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Posts Tagged ‘Colin Firth’

It was Friday night, and the lights were low (as you would expect, in a cinema). There were people everywhere – a sense of expectation hanging in the air. My impatience was slowly creeping up my spine and growing strong. Sitting there no-one could harm me. They just stared at me and wondered why.

As regular readers will be able to confirm, I can keep this sort of thing up indefinitely, but I expect you are more interested in hearing about Ol Parker’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again than in clumsily repurposed pop song lyrics, so let’s crack on with that. As it seems like the UK is currently experiencing a shortage of everything except shortages, cinema tickets are not quite big enough to accommodate that title in full, and so the ones we ended up with were apparently for a film entitled Mamma Mia! HWGA. By a strange coincidence, when I asked Next Desk Colleague if he wanted to come and see the film, his response actually was ‘Hwga!’, or at least a very similar sound. The same was true of nearly all my male co-workers when I broached the possibility with them – although there was one guy whose response of ‘I have a serious issue with the intrinsically non-diegetic nature of the musical as a cinematic form’ rather impressed me. Nearly all the distaff members of the office hurled themselves at the chance, though.

So I eventually rocked up to the new film in the company of a bevy of women of various ages and nationalities, all rather excited and wont to emit vowel sounds at unexpected moments as proceedings got underway. Fortunately my Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant had also agreed to come, so I wasn’t the only possessor of a Y chromosome in the party and didn’t feel quite so much of a stranger in a strange land. (I was still a bit worried I might end up spending two hours doing the Peter Rabbit face, though.)

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, in case you have recently arrived from Neptune, is a sequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia!, an alarmingly successful contraption based around creatively-cast performers doing unorthodox cover versions of songs by Abba, one of the greatest pop groups in the history of the planet. This recipe ended up making $615 million, somehow, and so inevitably a sequel has arrived.

The first thing we should say is – now, does this constitute a spoiler? It’s a plot point that’s introduced virtually at the start, so I’d usually say no, but at the same time it’s deliberately obfuscated in the trailer, so… Oh, what the hell (spoiler alert). So – some time has passed since the first film, and central figure Donna (Meryl Streep) has carked it in the meantime, though whether this was a creative decision or just the result of Streep not really wanting to do the movie I’m not sure; suffice to say that despite her prominence in the publicity, her actual involvement is minimal.

This opens up the film to employ a structure which will probably be familiar to fans of The Godfather Part 2, although quite how big the crossover audience between The Godfather and Mamma Mia! is I’m not sure. Basically, we have one storyline which is a prequel to the original film, in which a young Donna (Lily James, whose publicity material will probably now contain the words ‘has been compared to Meryl Streep’ in perpetuity) leaves Oxford University, goes travelling in Europe, and embarks on the regimen of random promiscuity which will eventually leave her a single parent in charge of a rather cruddy Greek hotel.

The other plot strand concerns Donna’s daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is struggling to reopen the same hotel thirty years later, with the help of her mother’s friends and widower (Pierce Brosnan). It soon becomes clear that Brosnan is basically being kept locked in a shed, well away from any sheet music, in case he attempts to sing again. (We will return to this.) Also helping out is a new character played by Andy Garcia, named Fernando (which if you ask me is tantamount to cheating). Will the reopening of the hotel be a big success? Will Sophie’s other two possible-fathers (Stellan Skarsgard and Colin Firth) make it to the island in time? Will anyone get the chance to sing ‘King Kong Song’?

I am tempted to say that if you’re the kind of person who found The Greatest Showman just a bit too gritty and hard-hitting, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again will probably be right up your alley, filled as it is with appealing young actors, some of the broadest comedy turns imaginable, and – of course – a selection of indestructibly great pop classics.

That said, of course, I suspected this film might face what I call the More Abba Gold problem. Permit me to explain – Abba Gold is pretty much an essential album for anyone interested in pop music, being literally all killer, no filler: perfect hooks and choruses, emotional resonance, immaculate production, and so on. Every song on it is deservedly famous. More Abba Gold? Not so much. I mean, it’s still got songs like ‘Honey Honey’ and ‘Summer Night City’ on it, which are quite well known, but also things like ‘Cassandra’ and ‘So Long’ which I doubt I’ve ever heard. The question is this: are there enough first-rank Abba songs left to fill up another two hour movie?

Well… they kind of try to dodge this issue, mainly by reprising some of the songs from the first time round. There’s another go at ‘Mamma Mia’ itself, a reprise of ‘Dancing Queen’, and a moment when one of the characters, in a French restaurant with a bust of Napoleon, finds himself reaching for a metaphor for defeat, leading to the inevitable production number (this was probably the first moment at which I found myself with my head between my knees in the cinema). But some of the songs are more obscure this time around – the first big tune, bizarrely, is ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’, which at least occasions a truly mind-boggling solo from Celia Imrie, while also popping up are things like ‘Andante Andante’, ‘Kisses of Fire’, and ‘Why Did It Have to Be Me?’ The film’s big climax comes when Cher swoops in, basically playing herself, and sings ‘Fernando’ to Garcia (though I have to wonder what Garcia’s character was doing carrying a rifle across the Rio Grande in 1959, when he would have been about twelve). (The soundtrack album features Meryl Streep’s version of ‘The Day Before You Came’, which I must warn you does not appear at any point in the film. Not that you shouldn’t stay till the end of the credits, though.)

Still, even an obscure Abba song is most likely a masterpiece of composition and production, and overall the music passes muster. But I have to say that much of the charm, if that’s the right word, of the original film is that it’s basically about a bunch of randy middle-aged people on an island together launching unprovoked assaults on the highlights of the Abba back catalogue. The focus here is much more on randy young people, and despite winning performances from many of the cast (and I have to say that if Josh Dylan, who plays the young Skarsgard, ever visits my workplace he will be beating women off with a stick, based on the reactions of my colleagues), it is somehow less mesmerically weird and exciting and funny than the original film.

We’re practically into the home straight by the time all the original characters reconvene on the island, and I have to say I can’t help feeling some of them are a little underserved. I didn’t go to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to listen to Lily James singing; I went there to listen to Pierce Brosnan not singing (and to watch Colin Firth not dancing, for that matter). Brosnan is permitted a brief reprise of his legendary version of ‘S.O.S’ but is otherwise restricted to doing choruses alongside other people, which if you ask me is just not fair.

Still, everyone was singing along with the choruses during the film, and we all emerged with big smiles upon our faces, so I suppose Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again really does the job as a piece of entertainment. It isn’t as riotously silly as the first film, but it’s still a case of a deeply spurious non-plot being deployed to facilitate as many wonderful tunes as they can possibly get away with, topped off with a lot of knockabout humour and even a few quite touching emotional moments. I expect it will end up doing very well for itself. It’s simple and it’s plain – why should I complain?

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I’m the last person to say that dollar value should be the sole measure of something’s worth, but at the same time it is always interesting to learn something new about this sort of thing. I’ve been knocking out this sort of cobblers on the internet for over fifteen years now, on and off, and yet it had never really occurred to me to find out if my opinion is really of any significance. Then along came along news of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a sequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service, from a couple of years ago. Now, after the first one, I would probably have said, if asked, ‘That was okay, but no more, please.’ The hefty box office return of the movie clearly said something different. And so they made the sequel. So there you go: my considered opinion about a movie’s quality is obviously worth less than $414 million. Hey, you know, chin up; life goes on.

And so, clearly, does the Kingsman franchise, based on a comic book by Mark Millar (who once read my palm in a London nightclub and got it spectacularly wrong in every detail), directed by Vaughn, and co-written by the director and Jane Goldman. This time there is added swagger, a rather bigger budget, and a longer running time – two hours twenty minutes?! Well, you do kind of feel every minute while you’re watching it, to be perfectly honest.

The representatives of the actors involved have clearly had some fun with this one, for supposed leading man and protagonist Taron Egerton is actually third billed. Nevertheless, it’s all about his character Eggsy (I think I heard other characters calling him ‘Eggy’ in a couple of places), and as the film gets underway he is balancing the thrilling life of an agent of Kingsman (an ‘independent intelligence agency’, whatever one of those is), with hanging out with his mates from the housing estate and his girlfriend (Hanna Alstrom, two dots over the O), who is the daughter of the King of Sweden. As you do.

All this changes when the Kingsman organisation comes under attack from forces in the employ of deranged international criminal mastermind Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore, second-billed), and Eggsy and his tech-support chap Merlin (Mark Strong) are forced to go on the run as the rest of the organisation is destroyed. Emergency procedures lead them to Kentucky in the USA, where they join forces with (sigh) another ‘independent intelligence agency’, Statesman, who seem to be a bunch of slightly boozed-up cowboys.

It is all to do with Poppy’s plan to get some serious respect for her international criminal activities, the details of which would probably constitute a spoiler. The safety of millions hangs in the balance, so it’s just as well that the Statesman people have got Eggsy’s old mentor Harry (Colin Firth, still top-billed) in their cellar, despite the fact he was shot through the face in the last film. As a result he has an eye-patch, Movie Amnesia, and a slight tendency to hallucinate, but is otherwise okay. Can Kingsman and Statesman come together to save the day?

I know a lot of people who really, really liked the first Kingsman film; liked it considerably more than me. I suspect the same will probably be true when it comes to Golden Circle. Maybe it’s just an age or an outlook thing. It’s not that I think these films are actively bad – Vaughn is an inventive and capable director, and the new one is stuffed with cameos from very capable and charismatic actors – Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Keith Allen, Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, and many others. And the frequent action sequences are imaginative and lavish – the film plays the Bond-pastiche card extremely well. It’s almost a bit unfair to call it a Bond pastiche, to be honest, as – at its best – Golden Circle has a scale and a sense of light-hearted fun that the actual Bond films have been missing for many years now.

The thing is that the Bond-pastiche element is only a small part of the Kingsman concoction. What this film is really about is a combination of absurdly OTT spy-fi action with equally absurdly knowing comedy. No-one could take this film seriously as a thriller, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing – you could say the same about, yes, any James Bond film. It’s okay to make a movie which is just a slightly cheesy bit of fluff.

Yet there’s more than this going on – a weird tonal inconsistency, coupled to a fixation with appearing to be cool and transgressive. Near the start, there is a comedic sequence in which Eggsy is taken for dinner with the King of Sweden, but also a scene in which Polly serves up a burger made from human flesh. Elton John (pretty much playing himself), wearing a costume seemingly entirely made of ostrich feathers, drop-kicks a goon in the head with his platform shoes while grinning at the camera, while a few minutes later there’s a moment where Eggsy makes a mawkish speech about honour and justice before cold-bloodedly executing a defenceless enemy. Egerton has said that some elements of the film are mainly intended to shock – he was specifically referring to a sex scene in which he plants a tracker on a woman in a manner surely unprecedented in the annals of cinema, but there are many others conceived with the same purpose, I’m sure. The whole thing just doesn’t gel.

For me, one of the most telling things about the film is its energetic amorality – all the speeches about ‘justice’ and so on strike a rather sentimental note, rather than having any force to them. The implication of the film is not just that millions of people are using illegal recreational drugs, but that this is no big deal and nothing to get particularly exercised about. The only character who takes any kind of explicit moral position about this is the US President (played by Bruce Greenwood), and he is depicted as a self-serving, callous hypocrite.

But, hey, maybe total amorality, bad-taste humour and F-bombs by the dozen are where the kids are at these days. I enjoyed the action sequences in Golden Circle a lot, and there are some admittedly very funny moments (many of them courtesy of a game, vanity-free turn from Elton John). Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching a film that wasn’t just aimed at teenagers with questionable judgement, but made by them too. Then again, I’m just an old git whose opinion doesn’t count for much anyway. No doubt this will be a big hit and another one will be along in a couple of years to discomfit me all over again.

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Here’s the thing about me and the Bridget Jones movies: it’s never quite as simple as the usual ‘want to see a movie > see the movie’ progression. One day in 2001, my sister, her husband, and I wanted to go and see a movie to cheer ourselves up (we had just been to the funeral of a much-loved relative). I proposed Bridget Jones’s Diary, she said okay, he vetoed it on the grounds that it was ‘a chick flick’. So we ended up going to see Spy Kids instead, most of which my sister ended up sleeping through.

Then three years later the sequel came along, which I confess I was not much interested by, until word came along that this film – for some reason which is utterly beyond me – would be preceded by the first showing of the first trailer for Revenge of the Sith. Friends who know me only in my jaded current incarnation may have a hard time believing it, but this was a Big Deal at the time, and in my usual deftly Machiavellian way I talked my family into going to see it (the Bridget Jones sequel, obviously; I kept quiet about the last Star Wars film being in any way involved).

And that seemed very much to be it, although there is of course no statute of limitations on doing sequels (increasingly it feels like there really should be, though, don’t you think?). Now here comes Bridget Jones’s Baby, which I got talked into going to see (it was not a particularly hard sell as I’ll watch almost anything), and…

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Well, look. Fifteen years is a long time in movies; the life expectancy of a career can be very much less than that (just ask Chris O’Donnell or Alicia Silverstone). In 2001 Renee Zellweger was an up-and-comer and Miramax Pictures were a force to be reckoned with – these days, I imagine most people would struggle to name a recent vehicle for the actress and since the Weinsteins sold the company, Miramax have been making rather fewer waves of late. In short, this film feels a bit like it’s been made simply because it’s likely to be a commercial success for a bunch of people whose careers really need one right now.

The film is directed by Sharon Maguire. The laws of sequeldom demand that nothing has substantially changed for the principals in the 14 years since the last movie, so Bridget Jones (Zellweger) is still working in TV news, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) is still a high-powered barrister, and so on (the plot also requires them to have split up, although of course they still have deep feelings for one another). What, you may be wondering, of Hugh Grant’s character? Well, as Grant has opted not to come back (A Wise Career Move? Discuss), his character is missing, presumed dead – clearly they are still hoping he may be talked into appearing in Bridget Jones’s Menopause or Bridget Jones’s Hip Replacement or whatever the next sequel is called.

Anyway, having just turned 43 (all I will say on this subject is that Renee Zellweger herself is somewhat older) and feeling somewhat forlorn, Bridget allows herself to be talked into going to the Glastonbury Festival (cue mud-splattered slapstick pratfalls) where she ends up having an only moderately contrived one-nighter with passing billionaire Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey). Then, a few days later, she bumps into Darcy again at a christening, and when I say ‘bumps into’, I mean it in the Biblical sense.

Well, as the film is entitled Bridget Jones’s Baby, I’m sure you don’t need me to draw you a diagram as to what happens next. Cue lots of farcical misunderstandings and chaos as Bridget attempts to determine who the father is, while trying to keep the two men from finding out about each other. Zellweger’s main achievement is still her English accent. Emma Thompson appears as Bridget’s obstetrician, and gets most of the best lines, but then this should not come as a major surprise seeing as she co-wrote the script.

And in the end I suppose it all passes the time agreeably enough, though it did feel to me to be a bit too long. There are some very funny set pieces, mostly of the low-comedy variety, although they strike an unexpected vein of comedy gold quite early on when Zellweger starts lip-synching to House of Pain. This is, essentially, very much a standard British mainstream rom-com in the modern idiom, which translates as aspirational lifestyles, just a bit too much graphic sexual talk for you to feel comfortable watching it with your parents, upbeat pop-songs, and a slightly bemusing certainty that people shouting the F-word a lot is still inherently funny. (I mean, it was when Hugh Grant did it in 1994, but nowadays?)

The problem I had with the film is that its central idea just isn’t that funny or easy to identify with – the first two were essentially about whether your life partner should be the exciting, fun, unreliable one, or the dull but solid one (Colin Firth’s main achievement in these films is to make ‘dull but solid’ seem so attractive). Many people have had that kind of dilemma, I would imagine, but the situation of unexpectedly becoming a geriatric single mother while being uncertain who the father is is probably less universal.

Does Grant’s absence hurt the film? I would have to say so, partly because parachuting in a new main character three films in is never very successful, but also because Hugh Grant is simply an extremely accomplished light comedy actor of exactly the kind this sort of film needs. Dempsey isn’t actually bad, but he’s just a bit dull. As a result, Colin Firth really has to take on the job of lifting the film, and to be fair he does a better than decent job of it – but, and this may just be a personal thing, he seemed to me to be surrounded by a strangely mournful aura, as though every fibre of his being had grown accustomed to being a serious leading actor and no longer wanted to just be the male lead in a British rom-com.

The central thrust of the story is therefore just not that funny and the film resorts to a sort of lowest-common-denominator sentimentalism instead; all the bits which really made me laugh were rather peripheral. As I said, a lot of this is very broad comedy, and the rest is an extremely mixed bag – there are some desperate-feeling jokes where people who are middle-aged and feeling it make fun of young people and their beards, a peculiar not-very-topical subplot about Darcy representing a band clearly meant to be Pussy Riot (then again, this film has apparently been in development for six or seven years), and even a gag about Margaret Thatcher which would have been cutting-edge in 1989 (I’m sure it hasn’t been in development for that long).

For me it all felt rather contrived and perhaps a little bit desperate; I mean, I’m not saying I didn’t laugh, but I did sometimes feel like I was perhaps doing the film a favour by doing so. But your mileage may vary; most of the audience at the screening I went to were rolling in the aisles pretty consistently all the way through, and the person whose idea it was that we saw it said she couldn’t remember the last time she had such a good time at the cinema (what, better than West Side Story?, I rather grumpily wanted to say). I still can’t help thinking that this is undemanding stuff which knows its audience and will probably do quite well as a result. But God knows what the next one will be like.

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If I didn’t know better, I would say that the international custom of day-and-date releasing – the system whereby films appear on the same date worldwide – had been abolished, for not only is the UK enjoying Alex Garland’s Ex Machina several months before its US debut, but we have also been treated to Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service a couple of weeks before its American premiere. I’ve no idea why we have been granted such a signal honour, given that this is clearly intended to be a major movie: could it simply be the result of most of the principals involved being British themselves? I don’t know.

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Vaughn directs and co-writes with Jane Goldman, based on a graphic novel scripted by Mark Millar, and prominent among the cast is (hardest working man in showbusiness) Mark Strong. If you feel a faint bell dingling somewhere in your cortical region, it may well be because all these people were also connected with 2010’s Kick-Ass, a lairy and rambunctious take on the superhero genre. Kingsman has the same sort of style and attitude, even if its subject matter is different.

The protagonist is Eggsy (Taron Egerton – yes, that really is his name, apparently), who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a lowlife, living on a London council estate and passing his time squabbling with his thuggish stepfather and doing a little petty crime. (His real father died while serving in the armed forces, when he was but a tot.) Finding himself up on charges, he calls in a favour and is rescued by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), an old comrade of his father, and member of an ultra-sophisticated, ultra-discreet, independent intelligence agency, known as the Kingsmen.

As it happens, a Kingsman mission to rescue kidnapped scientist Professor Arnold (a barely-recognisable Mark Hamill, who was apparently at one point scheduled to be playing himself) has gone terminally bad, leaving a hole in the ranks of the organisation, and Hart puts Eggsy up for the selection process before heading off to investigate. The trail leads to internet billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), who has an evil scheme on the go. Will Eggsy be able to satisfy training boffin Merlin (Strong) and his snobby superior Arthur (Sir Michael Caine, Gawd bless you sir), and join the Kingsmen as they take on Valentine and his henchmen?

With the Bond movies currently locked into ultra-serious mode, there is obviously a gap in the market for a big, daft, crowd-pleasing spy action movie, and I rather suspect Kingsman would like to be it. Certainly, it is stuffed with references, subtle and not so subtle, to classic spy and spy-fi offerings from years gone by: the front for the Kingsman organisation is a tailor’s shop, just like that of UNCLE, while a casual mention of a phone with a shoe in it appears to be a nod to Get Smart. Firth’s performance as a very British superspy, fighting the fight from a mews flat, umbrella in hand, seems to me to be very clearly informed by Patrick Macnee’s John Steed in The Avengers. But, above all, there are the classic Bond films from the 1960s.

There is an excruciatingly knowing sequence in which Firth and Jackson have a pleasant dinner together and discuss how serious and dull the modern spy movie has become, and how much they both enjoyed the old sort, with wacky gadgets and insane supervillains. This is clearly the territory Kingsman is looking to occupy, and there are trick umbrellas, exploding cigarette lighters, and frankly implausible schemes aplenty before the film is out. And yet the film seems reluctant to completely relax and be a simple pastiche of the genre. A repeated line is ‘This ain’t that kind of movie’, which is invariably delivered before one of those genre tropes is subverted.

This for me is the main thing stopping Kingsman from being the piece of jolly, breezy entertainment it clearly wants to be. Half the time it wants to be an old-school spy-fi romp, the rest of the time it insists on undermining and subverting that very genre, usually in way that seems calculatedly transgressive or openly absurd. By the end, proceedings have extended to include international carnage, sex-crazed Scandinavian royalty, a bevy of exploding heads (including, we are invited to assume, those of the entire British Royal Family), and the end of the world occurring to a disco soundtrack, and the sense that this is on some level intended as a bizarre spoof is hard to shake. Yet elsewhere the film is clearly aspiring to moments of genuine gravity and emotion. As a result, it all ultimately feels rather insincere, guided only the script’s instinct for the excessive and outlandish.

I could go on to talk about the film’s colossal inverted snobbery (Eggsy finds himself competing against worthless public schoolboys with names like Digby, Rufus and Hugo for his Kingsman place), cheerful amorality, bafflingly graphic violence, or indeed Taron Egerton’s fairly indifferent performance (I’m struggling to avoid using the word ‘smug’), but I think you get the idea. All in all it’s a bit of a shame, as there are individual moments where Kingsman shows the potential to be every bit as much fun as its premise suggested: needless to say, Michael Caine does exactly what the script requires of him with great aplomb, while Colin Firth shows a very new side to himself in a couple of action sequences (there’s one extraordinary shot where he single-handedly punches, kicks, stabs, detonates, and gun-fus to death about fifty people). Samuel L Jackson manages to find some genuine menace and humour in a character who could just have been silly, while Sofia Boutella is eye-catching as his henchperson (Boutella’s lower legs have been digitally removed and replaced with razor-sharp blades, which if nothing else is a new take on the traditional deformed-villain Bond archetype). Vaughn’s direction is undeniably inventive and energetic, too.

But, very much as in the case of Kick-Ass, Kingsman seems to be so preoccupied with being shocking and cool and cynically funny that it doesn’t really have time to be anything else – or at least anything else new. Once you strip away the violence and class warfare and black humour, what you’re left with bears an eerie resemblance to Stormbreaker, a much more family-friendly spy-fi pastiche from 2006. This is a lot more polished and in some ways cleverer, but I can’t shake the impression that it ultimately seems to have been made by and for teenaged boys, rather than mature human beings. Which is fine if you’re a teenaged boy, but this film could have been a lot more enjoyable for a much wider audience.

 

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Another week, another Colin Firth film – or should that be, another year, another Woody Allen film? As you may have surmised, Magic in the Moonlight is both. Early Autumn seems to have become established as the point in the year when Allen releases his annual project, though while the release date is steady, Allen’s choice of subject matter is as varied as ever.

That said, you’re never really in danger of mistaking any of Allen’s recent films for the work of someone else. In fact, settling down to write about one of them one finds oneself with a comforting sense of being able to fall back on the same set of observations one always makes about recent Woody Allen movies, said observations pertaining to:

  • The comforting familiarity of the Allen graphic design (i.e., it seems like every film he’s made in the last forty years has had its titles in the same style and font)
  • The director’s fondness for a jazz soundtrack, if not a full-blown Jazz Age setting
  • His continuing ability to attract a first-rate cast to what are often fairly inconsequential films
  • A generally miserabilist, and occasionally wholly misanthropic worldview
  • The repeated trope of the May to December romance between an older, cultured man and an extremely attractive, much younger, much less erudite woman (with the corollary that one is inevitably moved to speculate about Allen’s own personal history)
  • And so on.

So I set myself the challenge of going to see Magic in the Moonlight and then writing about it without recourse to any of the easy options listed above.

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The film is set in 1928. Firth plays Stanley Crawford, an egotistical and rather insufferable stage magician who as a sort of hobby specialises in exposing fake spirit mediums (a phrase he would regard as tautologous: a committed materialist, he scorns any kind of mysticism or spirituality). His plans to visit the Galapagos Islands with his fiancee (Firth’s use of the word ‘turtle’ rather than ‘tortoise’ to describe the Islands’ most famous residents reveals that he is an Englishman being written by an American, but never mind) are disrupted when he is asked to visit the Catledges, an extremely wealthy American family sojourning in the south of France. The heir to the family fortune appears to have fallen under the sway of a young woman named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who claims to be psychically sensitive herself. Other concerned family members would like him to debunk her and rid themselves of her influence over the family’s affairs.

Crawford agrees but finds himself rattled when Sophie appears to know things about him which she has had no way of finding out. Could she possibly be for real? As his rationality wavers and his fascination with her grows, Crawford finds himself beginning to enjoy life far more than he has in years – but can he really bring himself to put aside the habits of a lifetime and embrace the existence of the supernatural?

The thing about Woody Allen and his workrate is that he does keep on knocking them out, year after year, come what may. His films are always modestly scaled and reasonably budgeted – no big set pieces or massive special effects, just collections of actors in rooms delivering dialogue at each other. While this means he’s never going to destroy his own career with a John Carter-esque fiasco, it does mean that even the best of his films are rather lightweight, and tend to get lost in the crowd of all the others. Last year’s Blue Jasmine was given some serious heft by a heavy-duty performance from Cate Blanchett – but Magic in the Moonlight has no such distinguishing features.

The 1920s setting is nicely mounted and the film is very pleasant to look upon throughout… and… and… and… and at this point I really run out of things to say about Magic in the Moonlight that don’t contravene my self-imposed ban on falling back on the usual Allen points of reference, because they are all here. There is a deeply unlikely romance between Colin Firth and Emma Stone (he openly scorns her lack of education and promises he will help to train her brain during their future together), a soundtrack crammed with Jazz Age standards (at one point I was on the point of screaming ‘Oh God, not ‘You Do Something To Me’ again!!!’ in the cinema), and a storyline which is fundamentally about whether it’s better to be a deluded romantic fool or a realistic curmudgeon. Allen, needless to say, comes down firmly in the latter camp. The film also features quality performers like Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Atkins, and Simon McBurney.

But it really is just the usual Woody Allen components jigged about into a new arrangement, with everyone wearing ducks and funny hats and occasionally playing the ukulele. Perhaps the only addition, and this is a very slight one, is some almost philosophical discussion about whether it’s actually possible to completely disprove something’s existence, and indeed whether perfectly reproducing something through fakery automatically proves that the original must have been fake too. The rest of it has no real novelty value to it.

Does it automatically follow that Magic in the Moonlight is a bad film, then? Well, no, not necessarily – and especially not if you’re less well-versed in the Allen back catalogue than I am. It is well-mounted, and the story is pleasant and easy to follow, if perhaps a little predictable in places. The problem with it, really, is that the characterisations and dialogue are all just a bit too perfunctory – Crawford is written as such an arrogant and self-assured egotist that you just know he’s going to have his beliefs seriously challenged, and so on. The characters have no real depth or sense of a genuine internal life about them, and you always have a very good sense of which way the story is going to go.

As a result, Magic in the Moonlight has a sort of cosy familiarity to it in more ways than one. Firth and Stone give of their best, and if their coming together is less than entirely convincing then they can hardly be blamed for it. At least, for a film made by a great misanthrope, it does conclude with a testament to the redemptive power of love: another reasonably frequent theme in Allen movies, or at least those made when he is in a good mood. Perhaps this is one of the things that keeps Woody Allen’s films palatable, no matter how gloomy and formulaic they sometimes seem to be threatening to become. This isn’t an especially gloomy film, but it contains very few surprises. In the end, there’s nothing very much wrong with it, but for all of the skill with which it’s made, it’s ultimately very insubstantial.

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Summer is officially over. How do I know? Easy: they are starting to release Colin Firth movies again. Fine actor though he is, Mr Firth’s essential Englishness takes an idiosyncratic form, in that he never seems to come out in the sun (not unlike myself, I suppose). In one of those quirks of production and release, a veritable flock of Firth movies is on the horizon: he’s in this year’s Woody Allen, due out in a few weeks, and slightly further off he turns up in Matthew Vaughn’s new comic-book adaptation, too. Right now, however, he is appearing in Rowan Joffe’s Before I Go To Sleep, based on the book by SJ Watson.

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It would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is a full-on Colin Firth vehicle like The King’s Speech, however, as once again he is essentially giving support to the leading lady (though a chick-flick this probably isn’t). On this occasion the top-billed star is Nicole Kidman, deploying a fairly solid English accent to match the movie’s greater London setting.

Kidman (adopting vaguely unflattering hair for the occasion) plays Christine, a youngish woman with a peculiar problem. (I say youngish because the film, for no very necessary reason, repeatedly states she is 40, a fair few years younger than the actress herself. Hmmm.) Following a traumatic incident in her past, she is afflicted with one of those rare and discriminating forms of amnesia most often to be found in movies: every night her memory resets, erasing the previous day’s recollections and leaving her with no idea of who or where she is.

Luckily the first person she meets every day (Firth, who has very good hair for his age now I think about it) is able to fill her in on minor details such as her name, who he is (Ben, her husband), what exactly is going on, and so on.

However, unbeknownst to Ben, Christine has embarked on a new course of therapy – or so it seems, anyway. A man (Mark Strong, who… well, you can’t have everything, can you) calls her up every morning claiming to be Dr Nasch, her neuropsychologist, and reminding her of the existence of a digital camera she is using as a sort of external back-up memory.

Naturally all this is very confusing to Christine, whose Movie Amnesia means that she has to take a lot of what she hears on trust. It just makes things worse when the things that Ben tell her seem not to tally with those she hears from Dr Nasch – Ben claims she was injured in a car accident, but according to the doctor she was the victim of a savage beating from an unknown assailant. Is everyone being completely straight with her? And can she possibly uncover the truth about her past?

Well, long-term moviewatchers will already know that the answers to these questions are ‘Almost certainly not’ and ‘Very probably’, for this wouldn’t be much of a thriller otherwise. And a thriller is ultimately what this is – the kind of mid-budget genre movie I seem to remember watching rather a lot when I first started reviewing movies on the internet (so watching Before I Go To Sleep was an oddly nostalgic experience for me). That said, the presence of a quality cast like this one means that the dramatic and emotional elements of the story have obviously been beefed up, possibly to the point where they could be accused of milking it a bit.

Overall, though, we’re in a vaguely Hitchcockian territory, even if I can’t help thinking Hitch would have made the movie a bit more intense a bit earlier. Everything starts off fairly low-key and naturalistic, which gives you plenty of time to mull over what you’re being presented with. I have to say that well within the first ten minutes I was thinking ‘this is utterly preposterous, no way would normal people possibly be capable of behaving this way’, but – very much to the film’s credit – by the time the closing credits roll, everything that had occurred seemed a lot more credible.

The nature of the film requires that Firth and Strong engage in a sort of contest to see who can be the most understatedly sinister, which is a lot of fun (hard to pick a winner, by the way) but the focus is very much on Kidman for most of the film. In keeping with the wintry, claustrophobic atmosphere of the film, Kidman gives a performance based pretty much on a single note of fraught, brittle anxiety. Christine spends most of the movie as a passive victim, which put together with some male-on-female violence might make this film problematic for some viewers – naturally she gets her own back, to a degree, before proceedings are concluded.

It took me a while to warm up to Before I Go To Sleep, mainly due to the mismatch between the film’s rather contrived and unlikely premise and its downbeat and serious style, but the strong performances of the three leads, coupled to a bravura twist at the end of the second act, eventually won me over. I think an actual winter release would have suited it better, simply because I’m not sure people are in quite the right mood for such an intense, intimate movie, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a solidly entertaining piece of film-making.

 

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Hark! What’s that? Is it ‘a water buffalo’? Is it ‘the QE2 sounding its foghorn as it comes into dock’? Or is it simply ‘a wounded raccoon’?

Well, I think we’ll get back to the source of those alarming noises later. Let’s not beat about the bush here, readers: in an attempt to cling onto my current gainful employment, I have agreed to take on the running of the weekly film club, but rather to my disappointment some of my favourite films of recent years (Monsters, The Guard) have been met with a response varying from indifference to downright hatred. I have thus been obliged to break out some rather more mainstream, populist fare, and to be perfectly honest I am wondering if the extravagant remuneration is worth the pain of watching some of these films. On the other hand, these are the sorts of films I never usually write about so there is perhaps an opportunity here to broaden the blog a bit. In short: Mamma Mia! – if I have to watch the damn thing, then you’re going to have to read about it (actually, you don’t have to).

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Anyway, Phyllida Lloyd’s film came out in 2008 and has made over $600 million at the box office. (Yes, civilisation officially collapsed several years ago, and I’ll bet you didn’t even notice.) It is, as if you needed telling, practically the index case when it comes to the modern phenomenon of the ‘jukebox musical’, where a selection of hits from a well-known artist or group are strung together by a frankly dodgy narrative.

Mamma Mia! is almost entirely set on a remote Greek island, which plays host to a crumbling hotel run by Meryl Streep, with the help of her almost painfully perky daughter Amanda Seyfried. Seyfried is getting married to Dominic Cooper, but as various women intent on chewing the scenery and pratfalling descend on the place for the wedding (most prominently Julie Walters and Christine Baranski), the bride is not happy. She does not yet know the identity of her father, due to her mother’s (ahem) amatorial generosity around the time of her conception. However she has managed to narrow down the potential candidates to Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, and Colin Firth, and secretly invited them all as well. Naturally, the scene is set for…

…well, mainly some sentimental and very broad comedy drama, if I’m perfectly honest, punctuated with frequent dips into the back catalogue of the legendary Swedish pop titans. Whatever your opinion of the performances and dialogue in this film, you have to grant the writers some credit for coming up with a plot which crams in quite so many well-known ABBA hits without seeming utterly contrived. There’s definitely some sort of crossword-puzzle solving, Sudoku-completing mentality at work here.

On the other hand, they don’t manage to squeeze in Fernando or Knowing Me Knowing You, let alone The Day Before You Came, which has to count against them, right? Plus there’s a definite cheat involved in only including Waterloo as a non-plot-related encore. In the places of these songs come some rather lesser known tunes like Our Last Summer and When All Is Said and Done, which certainly don’t feature on ABBA Gold (nor indeed ABBA Gold For The Ukulele).

I suppose even these lesser works are solid enough, but the last one in particular is difficult to fairly assess as it is delivered, if that’s the right word, by Pierce Brosnan, who gives one of the more remarkable performances in recent musical cinema. It is of course Brosnan whose vocal stylings have been likened to a raccoon, a buffalo, and so on, but to be fair listening to him yowl, yelp, and moo his way through songs like SOS and I Do, I Do, I Do is strangely entertaining.

This is just part of a peculiar alchemy going on somewhere in the heart of this film. On paper the plot is ludicrous, schmaltzy nonsense, and the general tone of the thing is so frothy and excitable it should really give the discerning viewer a headache. Watching it for the first time I got the rather grim sensation that all of the actors were having much more fun than I was: it’s a bit like arriving late at a party and finding yourself five or six drinks behind everyone else.

And yet, and yet… there are those songs. My God, Benny and Bjorn can write a great tune. Actually, they can write great tunes by the bucketful, all replete with perfectly-honed hooks, surging choruses, and just the right level of grown-up realism and melancholy about them. These songs are like adamantium, not even Pierce Brosnan can seriously damage them. Admittedly, the role-reversal version of Does Your Mother Know emasculates the song, and Streep’s histrionic version of The Winner Takes It All is absurd, but the film’s version of Lay All Your Love On Me captures the song’s mixture of near-spiritual intensity and implicit sexual frenzy perfectly.

All things considered, I would definitely rather listen to two or three ABBA albums back-to-back than watch Mamma Mia! again, because it really does have that air of being an out-of-control middle-aged hen party about it, and Dr K’s description of it as being close to A-list stars performing ‘drunken karaoke’ is, as usual, close to being spot on. But somehow it is impossible to thoroughly object to or even genuinely dislike this film. If nothing it is a testament to the power of… well one thing ABBA’s music isn’t, is cheap. I don’t really think this is the showcase ABBA really deserves, but in its own way the film does an outstanding job of showing just how good their songs are.

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