn directed Kingsman, in which Taron Egerton played a working-class lad struggling to become a top spy, battling constantly against establishment prejudice, and the reverse snobbery of the film was astounding. Well, in this film, Taron Egerton plays a working-class lad struggling to become a top ski-jumper, battling constantly against establishment prejudice, and it’s exactly the same. It’s just too calculated and cartoonish to feel at all authentic – it’s simply manipulative.

Then again, this is a sports movie, and they’re all a bit the same, aren’t they? This one is mainly distinguished by the protagonist’s central challenge being not to triumph, but to simply not wind up killing himself – in the end, though, the structure of the movie is strong enough for it to function as a basic narrative. But that’s pretty much all it does. It barely qualifies as an actual bio-pic, so many liberties have been taken with the facts, but none of those changes actually help it work better as a comedy, or as a drama. In the end this film’s ambitions appear to be limited to just being a vaguely funny, allegedly heart-warming piece of quite simplistic entertainment, hanging off the hook of someone who retains a significant level of name-recognition some 28 years after his moment of glory. I would love to know what Eddie Edwards really thinks of the film with his name on it, but I suspect an NDA has been deployed. I only ended up watching this film through the wonders of my magic free-ticket card, which meant I basically didn’t feel like I was paying to watch it. In those circumstances, it seemed like an inoffensive, fairly competent film on its own terms. But I’m glad I didn’t spend money to see it.

 

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Hello, and welcome to another review sponsored by the ‘There’s Pretty Much Sod-All Else On’ Corporation, this time of Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys. I have to confess that much as I admire and enjoy Clint the Icon, I haven’t felt obliged to see any of his films as a director in recent years: the last one I saw was Flags of Our Fathers (not even knowing it was one of his, to be honest). The great British public seem to share my feelings, for once: I had the place pretty much to myself for the matinee I attended. Perhaps expectations for this film are unusually low, anyway – you would expect an adaptation of a hit musical from a feted director like Clint to come out around Christmas time, ahead of the awards season, rather than during a lull in blockbuster season.

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Jersey Boys is not about competitive cyclists or the travails of the knitwear industry, but then you probably knew that. It is another entry in the reliable old pop culture biopic genre, devoted on this occasion to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The film opens in 1951 by introducing Valli (John Lloyd Young), a naive young trainee barber with an astonishing falsetto voice, and his friend Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), a wiseguy hustler. Both of them enjoy the patronage of underworld figure Gyp DeCarlo (a relatively restrained Christopher Walken). Along with a few friends, the guy are trying to carve out a musical career in between bouts of not especially petty crime, but it’s fair to say these two careers do not dovetail especially well – it’s hard to plan a concert schedule when various band members keep going to prison.

However, Valli and DeVito, along with their friend Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), eventually hook up with precociously talented musician and composer Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and the stage is set for the kind of long slog that usually presages overnight stardom. A string of hits like Sherry, Walk Like A Man, and Big Girls Don’t Cry follows, but – as ever – success brings its own problems, with creative, personal, and financial differences eventually threatening to destroy the lives of the quartet.

So, there’s a sense in which this is a story which you have probably seen before a number of times – the arc of the plot is the same, just the names and the songs change. Certainly, in the UK at least, the songs are rather more familiar than the names: we’re talking about a group which was really at its peak nearly half a century ago. Quartets of clean-cut young men in matching bow ties and suede cardigans singing close harmonies in surprisingly high voices is not a major element of the modern youth music scene, after all, and I do wonder slightly who the intended audience for this film really is. People who remember the Four Seasons from their heyday are likely to be – how can I put this? – knocking on a bit, and unlikely to be enthused by the heavy concentration of F-bombs in the dialogue of this movie. On the other hand, people going to see this movie simply because they enjoyed the stage show may well be disappointed too, because I suspect they are rather different beasts.

Jersey Boys the stage show is a cousin to the jukebox musical, that odd beast where existing pop songs from a popular artist or group are repurposed to serve a (usually highly contrived) narrative – the index case being, I suppose, Mamma Mia!. This movie isn’t like that at all: it is, for want of a better word, a diegetic musical, where practically the only songs and dancing in it occur when the Four Seasons are actually performing on stage. This means the first act of the movie is much more in the vein of GoodFellas than anything else, set in a highly-clannish Italian-American community in the mid 50s, and realised in a very orthodox way.

Virtually the film’s only traditional musical-style number – complete with people singing and dancing in the street, with large numbers of backing dancers and an invisible orchestra – comes during the closing credits, and it was for me the most uplifting and energising part of the whole movie. The Four Seasons’ songs are such pure and joyous pop that I’m not sure they’re best served by being embedded in a fairly gritty mob-related drama, nor indeed vice versa. Some of the innocent pleasure of the non-diegetic musical really might have helped, but it would have meant rethinking the whole tone of the enterprise.

Then again, maybe Clint just didn’t want to do a traditional musical – there are certainly fleeting moments here where it seems as if he’s threatening to parody the bio-pic genre. ‘What are we going to call ourselves?’ cry the boys, and, literally, just at that moment a huge neon sign lights up in front of them with THE FOUR SEASONS written on it. A moment where Gaudio, struggling for a title for his new song, hears their producer observing that ‘big girls don’t cry’, strikes a similar note. At times you’re not quite sure how to take this movie – the presence in it of Joe Pesci (not as an actor, but as an actual character) just adds to the sense of things being oddly out of whack.

On the other hand, most of the time this is fairly dramatic stuff, played in a down-to-earth manner. Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio are credited as executive producers, which doubtless explains why they are presentedly slightly more favourably than the other two Seasons, but no one gets entirely crucified, not even the one who got the whole band in hock to the mob. Walken is the only established star in the movie (well, Clint sneaks himself a cameo courtesy of a clip from Rawhide which the boys watch on TV), but the guys playing the band do solid work (as the title suggests, this is very much a boys’ movie, women being relegated to the roles of girlfriends and mothers and wives).

In the end, though, Jersey Boys is a workmanlike movie rather than anything special, and that’s mainly down to the inconsistency of tone it has – is it a slice-of-life drama from the mean streets of 50s Jersey, or a fabulous non-naturalistic piece of 60s pop froth? The film pendulums back and forth between the two, and the broad sweep of the main plot really doesn’t have very much original going on in it. Not actually a bad movie, but a very long way from being essential – obviously the soundtrack is fantastic, though.

 

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Sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a film on you particularly want to see, sometimes you go because there was a trailer that looked sort of interesting, sometimes you go because the saturation-bombardment of publicity is inescapable and the film in question is a major cultural event. And sometimes you go to the cinema just because you want to go to the cinema, and what you go to see isn’t necessarily very important.

I tell you, folks, much as I enjoyed Trance last week, a lot of the films around at the moment really leave me sort of cold, which is a surprise as some of them are big-budget genre fantasies of the kind that once would have been right up my alley. But, truth be told, the likes of Oz the Great and Powerful and Jack the Giant Killer really don’t appeal right now, and so – somewhat to my surprise – I found myself going to see Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet.

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I believe this is one of those movies enjoying what always seems to me like an eccentric release, by which I mean that it became available in theatres, on DVD, and for download at round about the same time. The theatre release probably qualifies as counter-programming, given the preponderance of big dumb movies for young people. That said, I sense a degree of uncertainty as to whom A Late Quartet is aimed at from its supporting programme – no actual cinema trailers at all, while the adverts preceding it appeared to be aimed at, to say the least, a broad demographic: one for spot cream, one for a cruise company, two connected with the dangers of degenerative eye disease and one for Wrestlemania 2013.

There’s only metaphorical wrestling in the movie itself, which is concerned with the activities of a long-established and celebrated string quartet, based in New York City. On cello is the patriarchal figure of Christopher Walken, while playing the viola is his adopted daughter, Catherine Keener. Keener’s husband Philip Seymour Hoffman is second violin, and Walken’s brilliant former student Mark Ivanir is first violin. As you can see, the ties that bind the four musicians are nearly as close as those of a family – only compounded by the fact that Ivanir is giving Keener and Hoffman’s daughter Imogen Poots private tuition – the difference being that their activities require, if anything, a greater degree of harmony than that of a comparable group of blood relations.

But hidden tensions between the different members of the group are suddenly articulated when Walken discovers a sudden deterioration in his technique is due to the onset of Parkinson’s disease: he will soon lose the ability to play to the necessary standard. Who should replace him? Should he even be replaced at all? With the future of the quartet suddenly in flux Hoffman takes this opportunity to voice his desire to play first violin at least some of the time, something the obsessively perfectionist Ivanir vehemently objects to. And so on, the relationships of the foursome rapidly becoming strained, to say the least.

Perhaps it’s the Manhattan setting, but it seemed to me that this movie isn’t a million miles away from the kind of thing Woody Allen’s based his career on for the last two and a half decades – the personal and professional tribulations of a small coterie of affluent metropolitans. However, and I say this with all due respect and affection for Allen, A Late Quartet is a much more impressive and satisfying movie than anything he’s done recently. Partly this is because the unfolding of the plot is intelligent and convincing, with the different threads interacting subtly and plausibly, but also because this film doesn’t have the occasionally-uneasy throwing together of comedy and drama that marks some Allen movies. This movie is measured and consistent, restrained and classy almost all the way through (although a scene where Hoffman appears to be having a very nice time while a lithe flamenco dancer sits on him is slightly incongruous).

My musical experience is, of course, limited (currently trying to master Bat Out Of Hell on the ukulele, should anyone be interested), but all four actors make very convincing virtuoso musicians, and the film does a good job of suggesting some of the demands of this kind of career and the sacrifices involved. But it works as well as it does because they are superb in bringing these characters to life as real people – this film doesn’t have the biggest cast, but everyone in it is brilliant.

You don’t necessarily expect affecting humanity from a Christopher Walken performance, but he makes for a touching vulnerable figure here as he comes to term with the loss of the central element of his life. No-one else in cinema delivers a monologue quite like Walken does, and he gets a couple of crackers here. That said, he’s by no means the central character, and  – if I’m pushed – I’d have to say the acting honours go to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is as compelling as usual as a man unwittingly in the midst of a midlife crisis. Admittedly, he is doing the kind of ‘wounded bear’ character we’ve seen from him before, but this is still a Rolls Royce display of screen acting.

But there really isn’t very much wrong with this film in any department. Some of the general arcs of the plot are, to some degree, predictable, but not to the extent that the film becomes dull or hackneyed. The ending manages to give a sense of closure without being unrealistically tidy or glib, which is a neat piece of storytelling before one even considers what it may be suggesting about the power of music or its true hold over the main characters – but then this film is a class act throughout. A thoroughly engaging and really impressive drama.

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The last ten years have seen the adoption by all the big studios of something called day-and-date releasing: this is the strategy whereby a new film gets released globally on pretty much the same day. It’s supposed to help combat movie piracy, but one of the fringe benefits is that the rest of the world gets to enjoy new blockbusters on the same day they come out in America, thus putting an end to the phenomenon of people timing their holidays in order to catch a particular film as early as possible.

Day-and-date is still very much the norm for most big movies (although apparently Skyfall came out in the USA later than virtually anywhere else so as not to clash with the election), but for smaller offerings a degree of slippage in the schedule is not unknown. So it is with Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths.

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Back in October I got a message from an American friend making sure I was planning to see (and then, with grim inevitability, write about) this particular film. I wasn’t, at the time; indeed I’d never heard of it. I’d heard of McDonagh, not so much for his well-received films like In Bruges but because he was the brother of the director of The Guard, my favourite film of last year. But I’m a sucker for requests and the cast list for this film looked interesting, at least. Paying only the most cursory attention to the plot synopsis, off I went, anticipating a comedy-crime-thriller. Hmmmm.

In the film, scripted by Irish writer Martin McDonagh, we meet an Irish writer called Marty (Colin Farrell), currently seemingly adrift in Los Angeles. He is struggling with his latest project, a script entitled Seven Psychopaths, mainly because he doesn’t have enough psychopaths and no ideas for what they’re going to do anyway. Real life around Marty is about to get somewhat psychopathic, anyway: a masked killer nicknamed the Jack of Diamonds is slaughtering his way through the LA mob, Marty’s strange best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is involved not only with the lovely girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko, very briefly appearing) of a nutso gang boss (Woody Harrelson), but also in a lucrative dog-napping business with the strangely devout, or should that be devoutly strange Hans (Christopher Walken, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out there even by his standards).

Billy also wants to help Marty write the movie, and to help with the research has placed an advert inviting every psycho in California to get in touch with them and provide material for the script. Up turns Tom Waits, carrying both a live rabbit and a metaphorical torch. Meanwhile Marty is having second thoughts about the whole psychopath angle – is there no way he can do an action movie called Seven Pacifists instead?

There’s a weary old saw about how some movies review themselves – this usually meaning that the film in question is self-evidently either good or bad: you can just write about what’s up on screen without having to think too much about expressing the finer points of its quality. Seven Psychopaths also has a go at reviewing itself, but in a slightly different way.

This is because the script of the movie that Marty and Billy are writing bears an uncanny resemblence to the script of the movie they are actually appearing in – characters from the film start appearing, mixed up in the slightly awkward situation he, Billy and Hans find themselves in when Billy kidnaps the gang boss’s prized Shih Tzu. Most obviously, at one point Marty decides that their script will take a bizarre and uncharacteristic left turn – at which point his real life starts to follow exactly the same route.

It sounds cringingly knowing and clever-clever, but this element appears so subtly and unexpectedly in what starts off as a gonzo LA comedy-drama that I was quite taken in by it. It makes it hard to shake the suspicion that when someone starts criticising Marty’s writing in the film, this is really Martin McDonagh owning up to a few flaws in his own script – most obviously, Marty is criticised for writing very few, and very small parts for women, most of whom are decorative and also meet untimely ends. Does this excuse the way Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and Linda Bright Clay are used (and sometimes abused) in this movie? Does saying ‘I know I’ve been bad’ excuse you for being bad? I’m not sure.

Anyway, this layer of cleverness, added to the talent at work throughout the movie, results in something which is a huge amount of slightly guilty fun: very violent, profane, and more than a bit absurd. This is not to say that there are not serious and even quite moving moments along the way – there’s a very tense scene in which Walken’s sick wife is cornered by Harrelson, who’s out to get him but doesn’t realise who she is. This could have come out of a serious thriller. As the film goes on, though, it drops these occasional pretences and becomes much more about Sam Rockwell, who’s off the leash as a kind of demented idiot-savant who – not inappropriately – seems to have lost track of the boundary between reality and fiction. Rockwell is very funny and gives a very big performance, but then so is Harrelson, so is Walken. Colin Farrell is stuck in the middle playing the straight man and actually does a really good job of it.

I haven’t seen a story crack itself open and start to play with its own guts in quite this way since Adaptation., and it may indeed be that Seven Psychopaths is not quite so accomplished, never quite escaping its slightly wearisome Tarantino-esque trappings. Certainly there are distinct signs of the film wanting to have its cake and eat it, particularly as the climax unfolds (‘unfolds’ is much too tidy and straightforward a word for it, of course).

Seven Psychopaths is certainly satisfyingly clever and different, and – being totally wrong-footed by it to begin with – I enjoyed it immensely, for a while even wondering if the McDonagh family might be about to (figuratively) take home the (non-existent) film of the year prize for the second year in a row? I think not; while The Guard plays similar games with genre tropes to a lesser degree, it’s built around a genuine piece of characterisation with a proper supporting story. Seven Psychopaths just thrashes around demolishing itself and other Hollywood thrillers to hilarious effect – not that this is in any way not a worthwhile undertaking, nor one which is executed without skill, panache, and energy. Well worth watching.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 13th 2003:

[Originally following a review of Morvern Callar.]

Another young person with mendacity issues is the subject of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, but in this case the story is true. This is the story of Frank W. Abagnale Jr, who as a teenager earned a reputation as the most audacious conman in US history. He is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who convincingly ages about twelve years in the course of the film.

Abagnale’s story would be dismissed as hopelessly farfetched were one to suggest it as a work of fiction: following a relatively normal childhood, the traumatic divorce of his parents led him to run away from home and begin a career as a passer of forged cheques. This in turn led to him successfully passing himself off as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer (his Sean Connery impression is less convincing). Of course a lifestyle such as this, which eventually saw Abagnale fraudulently making millions of dollars, was bound to attract the attention of the authorities, and in Frank’s case nemesis takes the unlikely shape of dogged FBI investigator Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) who pursues him around America and the world, the two forming a strangely personal bond in the process…

With Spielberg, DiCaprio, and Hanks on board, expectations were obviously going to be high for this movie. And so I am delighted to report that Catch Me If You Can is an absolutely wonderful piece of entertainment, not too deep or heavy but just an expertly made, perfectly judged drama with comic overtones. Leo is much, much better here than he was in Gangs of New York: the combination of charm, bravado, and vulnerability which is his speciality is perfect for Frank. This is another example of a character that on paper seems like a nasty piece of work, but the deft script and Leo’s performance keep you feeling and rooting for him right up to the closing credits. And this makes Tom Hanks’ performance as Hanratty all the more impressive, as somehow he manages to remain equally sympathetic. This is mostly down to shrewd use of Hanks’ star persona, which as ever is largely composed of a hefty chunk of solid decency.

The two stars receive perfectly judged support from a great supporting cast. Christopher Walken plays Frank Sr., and to be fair to him he’s no less plausible as Leo’s dad than Liam Neeson, Gene Hackman or any of the other actors who’ve preceded him. He gives a subtle, affecting performance in a relatively small but pivotal role. Taking time off from showing Dubya how the President ought to behave, Martin Sheen is good as one of Frank’s dupes, and rising star Jennifer Garner (more on whom in next week’s column, fingers crossed) has a memorable cameo.

You can almost sense Spielberg relaxing and letting his hair down on this film, after the rather weightier and darker movies he’s made over the couple of years. He is the master entertainer of modern cinema and his storytelling here is virtually flawless: it’s moving, funny, and tense, with Frank’s strained relationship with his father clearly indicated as the trigger for his crimes. Not that they’re presented as such – there’s a sense of barely suppressed glee as each new scheme of Frank’s comes to fruition. The contrast between Leo’s playboy lifestyle and Hanratty’s much more humdrum existence is neatly evoked – at one point a night of passion for Leo is juxtaposed with a disastrous trip to the laundrette for his adversary. The nostalgic nature of the tale helps keep it light, something played up to by the excellent, retro-styled opening title sequence. John Williams does his usual sterling work on the score, even if bits of it sound suspiciously like parts of his music for Attack of the Clones.

Some films are unfairly dismissed in the eyes of certain critics simply because they’re intended as pieces of pure entertainment and I really think this is one of them. Superbly made in every respect, and enthralling from start to finish, Catch Me If You Can should stand as a career highlight for all involved. Unreservedly recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 8th 2004: 

Well now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, pitching up currently in the UK (many months, it must be said, after its US release under the slightly snappier title The Rundown) is Peter Berg’s Welcome To The Jungle, the latest development in the ongoing cold war to select the top-gun beefcake who will replace Arnie now he’s gone into politics (ha ha ha).

This action romp (rather like an extended episode of The A-Team that’s been crossbred with the 80s Douglas-Turner vehicle Romancing The Stone) is the tale of LA debt collector Beck, who’s played by wrestling ubermensch The Rock, who’s played by Dwayne Johnson. Beck is basically a chilled-out guy who has found himself in debt to a slimy mobster, and all he wants to do is buy back his freedom and open a restaurant (you might expect this rather quirky detail to merely be the set-up for some rotten jokes about exactly what the Rock is cooking, but thankfully the movie resists this temptation).

Anyway, after some jolly pre-credits head-cracking Beck finds himself packed off up the Amazon to retrieve his boss’s wayward treasure-hunting son Travis (a typical goofy-sidekick turn from Seann William Scott). Unfortunately Travis is in a part of the rainforest that’s basically being run as a private kingdom by evil mining tycoon Hatcher (Christopher Walken, phoning it in), much to the chagrin of politically-engaged barmaid Mariana (Rosario Dawson). With Beck needing Mariana’s help to get the hell out of there, and Mariana needing Travis’ help to find a priceless gold statuette which will finance her revolution, and Hatcher basically just wanting to shoot everyone, it’s clear there’s going to be a right old carry-on up the jungle…

Welcome To The Jungle is clearly aimed at an audience of about thirteen years of age, and will probably make a tidy profit if the showing I rolled up for is anything to go by. As such, it doesn’t sully itself overmuch with things like plot or character development or trying to challenge the audience (and there’s none of that soppy kissy stuff either) – but it is rather strong on daft jokes, slapstick, general mayhem, and weirdness. This is definitely one of those movies best partaken of with the higher critical faculties fully disconnected – at one point I caught myself thinking ‘Why are those African baboons living in the Brazilian rainforest?’, but managed to put it from my mind – which makes giving it a proper review a bit tricky.

But I have to say I sort of enjoyed it. The story and action sequences are absolutely nothing special, but Dwayne remains an engaging and charismatic lead, and I suspect I’d back him in a fight against Vin Diesel any day. (In any case, it looks like Vin wants to be the new Stallone.) Dwayne’s case for acclamation as the new Arnie gets a bit of a boost here anyway, as the Governator himself makes a tiny cameo right at the start, presumably to indicate his approbation of the new kid. But quite apart from the star, this is a film with an offbeat charm of its own – there’s a quite extraordinarily bizarre performance from Ewen Bremner as an Oirish bush-pilot with a gammy leg and an unintelligible accent, who sadly isn’t in the middle section of the film at all. Walken is let loose at a couple of points – there’s a very strange moment when he attempts to explain to his goons who the Tooth Fairy is, despite the fact they don’t speak any English. And Berg’s direction, while a bit over the top in parts, isn’t afraid to be more imaginative and quirky than a film like this strictly needs or deserves.

This is by no means essential viewing: Welcome To The Jungle is fundamentally only about providing an agreeable vehicle for its hulking star. But it does this fairly well, and it’s clear Dwayne is trying to make a proper go of it as an actual movie actor – wrestling nonsense is kept to a bare minimum, none of his trademarks feature, and he even stays pretty much fully dressed for most of the film. And the movie has just enough wit, energy, and quirkiness to keep it from being offensively shallow and stupid. Welcome To The Jungle is nothing particularly special, but if you like knockabout action it’ll keep you happy until the proper summer movies come out.

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