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Posts Tagged ‘Gerard Butler’

I know that some people have occasionally accused me of being unreasonably inflexible and rigid in my attitudes and principles. Well, maybe so; everyone’s got to have their red lines, after all. But in my defence, I would like to offer proof that a man can change. For quite a long time in the early and middle 2000s I was a definite cheerleader for the career of Gerard Butler, always lamenting his poor film choices and bad luck and hoping he would rise to become a genuine leading man. However, for the last couple of years I have quietly been hoping he would pack it all in and slope off back to obscurity.

What changed? Well, when Butler actually became a star he ended up making films like Geostorm, Hunter Killer, and especially London Has Fallen, and frankly I can only take so much of that kind of thing (some of the personal grooming commercials he’s been doing have been difficult to stomach as well). If it hadn’t been for the current blight in interesting mainstream films I suspect I would have given his new one, Ric Roman Waugh’s Angel Has Fallen, a very clear miss. But, you know – maybe I do have some residual affection for the lad.

The movie opens with moody scenes of men in combat gear, flames, and helicopters. They are clearly big manly men, carrying big gunly guns, but keeping well clear of the big flamey flames. (Sometimes a helicopter is just a helicopter.) It turns out this lot are all after heroic swivel-eyed psycho Mike Banning (GERARD! BUTLER!), only not really, as anyone with a switched-on brain will quickly realise. This fake man-hunt is just a device to allow the movie to open with some running around and shooting as well as foreshadowing what is to follow when the movie properly gets going (basically, more running around and shooting).

Well, with that out of the way, they have to lay in some plot, which involves Banning’s old mate Jennings (Danny Huston), a mercenary who’s feeling the pinch, and the decision of the President (Morgan Freeman) not to use private security firms to execute American foreign policy. There is also a plotline about Banning knocking on a bit, suffering from insomnia and concussion and a dodgy neck, and dreading the prospect of the desk job which is being floated before him.

All this done, it’s off to the races as someone unknown (but really very obvious) attempts to kill the President while he’s fishing, using killer drones. This is one of the movie’s big set pieces and it is certainly fairly impressive, although the fact that this is the third film this year alone to incorporate killer drones as a plot device inevitably lessens the impact. Everyone dies but Banning and the Prez (who is left in a coma), and evidence surfaces suggesting that Banning has been colluding with the Russians against the best interests of the American people. With the administration in turmoil and the threat of war looming (as usual, this is an abstract, off-screen sort of looming, an attempt to raise the stakes more than anything else), it’s up to Banning to go on the run from the FBI in an attempt to clear his name and save the nation…

So: a few changes from the last …Has Fallen movie, most visibly the disappearance of Aaron Eckhart as the President and the promotion of Morgan Freeman to the top job. You can understand why Eckhart must have found this a fairly unfulfilling gig, as all it involved was looking weak and needing to be rescued all the time, and Freeman got to make all the big speeches anyway. It is odd to realise this is only the second film where Morgan Freeman plays the US President, it feels like it’s been a plank of his career for ages (even though the first time was in a film where basically half the world blew up, not the most reassuring track record). Banning’s wife has also been recast, not that it matters very much.

Less visibly, but perhaps more importantly, this is a less ugly and offensive film than London Has Fallen, although it is still a very mechanical chase-thriller with lengthy action sequences undistinguished by any real flair or energy. It doesn’t relish gratuitous sadism in the same way the previous film did, nor does it treat serious real-world issues in quite such an offensively glib manner. So it is on some level an improvement.

However, London Has Fallen was such a bad film that being better than it doesn’t mean Angel Has Fallen is actually what you’d call a good one. It is, as noted, mechanical, and also quite predictable – it’s crystal-clear right from the start that Danny Huston is going to turn out to be the bad guy, for instance. (Not quite entirely predictable, though: a couple of characters get the chop who you wouldn’t necessarily expect.) Much of it is quite humourless, soundtracked primarily by Butler shouting profanities and grunting a lot.

On the other hand, when they do try to lighten up, the results are mixed at best. Banning attempts to go to ground with his estranged father, played by Nick Nolte. It turns out that Pops Banning is also a swivel-eyed psycho, but he is presented as the comic relief character: when he blows dozen of bad guys away or stabs them to death it is usually the set-up to a punchline of some description. (When Mrs Banning meets her father-in-law for the first time, the very first thing he does is knife two guys to death in her presence – and she still has doubts that he’s related to her husband! Has she not been paying attention for the last two movies?) This also occasions an attempt at some added depth, as Pops Banning is another army veteran left traumatised by his experiences. Not that the film is really about this or attempts to deal with it in any depth. It just sort of prods the notion in an attempt to generate some pathos and then moves on to the next scene.

The movie is of course afflicted by the same problem that has troubled any recent attempt to portray goings on at the top end of the US government. In the past the answer has always been to create a sort of roman-a-clef effect, to some degree or other – so we had heroic, charming POTUSes in films during the Clinton years, Danny Glover and Jamie Foxx in the Oval Office during the Obama administration, and so on. But what are you supposed to do at the moment? Hire the Jim Henson Company? In the end the film parts company with reality entirely, which is kind of ironic as the current US administration did that quite some time ago.

You do actually get a sense of a film not quite hedging its bets completely in this area: if anything, this is a movie pitching to an old, white, male, blue-collar crowd, more likely than not to be wearing one of those red baseball caps with the cute slogan on it. Heroic Banning, after all, is framed for colluding with the Russians and wrongfully persecuted by the FBI as a result – although there is a passing reference to Russian tampering in US elections which someone has slipped in, in an attempt at balance. There is also a scene in which a defenceless African-American woman is shot in the face by a white middle-aged man, which I would imagining playing quite well with a certain constituency of the current president’s base.

However, lest you come away with the impression that this is just empty carnage, questionable comic relief and dubious political subtext, I should mention that there is also a theme about the deep bond and fellow-feeling that exists between former brothers-in-arms Banning and Jennings. Truly they understand and care for each other, although this doesn’t stop Jennings trying to frame his buddy or have his family kidnapped. The final tussle between them is thus an oddly affectionate one and even somewhat tender, as they grapple sweatily together, holding one another tightly and gasping for breath (both have been doing a lot of running, and Banning has just copped a grenade at point-blank range), before Banning brings things to a climax and slips it in (his dagger, I mean). ‘I’m glad it was you!’ whispers Danny Huston, before flopping down to bleed out in a pool of his own bodily fluids. You almost feel like you’re intruding on them by watching this stuff.

Or possibly I’m reading too much into all of this. I suspect it is actually impossible to read too little into it, for this is ultimately formulaic entertainment, the hard lines of plot barely garnished by the odd moment purporting to bring character or depth to it. That said, Danny Huston is clearly having fun, and there’s something about Morgan Freeman that can’t help but bring a touch of class to whatever he does. The film also scores points for improving on London Has Fallen. But on the whole this is insignificant stuff. My advice to Gerard Butler now? Take the desk job, the next time they offer it.

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As I sit down to contemplate Donovan Marsh’s Hunter Killer, I am minded to suggest a new rule of thumb for when it comes to predicting whether a film is any good or not. I already have a few of these: is the director so obscure he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry? This is a bad sign. Does the film star Gerard Butler? This is a worse one. (Needless to say, Hunter Killer fails both of these tests, by which I mean the answer is yes.) To these I would add: does the film have more producers and executive producers than it does cleaning ladies?

This is certainly the case with Hunter Killer, which – thanks to my close examination of the credits, a result of the film putting my lower limbs into a state of temporary torpor and briefly trapping me in the auditorium – I can inform you has over twenty producers and execs (including Gerard Butler, perhaps unsurprisingly), but less than a dozen women who clean. I will have to do further research into this area, but my initial findings are that you should hire cleaners in bulk rather than film producers, should you have the option.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that Hunter Killer is about as good a movie as you would expect, given it is a mid-budget action thriller starring Butler as the ostensible hero. I was something of a cheerleader for Butler and his career up until about fifteen years ago, and was genuinely pleased when 300 catapulted him to a level of real stardom – but since then it seems like he hasn’t really been trying, just recycling the same kinds of movies and performances over and over again. I’m almost at the point of giving up on him entirely, but I do enjoy a slightly duff genre movie, so along I went to a matinee of Hunter Killer (at which I was entirely alone, I might add).

Things kick off with an American and a Russian submarine both going missing in mysterious circumstances, somewhere under the polar ice. The chairman of the joint chiefs, who is a growly cipher expertly phoned in by Gary Oldman, dispatches another sub to investigate, under the command of newly-promoted captain Joe Glass (Butler). Glass manages to be a fierce disciplinarian and an unpredictable loose cannon, whom we first meet displaying his macho chops by (illegally) hunting deer with a longbow in Scotland. He then gets to show his sensitive side by not actually shooting the cute little critters, before being whisked off to take command of his boat. Here he displays yet another aspect of his personality, being much given to making rather cryptic inspirational speeches to his crew – ‘I am you,’ he announces to the assembled company, then ‘Everyone you know is someone on that [missing] sub.’ Needless to say, Butler does not really manage to unite all these bizarrely arbitrary traits in a coherent characterisation.

Well, anyway, as the presumably somewhat-baffled crew sails into the danger zone it transpires that there is sneakiness afoot in the upper echelons of the Russian military establishment, with a coup in progress against the Russian President (Alexander Diachenko), orchestrated by the perfidious Defence Minister (Mikhail Gorevoy), who is looking to start a nuclear war with the USA for no particularly well-explained reason. However, with a US sub in the crisis zone, not to mention a special forces team (led by a somewhat unexpectedly-cast Toby Stephens), it may just be possible to save the day…

Yes, so this is not one of those films with what you could honestly describe as a stranglehold on reality. You almost wonder how long it has been in the works, given just how spectacularly misjudged its presentation of world geopolitics is – the US President is a woman, apparently named ‘Ilene Dover’ (which is a joke name, surely), who ends up ordering a rescue mission to save the Russian President (who has no tendencies to be photographed with his shirt off, in case you were wondering).

In other words it is, not to put too fine a point on it, a deeply silly film, bordering on the actually cartoonish in some places. The problem is that the makers of the film don’t appear to be particularly comfortable with making a silly cartoon of an action movie: they seem to want to make a serious and credible semi-political thriller. This desire mainly takes the form of everyone in Hunter Killer being under orders to play it absolutely straight even when the material demands at least a degree of tongue-in-cheekness. The result is regrettably predictable: when a silly film attempts to become credible by taking itself very seriously, the result is not a serious, credible film – the result is a film which manages to be both silly and rather dull.

I found myself rather missing the barking, sweating, swivel-eyed-maniac Gerard Butler of old: he’s just not that interesting when he tones it down, even if he is playing a weirdly stoical underwater nutcase at the time. On the other hand, hardly anyone makes much of an impression in this film – Gary Oldman expertly phones in his supporting turn, the rapperist Common appears as another nautical cove, and a cast-against-type Toby Stephens pops up as the leader of a US special forces unit (the movie was made in the UK, which explains the presence of a few familiar faces further down the cast list). It is, as you may have noticed, a somewhat blokey movie, with this slightly made up for by a supporting appearance by Linda Cardellini as an NSA analyst. (There are indeed some women serving on Butler’s sub, but none of them get any lines until the last twenty minutes of the film.) The late Michael Nyqvist makes one of his final appearances as a decent Russian sub captain, in a probably optimistic attempt to make it clear that not all Russians are bad guys.

That’s the thing about Hunter Killer – technically, it’s a perfectly competent movie in terms of its production and so on, but it just makes virtually no impact. There is never any real sense of danger or tension or involvement, probably because the film is just so derivative and formulaic and predictable. No doubt the film’s themes of the US military being wonderful and the deep connections felt by the brotherhood of submariners will appeal to some sectors of the intended audience, but I can’t see that translating into particularly wide appeal for anyone else. Even if you’re a really keen fan of films about submarines, Hunter Killer really has nothing new or especially accomplished to offer. But at least the sets are nice and clean.

 

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There’s no such thing as a job for life these days, so it’s as well to branch out, even in the movie industry. Actually, this sort of diversification has been going on for ages – models become actresses, actors and actresses become directors, writers become directors, producers become directors… hmm, it seems like everyone wants to be the director – except for the odd director who decides to become a producer, anyway.

You can see why – the director gets to make all the big decisions and all the artistic cachet when a movie turns out to be good. All the producer gets to do is count beans and, perhaps, pick up the Best Picture gongs when awards season rolls around. How hard can it be? You get to tell everyone else what to do, in accordance with your creative vision, and wear a pair of Cuban-heeled boots, too. Matthew Vaughn started off as Guy Ritchie’s producer and has gone on to have the kind of directorial career which Ritchie himself would probably quite like nowadays. All in all, it’s enough to tempt anyone to give it a try.

Even Dean Devlin, who is best known as the producer and writing partner of director Roland Emmerich, has fallen prey to this dubious impulse. Now, I’m fully aware that Devlin and Emmerich and their movies are hardly cool, and are never going to win any of the noteworthy Oscars, but I honestly really like Independence Day, and I didn’t really have an actively bad experience watching Stargate, or their version of Godzilla, or The Day After Tomorrow, or 2012. As you can see, if there’s a running theme through the work of these guys, it’s that of special-effects-facilitated catastrophes – nothing too serious, just a lot of running and screaming and the occasional one-liner and moment of unmitigated schmaltz. Devlin’s new movie as co-writer and director, Geostorm, is very much one of these, so at least he’s in his comfort zone.

We open, of course, with a voice-over explaining everything. ‘People were warned. People should have listened,’ laments a grave voice. Yes, but they went ahead and bought tickets to Geostorm anyway, ha ha. Ahem. Following murderously bad weather in the distant year of 2019, a global weather-control network has been set up, code-named ‘Dutch Boy’. Hmmm, I suppose people shouting ‘Dutch Boy is out of control!’ (as they inevitably end up doing) sounds marginally snappier. Anyway, the system is the brainchild of maverick alpha male climatological engineer Jake Lawson (GERARD! BUTLER!), who proceeds to annoy all the politicians in charge of it and gets himself kicked out and replaced by his kid brother Max (Jim Sturgess). (It is just one of those unfortunate things that the heroes of a movie about bad weather should share their surname with a particularly ridiculous British climate-change denier.)

Very early on you get a sense of what a special movie Geostorm is going to be. Jake Lawson turns up at a hearing and is greeted thusly by the security guard: ‘Hey, you’re JAKE LAWSON! Jake Lawson! What a great guy you are! You invented Dutch Boy! Any bad weather in the world, you can stop it! You saved everyone! You’re a hero, Jake Lawson.’ Do you know, I get the impression the audience is supposed to like him.

Well, anyway, years go by and preparations to turn over the weather-modifying gadgets to international control are underway, but then a village full of Afghans turn up, transformed into corpsicles by unknown means (presumably they casually kill off some Afghans because, well, they don’t matter as much as Americans or Europeans or Chinese people, do they?). Could something be up with the weather satellites? Hmmm. Max is obliged to drag a rather grumpy Jake back from exile and pack him off to the ludicrously large space station where the weather network is run from. Soon both brothers are turning up evidence that the system has been interfered with, and lots more absurdly bad weather is on the way…

It is a source of mild embarrassment to me that I was such an enthusiastic promoter of Gerard Butler’s career ten or fifteen years ago, back when he was turning up in things like Timeline and Reign of Fire. It is indeed true that he has scaled the peaks of Hollywood stardom and become a proper leading man. But it is also the case that any Gerard Butler-led movie you stumble upon these days is likely to be – how can I put this delicately? – absolutely bloody awful. Just what kind of advice is he being given?

The trailer for Geostorm promises a full-on bonkers apocalypse in the true Emmerich style, but it actually starts off by looking more like one of those ‘peril in orbit’ movies that have become somewhat modish since Gravity came along. Butler spends most of the movie in space (which many might say was the best place for him these days) – luckily, in space everyone can still hear you growl, and quite possibly sweat – leaving Sturgess to run around on Earth trying to uncover the conspiracy. Once again, every time he meets a new character there’s a lovely scene where they tell each other at great length who they are and how they know each other, even if they’re both already aware of this. What a script this is.

Well, in the end the person behind the conspiracy turns out to be exactly the one you thought it was all along (honestly, only a tree would be surprised by the revelation), and there are various scenes of good-looking extras being chased down the street by bad weather. The Kremlin melts in the sun, but in the name of balance, the Democratic National Convention is struck by lightning and blows up (they really missed a trick by not getting Al Gore to come on and shout ‘I did warn you-‘ at the last minute), and the International Space Station blows up too – it has a rather odd self-destruct device where it blows up a tiny bit at a time over the course of about an hour and a half. Fortunately, the President escapes: the thankless task of playing the leader of the Free World falls to Andy Garcia.

No, really, how are you supposed to include the President in a movie these days? It was easy when Clinton was in power – just get someone young and a bit roguishly charming, easy peasy. During the Obama administration, you could just hire someone like Danny Glover or Jamie Foxx to be grave and inspiring. But who do you hire these days? Isn’t the reality just too bizarre even for a movie like Geostorm? I suspect CGI would be required.

Garcia isn’t the only person who seems to have wandered in from a rather more sensible film – Ed Harris phones in his performance stoically, while Abbie Cornish – a pleasing but peripheral presence in dodgy movies for some years now – plays a Secret Service agent who ends up kidnapping the President (in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s that sort of film). Giving quite possibly the best performance in the whole thing is Talitha Bateman as Butler’s daughter: one to watch, methinks.

A friend of mine is also a connoisseur of the Butler canon and his advance word on Geostorm probably lifted my expectations too high – ‘this film makes London Has Fallen look like The Dark Knight,’ he promised. Well, no it doesn’t, I have to say, because Geostorm is just very, very stupid, rather than actually being offensive to the soul. In terms of just this year’s films, it’s less actively irritating than Hampstead, and has strong competition in the stupidity stakes in the xXx sequel. This still makes it a very bad film, of course.

What it reminds me of most, to be honest, is one of those dimwit TV disaster movies that Syfy churn out by the dozen – as a single man in middle age who’s often at home in the afternoons, I end up watching a lot of these on the Horror Channel – movies like Tornado Warning, Solar Storm, Christmas Icetastrophe, Stonehenge Apocalypse, and so on. If you gave the makers of one of these films a $120 million budget and blackmail material on several major stars, I imagine the result would be something like Geostorm. Only the scale of this movie makes it particularly noteworthy.

But hey, at least Dean Devlin has got to direct a big Hollywood movie, which is more than most of us can say we’ve ever done. Well done, Dean; I would just focus on that and not worry too much about the reviews or the box office returns. Geostorm is pretty much what you’d expect from a movie about Gerard Butler having a fight with the weather, but the fact it’s so exactly what you think it’s going to be is almost a little surprising. Not actually morally offensive, but still not a film which sensible adults should really go anywhere near.

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Over twenty years ago, I decided, mainly on a bit of a whim, to go and see a preview screening of the original The Crow (I had a sort of part-time unpaid gig as a film reviewer for a free newspaper). It was the dog days of early summer and I really had very little else to do that night. As we emerged into the chilly Yorkshire night, the usherette asked me what I’d thought of the film. ‘Much better than I expected,’ I replied truthfully.

Alex Proyas, director of The Crow, has not gone on to have most prolific of careers, but he has made films that most people have heard of – primarily Dark City, which is generally considered to anticipate The Matrix, and I, Robot, which is generally considered to be a silly Will Smith film with zero feeling for the source material it adapts. Now he is back with Gods of Egypt, another film which a lot of people have been talking about, although admittedly not perhaps for the reasons the director might have hoped.

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Gods of Egypt is set in Egypt and features gods. I feel I must clarify this by saying this is an Egypt and probably not the Egypt you may be thinking of. We know it is an Egypt because the landscape is covered with an absurd number of pyramids, but also that it is not the real Egypt because, well, it has gods wandering around in it. These gods are supposedly the ones of ancient Egyptian religion, but most of the time they just resemble digitally-enlarged actors and actresses whom you might possibly recognise from other films or off the telly, when they’ve not transformed into twelve-foot-tall CGI robots, anyway.

As things get underway, boss god Osiris (Bryan Brown) is retiring and giving the throne of Egypt to his slightly feckless but basically decent son Horus (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau). This is somewhat to the chagrin of Osiris’ brother Set (GERARD! BUTLER!), who expresses his unhappiness by brutally murdering him and seizing power himself, though not before he forcibly removes Horus’ eyes (as these are gods this is not as permanent as it would be for you or I).

The story skips forward a bit and we find Egypt in a sorry state, not least because Set has put a paywall around the afterlife (a notion I’m sure many real-world companies are racking their brains about even as I type). Beautiful slave Zaya (Courtney Eaton, a young actress who combines an air of unquestionable innocence and virtue with a mesmerising embonpoint) persuades her roguish boyfriend Bek (Brenton Thwaites) to break into Set’s treasure vault, nick Horus’ eyes back, and persuade the defeated young god to reclaim the throne from Set. But Horus is doubtful of his ability to challenge his evil uncle unassisted, and Set has his own plans to rise to a position of even greater power…

Gods of Egypt has made headlines partly because it looks likely to be something of a flop, taking only $143 million in its US release (about four months ago, which is in itself something of a rarity these days) compared to a budget of $140. (Due to some sort of dark sorcerous accountancy, the studio seems to have very limited exposure to the film’s underperformance.) Why the film should have done quite so badly has been a topic of some discussion, and there are suggestions it’s because of the other reason for those headlines – the vexed issue of how the film has been cast.

The argument usually goes something like this:

This is a film called Gods of Egypt, set in Egypt, and about Egyptian people (and gods). casting people who are notably non-Egyptian in the major roles is thus another egregious example of Hollywood whitewashing.

Yes, well, but this is a major studio production hoping to attract a large international audience, so we need to cast established film stars. The only Egyptian film star most people can name is Omar Sharif, and he was unavailable for this film, mainly because he died last year.

Even if this argument was acceptable, which it isn’t, you’re not even making sense on your own terms – just who are these ‘established film stars’ you say you’ve put in your film? Brenton Thwaites? Who he? Courtney Eaton? Who she?

She’s the sweet-looking young girl with the breathtaking –

I know who she is. Well, actually, the point is that I don’t know who she is, you could just as easily have cast an actress of the right ethnicity, not someone who’s… what is she, anyway?

English-Chinese-Maori, apparently. Well, look, Gerard Butler’s in this film, he’s a big star.

Well, maybe. But that’s one guy out of five or six…

Where were all you guys when Ken Branagh made Thor, anyway? I didn’t hear anyone complaining when Idris Elba and Tadonobu Asano got cast as gods from Norse mythology. Not one peep about ‘ethnically appropriate casting’ then…

Ahem. Let’s just go back to the regular part of the review, shall we?

Fair enough.

At moments like this, I do recall the words of – I believe – Alexander Walker, who always responded to this sort of complaint by declaring ‘There were no Arabs in Casablanca!’ – which I interpret as meaning that you can take pieces of entertainment a bit too seriously if you’re not careful. If there’s a film this year meant to not be taken seriously, it’s Gods of Egypt, though this doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its moments.

All right, when you get down to it this is just another CGI-slathered extravaganza of mechanical plotting and overblown set pieces, but I’ve never felt that there isn’t a place for that kind of film on our screens, particularly if it’s done well. Perhaps Gods of Egypt doesn’t do it particularly well in terms of actual storytelling, but that doesn’t mean there are not things here worth at least a few moments of your time.

Putting all the running around and zapping things with CGI to one side, this is a film which has the cojones to suggest Gerard Butler as the Egyptian god of darkness. Not since Sean Connery in Highlander has anyone of putatively Egyptian origin been quite so thoroughly Scottish. Butler grapples heroically with his own accent, with honestly rather strange results, but in a strange way this just adds to the film’s peculiar… well, charm’s too strong a word for it, perhaps inoffensiveness will do. (Butler himself is much more likeable a presence here than he’s been for a long time.)

Coupled to this is the fact that the film is prepared to push the CGI envelope in some quite bonkers directions. At one point Butler pulls on a frankly astonishing hat, clambers aboard a space-chariot pulled by giant dung beetles, and flies off into battle, and that’s not something you see every day even if all you ever watch are special-effects blockbusters. There’s actually something rather impressive about the way in which the film treats the wilder ideas of Egyptian mythology as being literally true. A couple of scenes take place on the sky-barge of the chief god Ra, said barge dragging the sun across the sky on the end of a length of chain, with Ra himself forced to do nightly battle with the gargantuan doomsday-serpent Apophis, and I couldn’t help watching it all and going ‘Hmm, this is refreshingly different.’ (That fact that Geoffrey Rush plays Ra rather in the long-suffering manner of a man contending with a difficult-to-swat fly on barbeque day only adds to the fun.)

This is not a great movie. It is not quite even, I would say, the proverbial Good Bad Movie. But it always looks interesting and it is never completely dull, even at its least-effective moments (Egyptian mythology and the tropes of formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting crunch into each other with results that are so lame you almost wonder if the movie is sending itself up – and I must confess to disquiet at a conclusion which appears to suggest that mercy is a weakness and mercilessness somehow a virtue). And at least the fact the whole thing is on some level rooted in actual Egyptian myth gives the thing a kind of coherent underpinning notably absent from some other recent films of this genre. In short, it’s better than Warcraft.

Then again, there aren’t millions of rabid ancient Egypt fans in China, which is why Gods of Egypt is being viewed as an ethically suspect flop and Warcraft: The Beginning may in fact be looking good for a sequel, gods help us. Rather as with John Carter, perhaps, the negative press around Gods of Egypt may well have hurt its box office to a significant degree, but that press isn’t particularly concerned with whether this is a genuinely terrible movie or not. Gods of Egypt is fairly bad. But it is a fun and above all a very imaginative kind of bad, and personally I find I can forgive that a lot.

 

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With Awards Season pretty much over (nice job, Spotlight) we can hopefully get back to more quotidian fare for a bit – although, as previously mentioned, Blockbuster Season seems to be creeping outwards in both directions – not that long ago we routinely got a couple of months’ breathing space between the Oscars and the first big popcorn movie of the year – it’s down to about three weeks now. Frankly, I was glad of the change of pace and so along I trotted to see Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen, the latest vehicle for (deep breath) GERARD! BUTLER!

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Extremely long-term readers may recall my one-time enthusiasm for GERARD! BUTLER! and concern for his career, following winning supporting turns in otherwise dodgy films like Reign of Fire and Tomb Raider 2, but then a couple of things happened: firstly, Jason Statham came along, and just as you can only really support one football team, so you can only really get behind one slightly ridiculous action star, and secondly, GERARD! BUTLER! made 300 – so I figured he should be okay from now on, firmly established as a proper leading man.

Hmmm, well. On paper, London Has Fallen looks like silly popcorn fun, a good Bad Movie in the making. You hope to come out of it feeling slightly ashamed but nevertheless generally entertained, but there are always the possibilities of it either being simply dull and foolish, or – perhaps most remote of all – actually a pretty accomplished film. You don’t expect to emerge feeling genuinely appalled and quite angry, and yet this is more or less what happened to me.

The film opens as it means to go on with a US drone strike blowing up the wedding of an arms dealer’s daughter in Pakistan, and instantly one gets a strong sense of taste barriers being well and truly breached. We skip forward a couple of years and encounter (or catch up with, for those who’ve seen Olympus Has Fallen, to which this is a sequel) US President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his ace bodyguard, swivel-eyed maniac Mike Banning (Butler – I’m going to stop shouting now). A number of rather mechanical character beats follow, as we learn that Banning’s wife is heavily pregnant and he is considering resigning from the Secret Service to raise his child.

Then, however, the British Prime Minister unexpectedly drops dead, leading to a short-notice funeral gathering in London, attended by numerous world leaders (at one point the movie describes this as a ‘state funeral’, which is almost certainly wrong, but this is a tiny, tiny issue compared to everything else going on here). Obviously the dead PM is not Chinless Dave, but the film-makers have a bit of nudge-wink fun in their depiction of the various statespeople – the German chancellor is a severe-looking middle-aged blonde woman, the Italian premier is a bit of a lady’s man with a much younger wife, and so on.

So far the film has been a bit of a hard slog, with a lot of plot and character stuff being rather laboriously plumbed in, and no particular sign of a sense of humour on display. Then, however, in the space of a matter of seconds, the film executes an astonishing change of gear and soars off into a realm of howling absurdity. It turns out that most of the emergency services of London, not to mention the British army itself, has been heavily infiltrated by terrorist fanatics, and the whole funeral has been arranged as a massive trap for the visiting dignitaries. The scale on which this happens is utterly ridiculous: every passing ambulance driver pulls out a grenade launcher and starts trying blow Banning and the Prez up. The bearskin-wearing soldiers who guard Buckingham Palace start mowing down onlookers. Every tower block in London suddenly has a terrorist packing a missile launcher on the roof. Logic and credibility are completely discarded in the cause of finding new things to shoot at and/or blow up.

Well, of course, that arms dealer whose daughter got blown up at the start is back for revenge against the forces of the west, and he and his family will not stop until they’ve completed their sweep of world leaders by taking out the US President too. However they have reckoned without Banning and his swivel-eyed mania!

And, um, yuck. To be honest, it’s almost enough to make you long for the omni-competent president of Clinton era films like Independence Day and Air Force One, because I suspect we would then have been spared a dreary, ugly character like Banning at the centre of the film. I wonder how much Eckhart is being paid to essentially play second banana: he inevitably comes across as a rather soft and ineffectual figure, simply because Butler looks better as a result. (Eckhart doesn’t even get to make the big stirring speech at the end of the film – that job goes to Morgan Freeman’s Veep, because you always want Morgan Freeman making your big speeches if you can manage it.) I say ‘better’: I found the character almost impossible to like. There’s a scene where Banning gives someone a painful, drawn-out death by stabbing, mainly so the victim’s listening brother can hear it. ‘Was that really necessary?’ cries the President, aghast. ‘No,’ says Banning. It’s a sign of London Has Fallen‘s lack of self-awareness that one plot element is the difficulty people have in telling good guys from bad guys; well, I know how they feel.

I’m not sure such an uncompromising character would be improved by being played with more of a twinkle in the eye and an attempt at warmth, but Butler doesn’t even seem to try. At one point he’s about to set off to butcher another squad of terrorists, ordering the Prez to hide in a cupboard while he does so. ‘What happens if you don’t come back?’ bleats the leader of the free world. ‘You’re ****ed,’ says Banning, and again it’s not clear if this is supposed to be funny or not.

Then again, as I mentioned up the page, London Has Fallen has serious tone issues throughout. There’s nothing wrong with a crazed action movie sensibility, with one man crunching his way through legions of faceless goons and lengthy sequences resembling nothing so much as a shoot ’em up computer game, but I think that kind of disqualifies you from attempting to make serious points about contemporary geopolitics and the attendant ethical issues. This won’t be the year’s only film where drone strikes are a plot point, but hopefully it’s the most messed-up one. The villains are, of course, pretty much presented as evil incarnate once they start bumping off world leaders and tearing down London, but you would have to be some kind of sociopath not to feel that they kind of have a point – the movie starts off with a wedding being bombed by the ostensible good guys, after all. The film concludes with another drone attack, and while it’s probably supposed to be interpreted as the righteous vengeance of the good guys, I just got a queasy sense of an endless cycle of bitter violence gearing up for another iteration.

In short, any moral ambiguity in London Has Fallen is almost certainly not an intentional creative choice – the characters and dialogue are too gung-ho cartoony for that to be credible – but actually the result of artistic incompetence. I mean, the film is technically proficient, but that’s meaningless as a piece of praise these days, it’s like saying ‘well, at least they remembered to turn the cameras on’. There’s also a sense in which the film is actively disingenuous – the bad guys are, we’re repeatedly told, super-villain arms dealers, not motivated by any other religious or ethical creed. Hmmm, yeah, but they’re arms dealers with a middle-eastern surnames and complexions, much given to beheading prisoners on live internet feeds. You would have to be thicker even than this film’s target demographic not to figure out what’s really going on.

We live in a more dangerous world than was the case a few years ago – or at least that’s how we perceive it, which may amount to much the same thing. Spectacular terror atrocities on the streets of western nations are not just the stuff of fantasy any more, and there are arguably worthwhile and interesting films to be made on this topic. But just making a bone-headed video-game style shooter with fantastically thin characters and no sense of moral compass or the actual issues involved isn’t just crass, it’s dangerous and insulting. It’s just exploiting fear and feeding it, rather than trying to take any steps to improve the situation (unless you genuinely believe that blowing people up is the answer to every problem – funnily enough, the bad guys in this film would seem to agree with you).

At the end of the film, Gerard Butler’s character cradles his new-born daughter and asks ‘What are you going to be passionate about?’ Well, jingoistic nonsense, human rights violations and stabbing people to death, if she’s anything like her dad. I would have the mite taken into care forthwith. Whether the same measures would help Gerard Butler’s film career, I don’t know, but it’s probably worth a try. This movie is horrible, and I’ve a nasty feeling that left to his own devices, Butler is only going to get worse.

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All hail to Ralph, lord of the house of Fiennes

Respected well both here and o’er the pond

An Oscar did he get for Schindler’s List

He’s also the new boss man of James Bond.

Director now bold Ralphie has become –

A thing’s more worth the doing if it’s hard! –

A complex tale his debut offering:

He’s giving us his vision of the Bard.

No well-known play he’s gone for, no sirree

But obscure Roman saga, Coriolanus

And old Will Shakespeare’s versing’s kept intact

Which must have been a right pain in the neck.

So hence my tribute in this verse that’s blank

The key thing to it (and this I must stress)

Is in the correct placement of the stre… er, beats

At least irregular rhyming is allowed.

(Although this conceit’s wearing rather thin –

I think the time has come to pack it in.)

Oh, be quiet: it’s not like you’re having to pay for this, is it? Yes, it’s the new adaptation of Coriolanus, directed by and starring Ralph ‘Little Sunbeam’ Fiennes. (Rather mind-bogglingly, the script is credited to one John Logan, although some Shakespeare guy gets an ‘original material’ nod.) Now, I know this will come as a shock to regular readers, but there are limits to my erudition and this is not one of the plays with which I am terribly familiar. As a result I recruited an expert in literature to accompany me to the cinema, although the fact that his first words of wisdom on the play were ‘It’s a bit like 300‘ led me to worry I wasn’t paying enough attention when it came to the ancillary staff situation. Hey ho.

Fiennesy plays Caius Martius, respected and feared general in the service of the Roman Republic. The Volscians, old enemies of Rome, are playing up under the command of their military leader Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler – hey, what do you know! He was right!). The Romans come off better in the clash, though the personal feud of the two generals is unresolved.

On his return to Rome, he is gifted with the honorary name Coriolanus and, as is customary and expected (we’ll come back to this), proceeds towards the distinguished position of Consul, a source of much pride to his frankly scary mother (Vanessa Redgrave). However, while a brilliant soldier, Coriolanus is fatally lacking in the common touch and any kind of political sensitivity. His domestic enemies find it very easy to turn the population against him, with dire consequences for both countries and individuals…

Of necessity, any outline of Shakespeare’s plot wholly omits exactly how Fiennes chooses to present it. This is by far the most striking thing about it – rather in the same way that Ian McKellen’s Richard III movie took place in a 1930s Europe falling under the sway of Fascism, so Fiennes’ Coriolanus is contextualised in a world like the Balkans of the early 90s: bloody, senseless fighting; APCs rolling through bleak European cities; murky, self-interested politicking. This seems entirely appropriate for a film which takes as its theme the chaos which ensues when war and politics intersect.

That said, the text has a wider focus to it, and one which may possibly surprise people with only a passing familiarity with Shakespeare. This is a startlingly cynical film – the patrician class are scourged for their contempt and disdain for the wider population, but the public themselves are implicitly depicted as foolish sheep for allowing themselves to be so easily manipulated. Hardly any of the characters are presented in a remotely positive light, with the possible exception of Menenius (Brian Cox), one of Coriolanus’ political allies.

Cox, Fiennes, and Butler are just the most prominent members of an extremely strong cast, which also includes Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt, Jon Snow, and, most prominently, Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mum. Redgrave in particular is electrifying as a domineering, deeply controlling woman who is clearly the source of all that is both good and bad in her son’s character. Fiennes himself gives a striking central turn – he’s terrifying as Coriolanus the soldier, then chilling later on as the man falls from grace. That said, I don’t feel he ever quite gets to the heart of the character in terms of his pride and arrogance – Coriolanus the politician just comes across as awkward and a bit distant, rather than someone temperamentally unsuited to this course.

Another problem with the film is that, inevitably, the scissors have come out and much material has been excised (though my literary consultant distinctly muttered ‘I don’t remember that bit in the text’ at one point). Amongst the stuff that’s gone, alas, is whatever explanation is given for Coriolanus’s decision to become Consul. He seems fundamentally unsuited to the job and doesn’t actually seem to want it, so why’s he bothering? Is it just the done Roman thing? Is he being pushed into it by his mum? It’s central to the plot, so we really need to know why it’s happening.

Oh well – in many ways this is a very impressive film, and one that really works as a film in its own right most of the way through (although, one climactic scene has rather too much of a whiff of the Stratford stage about it in the way it’s staged). The acting is fantastic, the story is about as easy to follow as obscure Shakespeare play movie adaptations get (hmm, mayhaps damning with faint praise there), and it’s visually very interesting. If it doesn’t offer any easy answers to the questions it raises about what happens when the boundaries between soldiers and politicians blur, that’s perhaps because it would be fatuous to do so. I can’t honestly believe Coriolanus will wholeheartedly convert anyone going to see it with no prior knowledge of the play, but people with a better education than mine will probably find it a very rewarding experience.

There once was a soldier named Caius,

Lambasted for anti-prole bias.

When kicked out of town

He said with a frown

‘I suppose this stuff’s just sent to try us.’

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 16th 2004:

[Originally following a review of Blade: Trinity…]

From a film which is a bit of mixed bag in terms of quality, to one with an extremely eclectic cast and crew. Yes, with Moulin Rouge and Chicago both doing rather well at the box office, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera has finally made it onto a screen near you, directed by Joel Schumacher. Yes, Joel Schumacher, a man whose track record with masked obsessives who only come out at night is not fantastic (let us not forget, this is the man who nearly-singlehandedly destroyed the Batman franchise) – but then again his particular brand of tastelessness could be just what Lloyd-Webber’s money machine needs…

Set in 1870s Paris, this is the tale of queer doings a-transpiring at the Opera House. The new management (Ciaran Hinds and the perennially Dickensian Simon Callow) are shocked when their diva-ish leading lady (an appallingly OTT silly accent performance by Minnie Driver) walks out on them and they are forced to recast with chorus girl Christine (Emmy Rossum). However, Christine stuns the crowd and is a great success on her debut, catching the eye of her childhood sweetheart Raoul (a rather damp Patrick Wilson), who just happens to be the new financial backer of the House.

But, as Christine later tells her friend Meg (an unexpected swerve upmarket for lad’s mag regular Jennifer Ellison), she has been given extensive musical tuition for the past decade by a mysterious, near-ghostly presence in the Opera House. And now this Phantom is prepared to reveal himself to her and declare his love! It turns out to be Gerard Butler in a mask that gives him a slight but still distracting resemblence to Space Commander Travis from Blake’s 7. He is a deformed polymath living in a secret cavern under the Opera House (the cavern must be fairly well soundproofed as he spends most of his time singing his head off), a pitiful creature living vicariously through the success of his young musical protege. Did anyone mention Simon Cowell?

Well, Gaston Leroux’s original story survives pretty much intact, as does the Lloyd-Webber stage show (additional lyrics, let us not forget, by Richard Stilgoe). Having seen three-quarters of the theatrical version (it’s a long and slightly embarrassing story, and hello, Leiner, if you’re reading this) it seems very clear to me that when writing the screenplay Schumacher and his Lordship took great pains not to alienate the huge and devoted fanbase the stage show has acquired, as this is a fairly literal adaptation. The musical arrangements are extremely retro as a result. A few of the tricks and stunts have been excised but nothing appropriately startling has been put in to replace them.

And as on stage, the movie rather uncomfortably straddles the frontier between musical and real opera: once beyond the opening, there’s virtually no dialogue that isn’t sung, even when it doesn’t actually rhyme or scan. This does seem rather pretentious, especially given how middle-of-the-road most of the actual songs are. Butler, Rossum, and the rest do a fair old job of belting them out but given how closely associated they are with the original cast (Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman, etc) the best-known numbers always have a hint of karaoke about them.

Given that Moulin Rouge kick-started the current musical revival, and that Phantom occurs in a very similar milieu, it’s a shame that some of the demented energy of Baz Luhrmann’s film didn’t find its way into this one – Schumacher’s direction is surprisingly restrained and pedestrian. Only rarely does Phantom take flight and acquire a sort of phantasmagorical deliriousness that helps fend off the ever-present threat of cheesiness.

But it has an interesting cast, including familiar TV faces like Miranda Richardson, Vic McGuire and Kevin McNally, and it’s involving enough (if a bit too long and flabby in the middle section). Long-term readers will recall my concern for Gerard Butler’s career, and while he makes an impression as the Phantom, he never really makes the most of what is, on paper at least, an exceptionally good part. As for Emmy Rossum, she does a good enough job, but I found the way she was rather unsubtly sexed up towards the end of the film rather tawdry and disturbing. Oh well, I must be getting past it.

Whatever the merits of the stage version of Phantom of the Opera, this film adaptation is not up to the same standard as Chicago or Moulin Rouge, simply because it never quite breaks free from its theatrical origins. The songs and score remain thrilling, but the realisation of the rest of the production isn’t up to the same standard. Devotees of the original will doubtless have a great time, but I remain rather ambivalent about the whole thing.

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