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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Gambon’

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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In the closest thing to miscegenation you’re likely to find in a mainstream multiplex, Universal Pictures (producers of the Fast and Furious series, amongst other high-powered blockbusters) have come together with Screen Yorkshire (producers of a wide range of generally quite miserable low-budget films) to make Oliver Parker’s Dad’s Army, a new version of the legendary British sitcom. Does that sound weird? It should. But in a good way or not? Well, if I tell you that in the new Dad’s Army an innocent young woman is clubbed into unconsciousness and lovable old Corporal Jones shoots someone in the head, you may get some inkling of how horribly astray the new proceedings go.

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In rather the same way that the historical existence of the British police box is now only widely known thanks to Doctor Who’s TARDIS, so I suspect the British Home Guard – a military organisation in existence between 1940 and 1944, made up of men too young and old for the army, intended to assist in the nation’s defence in the event of a Nazi invasion – would long since have become a footnote of history were it not for Dad’s Army. Even having to explain what Dad’s Army is feels very odd, but anyway – the sitcom ran between 1968 and 1977, clocking up 80 episodes, repeats of which have been a staple of the schedules pretty much ever since. In the UK it is genuinely beloved and instantly familiar in a way that is matched by only a tiny handful of other programmes.

So you can kind of understand why people might think tapping into the vast well of affection the public still have for the series was a sound commercial idea, despite the fact that virtually the entire original cast has been dead for decades (two members are hanging on and are duly wheeled out for cameos here). Certainly this film assumes familiarity with the Dad’s Army set-up – unlike the 1971 film version, which depicted the formation of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon, this one starts with them as a going concern.

In command is the fussy, pompous Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones), assisted by the terribly smooth Sergeant Wilson (Bill Nighy). In the ranks are panic-prone old soldier Jones (Tom Courtenay), young and callow Pike (Blake Harrison), wide boy Walker (Daniel Mays), grumpy Scot Frazer (Bill Paterson), and terribly nice old gent Godfrey (Michael Gambon). As a military unit their effectiveness is close to absolute zero, but they do try hard.

Walmington-on-Sea is sent into a very mild state of shock with the arrival of glamorous reporter Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta Jones, who probably qualifies as an imported Hollywood star even though she comes from Swansea), intent on doing a story on the unit. It turns out she and Wilson have history of a sort, which only increases Mainwaring’s normal inferiority complex. Even more important, however, is the revelation that there is a Nazi spy operating somewhere in the town, just as the Home Guard have been charged with protecting a vital supply depot…

Hmmm. You may be expecting a clever twist when it comes to the identity of the spy. You will not get one. You may in fact be expecting all sorts of things from the new Dad’s Army, for this is a film based on an undeniable classic, filled with brilliant actors from many different film, TV, and theatre traditions. But if your expectations are at all positive, a mighty disappointment is coming your way.

We seem to be having a mini-boom in the production of movies based on British sitcoms, possibly fuelled by the unreasonable success of the two Inbetweeners films (two of the Inbetweeners regulars have snagged roles here), with not just this but a movie of Absolutely Fabulous on the way. However, anyone making even the most cursory survey of Brit sitcoms on film will instantly see that these films are almost always utterly awful, and it is this tradition which Dad’s Army proudly, grimly, upholds.

Honestly, in 96 long minutes I felt the urge to laugh twice, mildly both times. There are a lot of talented people on this film which inevitably leads one to wonder just what the hell has gone so badly wrong. The obvious answer is to say that it’s simply because the original series had such unique, perfect chemistry between the cast, and such strong writing. Well, that’s true (though I have to say I often find the series to be rather too broad and sentimental for my tastes), but it’s not just the case that this movie is trying to copy the TV show and failing. This movie is a rather different beast.

The TV show, and indeed the 1971 movie, were both ultimately quite cosy and soft affairs, ultimately driven by a deep affection for the characters: a sort of ongoing cartoon or music hall sketch, delivered by wobbly videotape into people’s front rooms. In the new movie, someone gets shot dead in the first few minutes, which tonally feels terribly wrong for Dad’s Army. But it’s more than this: writer Hamish McColl doesn’t even seem to like the characters that much, and has felt the need to give most of them psychological issues and back-stories that are new to this version. There’s a undercurrent of harsh emotional realism and angst that somehow makes them all pitiable at least as much as lovable.

And this new-found realism does not sit well with the broad slapstick and sight-gags which are traditional Dad’s Army fare and which the film also works hard to include. To be honest, it kills most of the humour and the film often feels slightly childish as a result. You can’t be traditional Dad’s Army and something darker and grittier at the same time; one would have thought that was obvious. But apparently not.

I suppose some people might also take exception to the inclusion of Mrs Mainwaring as an on-screen presence (played by Felicity Montagu), arguing that the whole point of the character was that she was left to the viewer’s imagination – perhaps even to the fact that the womenfolk of the town play a rather more significant role than they ever did on TV, to the point where in parts it’s almost more like Last of the Summer Wine. The Diversity Police have paid a visit, I suppose, but given this is by far less incongruous than the badly misjudged tone of the film I find it hard to get very exercised by it.

The structure of the film is, I suppose, solid, and it does provide a showcase for the various performers to a give a virtuoso display of how one uses brilliant acting technique to avoid being embarrassed by substandard material. But the fact remains that it’s nowhere near funny or warm enough to be worthy of the Dad’s Army title – and, as a result, it’s actively depressing more than anything else.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 28th 2002:

[Originally preceded by a look at that year’s Academy Awards.]

It seems rather perverse to follow a look at the most racially significant Oscars in nearly 40 years with a review of Mark Mylod’s Ali G Indahouse, but that’s never stopped me before. For those of you unfamiliar with Ali G (exclusively those based outside the UK, I’ll bet) he’s a comedy character created by Sacha Baron Cohen, the joke being that although Ali G is a white middle-class man from a quiet London suburb, he dresses and acts like a black gangster from South Central LA. The distinction that he’s making fun of white people who behave like they’re black, rather than black people, isn’t immediately obvious, which has led to some controversy over here.

Anyway, having started life as the presenter of hoax interviews on a late-night satire show, the character went on to have his own (fairly uneven) series, and now, ominously, headlines his own movie1.

As the movie opens we find Ali (Cohen) hangin’ with his equally pathetic homeboys in the not-especially-mean streets of Staines. But his life is plunged into crisis when the local leisure centre is threatened with closure. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon) orders his deputy (Charles Dance) to find a new, in-touch candidate to run for office in the Staines parliamentary election. For his own reasons, however, Dance wants to find the most useless, incompetent idiot possible for this job – who on Earth fits that description…?

I did laugh quite a lot while watching the film, although it’s extremely hit-and-miss. There’s potential for political satire here, but the writers (Cohen and Dan Mazer) only make a token attempt at this, opting instead for – how can I put it? – a ceaseless flow of puerile smut. The movie is quite staggeringly filthy. No gag is too broad to be included, no double entendre too obvious, no joke too crude. (The film opens with our hero being fellated by his dog, but quickly abandons this level of sophistication.) The sheer brazenness of this is sort of impressive and there are some very funny lines – none especially quotable, alas. But the laughs dry up whenever the plot (yup, there is one, of sorts) rears its head – the movie never quite manages to be funny while advancing the story.

God knows what Michael Gambon and Charles Dance are doing in this sort of thing, but they play along gamely. The supporting cast is stuffed with familiar faces off the telly: Kellie Bright, Martin Freeman, and Rudolph Walker, for example, plus cameos from various TV journalists (some of whom even get their names spelt right in the credits). And my fellow Doctor Who fans will be glad to hear that Dalek operator extraordinaire John Scott Martin gets a funny one-line part.

But ultimately, I can’t help but have misgivings about the whole thing. No doubt the makers will claim that Ali G is a satirical character, and the film is meant to ridicule him and by extension his racism, sexism and homophobia. It seems to me, though, that Ali’s been adopted at face value as a spokesman by the same group he’s supposed to be satirising, and the writers seem happy to go along with this: Ali has, after all, recently released a hit single, a semi-serious collaboration with Shaggy (sample lyric: ‘Me Julie/Me loves you truly/From me head down to me goolie’). For much of the film the audience is encouraged to laugh with him rather than at him. He’s too unironically presented as the hero for his homophobia – to pick a trait at random – to be defensible as satire.

I found the presentation of female characters in the film particularly troubling. On the one hand, there are a large number of extremely attractive young women in the film, most notably Rhona Mitra as Dance’s sidekick, and they’re unfailingly portrayed in a leeringly exploitative way which is clearly unacceptable. But on the other hand, there are a large number of extremely attractive young women in the film, most notably Rhona Mitra as Dance’s sidekick, and they’re unfailingly portrayed in a leeringly exploitative way – fantastic! It’s a bit of a dilemma and no mistake.

Is this taking a low-brow, gross-out comedy a bit too seriously? Well, maybe, maybe not. I laughed while watching Ali G Indahouse, but felt distinctly uneasy about it afterwards. Would I recommend it? Well, put it this way – it’s like an Austin Powers movie, but without the wit, invention and charm, and clearly made on a tiny budget. If that sounds like your kind of film, by all means go ahead and see it. I’m off to type Ms Mitra’s name into some search engines (don’t worry, I’ll feel suitably tarnished doing it). Boyakkasha!

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 14th 2004:

I probably don’t need to point this out in the week that William Shatner releases a new music CD, but comebacks can be a risky undertaking. The movie provoking this thought is Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a deliberately-old fashioned romp starring Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow.

This movie seems mainly to have been marketed on the strength of its slightly unusual production technique – basically the actors shot their scenes in front of a bluescreen and everything else was computer-generated. Well, I have to say, that doesn’t sound especially novel given the vast quantity of digital effects work in many recent blockbusters. The fact that Conran’s using it to create offices and laboratories seems peculiar rather than interesting.

Well, anyway. Set in the late 30s (or so it’s implied, in which case all the characters display remarkable foresight as they keep referring to the 1914-18 conflict as World War One) this is the tale of swashbuckling mercenary H Joseph Sullivan (Law), who prefers to be known as Sky Captain, and plucky girl reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow), who prefers not to be known as that woman who made a prat of herself at the Oscars a few years ago. Top scientists are disappearing and scientific supplies are being stolen by weird and wonderful super-scientific creations, and Joe and his old flame Polly set out to solve the mystery. It leads them to the hidden lair of not especially sane scientist Totenkopf and his mechanical minions…

The thing about Sky Captain is that it doesn’t actually have very much in the way of plot. It has the feel of a short film blown up to feature length, without the script receiving a proportionate amount of work. As a result the story is extremely thin, the characters rather one-dimensional, and the dialogue a bit clunky. (That said, there’s a running gag about Paltrow’s camera that builds up to a genuinely funny closing gag.) As this is a loving pastiche of those old 40s movie serials (Flash Gordon, King of the Rocket Men, et al) this is technically perfectly correct, but it’s still less than a contemporary audience has come to expect.

But as an experiment in style goes, Sky Captain certainly looks different. The opening, New York-set section, from which most of the stuff in the trailer originates, has a slightly murky and over-processed look to it, almost like colourised sepia or a rotoscoped cartoon, but the rest of the film is less obviously processed and as such less distracting. The production designs and animation are a bit of a treat, as giant robots march through Manhattan and squadrons of ornithopters lay waste to airfields. It all looks convincingly retro, and this extends to the story, which after a while starts making obvious visual and narrative homages to famous 30s SF and fantasy films: so we get a bit based on Metropolis, then a bit lifted from Lost Horizon, then a bit from The Shape of Things to Come, then King Kong, and so on.

Spotting these in-jokes is possibly the most entertaining way of passing the time during Sky Captain, as once the visual novelty has worn off there’s not much here to stop the mind from wandering. Jude Law is arguably miscast, Paltrow seems a bit uncomfortable, and performances of the supporting cast are variable (Omid Djalili does another one of his fun self-styled ethnic scumbag turns, Michael Gambon is okay but only in it for about forty seconds, and Howling Mad Angelina Jolie still seems to think that putting on an accent excuses you from having to actually act). In fact the only other acting appearance worthy of note is the one which provoked my opening thought: because, ladies and gentlemen, Totenkopf is played by Laurence Olivier.

Well, ‘played’ is probably putting it too strongly as Larry’s actual screen-time is extremely limited. Those expecting a fully CGI’d rendition of one of the greatest actors of all time will be disappointed as he mainly appears as a giant crackly floating head. And, when he speaks, you cunningly only get to see him from the nose up, thus saving the effects crew from having to lip-synch his performance. It’s a bit of a disappointment and smacks very clearly of gimmickry. I expect Larry was advised against it, but these dead guys, do they listen to sense? I guess not.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is so beladen with gimmickry and pastiche, and so lacking in traditional narrative virtues, that it doesn’t really satisfy except on the most superficial level. I suppose making a film like this at all must count as some kind of technical triumph, and it’s never actually boring, but it lacks the wit and charm and energy that other films inspired by the pulpiest of pulp fiction somehow managed to retain. Possibly worth seeing as an oddity, but certainly not the shape of cinema to come.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 14th 2002:

On paper, Gosford Park reads like a traditonal detective story in the Agatha Christie mode. Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) lives in a house, a very big house in the country, and one weekend in 1932 hosts a shooting party there. Amongst the guests are his film-star cousin (Jeremy Northam), his blue-blooded but potless aunt (Maggie Smith), and a large number of other upper-class worthies. It rapidly becomes obvious that there are secrets within secrets here, and tensions rise until – gadzooks! – one of those present is murdered! Twice!

The most immediately striking thing about Gosford Park is the cast, which is incredible. The murderer could open up at them with a gatling gun and still be guaranteed to leave at least one theatrical knight, Bafta laureate or Much-Loved National Treasure standing. Apart from Gambon, Smith, and Northam, there’s Alan Bates, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas, Richard E Grant, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Kelly Macdonald, Charles Dance, Geraldine Somerville, Ryan Phillippe and Bob Balaban. All the people! So many people! And they all go round and round, round and round in their Gosford Park lives!

One of the crucial facts about Gosford Park is that a lot of these people are playing the servants: part of the legion of butlers, valets, housekeepers, footmen, maids and cooks that this society rested upon. This is a departure from the usual formula for this kind of story, especially as the script treats them as being every bit as interesting as their masters and mistresses. The logistical nightmare of dealing with so many visitors (not normally even considered by filmmakers) is neatly illustrated, as are the various arcane rituals of upstairs-downstairs life.

The film is primarily about the upstairs-downstairs chasm in British society and the way the people on either side of it interacted and were dependent on each other. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes may be a toff himself but the film is firmly on the side of the proles, with those in charge depicted as shallow, callous and self-obsessed. The murder itself seems to have been something of an afterthought, included solely for form’s sake. It’s certainly not especially difficult to work out whodunnit, the clues are fairly obvious. But it allows the film to explore its theme more fully, and gives Stephen Fry the chance to ham it up ever so slightly as a well-meaning but dimwitted police inspector, so let’s not grouse.

Fry’s is only one amongst many well-judged performances, as you might expect from such a cast. Not everyone gets the material they perhaps deserve – Derek Jacobi only seems to have about eight lines, for example – and so there seems to be a good deal of fighting over scraps. Kelly Macdonald is very impressive in the closest thing the film has to a lead role, Michael Gambon makes the most of his chances as the host, and Maggie Smith quietly goes into top gear and starts stealing every scene she appears in.

There’s not much wrong with Gosford Park at all: it’s intelligent, witty, and superbly written and directed. If the sheer size of the ensemble is a little overwhelming at first, well, stick with it, it all sorts itself out eventually. And if the murder-mystery elements are a little straightforward and undercooked, just accept the fact that you’ve been conned into watching a finely observed drama, rather than a period pastiche. A classy piece of work, in every sense of the word.

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