Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Bridges’

The day before my sister turned 21 I travelled down to visit her and, as we had a bit of free time, decided to rent a video before going out for the evening (this sort of indicates how old my sister is, but I’m sure she’ll be fine with that). After the usual wrangling and discussions over what to see (what used to happen in video rental stores now happens while looking at the front end of Netflix or Mouse+, that’s progress for you) we ended up watching The Meaning of Life, which – of course – also included the supporting feature, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. I remember enjoying this enormously and commenting to my sibling on how very Terry Gilliamish it was.

She is less versed in the ways of film (and, indeed, Python) than me, and admitted that she didn’t actually know what that meant. I, on the other hand, will happily turn up to see anything made by Gilliam, always assuming it gets a proper cinema release wherever I’m living at the time. (This is quite a big qualification as I don’t recall Tideland or Zero Theorem showing up at all, while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote only scraped a small release in an independent cinema.) And generally I have a pretty good time, and occasionally a great one.

The only Gilliam film I didn’t get the first time I saw it was The Fisher King, his 1991 film. This is arguably a bit of an outlier in the Gilliam canon anyway, as it was a film he made as a deliberate change of pace after some stressful experiences in the 1980s – he is even on record as having said he didn’t want to make another ‘Terry Gilliam film’ while shooting it. He was much more of a directorial gun for hire on this movie, as opposed to the auteurial role he usually plays.

The movie takes place in New York City in the present day (which is to say, in the late 80s and early 90s) and the protagonist is one Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a radio ‘shock jock’ and provocateur. In true late 80s style Jack is callous, materialistic and self-obsessed, and believes his career is about to really start going places. He is correct – but not the places he is hoping for. An unstable listener takes one of Jack’s rants rather too seriously and is spurred to commit a spree killing in which several people die.

Several years on Jack is at a low ebb: his broadcasting career is over and he is working as a clerk in the video store of his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) – it is perhaps not entirely surprising that posters advertising Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are prominently displayed around the place. Anne clearly adores him, but he is too drunk to notice this most of the time.

While contemplating suicide one night, he is set upon by thugs who believe he is homeless, but rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), an actual homeless person who believes himself to be a knight of the Round Table on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail. (The Holy Grail is in the library of a wealthy architect on the Upper East Side, naturally.)

Jack’s initial gratitude and bemusement become something more significant when he learns that Parry used to be a successful and happily-married historian until he was widowed in the spree killing Jack was partially responsible for. He feels a sudden responsibility towards Parry, and perhaps the need to redeem himself. Maybe getting Parry together with the woman he is infatuated with (Amanda Plummer) could be a start…?

So, yes, this is the third sort-of Arthurian movie we’ve talked about in the last couple of months. Why should this be? Well, I’m still a bit peeved about The Green Knight having its release postponed, and these other films are filling the gap until (we may hope) it eventually appears. Also, my friends and I are playing King Arthur Pendragon at the moment, so anything with a whiff of Camelot about it is grist to my mill.

The Fisher King sounds like the name of a grand fantasy movie – at least, it does if you know your Arthuriana. The thing is – and I think this may be why I didn’t really take to it on my first viewing – it’s not actually a fantasy film in the traditional sense at all. The only thing epic about it is the length (which is arguably a little bit excessive). The Fisher King legend as related here does not bear much resemblance to the one traditionally associated with the Arthur cycle, and even then it is mainly just a metaphor for the central relationship in the film (it’s not even immediately apparent who is playing the role of the Fisher King in the story).

Instead, this is almost more like a slightly hard-edged Woody Allen comedy-drama about the lives and loves of various New Yorkers (albeit of a lower social stratum than usual), with occasional contributions to the art direction by Hieronymus Bosch. Gilliam seems to have been born several centuries too late and appears to gravitate towards mediaevally-inclined projects – he was the knight with the rubber chicken in Python, co-directed Holy Grail, did Jabberwocky on his own and creates some magnificent knights in this film and his version of Don Quixote – the fire-breathing Red Knight which pursues Parry (a metaphor for the real world, with all the pain and sorrow that involves) is one of Gilliam’s finest bits of conjuring.

If you approach The Fisher King fully cognisant of the fact that it’s only tangentially about the legend in question and more a piece of magic realism than full-on fantasy, I think the film is rather winning, and very worthwhile. It is humane, thoughtful, and quite happy not just to broach the topic of homelessness in the US, but to present homeless characters as sympathetic and intelligent people. The relationships between the four main characters are convincing and, without exception, extremely well played – Robin Williams gets top billing, but Jeff Bridges is at least as good in what’s arguably the central role, while Mercedes Ruehl deserved all the awards she won for a properly layered and utterly convincing performance as his girlfriend.

It’s a little odd to watch a Terry Gilliam film which is basically people just walking around and talking to each other, but the maestro finds plenty of opportunities to bring some visual distinctiveness to the film – quite apart from the Red Knight, there’s the lovely scene in which the crowd in Grand Central Station all start waltzing as Parry stumbles after the woman he’s fallen for. Given the slightly frenetic grimness which occasionally popped up in Gilliam’s films from the 1980s, it’s rather lovely that this one is so genuinely charming and romantic; it suggests he has a range as a director which he has never really got to fully explore (it’s perhaps slightly facile to make comparisons between Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles, but I think there are certainly parallels).

As I said, the film is probably about twenty minutes too long, considering the slightness of the story, but apart from the slightly languid pacing this is a really well-made, thoughtful film for adults. Before watching it recently, it was never really one of my favourite Gilliam films, simply because it doesn’t have that obvious Gilliamishness which is so obvious in The Crimson Permanent Assurance and his earlier feature films. However, it turns out that Terry Gilliam is still a great director even when he isn’t trying that hard to be Terry Gilliam.

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‘We saw this film and thought of you. We figured you’d appreciate it,’ said a friend of mine, perhaps conscious of the fact that it’s been tricky to track down and watch interesting movies recently. This, of course, is the sort of moment which reveals all sorts of profound things: what someone’s assessment of you is like, as well as what their true character is (perhaps). It’s probably just as well that he took pains to explain just how he came across such a deservedly obscure oddity as Burgess Meredith’s The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go (he’s been reading Meredith’s autobiography), and probably equally fortunate that he didn’t go into too much detail as to why it put them in mind of your correspondent.

The background to this movie is probably more interesting (and certainly more coherent) than the story itself, but let’s get the plot synopsis out of the way first, as it should give you a flavour of just how weird this movie is. It opens with Burgess Meredith performing acupuncture on James Mason, while the two of them spout cod-thriller dialogue at each other (apparently someone has paid Meredith to conspire in Mason’s murder, and now he wants Mason to pay him even more not to, or something). After a few minutes you realise that both of them are actually supposed to be Chinese, not that either of them is doing much more than wearing Chinese-style clothing (either that or the dreadful film quality doesn’t show the yellowface make-up).

With this out of the way, we get the opening credits and a prefatory voice-over delivered (and here a degree of self-bracing would be advisable) by Buddha. Yes, that Buddha. Apparently every fifty years the Buddha likes to amuse himself by using the power of his third eye to reverse the essential character of a human being (which means we must be due another one of these, and let’s face it – we’re not short of promising subjects at the moment).

For the time being, though, James Mason’s Mr Yin Yang Go is just another Asiatic supervillain – although the script does make it clear that he is actually Chinese-Mexican, which Mason subtly indicates by playing him with the same British accent he brought to pretty much every film he ever made. Based in Hong Kong, Mr Go is trying to get the plans for a new missile system out of captured American scientist Bannister (Peter Lind Hayes), and when just bribing him doesn’t work, he is forced to find a new approach.

This involves recruiting American draft-dodger and aspiring writer Nero Finnegan (Jeff Bridges), and paying him a large sum of money to engage in some rather surprising and intimate activities on film with Bannister, so Bannister can be blackmailed by Go. But CIA agent Leo Zimmerman (Jack MacGowran) is looking for Bannister and Mr Go as well, and – pretending to be a publisher with a James Joyce fixation – takes Finnegan out on the town in the hope of finding some clues. Things proceed in this vein – Zimmerman chasing Go, with Finnegan and his girlfriend (Irene Tsu) caught in the middle – for quite some time, until Go and Finnegan find themselves fleeing the CIA in a helicopter.

At this point the Buddha unleashes the power of his third eye on Mr Go (I am honestly not making this up), and rather than a callous power-broker, Go becomes a philanthropist, determined to help the world. He fakes his own death, puts on a ridiculous disguise, and sets about becoming a force for good…

As noted, the background to this movie is pertinent and, to say the least, curious: a product of the fag-end of the sixties, it was filmed on location in Hong Kong, directed by Burgess Meredith from a script he wrote himself. If nothing else Meredith proved himself to be an astute spotter of talent, or at least very lucky, by casting a young Bridges (credited as ‘Jeffrey Bridges’) in one of his earliest roles. They, together with nominal star James Mason, apparently had a (literally) high old time while making the film, partaking liberally of the local herbal tobacco, especially during the lengthy breaks in filming occasioned whenever the budget ran out.

Eventually – if you believe some of the folklore surrounding this film, anyway – the producer literally stole the footage of the incomplete film and decamped to America, leaving a disconsolate Meredith to pay everybody’s hotel and bar bills. According to Jeff Bridges, at least, most of the participants assumed the film was lost, until Bridges came across it listed in a directory of films available to hire fifteen or twenty years later: the producer had shot some linking footage with Broderick Crawford – who, in the time-honoured fashion, does not share the screen with any of the main actors – and cobbled something together out of the rushes. Bridges and Burgess apparently watched the resultant monstrosity together with a mixture of disbelief and hilarity.

Knowing all of the foregoing does not make The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go any more coherent or less exasperating to watch, but I can promise you that all of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans clearly inform what ended up on screen. The film’s poster (which, by the way, actually manages to get the name of it wrong) promises that it ‘will make you think of Dr No‘. I can reveal that it did not make me think of Dr No. It did, however, give me a very good idea of what it must be like to accidentally take mind-altering drugs while in the mid of a flu-induced fever dream. The rambling, disconnected narrative – what look like important scenes of exposition play out with the actors muted and sub-Bacharach easy listening tunes blasting out, presumably because someone lost the actual soundtrack – is coupled to the most primitive production values imaginable: on some level this is technically an exploitation film (there’s enough gratuitous nudity from the female extras), but the utter shoddiness of the filming and sound make the experience of watching this feel rather like watching (or so I would imagine) pornography with all the sex edited out.

I know I am on record as actually quite liking weird and obscure old films, especially one which may be a bit questionable by conventional critical standards. But the thing about most of these odd old films is that they are at least marginally functional in a couple of departments – they have competent cameramen and sound recordists, and the plot makes a vague sort of sense. None of this is true of The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go. People on YouTube make more competent films than this nowadays using a phone. It has a certain gobsmack value – every time you think it can’t get any stranger, it reliably does – but beyond that it’s really hard work. (And I realise I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Meredith and Mason are both playing Chinese characters. This film has much more serious problems than that, believe it or not.)

I have long enjoyed Burgess Meredith’s work as an actor, in Batman and The Twilight Zone, Rocky and Torture Garden, and in many other venues. He is never less than very watchable in any of them. But as a writer and director, on this evidence he almost makes Madonna look like Leni Riefenstahl. Watching it was an eye-opening and possibly mind-expanding experience, but not exactly pleasurable in the sense it is generally understood. Feel free to check it out for yourself (it’s available to view for free in at least two dark nooks of the internet) but bear in mind that no-one will give you a medal for watching it, no matter how much you may feel you deserve one.

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It’s fairly unusual for a film to show up on my radar and its UK release to then slip by me almost entirely, but this is what happened this year with Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale. I definitely recall seeing a trailer at some point, but then (and this may be partly due to one or other of my trips to the Kyrgyz Republic this autumn) it was suddenly showing as a catch-up movie in one of the out-of-the-centre cinemas in Oxford, apparently barely having troubled the main multiplexes at all. A somewhat plaintive cry of ‘Are you going to see this one?’ from a reader in the US forced me to confront the hard truth that sometimes you just can’t see every film that gets released.

On the other hand, sometimes you find yourself with a spare evening in Berlin with a decent cinema showing movies in die ursprungliche Version only a brisk walk away, and it was a choice between Bad Times at the El Royale and BlacKkKlansman (another film I missed due to my sojourn in Bishkek), and my inner grammar obsessive clearly couldn’t face the prospect of typing that second title too many times [I buckled eventually – A]. So off we went to the Goddard movie.

Things get underway with a prologue set in the late 1950s, as a mystery man checks into a hotel room and proceeds to take up the floorboards and hide a bag in the cavity thus created. Before he can do much else, he is murdered, a development which is both shocking and disappointing (mainly because it means Nick Offerman, who plays him, is obviously going to be in the movie much less than one would hope).

Ten years later, a group of strangers encounter each other at the El Royale, a fading motel with a curious geographical quirk – it’s built squarely on the state line between California and Nevada, meaning (for instance) that you can only buy a drink on the west side of the bar room. Amongst the people checking in are a slightly confused elderly priest (Jeff Bridges), a garrulous vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), an African-American woman with some unusual luggage (Cynthia Erivo), and a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who looks like a hippy but doesn’t seem that interested in peace and love. The boyish desk-clerk (Lewis Pullman) does his best to keep them all satisfied, of course.

Well, and wouldn’t you just know it, it turns out that most of these people are not at all what they initially seem to be, and several of them are dragging around a different sort of baggage entirely. As the night wears on, a peculiar chain of events develops, involving FBI wiretapping, blackmail, dementia and a psychopathic cult leader. Not everyone is going to be checking out alive…

I have to say that my first thought on properly looking at the poster for Bad Times at the El Royale was that this is a movie filled with people currently stuck in an odd twilight zone in terms of their movie career: by which I mean, there are some people who have the ability to open a movie (meaning their presence alone will guarantee the film does healthy business), and there are others who are by any standard appreciably famous, but aren’t able to translate this into consistent box office success under their own steam. Bad Times at the El Royale has Jeff Bridges in it, who is a veteran movie star and a fine actor, and Cynthia Erivo, who is a definite up-and-comer, but also a bunch of people who seem to be in the latter category – Jon Hamm (still best known for TV’s Mad Men), Dakota Johnson (whose high profile is mainly down to appearing in all those big-budget soft porn films), and – perhaps the best current example of the kind of thing I’m talking about – Chris Hemsworth (whose films make literally billions of dollars, but only when he’s playing one particular role).

I am aware that Bad Times is felt to have underperformed somewhat at the US box office, and this may be part of the reason why: it’s certainly a star-studded movie, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales. It’s hard to think of another reason, apart from possibly the film’s length (it’s 140 minutes long, and by the end you’re starting to feel every one of them), for this is an engaging example of a type of film which was all the rage a few years ago but not much seen these days – by which I mean that Bad Times belongs to that very odd sub-genre, the Quentin Tarantino pastiche.

How can you possibly pastiche the style of someone who has basically built a career around pastiching other people? Mostly it is a stylistic thing: there are various self-conscious formal quirks here, and a chopped-up non-linear approach to some of the storytelling – one key moment in particular plays out multiple times, viewed from different perspectives. The film isn’t afraid to include some fairly grisly violence, too, and there’s where one sequence in particular where the threat of it hangs in the air and you almost get the sense the director is relishing the prospect. The retro setting also reinforces the idea that this is a film looking to the past rather than the future.

That said, while the movie includes a number of plot elements which are very specific to its setting – there’s a cult of murderous hippies, and a morally-compromised FBI surveillance operation, amongst others – it doesn’t feel like the film has anything particular to say about the sixties or America at that point in time. It’s just a convenient, colourful backdrop – a dressing-up outfit for a film which always seems just a bit more interested in style than in substance.

Nevertheless, this is a very capably assembled piece of entertainment. I must confess that the name Drew Goddard didn’t register with me at all, but it turns out I’ve been watching his work as a writer and director for about fifteen years, on and off, and this film is as polished and effective as his resume (which includes things like The Cabin in the Woods and The Defenders) might lead you to suspect. His script exploits the potential of this kind of set-up (the nature of the film is such that it’s impossible to tell which characters are going to survive to the closing credits) and he’s helped by consistently strong performances from the ensemble cast – I should probably make a special mention of Chris Hemsworth, cast most against type as a cross between Jim Morrison and Charles Manson.

As I say, there is perhaps a bit of a problem with a film that feels like it should be brisk, knockabout entertainment having a running time round about that of the theatrical cut of 2001, and the film’s performance may also have been affected by the lack of a bankable star and the nature of the narrative. However, I had a good time watching it and I’m glad I got the chance to do so on a big screen. I would say Bad Times at the El Royale has a decent chance of a respectable career as either a cult movie or an underappreciated gem.

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Recently discovered in the electronic equivalent of down the back of the sofa. I have no memory of writing this back in 2008. Anyway, how times change…

No-one, I think, would be terribly surprised to learn that someone has made another movie based on a Marvel Comics superhero, for this sort of thing has been going on for some years now and many of the movies have been rather impressive – the X-Men trilogy was consistently pretty good, the Blade trilogy had its moments, and while last year’s Spider-Man 3 met with a rather lukewarm reception, the first two films were also rather accomplished. No, if there’s anything unusual about Jon Favreau’s new movie Iron Man, it’s that this is a Marvel Comics movie actually made by Marvel themselves – the venerable company have put their money when their mouth is and launched their own film studio, presumably on the grounds that they know how to handle these characters better than anyone else.

I say ‘these characters’, but if there’s one factor that might lead one to doubt the wisdom of the Marvel Studios project, it’s that all the most marketable and popular characters have already been licensed out to other studios – thus, Sony have the rights to make films about Spider-Man and Ghost Rider, Fox own the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and Universal have Sub-Mariner and the Hulk (though I understand some kind of deal has been struck allowing the production of the Louis Leterrier Hulk movie which is due in a couple of months time). This could be interpreted as meaning that Marvel’s new movie wing is stuck with a load of second-string, uninspiring characters. Iron Man is possibly their best bet to launch this new enterprise.

Playing Iron Man in the movie, or more specifically his human alter ego, is Robert Downey Jr. He is Tony Stark, who as the film opens is a swaggering, self-absorbed hedonist, having become an immensely wealthy man off the back of his genius for designing technology (usually weapons). His sheer irresponsibility is a pain in the collective neck of his PA (Gwyneth Paltrow), military buddy (Terrence Howard), and business partner (Jeff Bridges), but he remains an annoyingly charming rogue, despite his dissolute ways.

All this changes, however, when Stark is captured by terrorists while on a business trip to Afghanistan, getting badly riddled with shrapnel in the process. A friendly fellow-prisoner installs an electromagnet in his chest to keep him alive, while the boss terrorist decrees that henceforth Stark will put his genius for destruction to work in their service, locking him in a cave with a load of power tools and instructing him to get on with it.

Many superhero stories have a magic ‘if’ involved, a moment where you have to really suspend your belief, and Iron Man‘s comes at this point – for Stark is able to make himself an armoured exoskeleton powered by a pioneering new mini-reactor and battle his way to freedom, without any of the terrorists wondering exactly what he’s building until it’s too late. But it’s a cool sequence anyway.

Back in the USA, Stark is a changed man, suddenly terribly aware of the carnage he is responsible for around the world, and determined to make amends for this. His announcement that his corporation will cease manufacturing weapons is met with shock from the media and hostility from his business partners, and news eventually reaches him that unauthorised shipments of ordnance are still being made. So it seems he has no choice but to go back into action, using a rather more sophisticated new suit of armour…

Well, yes, this is yet another superhero origin movie, and while I suppose there is a very real possibility that we will one day grow sick of them, that seems unlikely to happen when they are as smartly put together as Iron Man. The world being what it is, Stan Lee’s original version of this story has been quite neatly updated by the simple expedient of replacing Vietnam with Afghanistan. Iron Man dates from Lee’s imperial phase as a creator of new superheroes, and indeed the veteran scribe (who makes another of his cameos here) announced that with Iron Man his intention was to create a hero who had nothing in common with his young, not especially affluent, somewhat counter-culturally inclined core audience, just to see if he could make it work.

If the film has a significant achievement to its name, it’s that this is a rare example of a comic-book movie which is dominated by the title character’s performance, rather than the villain or (even worse) just the special effects. A few years ago, Tom Cruise was apparently in talks to play Stark, and he would have been a more predictable and conventional choice in many ways. But now, post-Johnny Depp in the Pirates movies, slightly more idiosyncratic performers can get a shot at this kind of film, which is presumably why Downey Jr stars here. He’s always been a brilliant actor, but his problem has been not so much that he couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood, but that this was happening just a bit too frequently. Here, though, he puts his undeniable talent to good use – the initial, roguish Stark is still charming and likeable, while his transformation into a genuinely heroic, dedicated righter of wrongs is convincing, while still maintaining the character’s appeal.

Of course, the focus on Stark, while welcome, does mean that the actual villain of the movie, whose identity I suppose I’d better not spoil, is a little flat in comparison – a fairly unusual flaw for a superhero film, I’m sure you’ll agree. On the other hand, Downey Jr is very well-supported by the rest of the cast, not to mention a sharp and snappy script with some very zippy dialogue. No doubt future movies will feature more spectacular opposition – a not-exactly-subtle hint that Howard will be putting on a set of armour in a potential sequel certainly suggests Marvel are thinking along those lines. If you get that joke, you’ll probably also appreciate an appearance by Clark Gregg in a small role as a member of a government spy agency well-known to Marvel readers.

Iron Man is a very competent, engaging and entertaining movie, and surely bodes well for the future of the Marvel Studios project. That said, it really does have a sense of ultra-cautiousness about it, the company not wanting to take too many risks. As a result it doesn’t feel like it has the scale or scope of, say, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie, or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. But maybe that will come in time; the very least one can say about Iron Man is that it is a solid debut for this new studio, and certainly a movie that suggests Marvel’s in-house film operation could produce some very interesting work over the next few years.

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Summer has come to an end, and there are few more reliable signs of that than the disappearance of the really big studio films, in favour of a somewhat more mixed slate of releases: unashamed genre movies, smaller comedies, unnecessary remakes, and the odd serious quality film which has somehow snuck past security.

Definitely falling into the latter category is David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, a brooding, thoughtful thriller which oozes a very particular kind of Americana. The director’s name didn’t ring a bell and I was rather surprised to learn he’s actually Scottish – he was responsible for the slightly bonkers apocalyptic romance Perfect Sense – but I suppose it only goes to show you never can tell.


The film is set in Texas in the present day. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, a pair of brothers who embark on a spree of bank robberies in order to finance a get-extremely-rich-moderately-quickly scheme. Pine is taciturn and thoughtful, worried about his estranged family – Foster is a not-too-bright headcase with a short fuse. Luckily Tanner has form in the bank robbery department and things initially go according to plan, more or less.

Then the law gets on their trail, in the form of Texas Rangers Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Bridges is crusty and close to retirement, Birmingham is long-suffering. Bridges soon figures out there’s more than meets the eye to the brothers’ activities, but will he be able to get one step ahead of them and put a stop to their scheme?

The most obvious thing that Hell or High Water has going for it is a very strong set of lead performances. For quite a few years now it has been generally accepted that Jeff Bridges has become one of the best and most reliable character actors working today, and his performance here does nothing to cast doubt over that. Initially it looks a bit like a collection of quirks and tics, but as the story progresses Bridges manages to make it very clear that much of this is a front his character affects, masking a very sharp and dedicated cop. Ben Foster isn’t a particularly well-known actor, but he has done some big movies – he was one of the X-Men for about ten minutes, not to mention starring in The Mechanic and Warcraft. He comes across as a fairly serious actor, though, and this film suits his talents better. You would have thought the weak link might be Chris Pine – there were, last time I checked, billions of people in the world who are not William Shatner, but Pine is the only one for whom this is a professional impediment. He’s never made much of an impression on me in the past, but here he is very good – there’s a two-hander between him and Bridges in which he holds his own very comfortably.

The film is, as you may have gathered, something of a western-inflected heist movie, with perhaps a bit of a resemblance to No Country for Old Men. Nearly everyone wears cowboy hats, some people even ride horses; many of the characters routinely carry heavy-duty firearms. Texas seems lost in the past – or not quite up to date with the present day, certainly.

This seems to me to be more than just background colour, for it’s quite clear that there is more going on here than a simple crime story: the script obviously has things to say about the state of the American economic system. The Howards are targeting one particular banking corporation, simply because they feel it ruthlessly exploited their late mother, and their ultimate motivation is to provide security for Toby’s sons. Pine even gets a speech about how poverty is like an inherited disease, one that can destroy lives. The subtext is woven through the film consistently, and if I had a criticism of it, it would be that it almost becomes text – the various characters are always driving past vistas of industrial decay, prominently featuring billboards with slogans about Debt Relief and so on.

This probably makes the film sound slightly heavier and more worthy than is actually the case, for there is some humour along the way (most of it courtesy of Bridges’ character and his somewhat unreconstructed attitudes), and some extremely well-mounted action, too. Mackenzie stages a very tense bank-robbery-goes-wrong sequence, which concludes in (perhaps) unintentionally comic fashion as it turns out practically the entire town is packing heat and seeking to stop the robbers’ escape. But the film doesn’t shy away from the consequences of violence, either.

If there’s a sense in which the film’s deeper concerns gradually overwhelm its identity as a straightforward thriller – it opts for a ending steeped in ominous ambiguity rather than conventional closure – this doesn’t stop it from being a highly accomplished and intelligent script, brought to the screen with skill and energy. Well worth catching.

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As long term readers may have noticed, the scope of this blog has shrunk somewhat over the last nine months, mainly due to the diploma course I’ve been plugging away at since the end of last summer (the end of this is in sight, by the way, so brace yourselves). In particular those moments of personal revelation to which I was occasionally wont, never common, have become non-existent. Let me make up for this with a confession which may shock and astound some of you, and is not something I would casually say in any other public venue: my favourite version of King Kong is the 1976 one.

Well, let me qualify that straight away by saying that the 1933 Kong is, obviously, an immortal classic and one of the keystone texts of cinema – but the sheer age of the thing means it’s very difficult to appreciate it as anything other than an historical artifact. [Ignore this man, he is clearly an idiot who knows nothing about cinema. – A] The 2005 Kong also has much to commend it, but conciseness and lightness-of-touch are not amongst its virtues. Simply in terms of watchability and entertainment value, the 1976 film scores heavily compared to both of them, and it would (narrowly) beat out the 1933 version if I had an evening with nothing to do and only a pile of King Kong DVDs to entertain me.

And yet this film retains a rather toxic reputation, described as ‘campy’ and ‘idiotic’, and is frequently accused of almost destroying the careers of its stars. So, in the first instalment of a new strand snappily entitled Is It Really As Bad As All That?, let us revisit John Guillermin’s movie and see if it really is, er, as bad as all that.

(An interesting new sense of the word ‘original’, I think you’ll agree.)

Things kick off in Indonesia, with a ship owned by the Petrox oil company setting sail for remote waters. In charge of the expedition is executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), who believes he has discovered an uncharted island which holds vast untapped oil deposits. Also on board is stowaway Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges, in a truly appalling hairstyle and beard), a primate palaeontologist (when the script doesn’t require him to be a doctor or expert photographer) who suspects the island may not be as undiscovered as Wilson thinks, and may hold at least one very unusual inhabitant.

Along the way they pick up Dwan (Jessica Lange), a slightly dippy survivor of a shipwreck, which if nothing else cheers everyone up a bit. But things become more serious upon arriving at the island – despite what Wilson believes, it does hold a human population, living in fear behind a giant barricade protecting them from the interior and the power of their god, Kong.

Well, the natives take a fancy to Dwan and decide to sacrifice her to Kong, who turns out to be a fifty-foot tall gorilla. Attempts to free her from the ape’s somewhat lubricious clutches proceed, but Wilson is distracted by news that the oil deposits he has gambled on finding are non-existent. He will be ruined, unless he can find something very special to take back to America and justify the cost of the expedition. Hmm, shipping a giant wild gorilla to New York City as a publicity stunt – what could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?

Okay, if we’re going to be properly objective about this movie, let’s start by looking at a few of the undisputedly good things about it. Chief among these is John Barry’s score, which moves easily between being romantic and ominous, as you would expect where such a talented composer is concerned. Even I, who like this movie and am prepared to cut it all kinds of breaks, am prepared to admit the music is probably much better than it really deserves. The cinematography is also very well done.

However, the fact that much of the movie looks so good only throws into sharper relief those moments when it really honestly doesn’t. There’s no real getting away from the fact that King Kong is always going to be a special effects movie, and likewise no avoiding the fact that the special effects in Kong ’76 are amongst the most dismal ever seen in a major studio release. Now, I don’t have an issue with giant monsters being realised by men in suits, and the ape suit in this film is not completely awful. Likewise, the animatronic Kong mask is quite impressive, and there’s nothing really wrong with the full-scale hydraulic Kong arm, either. But any shot where these elements have to interact never quite works. The compositing is lousy. Effects shots throughout the movie are plagued by obvious matte lines, fringing problems (characters and objects turning transparent around the edges), and blatantly unconvincing backgrounds.

I’m prepared to admit this is a major problem and I expect my tolerance of it is largely the result of having seen much worse in many Japanese monster movies. But let me try to persuade you that this is a case of a half-decent script being torpedoed by substandard production. Lorenzo Semple, as befits the sometime scribe of the Batman TV show, Flash Gordon and Never Say Never Again, provides a screenplay which isn’t afraid to be knowing and slyly humorous in places – some of these moments fall utterly flat, such as when Lange asks Kong what his star sign is, but Charles Grodin gives a broad comic performance which is genuinely funny. ‘Here’s to the big one!’ he cries, even before the opening credits roll. Later, on arriving at Kong’s island, he is in more cautious mood: ‘Let’s not get eaten alive on this island – bring the mosquito spray!’

Now, I know some people have accused this film of not taking itself seriously, with nudgey-winky moments for the audience’s benefit like the ones above used as evidence. But, come on, let’s remember what this film’s about – a giant gorilla falls in love with a blonde starlet and runs amok in New York City. How seriously can you really take it? Treat it as a serious, emotional drama and you run the risk of looking pretentious and absurd, as I would suggest Peter Jackson discovered in 2005.

I’m also not sold on criticisms that the movie soils the memory of the original by being excessively salacious – admittedly, some of the accusations slung Kong’s way regarding his intentions towards Lange seem a little OTT (especially given the anatomical incorrectness of the ape suit). However, the dodgiest actual sequence, in which Kong seems intent on tearing Lange’s clothes off, is only a reworking of one from the 1933 movie – in which the ape genuinely does tear some of Fay Wray’s clothes off!

Nevertheless, for a film which appears to be initially pitching itself as a light-hearted fantasy romance, there are some jarring missteps along the way – casual references to rape and some incidental profanity are one thing, but the climax is startlingly bloody, as Kong is ripped to pieces by the cannons of helicopter gunships atop the World Trade Centre. (The prominent inclusion of the twin towers may explain why this film has become much less of a fixture on TV over the last ten years or so, but you can hardly blame the filmmakers for their lack of precognesis.) Slightly less obviously, the central romance between Bridges (as good here as he usually is, by the way) and Lange concludes on a peculiarly ambiguous note.

Watching this movie again with a mind to writing about it, I have found it does have more problems than I recalled – for a fantasy movie released less than a year before Star Wars, it really has much more in common with the middle-of-the-road extravaganzas and disaster movies John Guillermin most commonly put his name to (though his is a filmography not lacking in quirks, as the presence of movies like Shaft in Africa would suggest). I still think the script, the score, and some of the performances are certainly strong enough to make it an entertaining experience – it’s nowhere near a classic, but neither is it a total disgrace to its illustrious forebear.

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As regular visitors may have begun to inkle, I have been rambling on about films on t’internet now for nearly ten years. Ten years! And of course, in this time I have cast my eye upon a wide range of films, good, bad, and ugly, right across the mainstream and beyond. If nothing else, as a result, I feel qualified to say that never has a genre fallen out of favour so completely and surprisingly as the western.

Other staples of the previous decade that seemed to have gone terminally out of fashion, such as the musical and the historical epic, have enjoyed something of a revival in the last decade, but the western’s thunder and essence appears to have gone for good, its mythic status and moral certainties absorbed by other types of film. This is not to say that people have actually stopped making westerns, or pseudo-westerns, entirely: they haven’t. (I could name a string of movies from the last twenty years that comfortably fit the description, but that would be showing off.) But when someone makes what looks like a classic western and possesses genuine quality, it’s always treated as some kind of throwback to a bygone era.

Latest to get this attention (and the critical acclaim which often follows) is Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit, based on Charles Portis’s novel and the 1969 adaptation which starred John Wayne. (The Coen version is the only one I am familiar with, alas.) Set in the late 1870s, this is the story of Matty Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen-year-old girl whose father is murdered by an intinerant ne’er-do-well (Josh Brolin). With the authorities apparently indifferent, she retains the somewhat-eccentric US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her bring her father’s killer to justice. Also on his trail is the self-regarding Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) and together the trio set off into the lawless Indian Nation in pursuit of their quarry.

The first thing I have to say about True Grit is that it does seem like an oddity, a film which exists in a niche of its own rather than as part of any great tradition. The setting and the plot contain many staples of the genre – wide open spaces, sudden bursts of violence, themes of justice, revenge, and the loss of innocence – but at no time does it seem to be trying to say anything about what it means to be American today. It’s absolutely a period piece, set in and concerned with a particular time in the past. This is driven home by the rather florid dialogue given to everyone involved – fine old words like nincompoop and braggadocio get wheeled out for their first high-profile appearances in years.

Having said that, this is still a very good film – although not, I would say, in quite the same league as some of the others it’s in competition with for the season’s major gongs. It looks superb, and the contrast between the civilised regions where the film opens and closes, and the wilderness where the meat of it is set, is firmly drawn. The script is similarly solid, and manages to incorporate some subtle pieces of Coen weirdness without dragging the entire film off-course.

But on the whole I think I will remember it best for the performances of the three leads (Brolin has very little screen-time). As one would expect, Jeff Bridges is immaculate, and doesn’t appear to be channelling Wayne too much. Reports of his performance being unintelligible have been somewhat exaggerated, too. Damon is very decent as well, in a slightly less showy (and certainly secondary) role. But the main plaudits must go to Hailee Steinfeld, who gives an astonishingly self-possessed and mature performance, basically as the main character of the movie.

Film historians of the future will, I predict, be baffled as to why Steinfeld’s only been nominated as Best Supporting Actress by AMPAS, when she effectively carries the film. A somewhat craven decision based on which category she’s most likely to win, I suspect. Well, the main gong no doubt has Natalie Portman’s name on it, I suppose, but it’s still doing Steinfeld an enormous disservice to suggest this isn’t her movie: it is. Hollywood will be beating a path to her door now, and – like all great discoveries of recent years – you can expect her to pop up in a brain-deficient action movie requiring her to use ten percent of her talent very soon.

I’m not entirely sure that fans of old-style westerns will find True Grit completely satisfying as an example of the genre – it’s a little too measured and restrained for that, lacking the sheer emotional charge that the best westerns can generate – whether that emotion is exhilaration, foreboding, or one of many others. But on its own terms, and as a piece of historical drama, it’s virtually flawless.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 20th November 2003: 

Being fat and lacking in co-ordination, sport (or indeed physical exertion in general) has never really appealed to me – at least, not in comparison with sitting very still for two hours in a darkened room staring fixedly in the same direction. Similarly, I’ve never really seen the need for sporting films – I don’t insist that the FA Cup final is an adaptation of the plot of Logan’s Run, and I expect the same consideration from sports fans in return. And if I were to pick my dream sport movie it would more likely be a bio-pic of darts legend Jockey Wilson than something actually about jockeys.

And yet, and yet. You never can tell. Certainly not when a film has had the quantities of money and talent heaped upon it that Gary Ross’ Seabiscuit has. Yup, it’s a sport movie, and yup, it’s a golden-statue trawling expression of American hegemony (if Working Title made a film about Red Rum or Desert Orchid, just how big a release would it get in the USA?). But I have to confess that it is actually rather good.

This is the story of three men and a horse – automobile tycoon Charles Howard (played by Jeff Bridges), slightly alarming farrier Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper), ginger jockey Johnny ‘Red’ Pollard (played by Tobey Maguire), and pint-sized racehorse Seabiscuit (played by a horse). During the Depression, all four have more than their fair share of personal tragedy of various kinds, but they’re brought together by a love of racing and a desire to win. Howard owns the horse, Smith trains the horse, and Pollard rides the horse, even though everyone around them thinks the idea that Seabiscuit has any potential must be crackers. Little do they suspect he is really a very tough cookie.

Okay, you could probably guess the plot for yourselves, as the ‘plucky outsider conquers all’ theme has been done to death in this kind of film. But Seabiscuit isn’t trying to be enormously innovative or surprising – the virtues it’s aiming for are those of solid acting and production values, stylish and thoughtful direction, and a sense of the (oh dear) transcendent and unifying power of sport within society. And it hits pretty much every target it sets for itself.

Admittedly the film is probably overlong and certainly mawkish in parts (that Howard’s son’s name is Frankie is a bit unfortunate for UK audiences), and seems a little disjointed near the start. It’s nearly an hour before the titular equine even appears, and for much of this time Ross adopts a very interesting style, piecing together scenes and sequences of the three human characters which on the face of things have little in common, but which clearly express a unity of mood and theme thanks to skilful editing and music. This works better at some moments than others, and as I say it takes a little getting used to, but ultimately works to give the characters a strong grounding which pays dividends later on. Not all of his directorial flourishes work so well – a scene where Smith spies the horse and Pollard simultaneously fighting with stablehands on opposite sides of the same yard needs only a lightbulb appearing over Chris Cooper’s head to complete it – but the actual races scenes are very accomplished, tense and thrilling.

But this is equally an actor’s movie. Jeff Bridges has been underrated as a lightweight performer for some years now, but in many ways he’s the anchor of this film, delivering a very nice turn (and most of the big speeches). Cooper’s performance as the rather taciturn trainer is subtle and nuanced, and Tobey Maguire not only proves there’s much more to him than web fluid and the Daily Bugle, but even manages not to be obliterated by the horrendous ginger perm the part dictates he undergo. William H Macy livens things up with an energetic extended cameo, and Elizabeth Banks is good as Bridges’ wife.

If this movie has a theme beyond one of simple redemption and triumph, it’s a simple one about how America regained its self-belief after the Depression (at one point it looks like adopting a Great Gatsby-ish ‘cars equals progress equals death’ position, but – probably for the best – doesn’t really stick with this). But this isn’t a particularly deep or challenging film, it’s simply a classy, well-crafted and ultimately pleasantly satisfying piece of entertainment.

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The voracious demands of dozens of channels mean that, these days, it’s seldom very long between a film’s theatrical release and it turning up on TV. Doubly so if it’s a film with any kind of reputation or prestige – Avatar’s already available on pay-per-view, for instance. But it was not always thus. UK fans of the original Highlander had to wait nine years before it showed up on terrestrial TV, while The Empire Strikes Back lingered in the netherworld of home video for eight. (Godzilla Vs Megalon had to wait nearly two decades before it triumphantly stormed onto British TVs in the small hours of the morning on Channel 4, but that’s not quite the same thing.)

The original Tron took a similarly leisurely route to the small screen, finally arriving around Christmas 1990 by which time it already looked odd and possibly a bit dated. Possibly I am doing it an injustice as I’m pretty sure it would have looked odd even on its original theatrical release in the early Eighties. Something leads me to suspect that Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy will not tarry nearly as much, but even so it won’t look nearly as innovative as its predecessor.

There’s a rich irony to the fact that Tron 1.0 was barred from even being nominated for a special effects Oscar, on the grounds that computers had been used. This was considered cheating, back in 1982. Nowadays, of course, if you attempt to do a big special-effects movie without the benefit of computers everyone thinks you’re crazy. If Legacy does have a claim to the same kind of technical innovation as its forebear it’s in the use of a digitally-rejuvenated model of one of the lead actors to portray one of the main characters (while this isn’t unprecedented, it’s the first time it’s been done on such a scale).

Anyway… like the original, this is essentially the story of techie wunderkind Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who was zapped into one of his own computer games in the first film. Some years later Flynn disappears without trace, much to the anguish of his young son. Twenty years later, a now-grown Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is lured to his father’s old office by a mysterious message. As will come as a surprise to roughly no-one, he has his own date with a laser digitiser…

Yes, sure enough Sam winds up on the Grid as well – a computer world his father created, populated by programs who appear to him as other people. But all is not well, as the Grid is under the despotic control of Clu, a control program created by the elder Flynn and sharing his image (which is why he’s played by Jeff Bridges as well). But this virtual world is not enough for Clu, who aspires to extend his authority to the ‘real’ world as well – which is why he wants Sam’s help in locating his father…

Well, to some extent we’re in sequel-as-remake territory here, as once Sam arrives on the Grid things proceed along very similar lines, albeit with buffed-up special effects. So there’s a frisbee-throwing contest, followed in short order by a new version of the lightcycle sequence, a break for freedom, a search for someone who can help and then a journey to the Place of Ultimate Plot Resolution. It’s all competently and efficiently done, if never particularly surprising. (Tron the character appears in the film, but only in a very subordinate role and almost always as a faceless drone – Bruce Boxleitner’s clearly not a big enough name to deserve a CGI facelift and is mostly limited to playing his real-world character. Still, it’s always nice to see him and at least he’s made it into the sequel – there’s no sign of Yori or Sark whatsoever.)

The programs are still grappling with the concept of breaking wind discreetly.

There is some new stuff, too, which is a bit of a mixed bag. Most agreeable is Jeff Bridges’ performance as the elder Flynn – although this is possibly because Bridges appears to have reviewed the wrong DVD and rather than reprising his performance from Tron, comes out with another take on the Dude from Big Lebowski. He’s almost the only performer in the movie who isn’t obliterated by the visual styling around him – Michael Sheen takes a break from playing Tony Blair to pop up as an odd, Bowie-styled games program and makes an impression but for the wrong reasons. Also new to Legacy is some rather vague and contrived material about spontaneously-forming digital life-forms who hold the secrets of the universe, or something, and who Clu naturally wants to eradicate. This mainly seems to be here to buff up the importance of leading lady Quorra, embodied (and I use the word with precision) by Olivia Wilde. Daft Punk’s soundtrack is incorporated into the movie rather impressively, too.

However, while Legacy has only some of the virtues of Tron, it has all of its flaws. Being of a logical – oh, all right, pedantic – turn of mind, I couldn’t help wondering what the Grid was supposed to represent. Is it a particular computer system, or the whole internet, or an entirely separate world like Narnia? What do all these programs actually do? What does it mean in real-world terms when they’re eating or drinking? Different moments in the films suggest different things, but what does seem certain is that this is don’t-think-about-it-in-too-much-detail fantasy rather than any kind of SF.

Having said that, let’s proceed to think about it in a bit more detail. The garish neon-hued Grid of the first Tron had the virtue of actually resembling computer game graphics of the time. These days, everything’s a bit more naturalistic in games, but aside from making everything a little more shadowy and noir-ish Legacy’s world still looks retro. This extends to the costuming – the silly hats have gone, but everyone still wanders around looking like they’re on the way to a particularly stylish fetish party (the sight of Beau Garrett in a PVC catsuit nearly caused me to lose my grip on the plot) – do the programs actually do the nasty together? What does that represent if they do? (Oh, dear, off I go again.)

I suspect the look of this film is the result of a need to maintain some kind of visual continuity with the original, and avoid veering too close to the territory of The Matrix and its sequels. Narratively and thematically Tron and The Matrix aren’t a million miles away from each other, and the action sequences aren’t that dissimilar either. I emerged from Tron: Legacy feeling much the same as I did after seeing The Matrix sequels – impressed by the obvious technical proficiency of the people who’d made the movie, but unsatisfied by the details of the plot and the conception of the movie’s world. Seeing it on the big screen with the benefit of digital 3D and first-rate sound, it’s an efficient piece of entertainment – but I think that when it makes its small-screen debut, probably rather sooner than 2018, its numerous flaws will be rather harder to ignore.

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