Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Hugh Grant’

Having already polished off Mrs Pankhurst, Maggie Thatcher and the hotel-owner from Mamma Mia!, Meryl Streep moves on to a more significant figure in recent history in Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins (she is, naturally, playing the title role). To be honest, this is a movie which has fallen victim to an odd curse – a curse which only seems to affect movies in pairs…

Florence_Foster_Jenkins_film

Every now and then some form of folie a deux grips film-makers and they end up making multiple movies on the same subject, seemingly completely by chance. (Well, the zeitgeist may have something to do with it, I suppose.) So you sometimes end up in a situation like the one where Dante’s Peak and Volcano both come out in the same year, or Deep Impact and Armageddon, or even two versions of the Robin Hood story (I’m thinking of the Kevin Costner and Patrick Bergin movies, both of which appeared in 1991). In a similar, but still rather baffling manner, someone somewhere seems to have decreed that 2016 will be the year of movies about Florence Foster Jenkins, of all people.

Do I really have to go through the explanation of who this woman was again? If I seem tetchy it’s because I’ve already done it, not that long ago (or so it feels anyway), because the other Florence Foster Jenkins movie only came out a couple of months back: Marguerite, a French movie presenting a heavily fictionalised version of the story. Frears’ film sticks closer to fact, in theory at least.

Oh well. The movie opens in New York City, 1944, and initially appears to be about the complicated personal circumstances of actor and general bon viveur St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) – Bayfield works with, and is apparently devoted to, his wife (Streep), but at the end of every evening he goes off to his own flat where he lives with another woman (Rebecca Ferguson). But then, after Florence decides she feels strong enough to resume her own singing career, it looks for a while as if the film is actually going to be about her accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg): McMoon is startled to discover that his employer, despite her love of music, has a singing voice that primarily resembles somebody stabbing a cat to death, and yet she is indulged and kept ignorant of this by everyone around her.

It’s only after quite a long while that the film actually starts being about Florence in earnest: following one especially successful soiree, she feels moved to record herself singing, and inevitably a copy of this escapes into the wild, causing something of a sensation amongst the public and deep alarm to Bayfield and McMoon. A concert in front of an unsympathetic audience at Carnegie Hall looms…

You can imagine the key personnel of this film emerging, grim-faced, from a screening of Marguerite, and blessing the English-speaking public for their entrenched antipathy towards subtitled films, because otherwise their film would have been in very serious trouble: not only are they based on the life of the same person, but they feature some of the same musical numbers, and even some virtually identical costuming choices. This wouldn’t matter so much were it not for the fact that Marguerite does it all much better – it’s a subtler, wittier film, broader in its scope and with a more interesting cast of characters. I know it’s bad form to claim to be writing about Florence Foster Jenkins but actually go on about the merits of Marguerite instead, but there you go, in this case it’s unavoidable.

The curious thing is that there was potential here for a somewhat more distinctive take on the story – there certainly seem to have been enough idiosyncrasies to Florence Foster Jenkins’ actual life, most of which the French film ended up ignoring. (I’m assuming here that Frears and his team aren’t just making stuff up, by the way.) And yet the film shies away from being wholly a bio-pic of the lady. The basic creative process appears to have been: ‘woman can’t sing well – must be a comedy’.

Well, there are comedies and comedies, and this one is definitely towards the broader end of the scale. The main problem here is that, especially when singing, Streep is trying too hard. ‘Look at how badly I’m singing, isn’t it hilarious,’ is the message she is sending off – she is proclaiming badness rather than unconsciously confessing to it, and this is rather less effective. To be fair, her whole performance is a bit TV sitcom.

Much better is Hugh Grant, in a role which plays to his strengths. I’ve always thought Grant was a very underrated performer, his indifference towards acting too often being mistaken for an indifferent talent. He carries the film here, giving a witty and subtle and actually rather complex and layered performance. Hugh Grant doesn’t make a lot of films, and seeing him here really makes you wish this wasn’t the case.

In the end Florence Foster Jenkins is a bit of a mixed bag – it looks fine (through some cinematic sorcery they have managed to make Liverpool indistinguishable from 1940s New York), the performances aren’t actually bad (some, as noted, are actually very good), and there are some quite amusing moments, especially if you haven’t seen that other film I keep banging on about. But the title character never really comes to life or moves you, which is surely what the film-makers were intending. If you have a choice of films about bad singing to watch, then I’m afraid I can only recommend this one to people with a pathological hatred of the French: to paraphrase Carly Simon, somebody else has done it much better.

Read Full Post »

The world is full of mysteries – most bafflingly, right now, why anyone would think it was a good idea to make a new Transporter movie without Jason Statham, but I digress – and the secret of consistently good and lucrative film-making is one of them. Mind you, that’s only part of the story – once your film is made, it’s still got to be reviewed, and this can be just as random a process as the actual production.

Or so it seems to me, at least: I think we can safely ascribe much of Fantastic Four‘s underwhelming opening weekend to the vicious reviews it received. Not that this wasn’t deserved, of course, for we’re talking about a film which is tonally all over the place, fundamentally unfaithful to the source material, and frequently quite dull to watch. 8% on Rotten Tomatoes could be considered a harsh rating, but not by much. Guy Ritchie’s new take on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., on the other hand, currently basks in a comparatively luxuriant 67%, even though… well, we’ll get to that, I expect.

man-from-uncle_poster

Ritchie’s movie opens in early-60s Berlin, where playboy thief and CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is intent on extracting a young woman named Gabby (Alicia Vikander) to assist him in his current assignment. However, she is already being watched by towering KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). Nevertheless, Solo succeeds, and is naturally surprised when his superiors inform him that Kuryakin is to be his new partner (the Russian is not impressed either). Gabby’s father is a nuclear physicist whose discovery of a quicker way of enriching uranium could facilitate the production of nuclear warheads, and this has brought him to the attention of a Rome-based criminal syndicate. The US and the USSR have agreed to co-operate in order to find the man and bring down the criminals.

So, younger readers may be wondering, this film is about a CIA agent and a KGB agent joining forces to take on an un-named set of bad guys. So why on earth is it called The Man from U.N.C.L.E.? That’s a good question. I suspect it is because the makers of this film believe that the title The Man from U.N.C.L.E. still has some traction amongst audiences of a certain vintage and they have duly purchased the rights to it and slapped it on a buddy-buddy spy film in the hopes of luring in people with fond memories of the original.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E., should you be curious and yet too sedentary to check it out on Wikipedia, was a popular TV series of the 1960s. It was very much a post-Bond piece of entertainment (indeed, Ian Fleming was involved in its genesis), very heavy on gadgets and slick spy-fi storylines. It was very much at home in a pop-cultural landscape that included similar shows like The Avengers, The Prisoner, Mission: Impossible, and so on. All of these series were ultimately totally escapist, serving to distract audiences from international tensions rather than examine them in any realistic or rigorous way.

So why would you make an adaptation of the show which largely revolves around the political and personal tensions between the two lead characters? Why would you ditch the concept of U.N.C.L.E. as actual organisation and just make a film about a joint CIA-KGB operation? Why would you reimagine the two protagonists so thoroughly? (Or, if you prefer, stick the names of popular characters on two wholly new creations?) The film’s Solo is an amoral crook working off his prison sentence by working for the CIA; the film’s Kuryakin is by turns Soviet iceman and Viking berserker.

There is no use of Jerry Goldsmith’s famous theme from the show. You will look in vain for any sign of a radio concealed in a pen, for those little triangular badges they used to wear, or for the organisation of bad guys from the TV show which has a rather embarassing name by modern standards. As you may or may not recall, I was no great fan of Kingsman, but I will still cheerfully admit that even in its mongrelised way, it was closer to the spirit and style of the original Man from U.N.C.L.E. than this so-called film adaptation is.

Okay, so forget about the fact that this is supposed to be based on a classic TV show (Ritchie and company certainly seem to) – how does it stand up as a spy movie in its own right? Well, if your idea of a really good spy film is something made by Fellini or starring Audrey Hepburn, you’ll probably be quite happy, because once the action shifts to Rome those seem to have been the primary influences on the film. People are forever leaping into speedboats to zip about the Bay of Naples, or decking themselves out in retro 60s gear. It’s all very evocative and nice to look at, but not especially gripping.

The direction is, to be honest, a bit self-indulgent: Ritchie can’t seem to resist going for very ostentatious set-pieces that may show his talent for composition and editing but don’t necessarily hold together that well as a story (or provide the spy movie staples). At one point a speedboat chase beckons, but Ritchie opts to go for some very laid-back business with a packed lunch and the soundtrack instead. Possibly he was just trying to be ironic, but I’m not sure he’d earned that right at that point.

In addition to being more concerned with atmsophere and aesthetics than actual plot, there’s something very odd going on with the tone here, too. The best thing about the film is indisputably Henry Cavill’s performance, which strikes a very entertaining note of drolly ironic detachment, but he’s stuck in a film which mostly takes itself pretty seriously. And when it doesn’t, it fumbles as often as it succeeds: one lengthy ‘gag’ revolves around a minor character slowly being electrocuted and burning to death. Oh, my sides. (I couldn’t help recalling that, at one point in its very long gestation, this film had Quentin Tarantino attached as a possible director.)

Cavill and Hammer do their level best with the material – both of them are in the fortunate position of being actors that Hollywood seems determined to turn into big stars, no matter how many stumbles there are en route – while Hugh Grant is also okay as Mr Waverley (needless to say he has very little in common with Leo G Carroll’s character from the show). But on the whole I thought this was an underwhelming and frequently quite dull film. To be honest, I kind of felt cheated by the use of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. name on a movie which quite clearly has no connection to the show, nor any real desire to have one. This is moderately stylish but utterly vacuous; not even fun in an ironic way.

 

Read Full Post »

The cinematic calendar used to be so straightforward: big films across the summer and – to a lesser extent – at Christmas, Oscar-bait early in the year, and unpretentious genre movies the rest of the time. That was what you could pretty much expect down the local multiplex, but things seem to changing – the onset of blockbuster season has been creeping earlier and earlier in recent years, while I’m seeing signs of an odd phenomenon developing in March. This month seems to be turning into a dumping ground for huge and expensive studio releases which the producers seem to have lost all faith in, an elephant’s graveyard of the overblown and underscripted.

This is largely based, I must say, on the fact that it was this time last year that John Carter of Mars came out, and currently we are enjoying the presence on our screens of Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings. The sheer scale and scope of this movie, not to mention the stellar cast list, would normally suggest a major release. As it is, the movie seems to have been slipped out by people who don’t really know what to do with it. This may be because Cloud Atlas is barking, barking mad.

cloud_atlas_ver3

How to describe this movie? It does not have a plot. At least, not one; it has six, with tenuous connections linking them.

  • In 1849, a young man (Jim Sturgess) assisting his father’s slave trading activities in the South Pacific falls foul of the avaricious intentions of a corrupt doctor, with his one chance of survival lying in the hands of a former slave.
  • In 1936, an ambitious and amoral young musician (Ben Whishaw) finds work as the amanuensis of a distinguished and elderly composer. However, when the older man attempts to take the credit for his employee’s original work, he finds himself in an impossible situation.
  • In 1972, an investigative journalist (Halle Berry) discovers a conspiracy to smear the nuclear power industry by certain other vested interests. It quickly becomes apparent that the conspirators are more than happy to kill to protect their secret.
  • In 2012, a literary agent (Jim Broadbent) finds himself pursued for non-existent royalties by the gangster relatives of a former client. However, his choice of refuge leaves a lot to be desired…
  • In 2144, a clone servitor (Doona Bae) is rescued from her corporate enslavement and shown something of the wider world which she inhabits – a world which some people believe she has the power to greatly change for the better.
  • And in a far more distant, post-apocalyptic future, a tribesman (Tom Hanks) belonging to  a primitive tribe strikes an alliance with an emissary from a more advanced civilisation, one that may affect the fates of every surviving human on Earth.

The movie cuts between these different stories across its very considerable running time. Oh, but if only this film was as straightforward as that makes it sound! In addition to the simple narrative links between the different plots – one character appears in two of them, Whishaw’s character reads a book about Sturgess, Doona Bae watches a movie adaptation of Jim Broadbent’s experiences, and so on – there are all sorts of other odd things happening. The main characters of all the stories share the same suggestive birthmark, and one character appears to have prophetic dreams concerning one of the later stories.

Most obviously, however, the film is mainly held together by the fact that the same actors appear in different roles in the different stories. So in addition to the tribesman, Tom Hanks plays the murderous doctor in 1849, a nuclear physicist in 1972, and so on. Just to give you an idea of the sheer scope and bounding absurdity of Cloud Atlas, in this film Hugh Grant – Hugh Grant! – plays a slave trader, a hotel manager, the nuclear plant boss, Jim Broadbent’s dodgy brother, a Korean restaurant manager – not the manager of a Korean restaurant, but a Korean man who manages an eating-spot – and a cannibal warlord.

I have to confess that, after a while, each appearance by one of the ensemble cast in a new guise was greeted with hoots of laughter at the screening I attended. This comparison-wrangling idea seems to have caught on, with the Wachowskis describing this movie as ‘Moby Dick meets 2001: A Space Odyssey but one British critic riposting with ‘Little Britain meets Blake’s 7′ (if I’d taken my own Comparison Wrangler to this movie I suspect his head would have exploded). I must confess that I tend more towards the latter view, with the important provisos that I actually like Blake’s 7, and that some of the more outrageous dressing-up seems to be intentionally played for laughs.

I mean, I can’t imagine any meeting by sane and intelligent movie creatives where they sat around and said ‘Okay, we’ve got this character of a middle-aged English nurse, a real battleaxe of a woman, who shall we get to play her?’ and the choice of – wait for it – Hugo Weaving could possibly be intended seriously. The same probably goes for Ben Whishaw’s appearance as Hugh Grant’s wife. Even so, I honestly have no idea what to make of Tom Hanks’ brief turn as a thuggish, shaven-headed  author, where he employs an accent that honestly defies description – is it meant to be Cockney? Irish? Pakistani? I truly had no idea.

Of course, this also leads the film into dodgy territory, as many of the cast pop up in – er – trans-ethnic makeup at various points. Halle Berry probably gets the medal here, playing characters of four different ethnicities and both genders at different points in the movie. The film never seems to be doing so for intentionally comic effect, and no-one actually blacks up, but even so I think this is probably questionable, and definitely adds to the vaulting weirdness of the experience.

That said, taken on their own terms and overlooking all the fun and games with casting and makeup, several of the stories work really well on their own terms – as vignettes, if nothing else. Being the kind of person that I am, I most enjoyed the Wachowski’s attempts at industrial dystopian and post-apocalyptic SF, which are visually superb and include some brilliantly-mounted action, but the Broadbent-led section is also hugely entertaining and the most comedic in tone. One thing you can say about Cloud Atlas is that its genre-hopping and tone-switching mean that it really does have something for everyone somewhere in its running time.

I had feared this movie might be pretentious and smug, but I didn’t find this at all – I found it to be terrific entertainment, with literally never a dull moment even across three hours. If it had been an hour longer I think I would still have thoroughly enjoyed it. It is by no means perfect, either in the specifics of the individual stories (the degenerate argot used by Hanks in the post-apocalypse really needs subtitles), or in its wider message: I still have no idea what the film as a whole is trying to suggest, beyond a vague universality in human aspirations and the challenges we face across the ages. Nevertheless, the insane ambition and vaulting oddness of Cloud Atlas, together with the fact that this is a technically superb film, combine to make it one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the cinema in ages. An early contender for film of the year.

Read Full Post »

One thing about going to see an animated film during the school holidays: in a rare display of restraint the forces of the market refrain from putting the usual parade of dreary old commercials on before the movie, allowing one to get stuck straight into the trailers (often one of the best parts of the movie-going experience, especially if it’s a Paul W.S. Anderson film). The downside to this is, of course, that it’s generally just trailers for other movies aimed at kids that you get to see, most of which I would rather be dipped in fondue than go to watch.

You know what I mean: slick CGI stuff that seems best described as ‘product’ than anything else, focus-grouped and target-audienced to within an inch of what passes for its life, with the ratio of jokes-for-kids to jokes-for-parents determined through some abstruse hyphenate algebra. That, and I should probably mention the trailer for the first of this year’s cracks at a live-action version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The other one seems to be trying to be Lord of the Rings, but the first one out of the blocks appears to be so heavy in broad-brush whimsy that one wonders why they bothered doing it in live-action at all. You know what they say: don’t bother to see one, don’t bother to see ‘em all.

Most of these films are in 3D, anyway – it seems like the kid’s market, along with summer blockbusters and classic re-releases, has been tasked with trying to prop up the whole stereoscopic edifice in the face of increasing public indifference to its dubious charms. I was mildly appalled but not especially surprised to learn that plans are afoot to bring down the price of 3D tickets (which studio suits believe may be putting punters off), with the extra costs being met by (yes, you’ve guessed it) bumping up the price of 2D tickets.  Both formats will cost the same – presumably, at least until 3D has killed off proper films, at which point the price will rocket up again. Is it just me who thinks there is something suspiciously protectionist about studio bosses doing their best to preserve such a potentially lucrative enterprise in the face of growing public indifference?

Sorry, I’m just in a bit of a sour mood today, for reasons I don’t propose to trouble you with. (Although a strange close encounter in Oxford city centre – full details of which hopefully to follow over the weekend – may have something to do with it.) At least I was able to enjoy Peter Lord’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! in 2D (make the most of it while you can, guys). I suppose you could argue that this is exactly the sort of mass-produced big studio fodder I was railing so ineffectually about just a few paragraphs ago, but this has enough quirky British stuff going on to redeem it.

Anyway. Based on the books by Gideon Defoe, this is the soaringly improbable story of the Pirate Captain (a bold move into acting for the political activist and media spokesperson Hugh Grant), who is not so much a briny marauder as an affably feckless halfwit. Nevertheless, he and his crew of freaks and weirdoes are determined to (finally) win the much-coveted ‘Pirate of the Year’ award. Their initial attempts to get their hands on some booty (steady now) are not very successful, but this changes when they encounter the Beagle and its most celebrated passenger, Charles Darwin (David Tennant).  Darwin has had no luck in the booty department either, but he does know where there’s a prize for ‘Scientific Discovery of the Year’ about to be awarded – and a startling revelation regarding the Pirate Captain’s beloved pet Polly gives everybody hope that their luck is about to change…

Well, it’s a bit difficult to know what to say about Pirates! The first thing is probably that the fact this film has been made at all is somewhat noteworthy, given that up until less than ten years ago making a big movie about pirates was considered as good an investment as putting all your money in a box and throwing it off a cliff. Yes, this movie is clearly following in the wake of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, with many of the jokes having exactly the same off-beat flavour – except perhaps even moreso, given the latitude available to the makers of an animation.

As animations go, this is a stunningly beautiful one, with virtually every shot being lovingly composed and photographed, every background packed with tiny details. Aardman have possibly surpassed themselves in their attention to detail with this film, because the look of it is almost literally breathtaking. Everyone is saying the same thing, which is that this is a film you’ll have to watch on DVD with a finger on the pause button to fully appreciate, there are so many sight gags and throwaway jokes packed into the backgrounds of shots.

The film is stuffed with good jokes of this kind from the opening seconds until deep into the closing titles and this is possibly just as well as – while often very funny indeed – the main plot and the gags in the dialogue are not as consistently funny as they could be. The general beats and reversals of said plot are, in fact, almost entirely predictable.

This is a bit of a shame as many of the details of the plot have a pleasingly baroque insanity about them – I might almost suggest that this film sort of resembles Captain Pugwash, but as written by Michael Moorcock. In fact, there are some signs here of a much darker and more grotesque film buried under all the family-friendly plasticine – there was a bit of a fuss earlier this year when some lepers complained that one scene shown in the trailer was in poor taste. This scene has since been rewritten, but there are still flashes of really strange black humour now and then. I have to say that a version of Pirates! which followed this path a bit further and wasn’t quite so fixated on hitting familiar character-development beats looks like it would have been considerably more interesting.

Nevertheless, consummate craft and attention to detail have gone into this film, and it has attracted a correspondingly top-notch voice cast – as well as Grant and Tennant, there are appearances by Martin Freeman, Salma Hayek, Russell Tovey, Lassie laureate Brendan Gleeson, and Lenny Henry (to name but a few), and a characteristically ear-splitting turn from Brian Blessed (who also gets name-checked in one of the on-screen gags, pleasingly enough). There is plenty here for all ages to enjoy; I laughed a lot and was captivated by the look of the thing, even if the incidental details sometimes seemed to be slightly more interesting and entertaining than the actual meat of the story. Still, fun.

Read Full Post »

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 27th February 2003:

(Extensive ranting about trailers featuring scenes not actually appearing in the finished movie has been snipped.)

…well, anyway, enough senior citizen moaning on my part (‘Special effects were much better when you could see the strings. And there hasn’t been a decent fantasy film since Ray Harryhausen retired’) and onto a proper review. This week I went to see Two Weeks Notice, a romantic comedy written and directed by Marc Lawrence and produced by and starring ol’ llama-face herself, Sandra Bullock.

Sandy plays Lucy Kelson, a committed, idealistic, and highly committed lawyer in New York. (She remains oddly fluffy and lovable.) While campaigning to stop the nasty Wade Corporation from knocking down her neighbourhood community centre (you have to admire, by the way, the brazenness with which the film deploys such a hoary old cliche) she meets the corporation’s ‘closer’ George Wade (played, inevitably, by Hugh Grant) – and no, I don’t know what a closer is either, but it’s the only job title Grant’s character seems to have. His job mainly seems to involve playing tennis and being a louche scallywag, if that’s any help. Wade is filthy rich, utterly self-absorbed and completely amoral. (He remains oddly fluffy and loveable.) He also needs a lawyer and so in exchange for his saving the community centre, Lucy takes the job. Of course, in his fluffy, lovable way George drives her up the wall, and eventually she fluffily and lovably quits. But, this being the land of rom-com, there may just be an outside chance the two of them will realise they’re actually perfect for each other, eventually acknowledge their true feelings, and wind up making saccharine speeches in public places, etc, etc, all before the final credits roll.

Two Weeks Notice is a film that knows what it wants to be and goes all out to be that thing: a gentle, amusing, frothy comedy with some romantic overtones. In fact I would say that it pursues the comedy element a little too fiercely, with the result that the characterisation and relationships are not as three-dimensional as they perhaps need to be. But, some unconvincing slapstick and sight-gags aside, this is all amusing enough.

Most of the credit for this must go to the leads, as Lawrence’s directorial technique almost wholly consists of him simply pointing the camera at whoever’s talking. Sandra Bullock’s performance in this movie rather reminded me of Geoffrey Boycott. I suspect that particular critical gem may require some exegesis, so here goes: just as the famous Yorkshire cricketer achieved his success through hard graft as much as natural ability, so Sandy isn’t, I would argue, the most naturally gifted actress when it comes to this kind of daffy, ditzy, screwball comedy. But by gum she puts 100% effort into it and in the end her performance is everything it needs to be and perhaps a little bit more besides.

Hugh Grant, on the other hand, could play this kind of part in his sleep by now. Not since the kung fu heyday of Bruce Lee has one actor dominated a particular film genre in the way that Grant rules the rom-com roost. Nobody plays this kind of part as well as him, but he does so with such effortless aplomb that it’s too easy to accuse him giving the same performance in every film he makes. As usual, he subtly modulates his screen persona to suit the movie: this time round he’s a bit more clueless and infuriating than usual. The lack of more serious elements to ground the film mean that the great man spins his wheels a bit in places, and this isn’t his best work by any means. But it’s impossible to imagine this film being as likable as it is without him.

The rest of the cast pretty much do what’s required of them (the only faces I recognised were David Haig and Alicia Witt, but you may have more luck), and Sandy has managed to convince Norah Jones and Donald Trump to make cameo appearances as themselves. One of them sings, and to avoid accusations of being a spoiler I will leave you to discover which one for yourself.

Two Weeks Notice isn’t a bad film, but it’s one I find difficult to get excited about. It’s entirely successful in meeting the target it sets for itself, but as that target is to be a rather formulaic comedy populated by near-stereotypes with not very many surprises in the storyline, this is not that great an achievement. Fun, but not exactly memorable.

Read Full Post »