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Posts Tagged ‘Jude Law’

One of the various innovative ticketing initiatives/scams that my magic cinema entry card allows me to avoid is so-called ‘Blockbuster Pricing’, whereby the powers that be routinely stick a couple of quid on top of the regular cost of a ticket, if they think it’s a film that a lot of people are going to want to see. Quite who decides on this sort of thing I don’t know, I imagine some sort of panel meets in a darkened room somewhere and makes a ruling on a quarterly basis. Not that they always seem to get it right: currently enjoying an extra quid on top of the regular price is Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which strictly speaking looks like being a blockbuster only in its aspirations – early projections are apparently that this is going to turn out to be a historic bomb.

There have of course been lots of Arthurian movies down the years, many of them rather undistinguished of course, perhaps the best-known being John Boorman’s Excalibur, and the most recent high-profile offering Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur from 2004. Excalibur did okay at the box office, by the standards of its day, but King Arthur didn’t, and it has been suggested that this is just one example of a curious trend where historically popular stories and genres are not capturing the imaginations of modern audiences – last year’s Tarzan movie, for instance, was only modestly successful at the box office. Perhaps it’s simply the case that the kids just want to go and see the latest superhero or computer game adaptation.

In any case, Legend of the Sword seems to be trying fairly hard to lure in a younger audience, for it opens with a virtual reprise of various bits of Lord of the Rings, with the fortress of Camelot under attack by an evil wizard and his minions (including some rather surprising elephants which are about the size of oil-rigs). Noble King Uther (Eric Bana) springs into action and sees the baddies off, fairly easily, but this turns out just to be a prelude to a grab for power by his wicked brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern seizes the throne but the king’s infant son Arthur floats off down the river to safety, his identity unknown.

He winds up in the city of Londinium (hmmm), where he is adopted by a gang of prostitutes and raised in a brothel. Years whizz past, courtesy of the first of several funky montage sequences, and soon enough Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a grown man, a face on the local underworld scene, and a dab hand at kung fu following regular training sessions down the neighbourhood martial arts school.

No, wait, it gets better (for a given value of better, anyway). In the meantime Vortigern has grown rather concerned about his nephew coming back to take revenge, but fortunately has an infallible method of finding out who he is – there’s a big stone outside the castle with a sword sticking out of it, and (stop me if you’ve heard this one) only the rightful heir can draw Excalibur forth. Young men from all over the country are being rounded up and forced to give it a try, under the watchful eye of David Beckham (formerly a noted football player, m’lud).

Yes, it really is him, and he provides one of the biggest ‘You what?’ moments in a film not exactly short on them. Truth be told, Goldenballs is not in the movie for very long, but the very brevity of his participation just makes the scale of his achievement all the more impressive: it takes a very rare individual to be quite as arrestingly awful in a really very tiny part as Beckham is here. He makes Vinnie Jones in X-Men 3 look like Sir John Gielgud.

Well, anyway, having pulled Excalibur out, Arthur is clocked as the rightful heir and things look bleak for him. However, various members of the old regime who are resisting Vortigern’s rule rescue Arthur, with an eye to grooming him as a possible replacement. But our man decides he’s nobody’s puppet and sets about assembling his own gangland crew to take down his wicked uncle, Londinium-massive style! (One thing you can say about that King Arthur, no grannies got mugged when he was around, he never hurt one of his own, and you could leave yer front door unlocked, etc.)

Whatever else you want to say about Guy Ritchie as a film-maker, he is at least consistent. After two Sherlock Holmes movies that weren’t exactly purist in their approach to Conan Doyle, and a Man from UNCLE adaptation that frankly bore no resemblance whatsoever to the TV show, he has now rocked up with an Arthurian film which is virtually unrecognisable as anything of the sort. They keep the sword in the stone bit, but there’s no Lancelot, no Guinevere, no Morgan le Fay, and virtually no Merlin or Mordred (mystical duties are palmed off to a somewhat ethereally gamine character played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey).

I must confess I was all set to have some fun with the fact that, in this film, King Arthur has the kind of beard and hairstyle you would normally expect to find on the barman of a hipster cafe in Shoreditch, but this seems like a very small matter when you consider that the film also contains magic elephants, half-woman half-squid life coaches, rodents of unusual size, kung fu fights, and many other elements that Tennyson, Mallory, White and the rest just plumb forgot to mention. (There’s a moment where King Vortigern tells his lieutenant to ‘Do your ****ing job’ which I suspect may not be drawn from the Venerable Bede.) These are mostly incidental, though: the film essentially feels like the result of a three-way collision between one of Ritchie’s lairy lad gangster movies, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (or, to be less charitable, Warcraft), and a Marvel superhero film – Arthur’s claim to the throne is backed up not by his nobility or wisdom, but by the fact that wielding Excalibur gives him bad-ass superpowers and the ability to slaughter vast numbers of bad guys in the twinkling of an eye.

And no doubt you are expecting me to tear into the movie for all of this. I find that I can’t quite do this, not because it really works as an experience – it doesn’t, although the sheer incongruity of the different elements does make it bizarrely watchable, simply because you never know what’s coming next – but because it’s pretty clear that this isn’t just some ham-fisted, clueless muddle – Ritchie has been largely successful in making exactly the film he wanted to make. It’s just that he had zero interest in wanting to make a traditional (some might say ‘sane’) Arthurian movie. Sequences that could’ve been quite authentic are simply rushed through, while others which bizarrely resemble chunks of contemporary gangland drama have been spliced in instead.

In some ways it resembles Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale from 2001, another movie which cheerfully took an axe to historical accuracy in the name of crowd-pleasing entertainment, and a film which I rather enjoyed. The difference is that Legend of the Sword doesn’t seem to have quite the same cheerful sense of its own absurdity – it takes itself relatively seriously – and that A Knight’s Tale wasn’t wreaking havoc upon one of the foundational myths of Britain.

I suspect we may be spared the rest of the proposed six-film series which Legend of the Sword was supposed to inaugurate, and I must confess to feeling a little saddened by that – I would’ve been rather curious to see just how far out there the other films could get, and it would at least have kept Ritchie from getting up to mischief with other properties for a decade or so. There may well be an audience for this film – always assuming there are people out there who want to see a bog-standard fantasy film made in the style of a lad’s mag gangster dramedy – but not a big enough one to make this a commercial success. It’s not so much a bad film as much as a very, very weird one – but there are still many more bad bits than great ones. And yes, Beckham, I’m looking at you.

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2015 has, so far, seemed to be a bit of an annus mirabilis for those of us who are fans of (the man, the legend) Jason Statham – true, things got off to a slightly wobbly start with the virtual non-release of Wild Card, but set against this are Mr Statham’s appearances in Furious 7 and now Paul Feig’s Spy. Not only are these big, mainstream releases, well outside the action ghetto which the great man once seemed to be stuck in, but they also indicate that he’s at least attempting to broaden his range a bit – Furious 7 had him playing a villain in a major blockbuster, while Spy sees him trying his hand at comedy. Possibly I’m biased, but the omens looked good for this one.

spy

That said, Spy isn’t really his movie, but a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy. She plays Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA analyst whose normal duties are to support suave super-agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She has a bit of a crush on him, naturally, which equally naturally is entirely unrequited. Susan is understandably devastated when Fine is killed on a mission to investigate ruthless arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, sigh).

With the CIA seemingly compromised, Susan volunteers to go into the field herself for the first time (her identity being unknown to the bad guys), much to the chagrin of crazed macho-man agent Rick Ford (you can probably guess who this is). Nevertheless, the mission is approved and off she goes to Paris, technically only on surveillance duties but with vengeance on her mind…

The first and most important thing to say about Spy is that, given his prominence in the advertising, Jason Statham really isn’t in it very much. In a way it’s oddly similar to his appearance in Furious 7, in that his contribution doesn’t amount to much more than a series of scene-stealing (and very funny) cameos. Mr Statham’s usual intensity reaches the point of incipient, swivel-eyed madness, but he’s still playing a version of the Jason Statham Character, which just adds to the humour.

As I said, though, it’s McCarthy’s movie all the way. I haven’t seen any of her previous movies, but on the strength of this one it seems to me that her schtick is based on two things – her physicality, and a startling facility with profanistical vocabularisation. Both of these are given full reign here. I remember that many years ago, Dawn French went to Hollywood with the idea of making a movie in which a short, plump woman found herself mixed up in a Lethal Weapon-style action caper, to comic effect. That movie never got made, but Spy – at least to begin with – is based on a similar premise.

Except, of course, this isn’t a pastiche of buddy cop films, but spy movies in general and the Bond franchise in particular. I say pastiche rather than parody: the opening titles are a spot-on copy of the Eon style, but they’re not actually funny, while the actual plot of the film – a hunt for a missing nuclear bomb – is handled relatively ‘straight’ (one consequence of this is that the film contains some unusually graphic violence for a comedy). The story isn’t terribly original, and I’m not sure how much it actually makes sense, but it mainly functions as a container into which to put jokes, anyway. These start off relatively restrained, and to be fair the film always retains a concern with Susan as a semi-believable human being rather than just as an over-the-top comic character. That said, at some point around half-way through she inexplicably transforms from a slightly awkward but generally decent lady into a sort of foul-mouthed berserker, although one of the results of this is that the film gets funnier and funnier as it goes on.

Quite apart from the reliable technique of inserting McCarthy into staple scenarios of the genre – the visit to be issued with gadgets, the casino sequence, the high speed pursuit, and so on – the film is notable for being a largely female-led crack at this particular target, with equally strong supporting performances coming from Byrne, Miranda Hart, and Allison Janney. And beyond this, the film seems to have an inexhaustible supply of off-the wall running gags and surprise cameos to draw upon – a joke about the surprisingly vermin-infested CIA HQ made me laugh a lot, while Peter Serafinowicz is extremely good value as a outrageously inappropriate Italian agent.

I’m still a little disappointed that Spy doesn’t contain a bit more premium Statham, and I’m not sure I’ll be becoming a regular visitor to Melissa McCarthy movies, but as you can probably tell I rather enjoyed this one. It probably isn’t the greatest comedy spy thriller ever made, but it is consistently funny in all sorts of ways, and if this style of modern comedy is to your taste – let’s just say it’s broad and irreverent – you will probably have a good time watching it.

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Back we go again to that beloved world where old war wounds migrate, snakes are partial to milk, martial arts styles are somewhat fictitious and first names are oddly mutable: yes, it’s time for a look at Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, directed as before by Guy Ritchie. Portraying the immortal characters involved are, once again, Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, and Jude Law as Doctor Watson, while Eddie Marsan, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly and Geraldine James briefly reprise their roles from the first film as Lestrade, Irene Adler, Mary Morstan and Mrs Hudson respectively. New to proceedings this time around are Stephen Fry as Mycroft, Paul Anderson as Sebastian Moran, and Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty.

Only very loosely following on from the previous movie, this film finds Moriarty behind a Machiavellian plot to start the First World War twenty years early (pretty much the same plan he had when he appeared in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, but I am in no position to criticise his lack of imagination as I used the same joke on that occasion too). Holmes and Watson are, of course, on the case, only mildly distracted by Watson’s looming nuptials. Their pursuit of the master criminal leads them across Europe, from Paris into Germany, and beyond, to a final confrontation high in the Swiss Alps.

The story is a very, very, very loose adaptation of The Final Problem, but you have to be on the ball to really spot this, as the signs are mostly hidden beneath many layers of comedy squabbling between Downey and Law, and also spectacular action set-pieces. Nevertheless this is still an improvement on the wholly original and somehow slightly unsatisfying story from Sherlock Holmes. And it’s very apparent that the writers have done their research and really delved deep into Conan Doyle’s works – there are so many little details in this film which add nothing to the story, but will mean the world to Sherlockians (Holmes’ birth year is got right, as is the name of Moriarty’s most famous work), that it would be very difficult to give this film a completely hard time.

Nevertheless, I still don’t think either of the Ritchie films are really premium Holmes, though for a while I struggled to settle on why. I don’t think it’s entirely down to the presentation of the two leads (though I do find Downey’s Holmes to be a bit too mad and dishevelled, and Law’s Watson a bit too irascible, for either to really convince), but more the way that the scripts of these films cheerfully detonate the structure of the original stories. You know – Holmes and Watson are enjoying breakfast in Baker Street, someone arrives with a seemingly-inexplicable problem, Holmes springs into action, etc, etc. Holmes as a martial artist and self-employed gentleman adventurer is by no means utterly inconsistent with Conan Doyle, but the very texture of the stories in these films is not recognisable as that of the classic Holmes canon.

Indeed, in this film there’s a sequence where Holmes and Watson have to machine-gun their way out of an enemy base which is much more like a Bond film than anything else. The action in this movie is well-mounted and the whole thing has been lavishly put together, with sumptuous production values and cinematography. And the movie is stuffed with moments verging on the brilliant – every time Holmes and Moriarty have a scene together, for example – even if things do occasionally get a bit silly (some of Holmes’ disguises stretch credulity to its utmost limits).

And whatever you may make of the two lead roles, there is some fantastic acting going on here – Noomi Rapace is a bit underused as the female lead, but Stephen Fry is terrific as Mycroft (revealing yet another new side to his talents), and Jared Harris is even better as Moriarty.

Our time is curiously blessed – received wisdom has it that in years gone by, every generation had one and only one Sherlock Holmes worthy of consideration, whether that be William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett. And yet we are lucky enough to have both Downey’s version of the character and Benedict Cumberbatch’s to enjoy, the latter in Sherlock.

Sherlock comes back on TV in a few weeks, promising its own take on The Final Problem, and it will no doubt be interesting to compare the two. Sherlock may not have the big Hollywood money behind it, with the associated production values, but in terms of wit and intelligence and – above all else – fidelity to the original stories, for me it outguns the Guy Ritchie movies in virtually every department.

But, that said, this movie is an enjoyably frenetic and inventive way of spending a couple of hours, and certainly better than the first one. Is A Game of Shadows a classic interpretation of the Sherlock Holmes mythos? Absolutely not, but then I’m not sure it was ever intended to be. Is it a fun and satisfying piece of blockbuster entertainment? Yeah, pretty much – so I suppose we should settle for that.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 4th 2001:

One of the bees in my bonnet is the virtual death of the intelligent SF movie since 1977. The classic pre-77 SF film would probably be something like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a rigorously cerebral, rather coldly intellectual masterpiece that is clearly about important themes without feeling the need to spoon-feed them to the viewer. Post-77, we’re into the era of the SF-movie-as-summer-blockbuster, dumbed down to appeal to the multiplex audience. I know The Matrix had all that clever epistemological stuff in it, but the reason people went to the theatre was to watch Keanu shooting up the place. The arch-progenitors of this sort of thing are, of course, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s ET is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about, a fairly intellectually bankrupt movie that lives and dies by its’ ability to brazenly manipulate the emotions of the audience. Kubrick and Spielberg – both great SF directors, but operating at utterly different ends of the spectrum.

So the new movie AI: Artificial Intelligence, written and directed by Spielberg from Kubrick’s own extensive work on the project (and loosely based on an obscure short story by UK New Wave SF patriarch Brian Aldiss) is an interesting prospect. Can the sensibilities of both men be accommodated – will this be a fifty-fifty fusion? Or will Spielberg’s natural tendencies to drench the audience in cheap sentiment win out?

The movie’s set in a future world where rising water level have forced the abandonment of coastal cities and populations are strictly controlled. A robotic workforce has been created to keep things running as population levels are strictly controlled. The young son of Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor, probably best known for TV’s bodice-ripping Madame Bovary and last years’ Bedazzled ) has been cryogenically frozen as he’s supposedly terminally ill. But luckily for her, her husband Henry (Sam Robards, probably best known, let’s face it, for being Jason Robards’ son) works for a robotics manufacturer looking to test out a new type of robot child, designed to give unconditional love to its’ human owners and thus replace the real children they’re not allowed to have. The Swintons agree to test the prototype, David (played, as if you need telling, by Haley Joel Osment, probably best known for being a freaky little kid). Anyway, after a few hiccoughs to start with, all is lovely for the trio. But an unexpected twist of fate (that you will undoubtedly see coming) eventually leads to David being abandoned by his mother in the forest, with only his robotic Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel, who sounds rather like HAL 9000 after too many cigarettes). Believing Monica will only truly love him if he somehow becomes human, David and Teddy start searching for the mythical Blue Fairy whom he believes can grant his wish.

That last paragraph doesn’t seem at all promising, does it? It all sounds a bit twee and cloying and cringingly sentimental. And this is to some extent true, though Osment gives an impressively creepy performance as the android boy, non-blinking in the style of true movie superstars like Michael Caine and Kermit the Frog. This section of the movie goes on a bit too long. Spielberg can’t resist trying to overdo the ‘aaah’ factor in every scene, a good case in point being the sequence where Monica abandons David. Just showing the events would be effective enough but Spielberg can’t help indulging in fairly cheap histrionics that are definitely counterproductive.

But stick with it because from this point on the film improves tremendously. It’s a vision of a world shared by organic and mechanical beings, not quite like any other you’ll have seen before. There are the obligatory visual cues derived from Star Wars and Blade Runner, yes, but for the most part this is wholly original, frequently breathtakingly so. Jude Law gives an effectively quirky performance as an android love machine, Gigolo Joe, who becomes David’s guide and protector. (Any suggestions that this is because playing a blandly goodlooking but rather shallow non-entity isn’t much of a stretch for Law are, of course, slanderous and will not be tolerated in this column.) Robin Williams pops up to do a cameo voice, too, but grit your teeth and persevere, it’s over quite soon. Eventually the story moves onto a third and final act of which I will say little more, as I can’t possibly do it justice.

But is this a Kubrick film or a Spielberg movie? Well, incredibly enough, it somehow manages to be both – almost. It has an episodic storyline typical of Kubrick’s work, and it concerns itself with big themes about what it means to be human. In places Spielberg achieves an uncanny impersonation of his friend’s visual style, all sedate camera movements and immaculate compositions. Stunning images occur throughout the movie (some rather too reminiscent of recent tragic real-life events for comfort). It even attempts the notoriously difficult 2001-style ‘inscrutably ambiguous yet profound’ ending so beloved of bad SF movies with pretentious aspirations, and pretty much gets away with it. To begin with, it has the familiar frosty emotional detachment that was Stanley Kubrick’s great weakness – but here it’s a strength, as it just manages to keep the opening section from overdoing the schmaltz.

As the movie goes on, Spielberg stops trying to tug the audience’s heartstrings and gets on with telling the story. He manages to invest it with real emotion and a sense of wonder – this is an astonishingly beautiful film, with images and sequences that you’ll remember for a long time. The price for this is that it lacks Kubrick’s intellectual rigour and detachment. We’re blatantly told very early on what the topic for today will be, and that’s the nature of love and the question of human-android relationships. But this isn’t really touched upon in very much depth, as Spielberg’s much more interested in David’s quest for humanity (and Osment’s performance gets much better as the film proceeds). The fact that David and Joe were both built to love humans – in their own way – was clearly significant to Kubrick but it’s barely mentioned here.

This isn’t quite a fifty percent solution, though – ultimately Spielberg is dominant. The message of Kubrick’s best films was that what makes us truly human is our predisposition towards killing and cruelty. There are hints that this would have been AI‘s theme as well, but the message we eventually get is that the essence of humanity is the ability to love and dream. Which is nice, but even so…

Quibbles aside, this movie gets my highest recommendation (like that means anything…). It’s a beautiful, moving, thoughtful, powerful work of art. Here we are in the year 2001 and Stanley Kubrick’s name is on the best SF movie in years. How utterly appropriate.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 14th 2004:

I probably don’t need to point this out in the week that William Shatner releases a new music CD, but comebacks can be a risky undertaking. The movie provoking this thought is Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a deliberately-old fashioned romp starring Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow.

This movie seems mainly to have been marketed on the strength of its slightly unusual production technique – basically the actors shot their scenes in front of a bluescreen and everything else was computer-generated. Well, I have to say, that doesn’t sound especially novel given the vast quantity of digital effects work in many recent blockbusters. The fact that Conran’s using it to create offices and laboratories seems peculiar rather than interesting.

Well, anyway. Set in the late 30s (or so it’s implied, in which case all the characters display remarkable foresight as they keep referring to the 1914-18 conflict as World War One) this is the tale of swashbuckling mercenary H Joseph Sullivan (Law), who prefers to be known as Sky Captain, and plucky girl reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow), who prefers not to be known as that woman who made a prat of herself at the Oscars a few years ago. Top scientists are disappearing and scientific supplies are being stolen by weird and wonderful super-scientific creations, and Joe and his old flame Polly set out to solve the mystery. It leads them to the hidden lair of not especially sane scientist Totenkopf and his mechanical minions…

The thing about Sky Captain is that it doesn’t actually have very much in the way of plot. It has the feel of a short film blown up to feature length, without the script receiving a proportionate amount of work. As a result the story is extremely thin, the characters rather one-dimensional, and the dialogue a bit clunky. (That said, there’s a running gag about Paltrow’s camera that builds up to a genuinely funny closing gag.) As this is a loving pastiche of those old 40s movie serials (Flash Gordon, King of the Rocket Men, et al) this is technically perfectly correct, but it’s still less than a contemporary audience has come to expect.

But as an experiment in style goes, Sky Captain certainly looks different. The opening, New York-set section, from which most of the stuff in the trailer originates, has a slightly murky and over-processed look to it, almost like colourised sepia or a rotoscoped cartoon, but the rest of the film is less obviously processed and as such less distracting. The production designs and animation are a bit of a treat, as giant robots march through Manhattan and squadrons of ornithopters lay waste to airfields. It all looks convincingly retro, and this extends to the story, which after a while starts making obvious visual and narrative homages to famous 30s SF and fantasy films: so we get a bit based on Metropolis, then a bit lifted from Lost Horizon, then a bit from The Shape of Things to Come, then King Kong, and so on.

Spotting these in-jokes is possibly the most entertaining way of passing the time during Sky Captain, as once the visual novelty has worn off there’s not much here to stop the mind from wandering. Jude Law is arguably miscast, Paltrow seems a bit uncomfortable, and performances of the supporting cast are variable (Omid Djalili does another one of his fun self-styled ethnic scumbag turns, Michael Gambon is okay but only in it for about forty seconds, and Howling Mad Angelina Jolie still seems to think that putting on an accent excuses you from having to actually act). In fact the only other acting appearance worthy of note is the one which provoked my opening thought: because, ladies and gentlemen, Totenkopf is played by Laurence Olivier.

Well, ‘played’ is probably putting it too strongly as Larry’s actual screen-time is extremely limited. Those expecting a fully CGI’d rendition of one of the greatest actors of all time will be disappointed as he mainly appears as a giant crackly floating head. And, when he speaks, you cunningly only get to see him from the nose up, thus saving the effects crew from having to lip-synch his performance. It’s a bit of a disappointment and smacks very clearly of gimmickry. I expect Larry was advised against it, but these dead guys, do they listen to sense? I guess not.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is so beladen with gimmickry and pastiche, and so lacking in traditional narrative virtues, that it doesn’t really satisfy except on the most superficial level. I suppose making a film like this at all must count as some kind of technical triumph, and it’s never actually boring, but it lacks the wit and charm and energy that other films inspired by the pulpiest of pulp fiction somehow managed to retain. Possibly worth seeing as an oddity, but certainly not the shape of cinema to come.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published  10th October 2002:

Film producers make films because, well, that’s their job, isn’t it. And while they may talk about making films for art’s sake or to raise awareness of some issue that exercises them, in the end they wouldn’t be able to do the job unless they were earning a living at it. In the end the movies are just a business like any other, ruled by the bottom line and the pursuit of profit. (Not a terribly profound insight, I know.) Every studio would choose a mega-grossing summer blockbuster over a worthy but completely un-commercial arthouse picture.

And yet we have the odd phenomenon of the Autumn Movie. Autumn is when the studios wheel out the movies they hope will do well at the following Spring’s academy awards. If you think about it, most of the pictures that have done well with the Academy have come out in the autumn or winter of the preceding year: Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind, and so on. So clearly the big studios haven’t given up on quality just yet… or perhaps they just really, really like those little golden statues.

I saw Road to Perdition this week and came out with the distinct impression that the producer, Richard Zanuck, had a real hankering in this direction. The director and stars all have Academy Award form, and this is a high-class, big-budget movie in a ‘classic’ genre (albeit one based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner). It almost seems designed to win Oscars in the same way that Spider-Man was designed to sell lunchboxes.

Set in the winter of 1931, it’s the story of Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and his relationship with his son, also named Michael (Tyler Hoechlin). Little do Michael and his brother Peter realise it, but their father is actually an enforcer for feared mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). Tragedy strikes when Michael Jr. sees Rooney’s unhinged son Connor (Daniel Craig) murder another gangster. Fearing Michael Jr will spill the beans, Connor attempts to kill him along with the rest of the family – but he and his father survive and go on the run, the Rooney’s despatching the psychopathic assassin Maguire (Jude Law) in pursuit…

On paper this looks like another gang-related revenge melodrama, but several things raise it to another level. Firstly, Road to Perdition isn’t afraid to let on that it has Themes. The title itself refers to Catholic doctrine (though there’s another meaning in the context of the movie) and the first time we see Hanks he’s packing a set of rosary beads as well as a handgun. More explicitly, it’s about father-son relationships – between Hanks and his son, and Newman and both Craig and Hanks (whom he virtually adopted, we’re told). There’s a problem, however, in that although it’s always apparent that these concepts are central to the movie, exactly what it’s trying to say about them is slightly less clear.

The director is Mr Tubs himself, Sam Mendes, fresh from acclaim and an Oscar for American Beauty. They say that the mark of a great director is that he achieves his effects without the audience noticing – well, you can’t say that about Mendes, as many of the key sequences of this film are shot in an intrusively stylised way: there’s a slow-motion murder, a gun-battle in almost total silence (bar the soundtrack) and various other obvious camera tricks. Not that this is a complaint, of course, as the direction is generally excellent: this is the best-looking drama of the year, and Mendes also displays an unexpected talent for suspense and action sequences. But it’s a very flashy kind of excellent. Thomas Newman’s score is rather good too, with the exception of some penny-whistle tootlings to denote the Irish American nature of proceedings (surely the musical equivalent of characters wandering on with red hair and pigs under their arms, shouting ‘Top of t’morning to ye!’).

Where I think the film falls down just a little bit is in some of the characterisation. As you would expect from a cast of this calibre, most of the acting is absolutely flawless: Jude Law, Stanley Tucci, and Daniel Craig are all utterly convincing, while Paul Newman manages to outshine everyone else with a magnetic display of star quality. If there’s a problem, then it’s with Hanks himself. The key character of the movie, the elder Mike Sullivan is a collection of disparate and at times contradictory traits: a devout Catholic, a ruthless killer, a loving if somewhat reserved family man, a gangster with a fearsome reputation, a man with a strict code of honour… Hanks does his very best in the role but still seems a little reticent, almost muted, never managing to weld all the elements together into a coherent characterisation (he’s not helped by a moustache that makes him look more like a dentist than a gangland figure). The actor of Hanks’ generation who might have been able to pull this off is Bruce Willis, who has the versatility for the part – plus audiences would be more likely to accept him as a killer, as this is the kind of role he’s occasionally played in the past. But, of course, Willis’ presence on a project doesn’t give quite the same imprimatur of class that Hanks’ name supplies, neither does it guarantee the attention of the Academy.

But despite this, Road to Perdition remains an extremely classy piece of work. Oscar nominations are virtually guaranteed, but no doubt nothing less was expected. Does it deserve to win any? Well, maybe; it’s a little too soon to say. It’s a film which aspires to be a classic, which is surely always something best left to posterity. For now, let’s just say that it’s rarely less than engrossing, and occasionally spine-tinglingly good.

(Damn thing only won the Oscar for cinematography – shows how much I know… – A)

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

History, as we’re frequently told, is written by the winners. This is usually taken to mean that the losers in any given conflict can expect to be ridiculed and demonised once the dust has settled. In today’s more sensitive climate, of course, this isn’t always the case, particularly in the cinema – where having a go at certain nations or ethnic groupings can seriously damage potential box office takings.

Anyone looking at movies about the American Civil War, in particular, would be forgiven for getting the impression that these days everyone in Hollywood thinks the wrong side won, given the number of films with noble and tragic Southerners in them. The only film I can think of offhand with the North as the unambiguous good guys is the fairly obscure Glory, while sticking up for the Confederacy you’ve got Gone With The Wind, Run Of The Arrow, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and many others – including Anthony Minghella’s new Cold Mountain, based on a novel by Charles Frazier.

Minghella the Merciless’s latest is, like his best-known film The English Patient, an epic romance about the inhabitants of Cold Mountain, a small town that’s technically in the United States but in fact seems to be largely populated by Australians, Brits, and Canadians. Preacher’s daughter Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) finds herself strangely drawn towards ruggedly virile carpenter and part-time facial-hair cultivator Inman (an interestingly-cast Jude Law), but before they can explore their feelings the war breaks out and off he goes to fight those damn Yankees, eventually winding up in a military hospital. In his absence Ada has fallen on hard times and finds herself forced to rely on the help of no-nonsense country girl Ruby (an eccentric and extremely loud performance by Renee Zellweger), while the town itself falls under the sway of the tyrannical militia captain Teague (an almost unrecognisable Ray Winstone, looking like a cross between Brian Blessed and Yosemite Sam). But help is on the way as before you can say ‘I’m freeee!’ Inman escapes from hospital and decides to head for home and the woman he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about…

There’s not a huge amount about Cold Mountain that’s terribly original. It strongly reminded me of Josey Wales and O Brother Where Art Thou? in particular, but just one of the impressive things about it is the way it manages to seem to be about classic and resonant themes rather than simply being derivative. Others include some spectacular photography, impressively grisly and visceral battle scenes (particularly one sequence which is basically a vast scrum in a crater slowly filling with blood), a haunting soundtrack, and an extremely solid script. This is quite a long film but it doesn’t seem like it all, so carefully is it paced.

This is, of course, an extremely strong cast – apart from the leads it also includes Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Eileen Atkins, Brendan Gleeson, Donald Sutherland, Cillian Murphy, and Natalie Portman (practicing her wan-and-anguished face ahead of Episode III), and they all pretty much deliver the goods. There’s a very slight tendency for the southern accents to get out of control – Zellweger in particular seems to think she’s auditioning for Calamity Jane – but on the whole Minghella keeps the ‘Well I do declare’-ing under control. The director also displays a hitherto-unseen talent for action. The old-school shootouts punctuating much of the movie are very well put on, with Law and Winstone making surprisingly credible gunfighters. This is being promoted as a classy, Oscar-trawling drama, but Western fans will probably enjoy it too.

In fact the only thing about this film that didn’t quite ring true for me was the romance between Law and Kidman. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the scenes of their initial courtship just seem a bit implausible (we’re invited to believe that Law is drawn to the sound of Kidman playing the piano on the back of a moving cart a hundred yards away), while the outbreak of rumpo which rapidly follows their eventual reunion is shot and edited to resemble a particularly competitive bout of Naked Twister (it’s still extremely watchable, I hasten to add). But this thankfully isn’t a major problem, as it’s hope and unresolved feeling that draws these people back together, rather than the strength of their actual relationship.

I can’t actually fault Cold Mountain very much at all – it’s yet another film that I wouldn’t begrudge picking up major silverware in the awards season just around the corner. It may not be quite as good as The English Patient, but it’s arguably more accessible, and Minghella is to be praised for taking such an eclectic set of actors and influences and creating a film so steeped in traditional storytelling virtues. Recommended.

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