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Posts Tagged ‘Kate Winslet’

Never mind your Schrodinger’s Cat, if you really want to talk about indeterminacy, we need to get onto the topic of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s retirement. As previously noted on this blog, the announcement, after the production of The Wind Rises, that Miyazaki was knocking film direction on the head due to his advanced years was met with a howl of anguish from world-cinema-friendly theatres which was matched only by that marking the release of – allegedly – the final Ghibli film of any kind, When Marnie Was There, in 2016.

And yet what gives? Not only did a Ghibli co-production sneak out last year (the bold human-chelonian romance The Red Turtle), but now Miyazaki has decided he hasn’t actually retired after all and is hoping to get a new movie, How Do You Live?, finished in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Perhaps most confuzzling of all is the appearance on the scene of the new Japanese animation house Studio Ponoc, which appears to be largely staffed by former employees of Studio Ghibli.

Studio Ponoc’s first movie is Mary and the Witch’s Flower, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (director of When Marnie Was There and key contributor to a couple of other recent films), and I don’t think it’s overstating the case that the new movie is coat-tailing Ghibli in order to secure the kind of major international release not normally received by the debut movies of non-Anglophone animation houses. The Ghibli influence begins with the choice of source material: in this case, a 1971 novel by the noted English writer Mary Stewart, although the title has been changed from The Little Broomstick, possibly to make it just a little bit more reminiscent of another series of films and books (we will come to this).

We are in fairly classic territory here, anyway – one of the characters wears a hoodie, another is rocking a baseball cap, but there is virtually nothing in the story that would be out of place if the film was actually set fifty years ago. The Mary of the title is a lonely and restless young girl (voiced in the English dub by Ruby Barnhill) who has just been sent to the country to live with her great-aunt (a perhaps unexpected but by no means unwelcome appearance by Lynda Baron of Open All Hours fame). Left to her own devices, one day she wanders off into the woods and makes a couple of surprising discoveries: a mysterious glowing plant, and an old broomstick.

Yup, we are off into a child-friendly tale of rather traditionally-conceived magic and mysticism, for Mary finds that the plant charges her with supernatural power, and the broom whisks her off into another world and deposits her at the Endor School for witches and warlocks. Here she is greeted by the head teacher, Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), and her deputy Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), who hail her as a prodigy amongst young witches, a shoo-in as a new student, a potential head girl, and so on. But do the duo have an ulterior motive for delivering such fulsome praise? And does Mary’s own family have a connection to the history of the witch school…?

I remember first seeing the trailer for Mary and the Witch’s Flower and the feeling of bafflement it immediately provoked: the look of the thing is, at first glance, so utterly indistinguishable from an actual Studio Ghibli movie that you wonder what the point of the rebranding is. Never mind Studio Ponoc, they might as well have called it Studio Jubbly or Studio Giblet. Of course, the upside of this is that Ghibli make the most beautiful traditionally-animated movies in the world, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower is also an exceptionally good-looking film. Perhaps it isn’t quite as exquisite as some of Ghibli’s films, and there are a couple of moments where I thought a little more fine detail wouldn’t have gone amiss, but this is still very much business as usual, in a good way.

The question is to what extent this is also true in the story department, for once again you could be forgiven for finding a fair bit of the story to be, well, not exactly burningly innovative. A school for witches and warlocks? With a menagerie of magical beasts? And a lovably Scottish-sounding member of the support staff? To which a lonely child finds themselves transported? Fair enough, they’ve covered themselves by basing the movie on a book which was published when JK Rowling was still quite tiny herself, but it still seems very much like they’re gunning for that lucrative audience hungry for all things which are just a little bit Potter.

I’m not familiar with the Mary Stewart novel, but the script of this movie at least is not really in the same league as those in the other franchise to which I have been alluding. This feels like a movie specifically aimed at quite a young audience, with thin characterisation and a very straightforward story, and in the early stages in particular it ambles along at an amiable pace without a great deal of incident. I found myself in genuine danger of actually falling asleep during the film at one point in the middle; I did go to see an afternoon showing towards the end of a fairly long week, but even so, I don’t think this is a good sign.

I am glad to be able to report that the story does pick up a bit as the film builds towards its climax, with some very engaging sequences: visually it gets very interesting, with a definite steampunk feel to some of fantastical alchemical equipment on display, and also a lot of the… do you know, I very nearly wrote ‘trademark Ghibli surreal grotesqueness on display’. Well, it’s true, this movie does make use of the Ghibli house style – it’s just not a Ghibli movie, officially at least. But the thing is that I don’t believe the change of marque is really going to fool anyone. This is a nice, well-made, inoffensive kid’s animation – I’m not sure it really holds as much for the discerning adult filmgoer as the average Miyazaki movie. What makes it distinctive are its attempts to not be distinctive at all: to emulate pretty much every detail of the Studio Ghibli style of film-making, along with a fair few elements of JK Rowling’s famous stories too. Not a bad film at all, but essentially the cinematic equivalent of high-class karaoke.

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2017 was a somewhat noteworthy year by recent standards, in that we did not get a single new Woody Allen film at any of the cinemas in Oxford. (Compare this to 2010-11, when Whatever Works, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and Midnight in Paris all appeared in the space of not much more than a year.) Should we read anything into this?

Well, it doesn’t appear to be the case that Allen’s legendary work ethic is declining, for his next film, A Rainy Day in New York, has already been filmed, and the fact that he can still get financing for his movies indicates they retain an audience. All this is despite the more-miss-than-hit quality of his last few films and an occasional sense that he’s just going through the motions (I’ve commented on a couple of recent projects that they feel like he’s just filmed the first draft he wrote).

If there is a shadow over Woody Allen’s future career (and there are suggestions that Rainy Day may never be completed or released), then it is because of the Unique Moment. Allegations of the most serious kind were made against Allen back in 1992, and in the current climate this alone apparently makes him untouchable by any right-thinking actor: virtually the entire name cast of Rainy Day have been queueing up to announce how much they regret making the movie, and donating their fees to charity. (Given that Allen’s reputation has always enabled him to attract impressive casts to his films, improving their marketability and chances of a wide release, this may prove to be especially significant.)

I don’t usually go about courting controversy, but this strikes me as the whole Me Too juggernaut spinning out of control and potentially crushing an innocent victim. I think it would be grossly unjust for Allen’s career to be terminated off the back of this; he is not Harvey Weinstein, who by all accounts was a serial offender, whose behaviour was apparently an open secret in Hollywood, who has been accused by dozens of victims, and who may yet face criminal proceedings. Obviously there are problematic elements in Allen’s work – he is perhaps just a little too fond of the notion that refined, intellectual men are devastatingly attractive to much younger, beautiful women – but the fact remains that we’re talking about a single allegation, made a quarter of a century ago, which was fully investigated by professionals, whose judgement was that it had no factual basis. I’m all for zero tolerance of people who commit these kinds of crimes, but if we’re going to assume that being accused automatically equates to being guilty, we’re heading to a place I’m not sure we’re going to like.

Oh well. On to Wonder Wheel, Allen’s forty-eighth movie as writer and director (so far as I’ve been able to figure out, anyway), which finds him in serious drama mode – or should that be ‘serious melodrama’ instead? Despite working with Amazon’s movie wing, and apparently contending with a somewhat limited budget, the look and feel of an Allen movie remains unchanged – there’s the same style of opening credits, and the same use of period music (this time it’s ‘Coney Island Washboard’, which is played roughly every ten minutes throughout the film and nearly drove me mad). And there’s the use of a narrator, who on this occasion is Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a character in the film who styles himself as a playwright and storyteller. Mickey is upfront about the fact he likes melodramatic stories and broad-brush characterisation, but I’m never convinced that acknowledging you’re making a melodrama excuses making a melodrama in the first place.

Anyway, this is not really Mickey’s story: that honour falls to Ginny (Kate Winslet), a somewhat frustrated ex-actress working as a waitress in the Coney Island theme park in (we are invited to infer) the early 1950s. Ginny is unhappily married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), who basically looks, talks, and acts like Fred Flintstone, and further stressed out by her young son’s pyromaniac tendencies. Seeking to escape from all this, she has begun an affair with Mickey himself, and dares to dream that they may have a future together.

Things become considerably more complicated with the arrival of Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter from his first marriage. Now fleeing from her mobster husband, Carolina seeks sanctuary with Ginny and Humpty, and, after some initial hostility, is able to win her father over. It just places more strain on Ginny’s domestic situation, though – and when it becomes very apparent that Mickey and Carolina are rather taken with each other, it may be more than Ginny can bear…

The days of Woody Allen’s attempts to pastiche Ingmar Bergman seem to be long since over, and if anything he’s going through a period where, once in a while, he has a go at being Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. This is certainly one of those, although the great American playwright whose name gets checked in the film is Eugene O’Neill. This is a confined, talky movie, with very much the feel of filmed theatre much of the time – it’s certainly not especially cinematic, and you could imagine it turning up as a TV premiere without it losing much of its impact.

You really can see why Allen still manages to attract good casts to his movies – he writes them big, chunky parts they can really get their teeth into, even if the characters are just a bit hokey sometimes. The main performances here are all very strong – Justin Timberlake has turned into a rather fine actor, doing good work as Mickey, who seems blissfully unaware of his own self-absorbtion and amorality. Juno Temple is also good. Carrying the movie, however, is a tremendous performance from Kate Winslet, who really does run the gamut of emotions in the course of the story and fully wins your sympathy. I can’t remember the last time she was quite so good in anything, and a little surprised that she didn’t receive more recognition for the role. (Dragged over the coals by some for her refusal to condemn Allen, or at least apologise for working with him, Winslet recently attempted to address the issue by saying she ‘bitterly regretted’ working with some unspecified people, a formulation unlikely to entirely please anyone.)

That said, the whole thing is thoroughly earnest, with no particular moments of lightness or comedy in it. And, once again, you can’t help wishing Allen had gone through at least a couple more drafts of the script – ‘I’ve become consumed with jealousy!’ cries Ginny at one point, which is just inexcusably bad dialogue. There is perhaps a flicker of self-awareness later on with the line ‘Spare me all the bad drama!’ – but as this comes near the end of the film, it’s a bit late for that.

Apart from Winslet’s performance, the best thing about Wonder Wheel is the cinematography, which gives the whole thing a warmth and colour and life which is often missing from the script. Odd things occasionally happen here too – a scene will begin drenched in colour, with the characters almost seeming to glow, only for everything to abruptly fade to a much more subdued, naturalistic hue. If there’s an artistic rationale for this, I couldn’t figure it out; maybe they just ran out of money for the digital grade.

This is ultimately much more of a character piece than many recent Woody Allen movies, and this really works in the film’s favour – there’s no sense of a particular theme or message being clumsily rammed across – and the fact that the main relationship is between a (somewhat) older woman and a younger man means that some of the more awkward Allen tropes don’t put in an appearance, either.

It’s really still competent rather than great or inspired film-making, but there are enough good things about Wonder Wheel to make one think that Allen may yet have one really great film left in him. Of course, he is 82 now, and no-one would begrudge him or be especially heartbroken, I expect, were he to announce his retirement. But I think it would still be infinitely preferable if that were a decision he made on his own terms.

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The thing about a big new studio blockbuster coming out is that it does tend to occupy more than the standard number of screens. When that blockbuster is a hefty three hours plus in length (taking trailers and such into account), the opportunities for a good range of other new films to get proper exposure become depressingly limited. Sometimes you just want to enjoy the experience of going to the movies. Sometimes you just have a free afternoon and literally nothing else to do. So you occasionally find yourself watching a movie which you probably wouldn’t have bothered seeing if anything more promising was available. This was how I ended up spending a couple of hours in front of Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us.

Beau ‘He’s not Jeff’ Bridges plays Walter, an ageing ex-fighter jockey and now charter pilot running his business in Utah. Walter lives a happy life with his dog, reminiscing about his experiences in Vietnam and elsewhere. All is well until two strangers, whose commercial flight has been cancelled due to a looming storm, hire Walter to fly them to Denver. Easy peasy for an old hand like Walt! He doesn’t even bother filing a flight plan. Unfortunately, while in the air, Walter suffers an unfortunate cerebral event and the plane crashes in what is apparently called the High Uintas Wilderness, killing Walter stone dead.

Yes, what Walter has never realised is that he is nothing but a plot device character, there to enable the stranding of the actual stars of the movie in the sticky situation they will spend most of the rest of it trying to get out of. They are Ben (Idris Elba), a buttoned-up surgeon rushing off to an operating theatre in Baltimore, and Alex (Kate Winslet), an impulsive photojournalist who is, you guessed it, getting married in the morning. Discovering that Walter has crashed in what appears to be Middle-Earth, or possibly the planet Hoth, is not promising news, nor is the fact that their distress beacon is in another part of the plane which fell off and landed some way away.

Well, Ben wants to stay with the wreckage, citing the dangers of falling off the mountain and being attacked by a mountain lion (for some reason I was surprised to discover mountain lions live on mountains, but I see now that it makes a certain amount of sense), to name but two – the fact Alex has a mildly broken leg is also a consideration. But Alex just can’t bring herself to sit around and starve to death, so when the food starts to run out (the possibility of eating Walter’s corpse is quite properly never even mooted), off she toddles down the mountain, with a reluctant Ben drawn to follow her.

Luckily Idris Elba is clearly unaware of what happens to dudes who hang around with Kate Winslet in a post-disaster-type scenario. Exactly what kind of film is this? Well, partly it is one of those ‘figures in a landscape’ type things, with lots of helicopter shots of people staggering across bleak wastelands and confronting the terrible beauty of nature in all its glory, etc etc – these films tend to be somewhat light on incident and also to go on for a while, and this is all true to some extent of The Mountain Between Us as well. But on the other hand it does have a slightly Titanic-y vibe to it, as the focus is at least as much on their relationship as it is the plight they are in. Not that you are ever allowed to really forget the plight, of course. I suppose if I had to coin a name for this sort of extravaganza it would be either ‘survival romance’ or more likely ‘romantic tragedy’.

As opposed to ‘romantic comedy’, of course. To be honest just a sprinkling of comedy, or even anything of a slightly lighter tone, would have helped this movie a lot, for it feels terribly leaden and heavy-going for much of its length. Elba and Winslet seem quite unaware they are starring in a piece of life-affirming, crowd-pleasing cobblers, and attempt to give serious Proper Actor performances, which are more than the script deserves. I know I’m an indoorsy type – if it wasn’t for cinema trips and the need to work, I expect I’d hardly ever leave the house – but this seemed to me to be a really rather dull film. Oh, look, they’re on top of a mountain. It is snowy. Now they have staggered partway down the mountain. It is still snowy. Now they are in a forest. Is that snow everywhere? I suspect it is. Whatever next?

This is before we get to the romantic element of the plot, which is arguably torpedoed by the palpable lack of chemistry between Elba and Winslet. The moment at which they finally come together feels like some kind of contractual obligation, and occurs under what seem to me to be unlikely circumstances. Then again, perhaps malnutrition, bone fractures, first-stage frostbite and incipient gangrene are what get some people in the mood for a spot of the old rumpy – I don’t judge in these matters. Even so, what ensues is a notable example of a Bad Sex Scene, though this is more down to the director overdoing it than any fault of his stars. At least it’s not too prominent an element of the story, or they might have had to retitle the film The Mounting Between Us.

At first it looks like this movie isn’t going to outstay its welcome and get off the screen after a relatively snappy 100 minutes or so, with the duo staggering back to civilisation in an appropriately overwrought way (yes, they don’t freeze to death; I trust this doesn’t constitute a spoiler). But the thing drags on for a lengthy coda as they go back to their lives, don’t answer each other’s phone calls, and generally obey the plot imperative to resist the inevitable for as long as possible. However, I wasn’t looking impatiently for the moment where they admit their feelings for each other, I was looking impatiently at my watch.

I would imagine that Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are well-established enough as actors for this piece of tosh not to damage their careers significantly. A film which was just a little lighter on its feet would have worked much better. As it is, The Mountain Between Us is competently assembled for most of its duration, but ultimately almost wholly inert as either a drama or a romance. Outdoorsy types might find something to enjoy, I suppose, but there’s not much for the rest of us.

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The era of non-stop counter-programming seems to be coming to an end, as the stream of low-budget biographical movies is finally replaced by… oh, a big-budget biographical movie. And, a movie which may itself arguably be considered counter-programming, given that it has apparently tanked massively in the States, and presumably no-one at Universal has very great hopes for it doing any better over here. The film in question is Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which concerns… oh, you guessed it.

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Yes, you might think there was something slightly ironic about the fact that a movie about the famously successful entrepreneur is struggling to make its money back at the box office, but one of the things the film highlights is the fact that Jobs was not quite the Midas figure popular legend has him being. Not entirely unpredictably, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin eschew anything resembling a traditional bio-pic and opt for a hugely theatrical structure, where the film finds Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at his most intense, in the moments leading up to three key product launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Cube (no, me neither) in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. (Prior to all this, the scene is set with some archive footage of another visionary, as Arthur C Clarke – speaking, it would appear, in the late 60s or early 70s – predicts how the PC revolution was going to change many lives.)

As coincidence and the script would have it, Jobs ends up talking with the same handful of people on all three occasions – Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), company CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his initially-unacknowledged daughter (various actresses), and so on. Overseeing it all is marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who often seems to be the closest thing Jobs has to an actual friend. The same themes recur: Jobs as an obsessive control-freak on a monumental scale, as a prophet of a digitally-enhanced world, as a colossal ego, and as a man highly unlikely to win the Parent of the Year award.

It does boil down to the same few actors talking to each other about roughly the same things on a handful of different sets (there are cutaway sequences to Jobs and Wozniak in the garage where Apple was founded, and to the board meeting which saw Jobs ejected from the company in 1985), but Sorkin’s flair for dialogue and Boyle’s deftness with a camera mean that the film is anything but flat and dull. There are thrilling, electrifying moments of drama scattered through the movie, delivered by a group of actors making the most of an extremely good script.

Even though I am not the world’s biggest Apple fan (I believe I still have an iPod somewhere, but I haven’t listened to it in at least five years), I have of course heard of Steve Jobs and knew a little (a very little, if we’re honest) about him – the man has, after all, become something of a present-day icon. (This is the second Jobs bio-pic in three years.) Steve Jobs the movie does a first-rate job of turning Steve Jobs the icon into Steve Jobs a man – the objection that many who knew Jobs have been making, of course, is that the man on the screen is a grotesque caricature of the person who they knew, and that Boyle and Sorkin have other fish to fry than doing Jobs justice. Certainly the character played by Fassbender is breathtakingly callous and brutally manipulative for much of the movie – but, to be fair, the film makes no attempt to hide what an influential thinker he was, or how many of his ideas now underpin the fabric of everyday life (and by the end of the film it’s fairly plain that, underneath it all, he does at least aspire to be a decent father).

Whatever else, Michael Fassbender is certainly very impressive in the central role. Some quite excitable things have been said about Fassbender of late, declaring him the new Brando and so on, but he is one of those actors who does seem capable of anything, and is furthermore quite untroubled (it would appear) by ego. He even seems quite capable of that most difficult balancing act, where he spends some of his time in unashamedly populist entertainment (one more X-Men film is still to appear) and some of it in less mainstream fare (Macbeth, for instance) while remaining in demand for both.

Quite which category Steve Jobs falls into is the question of the moment, as the movie apparently cost a total of $60m to produce and market and has so far recouped less than half that. The obvious comparison, for all sorts of reasons, is with The Social Network, which ended up making about $225m – not exactly Marvel or Bond money, but still pretty impressive. But why did that film connect with audiences in a way this one apparently hasn’t? Well, friends, I frankly have no idea: I doubt very much that it’s just because Facebook was at its height of coolness back in 2010, while right now we’re all sick to death of hearing about Apple/Jobs, nor do I think the ostentatious theatricality of Steve Jobs is what’s been frightening the horses. Is there something to the claim that Fassbender just isn’t a big enough star to open a movie on this scale? Hmm, maybe, but are people claiming that Jesse Eisenberg is?

It may simply be the case that this is an anomaly, a fluke of release dates and zeitgeist conspiring to make a genuinely good movie tank. For Steve Jobs is a very impressive piece of film-making, as you might expect of the talents involved. Is it a fair portrait of its subject? I doubt anyone is qualified to say for sure, but script, performances and direction are all first class, and you do emerge from the theatre excited and moved and with some thoughts newly-provoked. In the end, I suspect history will prove to be as kind to Steve Jobs as it almost certainly will to Steve Jobs.

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A friend of mine tells the story of how she left her home, in a distant land, and travelled many thousands of miles, until her final arrival in Europe. Here she set about partaking of all the most famous cultural and historical experiences available to her. And so it was that she finally came to the Palace of Versailles, one of the world’s great treasures, where – in a somewhat unexpected development – she found herself seized by the overwhelming need to vomit. I don’t know, maybe it was just the French food or something.

Of all the stories one could tell about Versailles and its history, this is probably not the most profound or indeed accessible one, but then again the same could probably be said, with respect, to A Little Chaos, the new film from Alan Rickman (who also stars and co-writes). One wonders how much a factor Rickman’s personal star cachet was in getting this financed at all, because the premise doesn’t exactly scream breakout hit.

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Anyway, we’re in France in the year 1682, and Louis XIV (Rickman, who’s really about 20 years too old for the part in terms of historical accuracy, but whatever) has decreed the construction of Versailles as a paradise on Earth. In charge of the grounds is Andre le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), who sets about interviewing leading French gardeners for the job. One of these is Madame de Barra (Kate Winslet), and the two do not initially hit it off, as they seem to have wildly different ideas when it comes to the philosophy of garden design.

However, le Notre realises the scope of the King’s ambitions require him to adopt the ancient French principle of aller grand ou rentrer à la maison and so he ends up hiring her anyway (if he has an ulterior motive, the film gallantly does not dwell upon it). And so begins a tempestuous story of fountain design, pipe-laying, perennial-bloom selection and water-table draining, as le Notre and de Barra come to terms with their burning mutual attraction (rather to the chagrin of his estranged wife (Helen McCrory))…

I don’t make a habit of reading reviews from proper critics for fear of being unduly influenced by them, but the Telegraph‘s line did catch my eye and make me laugh a lot -‘if you only see one film about 17th-century French landscape gardening this year, make it A Little Chaos’. (I notice they haven’t put that on the poster.) Most of the film’s publicity has concentrated on the central romance and the colourful whirl of courtly life, but in all honesty it does feel like there’s a lot of stuff with people talking about water pressure and soil acidity, with the two leads only really getting together quite close to the end. The film’s title card from the certificators promises ‘moderate sex scenes’ and I would say this was a fair description – but, hey, they can’t all be brilliant.

A Little Chaos is quite a long film, given the slightness of the central story, and you are aware of every minute of it. That’s not to say it is dull, as such, just that you may require a different mindset to fully appreciate it. As director, Rickman seems to have prioritised the performances of the actors and the look of the film over the narrative itself, and the film is pretty much flawless in both departments. He has a fondness for extravagant tableaux in which wigged and costumed actors stand immobile in front of a striking background, and the overall impression is that of a film which is under tight control, with every shot carefully considered and composed.

Alan Rickman is one of those actors with undeniable charisma and an impressive reputation – albeit one which is based on a fairly low output in recent years. His days as Hollywood’s go-to guy to play villains feel like a long time ago, with most of his recent appearances being undemanding but (one assumes) preposterously well-remunerated turns in the Harry Potter series. So I suppose it’s nice to see him back doing a movie in any capacity, even if you really wish he actually turned up on screen in A Little Chaos more often than he does. It is in every sense a stately performance, but one which Rickman invests with real pathos, humanity and wit.

Also more prominent in the advertising than the movie itself is Stanley Tucci as the King’s brother. Tucci comes on in a couple of scenes, delivers a big splash of colour and humour and flamboyance, then (usually) clears off again for a bit. Even so, between them it’s mainly he and Rickman who keep the film’s discreet, tasteful, thoughtfulness from making the whole enterprise lose any sense of momentum. This is not to criticise the performances of Winslet or Schoenaerts, both of whom deliver performances of great subtlety and commitment. It’s just that, once again, these are exquisite miniatures, and it’s sometimes the case that more energy and vitality comes when you paint with a broad brush.

There’s nothing that’s actively bad about A Little Chaos in any department – it’s impeccably acted, photographed and designed – but the story doesn’t really go anywhere surprising and the film offers no real new insights or ideas concerning the world it is depicting. If it has a deeper theme, it’s not immediately obvious, so carefully textured is the story. As a result, the film impresses much more than it actually moves – or, really, entertains. Watching a very well-made film can be a pleasure in and of itself, and there are things to enjoy here, for certain: but I think a little less control and a lot more chaos would actually have served A Little Chaos rather better.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 21st February 2002:

And now for something a little different [this followed a review of Ocean’s Eleven – A]. Richard Eyre’s Iris is the story of the last years of the brilliant philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, based on the book by her husband John Bayley. As the film opens Iris and John (played by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent) are living in cosy, if slightly decrepit domesticity. Both are noted academics, and they seem completely happy with their lives. And then Iris begins to unknowingly repeat herself. Her latest book becomes a struggle to write. She finds it impossible to hold onto her train of thought in an interview. Medical tests reveal the truth: she has Alzheimer’s disease, and the dissolution of her intellect will be gradual but implacable.

Intercut with this is a series of flashbacks to the romance of the couple in the 1950s – here Iris is played by Kate Winslet and John by Hugh Bonneville. It provides a real insight into the foundation of their relationship, and a poignant counterpoint to Iris’ later decline.

Iris has an intelligent, subtle script but its success, which is considerable, depends entirely on two devastatingly powerful performances by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent. Dench flawlessly suggests the horror of a philosopher losing her ability to think, and later on is painfully convincing as an Alzheimer’s sufferer. But it’s Broadbent who in many ways carries the film, and it’s John’s story as much as it is Iris’. He is staggeringly good and deserves to win every award he’s nominated for (and he’s been nominated for quite a few). They are backed up by Winslet and Bonneville who are very nearly as good playing the younger versions – it’s utterly believable that these two will grow up to be the older couple.

I could object to the way the film suggests that Alzheimer’s is somehow more of a tragedy when it happens to a great mind – it’s always a tragedy, full stop. Or to the way it suggests that Iris Murdoch’s decline and death was somehow the most notable part of her life, when the exact opposite is the case. But these are objections to the film’s conception, rather than its execution. Iris is profoundly moving, extremely powerful drama, and I might suggest – and I hope not to have to make this recommendation too often! – that you take a hankie along with you if you go. It’s that good a film.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 25th October 2001.

Mick Jagger’s cinema career has met with (let’s be charitable) mixed results. He didn’t exactly set the screen ablaze in either Ned Kelly or Freejack and, while he was famously very good in Performance, playing a drug-addled millionaire pop star may not have been an enormous stretch for him. Jagger has now boldly decided to build on his lack of success and become a producer, and his first movie is Michael Apted’s Enigma.

Enigma is (not surprisingly for a British film) a period piece based on a novel. In terms of mood and tone it’s (also not surprisingly for a British film) bloody miserable. Both these things should make it very attractive to certain cinemagoers (Daily Telegraph readers, for example). Based on Robert Harris’ novel, it’s set in the UK at the height of the Second World War. Atlantic convoys are crucial to keep the Russians and British in the war, and their success depends on successfully decoding German U-boat radio traffic. The Germans encode it using the titular Enigma machines, which have 15 million million possible settings (more or less; whatever, it’s a bloomin’ big number, okay?). A select team of boffins and assorted weirdos has been assembled at Bletchley Park to crack the codes and win the war (and also any Scrabble tournaments held in the area).

As the story begins a morose mathematician with the implausible name of Tom Jericho (a perpetually hangdog Dougray Scott, from Mission Impossible 2) returns from sick leave to find the Germans have changed their codes just as the biggest convoy in history has set sail. The ships are now heading into an ambush and the boffins have only four days to decipher the new system and save the war effort! You may find this interesting and challenging but, unfortunately, screenwriter Tom Stoppard clearly didn’t as this situation is then almost completely ignored and the bulk of the rest of the film is taken up by a melodramatic plot about Jericho’s search for AWOL old flame Claire Romilly (Saffron Burrows), his romance with her supposedly dowdy housemate Hester (Kate Winslet, whose dowdiness is signified – in classic movie style – by sticking a pair of specs on an otherwise very attractive woman), a traitor in the boffins’ midst, Ukrainian mass graves, lots of boy’s own style investigating, and low-octane action sequences.

Jagger and co were clearly aiming for a kind of cerebral Bond movie with a bit of historical gravitas. The director also helmed the outstanding Bond film The World Is Not Enough, and they’ve recruited 007 veteran John Barry to do the music. He provides an anonymous strings-and-woodwind score instantly recognisable to fans of Roger Moore’s last few outings in the role. They don’t manage it, simply because the action sequences are rubbish – not badly executed, just intrinsically dull. Gasp! as Jericho drives a bit too fast down a country lane. Stare! as he has to run for his train. Look at your watch! as he jumps off a pier into a not-very-fast-moving boat.

Apted would have been better off stretching his actors further. Jericho spends the entire movie in a strop, getting increasingly Scottish as time goes by. Winslet similarly gets very little to do – but does it rather well. Well-known British faces pop up from time to time, but few for very long. I would’ve liked to have seen more of Corin Redgrave as the top brass from the Admiralty, Michael Troughton as a lecherous junior boffin, and Edward Hardwicke as a signals officer – but I didn’t. The star turn in the movie is Jeremy Northam as Wigram, a suave spy hunting the Bletchley mole – he plays it rather like a extremely caddish and nasty version of Steed from The Avengers. The film improves hugely whenever he appears – but, once again, that’s not often enough.

So given it leaves a bit to be desired as an action movie and a character piece, what’s Enigma like as an intellectual thriller? Well… it’s okay, but certainly not much better than that. Some of the plot convolutions seemed a bit suspect to me, but then it’s that sort of film. There are two real problems here: firstly, the film’s climax is pure Boy’s Own magazine stuff, which completely torpedoes the credibility of the rest of the plot (torpedoeing is probably a suspect metaphor for a movie about shipping losses, but never mind…).

The second and more serious problem is that all the stuff about Burrows’ disappearance and Scott and Winslet’s sleuthing isn’t nearly as interesting as the B-plot about saving the convoy and cracking the German cyphers. It’s as if the writers wanted to tell the story of the Bletchley Park station but realised that this would involve lots of rather complex stuff about cryptography, and make the lead character a manic-depressive homosexual. So they decided to hedge their bets and liven it up a bit by including all this wholly fictitious stuff about traitors and romance and running around waving service revolvers. I thought this was incredibly patronising: it’s like making a film about Anne Frank but giving her a kooky, wise-cracking best mate to liven up the attic a bit.

The scenes about the mechanics of code-breaking, the morality of sending sailors to near-certain death in order to secure a greater good, and the pioneering work on symbol-shifting computation done at Bletchley Park are far and away the best parts of Enigma. There’s a great film waiting to be made about the station’s contribution to the winning of the Second World War – but this isn’t it. Still, that’s what you get for underestimating the audience’s intelligence. Better luck next time, Mick.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published  May 6th 2004:

A couple of years ago, there was nearly a strike in Hollywood about – amongst other things – the possessive credit. This is when a film opens with the legend ‘A Film By Reuben Claxheim’ or something similar. Where the same person writes and directs the film, this seems fair enough, but it’s the instances when the director appears to ignore the writer’s creative contribution that caused the dispute.

But it does seem to be the case that films are defined by their star or director, rather than their writer. Everyone thinks in terms of Hitchcock films, barely aware of the army of scribes the great man employed. It’s just one of those things. Well, except in the case of Charlie Kaufman, arguably the only star screenwriter currently working. Kaufman is the man responsible for the acclaimed Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and now he’s written Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry.

This is the rather Phildickian tale of Joel (Jim Carrey), a New York cartoonist coming off the back of an ugly break-up with his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). Already distraught, he is very nearly traumatised to learn that she has had all memories of him erased by Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his rather shabby team of assistants. Understandably, Joel decides to wipe Clementine from his own memory, not realising that once begun, there’s no way of halting the process…

This being a Kaufman script the plot is inevitably much less straightforward than that precis makes it sound. This is certainly a much denser and stranger film than the cast list (which includes Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood) would suggest, and anyone turning up for some knockabout laughs with Jim Carrey acting like a gimp is in for a rude awakening. (I suspect this film may generate some rather poisonous word-of-mouth because of this – two people quite separately stumped past me muttering ‘Boring crap’ at the end of the screening I went to.) Eternal Sunshine is essentially more of the neurotic surrealism that Kaufman is famous for, grounded by some naturalistic cinematography and some affecting performances.

Truth be told (and as anyone who read last summer’s review of Bruce Almighty will know) I’m not a particular fan of either Carrey or Winslet in normal circumstances – but here they are both likeable and touching, particularly in the film’s opening sequence (some films have a twist ending – this probably qualifies, but goes one better and also has what’s arguably a twist beginning!). That said, many of their scenes together are set in Joel’s rapidly-dwindling memory, and – despite some visual pyrotechnics from Gondry – things do get a tiny bit samey. It’s probably just as well that there’s another major strand revolving around the messed-up relationships of Mierzwiak’s employees, who have a convincing and amusingly shambolic attitude to their work. Dunst is good, but then she can do sweet-and-vulnerable-but-troubled in her sleep. Rather more interesting is the way that Elijah Wood has opted to play a rather less than wholly sympathetic character in his first post-Baggins outing – he makes an impressive job of it, too.

But I can’t help feeling that, overall, Kaufman is writing himself into a Shyamalan-esque corner – Eternal Sunshine doesn’t have anything like the novelty value of his earlier films. It’s not actually a bad film, but it’s neither as clever or as funny as the best of his work. The fact that there’s already been one film about memory erasure already this year (and I feel certain there have been more, but I can’t remember what they were) isn’t exactly a help.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is essentially an arthouse movie that’s somehow lucked into getting an A-list cast and a major release. It’s a well-played, intelligently written and directed piece of work – even if the conclusion feels like the film is straining too hard to surprise the audience. I liked it, but even so, I don’t think it’s nearly as original or witty as it thinks it is. And Kaufman’s reputation as a ‘name’ should stay intact: this is one for his fans more than those of Carrey or Winslet.

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