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Posts Tagged ‘Emily Watson’

In the early Autumn of 2008, a bunch of friends and I decided to spend our day hiking up to the Al-Archa glacier, at the top end of a valley in a national park just outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The hike itself took several hours, through forests, across rock fields, and up hillsides. Pretty soon we were starting to feel the effects of the altitude and later on fatigue became an issue, too. Eventually we reached the bottom of the last slope before the ascent to the glacier itself. And I said no, I’d wait for the others here: maybe I could’ve made it up there, dignity intact, but getting back down? A different matter. I knew I was on the edge of my limitations, and sometimes wisdom is just knowing when to turn back, or at least stay where you are.

This is probably why a film has never been made of my life (something for which I suspect we should all be very grateful), especially not one like Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest, which teaches us… well, a number of things, I suppose. That the tops of mountains are not places for idle mucking about, that once you make a plan you really ought to stick to it, and that it’s all very well trying to be a nice guy, but…

everest

Based on the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster (I don’t think that constitutes a spoiler), the film focuses on an expedition led by Kiwi mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), an experienced climber famous for getting paying clients up to the summit of the world’s highest mountain and bringing them back down safely – a hand holder, in the slightly dismissive estimation of his friend and business rival Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has a more pragmatic view of the trade. Also on the expedition are various characters with their own reasons for wanting to make this most perilous climb, including tough Texan Beck (Josh Brolin).

The most climbing I usually do is walking up the stairs to the balcony seats at the cinema, so simply learning about what it takes to get up Everest would be an engrossing and enlightening experience for me, and to begin with that’s what Everest the movie is. Clarke gives a slightly ominous speech near the start, reminding everyone that the top of Everest is called the death zone for a reason, but for the most part there are only the slightest hints of what is to come: there may be quite a few competing teams looking to reach the summit at the same time, and the weather reports might look slightly iffy, but there’s nothing really to suggest the horrors that follow.

Everest is being advertised as an adventure film, while my landlady suggested it was a disaster film. I don’t really agree with either of those descriptions: for me this is a horror movie, plain and simple, with the mountain itself in the role of the monster, just as capable of killing and horribly mutilating unsuspecting victims as any less-abstract creation. Or suspecting victims, for that matter: the film takes pains to point out the wealth of experience the people on the mountain take with them, only to find themselves utterly at a loss as the blizzard closes in on them. Apart from the weather, the film suggests that a number of factors were to blame for the tragedy, most of them seemingly innocuous taken in isolation. But what emerges most powerfully is that, on Everest, the most basic human foibles – professional rivalry, administrative cock-ups, poor eyesight, one bad judgement call, even basic compassion and sympathy – these are things that can get you killed.

Climbing calamities are good material for movies, especially the real-life kind, and Everest is up there with the best of the genre – for me the gold standard in this sort of thing is still Touching the Void, and initially I thought that Everest, though interestingly and very competently made, was not to the same standard. But the film executes a slow burn, creeping up on you as it introduces its large cast of characters, until things start going horribly wrong and you find yourself gripped and appalled and yet unable to look away.

Kormakur’s handling of a complex, multi-stranded narrative is the really outstanding thing here, but the visual effects are, needless to say, impeccable, and the director is well-served by what’s pretty much an all-star cast: as well as the people I’ve already mentioned, there is solid work by Emily Watson, Sam Worthington, and several other less-well-known names. Keira Knightley plays Rob Hall’s pregnant wife, back home in New Zealand, which to be honest is a fairly thankless role, but even so she makes a decent job of it. And the film also contains a number of moments and sequences that I think I’ll remember for a long time – there’s a moment where the moment, late on, when the Nepalese air force attempt to send a helicopter up to one of the higher camps on Everest in order to evacuate an injured climber, which initially fails simply because the climbers are higher than the vehicle is physically able to fly. Like nothing else, this brings home the sheer scale of the altitudes and dangers involved.

As well as Touching the Void, Everest is already starting to pick up comparisons with Gravity, another film about struggling to survive in an almost definitively hostile environment. To be honest, I’m not sure they have that much in common, and I don’t think Everest is quite up to the standard of that extraordinary film – but it is brilliantly made and assembled. Entertainment is probably not quite the word for it, but it’s still extremely worthwhile viewing.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 20th 2003:

[Following a review of Far From Heaven.]

Well, after all that rich cinematic fare I was in the mood for something a bit less demanding. So what should fit the bill better than a sci-fi action thriller starring someone like Wales’ own Christian Bale? Pleasingly, just such a movie happened along in the shape of Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium.

In the future, society has been reshaped to include the maximum possible number of cliches from old SF movies. All emotion has been outlawed and the population exists in a permanent drugged stupor, rather like Vulcans on valium. Enforcing this new regime are the implausibly named Grammaton Clerics, foremost amongst whose number is the fanatically calm John Preston (Christian Bale, king of the dodgy accent). Preston is shocked (or would be, were it not illegal) to learn that his partner Errol Partridge (Sean Bean, slumming it) is secretly breaking the law and getting all teary and emotional over poems by Yeats (his transgressions no doubt caused by the stress of having such a stupid name), but being a dedicated servant of the state does his duty, letting Sean Bean get an early bath and have a long talk with his agent about the quality of the scripts he gets sent. Bean’s replacement is the ambitious Brandt, played by Taye Diggs from Chicago. But Preston inevitably finds himself questioning the values of the state, particularly after meeting hardened offender Mary (Emily Watson, really slumming it). Can he meet the challenge of bringing about a change in the system? And can Christian Bale meet the challenge of portraying more than one emotion in the same film?

Let’s talk about the good things in Equilibrium first. It’s rather well directed, for one thing, with a good deal of style. The production designs have a sort of brutalist grandeur even if they don’t quite manage to avoid cliche. Some of the action sequences are rather well put together, too. And, fair’s fair, Bale does a pretty reasonable job of portraying a man experiencing an emotional awakening (even if he is, inevitably, more convincing before than after).

But that really is all the film has going for it. Apart from this, what’s not cliched is silly, and what’s not silly is cliched. The list of films Equilibrium rips off seems to roll on forever: Logan’s Run. THX-1138. Fahrenheit 451. Metropolis. 1984. Demolition Man. The Matrix (there’s the most blatant knock-off in history of the lobby sequence from The Matrix, which is saying something). Being derivative isn’t necessarily a crime, but Equilibrium fails to fuse all its influences together in such a way as to establish an identity of its own.

The only even slightly original element to the script is the new martial art of ‘Gun-kata’, which supposedly involves using statistical analysis to predict where the bullets are going to be in a gunfight so the exponent can arrange to be elsewhere at the time. This idea strikes me as a bit bobbins, and the fact that on-screen the practitioners just seem to be vogueing with a gun in each hand does not help its credibility.

Credibility is one of Equilibrium‘s problems throughout, to be honest. Apart from characters with silly names, the script’s attempts to be moving and make serious points are torpedoed by a lack of subtlety (Preston finally turns against the system when it orders him to shoot a cute little puppy!) and some very dubious casting (at one point Bale beats up TV comedian Brian Conley – not that this is a bad thing, of course). The cast, which includes David Hemmings and (all too briefly) Lassie award laureate Sean Pertwee, do their best, but some things can’t be polished. And quite why the supposedly unemotional character played by Taye Diggs spent most of the movie grinning like a loon I could not tell you.

I didn’t really have great hopes for this film going in, but I would have settled for a cheerfully dumb, well-put-together, mid-budget actioneer (something like Bale’s last film, Reign of Fire). But Equilibrium‘s pretensions to worthiness, and its meandering, poorly-paced script, stop it from being even this. It aspires to have a message about the importance of emotions and compassion – but, ironically, I suspect the audience will find it very difficult to care either way.

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Even though I am only a pretend film critic (yes, that’s right, I pretend to watch them, then pretend to write about them, and if you’ve any sense you’ll only pretend to read the results) occasional issues approaching actual seriousness do occasionally occur to me. For instance: should all films be judged by the same standard? Well, regular readers may recall I’ve already said that one shouldn’t judge older movies by their production values, so in one sense I feel that would be a mistake. But what about the nature of the film? Should that make a difference?

Off down to the arthouse once again, this time to see the debut feature of Jim Loach, son of veteran lefty film-maker and national treasure Ken. It may well come as a surprise to learn that Loach’s movie is a 3D part-animated kung fu adventure set in post-apocalyptic Texas, starring Milla Jovovich… heh, heh. Just my little joke, readers. No, it’s exactly the kind of film you’d expect, given his heritage: a thoughtful, low-key and quietly angry film about the lives of real people: Oranges and Sunshine.

Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, a social worker in the midlands in the mid 80s, part of whose job involves working with adoptees. One night she is approached out of the blue by a middle-aged woman, who wants her help in tracing her roots: she claims to have been sent to Australia as a young child, along with hundreds of other British infants. Margaret dismisses her story as impossible: unescorted children would not be sent abroad like this. Yet details of other cases reach her, and she is forced to accept that, unknown to the vast majority of the public in either country, the systematic deportation of British children to Australia went on for decades. Some of these children still had parents alive in the UK when they were sent abroad – in some cases they were told their parents were dead. The parents were told their children had been adopted.

Margaret’s full-time job now becomes trying to help the former child migrants piece together their UK roots and, where possible, put them back in touch with their birth families. But the nature of the work and the strong emotions it inevitably stirs up takes a gruelling toll on her and her family.

I probably need to stress again that this is a true story, and that the deportations involved only stopped in 1970 – less than twenty years before Margaret Humphreys uncovered the truth of the scheme. It sounds like the stuff of an absurd conspiracy thriller, and in its opening section Oranges and Sunshine indeed resembles something of the sort: the mysterious stranger stuffing a folder of notes into the lead’s hands, which will prove to be the start of a trail leading to the incredible truth, the painstaking research… and while it lasts this style is very effective.

However, just at the point when you expect Watson’s character to be warned off by her boss, and a cover-up to be attempted, the film takes an abrupt left turn: her employers fully support her in her work, and the film becomes much more about the stories of the Humphreys and a handful of individual migrants. This seems partly to be a matter of necessity – there’s less material in the political angle, and no-one seems to know who was entirely responsible for the perpetuation of this scheme – and partly a deliberate choice on the part of the film-makers. I must admit I found the film slightly less involving once it made this transition.

That’s not to say it isn’t still extremely watchable. More than anything else, this is an actor’s film – Watson is extremely solid at the centre of it, but also delivering remarkable performances are Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. I wonder what it says about modern cinema that these two very fine actors are best known for appearing in films about elves, vampires, rogue computer programs and talking pigs? I’m not sure, but they’re both superb here: I’m not ashamed to admit that Weaving’s performance as a man desperately seeking his birth parents virtually moved me to tears. Wenham is arguably even better in a rather more complex role, as a man who’s led an impossibly hard life but refuses to play the victim or indulge in self-pity: ‘I had to stop crying when I was eight. I wouldn’t know how to start, now,’ he says, matter-of-factly.

Good though the performances are, and however potent the film’s emotional core is, it’s still the case that… well, I can imagine my former writing tutor watching this film and complaining throughout that there’s no mid-point, no climax, no resolution… Oranges and Sunshine may be based on true stories but it somehow doesn’t quite hang together as a cinematic narrative. The different strands don’t really interconnect all that much. One of them eventually becomes central – the story of a group of boys sent to a religious orphanage with a particularly baleful reputation – but even then it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, and it seems uncomfortably as if the film-makers (Loach and his script-writer, Rona ‘If we fight like animals, we die like animals’ Munro) have just fixed upon a case of church-related child abuse as something to give the end of the movie a little more oomph – and it almost overshadows the experiences of the other migrants, which is surely not what they intended.

And, as I say, there isn’t really a climax to speak of. The film makes it clear that the work of the Humphreys and their supporters continues to this day, and that in the years since the events of the film the two governments responsible have issued an apology – but there’s very little sense of closure at its conclusion. This is a very technically proficient movie, and intelligent enough to present its story in an understated fashion. It looks like a movie, as opposed to a TV drama, and no matter what the Australian government makes of it their tourist board will doubtless be delighted too.

However, to return to my opening question, should a fact-based drama like this be held to the same standards of storytelling as a piece of fiction? If so, then I would have to focus on the flaws in Oranges and Sunshine’s structure and narrative, and say that on several level this film is unsatisfying and disjointed. But the performances are so strong, the emotional content so powerful, and the story the film tells so important and shocking that there may be a case for arguing that in this instance the conventional standards should not fully apply. I’m not sure I know either way. But I would suggest that, should you be interested in deciding for yourself, you take a look at this movie: its possible flaws should not overshadow the definite quality of its performances and ambition.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 17th 2002:

He’s back in the public eye again, even when confined to his prison cell: a literary phenomenon, a cultured gentleman, and an iconic figure of the dark side of humanity and its most depraved appetites. But that’s enough about Jeffrey Archer, let’s focus instead on the infinitely more amiable Dr Hannibal Lecter, back on the big screen once again in Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon.

In Ratner’s movie Edward Norton plays Will Graham, a retired FBI agent who formerly specialised in the profiling of serial killers. He’s persuaded to take on one more case by his boss (Harvey Keitel) – two families have already been slaughtered by an unstable psychopath (Ralph ‘Mr Sunbeam’ Fiennes, who should really think about doing a comedy or something – although if the results are anything like The Avengers, maybe not) with another set of killings due in a matter of days. As time ticks away Graham agrees to draw upon the assistance of a brilliant forensic psychologist – the only drawback being that he’s currently incarcerated in a secure facility for the criminally insane, put there by Graham himself years earlier…

It’s hard to get past the idea that this is simply one last attempt to cash in on the popularity of Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal. Red Dragon is the second film version of Thomas Harris’ novel in sixteen years, the first being Michael Mann’s Manhunter (the two films actually share some of the same behind-the-camera personnel), a clinically stylish thriller featuring Brian Cox as Lecktor (sic). Cox made a big impression in what was a fairly small part, because Lecter is very much a marginal figure in the story as written.

Red Dragon retells the story in an approximation of the style of Silence of the Lambs – it makes much use of the iconography of Jonathan Demme’s film, recreating Lecter’s cell, the image of him in the mask, and concludes with a pointless foreshadowing of the 1991 movie1. But above all it makes as much use as it possibly can of Anthony Hopkins. This isn’t very much, though, and it’s one of the film’s major problems. When Lecter’s not on the screen things often seem a bit dry, and you impatiently await his next appearance – but when he does appear, Hopkins’ startlingly camp and rather over-the-top performance, while magnetic to watch and very funny, does seem rather out-of-place in a movie that’s trying to sell itself as a straightforward psychological thriller.

Hopkins virtually steals the movie, and you get the impression he was heartily encouraged to. But Fiennes is also very good in a complex role, as is Emily Watson as a girl he befriends. (The two younger Brits seem to have modelled their performances on that of the great man, inasmuch as none of them ever seems to blink, and the array of fixed, glassy eyeballs rather reminded me of The Muppet Show). Norton spends rather too long talking to himself and wandering around crime scenes to be really engaging as the hero, and Keitel’s part is horribly underwritten and two-dimensional. It falls to Philip Seymour Hoffman to keep the US end up with a nice turn as a sleazy reporter.

The plot is quite engaging, though the climax seems a bit contrived and there are a few implausibility’s – about half way through Graham and Crawford make a mistake that has quite horrific consequences, but no-one, not them, not their superiors, not even the media, seems particularly bothered by this. But it’s neither especially scary or suspenseful, and Ratner seems a rather limited director – his main achievement is to keep a film with some very nasty subject matter down to a box-office-friendly 15 certificate (fantastic actor though he is, the most disturbing sight in the film is that of Hoffman in his y-fronts). Its finest moment by some way is the opening, a piece of black, grand guignol comedy reminiscent of a Vincent Price horror movie – but one that’s over all too soon.

Actually, this has much more in common with the horror genre than that of the thriller. Lecter is a fantastical figure, refined, aloof, fearsomely intelligent, his only weakness being his dietary peculiarities. Is there really that much difference between him and the horror icon for much of the last century, Dracula? I don’t think so. Fiennes’ character, on the other hand, is depicted as almost superhumanly strong and resilient, deformed, haunted by an abusive female relative, and drawn helplessly to a young blind girl: there are echoes there of both Frankenstein’s monster and Norman Bates (himself a split personality, a condition with its own fantastical mirror in the form of the werewolf). These are old friends in new skins, and a sign of where this movie is really rooted.

The other way in which this is a very traditional horror film is that in it, evil is presented as being synonymous with sexual ‘deviancy’. Norton must choose between traditional family life and the twisted world of the serial killers for which he has such an uncomfortable empathy, as embodied by Lecter – whose effete, preppy turn of phrase and double entendres (‘I’d love to get you on my couch’ he simpers to Graham at one point) mark him out as the ultimate predatory gay, looking to either turn or destroy his happily married adversary. Fiennes’ character, on the other hand, specifically targets the traditional, nuclear family and is portrayed as a shy, repressed mummy’s boy (another vaguely unpleasant gay stereotype) whose possible redemption comes in the form of a decent ‘normal’ relationship with a woman. Did the film-makers intend to include this homophobic subtext in their movie? I don’t know, but it’s not exactly deeply buried and I’m surprised it hasn’t drawn more criticism.

Unpleasant or not, hackneyed or not, it’s still the most interesting thing about Red Dragon. This is a reasonable thriller, with some good performances, and I quite enjoyed it (though I still think Manhunter is by far the better film). But as a film that’s being marketed and will be judged as an addition to the Lecter franchise, it’s inevitably disappointing. An entirely new outing for the doctor might have been a better idea – but as Hopkins has announced himself retired from cannibalistic service, we’ll never know.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 29th May 2003: 

Principles are important in life. To this day I can proudly affirm that no, I have never rustled cattle, taken a bogus sicky, or impersonated a member of the Polish parliament. But this world is naught but change and I’m afraid that one of the more cherished of these claims is no longer true, because – and believe me, starting the Twelve-Step programme was a walk in the park compared to making a declaration like this one – I have paid to see an Adam Sandler movie at the cinema.

Don’t be too harsh with me, please, because the film in question is not of the same ilk as the stuff that Sandler usually delights us with. This time round he’s in Punch Drunk Love, the latest offering from Paul Thomas Anderson, the man behind Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Both those films were very long and very busy. Punch Drunk Love is not.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a Los Angeles bathroom-fittings supplier. Barry has grown up with seven domineering sisters and as a result of this his screws are wound just a bit too tight. Most of the time he is a quiet if slightly neurotic fellow, but occasionally he explodes into bouts of berserk violence against inanimate objects.

But Barry is about to find an outlet for his emotions when he meets Lena (Emily Watson), a co-worker of one of his sisters. Their romance is, however, made somewhat unorthodox by the oddness of Barry’s life. A harmonium is inexplicably deposited on the sidewalk outside his office, and of course he feels the need to appropriate it. Barry is also involved in a very peculiar scam to claim air-miles from a pudding promotion. And to top it all off he is also being blackmailed by the proprietor of a phone-sex chat line (Philip Seymour Hoffman) he unwisely made use of one night.

There’s really no other way of putting it: this is a strange, strange film. Anderson seems to tear up the rulebook, not just of the rom-com genre (which this arguably is, albeit in a rather strained way), but of cinema itself. He uses long takes for much of the action, an impressive feat in itself given how complex some of the scenes are. A car-crash occurs out of nowhere at the end of a ten-second shot and is all the more startling for it. A repeated trick is to cut from a busy, noisy shot to one of stillness and quiet, or vice versa. The soundtrack reverberates with odd rhythms playing over and merging into one another.

This actually intersects quite well with the story, which has – if you’ll excuse a desperate oxymoron – a kind of surreal naturalism. The kind of things that happen in real life but never normally get shown in the movies do get shown in this one. Stuff happens in the background for no good reason and adds nothing to the plot. A preoccupied Sandler goes on a cross-country trip, carrying his office phone all the way with him. Anderson subverts the usual romance story – rather than showing us two people who instantly dislike each other, but who are thrown together and discover they actually get on rather well, Adam and Lena are smitten from the start – but find life throwing various bizarre obstacles in their way. He even manages the remarkable coup of making it credibly seem that the two leads may not end up together.

And as for the comedy – well, I thought this was quite a funny film, although I couldn’t tell you why, and while everyone in the cinema was laughing at least some of the time, it wasn’t always together. Most of the time this is down to Sandler flying off the handle or committing some odd social faux pas. He’s hugely likeable throughout the film and while his aptitude for broad physical comedy should not come as a great shock, his ability to hold his own in a dramatic scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman should. Emily Lloyd has a slightly tricky, reactive role opposite him, but she turns in another impeccable performance.

It was always going to be a monumental challenge for Anderson to top Magnolia, one of the very best films of recent years, and probably wisely he’s opted to make a film that can’t really be compared to it, or to virtually anything else I can think of either. But its unique style and atmosphere make Punch Drunk Love a considerable achievement in its own right – just don’t expect a film like any other you’ve seen before.

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