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Posts Tagged ‘Landy Bloom’

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.

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It almost goes without saying that the trilogy of Hobbit movies has, outside of the confines of the hardcore Jackson-Tolkien axis fanbase at least, had less of a cultural impact than the Lord of the Rings films they are so clearly meant to emulate. Not, I suspect, that the bean-counters at Warners, New Line and MGM will be overly worried: it’s hard to be too upset about a ten-digit box office return, after all. Perhaps there has just been something a bit too openly mercenary about the way in which a slight and quirky children’s story has been pulled about and bloated to enable just that same return. Nevertheless, I suspect that the final episode, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, will earn itself some goodwill, especially from those of us who have been along for the ride all the way since December 2001, when Jackson released his first film set in Middle-Earth (one which this film dovetails with perfectly, as you might expect).

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Viewers of the last film may be somewhat discombobulated to see that the menace of saurian psychopath Smaug is dealt with practically before the credits have finished rolling, leaving the uninitiated to wonder exactly what’s going to happen for the next two and a bit hours. Well, here is where the story of The Hobbit takes the darker and more cynical turn that sets it apart from most children’s literature.

With the dragon dead, claimants to his vast hoard of treasure start coming out of the woodwork with astounding speed. Already on the scene and in possession are Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his dwarves, but Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the people of Laketown quite reasonably want some recompense for having their homes incinerated, while the King of the Elves (Lee Pace) also has a few outstanding debts he wants clearing up. Unfortunately, all the gold seems to be going to Thorin’s head, with the result that everything seems to be on the verge of turning nasty…

Even worse, also bearing down on Smaug’s former residence are not one but two armies of Orcs in the service of Sauron, who recognises the strategic location of the dragon’s former lair. With Bilbo (Martin Freeman) unable to make Thorin see sense, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) still a prisoner in Dol Guldur, and inter-species relations rapidly turning hostile, the future for Middle-Earth looks bleak…

It is true that in the past I have occasionally been a bit lukewarm about earlier installments of the Hobbit series, mainly for the reasons touched upon earlier. Well, what’s done is done, and one may as well just enjoy the rich stew of elements Peter Jackson brings to the table for this final offering. The appetiser (I warn you now, this metaphor is going to be horribly overstretched) is Smaug’s devastating visit to Laketown, with which the director serves notice that he’s going to start with the sound-and-fury knob turned up to ten and only get louder and bolder (not just overstretched but somewhat mixed as well, it would seem). Another early treat is a sequence in which Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Sylvester McCoy show up like Middle-Earth’s answer to the Avengers: and it really is glorious to see Lee, at the age of 92, getting one more moment of scene-stealing awesomeness to add to one of the most distinguished careers imaginable.

There are few longeurs early on in the film, but these really just mark the director carefully getting his ducks in a row for the second half of the film, which really and honestly does live up to its title: the titular clash dominates the movie, and feels like it goes on for hours. Peter Jackson is at his most uninhibited here, and it really is his conception of The Hobbit that we see, rather than Tolkien’s. In fact, it’s tempting to view this film as really a summation and celebration of everything that has made Jackson’s realisation of the Professor’s work so very memorable and justifiably beloved.

True, there is some very questionable comic-relief, some disconcerting stunt casting – Billy Connolly’s voice is instantly recognisable even when he’s covered in prosthetics – and some of his amendments to Tolkien really don’t ring true – a dwarf shouting ‘You buggers!’ at the Orc hordes I can just about accept, but another telling a comrade ‘I’ve got this’? I think not. A seeming cameo appearance by the Sandworms of Dune is just peculiar. And, of course, parts of it are cringemakingly sentimental, verging on the schmaltzy.

But set against this we have all those sweeping helicopter shots of tiny figures in epic landscapes, the stirring crash-bang-wallop of the panoramic battle scenes, the endless invention of those intricately choreographed action sequences, the sheer thought and attention to detail that’s gone into making Middle-Earth feel like a real place. He even manages to take performers not perhaps noted for their dramatic range, and invest them with a certain presence and charisma: and if this means giving Landy Bloom another load of outrageous fight scenes like something out of a computer game, so be it.

You could probably argue that somewhere in all the chaos and frenzy, Tolkien gets lost completely, and also that for a book called The Hobbit, Bilbo himself actually gets sidelined for long stretches of the movie. But, looking back over the last thirteen years and the assorted wonders he has treated us to, Peter Jackson has earned the right to indulge himself just a little, especially at Christmas (and who’d have thought it – I seem to be getting a little sentimental myself in my old age). No-one has ever made this kind of fantasy film as well as Peter Jackson, and I think it will be many years before we see its like again. It may not be the greatest film he’s ever made, but it’s a very fitting conclusion to his work in this milieu, and a terrifically entertaining ride.

 

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And so it sprawls amidst the stupendous pile of treasure which dictates its every action, like some great segmented worm, bloated, grotesque, and yet somehow rather majestic… on the other hand perhaps I should stop being quite so rude about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. It is, as they say, all simply a question of perspective.

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This second whopping slice of prequel action is subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, after the region of Middle-Earth in which its final movements take place. Obviously, it takes ages and many helicopter shots of scale doubles yomping across hillsides before we actually get there, of course. The action opens more-or-less where the previous film left off, with timorous burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), wise old wizard Gandalf (‘he’s a bad role model, and he’s lazy’) the Grey (Ian McKellen), smouldering dwarven prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) and their followers on the run from a pack of orcs.

What follows is, for the most part, a picaresque piece of epic fantasy: the company enjoy the hospitality of a werebear, brave the giant-spider-infested depths of Mirkwood, fall foul of the Elves of the region… I’m sorry, this is turning into the bridge section of Leonard Nimoy’s The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins. Anyway, they eventually end up at Erebor, the ancient dwarf city currently being squatted in by the dragon Smaug (voiced by Cumbersome Bandersnatch). Without spoiling the ending, let’s just say that an equally lengthy final chapter is on the way this time next year.

As I say, I was distinctly luke-warm about the first Hobbit movie twelve months ago, rather to the derision of some friends of mine who were delighted simply to see the Tolkien-Jackson axis back in operation again. And, admittedly, it is with some ruefulness that I recall my own glowing response to the first Lord of the Rings movie, which I praised mainly on the grounds that Jackson did not feel himself overly bound to be reverent towards the book. Can I then criticise Jackson for departing too far from the original text of The Hobbit and hope to retain any shred of integrity or credibility?

Well, I would argue there’s a difference between cutting and rewriting stuff to bring a huge story down to a filmable size and comprehensible shape, and just adding everything and the kitchen sink simply because it strikes you as being cool. Nevertheless, I have come to accept that these movies are not, in any real sense, a straightforward adaptation of The Hobbit, but rather a palimpsest of it: by which I mean they are a wholesale rewriting of the story, through which vestiges of the original can still occasionally be glimpsed.

To his credit Jackson and his writers manage the transition between the different kinds of material rather deftly, and I doubt anyone unfamiliar with the book will be able to tell apart the sections which feel impressively faithful to the novel (some sections of the spider fight, Bilbo’s initial conversation with Smaug), those which are derived from what was implicit in the book (such as what Gandalf is up to most of the time), and stuff which has been stuck in simply because Jackson thought it was really cool (a full-scale action sequence with Legolas (Landy Bloom) tackling a pack of orc commandos in Laketown).

I am sort of reminded of the old joke asking where an eight-hundred pound gorilla sleeps – the answer being wherever he damn well pleases. When it comes to these films, Peter Jackson is very much one of the eight-hundred-pound gorillas of the film directing world, and I get a very strong sense of him doing things just because he wants to throughout this movie. Luckily, it seems that what he wants to do on this occasion is simply to make a really good fantasy epic. His penchant for idiosyncratic casting persists (no Andy Serkis this time around, nor Christopher Lee and the guy who doubles for him in wide shots, but in addition to the usual crowd there is Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, Evangeline Lilly as a somewhat token-ish female elf, and perennial bellwether of dimbo action movies Luke Evans as Bard), but his facility with astoundingly ambitious and intricately-choreographed action sequences remains, as does his capacity to create a real sense of otherworldly scale and wonder. The best scenes of Desolation of Smaug do bear comparison to the highlights of his earlier sojourns in Middle-Earth, although some elements of the new film do feel rather contrived and implausible – an Elf-Dwarf romance being the most obvious. (And for a film called The Hobbit, there are quite long stretches where Martin Freeman as Bilbo seems a bit sidelined!)

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that this series are prequels to the Lord of the Rings movies as much as anything else, and this is a major influence on the film – virtually the first thing that happens in the film is an in-joke that only fairly dedicated fans of the first trilogy are going to get, while imagery and themes from those films become increasingly dominant as it goes on. Tolkien later tried to retrofit The Hobbit as a prelude to The Lord of the Rings – Jackson obviously has a much freer hand in doing so. He persuasively presents Middle-Earth as a patchwork of different principalities and domains consumed by petty rivalries and political feuds, with everyone oblivious to the apocalyptic threat which is slowly taking shape in a remote part of the wilderness.

The question, of course, is quite how far Jackson is going to go down this road in the final chapter. But that’s also a question for next year. Until then, I really am happy to report that The Desolation of Smaug indicates that both the director and this series are back on form. I turned up to this one with a mental attitude of ‘come on then, impress me if you can’ – along with a side order of ‘I hope the giant spider sequence doesn’t give me a heart attack’ (I am a bit of a megaarachnophobe) – and found myself, for the most part, engrossed and entertained throughout. Is it in the same league as any of The Lord of the Rings movies? No, but it’s still probably one of the half-dozen best epic fantasy films ever made, with the single best dragon ever seen in movie history (Vermithrax Pejorative has had a long run at the top, but…). In most respects, this is a vastly accomplished and very enjoyable film.

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Under a spreading chestnut tree

The village smithy stands;

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands;

And the muscles of his brawny arms

Are strong as iron bands.

Except when he’s played by Orlando Bloom, in which case none of the foregoing really applies (there isn’t even much of a chestnut tree near the smithy). But such is the situation at the start of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a 2005 movie dipping its toe in the treacherous waters of medieval history, in particular, the Crusades.

Landy plays Balian, a soldier-turned-blacksmith somewhere rustic in France. Following the death of his wife and child he is struggling to find a reason to live, but one arrives in the imposing form of Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a baron of the Crusader Kingdom of Palestine.  Surely no-one would describe Landy as a little bastard, but it turns out that’s just what he is, and Godfrey wants to make peace with his illegitimate son and indeed make him his heir too. Balian is initially resistant, but realises that fighting in the Holy Land could grant absolution not just of his own sins, but the ones which have consigned his wife’s soul to Hell.

However, on finally arriving in Jerusalem – this takes a rather long time, involving many appearances by the staples of Ridley Scott movies, i.e. beautiful shots of landscapes and brutal gory violence – Balian discovers a kingdom in peril. The truce with the Saracens will only endure as long as the King (Ed Norton) lives, and unfortunately he’s come down with a severe case of leprosy. Fanatical elements at court are pressing for Holy War against the unbelievers. Balian finds himself sucked into the power politics of the court, not least because he gets involved with the King’s married sister (Eva Green). Sooner or later Landy’s going to have to break out the chain-mail…

Well, I saw Kingdom of Heaven on its theatrical release, thought it was, mmm, okay, for a long time would probably have expressed no desire to experience (‘sit through’) it again. So why go back to it now? First off, as is his slightly tedious wont, Sir Ridley has revisited the movie and produced a director’s cut: and this has received universally glowing notices as a vast improvement on the original. Secondly, I recently digested (‘ploughed through’) Simon Sebag Montefiore’s whopping, superlative book on the history of Jerusalem, which includes a fairly detailed section on the events which this movie purports to retell. So I was interested to see if the director’s cut was any good, and if the history was remotely accurate.

The answer to the first is that it certainly is, if you like your epic widescreen historical action dramas, and the answer to the second is that it’s frankly a bit dodgy (no pun intended, history buffs out there). Scott can produce lavish, beautiful cinematic worlds in his sleep, and this film is no exception to that – my issue with his films is that the quality of the narrative often doesn’t match that of the visuals.

The story here certainly rambles on a bit – the movie is somewhere around the three hour mark – but the world it portrays is interesting enough for this not to be a major problem. Scott’s helped by the quality of the supporting cast, which is excellent, and stuffed with well-known faces – Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael Sheen, amongst others. Even Landy is not, as one critic charmingly put it, ‘actively bad’ (bear in mind that Arnie was attached to star in this project for a while during its long gestation period). And, certainly in the extended version, there seems to have been a serious effort to portray the texture of medieval life with reasonable accuracy – these aren’t just modern-day action heroes playing dress-up. Admittedly, some of this is put to the service of rather obvious themes and metaphors: most of the characters on both the Christian and Islamic sides are fond of proclaiming everything that happens to be the will of God – it’s just a bit too thumpingly driven home that a) using religion as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility is the cause of all the trouble and b) they’re all the same anyway.

And I found it a bit of a problem that the characters we’re supposed to identify with and care about – Balian, the King, and to a lesser extent Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) – all share a very modern attitude to the issue of religion and how much it should dictate one’s actions and morality. I suppose this is necessary in order for them to be characters we engage with at all, but it’s still not just getting the details of history wrong, but the whole tone.

Of course, Kingdom of Heaven cheerfully engages in getting the details of history wrong too. Perhaps that’s putting it a mite strong, as there is such a thing as justified artistic licence – the historical Balian obviously wasn’t a bastard blacksmith, but neither was he such an identifiable character. Some of the stuff that’s crept back into the extended cut is a bit more dubious – the leprosy that afflicted Baldwin IV of Jerusalem is a recorded fact, but the movie opts to give his nephew and successor, Baldwin V, exactly the same disease (to lose one King of Jerusalem to leprosy is unfortunate, to lose two is an obvious plot contrivance). Baldwin V died very young, it’s true, but there’s no evidence he was bumped off by his mum as an extremely pre-emptive mercy killing, as the movie depicts.

More problematic, yet also understandable, is the movie’s portrayal of the major religions involved. There are many more nutters on the Christian side than the Islamic one, and Saladin is portrayed as the civilised, enlightened statesman of popular legend. At the end of the movie he lets the Christian population of Jerusalem walk free – historically, he was rather less generous. Of course, there are perfectly sound reasons for not wanting to annoy Muslims these days, and it’s difficult not to see Kingdom of Heaven as being, on some level, a comment on the state of the modern world. ‘To this day, peace remains elusive in the Kingdom of Heaven,’ states the closing caption, in a masterpiece of understatement.

Well, true enough, but there I think the movie is falling into a trap decried by one modern historian – that of treating the Crusades as somehow emblematic of an age-old, inevitable, irresolvable clash between different philosophies, the start of something which has continued to this day. The Crusades were nearly a millennium ago and no more influential on the modern world than any other event of that time.

Still, it’s not many big-budget Hollywood movies that cause one to engage in this kind of thought process, and this is surely to the movie’s credit. That it does so without neglecting the impressive spectacle and well-mounted violent action one would expect from a movie on this subject only increases my admiration for its achievement. The movie is still fundamentally troubled by the lack of a stronger leading man, but I found the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven a huge improvement over the theatrical version – quite possibly this is now my favourite of all Ridley Scott’s films.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 21st August 2003:

Ah, the buccaneering life! Is there anything more likely to set the heart a-quivering and the bladder a-quaking? A life on the ocean wave, regular plunder, and such interesting hats. Is it any surprise that one of my favourite daydreams involves me mustering my seamen and grabbing some booty? Well, anyway, for all the charm of being a corsair, for the last twenty or thirty years making a movie on this theme has been a surefire way of giving away all your money. This depressing trend has finally been reversed by Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, based on the Disney theme park ride of the same name. (Hopefully the success of this film means we can expect M Night Shymalan’s Little Dipper – based on the Blackpool Pleasure Beach ride – in the not too distant future.)

A reassuringly old-fashioned swashbuckler, Pirates kicks off by introducing the inhabitants of the Caribbean outpost of Port Royal, primarily the overlooked blacksmith’s apprentice Will (Elven poster-boy Orlando Bloom) and the girl he has a bit of a thing for, governor’s daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley, whom you may recall as a striker in Bend It Like Beckham or one of the Amidalettes in Phantom Menace). Inevitably, Elizabeth’s father is not too keen on Will wooing her and is trying to set her up with a snooty English naval officer. Anyway, Elizabeth falls in the sea (quite why this happens isn’t really gone into), which has an odd effect on her stylish Goth medallion, nicked from Will some years earlier while rescuing him from a shipwreck. Fortunately she is rescued by passing pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (an almost indescribably bizarre performance from Johnny Depp), who’s in town trying to steal himself a ship. Unfortunately the medallion attracts the scurvy pirate swabs of Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), who have their own quite unusual reasons for wanting to get their hands on the medallion and its owner…

Well, this is a big, lavish, undeniably spectacular blockbuster, and you’d have to be a tiny bit shrivelled up inside not to find it at least a little agreeable. It has people walking the plank, it has a full-on sea battle between two sets of pirates, it has some very distinguished sword-fighting, and the special effects aren’t bad either (although not up to the standard of the classic Ray Harryhausen sequences they’re clearly a homage to). But these are not what make the film such fun.

What brings the film to life is Johnny Depp’s extraordinary turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, a staggering, swaggering, addle-brained rogue who comes across as a strange hybrid of Gypsy fortune-teller and Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones. He really, really earns his fee, investing every line and movement with a knowingly peculiar twist of some kind, and he’s by far the funniest lead character in a blockbuster for many years – big kudos to Depp for pulling it off, and much respect to the producers for letting him try in the first place. Best of all, it allows the rest of the film to engage in some very off-beat humour without it seeming out of place, and a supporting cast containing many familiar faces from British sitcoms (Mackenzie Crook, Kevin McNally, Jack Davenport) is ideally suited to this kind of material.

And to be honest this gives Pirates a mad energy and distinctiveness it sorely needs. This is a good script, and it’s handsomely mounted, but Verbinski’s direction is rather bland and uninspired (a few CGI shots notwithstanding). With a visionary like Terry Gilliam at the helm this could have been a hilarious, chilling classic – as it is, it’s just a fun night out, a bit overlong, with romantic leads most notable for their good looks and rarely any sense of darkness or danger. Still, a distinctly superior adventure, and you’re never in any doubt as to whom to thank for it.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 27th July 2006:

Hello again everyone, and with the fifth anniversary of this column’s first appearance soon upon us, not to mention another (hopefully temporary) cessation of service not far behind, I thought it would be appropriate to briefly look at the state of cinemas today. Yes, that’s cinemas the buildings, not cinema the art form. I remember the rush of disbelief, verging on awe, when the first multiplex opened in my hometown back in 1989. Ten screens! Ten of them! Five times as many as the existing cinema! Imagine the surprise! Imagine the possibilities! No film would ever struggle to get shown again! In this giant temple to the art of film, there would surely be a place for all styles, all genres – something for everyone! All tastes could be catered to at once!

Well, sort of. Last week my local ten-screen cinema was, on a Saturday afternoon, showing a grand total of four different films. It was just that Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean were each on four screens simultaneously, with Over the Hedge and Just My Luck just about scraping a screen each. It’s almost as if the company was putting profit ahead of catering to varied tastes… oh, hush my cynical mouth!

I have actually been to see Superman and Pirates, cos they’re both my sort of film. The thing is that there are lots of other things which are my sort of film too, but they’re just not profitable enough to warrant multiplex-space these days. Anyway, less whinging and more reviewing: starting with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Oddly enough for a man these days best-known for superhero adaptations (this film and the first two X-pictures), Bryan Singer has cheerfully admitted he didn’t read comics as a boy and isn’t really that familiar with the characters. However he is a big fan of the classic Richard Donner Superman movie. This is very, very obvious to anyone who’s seen both Donner’s movie and Singer’s, because Superman Returns is much more interested in Superman the movie than Superman the character.

The plot is, to put it mildly, straightforward: Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth after a five-year pilgrimage to the remains of his homeworld Krypton. But things have moved on in his absence. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a fiancée (James Marsden) and a toddler. The world has learned to cope without him. It’s enough to give the Man of Steel insecurity issues. But he need not fear, for his baldy nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey enjoying himself) has somewhat implausibly got out of jail and has embarked upon another deranged and cataclysmic real estate scam, which is bound to keep him occupied.

Well, there are many good things that can be said about Superman Returns. It’s a classy production which has clearly been a labour of love for many of those involved in its creation. The new Superman is cleverly cast and likeable, the new Luthor gives a witty performance, the special effects are eyecatching and it has a wonderful score. Unfortunately all these things could just as accurately have been said about the 1978 movie (and most of them probably were). It’s not just that this film doesn’t escape from the shadow of its predecessor, it doesn’t even want to.

This is a shame for all sorts of reasons. Brandon Routh does well in a very, very tough job, but any possibility of his performance not being endlessly compared to that of the late Christopher Reeve is removed by a script which even goes so far as to reprise some of the dialogue of the original film. There’s barely a gag, a beat or a plot twist that isn’t revisited here in some form or other and the tone and style is slavishly reproduced. This is quite a slow film with a lot of special effects sequences but very little action. Back in the 70s, the technology simply wasn’t there to put some of Superman’s more spectacular opponents up on the screen, but the recent Marvel movies have proven this is no longer the case. Bryan Singer’s choice to make this a more mature and stately movie isn’t necessarily wrong, but it does drain the film of a lot of the energy and fun of the comic books.

What’s actually new about Superman Returns is a bit of a mixed bag. For most of its duration, this is a light and almost whimsical movie, which makes the inclusion of some quite brutal violence all the more jarring. James Marsden gets more to do here as the sidekick of a sidekick than he did as leader of the X-Men in three movies combined (but that’s not really much to do with this film). The only central performance that falls down is Kate Bosworth’s, who doesn’t make much impression at all (Jonathan Ross memorably described an appearance by her on his chat show as being like trying to interview a piece of furniture). There is a major and rather startling plot twist which if nothing else strongly implies that either this movie must be in continuity with Superman II or that the writers haven’t read Larry Niven’s classic article Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex. There’s a brief bit near the end that seems inspired by one of the most famous Superman stories of the 1990s, but once again it doesn’t really go anywhere.

Superman has lasted nearly 70 years because the character can be reimagined and reinvented by every new generation of writers, artists and fans. Since the first Donner picture the mythos has effectively been reconstituted as a romantic comedy and a teenage rites-of-passage story, and that’s just on TV. A new Superman for the 21st century has a lot of potential themes to deal with, especially given the character’s status both as global policeman and American icon, and modern effects technology is capable of putting any comic panel up on screen. To make a movie so determinedly backwards-looking strikes me as a massive missed opportunity. This is well-made and entertaining, but it’s not a movie in its own right so much as the longest cover version in history.

Moving on, some good news: Captain Jack is back! But that’s enough about Torchwood. Sticking with the cinema, the unlikely alliance of Walt Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer brings us the appropriately bizarre spectacle of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, directed by Gore Verbinski. The startlingly humungous box-office this little flick has already racked up makes my opinion of it rather surplus to requirements, but looking back I see that’s never stopped me in the past. So…

It must be said this movie presumes heavily upon the viewer either having recently seen the original or possessing a detailed knowledge of it from a large number of not-so-recent viewings (this is a roundabout way of saying there isn’t a recap at the start). The titular receptacle is the possession of mollusc-headed sea-demon Davy Jones (no, not the guy from The Monkees), portrayed by Bill Nighy and a bucketload of CGI effects, and the rather complicated plot revolves around everyone wanting to get their hands on it for various reasons. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, giving what we can probably now safely describe as an iconic performance) wants it because he’s sort of sold his soul to Davy Jones and needs it to bargain with. Will Turner (Landy Bloom) wants it for reasons involving his undead father, whose fate was never quite explained in the first movie. Disgraced toff Norrington (Jack Davenport) wants it to help him regain his station in life. Keira Knightly wanders about the movie as Elizabeth Swann (presumably so named because she’s a bird with a long neck), being almost (but not quite) entirely decorative.

Yeah, I’m not doing a very good job with the synopsis, but then it is terribly complex and takes a long time to get going. (It’s nearly two hours into the movie before the three leads meet up.) Do not let this put you off, should you not have seen this movie, because this is a movie that can definitely be described as a rollicking adventure, with copious amounts of entertainment value. As before, its success is due to a combination of outrageous stunts and effects sequences, eye-catching fantasy and horror, and unexpectedly offbeat humour. Johnny Depp acts Bloom and Knightly off the screen as you’d expect – that’s if ‘acts’ is quite the right word for it — but Nighy is also good value, as usual, and the junior members of the cast do justice to the jokes. Practically everyone from the first movie comes back and gets something interesting to do, which is neat trick, while there is good work from newcomers Stellan Skarsgard, Naomie Harris, and Tom Hollander.

The success of the first film seems to have emboldened its creators because this one ups the ante in virtually every department. Bigger fights and effects! More grotesque fantasy-horror! Even zanier jokes! Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this is that the movie has bloated to a frankly unnecessary two-and-a-half hours in length. It’s never actually slow or dull throughout that time, but one gets a definite feeling that this is still too much of a good thing. It doesn’t help that this film doesn’t actually have a proper ending, stopping instead in mid-plot on a cliffhanger (okay, a pretty good one), setting up next year’s World’s End (which apparently has Chow Yun-Fat in it, Hong Kong fans). Also less than fully satisfying are the writers’ attempts to set the heroic trio at odds with each other — while they effectively underline what an unreliably amoral character Sparrow is, the attempt to create some emotional darkness and genuine character conflict feels a bit of an afterthought, surely to be resolved in the next movie. I would also have commented on how, for a franchise called Pirates of the Caribbean, very little in the way of actual piracy goes on — but very wisely, the writers have beaten me to it by putting a complaint to that effect in the mouth of bandana-loving thespian Kevin McNally. Hey ho…

Readers of long standing may recall that I wasn’t that impressed by Curse of the Black Pearl and I must confess that I didn’t have particularly high hopes for this latest installment. However, despite its faults, I thought this was a hugely entertaining movie, practically perfect popcorn fodder. Its obvious desire to match Lord of the Rings in scale and impact is a bit overambitious, but this is still a remarkably accomplished and witty movie, considering its origins as a theme park ride. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this one, but I am the next.

Well, this week both the man from Krypton and the buccaneers slumped back to a mere three screens apiece, allowing some lesser productions a look-in, and one of these was Geoffrey Sax’s Stormbreaker, a jolly romp of a kids’ film with an all-star cast of talented and much-loved actors and Jimmy Carr.

If James Bond and Harry Potter got together and had a baby… no, hang on, that’s just eurgh. If Ian Fleming and JK Rowling got together and… mmm, that’s nearly as bad. I suspect you’re getting the drift, anyway. Alex Pettyfer plays Alex Rider, an average London schoolboy (average if you’re willing to overlook the fact that he’s clearly about three years older than everyone else in his class). As an orphan, he lives with his uncle (Ewan MacGregor, briefly appearing) and au pair-stroke-housekeeper (Alicia Silverstone, not appearing briefly enough), but this fairly happy existence is shattered when his uncle dies. Alex learns the incredible truth – not only was his uncle a top British spy, but all those adventure holidays and other activities they did together were actually his uncle’s attempts to train him as his replacement!

(Since seeing this film I have wondered if all the things my uncle encouraged me to do when I was younger might have been for a similar reason. But as they mainly revolved around my drinking vast amounts of falling-down water and then lying to his girlfriend when she asked me where he was, I doubt it, unless he had me in mind for a job in the Royal household.)

This is actually quite good news for Alex, as previously he looked more likely to get an ASBO than a licence to kill. Anyway his new bosses (Sophie Okonedo and Bill Nighy, again) pack him off to Wales for survival training (insert your own joke here) and then send him to poke about in the business dealings of peculiar computer tycoon Darrius Sayle (Mickey Rourke, who appears to have had himself varnished and actually wears eyeshadow in most of his scenes). Needless to say Sayle is up to no good and intends to commit a ghastly revenge upon the British people for… well, that’d be telling.

I had vague misgivings about Stormbreaker on the way in, as it’s based on a book by Anthony Horowitz (the brain behind wretched 90s TV sci-fi cock-up Crime Traveller), directed by Geoffrey Sax (who also helmed the shocking American Doctor Who telemovie) and part-funded by the UK Film Council (responsible for a roll-call of terrible movies too grim and lengthy to recount here). Remarkably, however, the collaboration here is a very fruitful and enjoyable one. Unlike the other two films also covered this week, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and zips along very cheerfully with some impressive stunts and action throughout — though while Hong Kong legend Donnie Yen gets a credit as fight choreographer, the actual martial arts stuff isn’t particularly special. (Alicia Silverstone gets a hugely entertaining kung fu fight with Missi Pyle though.)

This is quite cleverly pitched so that, while the kids are enjoying all the teenage wish-fulfillment stuff, the adults can play spot the star cameo (choose from the likes of Andy Serkis, Stephen Fry, and Robbie Coltrane) or, more challengingly, spot the rip-off from the Bond franchise. (Some of these are quite obscure.) The adult cast join in with this sort of thing and the British contingent largely give entertainingly tongue-in-cheek performances. Bill Nighy’s twitchingly neurotic spymaster is particularly good fun. The Americans, on the other hand, just go roaringly over-the-top at all times. The tone of the film is a bit uneven as a result — at first it looks like this is going to have a bit of emotional darkness and reality to it, but in the end it’s not that far removed from a Spy Kids movie. I suppose that’s what you get for including a sequence with an animatronic jellyfish…

All in all, though, this is good fun throughout, provided you don’t pause to consider how insanely implausible it all is. With the proper Bond franchise apparently making one of its regular detours into more gritty and naturalistic territory, there’s a definite gap in the market for this sort of thing and Stormbreaker deserves to find a place amongst the bigger beasts of the summer.

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