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Posts Tagged ‘Clive Owen’

Further extracts from The Lacklustre Film Blogger’s Guide to Behaving Badly at the Cinema:

June 10th, in the Earth Year 1997 – your correspondent and a bloke called Pete are leaving Huddersfield’s premier fleapit cinema, having just watched Luc Besson’s new sci-fi spectacular, The Fifth Element.

‘I really don’t know what to make of that,’ I said. ‘That was either one of the greatest, most imaginative films I’ve ever seen, or a massive load of poo.’

Pete considered this for about a quarter of a second. ‘Poo,’ he said.

I gave his answer equally careful appraisal. ‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ I said.

Earlier Today – and, despite my experience a couple of decades ago, I make it to the front of the queue for Luc Besson’s new sci-fi spectacular.

‘Hello. One for Valerian and the Unnecessarily Long Title, please.’

I have to hand it to the serving minions at the city centre multiplex, they’re getting quite used to this sort of thing, and I got my ticket with barely a raised eyebrow. I note that even the exhibitors agree with me on the name thing, for on the ticket it’s just called Valerian.

The full title is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and it is based on the long-running French SF comic strip Valerian and Laureline. As you might therefore expect, this is a distinctly pulp-SF influenced movie, all served up with the restraint, self-awareness, and iron narrative control that are the hallmarks of a Luc Besson movie (NB: irony is present).

The movie is set in the kind of universe where you expect everyone to have ‘Space’ in front of their job titles just to make it absolutely clear what’s going on. After some prefatory goings-on, we meet Space Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Space Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who are space government security agents. They are initially engaged in retrieving an extremely endangered space animal from the clutches of space gangsters in a very peculiar market, surrounded by space tourists, and things become a little awkward when Valerian gets his arm stuck in another dimension.

All this resolved, the duo head off to Alpha Station, which is basically the International Space Station, shoved off into deep space when it became too big and unwieldy (look, just go with it). Now it is the titular hub of galactic diplomacy and commerce, but a mysterious force is threatening to destroy it. Space Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), Valerian and Laureline’s space boss, has summoned them (and the space animal) as he thinks it may help in resolving the crisis. But before they can get anywhere, the meeting of top space brass comes under attack from mysterious aliens…

I feel I should go on record and reiterate that I am genuinely a fan of Luc Besson and his uniquely uninhibited style of film-making – whatever else you can say about the Besson canon, the movies themselves are rarely dull. That said, my experiences watching The Fifth Element, together with the fact that Valerian (I’m not typing that whole title every time) has already been declared a box ofice bomb in the States, did lead me to lower my expectations in this particular case. Was this justified? Well…

Actually, for the first few minutes I had real hopes that the States had got it wrong, for the opening sequence of Valerian is very nearly magical: Bowie plays on the soundtrack, and Besson moves from the manned space missions of the 1970s into a lavishly imagined future depicting the human race spreading out into the galaxy and befriending alien races. It’s rare to come across something so unashamedly optimistic in modern SF, and it’s quite charming.

However, from here we go to the alien CGI planet of Mul, where androgynous aliens do peculiar alien things while conversing in an alien language. All of this eventually turns out to be relevant to the plot, but while you’re watching it, it just seems like a lot of rather smug CGI aliens prancing about endlessly, and all that goodwill rapidly drains away.

The introduction of our two heroes doesn’t help much, and here I feel we must digress momentarily to issues of casting: Valerian appears to have been written as a loveable, wisecracking rogue, someone who on the face of things is a slightly dubious character, but who’s really a reliable and principled hero when the chips are down. The part is really crying out for someone like Guy Pearce – perhaps I’m thinking of him because his performance from the 2012 Besson movie Lockout would have been note-perfect here – or another actor who can do that effortless, tough guy charisma. Instead, they have cast Dane DeHaan, a capable actor but one whose most distinctive quality is that he always gives the impression he’s in dire need of a nice hot meal and a long lie down.

On the other hand, one of the notable things about Valerian is that it reveals Cara Delevingne to be a rather engaging screen presence – she shows every sign of being able to act a bit, unlike many other MTAs, and (obviously) the camera seems very fond of her, especially when she’s working with the right hair and costume people. Just goes to show you shouldn’t judge anyone on the strength of their contribution to Suicide Squad, I guess, and given she’s at least as integral to the action as DeHaan’s character, I wonder why the whole movie isn’t called Valerian and Laureline? Hey ho.

That said, DeHaan and Delevingne are not noticeably gifted with chemistry when they’re sharing the screen, which is a problem as many of their scenes revolve around Valerian’s somewhat febrile eagerness to take their relationship to the next level, and her problematic reluctance (I guess rank has lost some of its privileges in the future). Lack of chemistry, a shortage of snap in the supposedly snappy dialogue, and the fact that the two experienced space security agents seem to be characterised as snarky Millennials meant that it took me a long time to warm up to the duo.

In the end, what successes the film has are largely down to its visual imagination – this is a vast, whimsical galaxy that isn’t obviously derived from any single source, although there are obviously touches of the stellar conflict franchise, Flash Gordon, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sprinkled across it. It all looks very lavish and vibrant, even in 2D, but if you have an issue with endless CGI characters and backgrounds this is not the movie for you. There is lots of creative imagery and some inventively silly high-tech weaponry on display.

How much you enjoy Valerian will probably boil down to your ability to just lie back and enjoy the look and feel of the thing, while ignoring the many and serious issues with the plot and scripting. I’ve been assimilating every book on story structure I can lay my grubby little protuberances on recently, so perhaps I’m over-sensitive to this kind of thing, but given Luc Besson is credited with writing nearly fifty movies, Valerian is strikingly shoddy and haphazard in the script department. The plot is about trying to stop the destruction of an imaginary place we don’t know much about by an abstract force, the hero seems more concerned with his love life than any weightier concerns, and there are vast rambling detours away from the main plot – a major, lengthy sequence featuring Ethan Hawke as a space pimp and Rihanna as a shape-shifting space pole dancer could be totally excised without materially affecting the actual story of the film.

People have a go at the stellar conflict prequel movies for focusing on CGI and spectacle over actually having a coherent narrative, but only at their very worst are they quite as self-indulgent and lacking in focus as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Now, I like this kind of sci-fi (I’m on record as preferring the prequel trilogy to the recent Disney-Abrams stellar conflict offering), but even so I find it quite hard to say anything especially positive about Valerian beyond vaguely praising its incidental imagination, and of course Cara Delevingne’s hair. I’m not sure any audience will be quite captivated by the film’s impressive visuals sufficiently to overlook its serious shortcomings in the storytelling department.

 

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Yes, wait no longer – it’s the news you’ve been holding your breath for: have they or have they not improved the rake in the smaller screen at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Jericho? Well – er, no. But I have managed to find the cupholders, they’re now fixed to the back of the row in front in what, it must be said, is not a terrifically convenient position. Ah, life.

A few years ago I saw the well-received documentary Man on Wire and very much enjoyed it, and in the last few days I have been catching up with what the folk responsible have been doing. The producer’s latest offering is The Imposter, currently doing storming business in the UK (by documentary standards, anyway), while director James Marsh also has a new film out: he has returned to the world of narrative with the drama Shadow Dancer, adapted from the novel of the same name by its writer, Prince William’s Mate.

Prince William’s Mate was for some years a journalist in Northern Ireland and the film returns to the closing years of the armed conflict there to find its setting. Andrea Riseborough plays Colette McVeigh, an IRA member (though her dedication to the cause is not absolute). Sent to London to plant a bomb on the underground, she is taken by British security forces and brought to the presence of down-at-heel Five officer Mac, who’s played by the always-watchable Clive Owen. This is quite a small movie and Owen is still quite a big star, and so he qualifies to have his name at the end of the castlist, preceded by ‘and’. A similar thing happens with Gillian Anderson, who plays his boss, except she gets ‘with’.

Owen’s character has been planning this for some time and has the information and leverage he needs to persuade Colette to turn informer on her brothers and their associates, who are also all active in the IRA – this means running a deadly risk, for the Republicans are ruthless with traitors to the cause.

And, of course, if the British do anything with the information McVeigh provides, there’s always the chance she will be identified as the source – they know this, and so Mac is mystified when his superiors appear to be unforgiveably reckless with her safety. Is there a deeper game in progress? And all the time, Colette must do her best to nullify the suspicions of the IRA’s internal security…

Well, I suppose Shadow Dancer is open to the criticism that its story is a period piece – it’s startling to realise that 1993 is nearly two decades ago – and I’m not sure how universally applicable most of its themes and emotions are. This is a film rooted in a very particular time and place, after all. But it has a certain technical polish and achievement which is worthwhile in and of itself.

Chief amongst the film’s qualities is the strength of its performances – Owen is always good, Domhnall Gleeson is typically impressive in a small roll, David Wilmot plays another scary psycho and Aidan Gillen doesn’t quite get enough to do (he’s still in this more than The Dark Knight Rises, though). Ahead of all these, however, must come Andrea Riseborough, who’s rapidly acquiring a reputation to conjure with. I’ve seen Riseborough in a few films now but I still don’t have very much idea what she looks like or how she behaves or speaks: she has an extraordinary chameleonic quality and usually manages to vanish utterly into her characters. Even in a very bad film she is effortlessly impressive, in a very competent one like this she absolutely shines.

The film manages some moments of genuine tension and suspense, and is filled with nasty, telling details – cars endlessly having their undersides checked for bombs, plastic being rolled out to cover the floor prior to interrogations – but the focus on performances is significant. You could probably argue that any story coming out of Ulster in the seventies, eighties or early nineties is ultimately a horror story, but beyond this, Shadow Dancer is much more of a character-based drama than a true thriller. The tone is consistently low-key and naturalistic, and the film carefully portions out its moments of action: these are few and far between. The pace is also not what one would expect from what’s being advertised as a spy movie.

But, having said that, the film is mostly successful: I found the dubious shenanigans going on within MI5 rather familiar, in atmosphere if not specifics, and certainly less engrossing than the depiction of life within the Republican community. This has a rather oppressively claustrophobic quality, but is nonetheless convincing all the same. Despite this, the film never really comes to life as an actual thriller, but its need to obey thriller conventions means that the drama feels like it’s being led around by the nose towards the end. I found the actual conclusion vaguely dissatisfying, in that the characters who genuinely appear to suffer in the denouement are the ones who least deserve to, but then again this is hardly unrealistic, especially in this situation. A more concerted attempt to genuinely give the audience some excitement might have resulted in a much more memorable movie – but as it stands, Shadow Dancer‘s insistence on being first and foremost a naturalistic character drama does not necessarily work to its best advantage.

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As regular readers will hopefully have noticed, I try to stay positive, but every now and then circumstances seem to be conspiring to put me into a bit of a grump. For example, I’m starting to get a bit exasperated with the (what seem to me to be) snobbish film-booking policies of the major cinema chains in central Oxford: whoever’s in charge here seems to have something against no-frills low-brow action movies. In the last year, Machete never made it into the city, nor did the remake of The Mechanic, and it looks like Killer Elite isn’t going to put in an appearance there, either.

However, thanks to the good nature and willingness to try something new of my landlady, this turned out not to be a problem and off we trundled to the out-of-town leisure complex to see the aforementioned Killer Elite, directed by Gary McKendry and starring – but of course! – one of my favourite performers, Jason Statham. To be perfectly it honest it feels like a long time since Statham turned up in a genuinely good movie, but, as I said, I try to stay positive…

In the early Eighties, Danny Bryce (Statham) and his old friend Hunter (Robert de Niro, sleepwalking) have a good thing going as soldiers of fortune (‘assassins’ might be a less charitable description) in troublespots around the world. But Bryce’s attempts to put all the killing behind him hit a snag when Hunter is taken hostage by an exiled Omani sheikh, who has a simple request to make.

During the Dhofar rebellion, three of the sheikh’s sons were killed by members of the British SAS. Now dying himself, the sheikh is determined to avenge their deaths – or he’s determined that Bryce is going to avenge them, which is much the same thing. For the sake of his friend, Bryce takes the assignment. However, the SAS look after their own, and his research into the targets attracts the attention of a cabal of former members of the unit. Not taking kindly to having former comrades assassinated, they assign slightly-unhinged veteran Spike Logan (Clive Owen) to stop him…

Well, I didn’t turn up to this one with very high expectations, which may be why it turned out to be such a pleasant surprise: for me this was a genuinely really good action movie (after a somewhat dodgy opening section, admittedly). It does feel like a bit of a long haul towards the end – there are just a few twists and turns too many – but it makes up for this by having more than the usual excuse for a plot and a genuine sense of verisimilitude about it.

McKendry employs his crash-bang-wallop sequences more sparingly than you might expect, but there’s definite tension as the assassins and the SAS counter-strike group cagily circle each other, and the action that there is is gritty and mostly credible. Statham gets a moment of glorious, characteristic nonsense when he beats up two men and jumps out of a window, all the while tied to a chair, but better still is a crunchily effective fight between him and Owen. This manages to be credible, yet cinematic: both actors are easily convincing and – crucially – the camera isn’t jumping around all over the place so you can actually tell what’s happening. The rest of the action is lower-key but just as effectively staged.

Statham’s action man credentials are surely well-established by now, but the extent of his acting ability is still subject to some debate. I think he does a very good job here: Bryce is a lot more conflicted than most of the characters Statham’s known for and that’s all there in his performance. The film is helped hugely by having two performers like Statham and Owen facing off at its heart – Owen is just as good in a slightly trickier part. I’m not sure what it says when both of these actors comfortably outperform Robert de Niro on virtually every level – except that de Niro’s decline as a great screen actor is surely no longer a matter for debate.

Very pleasingly, McKendry has taken a film that’s set in the early Eighties and made it look as though it was made at that time – the colours look washed-out, the picture is almost grainy, and even the graphic design looks decades out of date. (I hope this was a deliberate choice or I’ve just delivered a massive insult.) It all adds to a story which operates almost entirely in shades of grey and in the shadows themselves – for all that he’s motivated by friendship and doing so reluctantly, Bryce is still planning the murders of three men – and his associates are thugs and psychos, mercenaries in the purest sense of the word. On the other hand, while Logan is in theory protecting his old comrades, he’s clearly more than a little unhinged and totally unable to walk away from the military life. This film is not a serious psychological drama by any means, and these aren’t much more than grace notes – but it’s still massively more believeable and involving than the characterisations in, to choose a recent example, Colombiana.

Killer Elite is based on a book by the famous explorer and adventurer Ranulph Fiennes (which in turn was supposedly based on fact). Fiennes himself was in the SAS for a while before being kicked out for trying to blow up the set of Doctor Dolittle (not the Eddie Murphy version – no jury would have convicted, obviously), which explains the connection. Anyway, the only serious brick I must throw at this film is that Ranulph Fiennes himself appears in it as a character. This just seems bizarre and slightly surreal, given how famous he is for other things these days. ‘Get me everything yer’ve got on Ranulph Fiennes!’ snarls Jason Statham to his researcher at one point, and later on Statham and the Fiennes character actually have a fight. Writing Fiennes into the film is unnecessary and it’s arguably a serious misjudgement to do so, threatening to turn the whole thing into an offbeat, bathetic comedy. It just about survives with its credibility intact, though.

Killer Elite‘s chances of success seem to have been hampered by the decision to release it on the same day as a couple of other films which are gunning for the same blokey audience, but which seem to be garnering rather better notices for their style or performances or whatever. Killer Elite may not be the best film of the week, but I would still hate to see it fail simply through being overlooked: in terms of performance, atmosphere, credible plotting, and even in some ways the quality of the action, this is probably one of the best movies Jason Statham has ever made.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 30th November 2006:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. When I came out to Japan, I was assured that the time difference was only eight or nine hours — and this is mostly true. However, cinematically speaking it’s a different matter. Compared to the United Kingdom, Japan is usually a little bit behind — although this can stretch to anything up to a year. On the other hand, sometimes we’re ahead.

Reaching the Pacific several months after its UK release is Michael Caton-Jones’ Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction (Japanese title: Smile of Ice 2), an ‘honestly, you shouldn’t have bothered’ sequel to the notorious 1992 original. As Sharon Stone apparently negotiated herself a very juicy deal where she got paid a huge wodge of cash whether the movie got made or not, one can perhaps view the finished product as an exercise in amortising expenses rather than a proper movie. As a proper movie, it isn’t very good.

Rumpy-obsessed author and maybe-psycho serial killer Catherine Tramell (Stone) pitches up in London and finds herself banged up (not a new experience for her) on suspicion of killing a famous soccer player (Stan Collymore — no, really). Shabbily relentless cop Roy Washburn (David Thewlis) retains brilliant psychoanalyst Michael Glass (David Morrissey) to assess her mental state with a view to stopping her bail, which he does. For various reasons her bail comes through anyway, and before long Glass finds himself the unwilling subject of Trammell’s attentions…

Well, I haven’t really seen the original movie and this sequel doesn’t really make me want to. When the list of great spectator pastimes is written, watching people getting up to it will be somewhere near the bottom, just above watching people talk about getting up to it, and Basic Instinct 2 contains lengthy sequences of both. These are dull or embarrassing rather than actually erotic.

Somewhat more interesting is the thriller plotline, wherein Glass finds himself in the frame (this may even be a deliberate pun on the part of the screenwriters, which suggests they should reassess their priorities) for various murders of people from his past. This is actually quite engaging, although the script doesn’t offer an alternative suspect to Trammell until rather late in the day. This plotline thankfully features a lot less of Stone, who gives an atrocious performance throughout, and rather more of Morrissey and Thewlis, both of whom battle heroically with the rather thin material they’re given.

The London setting and British cast give this movie a certain novelty value, mostly based on the ‘ooh, it’s whatsisface off thingummy’ factor?But it’s not nearly as clever or interesting as it thinks it is and at the risk of sounding sanctimonious, the film’s morality is deeply unsound. Are we supposed to empathise with or root for a character who is straightforwardly presented as a manipulative, amoral psychotic? That seems to be the intention, but a dodgy script and Stone’s performance make that almost as unlikely as most of the rest of the events in the movie. It’s just about watchable when Stone’s not on screen, but never quite tops the unintentionally hilarious opening sequence.

Arriving from the UK late-summer timezone is Jared Hess’ Nacho Libre, another star vehicle, this time for Jack Black. Really loosely based on fact, this is the tale of a Mexican friar who moonlights as a masked wrestling star.

Regular readers will know I like to include a mini-synopsis for every movie; well, that was it. Okay there’s a bit more to it, involving Black acquiring a very thin tag partner, having rather unmonastic feelings about a nun (Ana de la Reguera, appropriately hot yet pure-looking) and… oh, you get the idea. But not a lot more.

It bowls along fairly amicably, powered by Jack Black doing all his usual schtick: silly voices, singing, falling over for comic effect, and there are quite a few laughs. But not as many as you might think, and for a rather peculiar reason — this movie is not formulaic enough.

You can’t fault Jared Hess for wanting to avoid the clichés which usually beset this kind of tale (underdogs rise to sporting greatness), but without them the story seems disjointed and episodic. This is a very mainstream, knockabout comedy, or it should be, but Hess strives for an atmospheric quirkiness that seems rather out of place.

Jack Black is good value and I did enjoy the movie, but it’s not a comedy classic. It seemed to deeply confuse all the Japanese people at the showing I went to, but that’s probably not a good thing.

From early autumn UK time arrives Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (Japanese title: Tomorrow World 2027). This movie is supposedly based on PD James’ rather literary SF novel of the same name — but friends, I’ve read that book, and other than a couple of events and a few characters, the movie has only the loosest resemblance to the original story.

Clive Owen plays Theo, a London office worker in the near future. Life in 2027 is rather grim, partly due to draconian laws intended to keep the illegal immigrant situation under control and the activities of terrorists intent on overturning these laws, but mainly because everyone in the world has been entirely infertile since about 2009. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Theo’s ex Julian (Julianne Moore) turns up, needing his help: Theo has high-up contacts which he can use to get transit papers for a refugee girl (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who Julian and her (ahem) activist pals desperately need to get out of the country. Or so it initially appears…

The James book was written at least 15 years ago and is, as I said, rather literary. Cuaron’s version is relentlessly gloomy, frequently kinetic and concludes with an enormous gun battle featuring a couple of tanks. To say that there is a bit of political commentary in this movie is understating things — there are explicit parallels with Iraq and Abu Ghraib, not to mention some domestic British issues.

If you don’t mind that kind of thing you may well enjoy the movie. Cuaron creates a convincingly dismal and dismally plausible dystopia, with just enough of today in it, although Owen’s London Olympics sweatshirt may be a gag too far. His direction favours lots of flashy very long takes, but this doesn’t get in the way of the story, which is thoroughly well-acted by people like Pam Ferris, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, and Sir Michael Caine. If the ending is a bit inconclusive, well, so’s the one in the book. This is a good and thought-provoking movie, even if it is a bit crashingly unsubtle in places.

Arriving from the near future (late December, to be precise) comes the war movie Flags Of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood (so it’s a thoughtful sort of war movie). When I say this movie is concerned with the battle of Iwo Jima, a bloody clash near the end of the Pacific War, you will understand why I suspect it hasn’t done very well over here, well-made though it undoubtedly is. The Japanese are not actually demonised as such, but it remains unavoidably the case that a major plot point concerns them horribly killing a likeable character played by Jamie Bell. I was uncomfortably aware I was the only European in the theatre when I saw this movie — I nearly shouted ‘now you know how it feels when we watch Mel Gibson movies in England!’ but I thought better of it.

Anyway, the movie goes back and forth between the battle (lavishly recreated) — specifically the famous raising of the American flag atop the island — and the fates of the flag raisers when they are flown home to participate in a drive to raise money for the war effort.

This is a rather slow and worthy movie, but hey — it could have been another drum-beating embarassment like Pearl Harbor, so let’s not complain. The cast features a mixture of established young stars like Ryan Phillipe and Paul Hunter and relative unknowns like Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach (who’s particularly good), together with older performers like Robert Patrick and Neal McDonough. Without being too specific, the movie makes various wise points about the difference between the myths and realities of war and the effect this can have on the participants when they return home. I suspect you actually have to be American to fully get this film, in the same way you have to be Catholic to really get The Exorcist, but I found it to be thoroughly engrossing and as well-made as one would expect from a Clint Eastwood project. I predict nominations and maybe even the odd actual Oscar.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 14th 2002:

On paper, Gosford Park reads like a traditonal detective story in the Agatha Christie mode. Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) lives in a house, a very big house in the country, and one weekend in 1932 hosts a shooting party there. Amongst the guests are his film-star cousin (Jeremy Northam), his blue-blooded but potless aunt (Maggie Smith), and a large number of other upper-class worthies. It rapidly becomes obvious that there are secrets within secrets here, and tensions rise until – gadzooks! – one of those present is murdered! Twice!

The most immediately striking thing about Gosford Park is the cast, which is incredible. The murderer could open up at them with a gatling gun and still be guaranteed to leave at least one theatrical knight, Bafta laureate or Much-Loved National Treasure standing. Apart from Gambon, Smith, and Northam, there’s Alan Bates, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas, Richard E Grant, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Kelly Macdonald, Charles Dance, Geraldine Somerville, Ryan Phillippe and Bob Balaban. All the people! So many people! And they all go round and round, round and round in their Gosford Park lives!

One of the crucial facts about Gosford Park is that a lot of these people are playing the servants: part of the legion of butlers, valets, housekeepers, footmen, maids and cooks that this society rested upon. This is a departure from the usual formula for this kind of story, especially as the script treats them as being every bit as interesting as their masters and mistresses. The logistical nightmare of dealing with so many visitors (not normally even considered by filmmakers) is neatly illustrated, as are the various arcane rituals of upstairs-downstairs life.

The film is primarily about the upstairs-downstairs chasm in British society and the way the people on either side of it interacted and were dependent on each other. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes may be a toff himself but the film is firmly on the side of the proles, with those in charge depicted as shallow, callous and self-obsessed. The murder itself seems to have been something of an afterthought, included solely for form’s sake. It’s certainly not especially difficult to work out whodunnit, the clues are fairly obvious. But it allows the film to explore its theme more fully, and gives Stephen Fry the chance to ham it up ever so slightly as a well-meaning but dimwitted police inspector, so let’s not grouse.

Fry’s is only one amongst many well-judged performances, as you might expect from such a cast. Not everyone gets the material they perhaps deserve – Derek Jacobi only seems to have about eight lines, for example – and so there seems to be a good deal of fighting over scraps. Kelly Macdonald is very impressive in the closest thing the film has to a lead role, Michael Gambon makes the most of his chances as the host, and Maggie Smith quietly goes into top gear and starts stealing every scene she appears in.

There’s not much wrong with Gosford Park at all: it’s intelligent, witty, and superbly written and directed. If the sheer size of the ensemble is a little overwhelming at first, well, stick with it, it all sorts itself out eventually. And if the murder-mystery elements are a little straightforward and undercooked, just accept the fact that you’ve been conned into watching a finely observed drama, rather than a period pastiche. A classy piece of work, in every sense of the word.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 14th June 2005:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to the column that believes it’s better to be adored by a few than read by anyone. This week we cruise the mean streets of Sin City, our helpful guides being Robert Rodriguez (whom you may recall as the director of the Mariachi and Spy Kids trilogies, not to mention From Dusk Till Dawn) and Frank Miller (who’s partly to blame for the script of Robocop 2 and got stabbed in the head with a pen by Colin Farrell in Daredevil).

However, the well-read amongst you will be aware that while Miller’s record at the cinema ain’t exactly gilt-edged, his track record when it comes writing and drawing comics is peerless – for one thing, the imminently blockbusterous Batman Begins owes a significant debt to Miller’s Year One, while he made Daredevil famous and actually created Elektra. Away from the spandex crowd, Miller is probably best known for his painfully stylish series of Sin City graphic novels – and its these that the new movie is based upon.

The film is set on the streets of Basin City (geddit), capital of the state of total moral collapse, where the police, the politicians, and the church seemingly strive to outdo each other when it comes to venality and decadence, and the blood flows like tippex every night. Locked in perpetual darkness, every single inhabitant seems to be either mad, bad, or sad, but at least this means they all have quite interesting stories to relate. And the film follows three of them – jaded cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis) battles to protect an innocent young girl (Jessica Alba, an actress whose visibility is about to rocket – ho ho ho) from a gnome-like pervert (Nick Stahl). Enigmatic loner Dwight (Clive Owen) tries to help the hookers of Sin City (all of whom seem to be heavily-armed killing machines, obviously) maintain their truce with the police department in the face of interference by the mob. And borderline-superhuman nutcase Marv (Mickey Rourke) sets out to avenge a prostitute (Jaime King) who was kind to him before she was murdered by a kung-fu fighting cannibal serial killer (Elijah Wood. No, really).

This probably isn’t the best choice of movie to take your sweet old grandma to, unless she really gets off on dismemberment, torture, immorality, generally astounding levels of violence and ickiness, and a really special scene where Bruce Willis rips someone’s knob off with his bare hands. (Betcha that doesn’t get picked as a ‘highlight of the movie year’ come the December review shows.) As you may or may not recall, it normally takes a lot to convince me that this level of really extreme violence is justified, but in Sin City‘s case it probably is, given that the film does try to say things about morality and the gore isn’t actually played for laughs. And it has to be said that it does form part of one of the most distinctive visions to be brought to the cinema in some time – a virtually perfect recreation of the original Sin City strips, with individual panels being imitated. The central irony, that stories with a morality consisting solely of varying shades of grey are told largely in black and white, survives. It looks fantastic, luminous monochrome deep-focus cinematography creating a world both utterly fantastical yet grimily realistic.

But solid performances from an impressive ensemble cast keep your attention on the stories, for the most part. The common theme of the three stories is one of dodgy alpha-males finding a sort of redemption through their relationships with women they idealise. Their willingness to do anything for their girls borders on the masochistic, if we’re honest, but to be honest it’s all that separates them from the scum they do battle with. In a funny sort of way Sin City‘s thoroughly unreconstructed gender politics mark it out as one of the most romantic films of recent months – admittedly Bruce Willis shooting somebody in the nuts (yes, this happens too) isn’t everyone’s idea of romance but there you go.

Hang on a mo’ though! A hardboiled, pulpy noiry sort of thriller? With a sort of anthology structure? Where the internal chronology is a bit fishy? And a lot of violence? And Bruce Willis, giving a pretty good performance? Yes, you guessed it, Quentin Tarantino pops up as a ‘special guest director’ (though he thankfully resists the temptation to appear in front of the camera). To be honest I’m not sure why he bothered as the sequence he’s responsible for isn’t particularly long nor distinguished. Presumably Bob Rodriguez doesn’t like being pestered any more than anyone. This movie certainly shouldn’t need Tarantino’s name plastered on it in order to be successful. It’s skilfully put together, memorable in all sorts of ways, and combines arthouse aesthetics with a charnel house sensibility in a manner guaranteed to meet with the approval of a good many cinemagoers. Not one I’d recommend without serious qualifications, but still one of the outstanding movies of the year so far.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 6th 2006: 

Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that doesn’t know quite as much about the English education system as it thinks it does. This week I was hoping to share with you my thoughts on (the apparently hilarious) Basic Instinct 2, but scheduling problems meant that this hasn’t worked out — hopefully next time [In the end I had to go to Japan to see this movie – A]. Instead, I went to see Spike Lee’s Inside Man, what on paper looks like a rather generic thriller and an odd choice of project for this famously politicised film-maker. However, as in the plot of the movie, not all is as it seems.

On an average day in Manhattan, proceedings at a wealthy and respected bank are disrupted by the appearance of devious mastermind Dalton Russell (Clive Owen doing a reasonable American accent) who leads a crack team of people called Steve in an audacious raid on the institution, barricading themselves inside and taking the staff and customers hostage. The NYPD being really quite sharp, they fairly soon notice what’s going on and send in detective and trained negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) to try and sort it all out painlessly. However the situation is more complex than Frazier suspects, as the chairman of the bank (Christopher Plummer) has a very personal reason to worry about the crooks ransacking his vault, and sends in ruthless political operator Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to resolve things to his own satisfaction…

Well, the first thing to be said about Inside Man is that it is a tremendously slick and polished, thoroughly solid piece of entertainment. The plot is fairly complex but never obscure, the situation is genuinely involving, and it’s very well performed by a quality cast (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Willem Defoe play two of the other cops backing Washington up). This isn’t the most original scenario for a thriller – Russell Gewirtz’s script acknowledges the debt it owes to Dog Day Afternoon, amongst other things – but the plotline concerning Foster’s character gives it a new spin, and it’s not afraid to lighten things up with moments of dry comedy either. Washington is charismatic and, as ever, believable as a man caught up in machinations he doesn’t entirely understand at first, while Owen is very nearly as good, especially considering he’s playing a character we learn almost nothing about and who spends most of the film masked. The script is playful and deceptive, only losing its pace and focus slightly near the end once the siege at the bank is over and the aftermath of the situation is playing itself out. There is of course a twist in the tale, but I think you would have to have seen virtually every episode of Mission: Impossible to figure out what it is.

In some ways this is a rather old-fashioned, seventies-style movie, and Terence Blanchard’s muscular soundtrack seems to be acknowledging this. But in others this is a very contemporary film and one senses that this is why a fairly radical director like Spike Lee took the movie on. This isn’t an overtly political film but the plot does fundamentally revolve about the exploitation of minority ethnic groups – to say much more would be to spoil the plot. The film seems to ask who is really worse, the bank robber or the corporate raider, and isn’t afraid to load the dice in favour of its preferred answer, going so far as to make Owen’s character seem rather more sympathetic than Plummer’s. Lee can’t resist throwing in a few incidental jabs about modern race relations either – there’s a fairly long sequence where a Sikh who works at the bank gets mistaken for an Arab suicide bomber, roughed up by the police and has his turban confiscated, and another with a droll parody of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and its glorification of the gangsta lifestyle, neither of which is strictly crucial to the plot. Lee directs confidently, with lots of long takes and tracking shots, although at least one of his grand flourishes ends up looking unintentionally funny – at one point a close-up on Washington, supposedly running flat out, looks instead like he’s being wheeled along on a trolley – mainly because he very obviously is!

But this isn’t a heavy or preachy film, and all this stuff is by no means crucial to enjoying what it has to offer. Inside Man is at heart a genre piece, but it’s made with such wit and skill and energy that one almost doesn’t notice this. Very enjoyable indeed – recommended.

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