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Posts Tagged ‘Elijah Wood’

A lot of people involved in the film business are wont to get a bit precious about it, going on about artistic integrity, following their creative instincts,, stretching themselves and their talent, and so on. And this is often a laudable approach to take. The question is whether it excuses the rather disdainful approach sometimes taken to people who are quite happy to treat the business as a business and simply concentrate on maximising returns, more high-falutin’ concerns be damned.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Vin Diesel has no artistic integrity – anyone who’s seen the videos revealing the method approach he takes to playing Groot in the Marvel movies will know this is not the case – but he does seem to be an actor and producer who has figured out that his films are going to do better if he just sticks to making sequels and franchise movies. Of the twenty or so films where he’s played the lead since making Pitch Black, there are eight Fast & Furious movies, three as Riddick, and two xXx films, the balance consisting of before-he-was-famous obscurities like Knockaround Guys and A Man Apart, his mid-2000s dabble with full-on comedy (The Pacifier and Find Me Guilty), and stabs at other kinds of genre movie such as Babylon AD and the recent Bloodshot. What is perhaps telling is that Babylon AD came out in 2008 and Bloodshot earlier this year: in between these two, almost every single movie led by Diesel was from one of his franchises. It’s not that people don’t go to see Diesel in other films: he just doesn’t make other films.

The sole exception, and thus potentially quite an interesting entry in the Diesel filmography, is Breck Eisner’s 2015 movie The Last Witch Hunter. I say it is potentially quite interesting as a bit of an outlier where Vin is concerned, not because of any particular merits of the film itself, because these are marginal as we shall see.

The movie opens in the twelfth century, with a group of warriors venturing into the fabled Tree of Evil to kill the Witch Queen whose plague has devastated their land (there is a lot of Implicit Capitalisation in this movie). I was mildly diverted by the realisation that this sort of magic pagan villainess has almost become a stock character in (usually bad) fantasy movies – I was reminded of the Milla Jovovich character in the last Hellboy, and also Rebecca Ferguson in The Kid Who Would Be King – but much more distracted by the beard and hairpiece they have glued onto Diesel to make him look like a man from the dark ages.

You know, I honestly can’t decide if this is a good look for Vin or not. Initially it just seems quite funny in the same way that seeing him with dreadlocks at the start of Chronicles of Riddick draws a smile, but this may just be because Diesel is such a famous baldy. If he kept the hair for the whole movie perhaps we would get used to it, but it is just a bit of set dressing for the prologue: soon he is waving a flaming sword around and shouting things like ‘Fire and steel!’ The Witch Queen is briskly dealt with, but has the last laugh, as she curses Vin with eternal youth and immortality (not, you might think, the most onerous things to be cursed with).

Well, we skip forward to the present day where Vin has adopted his usual shiny-scalped mien and is working for an organisation named the Axe and the Cross (which looks very much like the Catholic Church, to be honest). It turns out there is a population of witches with magical powers living unseen alongside regular folks, and it’s Vin’s job as – all together now – the Last Witch Hunter to make sure they behave themselves. Already the astute viewer will be having thoughts along the lines of ‘Hang on, this is Highlander meets Hellboy meets Harry Potter meets Blade meets Men in Black.’

Such thoughts are dispelled with the appearance of Michael Caine (yes, really) as Vin’s best friend and confidante, Dolan the 36th. It is almost instantly apparent that Caine has been hired to reprise his performance as Alfred the Butler from the Christopher Nolan Batman films, but Caine does his best with the role despite the fact he is required to deliver dialogue like ‘I trust you were able to retrieve the weather runes without complications?’ It seems like Caine is just here for a cameo, anyway, as he is on the verge of retirement and due to be replaced by the youthful Dolan the 37th (Elijah Wood). However, the elder Dolan is fatally clobbered by black magic and it is up to Vin and the new guy to avenge their friend! But could there be a deeper conspiracy at work…?

It strikes me there would be potential in a horror-comedy buddy-movie starring Vin Diesel and Elijah Wood as mismatched occult cops, but sadly The Last Witch Hunter is a Vin Diesel vehicle through and through, and Wood is stuck in a very subordinate role. The Vin Dieseliness of this film is so complete that it is apparently based on one of the characters the big man used to play in his Dungeons & Dragons games. (I feel if we could get transcripts of Vin’s old RPG sessions we might gain many insights into his creative identity.) Then again, one inevitably finds oneself wondering about the quality of Vin’s role-playing, as this is not a film which suggests he has a great range as an actor which he is keeping quiet about. As a reluctant supernatural warrior and man out of time, he gives exactly the same smirking, swaggering, smug performance that seems to be his default setting when not playing Dominic Toretto. He actually makes Christopher Lambert’s turn in a vaguely similar role in Highlander look nuanced and thoughtful, and Lambert was acting in a language not his own.

That said, nobody but Caine (and, just possibly, Wood) emerges from this film with any credit when it comes to acting, nor is the rest of it any more distinguished than I have suggested: this is a hugely derivative film, pinching indiscriminately from other action-fantasy films, and not doing anything to distinguish itself. It kind of functions at the most basic level, but just trundles along without ever becoming interesting or developing a life of its own: copious use of CGI does not in and of itself make a film interesting, although it does contain a moment where Vin delivers his trademark flying headbutt to a giant wooden insect (the film sorely needs more of this kind of thing).

Only the mystifying elements of the film make it distinctive: for instance, Rose Leslie turns up as a friendly witch who ends up helping Vin out, and you think, aha, here is the love interest. It certainly seems to be written that way, but for some reason the relationship remains very understated for no obvious reason. I know it is still the received wisdom that inter-racial relationships are probably best avoided in commercial movies (cf Will Smith’s non-romance with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Gemini Man as another example), but is that really the reason for it? I suppose it is an example of what they call creative ambiguity.

I suppose it is an example of Vin Diesel’s star power that despite all of this, and some unfriendly reviews when it was released, The Last Witch Hunter was not actually a bomb, just about making enough money for a sequel to seem like a viable option. Before the world shut down, Diesel announced they were going through with it, but I suppose we shall just have to wait and see what the cinematic landscape looks like when the current situation eventually resolves itself. Personally, my fondness for Diesel remains undiminished, but I’m not in any hurry to see more outings for these characters.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 22nd 2003:

The book is too short.’ – JRR Tolkien

Given the tendency for epic SF-and-fantasy trilogies to go spectacularly belly-up in their third installment (particularly when part three’s title begins Return of the…) it would be understandable if we’d all felt a few misgivings ahead of the release of the final installment of Peter Jackson’s extraordinary Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. That almost no-one did is a tribute to the craft and skill and dedication Jackson and his army of helpers have invested in this project. Possibly in the entire history of the medium, only The Phantom Menace has been so breathlessly awaited by so many dedicated fans.

Attentive masochists will recall that I really, really loved the first two movies, for all sorts of reasons. I fully expected seeing this one for the first time to be one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life. So maybe my expectations of this film were so great that nothing was ever going to satisfy them, because – while it is tremendous, stirring, emotive, and nerve-janglingly exciting – somehow I didn’t emerge from Return of the King as awe-struck and enchanted as I did its two predecessors.

It all kicks off happily enough: Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) are still trying to sneak into Mordor to get shot of the Ring of Power, not really suspecting the grisly ambitions of their guide Gollum (Andy Serkis), while their friends are reunited after the battle of Helm’s Deep and the conversion of Isengard from industrial hellhole to bijou garden centre (complete with water feature). But trouble’s never far away with that scamp Sauron about, and soon the city of Minas Tirith is under threat: Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) scoot off to marshall the defences while Merry (Dominic Monaghan) joins the riders of Rohan1, and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself having to raise his own army – literally.

For the first couple of hours this really is terrific stuff, everything we could’ve hoped for, as the hordes of Mordor close in on the city, and Frodo moves closer and closer to his fateful encounter with the horrible Shelob. As ever, it’s the moments you least expect to that stay with you longest – Jackson takes a seemingly-mundane sequence like the lighting of Gondor’s beacon fires, and, aided as ever by Howard Shore’s wonderful score, transforms it into something fantastically rousing and beautiful. The charge of the Rohan cavalry into the forces of Mordor is heart-stopping cinema and the following clash with enemy Mumakils every bit its equal.

But once the siege is lifted, and Sam and Frodo have made their way into Mordor, I thought the film lost its way just a tiny bit. There is still spectacle and emotion, but to me it all felt somehow rushed, the story and characters denied the chance to breathe – a particular problem as this story has a slight but definite tendency towards anticlimax no matter what medium it appears in. This is a very long film even by today’s standards, but even so the rhythm established in its first two thirds suffers as it nears its climax. Obviously the extended version will go a long way to fix this, and it’s very clear that a lot of material has been deleted simply to keep the running time down – Christopher Lee’s scenes have, notoriously, all gone, along with Bruce Spence’s appearance as the Mouth of Sauron. Merry swearing fealty to Theoden (which made it into the trailer) has likewise been excised, seemingly along with the clash between Gandalf and the Witch King (Gandalf’s staff, apparently broken in this battle, seems to disappear without explanation in the version actually released). There are times when you feel Jackson may as well put up a caption saying ‘New Scene Will Go Here On DVD’, so obvious is it – something which was never really the case with either of the other films.

This is still a remarkable, breathtaking achievement – it just doesn’t surpass expectation and vanquish cynicism in the way The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers did. I emerged from both of those absolutely certain I’d just seen the best film of their respective years. This time round, I wasn’t – and while there have been a lot of good films out in 2003, I think the difference is still significant. It’s at least a very good film – and time and a re-edit may well reveal it to be a truly great one. But I can only speak of what I’ve seen so far.

Now, what are we all going to do next Christmas?

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally posted December 29th 2002:

As you may have noticed if you’ve read this column before, I go to the cinema rather a lot. And at the cinema I’ve seen films provoke many different responses: most often, cheers when the BBFC title card finally appears after the adverts and trailers (most noticably before Attack of the Clones – and, yes, we all felt slightly embarrassed for doing it once we’d actually seen the film). But also I’ve heard screams (most recently during The Others) and seen people walk out in confusion and/or disgust (that’d be in the middle of David Cronenberg’s Crash). But only once in a British cinema have I seen the audience give a film an ovation as the closing credits started to roll: and that film, as you’ve probably guessed, was Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

I must admit I was a little bit sceptical about this middle bit of Middle Earth, recalling that for quite a long time in the book not much happens – and most of the interesting stuff happens towards the ends of the various stories, which I already knew had been shifted back to next Christmas’ concluding installment. And after the powerhouse opening sequence, briefly reprising the duel at Khazad-Dum before moving on to depict Gandalf (Ian McKellen) putting the smackdown on the Balrog amongst the foundations of the world, my worries seemed briefly founded. This is the entirety of the recap that Jackson provides before plunging us back into the various travails of the different elements of the Fellowship – Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are struggling towards Mordor, alternately stalked and guided by the ruined creature Gollum (a remarkable fusion of actor Andy Serkis and CGI), while Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), having being been grabbed by the Uruk-hai (sounds painful), are being carried off to the clutches of renegade wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) – but not if their comrades Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) have anything to say about it! The movie assumes this is all already clear in the minds of the audience, so the early stages can seem a little unwelcoming. But as time goes on and the rhythm and power of the film seduces the imagination, Jackson unfurls the fullness of his vision, and the result is a heroic fantasy of the highest quality.

All the pleasures of the first film are here again to be enjoyed – Mortenson’s macho posturing and slightly strangulated Numenorean accent, McKellen’s formidable wizard (regenerated in true Dr Who style into a arse-kicking new incarnation), Howard Shore’s majestic score, and much, much more. And there are, of course, new characters and locations by the bucketload – Bernard Hill gives a quietly powerful performance as King Theoden, Miranda Otto lights up the screen as shieldmaiden Eowyn, helplessly drawn to Aragorn (intrigued, no doubt, by the impressive length of his pipe), and Brad Dourif1 oozes unpleasantness as Wormtongue. And while The Two Towers inevitably lacks some of the impact of The Fellowship of the Ring, there are still gobsmacking visuals on a regular basis: armies of darkness on the march, the opening fight sequence, the gates of Mordor grinding open, Nazgul on fell beasts flying over ruined cities…

Even moreso than the first time round, Jackson and his fellow writers have taken liberties with the text in order to make this work cinematically. Most obviously, this film only covers the events in fourteen or so of the twenty chapters in Tolkien’s book (so anyone expecting the abhorrent Shelob to appear, or Pippin and Merry to be reunited with their friends, is in for another year’s wait). The timing and order of events have been significantly rejigged beyond this, though, so that things occurring days apart in the book happen simultaneously at the climax of the film. Personally, I didn’t have too much of a problem with this, but you don’t have to surf too far across the internet to find a message board full of Tolkies seething and screaming their outrage – ‘Peter Jackson is a second-rate director with no imagination and he should be slapped!‘ is one of the milder things I’ve read. It does seem that the more familiar you are with the book, the more likely it is you’ll find something to object to in the movie.

I’m only really a dabbler when it comes to Tolkien but even I think there are needless flaws here and there in this film. The Aragorn-Arwen romance is once again inserted into the film with all the subtlety of a shot from a trebuchet, there’s a pointless subplot about one character being missing presumed dead, and Gimli’s role as the sole source of comic relief in the film perhaps deviates a little too far from the Professor’s vision for my taste. And while Jackson’s decision to shift the last six chapters of the books into film three is doubtless justified, it does mean that many of the most popular characters from Fellowship get surprisingly little screen time in this installment.

But these are minor, minor flaws in what is – to my mind at least – an almost incomprehensibly good film. The above excepted, it delivers on nearly every level – as pure spectacle, most obviously, but also in terms of the performances, the handling of the themes, the production design, the score… and most of all, in terms of Jackson’s contribution. The script deftly juggles anything up to five different plotlines at once, while still managing to evoke the story’s Shakespearean parallels (Henry V, Macbeth, and King Lear are all alluded to). The progress of the siege of Helm’s Deep is expertly handled and always clear. But his direction encompasses the moving, personal stories as skilfully as the epic battles – frequently switching from one to the other within the same scene.

Short of Peter Jackson dropping the ball in a major way in the course of the next year (or going under a bus), I’m certain that – when complete – The Lord of the Rings will come to be seen as the greatest achievement in the history of popular cinema. As things currently stand – well, longterm readers may be forgiven a sense of deja vu, but The Two Towers is quite literally awe-inspiring cinema, and, if there’s any justice in this world, the recipient of next year’s Academy Award for Best Picture.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 27th 2001:

Another point on this, the question that dominates my email: the adaptation of masterpieces from one medium to another is as old as literature. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are re-workings of stories, poems or written history. When I moved Richard III from stage to screen, I was determined to make a good film in honour of a great play. Had I left every scene and line of the text intact in the movie, it would not have been a good one. Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, my favourite version of the Macbeth saga, distorts Shakespeare to spectacular effect. The play which inspired it remains intact. – Sir Ian McKellen

For a critic, even a pretend one like me, there is only ever one ambition: to write about the subject accurately, entertainingly and persuasively enough to have some impact on the way the reader views it – maybe even enough to influence whether or not they decide to see it all. Sometimes success is, perhaps, achieveable. And sometimes… well, this week I’m looking at Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and faced with such a couple of cinematic colossii, whose metaphorical ankles I stand no higher than, it quickly becomes obvious that I’m staring defeat in the face.

Both these films are based on the opening volumes of well-loved fantasy series1. Both have been eagerly awaited. Both feature powerful casts and striking effects-work. Both look very certain to muscle their way up the all-time box office takings chart. Obviously, they are – superficially, at least – very similar.

And consider the storylines: the story of an ordinary, unassuming young orphan, living with relatives. After he discovers the remarkable significance of his inheritance he is forced into a journey of discovery. His ultimate opponent is a dark lord whose power is resurgent – his greatest ally a venerable wizard of formidable power, though there are friends both large and small to be found along the way. At the end the Death Star blows up. So, yes, both stories derive from the same tradition of heroic fantasy. But the way in which the stories are told for the screen couldn’t be more different.

Lord of the Rings has a large cast, containing many well-known faces: Ian McKellen – who’s fast becoming one of my favourite performers – as the wizard Gandalf, a magisterial Christopher Lee as his counterpart Saruman, Liv Tyler as the Elf maiden Arwen, Ian Holm as the legendary Bilbo2, and Sean Bean as the mercurial warrior Boromir. But all seem to have been cast solely on merit, just as with the lesser-known actors in other key roles – Elijah Wood as Frodo, the ringbearer, Viggo Mortenson as the stoic ranger Strider, and Sean Astin as the faithful Sam Gamgee, to name but three. (There are also a couple of well-known names rendered unrecognisable by their prosthetic make-up, particularly John Rhys-Davies as Gimli the dwarf.) The performances are uniformly excellent, at the very least: Wood is moving as Frodo, and as the wizard, McKellen is a towering presence.

With Harry Potter, though, it was ever-so-slightly like watching people in free-fall fighting over an insufficient number of parachutes. Every few minutes, it seemed, someone like Julie Walters or John Hurt would roll up, do a show-stopping cameo and then clear off. Now most of these people were also very good, but the overall effect was a bit distracting – a combination of ‘I wonder who’s on next?’ and ‘is that all they’re actually doing?’ Robbie Coltrane emerged from the scrum with most success, with Alan Rickman and Richard Harris not far behind. The troika of child stars were rather variable, I thought, and under-used (dialogue seemed to consist wholly of exclamations of ‘Whoa!’ for long stretches of the film). Rupert Brint was good as Ron, but as Harry, Daniel Radcliffe was a bit too passive (and looked like a strange hybrid of Walter the Softy and Liam Gallagher).

I think Lord of the Rings scores over Harry Potter in the visual department, too: admitted it has the bonus of New Zealand standing in for Middle Earth, to awesome effect, but even so I found my jaw continually dropping open at the sheer beauty and power of the images on the screen – a brief but impressive glimpse of Sauron’s fastness, Barad-Dur, the manic activity in the pits below Isengard, or the infernal might of the Balrog (a stunning creation). It’s the most fully-realised fantasy world in many years. Harry Potter, of course, is set in a version of our own world, but even so the special effects, while respectable, are not as convincing as one might have hoped for (the Quidditch match is particularly disappointing).

It should be obvious by now that I rate Lord of the Rings a good deal higher than Harry Potter. And the main reason for this has nothing to do with the concerns outlined above. Harry Potter was made in consultation with the author of the books, JK Rowling, who apparently had the power of veto over all aspects of the production. Probably due to this, and also from a desire to appeal to the widest possible audience, director Chris Columbus has made a visually rather bland film that sticks very, very close to the book – too close, in fact. The result is a film that frequently seems unfocussed and a little self-indulgent and is certainly at least thirty minutes too long – Lord of the Rings is a longer film, but doesn’t feel overlong the way Harry Potter does. It’s not a bad film, by any means, but by staying too close to the original text it does Rowling’s remarkable prose no justice.

By contrast, Peter Jackson takes liberties with Tolkien that will make any purist blanch. There are many substantial changes – sections of the book have been removed and new material inserted in their place. But all the changes serve to make the story work for the screen, as a film in its own right. The memorable-but-superfluous visit to Tom Bombadil is gone completely. Glorfindel’s role is carried out by Arwen, to provide a suitable introduction for her. The pursuit of the hobbits by the Black Riders is suitably chilling and relentless. Frodo’s encounter with Galadriel (an ethereal Cate Blanchett) is truly startling. Most significantly, Saruman’s role has been substantially beefed up, and he and his hench-thing Lurtz provide a physical personification of evil lacking from the text. And throughout the whole enterprise, the key themes of Tolkien’s work – the corrupting influence of absolute power, the conflict between mechanisation and the natural world, and the power of true friendships such as the one between Sam and Frodo – are emphasised and explored.

It’s by no means perfect, though. Longeurs threaten in Rivendell and again in Lothlorien. The romance between Aragorn and Arwen doesn’t really justify its inclusion. There’s no real sense of the topography of Middle Earth, but short of handing out maps in the foyer I can’t think of a solution to this. The Professor himself would be appalled by the Celticisation of much of his creation. And the end is, perhaps inevitably, a little anticlimactic. But it’s still a magnificent achievement.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a superior, though overlong, children’s adventure. It’s also a film with a mountain to climb. The Lord of the Rings is that mountain, and The Fellowship of the Ring is an epic in every sense of the word – and, if there’s any justice in this world, the recipient of next years’ Academy Award for Best Picture.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published  May 6th 2004:

A couple of years ago, there was nearly a strike in Hollywood about – amongst other things – the possessive credit. This is when a film opens with the legend ‘A Film By Reuben Claxheim’ or something similar. Where the same person writes and directs the film, this seems fair enough, but it’s the instances when the director appears to ignore the writer’s creative contribution that caused the dispute.

But it does seem to be the case that films are defined by their star or director, rather than their writer. Everyone thinks in terms of Hitchcock films, barely aware of the army of scribes the great man employed. It’s just one of those things. Well, except in the case of Charlie Kaufman, arguably the only star screenwriter currently working. Kaufman is the man responsible for the acclaimed Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and now he’s written Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry.

This is the rather Phildickian tale of Joel (Jim Carrey), a New York cartoonist coming off the back of an ugly break-up with his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). Already distraught, he is very nearly traumatised to learn that she has had all memories of him erased by Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his rather shabby team of assistants. Understandably, Joel decides to wipe Clementine from his own memory, not realising that once begun, there’s no way of halting the process…

This being a Kaufman script the plot is inevitably much less straightforward than that precis makes it sound. This is certainly a much denser and stranger film than the cast list (which includes Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood) would suggest, and anyone turning up for some knockabout laughs with Jim Carrey acting like a gimp is in for a rude awakening. (I suspect this film may generate some rather poisonous word-of-mouth because of this – two people quite separately stumped past me muttering ‘Boring crap’ at the end of the screening I went to.) Eternal Sunshine is essentially more of the neurotic surrealism that Kaufman is famous for, grounded by some naturalistic cinematography and some affecting performances.

Truth be told (and as anyone who read last summer’s review of Bruce Almighty will know) I’m not a particular fan of either Carrey or Winslet in normal circumstances – but here they are both likeable and touching, particularly in the film’s opening sequence (some films have a twist ending – this probably qualifies, but goes one better and also has what’s arguably a twist beginning!). That said, many of their scenes together are set in Joel’s rapidly-dwindling memory, and – despite some visual pyrotechnics from Gondry – things do get a tiny bit samey. It’s probably just as well that there’s another major strand revolving around the messed-up relationships of Mierzwiak’s employees, who have a convincing and amusingly shambolic attitude to their work. Dunst is good, but then she can do sweet-and-vulnerable-but-troubled in her sleep. Rather more interesting is the way that Elijah Wood has opted to play a rather less than wholly sympathetic character in his first post-Baggins outing – he makes an impressive job of it, too.

But I can’t help feeling that, overall, Kaufman is writing himself into a Shyamalan-esque corner – Eternal Sunshine doesn’t have anything like the novelty value of his earlier films. It’s not actually a bad film, but it’s neither as clever or as funny as the best of his work. The fact that there’s already been one film about memory erasure already this year (and I feel certain there have been more, but I can’t remember what they were) isn’t exactly a help.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is essentially an arthouse movie that’s somehow lucked into getting an A-list cast and a major release. It’s a well-played, intelligently written and directed piece of work – even if the conclusion feels like the film is straining too hard to surprise the audience. I liked it, but even so, I don’t think it’s nearly as original or witty as it thinks it is. And Kaufman’s reputation as a ‘name’ should stay intact: this is one for his fans more than those of Carrey or Winslet.

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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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