Posts Tagged ‘Ewan McGregor’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 25th 2002:

The making of prequels is a practice fraught with difficulty – the only really successful ones I can think of, off the top of my head, are Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and possibly Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Certainly one such effort which fell a long way short of expectations was 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, written and directed by George Lucas.

It stills feels odd to realise that the next Star Wars movie is only weeks away from release: compared with the build-up three years ago, there’s a virtual media blackout in place. Now this is probably partly due to the enormous impact on fantasy cinema of Lord of the Rings and also the fact that this is a bumper year for SF and fantasy blockbusters, but the general perception of The Phantom Menace as a failure – one celebrity fan routinely refers to it as The Phantom Sh*tbox – must also play a part.

Like The Scorpion King, this movie deals with the formative years of a character destined to be the big bad guy in the earlier, which is to say later, movies. In this case the lad in question is Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave on the desert planet of Tatooine. Distinguished only by his supernaturally quick reflexes and vague precognitive powers, Anakin’s life is turned upside down when he’s dragged into a great adventure involving two Jedi Knights (beardy Liam Neeson and hasidic Ewen McGregor), the Queen of the planet Naboo (tranquillised Natalie Portman), a strange guppy rastafarian (he’ll-be-trying-to-live-this-down-for-the-rest-of-his-career Ahmed Best) and R2-D2 (lives-down-the-road-from-me Kenny Baker). It’s all to do with Trade Federations and the Galactic Senate with a bit of podracing and some sword fights slung in for good measure. You already know the plot, after all…

Now my routine defence to criticisms of The Phantom Menace at the time it came out was that this is a different style of film – rather than ‘plucky rebels fight evil empire’  this is a story of the rise of darkness and the loss of innocence, and so it’s of necessity got a different mood and tone to it. But the problem is, it hasn’t – the film succeeds best when in territory not really covered by the first, which is to say middle, trilogy (I’m beginning to wish Lucas’d made these films in the right order after all), such as that of the political thriller and the faux religious epic, but struggles to accommodate the action sequences and chases which the audience expects from a Star Wars film. Part of this problem is the opening, which is of the same in media res ilk as its predecessors, but is really a mistake in what’s supposed to be Episode I and the absolute beginning of the story. As a result the new-style material looks incongruous and disappointing. The crass and obvious comic relief would still have felt hugely out of place, though, no matter what.

Beyond the main problem of approach, there are plenty of minor flaws in the way it’s scripted. Of course, I’m not the first to point out that the Jedi aren’t nearly as likeable or charismatic as leads as their predecessors, which is to say their – oh, never mind. There isn’t the same level of energy in any of the performances and you do realise how much the originals relied on Harrison Ford’s slyly comic performances for their success. The film doesn’t even hint at the darkness within Anakin that will ultimately consume him. There’s also Lucas’ total fumbling of Portman’s dual role, both in script and direction, and it’s not made clear exactly why main villain Darth Sidious is helping the Trade Federation in the first place (he seems to benefit more when his schemes go belly up). The Federation are rather craven bad guys, too, perhaps the main evidence that this film is more interested in setting up future plotlines than in telling a good story of its own.

But I still think this film isn’t anything like as bad as it’s often held to be. Darth Maul (Ray Park and Peter Serafinowicz) is a memorable bad guy, even though he only seems to be in the film as a plot device to ensure a couple of good saber battles. The final duel is the best to date in the series. The special effects are, of course, immaculate, although with the rate at which modern special effects advance, the vistas of CGI armies on the march already look a bit dated.

In the end though, it comes down to this: the original Star Wars succeeded so amazingly because it retold a primal familiar myth in a visually unprecedented way. The Phantom Menace, if it fails at all, does so because it tells an unfamiliar kind of story in a visual style the audience has become very familiar with down the years (interesting, given that both films clearly owe a debt to Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress). It’s too Star Wars-y when it doesn’t need to be, but not Star Wars-y enough where it counts. There’s still potential left in the saga, though, and hopefully the producers will have learned from The Phantom Menace‘s mistakes. We’ll find out soon enough.

(…and when, nearly 10 years after writing this, The Phantom Menace was re-released in 3D, I had this to say about it.)

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 24th 2002:

There are ominous similarities between Ridley Scott’s latest offering Black Hawk Down and last year’s uber-turkey Pearl Harbor. Both are blockbuster retellings of notorious American military disasters, and both have Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore and Ewen Bremner somewhere on the cast list. And as I’m not a fan of Ridley Scott’s work at the best of times, I turned up to the cinema with quite a few misgivings.

Black Hawk Down is set in war-torn Somalia in late 1993. As part of an international taskforce, a mixed group of American elite troops – Rangers, Marines, etc – is attempting to eliminate the genocidal warlord Mohamed Aidid, who’s based in the city of Mogadishu. Their ability to act is hampered by the protocols established by the UN and they pass much of their time in the traditional pursuits of off-duty war-movie soldiers: doing jigsaws, playing scrabble, illustrating children’s books and listening to classic pop-rock songs. All this changes when authorisation is given for a raid on a meeting of Aidid’s senior advisors. But a series of misjudgements leads to the mission going spectacularly pear-shaped…

1993 isn’t that long ago – I remember seeing the news of these events on TV at the time they occurred. Probably because of this, the producers appear to have stuck closer to the facts than is usually the case even in ‘based on a true event’ pictures like this one. Even so, it’s still a big-budget action movie – and as a result Black Hawk Down has something of an identity crisis which it never quite recovers from.

The problem is that the characters on the screen are all instantly familiar from a hundred other war films – there’s the idealistic young noncom, the naive rookie, the grizzled veteran, and so on: Ewen McGregor plays a clerk who gets his first chance at front line duty (he suffers slightly from Wandering Accent Syndrome), Eric Bana (okay, he’s not very well-known now, but he’s toplining Ang Lee’s Hulk, one of next year’s blockbusters) is a taciturn covert ops officer who learns to respect the grunts, and Sam Shepherd plays the CO who watches his command engulfed in what’s almost literally a nightmare scenario. All verging on the stereotypical, but, that said, most of the acting is pretty good – though the most memorable performance is a cameo by George Harris as a Somali arms dealer.

But the situation at the heart of the film is absolutely not your typical well-choreographed action-movie scenario. It’s an escalating disaster as the soldiers are misdirected, split up, and surrounded by apparently limitless numbers of Kalashnikov-wielding local militiamen. The presentation of this very realistic chaos is the film’s great achievement, but it jars weirdly with the glossy Hollywoodism of the stock characters and the famous faces portraying them. Band of Brothers, which this resembles at times, got round this by hiring a cast of relative unknowns – a step Black Hawk Down‘s producers should have considered.

As it is, and credit where it’s due, Ridley Scott’s direction holds the film together. As you’d expect, it’s visually ravishing, but most of the time Scott manages to stay focussed on telling the story – an unexpected but welcome development. He does a brilliant job of communicating the confusion and panic of the troops in the streets as the mission disintegrates, while simultaneously ensuring that the viewer is aware of the situation and the positions of the various different groups involved (mainly through computer game-like aerial shots and expository dialogue from Shepherd and his staff). There are genuinely horrific and moving moments as the crisis deepens. Even so, this is pretty much a one-note movie and after a while I felt I wouldn’t have minded if I never heard another hammering assault rifle or saw another dancing shell casing ever again. There’s no light and shade here, no leavening humour or romance, and not really much of a plot. But if you like unrelenting realism, grit, military hardware and carnage you should have few complaints.

Post-September 11th, of course, any film about the American armed forces’ engagement in the Third World brings a whole load of new baggage with it. You may argue that it’d be unfair to review it in terms of its politics, and had Black Hawk Down not had its release date actually advanced to cash in on the current mood of the USA, I might have agreed. But as things stand, I don’t, so here goes.

It goes without saying that this is an unreservedly pro-American movie. It doesn’t scale quite the same heights of sanctimony as Pearl Harbor, thank God, but there’s absolutely no ambiguity on display. Well – the one exception to this is in the apportioning of blame for the debacle: armed forces overconfidence and the UN rules of engagement both get the finger pointed at them, but not as much as ‘Washington’ – a blatant criticism of the Clinton administration and thus one that’s very unlikely to irk the current residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It’s oversimplistic. It’s not always the case of Americans suffering for the sins of the rest of the world, no matter what the film suggests. The mission it recounts may be a confused, chaotic mess, but the film’s moral and political viewpoint is cleanly and uncompromisingly black-and-white. The film itself is all right, but its attempts to promote a set agenda in this way are insultingly obvious. There’s an awful lot of spinning going on in Black Hawk Down – and I’m not talking about helicopter rotor blades.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 18th 2005:

Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that lives in a house, a very big house in the country. Everywhere you look these days it’s nothing but bad news – not only does a nation mourn the premature passing of Smudge, the Blue Peter cat, but it also seems that the very future of summer moviegoing as we know it is in danger. Apparently, blockbusters just aren’t busting blocks the way they used to. The last couple of months have seen a string of hugely expensive flops at the box office, chief amongst them the jet-goes-evil thriller Stealth which even I couldn’t be bothered to go and see, and Michael Bay’s latest exercise in premature hearing loss, The Island, which I obviously could, or this would be a very short column.

This is the story of Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor, who clearly hasn’t yet had his fill of overblown SF), who leads a fairly cloistered existence in a hermetically sealed facility, along with lots of other people in shiny white tracksuits. The reason for this (the hermetic seals, not the tracksuits) is because an unspecified disaster known as the Contamination has left the rest of the world uninhabitable. But Lincoln and the others are kept safe by the noble and decent and not at all cold and sinister administrator of the place, Dr Merrick (Sean Bean) – as long as they follow the rules and do as they’re told, they’re entered into a lottery, where the prize is a place in the world’s last unpolluted paradise, known as the Island. But Lincoln is troubled by strange dreams – and begins to doubt the truth of the world around him. If the world is such a toxic hell, where do new inmates keep arriving from? How can wild animals be getting into the complex from outside? Is the lottery something more sinister? When his comely best friend Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) actually wins the lottery, he decides to find out the truth for himself…

Yes, I can’t quite bring myself to completely spoil this film’s plot, even though the twist at its’ centre is public knowledge. Quite frankly, I think that’s been one of its main problems, because it’s a fairly good twist and could probably work reasonably well on an audience that hasn’t seen the trailers or promotional films – not that there’s much chance of that. It isn’t remotely original in any department, of course: the list of things that donate ideas or sequences could probably go on for a very long time. There’s a little bit of THX-1138, rather more of Logan’s Run, smidges from things like The Sixth Day, Capricorn One, and Minority Report. The central idea is such a clone of the one in Michael Marshall Smith’s brilliant short story To Receive Is Better that I’m surprised writs haven’t been issued.

But while lack of plot originality isn’t usually a barrier to a film’s success (often quite the opposite), the fact that Michael Bay has been making huge action movies in a very distinct way for the last ten years might well be. You don’t need to see his name on the credits to recognise his work, well not here anyway – you’ve got slo-mo low-angle shots of people climbing out of helicopters, sopranos wailing indistinctly on the soundtrack at important moments, significant amounts of very obvious product placement and more carefree large-scale property damage than the average small war. Alumni of previous Bay offerings like Michael Clarke Duncan and Steve Buscemi pop up. And it’s all very much in the same vein that he tapped for Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon… and it’s lost whatever novelty value it once had. Bay also seems to be running out of steam – a major action sequence is basically a rerun of one from Bad Boys 2 with the numbers filed off.

And it’s a shame, because while I’ve always felt that none of his films really deserved to be smash hits, The Island certainly doesn’t deserve to be Bay’s great flop. It’s by no means perfect – it’s pretentious and glib and the plot is riddled with holes and abandoned ideas – but the leads are pretty good (we must be thankful for the downturn in Ben Affleck’s fortunes or he might well have been in the McGregor role), Djimon Hounsou is quietly impressive as the hunter Bean sends after them, there are some reasonable jokes, and some of the action is quite impressive. It’s also quite impressive in the way it mingles anti-technological bias (it’s implicitly deeply hostile towards stem cell research and genetic science in a way your average fundie will whole-heartedly agree with) and criticism of religion (the way the lottery and the island are used as methods of social control are surely a metaphor for the similar functions ascribed to organised faiths by those of an atheistic bent) in a way to gladden the prejudices of virtually anyone.

This is really a very average movie, but it’s still better than most of Bay’s past work. For me the question is not one of why this particular movie failed, but why all the other ones succeeded. In the meantime, this is undemanding stuff leavened with a few interesting ideas. Still, best sampled without foreknowledge or advance publicity.

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From the earliest days of the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 20th 2001

When exactly did Hollywood decide the Middle Ages were so filthy? I blame Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Once upon a time we had lovely shiny knights in primary colours, but now every excursion to medieval times seems to take place in a sea of mud with everyone either caked in the stuff or covered in rust. Well, maybe John Boorman’s Excalibur is an honourable exception, but you see my point. It certainly applies to Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale, an enjoyably frivolous movie with a bizarre new take on the genre.

It’s the story of a peasant named William Thatcher (the audibly Australian Heath Ledger). When their noble boss dies of dysentery, he and his fellow commoners hit upon a cunning plan – Ledger enters jousting tournaments (supposedly the most popular leisure activity of the age) using the deceased’s armour, and they all split the prize money. There is of course the drawback that only the nobility are allowed to compete, but fortunately they encounter a down-on-his-luck scribe (Paul Bettany) willing to forge Ledger’s aristocratic credentials. This is supposed to be Geoffrey Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales fame, so listen out for a grinding, rotating sort of noise if you live anywhere near his grave. Ledger is, inevitably, rather successful, and as the tale progresses he meets a beautiful princess (the audibly American Shannyn Sossamon, who can’t act, but is so easy on the eye she doesn’t have to bother) and a suitably wicked villain who wears black all the time (Rufus Sewell).

The pitch for this movie was probably along the lines of ‘Gladiator meets Shakespeare in Love‘ – it has the martial pomposity of the former and the broad humour of the latter. It all takes place in a generic medieval Europe that combines details from Arthurian legend with architecture from the Tudor period, and the end result is about as historically convincing as an episode of The Flintstones. But it doesn’t really need to be as this is no more or less than a fun romp. There are no great surprises or insights but a lot of good jokes and the odd touching moment. There’s rock-solid thesping support from Mark Addy as a squire, Bettany’s performance as Chaucer is witty, and Laura Fraser is good as a female blacksmith who joins the gang. If it has a real flaw, it’s that one joust looks very much like another and the director runs out of original ways to film them quite early on. I enjoyed it a lot, far more than I expected to, as I only wound up going to see it because the cinema wasn’t showing Rush Hour 2.

Not long after, I trundled along to see Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, and the two films have a good deal in common. Like A Knight’s Tale, Moulin Rouge is a period piece, and also like A Knight’s Tale, it features a supposedly historical character in a supporting role. It’s the story of naive young writer Christian (Ewan McGregor in his best role for some time), who in the year 1900 moves to Paris. He befriends a group of Bohemian artists, including Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) – that’ll be another spinning celebrity corpse, then – who want to put on a show at the famous (and titular) Moulin Rouge nightspot, run by Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent). A misunderstanding during a visit to the club leads to Christian and star attraction Satine (a glacially beautiful Nicole Kidman) falling in love, after she initially mistakes him for a rich Duke who’s considering financing the refurbishment of the club. When the real Duke (Richard Roxburgh, who does a pretty good impression of the late Terry-Thomas) turns up he agrees to stump up the cash provided he gets, ahem, exclusive access to Satine, if you follow my meaning. Will true love triumph?

Moulin Rouge is, and let’s be honest about this, completely insane. This being a Baz Luhrman film, restraint and naturalism were escorted from the cinema before the opening credits rolled. For the first twenty minutes I felt pinned back into my seat by the overwhelming, frenetic audio-visual onslaught – crash zooms, jump-cuts, slo-mo, freeze frames, crane shots, mixes, Luhrman uses them all – but eventually either the film calmed down a bit or I acclimatised to it. Probably the latter, with hindsight, as the story slowly changes from broad farce to tragic melodrama as it goes on, the transition being flawlessly executed. It’s all been art-directed to within an inch of its life, zips along with elan to spare, and in its early stages is often very funny. Most of the jokes are broad, though, and many of the laughs come from deliberate incongruities – when McGregor starts singing the theme to The Sound of Music, or Kylie Minogue’s cameo as the Absinthe fairy (barely credibly, she’s dubbed by metal legend Ozzy Osbourne).

This use of deliberate anachronism is the most striking similarity between A Knight’s Tale and Moulin Rouge. In A Knight’s Tale it takes a number of forms – at the ‘Jousting World Championships’ all the peasants behave like football supporters. Chaucer, as a herald, hypes up his master as if he’s a WWF wrestler. Several contemporary songs feature on the soundtrack. My favourite moment of the movie is a deliriously exuberant sequence at a banquet where everyone starts gettin’ on down to David Bowie’s Golden Years. But in the end it’s just a device to boost the fun quotient in a film that has absolutely no aspirations to be taken seriously.

There are lots of pop songs in Moulin Rouge too, deliberately famous ones – songs by Elton John, by Queen, by Nirvana, and – once again – by Bowie, who should have a good week on the royalties front. We get to see Jim Broadbent in a ginger shock-wig and (one hopes) padded fat-suit doing a full-on song and dance version of Madonna’s Like A Virgin, for example – just take a moment to mull that image over. Admittedly, the musical director appears to have been Darius from Popstars, so weird are some of the arrangements, but these are still familiar, stirring tunes, and, crucially, they’re central to the story’s development. However, the reason for their use, as opposed to a more conventional means of character development, is unclear. Is Luhrman trying to say something about the power of popular song? Is it a strange emotional shorthand? Is it an attempt to draw parallels between the decadence of the Moulin Rouge and that of our own society? Or is it just done purely for laughs and novelty value? It’s really impossible to tell. More importantly, so studiously artificial is the conceit, along with the rest of the setting, that it creates a real distance between audience and story. This is by no means a bad film; it’s visually astonishing, the performances are great, and the music’s often stirring – but it’s very hard to engage with the characters and story on an emotional level. One is left with a whirling, staggering, multicoloured dervish that captivates the senses but doesn’t stir the passions. Like one of its’ characters, Moulin Rouge is beautiful, but with a cold heart. This was probably inevitable, but it’s still a shame.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 5th 2004: 

If you were just starting out as a film director, I suppose one of the things you might do in order to quickly establish yourself would be to develop a signature style – a collection of trademark shots, images and themes running as a sort of common thread through all your work. Your resume would have a sort of consistency, your fan base would probably grow faster, and people who worry about that sort of thing would be reassured that they always knew where they stood when it came to your films.

Of course, as time went by and you wanted to stretch your wings and maybe do something just a little bit different, this very consistency might well start to work against you. People would come to your films looking out for your trademark stuff and end up completely overlooking the rest of it, no matter how impressively executed. ‘Stop ruminating unimpressively and get to the goddam review!‘ I hear you cry. Well, okay, punters, this week we’re looking at Tim Burton’s Big Fish, the film which led me aboard that particular train of thought.

This is a story about that old favourite of a theme, the troubled father-son relationship. No, wait, come back – because although that particular chestnut has been flogged to death (nice metaphor – what sparkling form I’m on just now), this is a film with much to commend it.

Billy Crudup plays Will Bloom, an American in Paris (no, this isn’t a musical) who finds himself summoned home to Alabama when his father is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Edward Bloom (played with sparklingly roguish charm by Albert Finney) has been a salesman by trade but a teller of tall tales by vocation for all of his life. Basically he tells a pleasing, fantastical, and utterly fraudulent version of his life to everyone he meets (the young Edward is played – with, it must be said, a rather erratic accent – by Ewan McGregor). He tells tales of befriending giants, playing fetch-the-stick with a werewolf, and sailing from Vietnam to America with some conjoined twins. Edward’s refusal to reveal any of his true self to his son has been the cause of some friction between them, and it’s up to Will to find some resolution before it’s too late.

Yeah, well, it doesn’t sound like much, I’ll admit, but the meat of the film consists of the extraordinary tales Edward tells of his youth. Going into too much detail about these would only spoil them, but suffice it to say that they are as inventive and scary and drily funny as one could hope for. There seemed to me to be a distinct whiff of the works of Roald Dahl throughout the film – there’s a big friendly giant and a witch, but also hints of the darkness and pain that characterised much of Dahl’s writing. McGregor is an ebullient lead, and he’s well supported by the likes of Danny de Vito and an increasingly consumptive-looking Steve Buscemi. Helena Bonham-Carter pops up too, oddly less-recognisable under her witch’s make-up than she was as a chimpanzee in Burton’s Planet Of The Apes (now there’s a movie with a lot to answer for!).

In the past I’ve always been a bit of an agnostic regarding Tim Burton. Some of his films I’ll happily admit are terrific – the two Batmans, Ed Wood – and they all look extraordinary, but the worlds he puts up on the screen are often so skewed and divorced from reality that I find it hard to connect with them emotionally. But this isn’t the case with Big Fish – the ‘real world’ sequences with Finney and Crudup (also Jessica Lange and Marion Cotillard as their wives) buttress the fantasy, provide a bridge into it, and lend the film a certain emotional gravitas. Burton directs these scenes with an utter naturalism one wouldn’t believe him capable of – it’s the equivalent of Damien Hurst painting a lovely landscape, and it’s surely to Burton’s credit. The actors help: Finney is an appropriately larger than life figure and Crudup’s performance is very nicely judged so as to be memorable without crowding the film.

There’s a slight incoherency to some parts of the film – ideally the progression of Edward’s fantastical life story should match Will’s increasing insight into him as a person, and it doesn’t – and it would have been more satisfying if the script had come up with a psychological explanation for Edward’s story-telling with a bit more depth to it than ‘stories are more interesting than real life’. The film also can’t resist a slightly predictable climax which blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, unnecessarily I thought. But Big Fish remains a film which manages to be very funny without ever being crass, imaginative without ever losing its grip on reality, and moving without being sentimental. Tim Burton’s best film in nearly a decade – recommended.

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