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Posts Tagged ‘Dominic West’

Perspective can be a curious thing. My good friend and occasional cinema companion Bella wanted to go the cinema: she wanted to see an inspiring tale of a woman standing up for her rights and independence, striking a blow against the manipulative patriarchy, and generally not taking any nonsense from anyone. I, on the other hand, quite fancied watching a slightly saucy and scandalous tale of louche goings-on with some proper nudity and girl-on-girl action. Well, as luck would have it, we both managed to get more or less what we wanted from exactly the same movie, in the form of Wash Westmoreland’s Colette – a true-ish story based on the life on one of those very famous and popular writers whom no-one seems to have heard of or actually reads any more.

The film opens in rural France in the 1890s (they don’t quite go the full chickens-in-the-street, but it’s all very picturesque), where we meet simple country girl Gabrielle Colette, played by Keira ‘Twice’ Knightley (yes, I know, Keira Knightley doing a costume drama – whatever next?). Gabrielle has managed to ensnare the eye of sophisticated man-about-Paris Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), who goes by the nickname and nom de plume Willy.

Willy and Gabrielle are married and she moves to the big city, where she initially struggles to adapt to the superficiality of belle epoque society and cope with Willy’s various amorous indiscretions. More serious problems soon arise, however, as the couple are always short of money. Willy sees himself as a sort of literary entrepreneur, treating his name as a brand, and employs various struggling young ghost-writers to produce short stories and reviews. Soon enough Gabrielle has been pressed into service as one of these contributors, producing a short novel based on her life in the country entitled Claudine at School.

After a bit of a polish from Willy, the novel becomes a massive success, but Gabrielle (now calling herself Colette) receives no credit, as it’s published under her husband’s name. Further books follow, mainly because Willy insists on it, but Colette finds herself growing resentful and wanting to become more of her own person, regardless of the conventions and mores of respectable French society…

So, obviously, some very good hats on display in this one. What, you want more insight than that? Hmmm. Well, I have to say that this is one of those supposedly based-on-fact films where the achievement and prominence of the subject is probably less of a factor in it having been made than the fact that someone like Keira Knightley was prepared to turn up and play them. This is a star vehicle for Knightley more than anything else, and a pretty good one. Which is another way of saying that I know very little about French literature beyond some of the lyrics to Les Mis, but I’ll happily give this kind of movie a chance.

Bella was asking me whether I actually liked Knightley as a performer or not, and my honest answer was that I can take her or leave her, normally. I have always been immune to the obscure charms of the Pirates movies, and her appearance in the stellar conflict prequels was so brief it barely counts. The temptation is to say that she always plays the same kind of part in the same kind of film, but looking at her filmography I can see that this isn’t strictly true – it’s a little tricky to envisage her turning up in a Marvel Studios film any time soon (then again, who knows), but she has done good work in films like Never Let Me Go, which are not the kind of thing you would expect. Colette, however, looks exactly like the kind of thing you would expect, at least to begin with.

That said, this is a costume drama made following the Unique Moment (perhaps I need to find a different way of referring to the current situation), so there is an obvious theme of the self-realisation of women and the general self-serving uselessness of men. The main thrust of the plot – talented woman writer goes unrecognised while her husband steals all the credit and plaudits – is, as you may already have noticed, rather similar to that of another movie currently doing the rounds this awards season. I have to say that Colette isn’t quite as interestingly subtle or ambiguous as that other movie, nor is it as well-played, but it makes up for this with a pacy, interesting story and by generally being very pleasant to look at.

The film is on a bit of a tightrope when it comes to being a proper, respectable biographical drama for a serious audience on the one hand, and luring in some more marginal punters with the inclusion of some tasteful bisexuality and people with their clothes off. Well, it’s always been the case that possessing a veneer of high culture will let you get away with murder. Colette turns out not to be so salacious as to scare any but the most skittish of horses and handles its more provocative content quite delicately – although there is a peculiar, farcical interlude during which both Colette and Willy are having an affair with the same married woman, which the film practically plays for laughs. How close your true-life movie should stick to truth is always a slightly contentious point, and I would say that this one is probably being a bit too selective on a couple of points: much is made of Colette’s relationship with the Marquise de Belbeuf, a noted transvestite (played in the film by Denise Gough), and the fact that this did not in fact endure much beyond the end of the period depicted here is omitted from the final ‘what happened next’ captions; her two subsequent marriages are likewise not mentioned. The presentation of Colette as a wholly modern figure and some kind of feminist and LGBT icon is arguably overstated.

Still, this is a nicely made and consistently engaging film, and one that I enjoyed; the performances are good, if not great, and the whole production is impressively mounted. It doesn’t manage to solve the problem of how to turn writing novels into an activity that works cinematically (Knightley complaining that it’s really hard work and leaves her with sore fingers doesn’t quite get to the heart of the creative process, if you ask me), but then this is a perennial problem that has defeated considerably more gifted artists than the people making Colette. In all other respects this is a classy, handsome film, telling an interesting and (in many ways) timely story.

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I decided a couple of years ago to stop watching new movie trailers over the internet, as a general rule – this was partly because they so often spoil pretty much the entire movie, but also because I think it’s surely much better to see them on the big screen, where at least some of the gosh-wow factor survives. That says, it does seem to be the case that TV and internet advertising has to some extent supplanted the old-fashioned ‘coming attractions’ style trailer – there are quite a few pretty big movies coming up over the next few weeks – the Pacific Rim sequel, Ready Player One, Rampage – and for a long while it looked like I wasn’t going to see a trailer for any of them. They all turned up in a bunch, in front of another big movie which I never saw a trailer for at all.

The movie in question is the new version of Tomb Raider, directed by Roar Uthaug, which apparently really is his name. (We are in for a bit of a mini-festival of people with unusual nomenclature, for the film was co-written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and co-stars someone called Walton Goggins.) Yes, they’ve done another movie based on Tomb Raider, and spent about $100 million on it. I must confess to being even more befuddled than usual by this, for to my mind the only things that scream ‘late 1990s’ more than the whole Lara Croft/Tomb Raider thing are Spice Girls records and Jim Carrey trying to be a serious actor. But apparently there is still an audience for these things (Tomb Raider movies, I mean).

This time around Lara Croft is played by Alicia Vikander, thus continuing the time-honoured tradition of talented and not-uncomely young actresses being rewarded for their skill and success in serious movies by landing a leading role in a comic-book or computer game franchise (cf. Halle Berry in Catwoman, Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux, Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men, Scarlett Johansson and Elisabeth Olsen in the Marvel movies (soon to be joined by Brie Larson), and so on). On this occasion Lara is less of a one-woman argument for the violent overthrow of the aristocracy, for as the film starts she is an impoverished victim of London’s gig economy, despite there being a massive inheritance lined up for her.

Why should this be? Well, daddy Richard Croft (Dominic West) disappeared years ago, but Lara refuses to believe he is dead and won’t sign the paperwork saying as such. (Kristen Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi turn up for this scene, just to give the film a bit of much-needed heft, and are presumably nicely rewarded for the use of 5% of their talent.) She refuses to take over the family corporation, declaring ‘I’m not that kind of Croft.’ One wonders what kind of Croft she thinks she is – a tennis player? A sitcom writer-producer? I can’t think of many others.

Then Lara finds a clue that puts her on her father’s trail: apparently he was last spotted headed for the ‘Devil’s Sea’ and a lost island, rumoured to be the location of a semi-mythical Japanese queen with allegedly supernatural death-dealing powers. Yup, there’s a tomb just crying out to be raided, if she can only get to it…

There’s a moment about halfway through the new Tomb Raider where Lara Croft, who up to this point has basically been a fairly normal (albeit unusually tanned and ripped) cycle courier on a slightly odd backpacking trip, finds herself obliged to kill a man with her bare hands (in self-defence, naturally). It’s actually quite rare for a movie to show an iconic character killing for the first time (the only other instance I can think of off the top of my head is at the very start of the 2006 Casino Royale), and to its great credit Tomb Raider doesn’t simply skate past this. Alicia Vikander’s performance in particular keeps it grounded and very real: we do get a sense that this young woman has crossed a boundary she will never be able to return from.

Then again, that’s kind of emblematic of the whole film, which seems to have ‘keep it real’ as its mission statement, and about which the single best thing is Vikander’s performance. She is playing a real human being, barely recognisable as the cartoony robotic mannequin from the two Angelina Jolie movies. Of course, time has moved on and this is reflected in the film – Lara Croft slings a very Hunger Games-ish bow rather than the usual big guns (though there is the inevitable reference to her iconic dual-wielding tendencies at one point), and Vikander is somewhat more modestly dressed – at least to the point where you don’t get a strong sense of what it feels like to be Michael Fassbender, anyway.

I have to say I was rather dubious about the rumoured attempts to reimagine Lara Croft ahead of the new movie and turn her into a more rounded individual, even if this did mean making her a less rounded individual in other ways (ka boom tish). Wouldn’t this just be missing the point of the character, roughly akin to turning James Bond into a teetotal single parent? Well, of course, it’s not quite like that, for it’s not as though we’re talking about an especially deep or complex character who’s intended to represent anything in particular, beyond the player of a particular computer game. As a computer game sprite she’s only marginally a character in the traditional sense anyway. The new movie hardly breaks ground by making her a feisty, independent, courageous young woman, but I would suggest that coming up with a coherent personality at all is some kind of achievement.

It’s certainly the most notable thing about the film, which is otherwise a very undistinguished action-adventure runaround with a slightly coy approach to just what genre it belongs to. Parts of the plot are just so silly and implausible you simply sigh and roll your eyes, while other sequences which are intended to thrill are just so hackneyed they’re dull – yes, there are more booby-traps with spikes, and oh, look, here’s another collapsing corridor to be run down, and – yes, right on cue – here comes another death-defying leap. The bad guys, led by Goggins, are very dull and anonymous, and most of Lara’s allies feel straight out of central casting. (On the other hand, turning up to deploy his monumental scene-stealing skills is Nick Frost, whom it is always good to see.) The conclusion of the movie is unnecessarily cluttered by some blatant angling to set up a sequel.

Tomb Raider is, if nothing else, a big improvement over the two Angelina Jolie movies: although the benchmark they set was so subterraneanly low that this hardly means anything at all. It passes the time and is never actively bad, but at the same time it brings nothing really new to the screen and its principal point of interest is Alicia Vikander’s excellent performance. This film will justify its existence if it helps her with her career trajectory and means she ends up playing more rewarding parts in better movies. On its own terms, however, it basically poses the question of why anyone other than hardcore gamers should still care about Lara Croft, and despite the best efforts of Vikander and everyone else, it fails to come up with a convincing answer.

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Neil Marshall’s must-have list prior to making Centurion:

  • 1 copy of the Annals of Tacitus (for research purposes)
  • 1 DVD of Lord of the Rings (ditto)
  • 1 DVD of The Warriors (ditto again)
  • four dozen assorted javelins, swords, axes, spears, and other sharp implements
  • various assorted trained horses and wolves
  • twenty Roman legionary costumes
  • six jars face paint (blue)
  • two dozen severed heads, hands, legs, etc (rubber)
  • 500 gallons of blood (fake)
  • Olga Kurylenko’s phone number

Hmmm. By 2010 the scorecard for Neil Marshall’s directorial career stood as follows – Dog Soldiers: small-cast, small-budget horror – modest popular and critical success. The Descent: small-cast, not-quite-so-small-budget horror – significant popular and critical success. Doomsday: big-cast, big-budget SF horror – bit of a cock-up. So it’s fair to say Centurion was a movie with a lot riding on it in terms of the director’s reputation and future prospects. It may therefore be telling that Marshall chose to make a film which didn’t go mad splicing different genres together, was stuffed with the cream of British acting talent, and – perhaps most crucially – only cost about two thirds of what the previous movie did (our old friends at the UK Film Council were involved in the financing, too).

Set in Britain in 117AD, this is the story of gladiator’s son turned Roman centurion Quintus Dias (homme du jour Michael Fassbender), serving on the hazardous northern frontier of the Empire. The story is… hmm, there’s quite a lot of business in this film before we get to the actual story, most of it insanely macho and violent, so I suppose it counts as establishing the tone for the rest of the movie. Basically, Quintus gets captured by the local Pict tribe, escapes, and meets up with a Roman legion commanded by Dominic West, who’s been sent by the Governor to kill the Pict king. West is being assisted by Olga Kurylenko, who’s playing a native huntress (Kurylenko’s character is mute, partly as a character point, but also – I suspect – to avoid awkward questions about her Russian accent). However things do not go to plan when the legion is lured into a trap and massacred, with the general being captured. Left in command of a tiny group of survivors, Quintus is faced with a stark choice – should he lead the men towards safety – something far from assured, with the Picts still hunting them – or attempt to rescue the general from the clutches of the barbaric Celts?

Well, no prizes for guessing which he plumps for. My expert and informed reading of this film – well, the credits, anyway – leads to me to infer that this is, in fact, a homage to The Warriors, a 1979 movie about gang warfare in New York City, which was in turn based on a story from Xenophon (whatever props Centurion earns for crediting its inspirations are instantly lost when it spells Xenophon’s name wrong). However, the obvious plot similarities – small band of brothers have to battle their way home from deep within enemy territory – are sort of obscured by the fact that in many superficial ways Centurion much more closely resembles The Eagle from 2011.

The parallels with The Eagle are almost – ha, ha, you’ll like this one – eyrie. Not only do the films share a very similar setting and tone, but they’re based on the same historical event – the apparent annihilation of the Ninth Legion somewhere in Scotland in the early second century. You could even view The Eagle as an unofficial sequel to this film, as they don’t substantially contradict each other. Even beyond this, the structure and style of the films are very similar – although Centurion is a bit less soggy and authentic, for good or ill.

However, where The Eagle is thoughtful and does its best to be atmospheric, Centurion is a much more straightforward action movie. There’s a bit near the beginning which seems to be implicitly comparing the Roman presence in Britain with the present-day British presence in Afghanistan, but the film doesn’t pursue this in any meaningful way. Instead we get lots of Lord of the Rings-inflected helicopter shots of figures in a rugged landscape, and the odd bit pinched from elsewhere (believe it or not, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a notable donor).

But mostly what you get is violence. Lots and lots of it. On the strength of this film I get the impression that Neil Marshall can’t walk past a throat without slitting it or sticking an axe in it (note to libel lawyers reading this: I mean in a creative context). I thought Doomsday had some heavy violence in it, but this is possibly even stronger stuff. In the opening ten minutes you get a gory massacre, someone’s arm being skewered to a table with a knife, a bar brawl, and a prisoner being carved up by his captors. And it doesn’t really let up for most of the rest of the film – there’s a battle scene at one point which feels like it consists of dozens of quick shots of people being impaled on spears, shot in the eye with burning arrows, having their heads smashed with axes, chopped to bits by swords, etc, etc. I had thought that exposure to the collected works of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, the Hammer guys, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez had left me almost completely desensitized to this sort of thing – but no, there were a few bits in this film which made me go ‘Ooh,’ and grimace.

Now I’m not saying this in itself makes Centurion a bad film. But at the end I came away with the impression that there’s not much else to it except the violence: the story is so basic – dare I say it, perfunctory – that nothing else really lingers in the memory. This is a real shame as there is some top acting talent in this film. Fassbender is, of course, probably too classy an act to really be in this kind of film, but does his best regardless. Also appearing are the likes of David Morrissey, Liam Cunningham, Noel Clarke and Riz Ahmed, but those that make an impression do so by sheer force of charisma rather than as a result of the parts they have to play. Imogen Poots pops up as the love interest, and is as charming as usual, but once again she gets little to work with and the story demands she appears too late to really make an impact.

Centurion seems to have been an attempt at a serious historical action movie with an appropriately dour tone – indeed, at one point it looks as if the ending to this movie is going to be as dark as that of The Descent. It looks good and the actors are talented, but the problem is that the script can’t find anything really interesting for anyone to do for long stretches at a time, and the relentless gore makes this look like much more of an exploitation movie than is probably the case. I missed the SF and fantasy elements of Marshall’s other movies, too: isn’t there room in the world for a Roman soldiers vs. zombies film?

Oh well. Centurion is probably a better and more coherent film than Doomsday, but at the same time not quite as interesting. No word yet as to what Marshall’s next project is going to be, but the list of ‘planned films’ in his Wikipedia entry suggests he will not be going too far out of his comfort zone (suppliers of Kensington Gore up and down the land rejoice). The jury is still surely out as to whether The Descent was the one really great film Neil Marshall had in him: I hope not.

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Normally I have a lot of time for the science advocate, evolutionary theoriser and militant atheist Richard Dawkins, but every once in a while he comes out with some rather off-the-wall opinions, usually when he has temporarily left his own area of expertise and is commenting somewhere else off piste. Fifteen years ago or so I caught part of a lecture the great man was giving on the presentation of science in the media, and he was characteristically scathing about the bias he perceived. Broadcast every week on BBC1, he said, was a programme with two main characters, one of whom represented a rational, scientific viewpoint, while the other was a mouthpiece for every piece of New Age-y and pseudoscientific piece of gobbledegook the writers could come up with. Every week the characters would present their solutions to a mystery or crisis they encountered in the line of their work, and every week the scientific explanation would be wrong. How ridiculous! How objectionable! How likely to turn the nation into superstitious cretins!

Well, er, hang on, Rich – the show in question was The X Files, and only having genuinely spooky things in it 50% of the time would probably not have helped the ratings, given this was a show predicated on the existence of spooky phenomena. Nevertheless, the Prof had a point: any work of fiction revolving around a skeptical rationalist taking on the forces of the unexplained is unlikely to see the protagonist proved right, simply because there’s no story there. Or, to put it another way, one of the distinguishing characteristics of ghost stories is that they have ghosts in them.

Which brings us (finally) to Nick Murphy’s The Awakening, which has come out a couple of weeks late for Halloween, but clearly wants to be a Properly Scary Ghost Movie. Set in 1921, the main character is Florence (Rebecca Hall) a – you guessed it! – skeptical investigator of the paranormal. Her work in the area has won her admirers and detractors in equal number, but almost at once we can sense that something deeper drives her – does she just want to reveal the truth, or is she secretly hoping to one day find evidence of a ghost she is unable to explain away? Some tragedy seems to lurk in her past.

Florence is approached by Mallory (Dominic West), a master at a boarding school in Cumbria. There have long been reports of disturbances in the house, and the same spectral figure has been appearing in school photographs for decades. Now a pupil has been found dead, apparently having died of fright, and for obvious reasons the school authorities wish to have the matter investigated.

Well, I give absolutely nothing away by saying that on this occasion Florence encounters an apparition that resolutely resists debunking. That we are in standard ghost story territory is apparent from very early on, possibly even before we meet the Creepy Domestic to be found in all haunted houses (played in this instance by Imelda Staunton).

I turned up to The Awakening with fairly high hopes, based principally on the fact that co-writing the script with Murphy is Stephen Volk. Volk is not really a big name screenwriter, but nearly twenty years ago he traumatised the nation (if you believe the legend, and why not?) with the brilliant Halloween mockumentary Ghostwatch, in which a routine outside broadcast from a ‘troubled’ suburban house became an excursion into complete terror (particularly for those audience members who switched on late and weren’t aware it was drama).

Well, as I said, The Awakening is a much more traditional tale, and – if we’re honest – considerably less impressive. Murphy contrives some effective ‘jump’ moments (the gentleman in the row behind me was shouting ‘Yaargh!’ quite frequently, and I believe I expostulated at one point myself) but can’t quite generate an appropriately creepy atmosphere to accompany them the rest of the time.

As a result, the ghost itself, despite a reasonably effective build-up, isn’t that memorable a creation (certainly not compared to Pipes, the malevolent presence at the heart of Ghostwatch). I think perhaps the story has been overly drenched in metaphor – hardly surprisingly, given the setting, all the characters seem scarred and haunted by events in their personal histories. This kind of metaphor – the marks left by the past on the present – is central to many ghost stories, if not all of them, so it isn’t a problem in and of itself. But, that said, I’m not sure it should take the place of delivering a damn good scare, which is arguably what happens here.

That said, for most of its duration this is a fine film, well-mounted and directed, and with excellent performances from everyone involved. Rebecca Hall is particularly good in what’s a pretty big starring role which demands that she runs the gamut of emotions. For most of the film, the script is solid, if not exactly innovative, with a dash of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (another brilliant TV ghost story) in its focus on Florence’s rational approach to investigating the haunting.

Unfortunately, the movie comes a serious cropper in its final act. Having been restrained and quite thoughtful prior to this point, the climax sees the movie throwing not one, not two, but three separate twists at the audience. (Although one of these has appeared in so many other ghost movies that it’s practically become a cliche.) There’s a definite case of diminishing returns going on here (when the final twist was revealed, my reaction was not ‘What?!?’ so much as ‘What, not another one?!?’), and I’m not even sure the whole movie hangs together coherently as a result. It would be dishonest of me not to say that I found the end of this film a serious letdown after a strong start.

Is it enough to completely spoil The Awakening? Well, not quite – the film does work well up to a point, the acting is good, and there are some extremely spooky individual moments, especially early on. It won’t scare you to death, but neither will it bore you there – just be prepared to cut the ending some slack.

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