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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Strong’

If I didn’t know better, I would say that the international custom of day-and-date releasing – the system whereby films appear on the same date worldwide – had been abolished, for not only is the UK enjoying Alex Garland’s Ex Machina several months before its US debut, but we have also been treated to Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service a couple of weeks before its American premiere. I’ve no idea why we have been granted such a signal honour, given that this is clearly intended to be a major movie: could it simply be the result of most of the principals involved being British themselves? I don’t know.

kingsman

Vaughn directs and co-writes with Jane Goldman, based on a graphic novel scripted by Mark Millar, and prominent among the cast is (hardest working man in showbusiness) Mark Strong. If you feel a faint bell dingling somewhere in your cortical region, it may well be because all these people were also connected with 2010’s Kick-Ass, a lairy and rambunctious take on the superhero genre. Kingsman has the same sort of style and attitude, even if its subject matter is different.

The protagonist is Eggsy (Taron Egerton – yes, that really is his name, apparently), who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a lowlife, living on a London council estate and passing his time squabbling with his thuggish stepfather and doing a little petty crime. (His real father died while serving in the armed forces, when he was but a tot.) Finding himself up on charges, he calls in a favour and is rescued by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), an old comrade of his father, and member of an ultra-sophisticated, ultra-discreet, independent intelligence agency, known as the Kingsmen.

As it happens, a Kingsman mission to rescue kidnapped scientist Professor Arnold (a barely-recognisable Mark Hamill, who was apparently at one point scheduled to be playing himself) has gone terminally bad, leaving a hole in the ranks of the organisation, and Hart puts Eggsy up for the selection process before heading off to investigate. The trail leads to internet billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), who has an evil scheme on the go. Will Eggsy be able to satisfy training boffin Merlin (Strong) and his snobby superior Arthur (Sir Michael Caine, Gawd bless you sir), and join the Kingsmen as they take on Valentine and his henchmen?

With the Bond movies currently locked into ultra-serious mode, there is obviously a gap in the market for a big, daft, crowd-pleasing spy action movie, and I rather suspect Kingsman would like to be it. Certainly, it is stuffed with references, subtle and not so subtle, to classic spy and spy-fi offerings from years gone by: the front for the Kingsman organisation is a tailor’s shop, just like that of UNCLE, while a casual mention of a phone with a shoe in it appears to be a nod to Get Smart. Firth’s performance as a very British superspy, fighting the fight from a mews flat, umbrella in hand, seems to me to be very clearly informed by Patrick Macnee’s John Steed in The Avengers. But, above all, there are the classic Bond films from the 1960s.

There is an excruciatingly knowing sequence in which Firth and Jackson have a pleasant dinner together and discuss how serious and dull the modern spy movie has become, and how much they both enjoyed the old sort, with wacky gadgets and insane supervillains. This is clearly the territory Kingsman is looking to occupy, and there are trick umbrellas, exploding cigarette lighters, and frankly implausible schemes aplenty before the film is out. And yet the film seems reluctant to completely relax and be a simple pastiche of the genre. A repeated line is ‘This ain’t that kind of movie’, which is invariably delivered before one of those genre tropes is subverted.

This for me is the main thing stopping Kingsman from being the piece of jolly, breezy entertainment it clearly wants to be. Half the time it wants to be an old-school spy-fi romp, the rest of the time it insists on undermining and subverting that very genre, usually in way that seems calculatedly transgressive or openly absurd. By the end, proceedings have extended to include international carnage, sex-crazed Scandinavian royalty, a bevy of exploding heads (including, we are invited to assume, those of the entire British Royal Family), and the end of the world occurring to a disco soundtrack, and the sense that this is on some level intended as a bizarre spoof is hard to shake. Yet elsewhere the film is clearly aspiring to moments of genuine gravity and emotion. As a result, it all ultimately feels rather insincere, guided only the script’s instinct for the excessive and outlandish.

I could go on to talk about the film’s colossal inverted snobbery (Eggsy finds himself competing against worthless public schoolboys with names like Digby, Rufus and Hugo for his Kingsman place), cheerful amorality, bafflingly graphic violence, or indeed Taron Egerton’s fairly indifferent performance (I’m struggling to avoid using the word ‘smug’), but I think you get the idea. All in all it’s a bit of a shame, as there are individual moments where Kingsman shows the potential to be every bit as much fun as its premise suggested: needless to say, Michael Caine does exactly what the script requires of him with great aplomb, while Colin Firth shows a very new side to himself in a couple of action sequences (there’s one extraordinary shot where he single-handedly punches, kicks, stabs, detonates, and gun-fus to death about fifty people). Samuel L Jackson manages to find some genuine menace and humour in a character who could just have been silly, while Sofia Boutella is eye-catching as his henchperson (Boutella’s lower legs have been digitally removed and replaced with razor-sharp blades, which if nothing else is a new take on the traditional deformed-villain Bond archetype). Vaughn’s direction is undeniably inventive and energetic, too.

But, very much as in the case of Kick-Ass, Kingsman seems to be so preoccupied with being shocking and cool and cynically funny that it doesn’t really have time to be anything else – or at least anything else new. Once you strip away the violence and class warfare and black humour, what you’re left with bears an eerie resemblance to Stormbreaker, a much more family-friendly spy-fi pastiche from 2006. This is a lot more polished and in some ways cleverer, but I can’t shake the impression that it ultimately seems to have been made by and for teenaged boys, rather than mature human beings. Which is fine if you’re a teenaged boy, but this film could have been a lot more enjoyable for a much wider audience.

 

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‘…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 homosexual… There’s a great film waiting to be made about the station’s contribution to the winning of the Second World War…’

some idiot on the internet in 2001

Well, thirteen years is an extremely long time in cinema, and you can’t keep a good idea down forever. The only question is, just how much credit should I be prepared to take for the eventual appearance of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game? I am prepared to be magnanimous about this, naturally.

turing

The Imitation Game is named after one of the mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing’s landmark papers discussing the potential and nature of artificial intelligence (indeed, for many years Turing was probably best known as the creator of the Turing test, a thought-experiment designed to assess whether an artificial network was truly intelligent or not). Although The Imitation Game is itself only very tangentially about AI, it is still at least the third major release this year (after Her and Transcendence) to be concerned with the topic in some way. Is this indicative of the fact that we have reached some sort of cultural tipping point with respect to AI? Perhaps, perhaps not: as I say, this is fundamentally a film about something else.

On the surface it looks very much like the kind of period drama which the British film industry does so well, for all that this particular project was written by an American and directed by a Norwegian. It is, for one thing, primarily set during the Second World War, an era distant enough to be interesting yet close enough to still be accessible and nostalgic, a time of unambiguous values and comfortingly definite moral certainties.

As the film opens, Britain is struggling to contend with the Nazi war machine, its intelligence effort seriously hampered by the fact that the enemy is using a code system known as Enigma, which is widely held to be completely unbreakable, simply due to the sheer number of possible solutions. Amongst the people interviewing to join the Admiralty’s team working to break Enigma is maths and cryptology prodigy Alan Turing (Cumbersome Bandersnatch). Turing’s social awkwardness and lack of modesty about his considerable intellect do not win him many friends on the project, but he eventually rises to become team leader and sets about putting into operation his plan to break the Enigma system.

This involves building what he terms a Universal Machine – or, as we would call it nowadays, a computer – to run through the millions of possible Enigma solutions at immense speeds. To assist him with this he assembles a group of brilliant linguists, logicians, and crossword-puzzlers, amongst them Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and they set out to change the course of the war…

Running in parallel with this are two other narratives, much more about Turing the man: a boyhood relationship with a fellow pupil at his school, and the circumstances surrounding the police investigation of Turing in the early 1950s, in which the investigating detective (Rory Kinnear) initially believes he has uncovered a Soviet spy, only to realise he has in fact stumbled upon a different kind of secret: that of Turing’s sexuality. The consequences of this are to shape the final years of Turing’s life.

It has to be said that over the last few years, Benedict Cumberbatch has lent himself more to high-profile projects that increase his fanboy (and fangirl)-friendliness, rather than his stature as a serious actor. Sherlock Holmes, Smaug, Khan Noonian Singh (and, it’s rumoured, Doctor Strange) – none of them are exactly the kind of thing you win Oscars for. (Perhaps I’m being unfair – he was, after all, in serious films like The Fifth Estate and Twelve Years a Slave, too.) However, while it initially looks like Turing is a part perilously close to the sort of thing Cumberbatch can do in his sleep (utterly brilliant, socially useless genius), it does allow him the opportunity to give a great movie actor performance. His Turing is believably prodigious when it comes to anything cerebral, but equally at a loss when dealing with people operating on a more everyday level.

However, while the movie is undoubtedly Cumberbatch’s, its success is also due to the strength of the performances across the board. There’s a nice ensemble performance from the team of cryptographers which Turing finds himself in command of, with Matthew Goode the most prominent of these, while Charles Dance is on top form as the naval commander who initially employs Turing and rapidly grows to hate his most gifted underling. Doing typically excellent work, also, is Mark Strong, here playing the MI6 officer overseeing the Bletchley Park project. Keira Knightley, perhaps inevitably, struggles to make the same kind of impression in a part which is perhaps slightly underwritten, but she certainly has nothing to be ashamed of.

The script is complex and manages to tell an intricate story well, although it did seem to me that it could have gone a bit more into the detail of how Turing’s machine actually operated in breaking the Enigma cipher (sorry, should have said there would be spoilers): thoughtful and mature though the film is, it still feels as though it’s shying away from really delving into the mechanics of the codebreaking effort in favour of a more accessible human story. Perhaps this is understandable, given this is a drama rather than a historical documentary.

I also found myself feeling a little disappointed by the closing stages of the film: it peaks with Turing’s great triumph, the breaking of the Enigma codes, and the intelligence effort which followed – the decisions as to how much information the Allies could utilise without revealing to the Nazis that their system had been compromised – is somewhat passed over. There was the potential there for a very thought-provoking and serious drama, hardly any of which is utilised.

Then again, this is the story of Turing the man, not his machines or the projects which he oversaw. It is gratifying that someone of such singular gifts, who made such an unparalleled contribution to preserving our way of life, is finally receiving his due acknowledgement. You can perhaps criticise The Imitation Game for not going deeply enough into Turing’s codebreaking work, or his pioneering of computer science, or his invention of mathematical biology. You can criticise it for rewriting history or glossing over Turing’s sexuality (which is spoken of but never really depicted). But the fact remains that this, finally, is a film actually about Alan Turing, and a prestigious and very well-made one too. An important film in many ways, and well worth seeing.

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Summer is officially over. How do I know? Easy: they are starting to release Colin Firth movies again. Fine actor though he is, Mr Firth’s essential Englishness takes an idiosyncratic form, in that he never seems to come out in the sun (not unlike myself, I suppose). In one of those quirks of production and release, a veritable flock of Firth movies is on the horizon: he’s in this year’s Woody Allen, due out in a few weeks, and slightly further off he turns up in Matthew Vaughn’s new comic-book adaptation, too. Right now, however, he is appearing in Rowan Joffe’s Before I Go To Sleep, based on the book by SJ Watson.

before

It would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is a full-on Colin Firth vehicle like The King’s Speech, however, as once again he is essentially giving support to the leading lady (though a chick-flick this probably isn’t). On this occasion the top-billed star is Nicole Kidman, deploying a fairly solid English accent to match the movie’s greater London setting.

Kidman (adopting vaguely unflattering hair for the occasion) plays Christine, a youngish woman with a peculiar problem. (I say youngish because the film, for no very necessary reason, repeatedly states she is 40, a fair few years younger than the actress herself. Hmmm.) Following a traumatic incident in her past, she is afflicted with one of those rare and discriminating forms of amnesia most often to be found in movies: every night her memory resets, erasing the previous day’s recollections and leaving her with no idea of who or where she is.

Luckily the first person she meets every day (Firth, who has very good hair for his age now I think about it) is able to fill her in on minor details such as her name, who he is (Ben, her husband), what exactly is going on, and so on.

However, unbeknownst to Ben, Christine has embarked on a new course of therapy – or so it seems, anyway. A man (Mark Strong, who… well, you can’t have everything, can you) calls her up every morning claiming to be Dr Nasch, her neuropsychologist, and reminding her of the existence of a digital camera she is using as a sort of external back-up memory.

Naturally all this is very confusing to Christine, whose Movie Amnesia means that she has to take a lot of what she hears on trust. It just makes things worse when the things that Ben tell her seem not to tally with those she hears from Dr Nasch – Ben claims she was injured in a car accident, but according to the doctor she was the victim of a savage beating from an unknown assailant. Is everyone being completely straight with her? And can she possibly uncover the truth about her past?

Well, long-term moviewatchers will already know that the answers to these questions are ‘Almost certainly not’ and ‘Very probably’, for this wouldn’t be much of a thriller otherwise. And a thriller is ultimately what this is – the kind of mid-budget genre movie I seem to remember watching rather a lot when I first started reviewing movies on the internet (so watching Before I Go To Sleep was an oddly nostalgic experience for me). That said, the presence of a quality cast like this one means that the dramatic and emotional elements of the story have obviously been beefed up, possibly to the point where they could be accused of milking it a bit.

Overall, though, we’re in a vaguely Hitchcockian territory, even if I can’t help thinking Hitch would have made the movie a bit more intense a bit earlier. Everything starts off fairly low-key and naturalistic, which gives you plenty of time to mull over what you’re being presented with. I have to say that well within the first ten minutes I was thinking ‘this is utterly preposterous, no way would normal people possibly be capable of behaving this way’, but – very much to the film’s credit – by the time the closing credits roll, everything that had occurred seemed a lot more credible.

The nature of the film requires that Firth and Strong engage in a sort of contest to see who can be the most understatedly sinister, which is a lot of fun (hard to pick a winner, by the way) but the focus is very much on Kidman for most of the film. In keeping with the wintry, claustrophobic atmosphere of the film, Kidman gives a performance based pretty much on a single note of fraught, brittle anxiety. Christine spends most of the movie as a passive victim, which put together with some male-on-female violence might make this film problematic for some viewers – naturally she gets her own back, to a degree, before proceedings are concluded.

It took me a while to warm up to Before I Go To Sleep, mainly due to the mismatch between the film’s rather contrived and unlikely premise and its downbeat and serious style, but the strong performances of the three leads, coupled to a bravura twist at the end of the second act, eventually won me over. I think an actual winter release would have suited it better, simply because I’m not sure people are in quite the right mood for such an intense, intimate movie, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a solidly entertaining piece of film-making.

 

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It sometimes feels like the world is full of awkward truths, facts that you would really give anything not to have to acknowledge, but ones that decency and integrity eventually and inevitably require you to. If you are a Star Wars fan you have to reach some sort of accommodation with the first two prequels; if you love Richard Wagner’s operas you have to acknowledge the noxious racial prejudice underlying much of his greatest work. And if you are an admirer of Jason Statham you have to accept that he started his movie career working for Guy Ritchie and ended up starring in the director’s Revolver.

revolver

In the past I’ve made various jokes along the lines of ‘I’ve never seen a really bad Jason Statham movie – but then I haven’t watched Revolver yet, har har’. I really shouldn’t have, but then my thought processes ran (rather naively) along the lines of ‘everyone involved appears to be at least vaguely competent, and this is a fairly big movie – film studios aren’t stupid, there’s a limit to quite how bad it can be’. Oh, boy.

Revolver was released in the first half of 2005 and so dates back to that period when Jason Statham wasn’t quite perceived as a star who could carry a movie on his own (I think this started to happen after the success of Transporter 2 and Crank, not that it matters). Certainly the essential Jason Statham characterisation has yet to fully crystallise at this point, and he is magnificently coiffed and moustachioed in this film too.

Anyway, in Revolver Mr Statham plays Jake Green, a shady character not long out of prison and intent on revenge on the gangster he holds responsible for putting him there, Macha (Ray Liotta). During his time in prison Green has learnt something only referred to as the Formula, a system which makes him utterly invincible at any game or confidence trick. It appears that this even extends to playing heads-or-tails, and if you can’t get your head around how that could possibly work, walk away now (you will beat the rush if nothing else).

Having taken Macha for a sizeable chunk of cash, Green is dismayed to learn he is terminally ill and has only three days left to live (look, just don’t ask; just let it wash over you, all right?). He agrees to an offer from two mysterious loan sharks (Andre Benjamin and Vincent Pastore) who will save his life in exchange for all his money and a sort of indentured servitude. Reluctantly he agrees.

And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot of Revolver; not because there are various twists and surprises which I am loth to spoil (I suppose there are), but because for most of the rest of the movie I didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on. Some drugs get stolen and there’s a half-hearted attempt at a gang war, there are various cons within cons, Ray Liotta walks around a lot in his pants (even in the buff, for one dismaying scene), there is blood, mayhem, an awful lot of effing and jeffing, everyone worries a lot about a mysterious character called Mr Gold who doesn’t seem to actually appear in the film, and so on. But what you mainly get is Jason Statham doing a voice-over as Jake Green’s interior monologue.

Jake Green has a lot to say for himself through his interior monologue. Unfortunately – and you may be ahead of me here – what he has to say for himself is almost complete gibberish, mostly related to his mysterious Formula and the life lessons he has derived from it.

It’s not the case that Revolver has a complex plot which is just realised through poor storytelling. Revolver has an allegorical and symbolic plot, the deeper meaning of which remains almost entirely impenetrable simply through watching the film. Various numbers appear prominently at certain points, while colours are clearly also significant – not only do we have key players named Green and Gold, but some scenes are flooded with red or blue or white.

My understanding is that the key to attempting to make sense of Revolver is an appreciation of kabbalah, a Jewish-derived numerological system which Guy Ritchie was heavily into at the time he made the film. Quite how much of this interest derived from Ritchie’s then-wife Madonna, who is apparently a dead-keen kabbalah nut herself, I don’t know, but it’s very difficult not to jump to conclusions. (As an aside, one can’t help but be rather impressed by the way that Madonna managed to spectacularly wreck Ritchie’s directorial career even when she wasn’t personally appearing in his films. She clearly has some sort of extraordinary death-touch when it comes to anything involving the silver screen.)

Well, anyway, I don’t know the first thing about kabbalah, and neither, I suspect, does Jason Statham, which may explain why he is obviously floundering around in this film, basically resorting to just snarling and sweating a lot while his interior monologue plays over the top. This film is light on action and the kind of snappy dialogue Statham can usually deliver so well – to be honest, it’s light on everything except a sort of studied pretension. Not only is it virtually impossible to tell what the director is trying to say, it’s also impossible to tell just where the film is even supposed to be taking place – British, American, and Chinese characters mingle together almost at random.

Suffice to say this film is extremely hard work, with virtually no entertainment value beyond the background hum derived from seeing Jason Statham on screen. Mark Strong appears as a slightly nerdy hitman and achieves the minor miracle of making his scenes rather gripping – this, I remind you, in a context where unsympathetic and obscure characters do abstract things for no apparent reason and various major plot questions are never even acknowledged, let alone answered. But apart from Statham and Strong this is just awful, pretentious, obscure, nasty tripe.

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Well, the continuation of global civilisation and weather permitting, I’m trundling off to watch Kick-Ass 2 at some point in the next few days and this seems as logical a time as any to share my thoughts about the original 2010 film, directed by Matthew Vaughn. I have been promising a review for a couple of years now, but as it took me quite a long time to catch up with the actual movie this delay is not entirely inappropriate.

kass

I believe I saw the first trailer for the film, which ran before Avatar in 2009, and thought something like ‘That looks a bit different,’ but when it actually came out I was in Sri Lanka and quite probably several thousand miles from a decent English-language cinema. I do recall turning up a copy of the Daily Mail on the flight home in which the resident critic complained about being ‘cyber-bullied’ after describing it as ‘a crime against cinema’ and morally inexcusable.

Normally I would give a very favourable hearing to anything with the ability to get the Daily Mail so upset, but by the time I was back in the UK the film’s theatrical run was coming to an end and I basically had a tough call to make: see Kick-Ass, or Iron Man 2. Now in retrospect, one of these films is much more interesting (and arguably more accomplished) than the other, but I was still smarting after not seeing the original Iron Man in English (I was in Italy when it came out – a pattern develops) and made a bad call.

Eventually I got it on DVD, and when I sat down and watched it I found it to be… well, it’s a very well-made film, but also a rather strange and not entirely unproblematic one. Permit me to explain.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as I believe we are now obliged to refer to him) plays Dave Lizewski, a nondescript New York teenager who – for no particular reason other than a vague sense of moral outrage – decides to become the masked vigilante Kick-Ass. The fact that his initial efforts usually result in his being severely beaten or almost killed do not dissuade him.

However, Kick-Ass has timed his venture into superherodom poorly, for long-suffering crime boss Frank D’Amico (hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong) is finding his operation under attack from a masked man who is keeping a much lower profile. Frank, not unreasonably, jumps to the conclusion that Kick-Ass is actually his persecutor, and with the aid of his son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) sets about laying his hands on him…

Well, here’s the big question about Kick-Ass, if you ask me: just exactly what kind of film is it supposed to be? Is it a straightforward  superhero adventure? Is it a parody of the genre, or a very dark comedy-drama? It’s really difficult to be certain because at different points it seems to be trying to be all these different things.

The thing is, that if you just look at the main storyline about Kick-Ass himself, it’s almost purely an exercise in adolescent male wish-fulfilment, presented unironically: by putting on his costume Dave eventually becomes famous and popular and lands himself a hot girlfriend (Lyndsy Fonseca). All right, he does describe himself as ‘a useless dick in a costume’ at one point (which strikes me as being pretty much on the money) and he does spend most of the film almost getting killed, but in the end he is victorious and gets pretty much everything he wants. A lot of the initial reviews of Kick-Ass focussed on the violence and profanity of the film, both of which are far beyond what you’d see in – for example – a Marvel Studios film, but if you look past that this is fundamentally one of the most conventional superhero films to be released in recent years. If anything it’s a pastiche rather than a parody, and the scenes with Dave himself aren’t really funny enough for it work as a comedy.

On the other hand, the scenes with Nicolas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz as other crimefighters Big Daddy and Hit-Girl genuinely are darkly funny, mainly due to the dissonance between their clear devotion to one another as father and daughter, and their equal obsession with guns and violence. Cage’s performance is way out there, but it still just about works, while Moretz is also very good. I think it’s fair to say that Hit-Girl is the character from this movie who everyone remembers, and that’s not simply because she’s an eleven-year-old gun-toting masked vigilante.

Of course, I suppose we need to at least address the question of all the various scenes in which Hit-Girl swears like a trooper and gorily disposes of dozens of bad guys. It’s certainly not the case that she’s intentionally being presented as a sexualised character, which is one of the Daily Mail‘s main problems with the film, but on the other hand you’ve got a pre-teenaged girl being presented as, basically, a killing machine, and the film’s attitude seems to be ‘Hey, isn’t this cool?’ For the most part the film is so dynamic, and the action well-enough choreographed, for this not to be a problem, but I did find the climactic scenes in which Moretz and Strong violently take each other on a little troubling to watch.

I suppose if I had to sum up my issues with Kick-Ass, it would be that whole ‘Hey, isn’t this cool?’ thing. There is the odd, sometimes slightly sentimental moment of genuine idealism, emotion or poignancy, but the rest of the time it’s much more about what’s cool, or transgressively funny: I suppose I would say it’s a bit too cynical for my tastes. That said, Vaughn directs with his usual flair and energy and the script hangs together quite well. As I said, this is an impressively assembled piece of work, I’m just a bit dubious about the sentiment behind it.

Haven’t seen Kick-Ass 2 yet, as I say, but what the hell, I’ll make some predictions: it’ll be much, much more about Hit-Girl (and it’ll be interesting to see how they address the fact that Moretz has, um, matured a bit in the last three years), the transgressive stuff will be more OTT, and it’ll be trying even harder to have its cake and eat it by claiming to be some sort of ironic commentary on superhero stories while actually being a very down-the-line example of one. We shall see.

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I don’t think there are any directors whose work I will avoid on principle (though these days Quentin Tarantino comes close – ironic, given he was just about the first director I really became aware of as a personality), but there are a few whose films I will go to see just on the strength of their name. These days I find Kathryn Bigelow to be one of them, which is why I trundled along to see Zero Dark Thirty.

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I must confess that my liking for Bigelow stems mainly from the superior genre movies she was making in the 1980s and 90s – Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days, and so on. This century, however, Bigelow seems to have become a purveyor of serious dramas based on historical events – although the events in question seem to be becoming increasingly contemporary: following 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker, set in the 1950s, we had 2009’s The Hurt Locker, set in 2003, and now Zero Dark Thirty, filmed within a year of the events depicted in its climax. At this rate Bigelow’s next film will be a rugged prediction of the near future, which should be interesting.

Anyway: Zero Dark Thirty, which is apparently armyspeak for half-past midnight. This is a somewhat fictionalised account of the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Central to the story is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent who has basically devoted her entire career to tracking down the al-Qaeda leadership. This involves much painstaking research, use of electronic and human intelligence, and a degree of persuading prisoners to tell her things against their will.

There’s no getting around the fact that this is a movie that depicts representatives of the US government torturing captives. Most of the first twenty minutes of the film are devoted to the routine interrogation of a prisoner by Maya’s colleague Dan (Jason Clarke), who their captive describes as ‘an animal’, possibly with some justification. However, to simply describe this as ‘the CIA torture movie’ is to be overly simplistic.

It’s just one element of a long and intimidatingly dense narrative, chopped up into a number of chapters, and set in several different countries. The studio are apparently marketing this as an action thriller but it contains few of the incidental moments of suspense and violence that you’d expect from that kind of film. Nor does it really have a familiar narrative structure for one to latch onto, which may be a case of a film staying close to the truth at the expense of its storytelling – there’s one brief sequence concerning a character played by Jennifer Ehle which does stay much closer to the standard playbook, and which for me had somewhat more suspense than the rest of it. On the other hand, the film commendably avoids a sensationalist approach and triumphalism.

Either way, it’s helped by Bigelow’s typically accomplished direction and a script which ensures you can always follow the melody of the story even when not all the lyrics are completely clear. And it’s filled with good performances, from Chastain, Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, and others. Better known names pop up as more senior establishment figures – hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong pops up as, basically, the CIA’s head of assassinations, while Stephen Dillane and James Gandolfini also appear. All well and good, but rather more unexpected and distracting is a brief cameo from John Barrowman as some sort of analyst. Couldn’t get a part in Les Mis, John?

Despite all this good stuff, I still found this quite a hard film to properly engage with, and this was largely due to the approach taken by the script. Zero Dark Thirty has drawn a lot of flak for endorsing torture as an intelligence-gathering technique, but to me it seemed that the film simply doesn’t take a position on this – it reports the CIA use of torture as a fact, nothing more. The US administration’s move away from the use of these kind of methods is reflected in the script, but again without any kind of moral judgement being made. And this is a theme which continues throughout the film, as it is framed in such a way as to avoid looking at the wider issues raised by the story. Did the CIA’s eventual killing of Bin Laden have any measurable effect on terrorist activity around the world? If not, what was the point of it? What, for that matter, was the justification for the shoot-to-kill protocol adopted by the members of the assault team?

To be fair, the film does imply that both Maya and the USA have, in their own ways, developed a fixation on Bin Laden verging on the obsessive. But this is the softest of grace notes in the overall film. As a historical document the film is interesting and involving, but it’s not necessarily a comfortable one or satisfying one. This is a big, important story, but most of the time the film refuses to engage with it on any level beyond that simply of the events unfolding. According to its own rules of engagement, Zero Dark Thirty is an impressive film – but those rules are much more limited than they surely needed to be.

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The modern world being what it is, it’s quite hard to completely miss a movie that you genuinely want to see – unless you’re living in rural Sri Lanka or the wilds of central Asia, I suppose. But it can still be done. Towards the end of 2007, posters started going up in the language school in Tokyo where I was working at the time, advertising Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust (I’ve no idea why the school was promoting the movie – some sort of targeted Anglophile campaign, I expect), which was due out there early the next year. Due to leave Japan in December, I already knew that, due to the lengthy gap between the European and Japanese release of most non-blockbuster films (over 18 months in the case of Slither), I would already have missed Stardust in the UK. But such is life.

However, I was delighted to see that Stardust was one of the featured in-flight movies on the plane from Narita to Copenhagen. I hate flying long-haul and this promised to take the edge off the eleven-hour journey. Unfortunately, I had reckoned without the idiosyncratic way SAS organise their onboard entertainment. Most airlines have a system where you choose the movie, push a button, and it plays from the start for you. Not our Scandinavian friends: each movie played on a continuous loop on its own channel throughout the flight, and to see the whole thing in the right order you had to be lucky and tune in at just the right moment when the film was starting. Needless to say luck was not with me that day, and not only did I miss seeing Stardust, I missed seeing it about five times. This has rankled with me ever since and I was recently pleased to finally catch up with the damn thing.

This is not so much a fantasy movie as a full-on fairy tale. Charlie Cox plays Tristan, a young man of unusual parentage living in Victorian England. His village adjoins a gateway to another world, but everyone seems to take that in their stride. But when a girl with whom Tristan is infatuated (Sienna Miller) reveals she is planning to marry another, Tristan vows to enter the other world and retrieve a fallen star (which has taken on the form of Claire Danes), in the hope that this will make her choose him instead.

However, the star has fallen as part of the machinations of the dying king of the other world (Peter O’Toole, briefly), who is setting a challenge to determine which of his sons will succeed him – the wise money is on the ruthless Septimus (hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong). Whoever finds the star will be the new king. As if that weren’t enough to worry about, the star is also being hunted by a trio of witches led by the vicious Lamia, played by Michelle Pfeiffer – for me this piece of casting had the same whiff of ‘British movie imports slightly past-it American star’ about it as, for example, Andie McDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, simply because Pfeiffer doesn’t work very much these days, but I’m probably being unfair. That’s her choice, after all: she’s certainly perfectly fine here.

Well, would anyone be really shocked to learn that as they get to know each other in the course of their adventures, Tristan and the star find their initial distaste for each other considerably mellowing? Thought not. I found Stardust to be a fun film, and sometimes very funny indeed, but difficult to get a grip on. The combination of classic fairy tale tropes with a modern rom-com structure is just one example of the way in which the film slips and slithers about, never quite being what you expect from one moment to the next.

This is, of course, based on a Neil Gaiman novel (he’s also credited as producer). I am, mutatis mutandis, a fan of Gaiman’s work, and the writers of Stardust (Vaughn and Jane Goldman) have worked hard to ensure it sits easily within the canon. Gaiman’s schtick, to the extent that he has one, is to combine classic story themes and ideas with a modern, often knowing sensibility – taking them seriously but not often sending them up. But while it’s smart and funny, Stardust is really lacking in the darkness it probably needs to convince as a genuine fairy tale – much of the time it’s desperately whimsical, occasionally bordering on the twee. It should really be as annoying as hell and the fact that it isn’t is to Vaughn’s credit.

So it’s not quite a parody – the makers of this film are quite probably sick of having it compared to The Princess Bride, but that’s the closest thing to it. I suppose there are also elements from Terry Gilliam films in there too, and I wasn’t surprised to learn he was involved with the project at one point. If Matthew Vaughn doesn’t quite put his own stamp on it, he still does a good job both as writer and director, for this is a film with a definite vision.

Quite who it’s aimed at, I’m not sure – I suspect young children will find some of the story a bit dull and not get many of the jokes, while adults may find the whole thing a bit too sweet and precious and silly for their tastes. I imagine it will probably do very well with a certain type of teenage girl.

Perhaps I am overstating this, as there are lots of good things here for all kinds of people to enjoy: a satisfying, understatedly clever plot, good art direction, and there are some brilliantly orchestrated sequences – the voodoo swordfight being a particular standout. Most of the acting is, shall we say, not especially nuanced, but none the worse for that, with only a few performances that really make you grimance – Robert de Niro takes an axe to his own reputation once again with a deeply peculiar turn as a gay transvestite pirate (another weird tonal choice), Ricky Gervais is, well, Ricky Gervais, as usual, and, above all…

Well, look, I haven’t seen Claire Danes in a lot of stuff – just Romeo + Juliet and Terminator 3 (and I had to check her filmography for both of them) – but I don’t remember her being too bad in either film. Here, though, she gives a strangely over-animated performance that’s deeply distracting. There’s a moment where she has to deliver a lengthy monologue declaring her undying love to a small furry animal, and it’s one of the oddest pieces of screen acting I can recall – eyes rolling, eyebrows waggling, emphasising the dialogue a bit too much. It’s a bit like watching Al Pacino at his least restrained, or the Haitian puppet theatre.

In the end, though, Stardust was worth the wait. The whole thing is as light and insubstantial as a feather, and probably wholly unbefitting of serious analysis (please disregard previous 1182 words), but it’s fun and clever and only infrequently irritating. I would be interested to see a Neil Gaiman movie that was true to the darker elements that feature in his work, but in terms of handling the notes that come from his upper register, Stardust does a pretty good job.

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