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Posts Tagged ‘Morgan Freeman’

Every family has its own little traditions; that’s part of what it means to be a family, I suppose. One of ours was that, every Christmas, someone would pore over the TV guide until we had located what time they were showing the 1959 version of Ben-Hur (they invariably were). Then, having made a careful note of exactly when it was on, we equally carefully didn’t switch on until a couple of hours later, because we were only really interested in the bit with the chariot race. I strongly get the impression that there was a similar tradition in the house of the makers of the new version of Ben-Hur, because in some ways this whole film feels like the work of people who are only really interested in the bit with the chariots.

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Yeah, they’ve actually gone and done a remake of Ben-Hur, bemusing though the decision is. Has the well of inspiration really run so dry? Is nothing safe from the curse of the pointless reimagining? What next, a remake of Jaws? A remake of West Side Story? A remake of Back to the Future? A remake of The Magnificent Seven? (Oh, hang on a minute.) Showing a rather sweet naivety, everyone involved insists this is a new adaptation of the Lew Wallace novel and has nothing to do with the other film versions (there have been several) whatsoever, in the apparent belief this means their movie will not be compared to death with the 1959 film, one of the most famous and successful films of all time. Good luck with that, guys.

The plot is, obviously, rather familiar: Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a privileged Jewish prince in the first century AD, no particular friend to the occupying Romans, but not intent on driving them out either: he just wants a quiet life. Things are complicated by the fact his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) is an ambitious Roman officer, and the time eventually comes when Ben-Hur must make a choice between loyalty to his brother and his people. He opts for the latter, and as a result finds himself framed for an attack on the Roman governor. His mother and sister are imprisoned and he is packed off to become a galley slave.

Still, you can’t keep a good Hur down, and one nightmarish sea battle later he is loose and working as a vet for charioteering impressario Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), all the while pondering how to exact vengeance against Messala, despite his wife’s pleas for him to move on (Mrs Ben-Hur is played by Nazanin Boniadi). Then Ilderim comes up with an idea for a way for Ben-Hur to safely take on Messala – and wouldn’t you know, it involves a chariot race…

I’m sure that many people outside my family also basically think that the chariot race sequence is the sine qua non of the 1959 version of Ben-Hur – well, whether it is or not, you could argue that in some ways it definitely is of this new film. The chariot race is in the poster, the film opens with a taster of the climactic race sequence, which is heavily foreshadowed throughout the first two acts of the film, and the closing credits are animated so the names of cast and crew gallop around the circus amidst clouds of dust. The problem is that if you’re going to pitch your movie so much on the strength of one set-piece sequence, it’s really got to be something special – and while the race here is good, it’s not great, not least because it’s so clearly been achieved with CGI where the 1959 race was staged ‘for real’.

Then again, doing stuff with CGI is the speciality of director Timur Bekmambetov, who is in charge on this occasion. Bekmambetov is the guy who gave the world Wanted, a demented thriller about superpowered assassins acting at the behest of precognitive knitting, along with Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter, a film which is every bit as strange as it sounds. Unfortunately something about this project seems to have cowed Bekmambetov a bit, for his usual irrepressible insanity is nowhere to be seen and, apart from during the sea battle and the chariot race, his style is rather anonymous and pedestrian.

But the overall impression one takes away from the new Ben-Hur is of a small film with aspirations to be a big one. Morgan Freeman is the only cast member most people will have heard of, and he goes all-out to provide some gravitas. Jack Huston is clearly trying his socks off too but there is no avoiding the fact that he is in the shadow of a colossus with no chance of escape. Whatever you think of Charlton Heston’s politics, he was one of the most charismatic film stars of all time, and he had more screen presence in one of his earlobes than Huston has in his entire body.

Nobody else makes much of an impression either, except, perhaps, Toby Kebbell. Kebbell has made something of a career out of doing bad guy roles where his face is never seen – he was an evil chimp in the last Planet of the Apes film and Dr Doom in the calamitous version of Fantastic Four last year – and actually appearing on screen must have been a nice change for him. Good though he is, his slight resemblance to a Vernon Kay who’s worried that Tess has been checking his SMS history again was rather distracting for me.

Messala is a rather more sympathetic and less malevolent character in this version of the film, which has had various nips and tucks performed on the plot, removing some elements of the plot entirely and building others up. This isn’t truly a grandiose epic of the old school, but something clearly aspiring to be grounded and emotionally real, with a predictably hard modern edge.

And perhaps something more too… In many ways the new Ben-Hur reminded me of Risen, a fairly obscure film I saw earlier this year which purported to be another sword-and-sandal drama, but actually turned out to be some sort of evangelical tract. There’s money in the Christian movie-going audience, provided you can get them on side. Hence we have a message about the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation rather than vengeance, a conclusion I can only describe as sappy, and – perhaps most significantly – a rather bigger role for Jesus in the story. Jesus is played by Rodrigo Santoro, an interesting choice given he is probably best known for playing the huge-and-jingly-and-rather-suspect god-king-villain in the 300 movies. Still, he does a perfectly fine job, and if we can have a Maori Jesus, why not a Brazilian one?

Unfortunately, it’s quite hard to get people to accept your film is about a Christian message of redemption and forgiveness when it’s being marketed almost entirely on the strength of one balls-to-the-wall CGI action sequence, and this may explain why this new version of Ben-Hur just hasn’t been doing the business at the box office. I’m not really surprised, because this is one of those films where virtually everyone’s first reaction to learning it exists is ‘Really?!? What’s the point?’

This film isn’t a disaster and it does have things of merit in it – but its general aura of redundancy, and the fact it clearly can’t decide whether it’s aimed at mainstream action movie fans or the Christian audience, result in something that’s a fairly lacklustre and colourless experience. Or, to put it another way: liked Ben, not so keen on Hur.

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With Awards Season pretty much over (nice job, Spotlight) we can hopefully get back to more quotidian fare for a bit – although, as previously mentioned, Blockbuster Season seems to be creeping outwards in both directions – not that long ago we routinely got a couple of months’ breathing space between the Oscars and the first big popcorn movie of the year – it’s down to about three weeks now. Frankly, I was glad of the change of pace and so along I trotted to see Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen, the latest vehicle for (deep breath) GERARD! BUTLER!

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Extremely long-term readers may recall my one-time enthusiasm for GERARD! BUTLER! and concern for his career, following winning supporting turns in otherwise dodgy films like Reign of Fire and Tomb Raider 2, but then a couple of things happened: firstly, Jason Statham came along, and just as you can only really support one football team, so you can only really get behind one slightly ridiculous action star, and secondly, GERARD! BUTLER! made 300 – so I figured he should be okay from now on, firmly established as a proper leading man.

Hmmm, well. On paper, London Has Fallen looks like silly popcorn fun, a good Bad Movie in the making. You hope to come out of it feeling slightly ashamed but nevertheless generally entertained, but there are always the possibilities of it either being simply dull and foolish, or – perhaps most remote of all – actually a pretty accomplished film. You don’t expect to emerge feeling genuinely appalled and quite angry, and yet this is more or less what happened to me.

The film opens as it means to go on with a US drone strike blowing up the wedding of an arms dealer’s daughter in Pakistan, and instantly one gets a strong sense of taste barriers being well and truly breached. We skip forward a couple of years and encounter (or catch up with, for those who’ve seen Olympus Has Fallen, to which this is a sequel) US President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his ace bodyguard, swivel-eyed maniac Mike Banning (Butler – I’m going to stop shouting now). A number of rather mechanical character beats follow, as we learn that Banning’s wife is heavily pregnant and he is considering resigning from the Secret Service to raise his child.

Then, however, the British Prime Minister unexpectedly drops dead, leading to a short-notice funeral gathering in London, attended by numerous world leaders (at one point the movie describes this as a ‘state funeral’, which is almost certainly wrong, but this is a tiny, tiny issue compared to everything else going on here). Obviously the dead PM is not Chinless Dave, but the film-makers have a bit of nudge-wink fun in their depiction of the various statespeople – the German chancellor is a severe-looking middle-aged blonde woman, the Italian premier is a bit of a lady’s man with a much younger wife, and so on.

So far the film has been a bit of a hard slog, with a lot of plot and character stuff being rather laboriously plumbed in, and no particular sign of a sense of humour on display. Then, however, in the space of a matter of seconds, the film executes an astonishing change of gear and soars off into a realm of howling absurdity. It turns out that most of the emergency services of London, not to mention the British army itself, has been heavily infiltrated by terrorist fanatics, and the whole funeral has been arranged as a massive trap for the visiting dignitaries. The scale on which this happens is utterly ridiculous: every passing ambulance driver pulls out a grenade launcher and starts trying blow Banning and the Prez up. The bearskin-wearing soldiers who guard Buckingham Palace start mowing down onlookers. Every tower block in London suddenly has a terrorist packing a missile launcher on the roof. Logic and credibility are completely discarded in the cause of finding new things to shoot at and/or blow up.

Well, of course, that arms dealer whose daughter got blown up at the start is back for revenge against the forces of the west, and he and his family will not stop until they’ve completed their sweep of world leaders by taking out the US President too. However they have reckoned without Banning and his swivel-eyed mania!

And, um, yuck. To be honest, it’s almost enough to make you long for the omni-competent president of Clinton era films like Independence Day and Air Force One, because I suspect we would then have been spared a dreary, ugly character like Banning at the centre of the film. I wonder how much Eckhart is being paid to essentially play second banana: he inevitably comes across as a rather soft and ineffectual figure, simply because Butler looks better as a result. (Eckhart doesn’t even get to make the big stirring speech at the end of the film – that job goes to Morgan Freeman’s Veep, because you always want Morgan Freeman making your big speeches if you can manage it.) I say ‘better’: I found the character almost impossible to like. There’s a scene where Banning gives someone a painful, drawn-out death by stabbing, mainly so the victim’s listening brother can hear it. ‘Was that really necessary?’ cries the President, aghast. ‘No,’ says Banning. It’s a sign of London Has Fallen‘s lack of self-awareness that one plot element is the difficulty people have in telling good guys from bad guys; well, I know how they feel.

I’m not sure such an uncompromising character would be improved by being played with more of a twinkle in the eye and an attempt at warmth, but Butler doesn’t even seem to try. At one point he’s about to set off to butcher another squad of terrorists, ordering the Prez to hide in a cupboard while he does so. ‘What happens if you don’t come back?’ bleats the leader of the free world. ‘You’re ****ed,’ says Banning, and again it’s not clear if this is supposed to be funny or not.

Then again, as I mentioned up the page, London Has Fallen has serious tone issues throughout. There’s nothing wrong with a crazed action movie sensibility, with one man crunching his way through legions of faceless goons and lengthy sequences resembling nothing so much as a shoot ’em up computer game, but I think that kind of disqualifies you from attempting to make serious points about contemporary geopolitics and the attendant ethical issues. This won’t be the year’s only film where drone strikes are a plot point, but hopefully it’s the most messed-up one. The villains are, of course, pretty much presented as evil incarnate once they start bumping off world leaders and tearing down London, but you would have to be some kind of sociopath not to feel that they kind of have a point – the movie starts off with a wedding being bombed by the ostensible good guys, after all. The film concludes with another drone attack, and while it’s probably supposed to be interpreted as the righteous vengeance of the good guys, I just got a queasy sense of an endless cycle of bitter violence gearing up for another iteration.

In short, any moral ambiguity in London Has Fallen is almost certainly not an intentional creative choice – the characters and dialogue are too gung-ho cartoony for that to be credible – but actually the result of artistic incompetence. I mean, the film is technically proficient, but that’s meaningless as a piece of praise these days, it’s like saying ‘well, at least they remembered to turn the cameras on’. There’s also a sense in which the film is actively disingenuous – the bad guys are, we’re repeatedly told, super-villain arms dealers, not motivated by any other religious or ethical creed. Hmmm, yeah, but they’re arms dealers with a middle-eastern surnames and complexions, much given to beheading prisoners on live internet feeds. You would have to be thicker even than this film’s target demographic not to figure out what’s really going on.

We live in a more dangerous world than was the case a few years ago – or at least that’s how we perceive it, which may amount to much the same thing. Spectacular terror atrocities on the streets of western nations are not just the stuff of fantasy any more, and there are arguably worthwhile and interesting films to be made on this topic. But just making a bone-headed video-game style shooter with fantastically thin characters and no sense of moral compass or the actual issues involved isn’t just crass, it’s dangerous and insulting. It’s just exploiting fear and feeding it, rather than trying to take any steps to improve the situation (unless you genuinely believe that blowing people up is the answer to every problem – funnily enough, the bad guys in this film would seem to agree with you).

At the end of the film, Gerard Butler’s character cradles his new-born daughter and asks ‘What are you going to be passionate about?’ Well, jingoistic nonsense, human rights violations and stabbing people to death, if she’s anything like her dad. I would have the mite taken into care forthwith. Whether the same measures would help Gerard Butler’s film career, I don’t know, but it’s probably worth a try. This movie is horrible, and I’ve a nasty feeling that left to his own devices, Butler is only going to get worse.

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For a long time there was a disquieting rumour that the directorial career of Luc Besson had some kind of self-imposed limit: Besson having decided as a young man that he was only going to do a certain number of movies and then quit the business. Thankfully (for I always find Besson’s movies to be interesting and entertaining), this idea seems to have been abandoned, and indeed – after a fairly long stretch between 1999 and 2010 where his only credits were for the oddball Angel-A and a couple of children’s films – Besson seems to be back in the saddle with something like his old regularity.

As a writer and producer Besson is known for a seemingly-endless stream of efficiently barmy action movies, but his work as a director seems to be moving in a more challenging direction. No film is actually easy to make well, but a narrative-driven genre movie is certainly a less daunting prospect than a metaphysical examination of the human condition. For me it is telling that one of Besson’s more recent producing credits is for the environmentalist documentary Home, which certainly leans in this direction, and it may perhaps give us a different perspective on his new movie Lucy.

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The film opens somewhat unexpectedly with some cells replicating via the wonders of CGI, followed by an equally CGI ape-creature going about its business in the ancient past. But from here we go to much more familiar territory for Besson-watchers, as we meet Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), a young American woman apparently studying in Taipei, although it has to be said neither script nor performance are really convincing on this point. Lucy’s sleazy boyfriend co-opts her into making a delivery to Mr Jang (Choi Min-Sik), yet another of those terrifying Asian gang-lords who are such a frequent figure of the Besson canon. The delivery turns out to be of a mysterious new drug, and Jang expresses his gratitude by having a packet of the stuff surgically implanted into Lucy’s gut so she can carry it through customs for him.

However, Jang’s staff are not quite up to speed on the plan and prior to taking Lucy to the airport decide to have a bit of fun with her. There is a scuffle and the packet bursts, flooding her system with the chemical, the main function of which is to massively increase brain function. The film would have us believe that most people only use 10% of their brains, but in Lucy’s case this figure begins to spike dramatically.

According to Lucy, using more than 20% of your brain actually gives you superpowers: the ability to disregard pain and fear, in the first place, but then fearsome bodily co-ordination, the power to manipulate electromagnetic fields, and then more and more cool stuff as time goes by. There is always the danger your body will spectacularly disintegrate, apparently, but the cool stuff surely makes this risk worthwhile. Lucy decides to make use of her new powers by flying off to Paris, where she can find leading brain expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). Always assuming Mr Jang doesn’t catch up with her first, of course.

There may be some elements of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon in this scenario (Everyperson has their intellect massively boosted), but the most recognisable elements of this film are resolutely old-school Besson: the ass-kicking heroine, the Asian gangsters, the world-weary French cops who show up towards the end. On the other hand, the film rockets off into some very weird areas unlike anything Besson’s really touched since The Fifth Element, and he himself has described his ambitions in making it as a mixture of Leon, Inception, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. So perhaps the polarised reviews and general bemusement which have greeted Lucy are understandable.

Some people have treated Lucy as either a straight thriller or a superhero movie with philosophical ideas above its station, but I think this really does it a bit of a disservice. Right from the start the film is rather adventurously directed, with the opening sequence – Lucy being taken by the gangsters – intercut with thematically-relevant stock footage of cheetahs hunting a gazelle. Even after this, the plot about Lucy and Mr Jang is interspersed with scenes of Morgan Freeman delivering a preposterous bafflegab lecture, which most often consists of his narration playing over cod-profound images of wildlife and nature. It’s like a strange mash-up of Nikita with Koyaanisqatsi or Samsara (indeed, footage from Samsara turns up) – but then that’s really what Lucy is.

That said, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss Lucy as a routine thriller with dollops of added pretension: I got the distinct sense that Luc Besson wanted to deliver a film about the nature of being human and our place in the world, but decided to make it a bit more commercial by adding a few gun-toting gangsters into the mix. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s utterly ridiculous – at times Lucy plays like an absurd deadpan comedy. It’s hard to express just how wacko Lucy gets in its third act without spoiling the plot, but it is waaaaay out there.

Certainly, as an action thriller Lucy isn’t going to supplant Leon in anyone’s top ten, though this is mainly a function of the plot rather than anything else: Lucy’s powers develop so rapidly that the other characters lose the ability to realistically threaten her very quickly, though for form’s sake there is a massive gun-battle near the end of the film. This was a bit disappointing as I would have enjoyed seeing Johansson take out a few more vanloads of goons.

On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson gives a seriously impressive performance – rather better than the film strictly deserves, if we’re honest. Her fear and distress in the opening sequences (I feel obliged to mention that these do border on the misogynistic, but I expect Besson would defend them by saying they just increase the impact of Lucy’s ultimate transformation and empowerment) are replaced by a superhuman detachment and intelligence, but there’s also a moment where she tries to describe her expanded perceptions to her mother which is genuinely moving. Perhaps most impressive is her ability to deliver some of Besson’s vaultingly silly and pretentious dialogue with an impressively straight face – though this is also true of Morgan Freeman, and the scenes near the end where the two of them earnestly debate the nature of reality while a full-scale gang war rages in the next room are cherishable.

As you can probably tell, I did enjoy Lucy rather a lot: to be honest, the combination of highbrow philosophical SF and old-school action movie tropes doesn’t quite work, and the movie grows increasingly absurd as it goes on, but I couldn’t help but enjoy its ambition. It is an incredibly ambitious film, conceptually, and if it occasionally doesn’t hit the targets it sets itself there is a lot of entertainment to be had along the way. And you have to admire Luc Besson’s drive to keep doing new things – this certainly isn’t his best film ever, but it’s probably his craziest, and that’s an excellent second-best.

 

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There is a sense in which Wally Pfister’s Transcendence is one of those movies that was inevitably going to be made sooner or later: it deals with a hot-button issue somewhere on the borderline between science and society, the sort of thing which is still essentially speculative, but sufficiently close enough to reality for people to be thinking seriously about it. As a piece of socio-cultural history it may well be recalled as a flag-moment in the development of our awareness of an idea: if something is well-enough established as a concept for Hollywood to start making a big-budget all-star cast movie about it, it can’t be that obscure. Whether or not the movie is any good is another matter, of course.

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The movie tips its hand by opening with a prologue set in a post-technological world where lifestyles seem to have stepped back in time a century or two: mobile phones lie discarded, laptops are used to prop open doors, and so on. We are promised the story of how this came about.

It turns out to be the story of brilliant computer scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). They are both working on creating a strong Artificial Intelligence in the belief that such an entity, capable of improving its own capabilities at extraordinary speed, would revolutionise the world. Unfortunately a radical terrorist organisation has appeared and is devoted to stopping work on this kind of system, and an attack from one of these people leaves Caster with only a very short time to live.

Using radical new technology, Evelyn and her friend Max (the ever-watchable Paul Bettany) attempt to save Caster. That’s save as in ‘save to a hard-drive’ – they wire his brain up to electrodes and copy his cerebral functions to a computer, effectively creating a download of his mind. But once Will Caster’s body has expired, in what sense is the entity in the computer truly him? Have they in fact just spawned something totally new and alien, a potential threat to civilisation?

Well, this is just the first act of the movie, and probably its strongest segment: as I believe I’ve mentioned in the past, I am somewhat familiar with some of the philosophical issues associated with AI research, and the movie articulates these clearly and intelligently. From here, however, the film’s identity as a successor to fondly-remembered early 70s SF movies like The Andromeda Strain, The Forbin Project, and Phase IV becomes much clearer. Much of the action takes place in gleaming underground installations, the nature of human existence is pondered upon at length, and there is a slightly awkward mixture of action set-pieces and visual and narrative extravagance. As usual, some rather good actors (in this case Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy) are retained solely to stand around on the periphery of the plot and look vaguely concerned.

And, as you may have guessed, the whole thing doesn’t quite come together as a satisfying whole. Partly this is because, while the dialogue is telling us this story is about a potentially world-changing event, the actual images are all about a small town in the middle of nowhere with a lot of solar panel. There’s no sense of scale to the crisis (there’s not much sense of crisis at all, if we’re honest), while the film’s transition from just-about-plausible near-future drama to something more fantastical is a bit of a wrench as well. The fact that the plot appears to be well-endowed with a number of big holes is also a problem.

This is ultimately a film about ideas, but – presumably in an attempt to make it more commercial – thriller and action elements have been grafted on, without much conviction. There’s a subplot about nanotechnology being used to enhance people so they become superhuman cyborgs, but the film shies away from using this as a device to create the extravagant action sequences you might expect. In a way this is commendable, as they clearly don’t want to make a blandly obvious and simplistic film dealing with a black-and-white ideology.

On the other hand, it may just be that Pfister and his team have just made a vague and oblique and slightly confused film dealing with a black-and-white ideology instead. It’s probably a great problem for Transcendence that it’s come out only a few months after Her, another movie about the nature of AI and how human beings will come to terms with it, both as a society and in our personal relationships. However, Transcendence is a much more conservative movie than Her: it largely functions in a cautionary-tale mode, the usual old story of scientists interfering with things of which man was not meant to know, playing God, and so on (there’s a fair bit of religious imagery in this film). It gives the human condition a privileged status and seems to default to the assumption that anything radically different from and more powerful than us is necessarily a threat. To be fair, the film does hedge its bets to a considerable degree come the climax – the human characters may just be acting out of an unjustified fear of the AI – but this seemed to me to just be trying to give the conclusion a little spurious depth.

Wally Pfister is a brilliant cinematographer and long-time collaborator with Christopher Nolan, whom I was not surprised to find credited as an executive producer on Transcendence. However, this doesn’t have the clarity of ideas, the narrative drive, or indeed the sheer innovation of any of Nolan’s own movies. The near-total humourlessness of the film is a problem, and none of the actors really seem capable of bringing their characters completely to life (it increasingly seems to me that when Johnny Depp isn’t in camp overdrive mode, he just comes across as slightly stoned all the time), but the main problems with the film come from the storytelling issues I mentioned above. It has a whole bunch of ideas and themes it wants to deal with, but it can’t quite build a story just from them alone, and the inclusion of more traditional action-SF elements doesn’t work. This is an interesting film, and a curious attempt at a 70s-style intelligent-SF movie four decades on – but it simply isn’t close to being completely satisfying as a story.

 

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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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All right, as you probably know, I try to avoid proper spoilers hereabouts – if I can, anyway. Every now and then, however, a film comes along which it is very difficult to talk about in any detail without risking giving the game away about its story. This is particularly the case with movies which help themselves to story ideas and concepts from other (usually low-budget) films willy-nilly, presumably in the belief that no-one will notice the steal – or nobody who matters, anyway. Joe Kosinski’s Oblivion is one such movie.

oblivion-movie-poster

Oblivion (the meaning of the title remains somewhat obscure in the context of the film) is not a sequel or a remake of a big-name property, nor is it a superhero or TV show adaptation. This may explain why it has slipped out ahead of the pack of big summer genre movies (summer movie season now starts in late April, apparently, which is frankly absurd), even though it stars a performer of the magnitude of Tom Cruise.

Cruise has shown an interest in science-fictional undertakings on and off for over a decade now (insert Scientology joke here if you wish) and this is his latest excursion into the genre. He plays Jack Harper, a repairman and one of the very last people on Earth. A catastrophic war with invading aliens has left virtually the entire planet a desolate ruin, and the task of Cruise and his partner Andrea Riseborough is to maintain the security drones protecting a network of power rigs generating energy for a colony of survivors on Titan.

The rigs are threatened by shadowy creatures nicknamed Scavs, with whom Cruise has various run-ins when not waxing lyrical about the good old days, being troubled by enigmatic dreams of a pre-war Earth featuring a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko), or hanging about the remains of famous buildings – the Big Book of Sci Fi Cliches axiom that the more iconic a building is, the more disaster-resistant it will prove is fully in force. But then a Scav signal appears to trigger the re-entry of an ancient spacecraft, and despite being warned off by his own mission control, Cruise discovers within the hibernating form of the woman from his dreams – and she appears to recognise him…

If you are partial to SF movies, and have yourself been in stasis for the last four years, then you will probably quite like Oblivion. It looks impressive, the performances of the four leads (Morgan Freeman turns up to give proceedings some gravitas, but the nature of the plot precludes me from saying in what circumstances) are all at least solid, and for a while it seems to be riffing on ideas and images from SF movies of the early 70s with skill and insight.

That said, it’s not nearly as subtle or clever as it needs to be – a clodhopping early reference to Cruise having had his memory wiped signposts very early on that the audience is being set up for a major plot twist, and so it proves. The twist in question is effective enough, and, to be fair, it’s followed by a few more which are also decent. Oblivion is not short on cleverness – the problem is that it does have a serious shortfall of new ideas, genuine thrills, and soul, and some of the plot does strain credibility just a bit (the ending in particular is an outrageous attempt at having cake and eating it).

I actually feel a bit guilty about not liking Oblivion more than I do, because for all of this there are some genuinely great things about this film – the production design is great, the soundtrack is interesting, and Andrea Riseborough blasts everyone else off the screen, as usual. The problem is that I liked this film even more the first time I saw it, when it starred Sam Rockwell and was called Moon.

I don’t think I’m overstating things if I describe Oblivion as a gargantuanly-budgeted remake of Moon which has had various action sequences, an alien invasion, and a love story grafted onto it without a great deal of elegance. The premise, atmosphere, and even a couple of specific scenes all seem uncannily familiar. If you haven’t seen Moon, then this probably doesn’t illuminate you much – but at least I haven’t spoiled Duncan Jones’ exceedingly fine film for you. If you have, then you now have a very good idea of the direction in which Oblivion ends up going (sorry).

For me the similarities were so numerous and so glaring that they really got in the way of my enjoyment of Kosinski’s film (which, for the record, purports to be an adaptation of an unpublished graphic novel – hmmm). Others may well have a different experience, which is fair enough – there are good things going on here. But I still think that if you don’t like SF, you’re not going to warm to Oblivion simply due to the film’s premise, and if you do, its derivativeness and arguable lack of real substance isn’t going to endear it to you, either. Judging it on its own terms, this is quite possibly a better film than I’m giving it credit for – but to do so seems to me to require wilfully ignoring just what a blatant knock-off it is.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 31st 2008:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. We have a bit of a good news/bad news situation to begin with this week – the good news is that we’re not looking at yet another superhero movie! On the other hand, however, it is another comic-book adaptation.

The opus in question is Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted, which boldly takes the summer action movie to places it has never been before: and indeed to places which may not have actually existed before. Whether or not this is a good thing I will leave to you to decide.

It opens promisingly enough with a solemn caption describing the foundation of a cult of assassins by some medieval weavers. I briefly wondered what weavers needed assassins on the payroll for, deciding that a) the woollen goods trade was a bit more rock ‘n’ roll back then and b) this was just a bit of background colour and not that relevant to the plot. Happily, I have seldom been more wrong.

After the caption we spend a lot of time in the company of hamster-like nobody Wesley (James McAvoy) who has a rubbish job where he’s victimised by his boss, a trampy girlfriend who’s seeing his traitorous best mate, no money, low self-esteem, etc etc. All this changes when he’s accosted in the supermarket by Fox (Angelina Jolie) – it’s not clear if this is actually her name or just a placeholder description they forgot to get back to. Ol’ Air-bag Mouth is there to protect him from an attack by master assassin Cross (Thomas Kretschmann) and does about eight million dollars worth of property damage in the process. After this she wheels him off to a textile mill where a bloke called Sloan (Morgan Freeman, having some fun) basically re-does the red pill/blue pill scene from The Matrix with him, except this time it involves more cruelty to animals. (Wanted sort of revolves around cruelty to animals, on an epic scale. And cruelty to people, come to think of it. It’s sort of comprehensively vicious. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

It turns out Wesley is the son of the world’s greatest assassin, who belonged to the previously-established cadre of weaver-backed hitmen (‘Do you guys kill people or make sweaters?!?’ wails our hero, confused). Wesley’s dad has apparently been taken out by Cross, and Sloan and Fox want him to join the business and exact revenge…

Wanted would like to be The Matrix so badly it hurts, and to be fair it gets much of the way there: the action sequences are extraordinary, although for the most part they’re so ludicrously over-the-top that they’re funny rather than thrilling. However, what really makes this movie distinctive, if that’s the right word, is the whole weaver-hitman angle. You see, Sloan and the gang aren’t your standard mercenary hired guns. They are the Assassins of Destiny, operating on some sort of utilitarian principle – it’s okay to kill one innocent person if that saves a thousand others down the line somewhere. (This moral justification is somewhat undermined by a sequence where Wesley cheerfully offs virtually an entire train full of innocent people in order to get his man.) This would be quite a cool idea were it not for the somewhat unexpected mechanism by which Destiny communicates with them. The mechanism in question is a loom.

No, really. Morgan Freeman keeps the loom in his bit of the factory and by looking at all the little bobbles in the fabric it produces and doing some sort of kabbalah he can decipher who Destiny would like to have shot in the head. This is very probably the most demented and risible idea in the entire history of cinema, but at least it has originality on its side (I was going to put in a name-drop/joke here about once having my palm read by Mark Millar (writer of Wanted), the spectacular inaccuracy of his predictions, and my hopes he has better luck with the loom – but it turns out this bit isn’t in the original comic. Bugger).

Wesley, indeed, has justifiable qualms about this basis for his activities to begin with, but comes around to the company line fairly rapidly. One gets the impression that this is because if he buys the story about the predictive linen he gets to hang out with Fox, shoot guns at people, do car stunts, and basically look cool, and if he doesn’t then, well, it’s back to his old job for him. (The fact that the Loom of Doom keeps fingering rich fat guys for the chop rather than homeless teenage mothers may help – it certainly helps him hang on to the audience’s sympathies.) This lack of any kind of coherent moral underpinning is fundamental to Wanted. In many ways it seems to be an inadvertent illustration of that old saw about power corrupting. No sooner does Wesley learn of his true heritage than he’s telling his boss where to stick it and half-braining his treacherous pal, but one strongly senses that this isn’t because he’s suddenly and triumphantly in touch with his true self, but because Morgan Freeman has just stuck $3 million in his bank account which means he can act like a prong all he likes now without worrying about getting the sack.

This is not, however, one of those movies which rewards too much excavation. It is the purest kind of popcorn nonsense, one of the most thoroughly excessive movies of recent years (though it doesn’t quite reach the astounding level of Crank), and for the most part highly – if guiltily – entertaining. The levels of sadistic violence to man and beast, the quantity of cranial splatter, the cheerful immorality and the borderline misogyny (the female characters are all cyphers, horrible, or both) may leave a bad taste in the mouth for some, though. In general, though, this is a very silly action movie whose only real message is that if you’re going to base your assassination agency around looking at bits of cloth, no good will come of it. And I think we can all learn something from that.

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