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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Caine’

You know, until I just looked it up, I would have said that Michael Caine had basically forsworn his once-notorious ‘I’ll do anything’ work ethic and had spent the last few years only doing cameo appearances in Christopher Nolan movies. But apparently not: twenty-one films in the last decade, more or less, which is not a bad average by anyone’s standards. Still, you don’t see the great man in really juicy leading roles very much any more, and the chance to see him in action in just this style was the main reason why I trundled along to see James Marsh’s King of Thieves.

Caine plays Brian Reader, a recently-widowed professional criminal (Francesca Annis, who plays his wife, manages to scrape a prominent billing despite carking it in the opening few minutes) who is feeling his age and perhaps looking for a purpose in life. Now, most people in his situation would probably think about taking up yoga or possibly bowls, but given his past and particular skill-set, Reader decides his last hurrah will be to knock off the vault underneath the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit building, stuffed with cash, gold, jewellry and diamonds.

He duly assembles a crack team, or – to be more strictly accurate – a crock team, consisting of Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone and Paul Whitehouse, in addition to the young security expert who is making the whole undertaking possible (a sop to the streaming generation in the form of Charlie Cox). Potentially employed as their fence is an incontinent fishmonger nicknamed named Billy the Fish (Michael Gambon).

Well, as you might expect, things do not go entirely to plan with a team of this calibre (and vintage) on the job, and the traditional heist-movie falling-out between the principals actually occurs before the robbery is even completed. Will the gang of crinkly crims get away with it? Will their clashing egos be their undoing? Or could the police prove to be rather more competent than anyone is giving them credit for?

You know you’ve made it as a British crook when they start making films about your exploits – this has been a flourishing subgenre of the Brit crime movie for many years now. And, before we consider King of Thieves as a piece of entertainment, we should remember that this is a film based on true events (and not even the first one purporting to retell this particular story – The Hatton Garden Job came out last year, and got rather unfavourable notices). All right, so it’s not quite on the same level as some of those jolly fantasies which seem to be just a bit too fascinated by Jack the Ripper and other serial killers, but still – stuff got nicked (most of which remains unrecovered as of the film’s being released). A company went bankrupt as a result. People lost their jobs. You know, just mentioning it.

The film really attempts to skate over this, and initially at least seems to be intent on making use of its cast’s undoubted credentials when it comes to comedy. It is a particularly black, deadpan kind of comedy, mostly revolving around the gang’s advanced ages and the inevitable impact on the execution of the robbery – the look-out keeps dozing off, they have to remember to pack enough of their various medicines and ointments for the duration of the job, and so on. It’s quite broad stuff, but with a cast of this quality it’s still very watchable and entertaining stuff. Even so, to begin with I found myself a little nonplussed: the plot seemed very linear and quite shallow. Would King of Thieves just prove to be another disposable piece of knockabout frivolity, elevated only by its performers?

Well, not quite, because as the film goes on it becomes rather more interesting. What starts off looking like a typical piece of romanticised nonsense glamorising loveable London gangsters actually acquires unexpected depth and grit, and has moments of genuine grit and drama. The gang fall out, in earnest – the cosy camaraderie which initially seems to exist between them is replaced by real tension, and the old saw about honour amongst thieves is shown to be a myth as they set about double-crossing each other with an enthusiasm that belies their years. And here the cast get a chance to show what they can really do: given some of his former roles, it’s hardly a surprise that Ray Winstone can be an effective heavy, but I find I am constantly surprised by Jim Broadbent’s range and ability as an actor. You always kind of expect him to be someone slightly vague and somewhat jolly, but here he turns out to be a genuinely menacing and nasty piece of work, quite capable of holding his own in a confrontation with Michael Caine.

Michael Caine is 85 and it is inevitably a little sad to see him somewhat diminished, physically, by the passage of time: he looks frailer, and it is noticeable that he doesn’t have quite the screen time one might expect; the film seems to have been sympathetically constructed to spread the burden amongst the whole ensemble. But he is still the indisputable guv’nor of this film, still one of the biggest names in British cinema, and he has lost none of his charisma or technical ability as an actor. This is a proper actor’s performance, finding the subtleties of the character and not afraid to be unsympathetic – as the film goes on there’s a suggestion that Reader isn’t just the loveable old burglar he’s initially presented as. This isn’t one of Caine’s best films, but this is still an excellent performance.

There’s nothing very original about King of Thieves, but it’s a pacy and engaging little film and a consistently entertaining one. The gear-change between droll black comedy and semi-serious crime drama is something it never quite manages to pull off as smoothly as it probably needs to, and as I say there is the whole true-crime-as-entertainment thing to consider. But it’s still worth seeing, if only for an excellent cast doing very good work, led by one of Britain’s greatest movie stars.

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We talk quite glibly about ‘the war movie’ as a distinct genre, and I suppose there is some truth to that – there are enough commonalities of subject matter, setting, and theme for these films to comprise a recognisable canon of sorts, after all. And yet war films are as diverse a bunch as any other, often depending on exactly which war they concern and the accepted narrative concerning it. War movies made during actual wars are usually propaganda, plain and simple; ones made in the decade or two after a war become testimonials, usually concerned with retellings of notable deeds. After enough time has elapsed they just become backdrops for rousing adventures and/or examinations of more universal themes.

John Sturges’ film adaptation of the Jack Higgins novel The Eagle Has Landed came out in 1976, thirty years after the Second World War concluded, at a point when the myth of the war and its iconography was perhaps beginning to displace memories of the reality in terms of how it was perceived. Certainly the film itself is hardly painstaking in its attempts at historical accuracy.

 

(I have to say, respect is due to an impressively imaginative poster, which features all sorts of elements – exploding churches, strafing Messerschmitts, and so on – which do not prominently feature, or indeed feature at all, in the actual movie. Not sure they’ve got Jenny Agutter’s face quite right, though.)

Things get underway in – one surmises – late 1943 or early 1944, with the result of the war no longer in doubt, only the final score. Inspired by the rescue of Mussolini from captivity in Italy, Hitler (played by the late Peter Miles in scenes which didn’t make it into the final cut) orders the kidnapping of Winston Churchill from Britain: no-one but Himmler (Donald Pleasence) takes this notion seriously, but the head of German military intelligence is obliged to carry out a feasibility study for political reasons anyway.

The job is assigned to a Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall), who – rather to his astonishment –  discovers that there is an outside chance that the trick can be turned: Churchill is due to be spending a weekend at a secluded country house close to the east coast of England. To carry out the mission, Radl recruits IRA man and mercenary Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland) and decorated, but now disgraced Fallschirmjager officer Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) and his men. Soon enough Operation Eagle is underway, with first Devlin and then Steiner and the others inserted into the UK in disguise. But even the best laid plans can go awry, especially given Devlin’s penchant for romantic entanglements and the presence in the area of a force of US Rangers…

The Eagle Has Landed is very much an all-star all-action mid-seventies ITC Entertainment kind of production, and it is perhaps illuminating to compare it to the 1943 movie Went the Day Well?, directed by Cavalcanti. Both deal with the same idea, of a British village being seized by enemy paratroopers as part of a wider plot, but the treatment is quite different, as is the context of the films (of course). Went the Day Well? is a propaganda movie, and an occasionally brutal one, with precious few shades of grey as the heroic villagers (including a gun-toting Thora Hird) rise up and do battle with the vicious German interlopers. At the time the threat of invasion was still a recent memory, and the war still being prosecuted, but in 1976 things were very different.

We tend to remember the Second World War as one of the ‘good’ wars, justified by the fact it was essentially a heroic battle against the darkest of evils, but there’s little sense of that watching Sturges’ movie – this is a war movie oddly bereft of bad guys. All the German characters are rather sympathetic, Himmler excepted, and the movie is at pains to establish Steiner as a decent man revolted by the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority. The structure of the movie means we get to know these people rather better than any of the British or American characters who are ostensibly the heroes who foil Radl and Steiner’s plan – the US Ranger commander played by Larry Hagman is a vain, pompous fool, his subordinate (Treat Williams) something of a cipher.

The result is that the action sequences towards the end of the film, in which the German-held village is assaulted by American soldiers, feel like a curiously empty spectacle. They’re very well staged and directed, and do stir the blood a bit, but you always know what’s going to happen, and you don’t feel particularly invested in watching the inevitable Allied victory – you will almost certainly be hoping that Michael Caine survives, and may even be hoping that (in defiance of historical fact) he succeeds in his mission.

The question is whether this moral vacuum at the heart of the movie is a deliberate choice, reflecting the fact that there can be heroes and villains on both sides in a war, or just the result of a director not quite getting to grips with the material. Certainly Caine thought it was the latter, complaining that Sturges had no involvement with the editing of the film once shooting was complete, choosing to go fishing instead. He lamented the fact that what could have been a more substantial thriller ended up as a somewhat cartoonish action adventure.

I can see what he’s getting at, because – as someone else has pointed out – Pleasence’s impersonation of Himmler is the most credible thing in the movie by quite some distance. Caine is still good, as are many of the other supporting players, some of them better known as British TV faces – Jean Marsh is in there, also Roy Marsden and Denis Lill – but possibly a bit too prominent is Sutherland. Sutherland goes all-out for the central casting Oirishman from County Leprechaun approach, and it does make you roll your eyes a bit, as does the improbable romance between him and a young local girl (Jenny Agutter).

In the end The Eagle Has Landed seems to have become one of those largely innocuous all-star movies which regularly pops up on TV on Bank Holiday weekends, usually with its gorier moments (Hagman’s death, for instance) snipped out. Which is fair enough: it is an example of the war movie reduced to the status of simple entertainment – it doesn’t have the simplistic morality of the worst kind of war film, nor the complex ambiguities of many of the best. It just doesn’t seem inclined to deal with wider moral issues at all, focusing on its straightforward action-adventure story to the exclusion of all else. And there’s not much actually wrong with that, I suppose: but with the kind of talent involved in this movie, you could be forgiven for hoping for something slightly more substantial.

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We have had a few weeks the like of which are such as to make one want to declare a moratorium on death itself. The emperor of maladies has taken a heavy toll, and we are all left saddened and diminished and perhaps a little more conscious of the dark.

One feels obliged to make some gesture of remembrance, but one is horribly spoilt for choice at the moment. I could revisit Galaxy Quest or Toxic Avenger IV with equal justification. But instead I am going to take another look at Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige, which is notable for what turned out to be one of the final acting roles for David Bowie.

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I would be lying if I said I was among the many people left feeling desolated by Bowie’s recent death, but I understand the magnitutde of his achievements and his presence in popular culture, not just as a musician but also as a film actor. Perhaps inevitably, the two seemed to feed into one another – Bowie’s most celebrated screen appearance, playing the alien visitor Thomas Newton in the film I should really be reviewing, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, surely owes a lot to the Ziggy Stardust persona he had created a few years earlier. Nolan himself said that no-one else could possibly have played Bowie’s role in this film, and from a certain point of view it is easy to understand why.

The Prestige is based on a novel by the underrated British writer Christopher Priest, and – not unusually for a Nolan production – it takes a while for its actual subject matter to become clear. The narrative is complex and oblique, with flashbacks within flashbacks, sections of apparently unreliable narration, and large quantities of smoke and mirrors. But this is only as it should be, for the film is about stage magic and its practitioners, and the differences between them and the makers of genuine wizardry.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play Angier and Borden, two young men at the beginnings of careers as magicians in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London. Angier is aristocratic and a born showman, but a somewhat indifferent student of the craft – the lower-born Borden is a brilliant instinctive magician, but lacks his rival’s charisma. Tragedy strikes when Angier’s wife dies in an accident on stage, an accident Borden may have been responsible for. And thus begins a terrible feud.

The rivals begin by sabotaging each others’ performances, until Borden premieres an incredible new illusion he calls the Transported Man. Angier’s determination to outdo his enemy leads him to incredible lengths in search of the secret of how the illusion is performed, and his obsession drives away those closest to him – his assistant (Scarlett Johansson) and advisor (Michael Caine). Notes stolen from Borden lead him on a long journey to the heart of America, in search of the reclusive genius Nikola Tesla, whom Angier believes can build a machine that will end the conflict between the two men forever…

Tesla is, of course, played by Bowie, and – somewhat contrary to the great man’s reputation – a rather subdued and understated performance it is too. Nothing wrong with that, of course, for it’s entirely appropriate for the film. Quite how historically accurate a portrait of Tesla this is, is a good question – probably not very, if we’re honest. But Tesla’s role in the film is to be an enigma, an individual on the border between reality and myth, an irresistibly charismatic person who still is not really fully understood – and, as I say, it’s very understandable that Nolan should have wanted to secure David Bowie’s services for the role. It’s a small but crucial part, and one which is essential to the development of The Prestige‘s narrative.

I believe I read a review once which cried foul with regard to this film’s final act, suggesting that by introducing, in the form of Tesla’s miraculous machine, a strong element of SF or fantasy into what had previously been a relatively ‘straight’ drama, Nolan was in some way cheating, moving the goal posts. I can kind of see where this attitude is coming from – this is a film about real-world magic, after all, carefully constructed to show the audience all the facts they need to understand what’s going on, while making equally sure they’re not aware of this until after the end of the story. Introducing an arbitrary and fantastical plot device, as the film does, arguably renders all that work moot.

But on the other hand, the film seems to be entirely aware of this potential pitfall and works extremely hard to circumvent it: the revelation of the machine and just what it does is painstakingly foreshadowed from the very first second of the movie, and the facts are woven into the narrative of the film with the greatest skill. In its ability to construct a confoundingly clever puzzle-box narrative that only yields up all its secrets on the second or third viewing, The Prestige definitely anticipates Inception, although The Prestige may be even subtler and more devious.

It’s certainly an ambiguous film, too: while Angier, as the film goes on, increasingly comes to resemble the villain of the piece, he is never completely unsympathetic no matter what he does. In the same way, there is always a certain distance with Borden, too – this is someone capable of some very harsh actions. Nolan, as usual, secures a first-rate cast for these roles, although the cast list in general does provide evidence for the ‘superheroes are taking over Hollywood’ argument. It’s true that Hugh Jackman doesn’t have quite the same acting clout as Christian Bale, but he still gives one of his best performances here, while Michael Caine of course provides immaculate support. The female characters, if I’m honest, feel a little thin and underserved, but this is not the fault of Johansson or Rebecca Hall.

The Prestige is a film about identity and reality, and the extent to which these things are artificial and can be manipulated – several cast members play multiple versions of themselves, for instance. It suggests that people are delighted by the pretence of magic, but (rightfully) terrified by the real thing – that illusion is more often than not just a comfort. It’s a complex, dense film, full of deceptively subtle ideas, but one that couples them to a compelling story with some unforgettably shocking images and moments. For many years now, Christopher Nolan has seemed incapable of making a film which is anything less than deeply impressive, and while this is not one of his most famous or financially successful ones, it is still head and shoulders above most other movies. Bowie’s role may be small, but it is crucial to the film’s success – perhaps only something of a footnote to an acting career which was itself only a secondary enterprise, but still a very distinguished one.

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It is one of those special, cherishable, all-too-rare times: yes, there is a new Christopher Nolan movie out, in the form of Interstellar. What can one say about the remarkable talents of this man and the teams he assembles around him? Together, they seem entirely incapable of making a film which is less than challenging, surprising, thoughtful and supremely accomplished.

 

The third film in what absolutely no-one is calling Nolan’s In- themed series opens in an unspecified future where the Earth has become a worn-out wasteland, its bankrupt nations reduced to scraping what little food they can from choking, starving farmland. Humanity has lowered its gaze and its expectations, and one of those chafing against the situation is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA engineer reduced to trying to keep robot farming machines running.

Cooper’s gifted young daughter, Murphy, has been complaining of a strange presence in their home, which Cooper realises is some kind of gravitic anomaly – an anomaly which leads them to the world’s last launching facility. Here they encounter Brand (Michael Caine), who informs Cooper that the world’s condition is terminal – humanity is on the verge of extinction, unless they can find a new home. Some unknown cosmic force has created a gravity wormhole within the solar system, through which a mission can be despatched in search of a new home for the human race.

Though it means leaving his family behind, Cooper agrees to pilot the mission, travelling through the wormhole to a distant galaxy, in the company of Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), a couple of other astronauts, and two endearingly bizarre robots. But can he bring himself to make the decisions which could save the human race, when the consequence could be that he will never see his children again?

Well, you always know roughly what you’re going to get from a Nolan film – awe-inspiring technical virtuosity, a stunning, whirling artifice of plot and theme, casual mastery of genre tropes, and a certain lofty grandeur in every department (plus, more often than not, Michael Caine in a supporting role). All of these things are present and correct in Interstellar, which is, if anything, Nolan’s homage to the classic SF films of years gone by: first and foremost 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also dealt with man’s place in the universe and included a mind-blowing trip across space and time, but also the original Solaris, amongst others.

Interstellar pushes further than these, which were predominantly mythic undertakings – it attempts to portray travel to the furthest reaches of the universe in a relatively accurate way (no pun intended), and the realities of astrophysics form some of the lynchpins of the plot. This is a film in which wormholes, collapsed stars, time dilation and five-dimensional space are all central features, and there are times when it feels as though the vaulting leaps in space and time required by the narrative are too much for even Christopher Nolan to pull off.

That said, he pulls off some magnificent coups, and not the least of these is to keep the human characters centre-stage despite the bewildering ideas and stunning visuals also populating the film. All the performances are strong (Jessica Chastain also appears in a key role), but – with the possible exception of Michael Caine – none of them really manage to touch the emotions: the chill which touches the heart of every Nolan film, its lack of real intimacy, is as present here as in any of them.

Then again, this isn’t entirely inappropriate, as Interstellar is partly about the immense size of the universe and its hostility to humans, and the effects the knowledge of this can have on explorers. Coupled to the mood of resignation in the Earthbound scenes, the result is a film which frequently feels incredibly bleak and oppressive, with an atmosphere which is almost funereal. That Nolan manages to turn this mood around by the conclusion is also an achievement.

That said, the film’s focus on the father-daughter relationship means that the one between McConaughey and Hathaway never really quite gets the space to breathe, let alone convince. The final revelation of what’s been happening throughout the film with the strange gravity anomalies is also very eminently guessable by even the least clued-in and genre-savvy viewer (or so I would expect). And the fact remains that high-minded, big-budget, thoughtful SF movies are much more likely to be savaged for getting above their station than more typical popcorn fodder – just look at what happened to Prometheus or A.I..

Well, hopefully I will be proved wrong and Interstellar will reap the same kinds of rewards and acclamation as Gravity, another film it somewhat resembles in places. (Although Interstellar resembles genre SF much more, and the big awards ceremonies never like genre movies.) Watching Interstellar, it feels like a love letter to classic SF films, to space exploration itself, and to so many of the instincts and drives that make people human at all. Pretty much an unmissable experience if you are at all interested in SF, space science, or the future.

 

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Another week, another installment in one man’s odyssey round every Vue multiplex within the M25. Yes, it’s New Cinema Review again, and this time it’s the Vue Islington, offering yet another scam new pricing option – ‘Vue Extreme’, with bigger screens, better sound, and so on. The effect of the giant screen, etc, was really lost on me as I found myself sitting about a quarter of a mile away from it. I was quite impressed by the fact that the theatre actually had an usher who occasionally popped up in an attempt to ush the teenagers going berserk in the aisles – though this was still really just putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. O tempora! O mores!

Once upon a time it was quite unusual for a film to get what is called a day-and-date release – this is when a film is simultaneously unleashed upon audiences around the world. Before theatres went digital, the cost of striking all those extra prints was prohibitive except in the case of the very biggest, and most prone to be pirated, films. To give an example, Attack of the Clones got a day-and-date release, but the first Spider-Man didn’t, arriving in the UK two weeks after its US launch: something almost unthinkable for a major summer blockbuster today.

Now You See Me is a movie which looks like it’s pitching for blockbuster status – a decent stab at an all-star cast, populist director, big set pieces – and yet it’s arriving in the UK six weeks after the States. Possibly this is just one of those things, but possibly not.

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It is, on the face of it, a curious movie anyway: the trailer makes clear this is going to be a polished, slick movie with a twisty-turny plot concerned with multiple levels of ‘reality’ and a degree of gamesmanship in its dealings with the audience. This, put together with certain story elements and the presence in the cast list of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, instantly made me certain that this was a major studio’s first attempt at a Christopher Nolan pastiche.

What suggested that the movie might prove memorable was the fact that the director selected to duplicate Nolan’s wizardry was Louis Leterrier. Now, I have enjoyed every Louis Leterrier film I have seen, and he is the man partly responsible for The Transporter, surely one of the landmark films of the 21st century so far. I love The Transporter, but I also love Inception, and it would be stretching a point to say that the two films share much of a sensibility.

So I turned up to Now You See Me expecting either a pleasant surprise or an uproarious calamity. It is the story of four magicians – an expert in close-up magic, a street hustler, an escapologist and a mentalist – who are played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco (no, me neither), Isla Fisher and Woody Harrelson. (To preserve a sense of mystery about the plot I will not reveal which of the quartet is required to appear in their opening scene wearing a clinging, glittery swimsuit.) Initially working individually, they are assembled by a shadowy figure who provides them with detailed instructions and blueprints to carry out a fiendishly complex plan.

The plan primarily involves doing naughty things with other people’s money: apparently robbing a Parisian bank during a live show in Vegas, for example. The FBI and Interpol take a dim view of this sort of thing and the job of figuring out how they did it is given to Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent. As the FBI is reluctant to suggest that the magicians actually robbed the bank using genuine magic, Ruffalo recruits ex-magician turned professional debunker Morgan Freeman to help him figure out how they did it – but the group’s backer, Michael Caine, does not want to see his investment ruined, especially with all the publicity they are attracting…

Now You See Me is predicated on one simple idea, which underpins the plot and whole philosophy of the film. This is that Magic Is A Good and Wonderful Thing In And Of Itself, and that – by extension – Magicians Are Innately Good And Wonderful People. As a result it is okay for them to rob banks, drive businessmen close to bankruptcy, and break into safes, as long as their victims are established as being Not Nice People. The script really does a number in terms of ensuring that the thieving conjurors come across as good guys, although there’s still the problem that one of their targets ends up going to prison, most likely for the rest of his life, his offence apparently being not much more than having a smug and annoying personality. Hmmm.

That said, the film looks good, it’s energetically directed by Leterrier, and the first half is filled with good set pieces and scenes where charismatic performers like Eisenberg, Caine, Harrelson, and Ruffalo get to trade some quite snappy dialogue. I rather enjoyed all this, and the appearance of Freeman’s character reassured me that this wasn’t going to be some dodgy thriller-fantasy fudge where the ‘magic’ would be left unexplained.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really hold true for the entire film – some fairly outrageous things go on with barely a sniff of explanation given. There’s a fight sequence between Ruffalo and one of the magicians which almost plays out like something from an episode of The Avengers – the guy seems to disappear into thin air, starts shooting sparks out of his fingers, and so on. It looks good but it’s still a bit nigglesome.

The same can be said for most of the second half of the film – Michael Caine’s character does his own vanishing act, and it all becomes increasingly vague and far-fetched in plot terms. It is all capped off by the sort of twist ending which has you shouting ‘What! That’s completely absurd!’ at the screen. I’m virtually certain the plot of this film doesn’t actually make sense in light of the climactic revelations – even if it does in strictly logical terms, it’s still massively implausible – but the idea of watching it again in order to check really doesn’t appeal at all.

Still, it’s by no means the memorable disaster I was half expecting. Looking back on it from the closing credits Now You See Me is probably not a very good film, but while I was watching it I did quite enjoy it – particularly the first half. It is not deep or clever by any means – but it is glitzy, silly, forgettable, crowd-pleasing fun. All in all, and with all due respect to recent events, this is less Christopher Nolan than it is the Nolan Sisters.

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Either strange cosmic forces of synchronicity are at work, or someone at my DVD rental package company is reading this blog: having recently complained (very mildly, I thought) about the random nature of our relationship, and the occasionally odd juxtapositions of successive movies, I have just been sent two Woody Allen movies in a row. If Manhattan, Zelig or Love and Death turns up next I think I will be justified in assuming that someone is having a laugh (if by some miracle my DVD-packer really is reading this, please send Tiptoes instead).

Anyway, the movie that came was Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen’s 1986 movie. My knowledge of this film was basically limited to remembering that Michael Caine won an Oscar for it, and various behind-the-scenes tidbits gleaned from his first autobiography – being dragged back to New York for reshoots, finding Allen’s domestic arrangements a bit bizarre, feeling uncomfortable about having to do an (I kid you not) fairly graphic sex scene (this didn’t make it into the movie), and so on. Actually watching it, however, I found the film to be very familiar, albeit in a retroactive sort of way.

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Allen’s then-partner and muse Mia Farrow plays Hannah, a fairly successful actress, married to Michael Caine’s financier. The movie concerns two years in her life and the lives of those around her, mainly (as the title of the movie would suggest) her two sisters, played by Dianne West and Barbara Hershey (before she became Judge Dredd’s boss – yes, I know I’ve done that joke previously).

Not a great deal happens to Hannah herself; she is depicted as the strong, mostly silent lynchpin of the family. However, Caine finds himself besotted with Hershey, who is already involved with a much older man (Max von Sydow – one of several tips-of-the-hat to Ingmar Bergman in the film), and they begin an affair. West is struggling in her own acting career and has a number of problems, mostly connected to her own insecurity. She frequently borrows money from Hannah to fund her latest attempt at a career change, embarks on troubled romances, and so on.

The film’s other major plot thread concerns Hannah’s ex-husband, played by Allen himself. He is a TV producer and lifelong hypochondriac who is suddenly and shockingly confronted with his own mortality, which leads him to completely reassess his life and priorities. Allen being the performer that he is, this is the most openly comedic element of the film, with the scenes of him contemplating becoming a Roman Catholic or Hare Krishna inevitably seeming comic.

Nevertheless, there’s an introspective, serious undertone going on here, which does carry across into the rest of the movie – and the confrontation-with-mortality angle seems to me to be illuminating too. For all that the title suggests that this is a film with a female perspective, it seems to me that it’s actually more about the male mid-life crisis (Allen had just turned 50 when he made it) – if it’s about women at all, then it concerns them in terms of their relationships with the men in their lives: Caine and Allen both have relationships with more than one of the sisters, one of the main elements of the West story is an unhappy love affair, and so on.

In the end I’m not quite sure what the film is actually trying to say: on the face of things, everyone ends up reasonably happy. Nevertheless you can certainly discern some of the misanthropy that’s become a feature of Allen’s more recent work here if you look for it – the most successful, sensible, and well-adjusted of the three main women is cheated on by her husband with one sister, and endlessly sponged-off by another.

It’s all well-played, though, and engagingly written, but the stories aren’t particularly affecting and for me it lacked the playfulness and inventive wit of some of Allen’s earlier films. What’s very noticeable about Hannah and Her Sisters in terms of its place in the Allen canon is that the structure and tone of the film is very similar to that of many of his more recent offerings: everyone is affluent and metropolitan, the film switches back and forth between the different personal and romantic entanglements of a small group of connected characters, and so on. Having already seen films like Whatever Works, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I instantly understood the kind of film this was going to be. It’s certainly fresher and more accomplished than any of those, but it shares many of their flaws – strong performances and formal quirkiness don’t really obscure the fact that this is a film with a limited perspective that isn’t really as profound as it perhaps thinks it is. And – it goes without saying for an Allen movie – a few more jokes wouldn’t have gone amiss, either. But then I always did prefer the Early, Funny ones.

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For the last week or so, and I expect this really is just a coincidence, I seem to have found myself firmly lodged in the Grotto of Duff Sequels, what with Bourne Legacy, Descent Part 2 and Expendables 2 all appearing in quick succession (although to be fair Expendables 2 is still better than the first one). I always try to look on the bright side and find the silver lining, and bearing this in mind I thought I was now acclimatised enough to Duff Sequels to take the plunge and confront what’s famously one of the Duffest Sequels of all time in another episode of Is It Really As Bad As All That? Ladies, gentlemen and others, I give you Joseph Sargent’s legendary 1987 offering, Jaws: The Revenge.

This is a film which has embedded itself in popular culture in a highly peculiar way. A much-loved stand-up comedy routine by the otherwise-obscure Richard Jeni dissects the awfulness of Jaws: The Revenge in some detail. Michael Caine (whose appearance in the movie is often used to criticise his ‘I’ll do anything’ 80s work ethic) is wont to declare that he has never seen the film, which he’s heard is awful, but he has seen the house the sizable paycheck bought him, which he knows was very nice. The ‘This time it’s personal’ tagline often used to ridicule improbable sequel ideas originated, so far as I can tell, with this very film. But what lies beneath all these barnacular anecdotes and memes? What’s the actual movie like?

Well, the story opens in snowy New England and the small town of Amity where the original was set. Roy Scheider’s character, Martin Brody, has cunningly died in order to get out of appearing (the film appears to indicate a shark gave him a heart attack), and the main character is his widow Ellen (Lorraine Gary). One of her sons is a marine biologist in the Bahamas, while the other has joined the local police (who have a huge picture of Roy Scheider on the wall just to ram home that this is still the same franchise). All is lovely and Christmassy until young Deputy Brody has to go out into the harbour and faff about with a buoy or something. Much to his surprise, a giant shark erupts from the waters and chomps off one of his arms before setting about sinking his boat. We cut back and forth from the travails of Deputy Brody to a choir singing carols on the shore, but this effect is curiously lacking in pathos: possibly because the impression given is that the cherubic singing is actually drowning out Deputy Brody’s plaintive cries.

Unfortunately, drowning is not an option for Deputy Brody himself, and most of him is gobbled up. Widow Brody is traumatised and jumps to the somewhat implausible conclusion that this was a personal attack on her family by a vengeful shark, following the events of the previous movies (though probably not Jaws 3D as that doesn’t appear to be in continuity with this one). Everyone tries to persuade Widow Brody to be more rational, but they are playing a losing game as – and this is the point at which Jaws: The Revenge casts loose from the anchor of reason and sets sail for the wildest oceans of Cinematic Crapulousness – the film indicates that she is right. How is this shark connected to the other ones? How has it acquired some kind of peculiar homing instinct for members of the Brody clan? Why, given that she’s convinced that she’s being stalked by – and let’s not put too fine a point on this – a fish, does she spend the rest of the film on small islands and boats, rather than somewhere safely landlocked in the middle of a continent?

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Marine Biologist Brody (Lance Guest) turns up for the funeral bringing with him Boring Wife Brody and Irksome Kid Brody, and together they persuade Widow Brody to come and spend the festive season with them in the Bahamas, which at least means the scenery is more cheerful for the rest of the picture. Flying them to the island is waggish pilot Hoagie, who is played by Michael Caine.

(At this point I must digress and reveal that an Italian teenager approached me a short while ago and, very politely, asked, ‘Has anyone ever told you that you look like Michael Caine?’ Somewhat flattered, as Sir Michael was a handsome fellow in his youth, I replied ‘Not a lot of people know that’ (he didn’t get it) and waved him on his way. Only later did it occur to me that the lad probably hasn’t seen any Caine movies except the ones he’s made for Chris Nolan, which means I must look like Michael Caine from the age of 72 onwards. I really must try to get more sleep.)

Caine engages in a colossal struggle with the inconsequential banality of most of the script, bringing pretty much his full firepower to bear. The result is that Hoagie emerges as a relentlessly quirky and charismatic fellow surrounded by a gang of mannequins. Just to keep the thing limping along between shark attacks, once she arrives in the Bahamas, Widow Brody starts to think she’s been a bit silly thinking there’s a shark out there with a personal vendetta against her. However, at this point, the damn shark turns up again (it puts in its first proper appearance about thirty minutes in, floating past the camera in all its static, polymer-based pomp) and tries to eat Marine Biologist Brody and his boat. But he elects not to tell Widow Brody about this on the grounds it might upset her.

Things continue in a similar vein, with Marine Biologist Brody’s marine biology research somewhat impeded by the fact he can’t set foot in the water without an enormous rubber shark with a double bass turning up, until the shark mysteriously vanishes. Crikey! But it turns out that Boring Wife Brody has taken Irksome Kid Brody to the beach, little realising the peril they face. However, Irksome Kid Brody is too small a target and the cartilaginous assassin winds up eating a rather winsome lady in a bikini instead. Confirmed in her earlier suspicions, Widow Brody jumps on a passing yacht and heads out to sea. Is she planning to take the shark on mano-a-mano (so to speak)? Or is she planning to sacrifice herself to it? Or is she simply doing something utterly irrational simply because the plot demands it? Hmm, it’s so hard to say.

Speaking of doing utterly irrational things, Marine Biologist Brody and his buddy use Hoagie and his plane to chase after Widow Brody, only to find the vengeful fish closing in on her boat. Rather than saying ‘Hey, she’s on a boat, she’s safe, let’s just radio for help,’ they quite properly decide to crash their plane into the sea and swim over to the yacht to be with her. The shark is clearly miffed by this and makes an exception to its Brody-only diet to eat the plane. It has a go at eating Michael Caine, too: Caine greets the lunging predator with a hearty cry of ‘Ohhhhh shit!’, but whether this is actually a comment on the quality of the special effects is not clear.

Marine Biologist Brody’s buddy, a zany Rastafarian, selflessly throws himself down the shark’s throat while lodging some kind of anti-shark gizmo inside it. There is some bafflegab about the gizmo giving the shark seizures, but the main result seems to be the shark sticking its head out of the water and roaring like a dinosaur. While the shark is thus occupied, and perhaps also distracted by flashbacks from the original Jaws which appear for no obvious reason, Widow Brody impales the shark on the front of the yacht. Everyone goes home smiling and has a long talk with their agent.

It would be great to get an insight into the creative process behind Jaws: The Revenge, if only to learn exactly whose idea it was to base the plot around a shark with a personal vendetta. I suppose that with some effort one could come up with a worse idea, and the creative minds at the film studio The Asylum have indeed arguably made careers out of doing just that, but the key thing is that Asylum movies like 2-Headed Shark Attack are made with a hurr-hurr-hurr-isn’t-this-ironic sensibility – while Jaws: The Revenge is quite obviously taking itself seriously as a drama. But the premise of the film is so totally absurd that there is no value in this.

I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as a bad film, only a boring one – and, to be perfectly honest, for much of its running time Jaws: The Revenge is actually deeply tedious to watch. The rubber shark does not put in many appearances and this leaves the script with the problem of trying to find things for all the characters to do. This, to be honest, is where the problems with the central idea really start to have an effect. The premise of the film is completely illogical and as a result it’s very difficult for the characters to respond to it in a credible way. Even if the characters were to react to the idea of a shark with a hit list in a rational manner – by organising proper shark-hunting expeditions or simply going a really long way inland – it would either kill the story or completely transform what kind of film this was. It’s almost as if the film-makers were fully aware of what a ludicrous central concept the film has and are doing their best to avoid examining it in too much detail, even when the characters would naturally do just that.

And so, most of the time, the characters aren’t even talking about the shark, but their personal lives, their hopes for the future, their careers – or even just making inconsequential chit-chat. It is all quite horribly dull. Even Caine, for all his twinkly-eyed blokeyness, is more annoying than actually likable. The sheer banality of the dry land sections of Jaws: The Revenge makes them at least as irksome as the bits with unconvincing rubber shark models, but it’s very clear that the film has nothing more to offer to fill in the gaps between them. As exercises in sheer cack-handedness go, it takes some beating, and it’s made even more disagreeable by the decision to restage scenes from the original Jaws and also include sepia-toned flashbacks to it (suffice to say that, 12 years on and in reused footage, Roy Scheider still gets the best line in the movie).

Announcing that Jaws: The Revenge is a terrible film is not breaking bold new critical ground. However, most of the hatchet jobs on this film don’t really look much further than the incompetent special effects and the sheer, absurd stupidity of the central idea of the film. These are both fair game for criticism, but what seems to me to be just as interesting is the more subtly toxic effect that the main premise has on the quality of the drama throughout the movie – it seems to show that when your main idea is as incoherent and implausible as it is here, every other aspect of the drama and characterisation in the movie is going to suffer as a result, and that awkwardly trying to pretend your film is not silly means that you will end up not making a silly film, but a silly and boring one. Which is what Jaws: The Revenge is.

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