Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘John Malkovich’

Never let it be said that this blog is unafraid to tackle the heavyweight questions of the day: for instance, is Orlando Bloom really an actor? Now, wait just a cotton-picking minute there if you think I am in any way casting aspersions on Landy’s abilities when it comes to the thespian department. No, the reason for my question is the simple fact that, for a major global celebrity, our man Bloom doesn’t really seem to turn up in many movies these days. I mean, there was his (I am tempted to say thankfully) brief cameo in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but outside of his appearances in the Hobbit movies I can’t think of much I’ve seen him in in the last ten years or so.

Well, I believe the answer may partly lie in the fact that, in addition to his other activities, Landy has taken up being a film producer (why do I suddenly suspect that becoming a film producer is not as difficult as I always thought?). As any fule kno, being a film producer involves lots of meetings and calls and discussions about movies which most of the time end up not being made at all, despite hefty development fees changing hands. So you might say that Landy has hit upon a wheeze where people are paying him not to make movies (I wish he had come up with that idea about fifteen years ago).

The flaw in this arrangement, unfortunately, is that one of Landy’s films occasionally slips through the net and ends up going into production, but I guess that’s a possibility we have to live with. Even then, it does look like not all of these films actually make it into cinemas, as in the case of Michael Apted’s movie from this year, Unlocked. If this film got more than the most limited UK cinema release, I didn’t notice it at the time, and was totally unaware of its existence until someone gave me it on DVD (presumably on the grounds that they think I don’t watch nearly enough movies these days).

Unlocked is a not especially sexy title for what aspires to be a taut and exciting contemporary thriller. Indeed, it’s not really a particularly pertinent title, given what goes on in the plot, but on the other hand it is amongst the least of this movie’s problems.

Noomi Rapace brings clinical intensity, memorable cheekbones, and a suspiciously Swedish accent to the role of Alice Racine, a CIA agent who has spent the last couple of years working undercover as a Citizen’s Advice bod at a London community centre. Pyoiiinnggg! (That would be the sound of my disbelief being stretched beyond its natural limits, and we’re only in the first line of the plot synopsis. Let’s press on.) Alice used to be a top CIA interrogator but after a traumatic incident she has taken a step back, hence the community centre gig.

However, when another top CIA interrogator unexpectedly carks it in London just before beginning a vital job, Alice finds herself dragged out of semi-retirement. An Islamic terrorist has laid his hands on one of those them-there doomsday viruses, and is awaiting instructions on what to do with it. The CIA have nabbed the courier due to give him said instructions, and want him breaking down so they can send the terrorist false information and stop the virus being disseminated. How much more straightforward can things get?

Well, quite a bit, it turns out, as events prove the CIA has been compromised, and when the courier and a bunch of other agents end up getting killed, Alice is the chief person of interest. Inevitably she ends up going on the run from her own superiors, in search of the traitors, with her main ally being Jack, an ex-marine turned burglar who she caught breaking into her flat. Could it look any bleaker? Well, Jack is played by Landy himself.

Yup, that’s Landy Bloom as a lovably roguish ex-marine hard man. Pyoiiinnggg! (Sorry – it might be a good idea to wear protective goggles, or something.) To be honest, the main thing to be said about Landy’s contribution to Unlocked is how superfluous it feels – you almost get the sense that the script came across Landy’s desk, and he liked it so much he not only decided to make it, but also insisted it was rewritten so he could be in it (shades of that story about the millionaire buying the American football team and then insisting on playing quarterback). He comes into it quite a long way in. He doesn’t do a great deal while he’s there. And then, well before the climax, he vanishes out of the film in very peculiar circumstances indeed, with the fate of his character obscure, to say the least. Still, his face is nice and big on the DVD cover, anyway.

(Hmm – my usual slapdash research suggests Landy didn’t actually produce this film, despite the fact that one of the production entities is named ‘Bloom’. Curiouser and curiouser. Well, sort of.)

Landy’s contribution aside, Unlocked is basically a fairly typical modern thriller, very morally neutral and crissy-crossy, wanting to be one of the Bourne movies so badly it probably physically hurts – in a couple of places the music is so obviously ripped-off from that franchise that I’m surprised writs didn’t change hands. In addition to aping the style of a major blockbuster, it also looks like the movie has managed to land a major blockbuster cast – quite apart from Rapace and Landy, it features Michael Douglas, Toni Collette, and John Malkovich.

Nevertheless, this is really quite a dull movie – it’s competently written and assembled, I suppose, and when Rapace is actually doing her interrogating there are some interesting nuggets of tradecraft in the script. But once it all gets going and she has to go on the run, well, it all becomes at best predictable and at worst rather preposterous. There’s a major plot twist, for instance, that I spotted the instant it was introduced. And the motivation of the bad guy, when it’s revealed, is really and truly absurd – he’s orchestrating a major biochemical weapons attack on US citizens basically as a way of whistle-blowing the dangers of viral terrorism. I would suggest a strongly-worded memo might be a somewhat saner method of achieving the same results.

As I say, most of the performances and so on are fine (although Noomi Rapace is perhaps a bit too much of a Proper Serious Actress to be entirely comfortable in the role of ass-kicking babe, which is basically what’s required of her here), but I strongly suspect that in a couple of days’ time I will have forgotten almost everything about the plot of the movie. It’s not actively bad, most of the time, but it doesn’t really do anything to distinguish itself from the dozens of other recent movies made with a similar style and ethos. If you haven’t seen another thriller this century, then Unlocked may prove to be a pleasant surprise, but even then, I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen Being John Malkovich,’ said Bloke From Next Desk.

‘I didn’t say I’d never seen it, I just said I haven’t seen it in a very long time. Fifteen years or so,’ I said.

‘No problem,’ he said (I’m not entirely sure he actually heard me). Within a couple of days he had brought in his copy of the film on DVD for me to watch. He is a thoughtful fellow, even if I find him rather too inclined to be generous towards Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

So, anyway, Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, which reached the UK a short while later, as tended to be standard in those days. I was living in the north of England at the time, many hours from the nearest art-house cinema, and so I could often only listen and sigh as London-based film critics extolled the praises of bold, brilliant, unusual films, that I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of actually getting to see on the big screen. Ah, my wilderness years; however did I make it through? Being John Malkovich was just one especially notable example of this – there was a distinct buzz about this film, presumably because of both its startling premise and relentless originality.

John Cusack, that dependable and likeable screen presence, is cast rather against type as Craig, a struggling puppeteer who is married to obsessive animal-lover Lottie (Cameron Diaz, who is also cast very much against type). At Lottie’s request, Craig puts his unusual dexterity to use in a steadier job, working as a file clerk for the mysterious LesterCorp. Here he meets and is instantly attracted to the spiky Maxine (Catherine Keener) – she, quite sensibly, wants nothing to do with him.

All this changes when Craig discovers a mysterious blocked-up doorway in the file room. Going through it results in him being sucked down a passage and finding himself in the mind of the distinguished American actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). For fifteen minutes he gets to experience life as a famous thespian, before he is disgorged onto the side of a road just outside New York.

Craig and Maxine decide to make the most of their discovery, by selling tickets to Malkovich’s mind for $200 each (as you would). Needless to say, there are dozens of interested parties, and it looks like the pair of them have a good thing going – until Lottie discovers that occupying Malkovich allows her to live out her fantasies of being a man, and engages in a relationship with Maxine from within the actor. Malkovich himself becomes suspicious of the odd events happening around him, and decides to find out just what is going on…

These days, you look at Being John Malkovich and think, ‘aha, a Charlie Kaufman movie’, for the writer has gone on to carve out a unique furrow as a purveyor of existential strangeness in wildly original and blackly funny films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa. It’s almost enough to make you suspect he has some kind of superpower when it comes to persuading A-list actors to appear in very, very strange films.

So it is with this one. If you haven’t seen it, you may be wondering how on Earth the film goes about selling the notion of a metaphysical portal into someone’s mind to the audience – well, it is a ridiculous idea, but Kaufman and Jonze make it work by setting the whole film in a ridiculous world. No-one in the film behaves entirely normally – Craig is forever getting punched in the face for putting on age-inappropriate puppet shows in the street, the LesterCorp receptionist appears to have some kind of bizarre problem with her hearing, and the company itself is on the Seventh-and-a-Half floor of its building, with the result that everyone has to go around stooped over all the time. Given that all the characters accept these various elements without questioning them in the slightest, the existence of the Malkovich portal seems relatively less weird when it first appears.

Not that this makes the presence of John Malkovich himself in the film any less astounding – getting him to participate at all is possibly its greatest achievement. ‘If the film is bad, my name’s not just above the title, it is the title,’ Malkovich reportedly complained to Jonze, ‘and if it’s any good, everyone’s just going to assume I am this character.’ It’s not even as if this is a particularly flattering depiction of Malkovich – there’s a running joke about how he is universally acclaimed as a great thespian, but none of the other characters can actually name any of the films he’s appeared in. The fictional Malkovich takes himself very seriously, too – which presumably the real one doesn’t, or he wouldn’t be anywhere near it (apparently the studio head would have preferred Being Tom Cruise, as well).

If you’re the kind of person who likes to try and guess what the theme of a film is before watching it, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is essentially a comedy about our contemporary obsession with fame – everyone gets their fifteen minutes of Malkovich, after all. And while this is a consistently funny film, if you come to it with the right attitude at least, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It may sound like a comedy, but it doesn’t behave like one – neither the performances nor the direction do anything to suggest that this is anything other than a straight drama, admittedly one with an outlandish element of fantasy, perhaps even of horror: after all, the plot resolves itself as ultimately being about a secret immortal who has hit upon a method of vastly extending his life by overpowering the free will of unsuspecting victims. Only the deadpan seriousness of the presentation makes it funny (an engaging paradox).

You can’t fault the film for its entertainment value, or endless inventiveness – as Roger Ebert said at the time, this is one of those incredibly rare films which is as surprising in its last thirty minutes as it is in its first. It is consistently funny, surprising, and… well, I’m not quite sure I’d call it thought-provoking, but it does delight in throwing strange ideas at the audience. The problem is that the price of this is that the film departs from any kind of recognisable dramatic structure – who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Just which way is this going to go? Bereft of any of the usual signposts or markers, my memory of this movie after my initial VHS encounter was one of a collection of wildly disparate individual bits rather than a coherent narrative, and I’m not sure meeting it again on DVD has done much to change that impression. A very well-made, very funny film, but a total oddity on nearly every level.

Read Full Post »

Well, it’s time for another installment of our very irregular and even more pointless feature, New Cinema Review (that’s ‘new’ as in ‘new to me’, not as in ‘freshly constructed’). On this occasion, the venue in question is the Octagon Theatre, Market Harborough. As you may have surmised, this is not one of your actual cinema chain outlets but a legitimate theatre which occasionally puts on a film on a slow night. Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where the bottom line of the refreshments stand doesn’t appear to be the sine qua non of the whole operation, and the fact this is a proper theatre guarantees a decent rake and line-of-sight to the screen. No adverts (yay), no trailers (boo), no BBFC certificate (hmmm), and some interesting films on their coming soon list (Mustang, Captain Fantastic, Elle, and Headhunters all due in the next few months) – I’ve been to worse places, that’s for sure.

On this occasion I had turned up to watch Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, a film from last year which I didn’t bother going to see at the time, because, well, it looked like the whole thing had been in the trailer (not to mention on the rolling news back in 2010, though I missed it myself due to being incommunicado in Sri Lanka). This is a movie based on a fairly well-known event from the recent past, so I was a bit surprised to find myself being flapped and hissed at for predicting what we were in for, in the bar before the film: about forty-five minutes of all-American character-building and then an hour or so of stuff blowing up, quite possibly with a billowing US flag at some point. Does this really constitute a spoiler? It’s like being told off for revealing that the boat sinks at the end of Titanic.

Well, anyway. Chief point of audience identification is Mike (Mark Wahlberg), top electrical bloke on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (The name Deepwater Horizon is really a gift to film-makers, being exciting and ominous in just the right blend – I bet if they’d called the thing Riggy McRigface it would all have turned out very differently.) As things get going, Mike is about to head back to the rig for another tour of duty, leaving behind his lovely wife Felicia (played by Kate Hudson) and winsome young daughter (played by a winsome young child actor). As this is a mainstream movie not solely aimed at experts in oil extraction procedure, the winsome daughter gets a sequence where she explains what Mike does for a living in language a ten-year-old child could understand, which means most of the average cinema audience can probably cope with it too. This comes with visual aids, as well – never before has shaken-up cola frothing out of a can been such a portent of doom.

Mike flies off to the rig with his boss Mr Jimmy (Kurt Russell in a fine moustache) and co-worker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Needless to say, all is not well as they arrive, as visits by the camera to the sea bed beneath the rig make clear: ominous bubbles leak from around the drill head. It transpires that the preparation of the oil shaft for an actual extraction rig is far behind schedule, rather to the chagrin of the project’s paymasters at BP. They are pressuring the rig workers to accelerate their operations, even if this means cutting corners on things like safety.

You know what happens next: ambiguous results on safety tests are interpreted by the money-grubbing BP suits in the most optimistic manner, things go creak, things go bubble, things go whoosh, and then things – a lot of things – go boom (honestly, the really impressive takeaway from this movie is not the spectacle of this rig exploding, but the fact that these things don’t go bang more often). Mike, Jimmy, and Andrea find themselves initially trying to get the situation aboard the stricken rig under control, before eventually realising it’s all basically terminal and their main concern should be getting off in one piece…

I don’t mean to be especially glib or flippant about what happened to the Deepwater Black, not least because eleven men died in horrible circumstances. That’s a tragedy, a dreadful loss – no question about it, no argument from me. But given it’s such a tragedy, the question must always be, what are we doing making drama-entertainment films about it? Are we not just complicit in satisfying our own suspect urges, in the same way that we do when we rubberneck at a road accident? With, of course, the complicity of the film-makers, who are fully aware of this, but happy because it allows them to use all their pyrotechnical virtuosity in a film the critics are virtually obliged to treat respectfully, as it is about Real Life Heroism – in other words, they get to blow things up but still be taken seriously!

I rather suspect we have a case to answer, because Deepwater Horizon is structured just a bit too much like a crowd-pleasing thriller for comfort. The technical details of what specifically went wrong on the rig are never really gone into, and the first half of the film does feel more like the opening of a disaster movie than anything else – characters are established, warning signs overlooked, the experience and instincts of decent working men is ignored by contemptible guys in suits, and so on. We are told that virtually every scene in this movie is based on eyewitness testimony, which at least allows for some moments you wouldn’t accept in an actual piece of fiction – Mr Jimmy receives an award for his outstanding safety record about an hour before his oil rig literally explodes – but, even so, the film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys in a way real life generally doesn’t. Chief bad guy is a BP exec played by John Malkovich, who is in form which I can only describe as very John Malkovich. It’s an idiosyncratic turn quite at odds with the studied naturalism of everyone else, but I did enjoy it, as much as you can honestly enjoy any part of this film in a guilt-free way.

Technically, this is a very proficient film, and the performances are fine, too – Wahlberg can play this kind of Everyman in his sleep – and the big bangs and flashes, when they come, are as accomplished as you might expect. You could argue that a lot of the dialogue is unintelligible, not least because it’s technical drilling jargon, but you don’t need to understand every note to grasp the tune on this occasion. It’s all very capably done and exciting, and yet come the end you are still reading a list of the names of real people who died, and seeing their photos, and how are you supposed to handle the cognitive dissonance there?

I suppose you could make the same argument about many other ‘based on true events’ type movies, some of which I have said quite positive things about in the past – Everest leaps to mind as one, and I’m sure there are others. Perhaps it’s simply the approach that Deepwater Horizon takes – it’s a lot less interested in why it happened (and what happened next) than it is in how big the explosions were, and who a convenient scapegoat might be. On a technical level it is impressive, but I think the memory of those lost in the disaster might have been better served by a less simplistic film.

Read Full Post »

I don’t know about you, but I often come across things that look toweringly silly and almost indisputably a Bad Idea, and the question that inevitably comes to mind is ‘How on earth did this ever happen? Who thought this was in any way a good idea?’ All this shows, of course, is the strangeness that hindsight sometimes lends. Right now, at this moment in time, the idea of an $85m, all-star retelling of of the story of Joan of Arc, starring Milla Jovovich, co-written by the screenwriter of Slade in Flame, and directed by Luc Besson, sounds like an unstoppable disaster in the making. But people clearly thought otherwise in 1999, when such a film was made.

messenger

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is… well, I’m tempted to say that it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Besson-helmed historical drama, but one of the things I’ve found myself coming back to again and again recently is how frequently your expectations of Luc Besson turn out to be misguided. This is the film which effectively put a stop to Besson’s late-90s career as someone with serious clout in Hollywood, and was indeed followed by a five-year gap in his directorial career, and – possibly this is hindsight again – neither of these things is really a total surprise.

The film is, obviously, set during the Hundred Years War, when the English were doing their best to take over France (I don’t see the problem with this, but Besson clearly feels differently), with things not going too well for the home team. The opens by introducing us to the young Joan (Jane Valentine, who’s actually pretty good), a young girl who is clearly in the grip of some kind of religious obsession, going to church several times a day and claiming to hear voices.

An attack on the village by marauding English soldiers results in the death of Joan’s sister, who gives up her hiding place for Joan, and she is understandably left traumatised, struggling to understand why God would permit this to happen, and why she should be spared and not her sister.

Some years pass before Joan, now in her late teens, presents herself at the court of the French Dauphin (John Malkovich), asking to be given an army so she can carry out God’s will and give the English the kicking they so clearly deserve. The court are, understandably, dubious, but they’re out of other ideas and Joan does seem to have a strange, otherworldly quality. And so she is given an army, and sent off to lift the siege of Orleans, not yet suspecting that she is an idealist in a deeply political world…

This is a long film (though not, perhaps, quite as long as it sometimes feels while you’re actually watching it) and almost Kubrickian in the way it naturally falls into a number of episodes, each with its own tone and style. Some of them are, needless to say, better than others, and none of them are really what you could call great. The opening sequence, with the young Joan having her first visions, is one of the best, with Besson conjuring up a real impression of ecstatic religious mania, as well as suggesting some serious issues such as survivor’s guilt.

Of course, the thing which sets the opening apart is that it doesn’t feature Milla Jovovich, and if you had to identify one thing that really scuppers The Messenger it’s the casting of Jovovich in the lead role. Joan of Arc runs a very broad gamut of emotions in the course of the film, at various points appearing as an innocent warrior, a holy fool, someone who experiences the heights of joy and the depths of horror and self-doubt. Jovovich’s performance largely consists of rolling her eyes a lot and squeaking. A goldfish at the bottom of the Mariana Trench would be less out of its depth than Milla Jovovich is here.

This is a bit of a shame, as – while you could hardly describe The Messenger as a completely coherent film – there are a lot of other things to enjoy here. Parts of the film are recognisably Bessonian in their stylish excess – the English soldiers are presented as enjoying a spot of casual necrophilia – and when the lengthy battle scenes get under way, you do get a sense of a director back in his comfort zone. There is a lot of mud, and crunch, and gore, and what they perhaps lack in scale they make up for in viscera. Even here, though, there’s a thin line between grisly, authentic spectacle, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the film is often closer to the latter than is perhaps comfortable.

Here and elsewhere, many fine actors from many different countries do their best to try and make up for the Jovovich deficit: Vincent Cassel, Tcheky Karyo, Richard Ridings, Timothy West, Faye Dunaway, and many other familiar faces. There is an authentic touch of the medieval grotesque about much of the film, and this extends to the performances too. John Malkovich, on the other hand, is at his most John Malkovichy as the aspiring king of France, who isn’t exactly sympathetically presented by the film (I suppose French film-makers will obviously have a different attitude to their royals than British ones).

Then again, it’s very hard to sympathise with Joan herself, though this is largely down to the Jovovich effect. What really doesn’t help is a conceit where Joan’s growing self-doubts manifest in the form of a shadowy figure with whom she engages in deep philosophical discussions about her beliefs and motives. He is played by Dustin Hoffman, who is obviously pretty good, but given all the eye-rolling and squeaking he’s acting against, an idea which could have seemed bold and imaginative just comes across as bizarre and even silly.

This is a slight shame, as Joan’s wrestling with her self-doubt (realised through the metaphor of the Hoffman character) really makes up the climax of the film – the concluding bonfire isn’t really dwelt upon, possibly wisely, but this does rob the film of a strong finish. One is left with a sense of a very odd film. In many ways this is a film which was ahead of its time – it anticipates the historical-combat-movie revival spawned by Gladiator only a year or so later, and attempts to say things about the uneasy alliance of politics and religious zealotry in wartime (topical indeed). It may ultimately be a failure, but you can’t fault its ambition.

 

Read Full Post »

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 17th April 2003:

…so now let’s give three hearty cheers and a cry of ‘Where the hell have you been, then?’ as – after what seems like a very long break – that riotously rib-tickling (not to mention extremely rich) rascal Rowan Atkinson returns to our screens in Peter (Joey Boswell) Howitt’s Johnny English.

Based on a long-running series of adverts Atkinson made in the 1990s, this is the improbable tale of junior-level spy Johnny English, who – following a series of accidents he is not entirely free of blame for – finds himself the highest-ranking officer in MI7 still drawing breath. With the aid of his enthusiastic sidekick Bough (Ben Miller), English’s first assignment is to investigate the French prisons tycoon Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich, phoning it in) – but what part do the Crown Jewels and the Archbishop of Canterbury have in the perfidious Frog’s schemes? And how is the mysterious Lorna Campbell (gamine popstrel Natalie Imbruglia) mixed up in all this?

At first glance this appears to be a film in an old genre currently enjoying a renewed lease of life – namely, the Bond spoof. Certainly this movie makes various nods in that direction, employing most of the Bond staples – the girl, the gadget-ridden car, the villain with a ridiculous masterplan – and at one point there’s an hilariously scatalogical parody of Dr No. But, wisely, the filmmakers appear to have realised that with the Bond movies themselves operating with tongue firmly in cheek most of the time, not to mention the massive popularity of the Austin Powers movies, there’s very little room for manoeuvre left in this particular arena, and this is really much more of a generic knockabout comedy.

In fact, the film this reminded me of most was last year’s Ali G Indahouse – it has the same obsession with postcard images of London and the Royal Family, the same broad, scattershot approach to its humour. With a jingoistically named hero taking on a French villain, there was a lot of potential here for some acerbic political satire – which the scriptwriters decided to ignore in favour of slapstick and Atkinson painstakingly humiliating himself every five minutes.

So it’s just as well that the film’s actually very funny indeed – particularly impressive given that so many of the jokes are extraordinarily predictable! It’s been carefully scripted so Rowan Atkinson can do all the stuff he’s famous for – Bean-style mime and physical comedy, plus Blackadderish scabrousness and hubris. This is the first time he’s carried a film single-handedly (unless any of you can correct me…), and he does an extremely good job of it. To be fair, he gets nearly all the funny lines in the film, although Ben Miller provides excellent comic support. Malkovich takes refuge in the first resort of the struggling comic actor, deploying an extremely silly accent. And Natalie Imbruglia looks very nice, although this should not be news to anyone.

Howitt directs inventively (to avoid paying for crowd scenes it looks like he simply went out and filmed people watching last summer’s Jubilee celebrations) and his action sequences are particularly impressive, though I doubt the Broccolis will be on the phone just yet. One real oddity, though: attentive masochists will recall me complaining about the Fake Trailer Gambit, where stuff in the advert isn’t in the movie. Well, Johnny English has a weird variation on this – all the stuff from the trailer appears, it’s just that some of it has different actors playing the parts, for no reason I can think of. Very, very strange…

In any case, Johnny English is a welcome return to the screen for one of the UK’s finest comic performers. It’s probably not to everyone’s taste – it’s too broad and obvious for that – but it is immensely likeable. It made me smile, it made me chuckle, it made me laugh, and it made me want to apply for a new credit card (not sure why, but anyway….) Not as good as the best of the Austin Powers movies, but definitely within striking distance. Fun.

Read Full Post »