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Posts Tagged ‘Ewan McGregor’

If you are of roughly the same vintage as I am and from the UK, then there’s a good chance that you have Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting seared into your brain as an undeniable cultural landmark. For a few months in 1996, Trainspotting was inescapably ubiquitous: you couldn’t move for posters of an emaciated, soaked Ewan McGregor, or songs off the soundtrack turning up everywhere, or people ripping off its very distinctive energy and style – it feels like half the bad British crime films and comedies of the late 90s and early 2000s are largely motivated by a hamfisted attempt to emulate Danny Boyle. Boyle himself went on to be arguably Britain’s most successful film director, McGregor went on to be a Jedi Knight, and most of the other lead cast members did pretty well for themselves, to say the least.

And I say this as someone who was initially rather dubious about the film (I hadn’t been especially impressed with Boyle’s previous movie, Shallow Grave) and only really came to it via Irvine Welsh’s book. I haven’t watched the movie in at least ten years and probably much longer, mainly because I suspect the nostalgic associations would be almost too much to bear, but the memory of it is still enormously vivid: Iggy Pop singing ‘Lust for Life’ at the start, Underworld doing ‘Born Slippy’ at the end, and in between the bit with the toilet, the bit with the linen, the bit with the OD and Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’, and all the rest of it too.

You mess about with this kind of beloved cultural artefact at your peril, which is why I think I was a bit surprised to hear a sequel was in the works – Boyle didn’t seem like a sequel-friendly kind of guy, anyway (although I have my fingers crossed for another bio-zombie film) – but nevertheless, here it is: the oddly-monikered T2 Trainspotting. A bit late for the 20th anniversary of the original, but that’s what you get for associating your movie with the rail network, I suppose.

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Two decades have passed for the characters, too, as the new film gets underway: Renton (McGregor) has used the £12,000 of drug money he stole from his friends at the climax of the first one to lay the foundations of a fairly conventional existence in Amsterdam. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) has abandoned heroin in favour of cocaine and is working in the hospitality industry, with a projected side-line in blackmail. The hapless Spud (Ewen Bremner) has been unable to establish himself in society, partly due to his inability to come to terms with daylight savings, and is eking out a tenuous existence as a recovering addict. Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), on the other hand, has spent the last twenty years at Her Majesty’s Pleasure – sometimes that’s the price of being a violent psychopath.

The quartet are drawn back together when Renton returns to Edinburgh for personal reasons and tries to reach out to Spud and Sick Boy. Both of them express their emotions at seeing him again loudly and robustly, but soon he is helping Sick Boy and his partner Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) in their scheme to raise the funds for a ‘sauna’, with Spud recruited to help with the interior design. But Begbie has managed to execute a characteristically unhinged escape plan and is back on the streets again, and when he learns Renton is back in town, he has only revenge on his mind…

The original Trainspotting was, as I say, a real case of a group of people managing to catch lightning in a bottle, and the new movie doesn’t seem to have serious aspirations to match its impact – indeed, part of what the film is about is coming to terms with the fact that time moves on and your life changes, and that a person in their twenties has many more options than someone in their forties. What happened at the end of the first film seems to have sent all four main characters into a state of arrested development, so they are still largely defined by events from when they were young men, desperately nostalgic for the time of the first film when the pathways of their lives were still much more open. This is at least in part a necessary storytelling conceit, in order for them all to still be recognisably the same characters, but it’s also rich territory for the film to explore.

And it does so impressively. There are all the usual directorial whistles and bells from Boyle, which are no less than we’ve come to expect, and the nature of the project means he can employ all kinds of call-backs to the first film, some subtle, some obvious and knowing. There’s a degree of playfulness in the way the new film toys with audience expectations – elements of music from the original occasionally insert themselves into the soundtrack, and at one point a character sits down with his old vinyl copy of ‘Lust for Life’ but can’t bear to listen to more than the first split-second of it – but the film itself feels vital and relevant rather than merely nostalgic itself.

The plot is less digressive this time around, but John Hodge’s screenplay turns on a sixpence between moments of drama, black humour, and even suspense. It is all quite monumentally profane, and frequently rather vile, but also extremely funny and intelligent. There’s a moment of supreme comedy when Renton and Sick Boy sneak into a sectarian pub night, intent on robbing the attendees, and find themselves having to perform an improvised musical number instead – if there’s a funnier single scene this year, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Ultimately, though, this is quite a serious film about coming to terms with your youth, and its passing, and understanding how in thrall you can be to your own history. Boyle has said it is a film about masculinity, and that’s true, but it’s simply the case that most of his returning characters here are male (Kelly Macdonald returns as Renton’s old partner Diane, but only briefly). The film comes to life as well as it does because of the strength of the performances from all the key players – if nothing else, this movie is a reminder (to UK cinema audiences, at least) of what a very effective actor Jonny Lee Miller can be, given the right material. Anjela Nedyalkova also makes a good impression, given the calibre of the people she’s in the middle of.

I suspect the minimum intention for Trainspotting 2 was for it not to slime the memory of the original: well, I would say mission accomplished, and then some. Like the best of Boyle’s work, it manages to be entertaining while remaining thoughtful, realistic without being bleak. In the end, it suggests, life goes on, one way or another. So choose life.

Or choose movies. Choose good movies. Choose a great sequel. Choose this sequel.

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I have, as diligent readers may have worked out, been at a bit of a loose end recently, and this has even extended to wandering the house rifling through the DVD collection of my landlady and her family. As I’ve mentioned, this occasionally results in me sitting down to watch things like Alien Tornado, but this time around I was able to stay on the mainstream Hollywood superfreeway and found myself in front of Ron Howard’s 2009 thriller Angels & Demons (it was a near thing, Jonah Hex and The Spirit were also on the shortlist).

Now, I must at this point disclaim that I have not properly read or in any way experienced anything else from the crayon pen of Dan Brown; I recall flicking idly through a copy of The Da Vinci Code (back when everyone seemed to be reading it) and then retreating hastily, as one would, but that’s it. He does seem terribly popular, and a friend of mine of no small intellect has confessed to being a big fan, but I have kept my distance. But you pick things up by a sort of cultural osmosis, don’t you, and just as I know that The Da Vinci Code is effectively a blockbuster thriller take on the Berenger Sauniere/Prieure de Sion conspiracy theory, so I know that Angels & Demons is a peculiar coming-together of Catholic theology and high-energy physics.

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Howard’s movie opens with the peoples of the world gripped with anticipation and breathless excitement: a great vacancy in global affairs has opened up, and everyone is wondering who the replacement will be (as, at the time of writing, the new Doctor Who has yet to be announced, I find it very easy to empathise). We get a lot of colourful, wide-angle shots of Rome and the Vatican, and cardinals in their frocks shuffling about (these are sort of motifs of the movie). A voice-over sonorously starts laying some serious latin jargon on us and filling in the minutiae of church procedure surrounding the election of a new Pope.

(Basically, we are straightaway in the realm of what I can only describe as Catholic porn: films which take an almost obsessive interest in the esoteric arcana of Catholic theology and praxis, in the apparent belief that they are inherently interesting. I remain to be convinced.)

Anyway, after a bit of this we are off to CERN for some cod science at the Large Hadron Collider. Stern looking people in white coats talk to each other about magnetic resonance and luminosity. For all I know this is actually good science, but the manner in which it is presented leaves one with the unshakeable impression that it is bad science, no matter what the truth is. To be honest, given that a comely physicist named Vittoria Vetra (is this in in-jokey reference to Victoria Vetri, star of When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth? Hmmm) is using the Collider to produce gobs of antimatter, I suspect this is not good science after all.

Dr Vetra (played, by the way, by Ayelet Zurer – no, me neither) is concerned when some of her antimatter is nicked and weaponised, apparently by an obscure sect of militant rationalists called the Illuminati. The Illuminati, not content with hiding an antimatter bomb somewhere in the Vatican, have also kidnapped the four hot favourites to become the new pontiff and are planning to ritualistically bump them off on an hourly basis in the run-up to the big firework. Furrowed brows all round at the Vatican – crikey! Who you gonna call?

The answer, of course, is a maverick symbologist (yes, another one of those): Professor Robert Langdon, played stoically by Tom Hanks. His job of figuring out where the Illuminati have stashed the bomb and the cardinals is made harder by the fact that everyone at the Vatican hates his guts. (Well, Dr Vetra, who’s also been called in, looks like she might be open to persuasion on this point, but quite properly they keep their minds on the job.) His only real ally in the Vatican seems to be the Pope’s understudy, the Camerlengo.

I know, I too would have said that a Camerlengo was either a Latin dance or a make of Fiat, but apparently not. Live and learn, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said. The Camerlengo is of mixed Irish-Italian upbringing, which basically just means that Ewan McGregor, who plays him, gets the chance to do two accents badly rather than just one. Anyway, can Langdon and Vetra discover the location of, etc etc, before, etc etc?

Well, look, let’s be clear about this. Angels & Demons is about an attempt to manipulate the result of a papal election by, essentially, detonating a photon torpedo under the Vatican. This is a movie which you really have to treat with a certain degree of latitude: gritty realism it is not. It is, essentially, a slightly highbrow Indiana Jones movie which has availed itself of a guide to art history, and, as such, it is rather good fun.

I was initially tempted to say that this movie belts along at such a breathless pace, and with such polished slickness, that you never actually notice how relentlessly silly it is. But this is not actually true. You are always fully aware that this is a relentlessly silly film, but such is its belting breathless pace and polished slickness that this doesn’t actually bother you. I don’t wish to spoil the climax of this film by detailing some of the more outrageous plot developments, but let’s just say they are pretty special, and never remotely plausible.

One can understand why the Vatican itself was not especially keen to be associated with this film and its succession of grisly slayings on holy ground, but – the odd eviscerated cardinal or immolated priest aside – the Catholic Church does come out of this film looking remarkably good, on the whole. The ex-pope at the start of the film is described as ‘beloved and progressive’ and there is not whiff one of anything to do with the allegations of institutionalised horror which generally beset the institution’s public image.

This is not the most demanding role for Tom Hanks, but he is a steady and relatively credible presence in the middle of the craziness, and he does make Langdon – who could easily have become a complete cypher – rather endearing, genuinely excited at the prospect of his first visit to the Vatican archives. He’s not a tedious old movie action hero, either: he’s very bad at death-defying escapes, and whenever an action sequence breaks out around him, his first impulse seems to be to run away and hide. A man after my own heart.

Most of the other acting is, if we’re honest, irrepressibly cheesy, but this is probably down to the script more than anything. (I am starting to suspect that Ewan McGregor could well be our generation’s answer to Michael Caine, in that it’s his sheer work-rate that keeps him a star rather than the fact he’s incapable of giving a poor performance.) One of the charming things about Angels & Demons is that the makers of the film appear to be under the impression that this is a film dealing with serious issues to do with science and its relationship with religion. It does explore the relationship between science and religion, but only in the same way and with the same degree of subtlety that a small child explores the nature of matter and the laws of motion by banging bricks together. This aside, the movie is basically a very long and utterly implausible episode of Treasure Hunt and best enjoyed as such – it is, at least, hugely enjoyable on those terms.

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It’s almost getting to the point where I feel obliged to apologise for the quantity of Woody Allen on this blog. On the other hand, the sheer length of Allen’s career as a writer and director means there’s no shortage of material: I suspect only a tiny handful of people could name every film he’s ever made, without recourse to some sort of reference material anyway. (Through a miscommunication last year I inadvertantly managed to tell a friend the local arthouse was reviving a zombie movie Allen had made in the 60s – no such beast exists, obviously – and they took it very much in their stride.)

At least on this occasion it is not a multi-stranded comedy-drama about the lives of affluent metropolitans, which at least makes it something of a novelty. No, today we are looking at Cassandra’s Dream, a film from 2007 and thus quite early in Allen’s tour grande period. This movie is really quite unlike anything else I’ve seen in his back catalogue, and really quite odd generally.

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Anyway. As the film opens we meet Ian and Terry, two brothers from London (they are played by Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell, and if you think that casting those two as siblings makes big demands of the audience, you’re right). Ian is a fiercely ambitious entrepreneur, looking to establish himself in the hotel industry, and energetically wooing rising actress (and high-maintainance gel) Angela (Hayley Atwell). Terry is much more down to earth, working as a garage mechanic – but nursing a compulsive gambling habit that soon spins out of his ability to control it.

Needless to say, both brothers soon find themselves in desperate need of significant financial assistance, albeit for different reasons. Fortune seems to be smiling on them when their wealthy Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) comes to visit from the USA, as they are sure the blood ties of family will be enough to guarantee his help. But it seems that these ties cut both ways, for Uncle Howard is facing serious difficulties of his own: a former business associate, also currently in London, is due to testify against him in a court case, and a lengthy jail spell could folow. Uncle Howard’s offer is very straightforward: he will help the lads out with their various problems, but only if they silence the business associate. Permanently…

That’s all very well, you may be thinking, but why is it called Cassandra’s Dream? A fair question. Cassandra’s Dream is a boat which the brothers buy at the start of the film, and which – this is so obvious as a development it barely qualifies as a spoiler – is the setting for the events of the climax. It may be that there is a deeper intended significance to the name – classically, Cassandra was afflicted with prophetic dreams of calamity, which no-one ever paid any attention to, and there is a bit of a motif in the movie of various characters having nightmares – but, as happens with depressing frequency in late-period Woody Allen movies, the subtext is so vaguely articulated as to be impossible to be sure of.

However, this would fit, as the movie is clearly intended as a sort of morality tale, concerned with issues like guilt and ambition and family allegiance. The story has a simplicity which suggest the director is going for a ‘classic’ feel, although this may also have something to do with the fact that, working in London, he’s several thousand miles out of his comfort zone.

Because the thing about Cassandra’s Dream is that it never really looks or feels like the 38th film from a hugely experienced, lauded and acclaimed director: it’s too much of a mixed bag for that. Allen has no ability to make his London-based characters and settings remotely authentic  – McGregor and Farrell wheel out their gor-blimey-guv’nah accents, but that’s all. And, with its settings of garages, pubs, and family kitchens, and its plot of somewhat-implausible faux-gangland hits, the result is bizarrely like the EastEnders omnibus.

Allen’s ability to attract a stellar cast remains undiminished, of course: Jim Carter turns up for a one-scene cameo, while Tamzin Outhwaite – quite a big name in British TV – essentially gets a walk-on in which her face is never clearly visible. The two stars are clearly really struggling, though, not just with their accents but with the stilted, clanging, hackneyed dialogue that comprises most of their scenes. ‘Once you cross the line, there’s no going back,’ declares McGregor at one point: this is presented as a moment of profound revelation. This is the stuff which really sorts out the men from the boys, and needless to say Tom Wilkinson is the only one who emerges looking good. (Well, Sally Hawkins is decent in what’s quite a small part as Farrell’s partner.)

However, however: while the dialogue and some of the performances are a little wobbly, the actual plot is solid enough – even if it takes its time getting where it needs to be in places. There are some genuinely tense moments and neat directorial touches along the way, and the cinematography is crisp and attractive. The impression that this isn’t your typical Woody Allen movie is added to by the presence of an orchestral score by Philip Glass – I can’t think of another that doesn’t feature either wall-to-wall jazz or classic standards. On the other hand, the Glass score, while obviously accomplished, often sounds too big and momentous for what often feels like a small-time story.

Cassandra’s Dream is not a terribly good movie, simply because virtually nothing about it rings true as a piece of drama. But Allen’s decision to craft the thing as a morality play, and as such slightly detached from reality anyway, means it is not unwatchable. The story keeps driving forward – never, it must be said, in a genuinely surprising manner – the cast are game, and it looks nice. And the very fact this is a Woody Allen film with scarcely a single one-liner in it does give it a sort of novelty value. But it’s a strange curiosity at best.

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There’s nothing wrong with niche film-making, of course, but sometimes the box office figures tell a story of their own: as modern budgets go, $10 million is barely a trifle, but even so, if your film only pulls in $3000 you’re still going to be having a long and uncomfortable conversation with the head of the studio. Such was the fate of David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, and it suggests that there just aren’t enough fans of pretentious arthouse apocalyptic SF movies featuring Eva Green getting ’em out for such a project to be financially viable. The revelations one stumbles across sometimes.

Eva Green brings her usual off-kilter emotional intensity, imperious sexual magnetism and peculiar accent to the role of Susan, an epidemiologist in contemporary Glasgow. Her life is quite nondescript, as is that of Michael (Ewan McGregor), a chef she encounters via a slightly laboured cute-meet early on. Both of them have commitment issues; hey ho.

However, a strange affliction takes hold across the globe: people experience sudden surges of melancholia, followed by the total and permanent loss of their sense of smell. No-one knows what’s causing it, or how it’s spreading, but spreading it is – and soon everyone is affected. However, people adapt and life returns to a close semblence of what it previously was (although one assumes that sales of deodorant take a bit of a knock). Michael and Susan embark upon a relationship. But then it becomes apparent that the phenomenon is progressive: people are now starting to lose their sense of taste, as well. The obvious question is on everyone’s minds – how long can society survive if the other, more vital senses are lost?

Now, this sounds like the premise for a bleak SF catastrophe movie, and to some extent Perfect Sense delivers on this – the scenes of collapsing civilisation towards the end of the film are well-mounted and convincing – but this is really not a genre piece in quite that sense. I’ve heard this movie compared to Melancholia, in that both films combine what are ostensibly SF themes with a more psychological, internal focus, but this film is not as accomplished.

The main problem is that it’s too obvious that the writer and director are not interested in the collapse-of-society story per se: it’s just a device by which they can explore their real concerns, which are all to do with what it is that makes life worth living, the nature of relationships, the power of emotions, and so on – and it’s written to suit those concerns. Judged as a proper piece of SF, Perfect Sense is sorely wanting – one could perhaps excuse the lack of cause given for the progressive sensory shutdown, but not the fact that it’s such a precise and coy little affliction, much inclined to entice histrionics from the cast. No reason is given as to why the loss of each sense is accompanied by everyone experiencing the same emotion to a heightened level, but one is invited to draw the obvious conclusion that a point is being made about feeling on a personal as well as a perceptual level.

Am I saying that this film is heavy-handed? Er – yes. Several moments have the lead characters pausing just to fully appreciate whichever sense they’re fearful of losing next, and these are Loaded With Significance to a much greater degree than they require. One sequence about the pleasures of being tactile turns into an extended bout of whoa-ho-ho between McGregor and Green. There’s quite a lot of this sort of thing, to the point where it even becomes a bit desensitising: certainly by the end I found myself playing Whose Leg Is That? rather than feeling particularly stimulated.

A further problem is that, even if you’re prepared to meet the film halfway and buy into the improbable central premise as an idea, the way it’s actually implemented is actually quite preposterous. A grave voice-over by an omniscient narrator doesn’t help much when her account of ‘a single moment of hunger… and then taste was gone forever’ is accompanied by scenes of McGregor, Green, and various other players squirting mustard down their throats, eating lipstick, seizing hungrily on live rabbits, and so on. It just looks ridiculous – a scene later on where the leads try to make the most of their new situation by eating soap doesn’t help, either.

Now in theory I’d be prepared to forgive Perfect Sense a lot, because attempting to combine genre SF ideas and proper character-based emotional drama seems to me to be a potentially interesting area, but whatever it’s trying to say about relationships and emotions is either so subtle and profound I completely missed it, or utterly obvious and banal. And the central romance does not engage: the two characters are not quite, as McGregor at one point suggests, Mr and Mrs Arsehole, but neither are they people you’d particularly want to spend time with. She has no vulnerability, he has no depth; they are quite self-absorbed and humourless.

At least the romance plotline gives a counterpoint to the otherwise progressively more downbeat story of the death of civilisation. The fact that the film attempts to end on a positive, upbeat note, at a moment when the life expectancy of the human race can probably be measured in weeks, tells you everything about the preoccupations of this film. It’s nicely made and the performances aren’t awful, but it is quite pretentious and much more concerned with theme than narrative. Not a complete waste of time by any means, and it does have a certain sort of originality – but annoying and bemusing much more often than actually satisfying.

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My parents assure me that the first film I went to see was Bambi, rereleased as part of the seven-year cycle all the classic Disney films were on back in the mid-Seventies. I, however, have no recollection of the experience.

The honour of my first memory of going to a film goes – like that of many people of my generation, I suspect – to the 1978 UK release of Star Wars. It’s actually quite difficult for me to put into words quite what an impact this had on me, or the quality of the memories which remain burned into my brain even now, after so many subsequent viewings. Films and Star Wars arrived in my life at the same time, and they remain intrinsically linked for me on some strange level.

Certainly for me the Star Wars movies belong and come to life on a big screen unlike any others. This is why, despite already owning all of them on multiple formats, I will happily trot along to watch any of them theatrically, given half a chance. This is why, despite my general aversion to 3D, I even turned out for the current stereoscopic reissue of The Phantom Menace.

(History repeats itself here: back in 1999, I had planned to see this movie about a week after release with a friend. But the very day it came out I happened to be passing the local multiplex, having just signed on, and the urge was too great. This time around I’d planned to either save the viewing for a special occasion, or see it on Valentine’s Day – although given my past record it would probably be less a Duel of the Fates than a Date of the Fools – but once again I found myself strangely incapable of putting it off.)

I have written about The Phantom Menace before at some length, and on re-reading my previous thoughts in the light of seeing it in 3D, I can only conclude that in the past I have given it much too easy a ride. There really is an awful lot going wrong here.

Let’s get the 3D aspect out of the way nice and early – it’s a retro-3D release, obviously, and as a result the effect is really not that noticeable. On one level I suppose we must be grateful for the absence of lightsabers being laboriously jabbed directly at the camera, but on the other hand, this really just points up the brazen nature of the retro-3D-ing fad: you’re paying extra for the 3D, but it doesn’t add anything to a film which wasn’t designed to utilise it. But, of course, I would have gone to see a Phantom Menace re-issue no matter what format it was in, so let’s move on.

Well, hang on, you may be saying, if The Phantom Menace is as clunky as you just alluded, why do you say that? Surely the Star Wars brand name alone isn’t enough to make you suspend your (so-called) critical faculties? What’s it got to commend it?

It’s partly the thing that the Star Wars movies do better than almost any other fantasy films – which is to make you almost believe they were filmed on location in another world. The galaxy far, far away is as alluringly presented here as it ever has been, in seductive detail and on an epic scale. (The production values are, unsurprisingly, superb, not that this in itself should really be a positive.) The film’s visual invention reaches a high point in the realisation of new villain Darth Maul (Ray Park), whose prominence in the publicity for both releases suggests the film-makers agree. (The way that the script horribly underuses Maul – starting a trend that would continue throughout the prequels – is another issue.) The action choreography is great, and it’s not as if all the acting is as dreadful as some people would have you believe – there are genuinely good performances from Ian McDiarmid and Pernilla August. There is, of course, John Williams’ wonderful score. But that’s really about it in terms of positives – though the sheer look of the thing is difficult to overestimate as a factor.

Set against this… well, watching it again properly now, the thing that strikes me is how numbingly cack-handed the storytelling is, often on the most basic of levels. I could write a much longer piece than I’m prepared, or indeed have time to, at this point, listing mystifying creative choices and simple mis-steps by the dozen. The apparent racial stereotyping, the belligerent office furniture, the constant unfunny ‘comic relief’, the weird narrative shifts between an epic moral clash between absolute good and pure evil and a politico-economical dispute about trade franchises and taxation (these days the film gives a weird impression of being about the European Parliament)… but anyway.

Let us instead on focus on the core issues with this film. First and foremost, this movie should start from scratch and establish the key characters and themes for the rest of the series. Does it? Does it cobblers. Who exactly are these Sith guys and the Trade Federation and what’s their problem with the Naboo? We’re never told. It never feels like a true beginning. The main character in this movie, certainly in terms of screen time, is Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), who is by no means a major player in the overall story. Jinn’s characterisation is as a mass of stoic inertia wrapped in some very odd hair appliances. There is an awful lot of Qui-Gon given that the prequel trilogy as a whole is about other characters.

The relationships and characters here are thin to the point of non-existent. Jake Lloyd is quite simply not very good as Anakin Skywalker, though the rotten dialogue he’s given does not help. His relationship with the woman we know will be his wife in the future (Natalie Portman) just seems weird given she is obviously twice his age (for no strong reason demanded by the plot). As for his relationship with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), one of the most central ones in the whole series – in this film, Anakin and Obi-Wan barely have any dialogue with each other, as Qui-Gon is hogging all the script. And as for his relationship with Palpatine, another enormously important plot thread – one line passes between them in the entire movie. In terms of laying foundations and establishing themes, The Phantom Menace is a total failure.

Looking at it now and seeing how the prequel trilogy developed, it seems to me that George Lucas’ biggest misjudgement was to insist that the films be made for a future audience that would not have seen the original trilogy and who would experience the saga in chronological order. The main result of this, in terms of the storytelling, is a strident insistence on preserving the ‘surprise’ that Darth Sidious and Palpatine are the same man (although even The Phantom Menace comes close to blowing the gaffe at one point through an injudicious cut).

As a result, if you’re not in the know as to the ‘secret identity’ the story comes across as bemusingly inconsequential, but if you do know who’s really who, it’s simply baffling instead. Sidious and his Neimoidian allies talk several times of his schemes and plans but we never learn what they consist of, beyond simply taking over the planet. What exactly is he after? What precisely underpins all the various machinations he’s clearly working hard at throughout the movie?

It certainly looks very much like the end of this movie shows Darth Sidious’s plans going somewhat askew – his apprentice chopped asunder, his allies under arrest – but him skilfully parlaying this into a long-term benefit – to wit, his being elected Chancellor. So how would he have benefitted if, instead, things had worked out as he’d planned and the Federation taken over Naboo? Still the Chancellorship? If he was going to get the job either way, why make such a big deal out of trying to capture the Queen, packing Darth Maul off to Tatooine and revealing his existence to the hitherto-oblivious Jedi? Unless this also was part of his plan. In which case… (And so on.)

The problem with having to maintain the narrative distance between Sidious and Palpatine is that as a result none of this can be addressed, even obliquely (Sidious has fairly limited screen-time, too). As a result we get a movie where the objectives and plans of the bad guys remain largely obscure throughout, a real rarity in the fantasy-adventure genre.

Perhaps this is ultimately at the heart of The Phantom Menace‘s incoherence, ideas and scenes piling up on top of one another with not much evidence of an organising principle. Possibly the most disappointing thing about the re-release of this film is that, for once, Lucas has resisted the temptation to fiddle about with and ‘improve’ it, because for once it could really do with it. That, or withdraw it completely and just have another go at telling the story again in an entirely different way. As it is, with this as its origin myth and foundation, the Star Wars saga is a house built on sand. (Not that I don’t still love it, of course.)

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It was with some dismay that I learned of the plans to disband the collective of film-makers who operate under the name of Steven Soderbergh (it surely being impossible for any single individual to direct so many films as diverse and accomplished as the ones with Soderbergh’s name on them). More than in most cases, the presence of the Soderbergh name on a production is as close to a guarantee of quality as one can realistically expect, regardless of the tone or subject matter involved. The new Soderbergh movie, Haywire, continues this tradition – although, having effortlessly reinvented genres as disparate as the caper movie (Ocean’s Eleven), the true-life drama (Erin Brockovitch), the arty SF movie (Solaris), and the all-star disaster movie (Contagion), the Soderberghs have now effectively invented a unique genre of their own: the pro-celebrity cage-fighting movie.

Gina Carano (a former mixed martial arts fighter, ex-American Gladiator, and pretty much the textbook definition of a strapping lass) plays Mallory, a delicate young flower of womanhood who we first meet going into a diner in upstate New York. Here she meets Aaron (Channing Tatum), a young man of her acquaintance. After Aaron is ungallant enough to smash a cup of coffee over her head and pull a gun on her, Mallory wastes no time in beating him half to death and leaving in the car of another patron, to whom she explains The Story So Far.

Mallory is, of course, an ex-marine specialising in high-risk covert operations – a mercenary, on the books of Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), her ex-lover. After returning from a mission in Barcelona, and on the verge of quitting the company, Kenneth persuades Mallory to take on – oh ho ho! – one last job. She is to masquerade as the wife of MI6 agent Paul (Michael Fassbender) while he investigates a dubious chap in Dublin. However, it becomes apparent that Mallory has been told a pack of lies, and somebody wants her dead…

When I first saw the trailer for Haywire – tough but comely female lead, heavy action and martial arts content, dubiously twisty-looking plot, lashings of style – my reaction was ‘Crikey, Luc Besson’s really rushed his new movie out,’ so similar to the likes of Nikita, Leon, and Colombiana did it appear. The appearance of Steven Soderbergh’s name at the end rather discombobulated me. But why shouldn’t Soderbergh give us his take on an action movie? He’s done practically everything else.

And yet, there’s a sense in which the highest compliment I can pay Haywire is that it’s exactly like a Besson movie, stylish and exciting, but stripped of all the usual excess and with a startling infusion of taste and restraint added to the mix. Not to mention a very distinguished cast – in addition to McGregor, Tatum, and Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Bill Paxton also show up and do their usual reliable work.

One gets the sense that this gallimaufrey of talent may have been recruited to make up for a perceived weakness in Carano as a leading lady. Given that she was allegedly recruited after one of the Soderberghs saw her fighting on TV, this would not come as a surprise – I’m reminded of the bet one Hollywood producer made his golf partner that he could make the world’s least likely person a major star, with the result being the career of Steven Seagal – but to be fair to her Gina Carano acquits herself perfectly acceptably.

That said, the script is carefully written so that Carano has the minimum to do acting-wise – Mallory’s not the most demonstrative of individuals – and gets the maximum chance to let rip in the action sequences. Just running down the street Carano looks unstoppable, but in the fight scenes she is simply astounding. Haywire almost completely avoids the martial arts movie cliches – hero takes on twelve people in a garage, hero fights giant, hero fights lead henchman – in favour of a series of one-on-one fights between its lead and proper Hollywood A-listers. In terms of realistic action, these are exemplary in every way: the sequence in which Carano and Fassbender kick the living crap out of each other at some length in a Dublin hotel room is one of the most visceral, exciting movie fights I’ve ever seen.

I suppose one could make the criticism that Mallory Kane falls victim to the usual problem afflicting action heroines, in that her characterisation doesn’t extend much beyond ‘man with breasts’ in any positive sense. Certainly, working with a less talented director, Carano as a screen presence could become as clunky a cipher as Van Damme or Seagal, which may be an issue if her career has any longevity.

To be honest the film does a good job of walking the tightrope between working on a cinematic level and simply staying realistic. One friend of mine didn’t like it, saying it was boring, for this reason. And the action is a little thinner on the ground than in some movies of this ilk. You really have to stay with the plot and trust that everything will be explained come the end, which it is – but on the other hand, just when most action movies would start building to a riotously implausible climax, Haywire resolves its story in a much simpler and unexpectedly low-key (but still satisfying) way.

This really didn’t bother me – Haywire is an immaculately made and pleasingly bare-boned action movie. It’s the kind of thing Soderbergh knocks out on a lazy afternoon, managing to surpass genre specialists in the process. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although this was largely due to the Gina Carano-beats-up-famous-actors schtick. My literary advisor and I thought this was a brilliant idea and within five minutes of leaving the theatre had drawn up our own list of people we wanted to see her pound into the earth in the sequel: Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Orlando Bloom, Ryan Reynolds… There’s a lot of potential here. Notable careers have been built on considerably less, and I’ll be very interested to see if Gina Carano can live up to the promise she shows so devastatingly here.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 30th 2002:

It’s always dangerous to turn up to a movie with expectations of a life-changing experience, doubly so when the movie in question is an American-made blockbuster. And yet that’s what I (and I suspect many others) did, when Attack of the Clones, the latest instalment in George Lucas’ cultural juggernaut Star Wars, opened a week or two back.

My excuse is that, well, I couldn’t help it because I love Star Wars. Seeing the original movie on the big screen in early 1978 is not only one of my earliest memories but also probably one of the formative moments of my life. I have a Pavlovian reaction to the exuberant bombast of John Williams’ score. I even really liked The Phantom Menace, despite its flaws.

Yet I came out of the theatre with oddly mixed emotions. The initial euphoria due to simply seeing a new Star Wars movie faded and I was left feeling neither shaken or particularly stirred (sorry, wrong franchise). And I couldn’t work out why. This seemed to be an adventure in the classic style: the further escapades of our heroes Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), three people united by their love of freedom and democracy and their very dodgy hairstyles. I won’t trouble you with the traditional teaser of plot at this point, as a) if you’re remotely interested in this film you’ve probably already seen it at least twice and b) its terribly, terribly complicated. Suffice to say there are chases galore, much wielding of fluorescent tubes, and some of the most spectacular battle scenes in cinema history.

Having gone back for a second viewing my considered judgement is that this is an immaculately made, highly entertaining blockbuster, packed with cortex-frying visuals and memorable moments. It benefits enormously from a full-throttle performance from Christopher Lee, who perfected the role of ‘villainous Count with supernatural powers’ in about 1966, and who’s as powerful a screen presence as ever.

I suspect my initial ambivalence was partly due to going in with such high expectations, because while Attack of the Clones is good, it’s not great. There are serious problems with the script: the central love story is so flatly written and perfunctorily handled that it would take considerably better actors to make it remotely convincing. Natalie Portman’s delivery of the line ‘I truly, deeply love you‘ is almost bad enough to make you start cheering for the Trade Federation.

There’s also the lengthy sequence set on Tatooine. While this is one of the most effective and impressive parts of the movie, allowing Christensen to show how good he can be, it could also be excised almost completely at no harm to the main storyline. As in The Phantom Menace, setting up the plot of the ‘future’ films seems to take priority over telling the story of this one.

I think I was also taken unawares by the sheer darkness of parts of the storyline. This film is even darker, in places, than The Empire Strikes Back, with a real sense of pain and despair and impending doom – partly generated through clever use of characters, imagery and music from the Classic Trilogy. Episode III looks like it will be very bleak indeed.

Actually, I think I detect a certain lack of decision on Lucas’ part as to what level to pitch this Prequel Trilogy at. We all know how this story ends, after all, and I would have thought the sensible response would have been to play the dramatic irony of the situation for all its worth. But there are very few allusions to what lies ahead, and Lucas stubbornly sticks to his guns by pretending the true identity of Darth Sidious will come as a huge shock when it’s revealed. It won’t; even my mum figured out who it was and she keeps asking which one of the characters was Captain Kirk.

On the other hand, the film seems to assume the audience is already familiar with the Classic Trilogy when it comes to elements like the Sandpeople and Yoda (his big scene works because it plays against the audience’s expectations of the character). Going entirely for dramatic irony would have worked fine, as would playing it all ‘as new’. The mixture of the two in the finished movie smacks of confusion and a missed opportunity.

Expectations have never rested easily upon the Star Wars films and Attack of the Clones is no exception. It’s not up to the same standard as The Fellowship of the Ring, but it is packed with thrills, spectacle, fun and humour. It may be only a movie, but at least it’s a good one.

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