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Posts Tagged ‘Cillian Murphy’

It occurs to me that two of the most demanding forms of fiction to attempt are comedy and horror, mainly because the criteria for success are just so non-negotiable – it doesn’t matter how good the acting, dialogue, or direction are in a film, if people aren’t laughing at it, then it’s not a very good comedy. The same arguably applies in more general ways too – there’s a sense in which setting out to make a niche, art-housey kind of film is less challenging than attempting to make a whopping mainstream hit, simply because the former are primarily judged on their critical success (always subjective and open to dispute), whereas with the latter it’s just the case of the bottom line and the box office take, which you can attach a figure to.

And it’s not even as if going mainstream and commercial is necessarily easy – some people just aren’t built that way. The director John Singleton started his career making hard-edged issue-based dramas like Boyz N The Hood, which received acclaim and made him the youngest ever Oscar-nominated director, but his transformation into a maker of popcorn action movies just produced a stream of completely undistinguished films (the most notable probably being 2 Fast 2 Furious, and that’s only because it’s the only completely Diesel-free installment of the franchise).

Which brings us to Ben Wheatley’s new movie, Free Fire.  Wheatley’s career has been growing in prominence, if not commerciality, for a good few years now, and his latest project sees him working with Martin Scorsese (credited as exec on the new film) – now there’s a name with a bit of a cachet to it. The movie also features a rather strange juxtaposition of currently-hot star names with the more marginal type of performer Wheatley has made good use of in the past.

 

The setting is Boston, in the late 1970s, and criminality is afoot. A major arms deal is about to take place. On one side are Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), two Northern Irish gentlemen with strong political views, intent on buying a load of M16s from South African arms dealer Vern (Sharlto Copley). Facilitating the deal are Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). Everyone convenes in an abandoned warehouse and things proceed to get very tense indeed, not least because a couple of the participants are clearly somewhat unhinged. Trust is in short supply, and the fact that Vern has turned up with a van full of ArmaLites rather than M16s does not help matters much. Still, a deal of sorts is on the cards, until it transpires that one of Vern’s hired hands (Jack Reynor) has a serious bone to pick with one of the Irishmens’ (Sam Riley).

Things degenerate, shots are inevitably fired, and then… well, the rest of the movie depicts, essentially, an hour-long gun battle, moving between various different parts of the warehouse as the different participants try to outmanoeuvre each other or reach particular locations. Matters are complicated by the appearance of a mysterious third group of shooters, whose allegiance is unclear, and also by the fact that this isn’t the kind of film where it’s straightforward to just kill someone with a single shot.

There is something slightly computer-gamey about the set-up for Free Fire, in that virtually everyone in it gets shot multiple times and usually just carries on with what they were doing, albeit slightly more slowly and uncomfortably. I’ve played in team games of Quake and other first-person-shooters which were a little bit like this movie; it also feels a bit like a particularly weird game of the RPG Fiasco which has gotten completely out of hand. However, the cultural reference point a normal person is probably going to reach for is accompanied by the adjective ‘Tarantino-esque’ and I can see where they’re coming from.

This is, obviously, a very violent film – there’s a consistent ongoing level of violence through practically the entire last two thirds of it – and the language is not really that usually heard at the annual church picnic. When you add the criminal milieu, the generally foggy morality, and some interesting soundtrack-based gags, it does almost look like Ben Wheatley has decided to go commercial by making a Tarantino pastiche, albeit one with the kind of off-the-wall black comedy which has featured in his other films.

Does it really work, though? Well – the idea of a film mainly consisting of a roughly 60 minute gun battle, when I first heard of it, put me rather in mind of the Fast Show sketch The Long Big Punch up, in which Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse just take it in terms to thump each other at very great length. How can you possibly get a story out of something like that?

Well, the secret, of course, lies in the first act of the film, which features the characters standing up and talking to one another, rather than crouching behind cover, shouting, and trading gunfire: a lot of quite subtle set-up and establishment of characters and relationships goes on here, which provides the fuel for the rest of the movie. It helps that Wheatley has primarily cast performers who are character actors rather than juvenile leads – this always remains a film about individual characters interacting with each other, not just ciphers blazing away. It doesn’t hurt that the film is frequently very funny, too – Sharlto Copley produces another one of his comic grotesques in the form of his leisure-suited highlight-haired ‘former Rhodesian commando’ – ‘Africa’s no place for sissies,’ he declares at one point. But this is a great ensemble performance overall.

As I’ve been suggesting, it seems that Free Fire was intended to be Ben Wheatley’s ‘commercial’ movie after supposedly less-accessible works like Sightseers, High-Rise, and (especially) A Field in England, and yet it looks unlikely to match High-Rise‘s box office take despite hefty promotion and the appeal to Tarantino’s audience. Does this make it Wheatley’s first big failure as a director? (Not counting Into the Dalek, of course.)

Well… I still think this is an engaging, fun film, and the weird nature of the premise gives it a certain novelty value as a sort of formal experiment. You could argue the pace of the film flags a bit near the end, as Wheatley and his regular co-writer Amy Jump run out of complications to throw into the mix (‘I can’t remember which side I’m on!’ wails a minor character at one point), but it’s inevitably slightly static all the way through, and the nature of the piece really doesn’t lend itself to huge, kinetic action set-pieces. In the end this is a distinctly odd film, but by no means a bad one at all – inventively scripted, with moments of great black humour, and well-played throughout. I doubt it’s going to be Ben Wheatley’s ticket to the heart of the mainstream, though.

 

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One of the big casualties of the unstoppable Disney stellar conflict juggernaut appears to have been Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, a lavish epic aspiring to have all the traditional narrative virtues, yet a film which has clearly struggled to find an audience (and, more importantly, make its money back). One can speculate as to whether this is down solely to all the cinemas as far as the eye can see desperately putting on as many lucrative showings of The Force Wakes Up as they possibly can, thus depriving other films of opportunities to connect with an audience, or whether Howard’s latest is a genuinely weak movie.

heart-sea

Everyone seems to have given up on it already, it would appear: less than two weeks after its UK debut, it has already vanished from the cinemas of central Oxford. One wonders whether the big studios will take note of this and simply not bother releasing any big films in the fortnight after Disney’s future stellar conflict brand extensions come out (I note that Columbia are still planning to release Passengers, another SF movie, late next December – it’ll be interesting to see whether they stick to their guns or just change the date).

With the film already having said farewell to the interior of most moviehouses, I suppose it seems a bit pointless to write about it now (greetings, visitors from the future), but I think the film deserves better than to be simply forgotten about out-of-hand. Plus, I can’t bring myself to pass up the opportunity to trot out some tired witticisms on the topic of angry sperm. So here we go.

In the Heart of the Sea is, as I said, a fairly old-fashioned movie, with the meat of the narrative occurring within a frame story set many years later: young writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) turns up at the house of old sea dog Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), last living survivor of the sunken whaling ship Essex. Eventually Melville persuades Nickerson to tell the tale of the ship’s final, doomed voyage.

The young Nickerson (played by Marvel’s new Spider-Man, Tom Holland) is but a lad on off on his first ocean trip, so most of the story revolves around two men. One of them is Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), an experienced whaler from a humble background – tough, charismatic, a leader of men. (He also has a pregnant wife, which is of course movie code indicating he’s about to have many horrible experiences.) Much to his chagrin, Chase is passed over for the captaincy of the Essex, in favour of George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a man who owes his position solely to his family connections, with little real aptitude for command. Sparks inevitably fly.

Both men are thus determined to load up on whale oil and get back to Nantucket, where they are based, as quickly as possible – but the great beasts prove elusive, forcing the Essex deeper and deeper into the Pacific Ocean. Reports from the crippled ex-captain of a Spanish whaler lead them to offshore grounds where the whales have taken sanctuary from the hunters – but they ignore his warnings of a huge, ferocious white whale, given to attacking whaling ships, something they will live to regret…

So, as you can see, this is a big, stirring, briney tale, of men pitting themselves against nature at its most savage, very much in the tradition of macho nautical shenanigans like The Bounty and Master and Commander – but with Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe both being a shade long in the tooth for this sort of thing, the services of another Antipodean alpha-male have been retained, in the form of Chris Hemsworth.

Hemsworth is one of those actors who has an extremely impressive career box office take, but who’s yet to prove his ability to open a movie under his own name – does he have a career beyond just playing Thor, in other words? Well, he gives a very solid performance here – you can’t dispute Hemsworth’s presence or charisma, but I just wonder if he quite has the ability to suggest emotional depth to really make it as a star in his own right.

Then again, this movie is strong on the rollicking adventure front, but the characters are a little bit thin – you quickly get a handle on the fact that Pollard is a martinet, and Chase isn’t going to take any nonsense, and then not very much else happens. Cillian Murphy is also on board as the second mate, and while he is customarily good, he doesn’t get a huge amount to do.

Still, the movie remains solidly entertaining throughout the opening voyage and the set-piece whale attack which is, if you’ll permit me, at the heart of the film. The producers made the slightly odd decision to show this key sequence in isolation as an extended trailer for the film (I saw it before Bridge of Spies), which seems to have become a common tactic to advertise films about which a studio is getting nervous. Impressive though the scene is, I’m not sure seeing it out of context really does the film justice, and having already seen it, it inevitably loses some of its impact here.

However, once all the whaling and gnashing of teeth is over and done with, the film still has the best part of an hour left to run, and so it settles into a sort of stoical-metaphysical-existential mode which is slightly heavy going. The survivors of the Essex drift about in some open boats, occasionally stopping off at a desert island or engaging in a little light cannibalism to survive, and it’s all curiously unengaging. The slightly surprising decision to have the white whale occasionally show up to harass them really strains credulity as well: this happens very occasionally over a period of nearly three months (or so we are assured), and if nothing else the avenging sperm summons up the spectre of Jaws: The Revenge.

The film does its best to provide a strong climax, and Gleeson and Whishaw are strong in the frame story, but it’s hard to escape the impression that this is a film which starts strongly but then falls off a bit. It is a bit similar to other films in the all-at-sea genre, too, which can’t have helped it, and the fact it is so unreconstructedly blokey may have been a bit of an issue as well. (Charlotte Riley and Michelle Fairley have very subordinate roles as wives.) It’s not so old-fashioned that it doesn’t find time for a few moments of implied criticism of the whole enterprise of whaling, which almost feel all the more jarring for being the only concessions to a modern perspective.

This is by no means a bad film, but I doubt it was ever going to be a critical or popular smash, and releasing it when they did was almost certainly a gamble by Warner Brothers. Whatever else, it’s still a worthy, good-looking film with some impressive individual moments and sequences – it’s just not quite as epic or stirring or exciting as it really needs to be to completely succeed as a movie.

 

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It occurs to me that it is a little-commented-upon fact that Sigourney Weaver has carved out a rather good career for herself despite the fact she is, to some extent, typecast. By this I mean that I would be willing to bet a modest sum that, if I were to ask someone to name one of her movies, they would come out with something which featured somewhere along the SF/fantasy/horror axis – quite apart from the obvious, there’s Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest, and Avatar. A couple of recent high-impact cameos in Paul and The Cabin in the Woods only adds to this impression. Weaver doesn’t seem bothered by it, but it does feel like a while since she’s had a properly meaty leading role in a movie.

Well, she sort of gets one in Rodrigo Cortes’ Red Lights, a thriller with paranormal elements which is currently doing the rounds. On paper, this is a film with a considerable amount going for it – but in the brave new world of 2012, films are made digitally, not on paper. Certainly, this week I had the choice of taking a gamble on seeing a movie which has had mixed reviews, or seeing the reissue of Jaws (a film I’ve already seen umpteen times, including once on the big screen for its twentieth anniversary back in 1995 – and, yes, that does make me feel terribly old). Now I ask myself – was it worth passing on Spielberg’s undoubted classic in favour of something new and possibly surprising? I can only answer ‘Mmmm, well…’

It’s not really fair to compare Red Lights to Jaws, anyway, as the films are really quite different. (The title Red Lights, should you be a-wonderin’, is only alluded to in passing in the film itself – but wondering about the title is only one of the many points for rumination you will be left with if you actually see it.) Sigourney Weaver plays Margaret Matheson, a psychologist who specialises in debunking paranormal phenomena of various kinds. In this she is assisted by her physicist sidekick Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), and – a newcomer to the team – research assistant Sally (Elizabeth Olsen, who’s showing signs of getting lodged in the horror-thriller ghetto herself). Decades of research have uncovered not one iota of evidence for the existence of supernatural forces.

However, the media is suddenly filled with news of the re-emergence of Simon Silver (Robert de Niro), a celebrity psychic from years gone by. (You can have fun spotting the references to the supposed real-life psychics that Silver appears to be based on – most obviously, Uri Geller, but also, for example, Ted Serios.) Tom is keen to investigate Silver, but Margaret is more cautious, knowing what a slippery and manipulative customer the man can be. Given his wealth and popularity with the public, it could be dangerous to expose him as a charlatan. The fact that it could be even more dangerous to antagonise him, should he truly have paranormal abilities, is left unspoken…

I have to say that my overriding reaction throughout the early sections of Red Lights consisted of that mildly inexplicable phenomenon, deja vu. I do seem to have watched a few of these paranormal thrillers over the years, and the fact they exist close to a very porous border with full-on horror movies doesn’t help much. I probably shouldn’t have been sitting there going ‘This bit’s like The Awakening… this bit’s like Mothman Prophecies… this part is a bit Sixth Sense…’ but unfortunately I was. Now, this is not to say that Red Lights is a bad movie because it feels derivative, but I do think it should perhaps have worked a bit harder to do something new and original with its premise. You know that this kind of film is going to open with a spooky event which the characters cheerily debunk, following which we will get to know them better and become party to the personal issues and tragedies which have led them to become involved in this particular area (no-one ever becomes a psychic researcher in movies just because they’re intellectually stimulated by psychic research, they’ve all had a sister abducted by aliens, or lost a loved one to a war and become obsessed with proving consciousness persists after death, or [spoilers deleted]). Less driven characters will openly question the value of their fixation, pointing out the very real sense of comfort people draw from visiting a medium or astrologer. Events will demand the protagonists reassess their materialistic world view. (As I said when reviewing The Awakening, the thing about ghost stories is that they do tend to have ghosts in them.) And so on, and so on.

Red Lights sticks to this pattern quite faithfully, but – despite not having anything new to add – manages to do so with intelligence and gravitas. It doesn’t look or sound sensationalistic and it’s aided considerably by the performances of Weaver and Murphy, both of whom are reliably watchable and continue to be so here. Elizabeth Olsen, alas, doesn’t really get the material she deserves. On the other hand, de Niro does not take an axe to his own reputation with the vigour he’s shown in other recent movies, but nevertheless there is little here to mark him out as an especially noteworthy performer. This whole opening section is psychologically thoughtful and contains a lot of interesting nuts-and-bolts detail about psychic research, which I found rather absorbing to watch despite the tone of the thing being so familiar.

Then, about halfway through, an Unfortunate Event occurs and the film goes into a bit of a tizzy. It becomes much more of a supernatural thriller as the protagonists attempt to figure out if Silver really does have special gifts, and if he’s using them in an inappropriately malevolent fashion. It all gets a bit overwrought, if you ask me, with quite a heavy reliance on ‘jump’ scares and explicit weirdness. The plot unravels into a series of strange events and the characters’ reactions to them, and it becomes much more Murphy’s movie. While he’s as good as ever, I did miss Weaver and Olsen.

And, subliminally, one gets an irresistible sense of a Twist Ending heading one’s way. (It may be that even revealing that Red Lights has a Twist Ending counts as a spoiler, but given that comparisons between it and The Sixth Sense are plastered all over the publicity, I don’t think I can really be held responsible.) Well, as twists go, the one in Red Lights is about a B- : it doesn’t feel like something completely new and unexpected that’s been shoehorned in just to pep up the finale, having been carefully seeded throughout the movie, but on the other hand neither did I go ‘What a brilliant idea! How stupid I was not to have figured it out!’, which is the mark of something special. To be honest I was more relieved than anything else when the twist was revealed, because up to that point the film was showing severe signs of not knowing how to finish and collapsing into an incoherent mess. The twist just about holds the main plot together, but doesn’t help with lots of other irksome little questions and story points the film never really gets back to.

A strong cast, mostly working well, and a sober and thoughtful atmosphere are the main things that Red Lights has to commend it. It doesn’t really do anything new, and certainly doesn’t appear to have anything interesting or really original to say on the subject of why people believe or disbelieve in paranormal phenomena. The story doesn’t completely hang together – lots of major and minor events basically go unexplained as the closing credits roll – but it passes the time reasonably enough. A fairly average movie, but that’s the fault of the script rather than the cast.

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I have been following, with a mixture of interest and bemusement, the saga of the bit-part actors who are suing the venerable and generally trustworthy IMDB on the grounds that it has released their real ages into the public domain. This, say the thesps in question, is going to seriously impact upon their ability to get work, as Hollywood and the rest of the industry is only interested in people who are perceived as being young and fresh, and no-one is ever offered a job playing a character younger than they really are.

What causes a mildly raised eyebrow on my part is that the actors don’t seem to have a problem with the industry itself (casting directors, producers, and the like) having this attitude – or if they do, they seem to have accepted that it’s inevitable and beyond the power of anyone to change. But for the IMDB to facilitate it, even inadvertantly? It’s litigation time! I am reminded of the morally-minded group who, following a shooting spree which they believed was provoked by a violent movie, left the local gun store in perfect peace and proceeded to picket their video rental outlet.

Well, it’s not a fair nor especially logical world and this fact is the subject of Andrew Niccol’s new movie In Time, which has its own take on the intersection between youth and money and suchlike. This is a SF movie set in an indeterminate future in which human biology has been rewritten so everyone stops aging at the age of 25. To reiterate: everyone is physically 25 in perpetuity. The drawback is that society now uses lifespan as a currency – wages are paid in the form of hours, days and months, your current balance is recorded in a glowy green clock on your arm, and should your time tick down to zero you croak, usually dramatically.

Niccol’s movie does a good job of establishing this slightly demanding premise and introduces us to factory-working everyman Will (Justin Timberlake, actual age 30) and his mum (Olivia Wilde, actual age 27). Will’s general resentment of the system finds an outlet when he rescues a world-weary member of the super-rich (Matthew Bomer, 34) from a local gangster (Alex Pettyfer, 21 – eh?). Will finds himself with a lot of time on his hands as a result, but also – due to an unexpected tragedy – a desire to make the rich pay.

So off he trots to the preserves of the super-wealthy where he meets tycoon Weis (Vincent Kartheiser, 32) and his spoilt daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried, 25 – fair enough in this case). However he is also being pursued by incorruptible lawman Leon (Cillian Murphy, 35), who believes Will’s stolen all the time he now has to play with. But Will’s exposure to both extremes of the system has opened his eyes to its injustice and he is now a man on a mission…

Slightly mind-bogglingly, a lot of commentators are describing In Time as cerebral, thought-provoking SF very much in the same vein as Inception. Come on… once you get your head around the basic premise, this movie isn’t much more cerebral than Logan’s Run, which it superficially resembles in many ways. It’s a very Seventies-style piece of SF: not an awful movie, but nothing very special either.

It looks fine – the film-makers have created an austere, abstract world of some style, but this seems to have been inspired by the characters, who are all pretty much ciphers, designed to facilitate the plot. Timbo does a workmanlike job as the lead but the romance between him and Seyfried fails to stir and as a result most of the movie feels like a rather mechanical succession of plot developments and set pieces instead of an engaging narrative. (The climax is very contrived, too.)

But the problems run deeper than this, to the very heart of the film’s premise. Normally I tend to be hard on movies where the future is utterly identical to the here and now barring the single innovation on which the plot is predicated, but in the case of In Time this would be missing the point, which is that the similarity between the movie’s world and the real world is intentional. (The movie doesn’t bother trying to explain the precise details of how its world came into being, for what I suspect is the same reason.)

Well, look. If my engagement with In Time as a film of ideas and with a statement to make had taken the form of a conversation, it would have gone something like this:

In Time: ‘So here is the world of the story. Multitudes carry on desperate existences of privation and hardship so that a few can live in luxury.’

Awix: ‘Gotcha.’

IT: ‘The majority are crushed by the poverty of the time they have, while a tiny minority are dehumanised by the excess which surrounds them.’

A: ‘Still with you.’

IT: ‘And it doesn’t have to be this way! The whole system is an artificial construct supported by the vested interests of the few and the power structures they manipulate!’

A: ‘Right…’

IT: ‘And… the real horror at the centre of this story is… (pauses for effect) That the world in which we live is exactly the same!’

IT sits back, beaming and nodding sagely.

A: ‘…sorry, is that all you’ve got?’

IT: ‘What?’

A: ‘Is that supposed to be profound, or a surprise, or something? I figured out this was a fairly unsubtle allegory for modern society in the first ten… well, actually the first time I saw the trailer for the movie. It’s not exactly deep.’

IT: ‘Umm… well… I bet a few people will look slightly differently at the world around them now. You never know, it may open a few eyes to the facts of existence.’

A: ‘Well, maybe, but what kind of person wanders around in the world and achieves an age where they can go to the cinema without realising the nature of our modern economic model?’

IT: ‘People who go to see a movie just because Justin Timberlake’s in it?’

A: ‘Hmm, shrewd casting.’

…but seriously, folks. I’m as contemptuous of western capitalism as anyone else with eyes and a brain and a soul, and if you’re pitching me the notion that it surely can’t be beyond the collective wit of humanity to come up with a fairer and more humane way of organising our lives, then I’m buying, but In Time has nothing to offer on this front beyond some very superficial observations and an overwhelming belief in its own profundity. The artificial nature of the allegory it presents also prevents it from having to come up with a coherent alternative system for Timbo and Seyfried to put in place come the end, but in the real world things are different.

All credit to Niccol for getting such a subversively-themed movie made at all, but the very inanity and shallowness of its ideas really mean that in the end it’s nothing but a bundle of good intentions with no real insight or anything meaningful to say. It’s a proficiently made movie, but nobody involved really gets the opportunity to shine. If you think that putting up a pup tent outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral is the key to bringing down the world system and bringing about a new utopia, then I expect you will think In Time is a classic of challenging and intelligent SF cinema. For the rest of us, it’s a passable piece of entertainment with distinct delusions of grandeur.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 21st 2006: 

One of the reasons I came to Japan in the first place was to try and get a different perspective on the world, to put England and my life there in a different context. But for some reason, every time this seems to be happening, I am inordinately surprised. It is very peculiar.

It happened recently while watching Ken Loach’s award winning The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Japanese title: God knows what, but thanks to my much-improved mime skills I was able to get a ticket anyway). This film has enjoyed a strikingly generous run in one of the Chjba cinemas. I suspect it was rather less accessible in England for all sorts of reasons. (Though it is the only cinema I’ve ever been in where access to the theatres is via a lift.)

Cillian Murphy gives a tremendous performance as Damien, a young doctor in 1920s Ireland. The film depicts the Irish people as enduring relentless, savage brutality from the occupying British troop and Damien eventually decides to abandon his medical career and join the armed struggle as a member of the IRA. (You can probably begin to see why this film has had a tough time getting shown in the UK.) Although an initially reluctant soldier (and his decision to join up does seem a little arbitrary) he soon becomes a dedicated fighter for the cause. As the struggle continues, he finds himself forced into acts he would once have considered unthinkable.

While I have strong reservations about certain aspects of this film, it is an outstanding piece of work – intelligent, well acted and, in places, profoundly moving. On the surface it is straightforwardly pro-IRA and anti-British, but the script is subtle enough to suggest that Damien is as much brutalised by the violence he perpetrates as by that which he endures from the British. It’s a personal tragedy that resonates strongly in this context.

As this is a Ken Loach film, it’s not a total surprise that he portrays the most sympathetic IRA members as foot soldiers in the socialist cause. Some of the most compelling sequences in the movie depict the Republican movement fracturing as realists who just want the British out and idealists who want the country completely remade squabble angrily – and it’s of course the idealists who are shown to be the most dangerous opponents.
‘I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it,’ Damien says wearily, just prior to committing the film’s key act of violence, and such is the power of his performance that he retains your sympathy throughout.

This is obviously a politically-aware and engaged movie, which is of course another way of saying that it’s completely one-sided and has a hell of an axe to grind. Its beef is of course with the British, who are demonised almost beyond credibility. The Black and Tans are depicted almost exclusively as vicious psychopaths. Lip service is paid to the idea that they are also the victims of violence, and there’s a startling confrontation between Damien and an English officer making this point, but mostly they’re just caricatures. Tellingly, every time the IRA do something that risks losing audience sympathy (and this obviously happens a lot!), very shortly afterwards the British are shown doing something even more unspeakable. (There’s a torture scene that makes the knacker-beating sequence in Casino Royale look like something from a Disney film.)

I’m English, and my home town was bombed by the IRA when I was a teenager, but I’m ashamed to say that my knowledge of Anglo-Irish history is sadly lacking. But I know enough to recognise a polemic when I see it, and almost certainly more than the average Japanese person. At the end of the picture, on the way down in the lift I could see at least one audience member had been reduced almost to tears, by a film which I would have to describe as biased and misleading. Good film-making has power, and I suspect this person’s view of this subject has been permanently coloured by the movie. Is this movie therefore an example of artistic irresponsibility? I’m really not sure, but I suspect it’s something that would have troubled me far less had I seen the film back in England.

As it is, Ken Loach has made a fine film, but one that struggles with a key issue in modern world affairs. Just because a military occupation is arguably unjust or immoral, it doesn’t necessarily mean the people violently resisting it are not terrorists. Or, to put it more succinctly, it’s possible to have a conflict where both sides are in the wrong. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 19th June 2005: 

Hello again, everyone and welcome to another edition of the film review column that’s changing hats so often this week its in danger of getting friction burns to its scalp [when this was published I had just become editor of the zine in which the column appeared- A] . Though having said that, the issue of dual identities seems a weirdly apposite one in the light of this week’s movie being Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, latest installment in a franchise long famed for its hype, aesthetic rigour, and faintly silly episode titles.

This being a compehensive root-and-branch reboot (perhaps that should be ‘rebat’) of the series, it kicks off with the far-eastern adventures of troubled Gotham City billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as he struggles to come to terms with the murder of his parents many years earlier. Seeking to strike back at the forces of fear and corruption dragging Gotham down into a urban squalour and venality, he has managed to get himself slung into the Chinese chokey where he spends his days duffing up the other convicts seven at a time (rather distractingly, one of his cellmates is played by Mr Lee off the Ministry of Mayhem). However, he is approached by Ducard (Liam Neeson doing his mentor schtick again), an agent of the enigmatic master assassin Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), who offers to train him to become a living weapon for justice, more than a man, a symbol to strike terror into the hearts of cowardly and superstitious criminals. But what is Ra’s al Ghul’s real agenda?

Back in Gotham, things go from bad to worse – gang boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) has aligned himself with loopy psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy). In exchange for Crane allowing Falcone’s men to cop insanity pleas pretty much on demand, Falcone is supplying the doctor with drugs and manpower to pursue a mysterious and literally frightful scheme of his own. This alliance is rapidly threatened as the Gotham underworld comes under ferocious attack by a mysterious lone vigilante – a lone crusader calling himself Batman…

Well, following the near-total disaster of 1997’s Batman and Robin (a film which, let us not forget, virtually ended the A-list careers of Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone, and nearly did for George Clooney too), it’s taken Warner Brothers and DC a while to get their act together. I’m glad to say that it has been worth the wait, as this is a superior blockbuster. Everything from the previous films has been dumped (apart from the choice of Ra’s and the Scarecrow as the villains, which was apparently agreed for the proposed ‘Batman 5’ even before the last movie came out) and the result is a film that is neither torpedoed by hideous neon camp not smothered by its own art direction.

It also manages the neat trick of fitting in a huge amount of Bat-mythology without making this too obvious (Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One donates a huge amount, for example). I suspect this is mostly down to David Goyer’s hand in the script. Goyer is Hollywood’s first choice of screenwriter when it comes to superhero movies, though he’s more often seen working for Marvel these days. Anyway, Michael Caine plays Alfred Pennyworth, Gary Oldman plays Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman plays Lucius Fox, and even a fairly obscure villain like Zsasz gets a cough and a spit cameo. Present as new characters, and making rather less impression, are Katie Holmes as Bruce Wayne’s love interest (ever a thankless task, unless your name is Selina Kyle), and Rutger Hauer as a corporate sleazebag. The performances are, as you’d expect, uniformly strong and give the film a good bit of gravitas.

When it comes down to it, though, this is still a blockbuster at heart. It doesn’t take that many risks, nor veer too far from the mainstream. Nolan’s direction is slick and steady rather than spectacular, and the action sequences are rather variable – some of the fight scenes are a bit murky, but there’s a stupendous car chase involving the new Batmobile, basically a stealth bomber on wheels. The film is overlong at nearly two and a half hours, and the narrative is a touch bitty in the midsection. (There is a pretty good twist near the end though.) But it’s very enjoyable, putting some smart new twists on the famous legend, and the promise is there of great things to come in the sequels Nolan and Goyer are plainly already thinking of. A very good bet for an entertaining night out; Reed and co are going to have to be really fantastic to beat this.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 7th November 2002:

‘John Wyndham did not invent the UK novel of secretly-longed-for disaster… but he effectively domesticated some of its defining patterns: the city (usually London) depopulated by the catastrophe; the exodus, with its scenes of panic and bravery; and the ensuing focus on a small but growing nucleus of survivors who reach some kind of sanctuary in the country and prepare to re-establish man’s shaken dominion.’ – John Clute, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction

There are some things that we here in Britain like to think we do better than anyone else. Costume dramas. Glam rock. Jingoistic psychosis (especially when it comes to our chances in sporting events). And the End of the World. The catastrophe novel was one of the mainstays of British literary SF throughout the 20th century, ranging from J.G. Ballard’s The Drought (apocalypse by drought), to John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (apocalypse by famine), and going right back to Richard Jefferies’ 1885 novel After London. Of course, in recent years American writers and filmmakers such as Stephen King and George Romero have done much interesting work in this genre, but it’s still enormously pleasing to see British storytellers return to the idea – as they do in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.

Boyle’s film, written by Alex Garland (author of The Beach – so he’s clearly a forgiving man), superficially resembles a transatlantic take on the subject, not least in that the disaster that destroys civilisation is a form of plague rather than a natural catastrophe. But it seemed to me that the major influence on this film was the most famous of the all the British post-apocalypse novels, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.

The film starts with a brief pre-credits sequence in which animal rights activists break into a lab with the intention of releasing chimpanzees that are being used as test subjects. Little do they realise the apes are infected with ‘rage’, a viral agent spread by blood and saliva, inducing a berserk, feral mania in those infected…

28 days later (hence the title) bike courier Jim (newcomer Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a London hospital – he was involved in a traffic accident some weeks earlier. The place seems deserted… and not just the hospital, the whole city. Early signs that some terrible disaster has occurred are confirmed when he is set upon by deranged, infected strangers… But he’s rescued by fellow survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who fill him in about the rising tide of violence that swept away civilisation. Eventually they meet up with former taxi-driver Frank (Brendon Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns), who have heard about a possible sanctuary, up north. But it turns out that the infected don’t hold the monopoly on irrational violence…

28 Days Later draws upon a number of sources: the infected hordes are a slightly more athletic take on George Romero’s rabid zombies (from Dawn of the Dead, etc), while another less explicit influence seems to have been The Omega Man (for one thing, to begin with Harris’ character dresses and acts like Rosalind Cash from that movie). But Wyndham (or at least, the catastrophe story as defined by Wyndham) seems to have supplied most of the inspiration (and certainly the opening). The coming together of survivors, the cheerful looting of shops, the abandonment of the city for a rural refuge, and the country house under siege: they’re all here, along with the vital conflict between pre-apocalypse morality and the needs of post-apocalypse survival.

I’ve always thought Danny Boyle to be a rather overrated and pretentious director but here he does a very good job indeed. His stylistic flourishes don’t get in the way of the story, and he handles the action sequences with aplomb. There are some startlingly big stunts in this movie, which basically blow Boyle’s cover: this film isn’t made on grainy digital video because it has a particularly low budget, but simply because Boyle likes the medium. It works to his advantage, though, giving some sequences an oddly dream- or nightmare-like quality, particularly those in the impressively-staged empty London.

Most of the performances are fine, too: Murphy is an engaging screen presence, as is Harris. Brendan Gleeson is particularly affecting as the concerned father. There are only a couple of off-key turns: Christopher Eccleston, normally so good, struggles to convince as an army officer determined to rebuild civilisation at any cost. And in the vital precredits sequence, the role of the scientist who explains the dangers of the ‘rage’ virus is played by David Schneider, a man best known for playing Alan Partridge’s stooge, with all the credibility problems that raises.

And, if we’re honest, telling this kind of story on film always has its problems, mainly in coming up with a ending that’s satisfying without seeming glib. Certainly 28 Days Later weakens near the end as it first turns into a more orthodox action-thriller, before abandoning its grim but coherent subtext (human beings are innately violent and self-destructive creatures) for an unlikely, hopeful conclusion. But these are minor flaws in an engaging and well-made film. It may not capture the existential dread and crushing sense of loss of the best of its literary antecedents, but this is still the best screen treatment of this genre in over twenty years. Recommended.

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