Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Matt Damon’

The continents drift along in their stately way, the zodiac processes across the heavens, and the cinematic calendar continues its own slow evolution. When I first got into this ‘paying serious attention to cinema’ game, it was all much simpler: you had serious movies as the majority of releases right up until Oscar Night, at which point the more lightweight fare and genre movies would pop up to fill the gap until the big blockbusters appeared round about the time of Memorial Day in the States. These days, of course, everything is up in the air: the genre movies have been joined by blockbusters much earlier in the year, some of them even before the Oscars have been handed out. It doesn’t help matters that the line between the two appears to become a bit blurred – was Deadpool a genre film or an aspiring blockbuster? How about the imminent Logan, or the new King Kong movie?

Or, for that matter, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall? The film’s $150 million budget, along with the presence of an A-lister like Matt Damon, would seem to suggest a film with the biggest of ambitions. Set against that, on the other hand, is… well, decide for yourself.

great-wall

The film appears to be set around the 11th century, and opens with European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) leading a small group of adventurers into the remote wilds of the east. (Pascal is allowed to use his native Spanish accent, Damon attempts a rather optimistic, not to mention variable, Irish brogue.) Things look grim when the rest of their party is killed by a weird and mysterious beastie, and hostile local horsemen drive the duo onwards until they encounter something awesome – the imposing sight of the Great Wall of China (which still isn’t visible from space in the 11th century, despite what everyone says)!

The Wall is manned by a huge force of soldiers, apparently getting ready to enact some serious slaughter, but exactly what’s going on is not immediately clear, not least because the only senior officer who speaks English, Commander Lin (Jing Tian), is clearly suspicious of them. Her concerns are quite justified, as the Europeans have only come to China to steal the recipe for gunpowder – nor are they the first, for hanging around the place handing out exposition is Ballard (Willem Dafoe), survivor of a previous expedition with the same aim.

It turns out that the Great Wall is being manned to fend off an invasion of monsters which (the subtitles assure me) are called the Tao Te, a terrifying horde which arises once or twice every century to eat everything in their path. If the monsters are able to overrun the wall and devour the population of the Chinese capital, they will be well-fed enough to conquer the world! Things look bleak – can William put aside his mercenary, capitalistic principles long enough to join forces with the Chinese warriors in a proper piece of collective effort?

This is another one of those films which has received a bit of a savaging from the Diversity Enforcers, on the grounds that it supposedly perpetuates a slightly dodgy trope where a Caucasian protagonist swoops in to save the day for a bunch of incompetent supporting characters of a different ethnicity – the so-called White Saviour stereotype. On paper, you can see why this could be so, but I would argue that fears of this sort are groundless, for two main reasons.

Firstly, the film is largely the work of Chinese film-makers, with the distinguished director Zhang Yimou in charge, and Matt Damon is in this film for basically the same reason that Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen showed up in the last stellar conflict franchise brand extension (it shares one of the same writers, by the way) – to guarantee global ticket sales. The Caucasian presence is a business decision, not anything ideological.

And, secondly, IT’S MATT DAMON ON TOP OF THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA FIGHTING ALIEN MONSTERS WITH A BOW AND ARROW. GET A GRIP ON YOURSELVES AND STOP TAKING THIS FILM SO SERIOUSLY. I mean, really. There’s a time and a place to get righteously indignant, but doing it with this film just makes you look silly.

When word of The Great Wall first reached me, the impression I received was that this was going to be a genuine historical epic, supposedly concerning the fate of some of the Roman soldiers captured by Parthia at the battle of Carrhae in 53BC, who ended up working as mercenaries on the Chinese border. It’s one of the great ‘could it have happened…?’ stories of history, with some tantalising evidence (there is, for instance, apparently a village in western China where, once in a generation, a child is born with curly hair, as those Italian genes resurface). Needless to say, if this was ever the case, it ain’t true now, for this is… this is…

Actually, I’m genuinely unsure what kind of film this is supposed to be. It starts off not a million miles away from The Man Who Would Be King, in terms of the two main European characters and the tone of their relationship. But as soon as we reach the Wall itself, with its battalions of primary-coloured troop-types and CGI as far as the eye can see, it starts turning into something rather less interesting and more superficial. And once the major VFX sequences start rolling, with Starship Troopers-style swarms of monsters scuttling over the horizon (the script suggests these may genuinely be aliens), and female soldiers bungee-jumping off the top of the Wall to stab the monsters with spears… well, it’s like a cross between some kind of garish computer game and a comic book, and not an especially interesting one.

The characterisation is pretty thin, the CGI about as persuasive as Damon’s Irish accent, and it has none of the class or sophistication of the other films I’ve seen from Zhang Yimou, for all that it has the same underlying principles and fascination with colour as movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers – I’m kind of reminded of Ang Lee’s Hulk, as another example of a director best known as an art-house darling taking a crack at something much more mainstream and just not quite being able to hack it. Not that this is Matt Damon’s finest hour, either: there may be a Chinese expression that describes just how far out of his comfort zone Damon visibly is for most of this film, but it certainly doesn’t exist in English.

To be honest, this looks like the kind of knowingly silly, CGI-heavy piece of fluff that should be starring a wrestler or possibly Gerard Butler, so the presence in it of proper actors is one of the most bemusing things about it (Andy Lau is also in the cast, by the way). But it’s just an odd, odd film overall, not really compelling as an American action movie or a Chinese fantasy. It neither convinces nor persuades, nor does it grip or thrill. But on the other hand, it’s mostly just silly rather than being actually bad, and of all the great walls currently being unleashed on the world, this is not the one people should really be complaining about.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

So, DC are releasing an antihero-themed wannabe-blockbuster and there’s a new Bourne sequel with Matt Damon in the cinema too: cripes, it’s like I’m back in August 2004 all over again. (I wonder if it’s possible to leave myself a note not to bother going to see Transformers? Somehow I doubt it.) I suppose this is a timely reminder that some things never really change.

bourne5

I suppose the key thing this time around is that Jason Bourne is the first film about that character in nine years, Damon, director Paul Greengrass, and Bourne himself all having excused themselves from participating in Tony Gilroy’s rather disappointing crack at a Bourne-free Bourne movie, 2012’s The Bourne Legacy. As I always seem to be saying, it took me a while to warm up to this series, and my review of the original 2002 movie is virtually the textbook case of my getting it very wrong indeed, but the prospect of a new outing from this team was always going to be a very enticing one.

Many years have passed since Bourne’s disappearance (the film appears to be set in 2015, but there is a degree of elastic movie time going on here – Bourne’s birth year is given as 1978, which is somewhat flattering to the 45-year-old Matt Damon, but it also seems to suggest that Bourne was going around topping folk in his early twenties, which somehow feels rather implausible) and a new generation of iffy projects is being cultivated by the top brass at the CIA. Determined to stop this, the CIA computers are hacked by Bourne’s old associate/handler Nicky (Julia Stiles) who downloads key files on his recruitment. The two of them hook up in riot-torn Athens, with the stolen files perhaps offering Bourne a way to reconnect with the world and find a reason for living beyond simply beating people up. But the CIA is determined to protect its secrets and mobilises its full array of resources against them…

Well, if you liked the previous Damon/Greengrass Bourne films you’re probably going to like this one, too. There is a sense in which it perhaps feels a bit formulaic in terms of the way the plot develops, but not to the point where it seriously impairs the film as a piece of serious entertainment. After the resounding phrrppp of the Jeremy Renner movie, it’s actually quite reassuring and cosy to find a film which hits so many of the familiar series beats: beady-eyed CIA analysts poised over computers, ‘Bring the Asset on-line,’ internet cafes, Matt Damon stalking purposefully out of airports and railway stations, ‘Eyes on target’, some wistful cor anglais during the character beats, a spectacularly destructive final chase sequence, Bourne displaying the kind of ability to soak up punishment normally only associated with Captain Scarlet or possibly Popeye the Sailor, Extreme Ways playing over the closing credits and so on. It doesn’t even matter that much that most of the characters are basically stock figures by this point – there is the grizzled CIA veteran (Tommy Lee Jones this time), the ambitious young operator (Alicia Vikander this time), and the fearsomely professional rival assassin whom Bourne is clearly going to have to engage in a deadly contest of skills at some point (Vincent Cassel this time).

I would happily turn up to any film featuring all these things, but the thing about the Bourne films was that they always had a bit more about them than the average action thriller, and the question is whether the new film has any reason to exist other than to profitably rehash elements of a well-regarded film franchise. Well, the jury is still thinking about that one, I suspect, for the plot of the film feels ever so slightly slapped together: the first two thirds are primarily about Bourne’s own past and his father’s hitherto-unsuspected role in the creation of the Treadstone Project, which feels more or less natural and justified – but for the final act and the climax they segue into an essentially unconnected plotline about internet privacy and the CIA infiltrating social network providers. This is the kind of hot-button topic that Paul Greengrass is clearly strongly drawn to, but it is a bit of a wrench given what precedes it, to say nothing of the fact that this kind of malevolent ubiquitous cyber-surveillance was the underwhelming Maguffin at the heart of SPECTRE, too.

I mean, this is still a superbly accomplished thriller, and miles better than the Renner movie, even if the major set pieces aren’t quite as stupendous as the ones in the previous films. The thing is that it doesn’t feel like it has the heart and soul of those films – it’s kind of searching for a reason to exist, which I suppose is Bourne’s own quest, but even so. As I said, it all feels just a little bit like a remix of the Bourne series’ greatest hits, something rather formulaic. Luckily, it’s a brilliant formula, and the result is a very satisfying piece of entertainment. The problem is that it’s inevitably going to draw comparisons with two of the very best thrillers of the last 15 years, and it simply isn’t quite up to the same standard. It says something about the older movies when the fact that this one is only a very good thriller qualifies as a disappointment.

Read Full Post »

Rather unexpectedly, we seem to have found ourselves in the middle of an Officially Recognised Golden Age of Space Movies (if only there was a convenient way of referring to it suitable for a family readership). Even NASA seem to have cottoned on to this, timing their recent press announcement of the discovery of salt water on Mars to coincide with a peak of media interest in the red planet – mostly courtesy of Ridley Scott and his chums, whose new movie The Martian is hitting screens even as I type.

martian

Ridley Scott’s track record when it comes to SF movies is… well, let’s just say I’m less of a fan of them than many people, but even so they are invariably never less than interesting to watch, and I’ve been a bit of a sucker for hard SF about Mars since reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Trois Coleurs trilogy many years ago. And one should always make the best of a golden age of anything while it lasts.

Based on Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian opens with an American mission already in situ, commanded by Jessica Chastain and featuring a number of moderately well-known faces (Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, that sort of people) amongst the crew. Inclement Martian weather (i.e. a colossally violent sandstorm) forces an early evacuation of their outpost, but in the chaos mission botanist Matt Damon is struck by flying debris. With all contact lost, Chastain is forced to leave without him, believing him dead.

However – spoiler alert – Matt Damon is not dead, just resting, and accepts that he is effectively Home Alone on Mars with good grace, once he has finished stapling himself back together. A spot of DIY hydroponics provides him with a food supply of sorts, but the fact remains: NASA and the folks back on Earth remain blissfully unaware of his survival, and it’s a long walk home…

Well, it’s an unfortunate fact that Matt Damon’s service record when it comes to long-haul one-man deep space missions is not entirely unblemished, even when Jessica Chastain is involved, but even so, this is the kind of movie which leads sensible people to say things like ‘It’s hard to imagine Matt Damon making a bad film’ (Stuck on You and The Brothers Grimm clearly don’t linger long in the memory). The Martian may rest very comfortably in the same subgenre as Gravity and Interstellar, but I suspect it’s a more certain crowdpleaser than either of those.

This is despite the fact that, on some levels, it is actually a deeply nerdy film. Large sections of the plot revolve around fairly abstruse problems of hydroponics, astrodynamics, engineering and maths – the film seems to be trying as hard as it possibly can to get the science as right as the expectations of a major Hollywood movie will allow. (That said, there is a considerable amount of licence employed, particularly in the closing scenes, where the twelve-minute lag in communication between Earth and Mars is fudged for dramatic effect.)

Despite all this, it remains an extremely likeable and accessible film. This is largely due to the presence of the always-engaging Damon in the central role (he does, after all, have to carry lengthy sections of the film unaccompanied), but also the result of a script which works extremely hard to put a human face on the story. On one level this works simply as an adventure story about the power of human ingenuity and the will to survive, and it’s a good one: it’s really rather refreshing to find a film with such an upbeat view of humanity, without a single really unsympathetic character, especially when it works so well as a story. The film-makers work hard to fill the movie with little moments of lightness and humour, many of them arising from an unexpectedly eclectic soundtrack, including performers like Abba, Hot Chocolate, and David Bowie (not even the song you might be expecting, either). A strong supporting cast including the likes of Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor (who I note has ascended to the point where he qualifies for the ‘and’ position in the credits) helps a lot, of course.

Even as I was watching the film, and thoroughly enjoying it, I couldn’t help but find myself reflecting on the fact that the more science you put into a movie, the more certain it is that you’ll make tiny slips or compromises in the service of the story, and the more criticism you’re inevitably going to draw from the very same nerdy audience you were trying to satisfy in the first place. Both Gravity and Interstellar drew more of this kind of nitpicking than they really deserved, and I don’t doubt that some of The Martian‘s more striking plot twists will be savaged in the same way.

Oh well, there’s no pleasing some people. Speaking for myself, I found The Martian to be much more enjoyable than I would ever have expected a Ridley Scott-directed SF movie to be. The film is immaculately realised and – in terms of its setting – thoroughly plausible, but, more importantly, Scott seems wholly focused on simply telling the story, rather than dwelling on landscapes and set dressing. I might even go so far to say that this is challenging the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven as my favourite Scott movie.

As I said, The Martian sets out to be a number of things – a convincing piece of hard SF, a full-blooded adventure story, and a character study in human resilience, to name but three. Does it succeed perfectly at all of these things? No, not really – but it comes close enough to be considered a terrific achievement as a piece of film-making. It is sure to be lumped in with Gravity and Interstellar when people talk about this type of movie – but for once, the comparison is entirely justified. This is a seriously good, seriously entertaining film.

 

Read Full Post »

I like George Clooney. I’ve enjoyed his screen performances ever since the first movie I saw him in, which was From Dusk Till Dawn, far too many years ago for me to comfortably contemplate. I even didn’t think he was too bad as Batman, though the film in question is another matter. I have come to admire him all the more following his reinvention of himself as a progressively-inclined hyphenate, making a series of impressively entertaining and intelligent films like The Ides of March, Good Night and Good Luck, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I will give a sympathetic hearing to anything he cares to promote in my direction.

monmen

And the trailer for his latest project, The Monuments Men, makes a good, stirring pitch, for what looks like it’s going to be a rousing, old-fashioned movie with the best of ideals at its heart. In addition to writing, producing, and directing the film, Clooney plays Frank Stokes, a senior art historian who makes a heartfelt pitch to the US government: the year is 1943, and the outcome of the Second World War is no longer in doubt. However, the months ahead will see the majority of Europe’s greatest cultural treasures placed in desperate peril as the war rages around them – to say nothing of the standard Nazi procedure of stripping any significant cultural items from any territory they occupy.

Bearing this in mind, Clooney and his sidekick Matt Damon lead a crack team of character actors (Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin) into the war zone with a view to either protecting said cultural treasures or retrieving them from the hands of the Third Reich…

The full-blown war movie has gone a little out of fashion these days, and The Monuments Men is by no means what you’d call an action adventure. Instead, it is more of a comedy-drama, albeit one motivated by the noblest of concerns – in interviews, Clooney himself has said it originated out of his own desire to make a film which was not, on some level, a cynical one.

As I said, I like Clooney, and I’m all for idealism, and if the film is arguing for the vital importance of culture as part of the bedrock of civilisation, then I’m absolutely with it all the way – but while The Monuments Men has some moments of real quality, on the whole the film is a bit of a disappointment when compared to some of Clooney’s previous work. The trailer is great at pitching the central premise of the film – a sort of high-minded amalgam of The Dirty Dozen, Dad’s Army, and (possibly stretching a point) The Da Vinci Code – but the movie itself is less successful at turning the premise into a satisfying narrative.

For one thing, I get the impression that this movie is rather less of an epic than Clooney would have liked it to be, clocking in at a smidge under two hours, and the main consequence of this is that the whole putting-the-crew-together element of the story is raced through in the course of the opening credits. As a result, the early scenes of banter and camaraderie take place between a bunch of people we don’t actually know that well, and the effect is rather like going off on an adventure with a bunch of complete strangers. In this kind of film the first act is everything, and the film never quite recovers from this bumpy start.

The movie also struggles to accommodate the sheer scope of the story it’s trying to tell – as the characters admit at several points, the numbers involved are mind-boggling, and the story ranges across practically the entirety of western and central Europe. Forging a coherent narrative out of all this proves extremely difficult. In the end the film opts to focus on the hunt to rescue a few particularly significant pieces of art, with some other episodes woven into the story, but the final effect is still that of a film which is a collection of disparate bits and pieces. Some of these are effectively funny, or moving, or tense, but they don’t quite cohere into a really great film.

Perhaps it’s just that the ideas which The Monuments Men is trying to explore are too big and abstract to lend themselves to a film of this kind. Certainly the movie itself seems unable to quite decide on what its central message is – ‘Watch yourselves! No piece of art is worth your life!’ Clooney warns his team as they disembark in Normandy, but by the end of the film he’s stating the exact opposite to justify some of the sacrifices made in the course of the story. Hmmm. Inevitably, when dealing with the issue of cultural obliteration during the Second World War, the spectre of the Holocaust is raised at several points in the course of the film, but it never quite comes up with a way of really engaging with this beyond an uncomfortable, reverent silence.

Still, the performances are good and it’s well mounted, and it’s not what you’d actually call a bad film – it just really struggles to convert its good intentions and big ideas into the meat and drink of narrative film-making. I won’t deny it was a bit of a disappointment to me, but I still wouldn’t describe it as a bad film – average, more than anything else. One of Clooney’s minor works, I suspect, but still laudable on many levels.

Read Full Post »

When someone comes straight out of the trap and makes a brilliant, brilliant film at the first attempt, you’re naturally delighted, but also perhaps a little wary: could they have peaked too soon? How can they live up to the weight of expectation thus created? This was kind of how I felt when Neill Blomkamp announced himself to the world with District 9 four years ago: one of the great SF movies of the 21st century. Now he has returned with Elysium, a film which – if we’re honest – perhaps cleaves a little too closely to District 9 in terms of its content, theme, imagery and style.

ely

On the other hand, this is a major studio release with a big budget and A-list stars, and an accordingly conventional feel in places: which is to say that in places it quotes liberally from the Big Book of SF Cliches, starting with the voice-over explaining how the world went to rack and ruin in the latter part of the 21st century. By the mid 2150s anyone with money and sense has left the planet and is resident on Elysium, a space habitat in Earth orbit, where they all live the life of Riley with swimming pools and non-stop garden parties. Down below on Earth, of course, no-one has even seen a cucumber sandwich in decades, with the majority of the population trapped in vast, squalid slums while a lucky few toil away in degrading, menial jobs. The proles are policed by brutal robot enforcers, backed up by the occasional human operative.

Anyway: our protagonist is Max (Matt Damon, who – bemusingly – was only offered the part after Eminem turned it down), a petty crook turned factory worker. Once he had dreams of moving to Elysium himself along with his friend Frey (Alice Braga), but now he has accepted that it’s just not going to happen and his life is essentially worthless. However, receiving a fatal dose of radiation in an industrial accident leads Max to reconsider this – he has only days to live, unless he can avail himself of the miraculous medical assistance available up on Elysium. But how to get there? Hooking up with an old pal who still has underworld connections, Max agrees to take on the dangerous job of stealing the contents of the brain of a top Elysium tycoon, in return for which he will be smuggled up to the Orbital.

It’s a lot less like Inception than it sounds, I promise. What follows is somewhat complex, mainly due to the political machinations of Elysium’s icy security chief (Jodie Foster) and the violent excesses of her chief agent (Sharlto Copley giving another eye-catching performance), and not without a few improbabilities along the way. But in the end, in many ways it adheres to the District 9 template, in that it is a serious, good-looking SF movie with striking visuals, fun gadgets and technology, and a nice line in violent mayhem. What’s missing is the black humour and the wit and invention of the earlier movie – convoluted though the story gets, the actual throughline in terms of characters arcs is very straightforward, and I guessed the ending about halfway through (and it isn’t even as if I sit there trying to anticipate these things).

I don’t want to be too hard on Elysium as it is a proper SF movie for grown-ups, not a remake, a reboot, a sequel, or too obviously derivative of any other movie in particular: and that really does make it quite distinctive these days. (It’s also arguably the first really good cyberpunk movie in ages, long after Hollywood seemed to have given up on the subgenre and moved on.) The production designs are beautiful and the technology, on the whole, convincing – although Copley’s pocket force-field generator seemed to me to be a little too Star Trek. And central to the advertising, though not really essential to the story, is the cyborg exoskeleton into which Max is plumbed quite early on. I get the impression this was more of an idea Blomkamp thought was cool than anything else, because as plot devices go it doesn’t really do much. (As Damon is surgically bonded with it through his clothes, I found myself wondering what he did when he needed to, er, take his trousers off. The film has loftier concerns, needless to say.)

I suppose that in the end, part of my dissatisfaction with Elysium stems from the slightly hackneyed script, but also because the film does that mildly annoying thing of not wanting to be just a dumb SF action film and then never quite following through on its ambition. It’s a bit like In Time in that you don’t need to be John Clute to figure out that the movie’s world of haves and have-nots, with limitless medical care and support for a few and barely anything for the rest (and the differences between life on Earth and that on the Orbital and presented almost solely in terms of the healthcare available), is a thinly-disguised commentary on the state of healthcare availability in much of the real world. You’re never in doubt that where the film’s heart is at – like any other decent person with a brain and a soul, Blomkamp clearly thinks that free universal healthcare should be a no-brainer for any civilised society worthy of the name. And yet for a film apparently aspiring to address a real-world problem, it doesn’t have anything to offer in terms of real-world solutions. The film’s argument in favour of universal healthcare is almost entirely sentimental, and implied at that – the plot is actually resolved by a big action sequence, a Maguffin, and some computer hacking. Quite what’s going to stop the original status quo being restored PDQ is not made clear, unless the characters at the end of the film are now living in a socialist state governed and enforced solely by machines: an unusual conclusion for an American-financed SF blockbuster, to say the least.

I think I’m being too harsh on a film which is well made, directed, and acted, and the sentiments of which I broadly agree with. And, after all, Elysium is a big-budget socialist cyberpunk movie, which manages to comment on the state of the world’s healthcare while still including men in cyborg exo-skeletons having fistfights in space. So it has a certain sort of uniqueness to its credit, if nothing else. Creditable: that’s a good word for Elysium. It’s no District 9, certainly: but it’s a lot better than the likes of the Total Recall remake, too. I would applaud it for its ambitions rather than dismissing it for failing to realise them perfectly.

Read Full Post »

Time for yet another installment of New Cinema Review (it’s the summer, I’m living away from home, it’s inevitable) – this time, the Vue in the Westfield Centre (one of those big zombie malls you need a map to navigate around) in Shepherd’s Bush. I know I seem to be particularly partial to Vues, especially when there are lots of independent cinemas around that barely seem to get a look in, but Vue seems to be the best of the major UK multiplex chains and their website is extremely user-friendly.

Although perhaps not quite as good at flagging up the key information as it should be. I arrived in plenty of time for my film, which didn’t seem to appear on the main information screens behind the ticket desk. Nevertheless, when I reached the front:

‘One for Behind the Candelabra, please,’ I said.

The ticketeer checked his rinky-dinky little screen. ‘It’s showing in the Scene area,’ he informed me. ‘That’ll be nineteen pounds.’

‘Nineteen pounds for one ticket! Dearie me,’ I said, unprintably. Nevertheless, changing my plans for the day would have been a pain in the neck and possibly involved going in to see another film blind, which I didn’t much fancy. So I fished out my debit card.

‘Where do you want to sit?’ the ticketeer enquired.

‘On a throne, if I’m paying nineteen quid for it,’ I said. (The shocking news of this outrageous pricing policy had affected my usual courteous good temper in a negative fashion.) However, the ticketeer had been through the Multiplex Staff Personality Obliteration Process and just dumbly showed me the little screen with icons of seats on it.

Eventually I was allowed to trundle off to the VIP Scene area, which had a bar. (I initially thought this programme might be called Seen, as in ‘They Must Have Seen Me Coming’.) To be fair, the seats in the VIP screens are nice, and you do get a little table to put your soft rolls and lemonade on, but the screen itself wasn’t fantastically better than the one I saw Hummingbird on later that day. And even after paying nearly twenty quid, you still have to sit through the ****ing adverts: the annoying animated one for a carbonated orange drink, the weird one about the French social climber who prefers beer to women, the one with the talking Spanish beer, they were all still there. There was also one where the Cirque du Soleil play pelota on a bridge between a glacier and a volcano: this, obviously, is to advertise coffee. Honestly, sometimes I think civilisation has already collapsed into a decadent mire and we’re all just too self-absorbed to notice.

None of which is really very informative when it comes to Behind the Candelabra, which I suspect is what you’re actually reading this to find out about. This is another offering from the Soderbergh Collective – technically they’ve already retired, of course, and this film actually originated as a TV mini-series in the USA a few years ago.

candelabra

The reason why it didn’t make it into American theatres despite having a big-name director and two A-list stars in the lead roles is the subject matter. Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, a young Californian working as an animal trainer in the late 1970s. He is gay, and through a friend is introduced to the entertainment superstar Liberace (Michael Douglas).

(Do people these days need to be told who Liberace was? I suspect so. Basically, Liberace was a virtuoso piano-player and showman, who by the 70s had become a massive international star and an institution in Las Vegas. His act and public persona were noted for a degree of – er – ostentatious flamboyance, but such was the level of control he exerted over these things that when the Daily Mail printed an article revealing he was homosexual, he was able to sue them for libel and win.)

Well, Liberace and Scott hit it off almost at once, especially when Scott is able to procure some medicine for one of the star’s poodles. Very much at Liberace’s instigation, Scott moves in and takes on a job as his paid companion, confidant, driver, and wig-keeper. Their romantic relationship continues apace in tandem with this.

And what follows is essentially the story of their relationship over the next decade, until Liberace’s death from an AIDS-related condition in 1986: its development, which takes some decidedly odd turns, its decline, and its fractious ultimate collapse (although there was apparently something of a reconciliation prior to the very end).

Now, one thing you can say about the Soderberghs is that they are a fair-minded bunch who play by the rules: if they do an action movie, it’s going to have proper set-piece fights in it. If they do a movie about male strippers, it’s going to have some male stripping in it. And if they do a movie about a gay relationship, it’s going to have various scenes of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in bed (or a bubble bath) together. The movie walks the line between prudishness and prurience rather well, although some of the dialogue is still quite explicit – this is always a film focussing on the central relationship, the fact that it’s between two men is almost incidental.

As a movie about what I can only call an assymmetrical relationship (one of the participants is much older, wealthier, and more powerful than the other), there isn’t a great deal that’s very novel here – Scott’s falling more and more under Liberace’s sway (even to the point of having plastic surgery to resemble him) somehow doesn’t feel as peculiar or (in the circumstances) unsettling as it should. The eventual slide into drug addiction, infidelity, and an ugly legal wrangle feels rather familar too.

That said, there are some amusingly bizarre scenes with Rob Lowe as a plastic surgeon who has, perhaps, partaken rather too much of his own wares, and some of the fashions and hairstyles on display inevitably have a certain charm. On the whole, though, this is a movie which succeeds or fails largely on the strength of the central performances. And Damon is simply very good in what’s probably the easier and certainly the less showy role. Douglas is by no means bad, but it’s his replication of Liberace’s stagecraft and particularly his piano-playing which is most obviously impressive. Some of the rest of the time, his performance is almost that of a stereotypically needy and possessive older gay man.

The Soderberghs direct with their customary verve and skill and this is an entertaining and involving movie. But, once you take away all the rhinestone trappings and period styling, there’s nothing tremendously innovative going on here in terms of either characterisation or plot. The actors are very good, but they’re big-name stars in what ultimately boils down to quite a standard and formulaic bio-pic. Worth watching by all means, just not particularly essential.

Read Full Post »

When I was but a lad one of my favourite stories was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – not Verne’s original novel (which I have since discovered to be a rather wearisomely didactic travelogue), but an illustrated adaptation of the 1954 Richard Fleischer movie. I pored over this time after time and you can surely imagine my excitement when it was re-released to cinemas. However, only trauma was to result as I came down with something nasty in the very same week and our wise old family practitioner advised that, much better though I was feeling, it was still not a good idea for me to go to the cinema while I was still potentially infectious.

Well, I’ve been pretty poorly again recently, but – as luck would have it – health service cut-backs make it actually quite difficult to see a doctor. So the decision as to whether or not it was advisable to go to the cinema this week was entirely down to your correspondent. You know, I take my social responsibilities quite seriously, and would hate to think I had frivolously passed on my particular brand of lurgy to anyone simply because I wanted to see a film. In the end I decided I could justify it as long as I stayed well away from other unsuspecting cinemagoers and went to a sparsely-attended matinee performance, thus absolutely minimising exposure. At least that was what I told myself on the way in on the bus, and again in the pub afterwards.

You’ll never believe it, but all this nonsense proved to be entirely apropos as the movie I ended up seeing was Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which was about… well not someone recklessly going to the pictures, but still. Basically, Soderbergh’s scientifically rigorous thriller opens in the aftermath of Gwyneth Paltrow’s visit to an Asian casino, during which she has been inadvertantly exposed to a mutant pig-bat virus. This does not stop her engaging in a little extramarital whoh-ho-ho on the way back home to her something of a dim-bulb husband, Matt Damon. The mutant pig-bat virus turns out to be a) energetically lethal (which is bad news for Gwyneth and arguably Matt), and b) enthusiastically communicable (which is bad news for everyone else in the world).

Pretty soon the authorities are on the case across the world, fortuitously embodied by a flotilla of the Hollywood A-list (Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould, and so on). Someone buzzes off to the Far East in search of the origins of the mutant pig-bat virus, someone else heads to Gwyneth’s neck of the woods to manage efforts to control the disease there, a third someone has to co-ordinate the overall strategy, and so on. Meanwhile Matt Damon struggles to not become a paranoid germophobe and to generally get on with his life despite the fact that, for one thing, he’s not allowed to bury Gwyneth – they’d much rather she was cremated (possibly a case of ‘One flu over – the cooker’s next’).

This is a big old star-studded whopper of a movie, or so it feels while you’re watching it, and that’s by no means intended as a criticism. Soderbergh orchestrates a sprawling, multi-stranded narrative with consummate skill, and for much of its running time this is a really gripping movie. It’s more a collection of vignettes depicting various scenes of courage, integrity, foolishness, and loss, rather than a single coherent story, but on the whole this approach works pretty well. The only subplot that doesn’t quite work focusses on Jude Law, who’s playing an unpleasant and self-serving blogger. I suspect he’s supposed to be Julian Assange, which is the only reason I can think of for the ‘Hello possums!’ accent Law deploys in the role.

The Damon subplot also looks a little bit superfluous to start with, as it doesn’t really appear to be going anywhere – it’s established early on that Matt is totally immune to mutant pig-bat viruses. A lot of it is to do with the extramarital excursion Gwyneth enjoyed shortly prior to her death, which gives Damon the chance for a lot of histrionic soul-searching. (The danger here is that it could almost look like Gwyneth was struck down as a judgement on her adulterous lifestyle, a rather reactionary impression for this kind of film to give.) However, as the story of the film unfolds over weeks and months, the ‘human interest’ story with Damon’s character becomes increasingly important and it’s clear this is why his character’s been built up.

Joking apart, Scott Burns’ script really works hard to seem horribly plausible and do new things with a well-established scenario. There’s a lot of pleasingly crunchy-sounding epidemiology and virology along the way, and the progression of the crisis and the coming apart of society is, on the whole, credibly presented.

That said, most lethal-mutant-virus-threat plots conclude one of two ways – the virus never properly gets loose at all and everyone goes ‘phew’, or it does its stuff, kills 99% of the world’s population, and the handful of survivors set off to the countryside to form communes and rebuild society in a new and better form (this is often the point at which the story-proper gets going – for example, the BBC’s original Survivors, which this startlingly resembles at one point).

Except, apparently, viruses that lethal really don’t come along very often and a fatality rate of even 5% of the global population is practically unheard of. This leaves the film the problem of how to find a proper climax, given all the most dramatic stuff happens in the opening stages of a pandemic – the latter stages of the film have novelty to commend them, but there’s no substitute for proper storytelling structure! The solution Soderbergh opts for is a little dismaying – moments of jarring sentimentality start to appear with increasing frequency (many of them involving Damon’s character), until by the end they’re practically all the film has to offer. Soderbergh is too smart and classy to let his film degenerate into nothing but a schmaltzfest, but it’s a shame that the pace and tension and intelligence of the early sections of the film couldn’t have been sustained throughout.

And I suppose we must wonder what the purpose of this kind of film really is. Panic and misery and the death of millions is an odd topic for a piece of entertainment especially when the story isn’t as big on crowd-pleasing spectacle as, say, 2012. I suspect it may largely be a simple case of a ghoulish impulse of delight in seeing all the walls falling down and things becoming just about as bad as we can conceive. As a catastrophe movie, Contagion is highly intelligent, thoroughly gripping, masterfully directed and (on the whole) very well played. It’s not really a conventional story, but it’s an impressive piece of film-making – even if it’s a little short on practical advice on how to survive a global pandemic. I for one was only able to discern three such suggestions –

  • use your hand-sanitiser frequently and thoroughly
  • get your panic-buying out of the way early
  • watch out for mutant pig-bats.

Don’t have nightmares, folks.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »