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Posts Tagged ‘Emma Thompson’

Having an orderly brain, I noted a few years ago that the gap between the first Men in Black film and the second one was five years, and further that the gap between the second and the third was ten years. It seemed a fairly reasonable assumption that there would be a twenty year gap between the third and the fourth, presumably with Will Smith moving into the role of the grizzled old veteran and someone as-yet-unheard-of providing the youthful glamour. Friends, I am shocked to have to relate this, but I was wrong. The new Men in Black film has come out thirteen years early, and I have to say that some might suggest it shows.

The title of the thing is Men In Black International, concerning the global doings of the secret agency which, for the purposes of this franchise, polices alien activity on the planet Earth. (‘But… but…’ anyone who was paying attention back in 1997 might be spluttering, ‘wasn’t it kind of established then that aliens were really just limited to the New York area?’ Good point. But shush.) The story gets going, chronologically speaking, with a young girl named Molly witnessing the Men in Black in action and wiping her parents’ memories afterwards. She grows up to be a massive over-achiever (Tessa Thompson) and through diligence and ingenuity manages to track the agency to its secret base, where she persuades the director (Emma Thompson, mostly phoning it in) to recruit her.

She is then packed off to the London branch, where there are suggestions of something not being quite right in the ranks of the persons with a wardrobe of a limited chromatic range. It seems that a few years ago there was a showdown atop the Eiffel Tower, which contains some sort of hyperspace gateway built by M. Eiffel, who was also a Man in Black. (‘But.. but… wasn’t it kind of established that the Men in Black came into existence as an exclusively American agency, in 1961?’ Another good point. But shush again.) The two agents involved (Liam Neeson and Chris Hemsworth) saved the world from an invasion by shape-shifting alien horrors, but Hemsworth’s character has been acting rather erratically ever since.

And there is some more plot following this, but I will not trouble you with the details as they are unlikely to linger much in your head, even if you see the movie. The general recipe for the film is kind of the same as before: there’s a gentle send-up of some of the tropes of B-movie sci-fi, mixed with some spy and cop movie clichés, and also a few potentially slightly scary bits with an almost Lovecraftian sense of gribbly tentacled unpleasantness pressing in on the margins of the mundane world.

The thing is that this time around… well, here’s what I have been led to understand about this film. Apparently director Gray was keen to make a film with a bit of a satirical edge to it and some social commentary on the topic of immigration (you can imagine how that would work, along with some of the more obvious gags – one wonders what kind of dismal alien hell-world could have spawned the current US administration). Producer Walter Parkes (who I feel obliged to mention has some pretty decent movies on his CV) wanted something a bit more middle-of-the-road and proceeded to start rewriting the script while the film was actually in production. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who reputedly signed on on the strength of the Gray script, were understandably bemused and independently recruited writers of their own to polish their dialogue.

(Yes, I know, it is utterly baffling that films are made this way, and we have to assume that it is not standard practice in the industry. Even so, this is a production with a budget of somewhere in the region of $100 million, yet the creative process involved seems to have primarily been based around squabbling and bemusement.)

When you consider all this, not to mention the producer and the director both assembling their own edits of the finished film (the producer’s version won out), one does have to say that Men in Black International is a staggering achievement in the way it still manages to be a more or less coherent story without a large number of holes in the plot. This is not to say that there aren’t any – there are still a few, and to be honest they are biggies, but it is unlikely to bother most members of the audience as the clash of different visions has resulted in a film with very little sense of what it’s supposed to be beyond a brand extension and franchise instalment. No one is likely to care or be engaged enough to worry too much about whether it makes any sense.

I mean, look, there is virtually wall-to-wall CGI for most of the film, and it is all very professionally done; fights and chases turn up on a regular basis; there are plot reversals and so on too. But none of it feels as if it means anything – it is all very mechanical and uninspired. It feels like a Men in Black film produced by some sort of artificial intelligence, or a joke written by a computer – all the structural elements are present and correct, it’s just completely flat and lifeless.

Now, of course, with this kind of film, winning chemistry from charismatic leads can go a long way towards taking up any bagginess in the other departments, but the film is also afflicted with, if this isn’t too harsh a way of putting it, the Chris Hemsworth problem. I have certainly enjoyed many Chris Hemsworth films and Chris Hemsworth performances in the past (mostly the ones where he has been playing Thor, to be honest). I have no beef with him as a person, not least because I have no personal relationship with him. However, he is in the awkward spot of being someone whose films make hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, but only when he plays that one character he’s famous for. So just how big a star is he really? Opinion seems to be divided on the topic, especially if you consider the stories that one of the reasons the fourth Bad Robot Star Trek movie folded was Hemsworth’s involvement being judged not to be worth his very hefty asking price (he was due to reprise his before-he-was-famous role as Captain Kirk’s dad). Hemsworth’s attempts to establish himself as a leading man in his own right are not helped by the fact he is essentially giving a lightweight version of the same performance he delivered in his last couple of MCU movies (here the ratio is about 70% swagger to 30% smug), or the fact he’s paired with Tessa Thompson, one of his regular foils from those same movies, or the fact that the film brazenly includes cheesy in-jokes alluding to Hemsworth having played Thor for the last eight years. As for Thompson herself, I have to say I’m not entirely sure she has the chops to be co-lead in a big aspiring blockbuster like this one. She’s not actually bad. But you’re still perhaps a little surprised to see her there, vaguely feeling that you were expecting someone else.

This is cinematic entertainment as disposable, mechanical product. It is rarely actually dull, for at least it has been edited together to provide a good deal of pace. But it is just a succession of sounds and pictures that makes sense in a transactional sort of way. It has no resonance, no subtlety, no depth, nothing new to say or do. It almost feels like it is aspiring to be mediocre. Anything which made the first couple of films in this series memorable and entertaining has been scraped out of the carcass and what remains lurches across the screen in an almost wholly affectless way. It doesn’t engage the emotions, the brain, or the sense of humour. Nobody was demanding this film, I suspect, but it could still have potentially revitalised and updated the series. Instead, I think that in a sane world it would constitute the final swift blow to its throat. So we can probably expect a reboot at some point in the next ten years.

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It is with an appropriate sense of dutiful resignation that I find myself turning my attention to David Kerr’s Johnny English Strikes Again, a third outing for Rowan Atkinson’s incompetent secret agent character. I think it is safe to say that there was no particular public clamour for another Johnny English film, and that the main reason for the appearance of this one is that the Atkinson family finances could be in need of a top-up: Atkinson himself seems to be semi-retired these days, his only substantial appearance since the last Johnny English (seven years ago) being as Maigret on the telly.

The movie gets underway with a cyber-attack on British intelligence, compromising the identity of every agent currently operating in the field – and so, to track down the guilty party, the British Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) is forced to reactivate some retired agents, amongst them Johnny English (Atkinson), who has left the service and become a school teacher specialising in knockabout espionage gags (he is clearly beloved by his cute young charges; the presence of all the kids is really the first sign that this film is pitching to a juvenile audience in every sense of the word).

Well, after an odd little scene where the mere presence of Michael Gambon, Charles Dance and James Fox briefly lifts proceedings (sadly, these are merely uncredited cameos), English is sent out into the field with his trusty sidekick Bough (Ben Miller). They go to the south of France where they end up infiltrating a chic restaurant by pretending to be French waiters (cue silly voices); they encounter the mysterious yet glamorous Ophelia Bulletova (Olga Kurylenko), who seems to be working for the mastermind behind the plans; there are various pratfalls and other very obvious gags in the style of Mr Bean.

Meanwhile, the string of cyber-attacks on the UK continues, driving the PM even further up the wall. She resorts to retaining American tech tycoon Jason Volta (Jake Lacy) in order to try and shore up the country’s defences. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, well, as you can probably tell, my Anglo-Iranian Affairs Consultant and I ended up going to see this film mainly because dinner-and-a-movie is just something we occasionally do, and – having been to the cinema six times in the previous week or so – there wasn’t much else on that I hadn’t already seen. And, you know, I told myself, it’s Rowan Atkinson, it’s very difficult for him to slip below a certain level of funniness, so it’s not like the film can be a total waste of time. Indeed, a colleague had taken a seven-year-old to see it and reported that she had in fact spent some of the film laughing.

I must be becoming even more of a withered old excrescence, because while I did laugh a few times during Johnny English Strikes Again, I don’t think it was in quite the way that the makers were hoping. There are, truth be told, some inspired moments of physical comedy from Atkinson, not to mention some quite good silly voices. But so much of the film is so painfully obvious and – as mentioned – laboriously telegraphed that while I was laughing, it wasn’t because the jokes were funny – it was at the idea that professional comedy film-makers thought that this kind of material was up to scratch.

As usual, the film operates in the same kind of narrative space as the Bond series. This may be because the original film was actually co-written by Purvis and Wade, long-time workhorses of the Bond franchise, and this time around the movie has managed to snag a genuine Bond alumnus in the shape of Olga Kurylenko (I am terribly shallow, but I do enjoy watching Kurylenko, even in films as dubious as this one) – quite what someone like her, who I would describe as a proper film star, is doing third-billed after TV’s Ben Miller, I’m not sure. It’d really be stretching a point to call this a Bond parody, though – the producers seem to have decided that the core audience for these movies is quite young children, which would explain a lot in terms of how silly and predictable most of this one is. Well, actually, it shouldn’t – even quite young children deserve better than this stuff.

One of the particularly frustrating things about it is that it refuses to engage (even in passing) with the real world. The closest it comes is when Thompson, who is clearly itching to do an eviscerating impression of Theresa May, lets rip about how awful and stressful her job is. Given the movie is largely predicated on the notion of how rubbish English people are at virtually everything, it pointedly refuses to engage on the main political issues of our time, even obliquely. When it does very occasionally seem to be slightly topically relevant, this is a) almost certainly by accident and b) almost uncannily misjudged – the plot revolves around a team-up between British intelligence and their Russian counterparts, for instance. The rest of the time it simply withdraws into a bland world of slapstick nonsense.

And I can’t help thinking that there’s a rather suspect reactionary whiff coming off this film, too, which leads me to suspect it may be intended as fodder for elderly Daily Mail-reading grandparents to take their hyperactive grandchildren to see. The issue of Britain’s place in the world may not be addressed, but there’s a definite sense of the film being suspicious of the modern world – the bad guy turns out to be an Elon Musk-esque tech boffin, there’s kind of a motif about doing things ‘old school’, and various jokes about Health and Safety regulations.

So, if you are an elderly, somewhat right-wing grandparent looking for something undemanding to shut up the brood of your brood, then Johnny English Strikes Again could very well be the film for you. For virtually anyone else, though, this is just too lazy and obvious and bland to pass muster. However, there are signs that the makers of this film are taking inspiration from Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther series, which only really concluded with Sellers’ passing. Atkinson is 63 and looks to be in good shape, so there may yet be future offerings from Johnny English in the future. But look on the bright side, there might be an environmental catastrophe and the collapse of civilisation first.

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Does this count as a genuine coincidence or not? About six months ago I was visiting relatives when my cousin (NB to family: I am aware this is a bit of a simplification, stand down), a man of great energy and rigorous thoughtfulness, descended on me and raved about the book he was reading at the time, Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. I’d never heard of the novel or the writer, but obviously this was not a recommendation to take lightly. Now here we are with a movie adaptation of the same (until relatively recently) slightly obscure novel enjoying what I will politely describe as a limited release.

The movie is directed by Vincent Perez, and is also called Alone in Berlin – the book has previously been adapted for German audiences under the title Everyone Dies Alone, and if that gives you the sense that there may not be a lot of laughs in this one, you are entirely with the programme.

We are currently in the midst of one of those occasional outbreaks of movies about the Second World War, with new ones appearing on a very nearly weekly basis (or so it feels, anyway). Alone in Berlin opens towards the end of the initial Nazi conquest of France, with the death in battle of a young German soldier. In most movies this would not be cause for concern, but this is not your typical film taking place in this particular setting. German soldiers have parents, too, and the next thing we see is the dead boy’s parents receiving the telegram notifying them of his death.

They are Anna and Otto Quangel (played by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson); she is a housewife, he a factory foreman, and they live together in a slightly pokey flat in the centre of Berlin. Previously it seems they have been apolitical when it comes to their government, but the death of their son ignites something, first in Otto, then in Anna, and they decide to do something, anything, to resist what they see as the lies of the ruling regime.

This takes the form of writing seditious postcards criticising Hitler and his ideology, which they then leave in public places for others to find and (hopefully) pass on. You might think this sounds pretty small beans when it comes to insurrectionism, and I might be inclined to agree with you, but even this small act of defiance cannot be tolerated by the ruling Nazis, and a police detective is assigned to hunt down the writer of the treasonous missives. The cop on the job is Inspector Escherich (Daniel Bruhl), who nicknames his quarry ‘the Hobgoblin’ – but while not an educated man, Quangel is no fool, and the cat and mouse game between him and the authorities stretches on for years, with tensions rising on both sides…

In case you are wondering, Fallada’s novel was based on a true story, and was initially published quite shortly after the end of the war. It has been called ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’. This is not, in my admittedly very limited experience, an especially large field, but it is certainly a memorable book, although I remember it more for its tone and atmosphere than for any details of plot or writing.

Certainly this is a somewhat free adaptation of the book. Quite apart from the facts that Gleeson is far from the bird-like figure of the novel’s Quangel, and Bruhl is considerably younger than the book’s Escherich, many of the book’s profusion of subplots, dealing with a wide range of characters and situations, have either been heavily cut down or completely excised – the younger Quangel’s fiancee and her involvement with another, more active resistance cell is completely gone, for instance. This may allow the film more focus and make it easier to follow, but it means the film depicts much less of a cross-section of German society and how different people made their accommodations with living under the Nazi regime.

Instead, it is much more about the Quangels. Obviously they are well-played (Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, for crying out loud), and the script goes to the trouble of introducing new material in order to give Thompson a bit more to work with. The moral righteousness of Otto Quangel is perfect for an actor of Gleeson’s power and gravitas, of course, and he does produce some memorable moments – but the problem is that the Quangels, apart from at the very beginning of the story, are so wholly, stoically good, that they’re not especially interesting characters. The really interesting character in this version of the story is Escherich, who begins by treating the postcards as just another case, only to realise – rather too late – that the Nazi authorities don’t respect niceties like the rule of law or the independence of the police. The inspector’s own moral journey from somewhat wry, apolitical observer, to a conflicted, guilt-ridden man is where the real dramatic meat of the film lies (and Bruhl is good in the role).

The book obviously has an axe to grind, given the context in which it was written, and I have to say I found it to be somewhat unsubtle and – in its closing stages – awkwardly sentimental. The film avoids this to some extent, but there are no particular insights here, and it skips over, to some extent, the fact that the Quangels’ quarrel with Hitler is not motivated by any particular moral concern but simply because they feel him responsible for getting their son killed. At the heart of the story there is always one very basic question – is there any real value in an act of resistance as, to be blunt, petty and ineffectual as the one carried out by the Quangels? I suppose there is something to be said for standing up to be counted, which qualifies as a moral victory of a sort, but even so. Naturally, Fallada, and also to some extent the film, is in no doubt that the Quangels (and the couple they were based on) are heroes, but I found myself wondering. They are clearly good, decent people, but their goodness takes a curiously muted form. Bereft of the epilogue of the novel, which implies their actions may have had other, wholly unintended positive consequences, you are left to wonder if the whole affair has achieved anything of real merit at all – has it just been an exercise in self-sacrificial futility?

The movie has been impressively assembled and is well-acted and competently directed, but it’s still a little unsatisfying. It doesn’t expose moral truths, it just raises questions which it never quite answers, and it comes perilously close to presenting the fact that the Nazi regime was bad as if this is some kind of important new revelation. Alone in Berlin s a watchable movie, but quite heavy-going, and less profound and moving than it seems to think it is.

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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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Once upon a time, if you were an actor of any standing whatsoever, you would not be seen dead appearing on TV: you went on the stage if you wanted respect, and in front of the cinema cameras if you were more interested in intangible stardom and cold hard cash. Times change, of course, and – the stage notwithstanding – we are informed on a fairly regular basis that films are no longer Where It Is At, and that the location of Atness is in fact now television. The fact that this is usually said by actors famous from the cinema, but now to be found popping up in productions on the smaller screen, is surely neither here nor there. The stigma of the glass bucket seems to have abated somewhat, anyway.

One of those actors who once verged on the ubiquitous but hasn’t been seen in films much recently is Robert Carlyle, who hasn’t had much of a cinema presence since the mid-late 2000s: and even then, perhaps it’s not unreasonable to suggest that his movie career never quite lived up to the promise of his early appearances in Trainspotting, The Full Monty, and The World Is Not Enough. He has, of course, been off in TV Land all this time, but now he has popped back for his debut movie as a director, The Legend of Barney Thomson.

THE LEGEND OF BARNEY THOMPSON

Carlyle himself plays Thomson, a middle-aged Glaswegian barber whose progress through life becomes bumpy when his lack of natural charisma and somewhat mournful appearance (‘you look like a haunted tree,’ he is helpfully informed) begin to drive away the customers. His boss eventually has enough and gives Barney his notice, which causes him some agitation and results in the entirely accidental, though extremely suspicious-looking, death of his employer.

Rather than risk fessing up to the police, Barney ends up stashing the corpse in the flat of his elderly mother (Emma Thompson). The one piece of good fortune he has, if you can call it that, is that a serial killer is already making a habit of dismembering the flower of Glasgow’s manhood and sending various bits of them through the post, so one more mysterious disappearance may not attract much attention. Nevertheless, on the case is DI Holdall (Ray Winstone), who soon develops his own suspicions about the hapless hair-wrangler…

The trained monkeys of the national media, ever keen to keep people from actually having to have original thoughts, have already discerned an influence upon The Legend of Barney Thomson that has prompted them to dub it ‘Tartantino’. It is true this is a film with some grisly moments, a spot of unrestrained gunplay, and an F-bomb count soaring towards three figures, but it seemed to me to be rather more in the (collapsed) vein of The League of Gentlemen than anything trans-Atlantic in origin.

This is ultimately a jet-black comedy film, and a rather absurd one, too: but it does get its laughs, mainly because of the deadpan responses of a strong cast to some of the more outrageous moments of horror. ‘You’ve labelled him!’ cries our man, aghast, on opening his mum’s freezer to discover she has chopped up and plastic-wrapped his first unintended victim. ‘I label everything!’ responds Mrs Thomson.

I rather suspect it’s Emma Thompson’s performance as Barney’s mum that this film will be remembered for – she is playing a 70-something chain-smoking foul-mouthed ex-prostitute bingo addict (‘not a role with which she is usually associated’, according to the ever-helpful Wikipedia). Does she manage find the truth and reality in this character? Well, probably not, in all honesty, but it is a very memorable comic grotesque and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Thompson virtually walks off with the entire film, but she is given some resistance by (as I said) a good cast, many of whom have history with Carlyle. The star himself is very much playing the straight man, which allows other performers to push the boat out a bit. Winstone may approach the realm of geezerish self-parody but is still very funny, while Tom Courtenay tries very hard to steal all his scenes as the local chief of police (‘I refuse to eat off a plate that’s served up a human arse,’ he declares at one point).

The whole film is an odd mixture of gory slapstick farce and finely-observed scenes of atmospheric Scottish life – at one point a poster for Kasabian appears on someone’s wall, but apart from this the film could be set in the 1960s and 70s, filled as it is with faded bingo halls, sepia-tinted pubs, old-fashioned barber shops and crumbling tower blocks. The soundtrack likewise seems to hearken back to an earlier age – there are signs of an odd sort of nostalgia, amidst all the severed body parts.

This element of the film is rather languid and naturalistic and probably shows off Carlyle’s direction at its best. He seems rather less comfortable dealing with the requirements of the main storyline, although it could just be that the script isn’t quite tight enough to really sing. Certainly there are signs of it running out of ideas in the third act. To be fair, the story starts off as fairly absurd, but the climax is well and truly ridiculous, totally impossible to take seriously as the conclusion to an even partly-serious film.

Still, I enjoyed it, I think: I do remember laughing a lot and the chance to see a lot of fine actors putting pedal to the metal and really going for it in their performances is not one that comes along every day. On the strength of The Legend of Barney Thomson, Carlyle should come back from TV Land more often, as an actor and a director, although something slightly less frenetic and bizarre might suit him better in the latter department.

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If you were of a sour, baleful, Daily Mail-ish disposition, you might well find something very disagreeable in the current trend towards films which are essentially historical accounts not of the lives of great people, nor of the details of significant events, but simply of the making of other films. And I suppose you might have a point – at the very least it smacks of creative conservatism, if not an outright dearth of ideas. Already this year we have had Hitchcock, which was essentially behind-the-scenes on Psycho, while making a solid pitch for the quality-Christmas-non-Elf-fixated box office is John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks, which is deeply concerned with the genesis of the movie version of Mary Poppins.

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Emma Thompson plays Mrs P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins stories. The main plot of the movie is set in the early 60s, by which point she has been fending off expressions of interest in the film rights to her work for decades. Now, however, bankruptcy looms, and rather than lose her home she is obliged to depart for California, to work on a script for a film with the creative guys at Walt Disney Productions. Walt Disney himself is played by Tom Hanks. Disney is genial, avuncular, folksy and charming – Mrs Travers is prickly, particular, formal and demanding (she thinks Disney’s life’s work is vulgar and frivolous). Both of them are used to getting their own way, and so a titanic, if fairly good-mannered, clash of wills is in prospect.

Intercut with all this is another narrative concerning Mrs Travers’ own childhood in Australia five decades earlier. This focuses on her complex relationship with her father (played by Colin Farrell), an affectionate man, but also a somewhat irresponsible alcoholic. Inevitably it is this storyline which illuminates and to some extent explains the character of the adult Mrs Travers, though the manner in which this is handled is variable. Sometimes the film is quite subtle, at other points it is not – a scene with Mrs Travers objecting to Mr Banks (the father in the Poppins film) wearing a moustache is closely followed by one where we see Farrell explaining to his daughter why it is so important that he shaves.

It seems to me that there are two main approaches you can take to Saving Mr. Banks, and your choice here will largely dictate your response to the film. Either it is a touching biographical excavation of an often-overlooked literary figure, or a ghastly piece of self-regarding publicity for the Disney corporation.

Accusations that this film is basically a two-hour-plus promo for the Blu-ray of Mary Poppins, and indeed Disney enterprises in general, are not entirely without substance: the 1964 film informs the 2013 one to a considerable extent, to the point where excerpts from it are shown during the climax. Your enjoyment of most of the 1960s material will depend somewhat on your fondness for Mary Poppins – though I have to say that I’m indifferent to it at best, and still found these scenes to be enjoyable and frequently very funny indeed.

(I should say that I did emerge from this film with a heightened respect for the majesty of the Sherman brothers’ songs from Mary Poppins, which are regularly deployed throughout. The soundtrack listing even appears to promise a scene where Colin Farrell comes on and performs Chim-Chim-Cheree, which I was rather looking forward to as (potentially) this year’s Pierce-Brosnan-versus-ABBA moment, but unfortunately it never quite materialises.)

The makers of this film claim the Disney corporation made no stipulations regarding the depiction of the man who’s essentially their patron deity, which I find slightly hard to believe, and it’s still the case that while Mrs Travers comes across as often brittle, demanding, chilly, and contrary, Walt Disney is presented as unfailingly wise, kindly, decent and insightful. (Whatever one makes of the characterisations, one instinctively doubts the historical accuracy of any major Hollywood production these days as a matter of course.)

Even the most sceptical viewer would, I think, concede that this is a very polished and charming production, with considerable credit due to the writers and cast. Watching Thompson and Hanks spar is a real pleasure – Thompson gets perhaps the slightly better part, but you can see Hanks is revelling in the opportunity to play such an iconic figure when it comes to both Americana and global pop culture generally. Paul Giamatti plays Mrs Travers’ chauffeur, and Brad Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak play Don DaGradi and the Sherman brothers: all of them get the tone of their performances pretty much exactly right. Colin Farrell gets the big role in the Australian sequences, but I was rather impressed by Ruth Wilson as Mrs Travers’ mother.

I can’t help thinking that, based on what we’re shown here, the real Mrs Travers would have been mortified to the point of horror by the thought of her life story being repurposed as the basis for a heart-warming comedy drama, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily grounds for dismissing Saving Mr. Banks. I liked it a lot, and indeed I think it’s a film you would have to make a real effort to actively dislike – but, much as the central story of how the parent-child relationship can influence a person throughout their life is sensitively and impressively handled, one can’t shake the impression that this particular version of it is only being told due to its proximity to a much-loved, much-garlanded, out-now-on-various-formats movie classic. This is a good film, but the charge that on some level it’s basically just the Disney company patting itself on the back in public for two hours is going to be a hard one to dodge.

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(No, not the one about the teenage lesbian murderers; that’s Heavenly Creatures. Or the farce about John Cleese running a zoo; that’s Fierce Creatures. Or the literary parody novel by Clive James; that’d be Brilliant Creatures. Okay?)

So, even I end up going to the cinema unexpectedly sometimes and seeing films I had no real plan to. There I was, sitting in the garret, contemplating finally writing that review of Power of the Daleks or possibly putting together a Blood Angels 8th Company Honour Guard squad, when the good and close friend who I previously introduced to the pleasures of Samsara, and who later retaliated by forcing me to watch Twilight – Breaking Dawn Part 2, got in touch and suggested we do another movie. I couldn’t face the prospect of Les Miserables again, she didn’t fancy A Good Day to Die Hard, and the only showing of Warm Bodies at the sweetshop had already started. So, rather against my better judgement, we ended up going to see Richard LaGravenese’s Beautiful Creatures.

beautiful-creatures-new-poster-cast

Why was I so dubious about this movie? Well, the trailer looked like a teen-oriented piece of bland fantasy built around a non-threatening romance, attempting to pass itself off as rather darker and edgier than it really was, with a lot of heftless CGI, pretty young things, and imported Serious Actors to give the thing some gravitas. In other words: something very much in the same vein as the Twilight movies. I think you see the reason for my concern.

Anyway, as the thing opens we are introduced to studly small-town boy Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich, obviously in his 20s) who has been troubled by dreams of a mysterious girl. I’m sure it will come as no surprise if I tell you that the start of Ethan’s new school year is marked by the arrival of a new classmate, who turns out to be (literally) the girl of his dreams: Lena (Alice Englert, who doesn’t look remotely like a 15-year-old). The frothing fundamentalist Christian mean girls at the school (no, seriously) are quick to spread all manner of rumours about Lena and her wealthy, reclusive uncle (Jeremy Irons), mainly that they are Devil worshippers and practitioners of black magic. And they are! Well, sort of.

Needless to say Ethan and Lena fall passionately in leurrrvvve, which would be great were it not for her looming sixteenth birthday, on which day she will either continue to be the sweet and thoughtful girl she currently is, or fall to the powers of darkness and become a demon in human form. Cripes!

I have to say, I enjoyed Beautiful Creatures more than I expected to (which is to say that I found it mildly enjoyable on some levels), which really counts as a striking achievement on the film’s part considering it is essentially every bit the Twilight knock-off I suspected it would be. The mysterious stranger at school, the protagonist with only a lone parent, the extended family with supernatural powers, the rapturous submission to an irresistible passion: they are all here, given only the most cursory swirl around by the screenwriter’s pen. It doesn’t even have the washed-out authenticity of the original Twilight – everything here is blandly conventional.

So why didn’t I want to run screaming from the cinema? Well, it certainly wasn’t because of the film’s sympathetic and original depiction of Christians, because most of the characters of that faith in this film are ludicrous caricatures – I would describe Beautiful Creatures as being militantly pagan, despite the fact that no real-world religions appear to have been included. Nor is it because this is a pacy and exciting film that never lets up – I’d say it is at least twenty minutes overlong.

However, it scores heavily over Twilight in being genuinely funny in places: there were two jokes good enough to make me laugh out loud in the first five minutes alone, and there continued to be good lines peppered across it throughout. This went a long way towards making me cut the film some slack. The performances aren’t entirely robotic and inert, either. My companion was moved to optimism due to the presence in the cast of both Jeremy Irons (she’s clearly never seen Eragon) and Emma Thompson (ditto Junior). However, they are actually both pretty good, in an unrestrained sort of way, and the big two-handed scene where they get to overact at each other is probably the highlight of the film.

The rest of the cast is okay. This is the kind of film where the ability to enunciate in such a way as to invest dialogue with Capital Letters is an important skill, as the plot revolves around big significant abstract nouns and concepts such as Light and Dark, the Claiming, the Curse, Casting, and so on, and everyone makes a pretty good fist of it.

However, this still indicates one of the problems with the film. Many years ago I interviewed a fairly successful horror and SF novelist and screenwriter who spoke of his dislike for the genre of pure fantasy, where the creator basically gets to write all his own rules – he described it as ‘cheating at cards to win paper money’. It’s very difficult to feel impressed at the bravery or ingenuity,  or the sacrifices made by characters to resolve a difficult situation, when that situation is as completely contrived by the author is the one here is. It isn’t even as if the story works particularly well in terms of subtext – all right, so there’s the outsider as beautiful freak (again), and some stuff about choosing your own destiny, but none of it is especially coherent.

And there’s a major issue with the structure: this movie is mainly pitching to teenage girls as its target audience, and so the logical thing would be to have Lena as the viewpoint character. This is not possible for various structural reasons, and also because it would raise the dread spectre of Bella Swan rather too obviously, and so the first part of the story is told from the viewpoint of the male lead instead. However, the nature of the story demands an inelegant shift to Lena about three-quarters of the way through, at which point one is thrown suddenly off-balance – it’s like a novel changing narrators unexpectedly and with no reason given.

But I have a horrible feeling I will see much worse films than Beautiful Creatures this year. It is too long, and the CGI is as uninvolving as I expected, and the plot does depend on good actors spouting grave nonsense to explain the contrived parameters of the story. But the young cast are not offensive to eye or ear and it does have some decent jokes in it. It could be a lot harder to sit through than it is. I have no desire to watch a sequel though.

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