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Posts Tagged ‘Natalie Portman’

Musings on The Death of Cinema, Part Two: you know, the fact that You Were Never Really Here is (famously) only showing at four Odeons in the UK neither surprises nor concerns me, particularly – both the film and its director have art-house critical darling written all over them. What it says about our culture, that we are so ready to accept that such a superbly talented artist is essentially only of interest to a niche audience, is another matter and probably too substantial to be resolved on a humorous film review blog.

What is, perhaps, slightly more worrying are signs of a tendency for films to bypass cinemas entirely and get their first introduction to the world via the bold new frontier of streaming sites. We are here – and I find myself obliged to abandon my usual principled circumlocution and refer to the site by name – in the world of the Netflix Original. Now, some of Netflix’s own films are cheap-ass potboilers, and even when they do spend a lot of money the results are not always impressive (Bright, for instance, apparently had a budget of $90 million). But this is to some extent a whole new ball game, for – unlike a traditional studio – Netflix is not concerned with individual ticket sales, and they seem more prepared to take risks.

Which brings us to the strange case of Paramount Pictures, Netflix, and Alex Garland’s Annihilation. The story goes as follows: Paramount agreed to back Annihilation, an SF-horror movie based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer, to be directed by Garland (also responsible for the well-received but – if you ask me – slightly overrated Ex Machina). $55 million was spent; the movie was made, and previewed to some punters. The punters had issues with it, and Paramount demanded changes. The film-makers refused (I suppose there’s another discussion to be had about the pernicious influence of preview screenings on films: I think it was Mark Kermode who said that if they’d preview-screened Casablanca, no-one today would remember it at all).

At this point Netflix swooped in and a deal was struck: Paramount would distribute the movie in cinemas in the US and China, but as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Annihilation would effectively be a Netflix Original, despite having been made with that big-screen experience in mind.

Certainly I would imagine seeing Annihilation on the big screen would be a memorable experience, for this is a visually lavish movie, if nothing else. Natalie Portman plays Lena, an ex-soldier-turned-biology-professor (go with it) who as the story starts is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaacs) on a classified mission some time earlier.

But then Kane returns, apparently from the dead, seemingly a changed man, unable to say much about his experiences, and rapidly falling extremely ill. The armed forces descend and both Lena and Kane are taken into custody, under the oversight of Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The truth is explained to Lena: an uninhabited region of swampland on the southern coast of the USA is now host to ‘the shimmer’, a mysterious, rapidly expanding zone which appears to defy the normal laws of physics. Numerous teams of soldiers have been sent into the zone to try and find the source of the phenomenon; Kane is the only one to return.

Lena joins another mission heading into the zone, a primarily scientific one led by Ventress herself. But the zone is a realm of mutation and chaos, where the laws of nature seem to be breaking down – can the team members even preserve their sanity, let alone their lives?

Annihilation is clearly the work of the same sensibility as Ex Machina: it takes some classic, maybe even well-worn SF tropes, and handles them in a stylish, cerebral way. Garland’s familiarity with classic science fiction has been clear ever since his script for 28 Days Later, which is in many ways loosely adapted from The Day of the Triffids; he also wrote the screenplay for the 2012 Judge Dredd movie. While Annihilation is ostensibly based on VanderMeer’s novel, suggestions that the movie draws on a range of other sources seem to me to be on the money.

It seems to me that Gareth Edwards’ Monsters has had some influence on the film, with its scenes of weirdly-hybridised ecosystems and urban desolation; you can also, perhaps, discern a more distant inheritance from the likes of The Thing. The film certainly sits comfortably within a wave of modern SF films which are visually striking but somewhat obscure in their storytelling – here I’m thinking of movies like Under the Skin, Midnight Special, and The Signal.

A number of people have said that Annihilation has at least as much in common with H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space as it does with VanderMeer’s book, and this strikes me as a very good call. The short story in question concerns the fall to Earth of a strange meteorite, and the insidious and gradual effects it has on the ecology of the surrounding area, to say nothing of the inhabitants. In addition to having very similar premises, both stories have the same queasy feeling of wrongness, of a world being twisted out of shape.

That said, while Annihilation does feature some interesting viscera, it is hardly visceral – as with Ex Machina, it is altogether too cool and measured for genuinely powerful emotions to manifest themselves. There’s no real feeling of tension of threat; even though the team are very likely heading into the zone on a suicide mission (no-one else has returned), there is no apprehension or foreboding involved.

(I suppose I should comment on the fact that the exploration team is made up entirely of women, although this is one of the elements inherited from the novel rather than an innovation of Garland’s. Does it feel like the movie is trying to make a slightly ostentatious and contrived pitch to a certain type of progressive audience? Well, maybe; for me it may just be that it feels a bit odd that the members of a science team are all packing assault rifles, as if this is necessary in order to make it clear that they are strong and independent women – I find the ass-kicking warrior woman to be as tedious a stereotype as her male counterpart. I suspect the film would feel quite different with differently-gendered characters; there is a lot to unpack here. I must further note that despite the predominantly female cast, the film has still been criticised on the grounds that Portman’s character should be Asian, and Leigh’s should be partly Native American, which if nothing else is a reminder that there is no-one more relentlessly uncompromising than the virtuous.)

Apart from its spectacular visuals, Annihilation‘s main virtue is its icy weirdness, for it never quite gets you where you live, and there’s not enough going on for it to qualify as an action-horror either. It is a film of ideas, and most of those ideas are fairly rarefied ones, about the nature of identity and what it means when this starts to disintegrate. Opinion, I suspect, will be divided by this film, especially by the closing section, which will either be a bravura exploration of complex themes or a borderline-absurd piece of pretentious artiness, depending on your point of view.

Has the cinema-going world beyond the US and China been deprived of a treat, given that Annihilation is only available over the internet? Um, well, maybe: certainly this film is frequently stunning to look at, and that would only be emphasised on the big screen. Worse films than this one will certainly get a major cinema release this year. But then it’s not really an issue of quality, is it, but rather one of how commercial a movie should be. Annihilation is somewhere on the outer limits of mainstream genre cinema, and I think it might have struggled to find an audience if it had received a conventional release.

I suppose in the end it is just the nature of cinema as a commercial undertaking: films are defined as successes or failures by their box-office take at least as much as by their creative achievement; studios don’t produce films to support the arts, they do so to make a profit. I suppose it is preferable to have the film-makers’ cut of Annihilation available to a wide audience by whatever means, than for it to be loitering on a shelf somewhere, or slipped out direct-to-DTV as a famous flop, or savagely recut to turn it into something more comfortingly conventional. I don’t think Annihilation is a truly great film, but it is well-made, full of ideas, reasonably well-performed, and has a very strong sense of what it wants to be; we need more films like this, and less designed-by-committee lowest-common-denominator movie-making. The fact that Annihilation hasn’t got a cinema release is a bit of a shame; if it came to be the case that films as quirky and unusual as this could only get an internet release – well, that would be very bad news indeed.

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Let us cut directly to the central burning issue of the week. It is with something of a heavy heart that I have to report that Marvel Studios have perpetrated a bit of a cheat at the end of Thor: The Dark World, their latest box-office guzzling extravaganza. One of the incidental pleasures of the various Marvel films is sitting through the interminable credits for the teaser scene at the end which either sets up the next film in the series or (in the case of Iron Man 3) just provides some fan-pleasing comic relief. In a welcome move for those of us who sometimes have to leave the premises sharpish in order to catch the bus home, the credits scene from The Avengers was moved to a mid-credits position; Iron Man 3 reverted to the post-credits position. One of the issues with Thor: The Dark World (and, all right, it’s a comparatively minor one) is that it apparently has both a mid-credits and post-credits sequence.

So what, you may say – well, what happened at the screening I attended was that virtually everyone stayed put as the credits rolled, until the mid-credits bit appeared (this scene, featuring a rather camp Benicio del Toro, will probably baffle anyone not heavily steeped in Marvel arcana and is more confusing than appetising). At this point we relaxed, all got up and went home, missing the post-credits sequence. I wouldn’t complain so much except that my understanding is that this scene resolves a key plot point the film itself leaves hanging.

I’m making a big deal out of this, I suppose, but I think it is symptomatic of my experience of this movie. It has an enormous amount going for it, and simply by virtue of its connection to the other Marvel films can expect a very comfortable level of audience goodwill. And yet I still somehow found it to be a mildly unsatisfactory film on many levels.

thor TDW

Ken Branagh apparently having shied away due to his lack of experience when it comes to heavy special effects sequences, this new installment is overseen by Alan Taylor, who apparently has an impressive record in that TV show about musical chairs. Thor (Hemsworth again) is leading the forces of Asgard as they restore order to the Nine Realms (apparently) plunged into chaos at the end of the first Thor. Meanwhile Odin (Hopkins again) has been prevailed upon to spare the life of his rascally adopted son Loki (Hiddleston again), following his role in the invasion of New York at the end of The Avengers.

Meanwhile, Thor’s love interest Jane Foster (Portman again) is in London, where she initially appears to be living in a bad romantic comedy film. Luckily her research into Plot Device Mechanics leads her to a hole in the fabric of the script, through which she plummets and discovers an ancient doomsday weapon called the Aether.

This was built by the Dark Elves, whom we have already met in one of those exposition-heavy introductory flashbacks of which big genre movies are so very fond. For reasons best known to themselves, the Dark Elves want to blow up the universe, and the Asgardians confiscated the Aether to stop them doing this. Even though they believe the Dark Elves are all dead, the Asgardians don’t seem to have hidden the Aether in a very sensible place, but such are the demands of the plot.

Of course, they are not all dead, and now that Jane has found the Aether, their leader Malekith (the great Christopher Eccleston under a ton of make-up) is quite keen to get hold of her for obvious reasons. Obviously Thor feels strongly motivated to help his girlfriend out, even to the point where he is obliged to ask Loki for help…

Thor: The Dark World clearly wants to be an epic, wide-ranging fantasy adventure, but the problem is that for its opening section at least, ‘wide-ranging’ actually reaches the screen as ‘all over the place’. Once we’re past that slightly eggy flashback with the Elves, the plot rattles around between various different realms, the actual nature and relationship of which the film doesn’t really bother to explain in any detail. Asgard, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim – it just feels like being bombarded with names and chunks of plot, the significance of which are taken for granted.

You have to bear in mind that the look of the film is a slightly baroque mixture of SF and pure fantasy – there’s more than one fight between people waving swords and other people carrying laser rifles and black hole grenades – not to mention that there are great swathes of CGI on display, and fairly central to proceedings is Natalie Portman. Now, given a good script, Portman can be a searingly effective performer, but without one she often reverts to shop-window mannequin mode, and that’s quite often the case here.

All-in-all, then, the initial sequences set off on Asgard and the other places are frequently horribly reminiscent of The Phantom Menace, as very fine actors in extraordinary hats and hairpieces flounder around inside a script which doesn’t quite hang together, the pain of this being somewhat mitigated by the astoundingly good special effects and production design.

Comparing any film to The Phantom Menace is, I realise, the critical equivalent of hitting the nuclear button, and I have to say that overall Thor: The Dark World is not nearly that bad. Once the plot finally achieves some cohesion in the second half, and Tom Hiddleston (consistently one of the Marvel films’ biggest assets) actually gets to contribute to the story, it picks up very considerably. The problem, of course, is that Loki inevitably overshadows the ostensible villain this time around – Christopher Eccleston just doesn’t get the material to compete – most of his dialogue is in Dark Elvish, which can’t have helped – and Malekith comes across as a dull, cipherish stock villain.

Not necessarily a problem, but certainly slightly peculiar, are the sequences of the film set in the realm of Midgard, or Earth (but, if the films’ captions are to be trusted, known to the Asgardians as ‘London’). Most of the movie takes place elsewhere and these scenes do feel a little bit crowbarred in, not least because they’re tonally completely at odds with the rest of it. Most of the movie is fairly straight-faced fantasy-SF, but the stuff in London is, as I said, like some kind of wacky romantic comedy. Chris O’Dowd gets a cameo, Stellan Skarsgard wanders about in his underpants, Kat Dennings is also trying to do comic relief. Even scenes with Hemsworth in them, including some of the climax, are camp and fluffy in a way the rest of the film just isn’t.

So this is a very inconsistent and choppy movie, but it would be remiss of me to suggest that it’s not at all worth seeing. Pretty much every single scene looks beautiful (possibly excepting the ones with Skarsgard’s pants), and it does effectively conjure up a sense of a vast and diverse cosmos (just not one which actually makes sense). If Chris Hemsworth doesn’t have quite the same charisma as some of the other Marvel leads, well, the film has Tom Hiddleston, which more than makes up for this.

(Conspicuously absent from the screen, by the way, are most of the elements which have connected previous Marvel movies – for example, SHIELD gets name-checked, but none of those characters appear. Possibly the existence of the – distinctly so-so – SHIELD TV show as an entity in its own right makes it harder to work the concept into the actual movies. I note we are promised that the TV show will be doing an episode set in the aftermath of this movie, though.)

While leaving the cinema and missing the post-credits sequence, I happened to overhear other members of the audience talking – ‘Wow, that was so much better than the first Thor!’ was the initial response of one of them. Now, the weird thing is that I could see exactly what she meant – The Dark World is bigger, brighter, more confident and more fun – but I’m not sure I would necessarily agree with her, because I like a film with a stronger plot and better storytelling than is really on display here. Thor felt like a film from a studio ambitious to try something new and excitingly different; The Dark World shows signs of being a project collapsing under the weight of its own grandiosity. It’s a fun, crowd-pleasing adventure, but overall for me it’s the weakest Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man 2. Still, that’s not a bad track record, and it’ll be interesting to see how the next couple of films pan out.

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My parents assure me that the first film I went to see was Bambi, rereleased as part of the seven-year cycle all the classic Disney films were on back in the mid-Seventies. I, however, have no recollection of the experience.

The honour of my first memory of going to a film goes – like that of many people of my generation, I suspect – to the 1978 UK release of Star Wars. It’s actually quite difficult for me to put into words quite what an impact this had on me, or the quality of the memories which remain burned into my brain even now, after so many subsequent viewings. Films and Star Wars arrived in my life at the same time, and they remain intrinsically linked for me on some strange level.

Certainly for me the Star Wars movies belong and come to life on a big screen unlike any others. This is why, despite already owning all of them on multiple formats, I will happily trot along to watch any of them theatrically, given half a chance. This is why, despite my general aversion to 3D, I even turned out for the current stereoscopic reissue of The Phantom Menace.

(History repeats itself here: back in 1999, I had planned to see this movie about a week after release with a friend. But the very day it came out I happened to be passing the local multiplex, having just signed on, and the urge was too great. This time around I’d planned to either save the viewing for a special occasion, or see it on Valentine’s Day – although given my past record it would probably be less a Duel of the Fates than a Date of the Fools – but once again I found myself strangely incapable of putting it off.)

I have written about The Phantom Menace before at some length, and on re-reading my previous thoughts in the light of seeing it in 3D, I can only conclude that in the past I have given it much too easy a ride. There really is an awful lot going wrong here.

Let’s get the 3D aspect out of the way nice and early – it’s a retro-3D release, obviously, and as a result the effect is really not that noticeable. On one level I suppose we must be grateful for the absence of lightsabers being laboriously jabbed directly at the camera, but on the other hand, this really just points up the brazen nature of the retro-3D-ing fad: you’re paying extra for the 3D, but it doesn’t add anything to a film which wasn’t designed to utilise it. But, of course, I would have gone to see a Phantom Menace re-issue no matter what format it was in, so let’s move on.

Well, hang on, you may be saying, if The Phantom Menace is as clunky as you just alluded, why do you say that? Surely the Star Wars brand name alone isn’t enough to make you suspend your (so-called) critical faculties? What’s it got to commend it?

It’s partly the thing that the Star Wars movies do better than almost any other fantasy films – which is to make you almost believe they were filmed on location in another world. The galaxy far, far away is as alluringly presented here as it ever has been, in seductive detail and on an epic scale. (The production values are, unsurprisingly, superb, not that this in itself should really be a positive.) The film’s visual invention reaches a high point in the realisation of new villain Darth Maul (Ray Park), whose prominence in the publicity for both releases suggests the film-makers agree. (The way that the script horribly underuses Maul – starting a trend that would continue throughout the prequels – is another issue.) The action choreography is great, and it’s not as if all the acting is as dreadful as some people would have you believe – there are genuinely good performances from Ian McDiarmid and Pernilla August. There is, of course, John Williams’ wonderful score. But that’s really about it in terms of positives – though the sheer look of the thing is difficult to overestimate as a factor.

Set against this… well, watching it again properly now, the thing that strikes me is how numbingly cack-handed the storytelling is, often on the most basic of levels. I could write a much longer piece than I’m prepared, or indeed have time to, at this point, listing mystifying creative choices and simple mis-steps by the dozen. The apparent racial stereotyping, the belligerent office furniture, the constant unfunny ‘comic relief’, the weird narrative shifts between an epic moral clash between absolute good and pure evil and a politico-economical dispute about trade franchises and taxation (these days the film gives a weird impression of being about the European Parliament)… but anyway.

Let us instead on focus on the core issues with this film. First and foremost, this movie should start from scratch and establish the key characters and themes for the rest of the series. Does it? Does it cobblers. Who exactly are these Sith guys and the Trade Federation and what’s their problem with the Naboo? We’re never told. It never feels like a true beginning. The main character in this movie, certainly in terms of screen time, is Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), who is by no means a major player in the overall story. Jinn’s characterisation is as a mass of stoic inertia wrapped in some very odd hair appliances. There is an awful lot of Qui-Gon given that the prequel trilogy as a whole is about other characters.

The relationships and characters here are thin to the point of non-existent. Jake Lloyd is quite simply not very good as Anakin Skywalker, though the rotten dialogue he’s given does not help. His relationship with the woman we know will be his wife in the future (Natalie Portman) just seems weird given she is obviously twice his age (for no strong reason demanded by the plot). As for his relationship with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), one of the most central ones in the whole series – in this film, Anakin and Obi-Wan barely have any dialogue with each other, as Qui-Gon is hogging all the script. And as for his relationship with Palpatine, another enormously important plot thread – one line passes between them in the entire movie. In terms of laying foundations and establishing themes, The Phantom Menace is a total failure.

Looking at it now and seeing how the prequel trilogy developed, it seems to me that George Lucas’ biggest misjudgement was to insist that the films be made for a future audience that would not have seen the original trilogy and who would experience the saga in chronological order. The main result of this, in terms of the storytelling, is a strident insistence on preserving the ‘surprise’ that Darth Sidious and Palpatine are the same man (although even The Phantom Menace comes close to blowing the gaffe at one point through an injudicious cut).

As a result, if you’re not in the know as to the ‘secret identity’ the story comes across as bemusingly inconsequential, but if you do know who’s really who, it’s simply baffling instead. Sidious and his Neimoidian allies talk several times of his schemes and plans but we never learn what they consist of, beyond simply taking over the planet. What exactly is he after? What precisely underpins all the various machinations he’s clearly working hard at throughout the movie?

It certainly looks very much like the end of this movie shows Darth Sidious’s plans going somewhat askew – his apprentice chopped asunder, his allies under arrest – but him skilfully parlaying this into a long-term benefit – to wit, his being elected Chancellor. So how would he have benefitted if, instead, things had worked out as he’d planned and the Federation taken over Naboo? Still the Chancellorship? If he was going to get the job either way, why make such a big deal out of trying to capture the Queen, packing Darth Maul off to Tatooine and revealing his existence to the hitherto-oblivious Jedi? Unless this also was part of his plan. In which case… (And so on.)

The problem with having to maintain the narrative distance between Sidious and Palpatine is that as a result none of this can be addressed, even obliquely (Sidious has fairly limited screen-time, too). As a result we get a movie where the objectives and plans of the bad guys remain largely obscure throughout, a real rarity in the fantasy-adventure genre.

Perhaps this is ultimately at the heart of The Phantom Menace‘s incoherence, ideas and scenes piling up on top of one another with not much evidence of an organising principle. Possibly the most disappointing thing about the re-release of this film is that, for once, Lucas has resisted the temptation to fiddle about with and ‘improve’ it, because for once it could really do with it. That, or withdraw it completely and just have another go at telling the story again in an entirely different way. As it is, with this as its origin myth and foundation, the Star Wars saga is a house built on sand. (Not that I don’t still love it, of course.)

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 30th 2002:

It’s always dangerous to turn up to a movie with expectations of a life-changing experience, doubly so when the movie in question is an American-made blockbuster. And yet that’s what I (and I suspect many others) did, when Attack of the Clones, the latest instalment in George Lucas’ cultural juggernaut Star Wars, opened a week or two back.

My excuse is that, well, I couldn’t help it because I love Star Wars. Seeing the original movie on the big screen in early 1978 is not only one of my earliest memories but also probably one of the formative moments of my life. I have a Pavlovian reaction to the exuberant bombast of John Williams’ score. I even really liked The Phantom Menace, despite its flaws.

Yet I came out of the theatre with oddly mixed emotions. The initial euphoria due to simply seeing a new Star Wars movie faded and I was left feeling neither shaken or particularly stirred (sorry, wrong franchise). And I couldn’t work out why. This seemed to be an adventure in the classic style: the further escapades of our heroes Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), three people united by their love of freedom and democracy and their very dodgy hairstyles. I won’t trouble you with the traditional teaser of plot at this point, as a) if you’re remotely interested in this film you’ve probably already seen it at least twice and b) its terribly, terribly complicated. Suffice to say there are chases galore, much wielding of fluorescent tubes, and some of the most spectacular battle scenes in cinema history.

Having gone back for a second viewing my considered judgement is that this is an immaculately made, highly entertaining blockbuster, packed with cortex-frying visuals and memorable moments. It benefits enormously from a full-throttle performance from Christopher Lee, who perfected the role of ‘villainous Count with supernatural powers’ in about 1966, and who’s as powerful a screen presence as ever.

I suspect my initial ambivalence was partly due to going in with such high expectations, because while Attack of the Clones is good, it’s not great. There are serious problems with the script: the central love story is so flatly written and perfunctorily handled that it would take considerably better actors to make it remotely convincing. Natalie Portman’s delivery of the line ‘I truly, deeply love you‘ is almost bad enough to make you start cheering for the Trade Federation.

There’s also the lengthy sequence set on Tatooine. While this is one of the most effective and impressive parts of the movie, allowing Christensen to show how good he can be, it could also be excised almost completely at no harm to the main storyline. As in The Phantom Menace, setting up the plot of the ‘future’ films seems to take priority over telling the story of this one.

I think I was also taken unawares by the sheer darkness of parts of the storyline. This film is even darker, in places, than The Empire Strikes Back, with a real sense of pain and despair and impending doom – partly generated through clever use of characters, imagery and music from the Classic Trilogy. Episode III looks like it will be very bleak indeed.

Actually, I think I detect a certain lack of decision on Lucas’ part as to what level to pitch this Prequel Trilogy at. We all know how this story ends, after all, and I would have thought the sensible response would have been to play the dramatic irony of the situation for all its worth. But there are very few allusions to what lies ahead, and Lucas stubbornly sticks to his guns by pretending the true identity of Darth Sidious will come as a huge shock when it’s revealed. It won’t; even my mum figured out who it was and she keeps asking which one of the characters was Captain Kirk.

On the other hand, the film seems to assume the audience is already familiar with the Classic Trilogy when it comes to elements like the Sandpeople and Yoda (his big scene works because it plays against the audience’s expectations of the character). Going entirely for dramatic irony would have worked fine, as would playing it all ‘as new’. The mixture of the two in the finished movie smacks of confusion and a missed opportunity.

Expectations have never rested easily upon the Star Wars films and Attack of the Clones is no exception. It’s not up to the same standard as The Fellowship of the Ring, but it is packed with thrills, spectacle, fun and humour. It may be only a movie, but at least it’s a good one.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 23rd 2006: 

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that once knew someone wanted by the police for non-payment of poll tax. Yes indeed, we lived high and wild back in the old days! And there’s more civil disobedience of various kinds in this week’s movie: James McTeigue’s belated and controversial film adaptation of V for Vendetta, a legendary graphic novel created by artist David Lloyd and a writer of surpassing genius who has declined to be associated with the film in any capacity — a wish I feel obliged to honour. Set in a fascist London, not too many years hence, this is the story of V (voiced by Hugo Weaving), a man transformed into a living avatar of vengeance and anarchy by government-sanctioned drugs tests. Styling himself as a modern Guy Fawkes, with his true face hidden from the world, V is finally ready to set his masterplan in motion, but finds his path crossed by Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a young woman working in TV. V saves Evey from the secret police after she’s caught out after the curfew and takes her along as he cheerfully blows up the Old Bailey, his calling card to the world. A strange bond begins to form between them even as V reveals his ultimate objective: to destroy the government, an act that will be symbolised by his blowing up the Houses of Parliament. Can he succeed where his predecessor failed?

This is a movie that’s had some rather mixed reviews — and that’s probably putting it a mite charitably. To be honest, V for Vendetta is a film that doesn’t easily fit into a neat category. Is it a political thriller? Is it a darkly comic satire? Is it a drama? Or is it just another knuckle-headed comic book adaptation? Well, it isn’t really any of them (and especially not the last one — but then, the original strip was never remotely knuckle-headed either). But I have to say I was impressed by it. It’s a bit difficult to say whether a familiarity with the source material is necessary to fully ‘get’ where the film is coming from, although I suspect many purists will be utterly horrified by some of the changes made to the story (and indeed, He Who Shall Not Be Named was loudly and publically scornful when the Wachowski brothers ran one version of their screenplay past him). That said, many right-thinking people will no doubt also be utterly horrified by a movie which openly aligns itself with a ruthless and deranged terrorist and deals with topics like Islamophobia, suicide bombings, blanket public surveillance and police shootings of innocents in a fairly no-holds-barred fashion.

One quietly impressive aspect to this movie is how much of the essential Britishness of the story remains, with a plot that revolves around the use of British landmarks and folklore (a brief primer on Guy Fawkes forms a prologue for those who don’t know the story), with the US barely mentioned. Admittedly, in parts this is an as-seen-by-Americans kind of British, where the definitively British swearyword is… er… an anagram of ‘sloblock’ and people eat exotic breakfasts like ‘eggy in a basket’ (no, me neither). The script’s faithfulness to the original text also leads it astray at one point – the story has been shifted into the future, resulting in one character talking about how they took their 11 Plus exam in 1996, which is obviously sloblock but an understandable goof [Or so I thought. Suffice to say, you would not believe the length of the debate this sentence provoked – A].

The Wachowskis’ script is generally quite good. Well, there’s an alarmingly arbitrary area of appalling alliteration near the start and a tendency towards rather pedestrian dialogue in the new sections, but most of the wit and the heart of the book survives, if not all of the brain – some of the subtleties and ambiguities are excised (V’s background is presented very straightforwardly, for example). They’ve done a good job in paring back a long and densely written work while keeping all the most memorable sequences more or less intact, if perhaps a little rearranged. It’s not quite perfect: moving the story from a post-nuclear 1998 to a post-viral 2026 requires a bit of creative stitching and the joins show (plus this involves a sequence where V appears to disguise himself as He Who Shall Not Be Named, a bizarrely obscure and no doubt unwanted little homage). More seriously, not only is the end quite a bit different, but it also includes a rather egregious sequence where V declares his love for Evey (yeah, a bit of a spoiler there, sorry). Thankfully, by this point it’s not quite enough to derail things.

As you would expect, Hugo Weaving gives a tremendous vocal performance as V (quite how much, if any, of James Purefoy’s original physical performance in the costume has survived I’ve no idea), coping with some dodgy dialogue with aplomb (apart from the stuff mentioned already, one monologue where V rants about how this twisted future came about is so hackneyed and overfamiliar in its politics that I almost expected V to rip off his mask and reveal a lipo-sucked Michael Moore underneath). Natalie Portman is also good, albeit with a slightly peculiar accent. The supporting roles are filled with very reliable British and Irish thesps, with Stephen Rea excellent as a world-weary copper. The real surprise package is the fourth-billed Stephen Fry, who — while admittedly nearly playing himself — is terrific, hopefully reminding everyone of what a classy and talented serious actor he can be when not holidaying at short notice in Bruge.

Those who know the team behind V for Vendetta solely from the Matrix trilogy will probably be a little disappointed by the lack of action in this movie, and to be fair it is a little simplistic in its advocacy of the politics of violent rebellion. One of the quirks of the original book was that — due to a delay in its original production — a story originally predicated on the impending defeat of Margaret Thatcher at the end of her first term in office (this really did look likely, prior to the Falklands War) eventually became an incensed polemic against Thatcher’s government during its late-1980s zenith. You can say what you like about the current lot but they’re not quite that bad (yet, at least) and so some of the anger seems targetless here. But there’s a real spirit of righteous fury in this film, even if it sometimes seems a little unsure as to who it’s furious with and why. The end result is often moving, thought-provoking and exhilarating, if never quite all three at the same time.

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Regular readers may have come across my observation that, in the past, Hollywood shows odd tendencies when it comes to rewarding young actresses who have proven themselves to have considerable talent. Are these women given the chance to shine in thoughtful, mature dramas, that offer us a deeper insight into life when seen from a feminine perspective? They are not. They are, more often than not, stuffed into a big-budget knuckle-dragging special-effects-focussed genre movie. To wit: Halle Berre in Catwoman (and much else besides), Charlize Theron and Sophie Okenodo in AEon Flux, and Anna Paquin in the X-Men series, amongst others. Now you would have thought that recent Oscar laureate Natalie Portman would be spared this kind of treatment, having already served her time in the Star Wars prequels, but apparently not: already in the can when she won, and now erupting onto the screen in boisterous 3D, is Marvel Studios’ latest offering, Thor, in which she is the leading lady.

This is not so much a case of Mallett’s Mallet as Branagh’s Hammer. In line with their usual policy of, er, interesting directorial choices, Marvel have recruited Ken Branagh to bring this movie to the screen. (Still no sign of Edgar Wright’s take on Ant-Man, alas.) The logic behind this seems a little suspect to me but Ken makes a pretty good fist of telling what, at first glance, sounds like an immensely stupid story.

Peace reigns in the Eternal Realm of Asgard, along with Odin the All-father, King of the Gods (Anthony Hopkins, not quite phoning it in). But there is discord between his sons, the proud and braggartly warrior Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the devious and roguish sorcerer Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Jealous of his brother, Loki manipulates Thor into attacking Jotunheim, realm of the Frost Giants, nearly provoking war with Asgard. Odin is not best pleased by this sort of behaviour and not only strips Thor of his rank and privileges but banishes him from Asgard, casting him out into a terrible, primitive wasteland…

…also known as the southern USA. Yup, this is that kind of film. Thor crashes to Earth in New Mexico and is nearly run over by passing physicist Jane Foster (Portman) and her friends. Deprived of his godly powers Thor ends up in the local hospital, while his magic hammer Mjiolnir attracts the attention of the good men of SHIELD, led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), whom you may recall from Iron Man 2 where some of this got set up. While Jane, her friends, and SHIELD are trying to figure out what’s going on, and Thor’s trying to get his hammer back, Loki seizes his opportunity and usurps the throne of Asgard from Odin (who is conveniently laid low by a plot device). Will Thor learn humility and wisdom in time to stop Loki’s evil plan?

Well, it’s difficult to go into too much detail here without spoiling the plot, but Loki’s evil plan is really the weak link in the film: it’s just not the sort of thing you’re really going to care about. One of the film’s major strengths is the way in which it is set in vastly and obviously different worlds – Asgard, Earth, and Jotunheim – and it derives much of its energy from the moments when they brush up against each other – armoured Aesir wandering down the main street of a present-day town, for instance. But, come the climax, events move back to Asgard with no immediate threat to Earth or any of the characters there – and it all becomes a bit of an exercise in special-effects virtuosity without any real grounding in reality or emotional weight.

It’s not even as if Earth and Asgard – the two main settings – are presented as contrastingly as they might. Earth isn’t as grimy and mundane, nor Asgard as soaringly otherworldly, as it could be, and I suspect this is mainly due to Thor‘s nature not as a film in its own right but as the latest chapter in Marvel Studios’ ongoing continuity. In addition to the elements continuing from Iron Man 2, Samuel L ‘Mr Post-Credits Sequence’ Jackson pops up once again as Nick Fury, there’s a heavily veiled reference to the Hulk, and Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner) pops up in a role just too small to be satisfying but just big enough to be slightly distracting. More importantly, the end of the film seems structured to leave several of the major characters in the places they need to be for next summer’s Avengers to work.

Having said that, this is a fun and fairly satisfying film with the epic fantasy element giving it an identity separate from most superhero adaptations. There’s relatively little of the large-scale action I was expecting – the sole examples being an opening-reel battle with the Frost Giants and a final act rumble between Thor and a giant metal Asgardian construct (‘Is that one of Stark’s?’ asks a confused SHIELD agent upon seeing it – one of the moments where the film uses continuity to its advantage). Instead there’s more of a focus on character and humour, and the cast Branagh’s recruited is impressive. Stellan Skarsgard is rather good as Portman’s mentor, and also in the movie are people like Rene Russo (who barely gets any dialogue, sadly), Idris Elba from The Wire, and Ray Stevenson. Rather surprisingly, Branagh hasn’t cast Brian Blessed anywhere in this movie despite the abundance of roles he’d be perfect for. What gives, Ken? In the title role, Chris Hemsworth looks striking enough, and his performance isn’t actually bad, but he’s got nothing like the presence of, to pick a wild example, Robert Downey Junior or Samuel L Jackson. Hopefully Hemsworth won’t have an issue with being blasted off the screen, thesp-wise, in future appearances.

I have to say that you wouldn’t recognise this as the work of a director with a record as distinguished as Branagh’s. For a summer blockbuster the direction is fine, and Branagh seems to have worked hard on performances, to the film’s advantage, but it’s not really what you’d call distinctive. Again, the film’s identity as a Marvel product swamps everything else. But I suppose this is the price one pays for a unique experiment such as the one Marvel are currently engaged upon. I enjoyed Thor, but I don’t think it’s a great film by any means, and I’ll be surprised if it makes the kind of money required to turn it into a genuine hit (then again I wasn’t that impressed with the first Iron Man, which everyone loved). In the end, what is my opinion of this movie? I say thee ‘Mmm, well, okay.’

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 25th 2002:

The making of prequels is a practice fraught with difficulty – the only really successful ones I can think of, off the top of my head, are Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and possibly Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Certainly one such effort which fell a long way short of expectations was 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, written and directed by George Lucas.

It stills feels odd to realise that the next Star Wars movie is only weeks away from release: compared with the build-up three years ago, there’s a virtual media blackout in place. Now this is probably partly due to the enormous impact on fantasy cinema of Lord of the Rings and also the fact that this is a bumper year for SF and fantasy blockbusters, but the general perception of The Phantom Menace as a failure – one celebrity fan routinely refers to it as The Phantom Sh*tbox – must also play a part.

Like The Scorpion King, this movie deals with the formative years of a character destined to be the big bad guy in the earlier, which is to say later, movies. In this case the lad in question is Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave on the desert planet of Tatooine. Distinguished only by his supernaturally quick reflexes and vague precognitive powers, Anakin’s life is turned upside down when he’s dragged into a great adventure involving two Jedi Knights (beardy Liam Neeson and hasidic Ewen McGregor), the Queen of the planet Naboo (tranquillised Natalie Portman), a strange guppy rastafarian (he’ll-be-trying-to-live-this-down-for-the-rest-of-his-career Ahmed Best) and R2-D2 (lives-down-the-road-from-me Kenny Baker). It’s all to do with Trade Federations and the Galactic Senate with a bit of podracing and some sword fights slung in for good measure. You already know the plot, after all…

Now my routine defence to criticisms of The Phantom Menace at the time it came out was that this is a different style of film – rather than ‘plucky rebels fight evil empire’  this is a story of the rise of darkness and the loss of innocence, and so it’s of necessity got a different mood and tone to it. But the problem is, it hasn’t – the film succeeds best when in territory not really covered by the first, which is to say middle, trilogy (I’m beginning to wish Lucas’d made these films in the right order after all), such as that of the political thriller and the faux religious epic, but struggles to accommodate the action sequences and chases which the audience expects from a Star Wars film. Part of this problem is the opening, which is of the same in media res ilk as its predecessors, but is really a mistake in what’s supposed to be Episode I and the absolute beginning of the story. As a result the new-style material looks incongruous and disappointing. The crass and obvious comic relief would still have felt hugely out of place, though, no matter what.

Beyond the main problem of approach, there are plenty of minor flaws in the way it’s scripted. Of course, I’m not the first to point out that the Jedi aren’t nearly as likeable or charismatic as leads as their predecessors, which is to say their – oh, never mind. There isn’t the same level of energy in any of the performances and you do realise how much the originals relied on Harrison Ford’s slyly comic performances for their success. The film doesn’t even hint at the darkness within Anakin that will ultimately consume him. There’s also Lucas’ total fumbling of Portman’s dual role, both in script and direction, and it’s not made clear exactly why main villain Darth Sidious is helping the Trade Federation in the first place (he seems to benefit more when his schemes go belly up). The Federation are rather craven bad guys, too, perhaps the main evidence that this film is more interested in setting up future plotlines than in telling a good story of its own.

But I still think this film isn’t anything like as bad as it’s often held to be. Darth Maul (Ray Park and Peter Serafinowicz) is a memorable bad guy, even though he only seems to be in the film as a plot device to ensure a couple of good saber battles. The final duel is the best to date in the series. The special effects are, of course, immaculate, although with the rate at which modern special effects advance, the vistas of CGI armies on the march already look a bit dated.

In the end though, it comes down to this: the original Star Wars succeeded so amazingly because it retold a primal familiar myth in a visually unprecedented way. The Phantom Menace, if it fails at all, does so because it tells an unfamiliar kind of story in a visual style the audience has become very familiar with down the years (interesting, given that both films clearly owe a debt to Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress). It’s too Star Wars-y when it doesn’t need to be, but not Star Wars-y enough where it counts. There’s still potential left in the saga, though, and hopefully the producers will have learned from The Phantom Menace‘s mistakes. We’ll find out soon enough.

(…and when, nearly 10 years after writing this, The Phantom Menace was re-released in 3D, I had this to say about it.)

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If you are the kind of parent who is constantly harangued by a daughter declaring her desire to become the world’s greatest ballet dancer, and how this makes it your duty to fulfil their dream no matter the personal inconvenience or expense, then on one level you could do a lot worse than to stick them in front of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. This should cure almost anyone of wanting to get into ballet. On the other hand, it’s probably also capable of massively traumatising the average child (and possibly some adults), so if you do go down this route don’t come back to me complaining if it all goes horribly wrong.
 

Anyway. Aronofsky’s multiply-award-nominated movie is the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a neurotically-perfectionist ballerina with a company in New York. Opportunity comes a-knocking when she is cast in the lead role of Swan Lake, despite the doubts of her director (Vincent Cassel) that she has the necessary emotional range for the part. Nina’s struggle with the role is complicated by her relationships with her clinging, obsessive mother (Barbara Hershey), and an ambitious, hedonistic rival (Mila Kunis). To succeed she finds she must summon dark forces from within herself, forces that refuse to stay under her control…

If you attempt to make a film about ballet then, whether you like it or not, you’re going to wind up getting compared to The Red Shoes, the big mama of all ballet films. It’s a rule, what can I say? Being a painstaking sort of person I dug out my DVD of Red Shoes (not a particular favourite of mine, I have to say, but it came in a boxed set) prior to watching Black Swan just to see how the two compared.

Well, obviously, on one level the two films are the products of utterly different sensibilities – even without rewatching it, I think I would have recalled that the Powell and Pressburger film did not feature quite such striking levels of profanity, vomit, self-harm, drug abuse, masturbation, and lesbian oral sex (hang on, though, it’s not quite as good as I’m probably making it sound). But what the two films share is the theme of the price of making great art, partly embodied through the figure of the director of the company – Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) in the old movie, Thomas (Cassel) in the new one, though the characters are quite different in other ways.

While The Red Shoes is a fairly traditional narrative for the most part, Black Swan is a much more internal movie, about the psychological burden placed on Nina, who’s at the centre of virtually every scene (and the camera’s very seldom more than about three feet from Natalie Portman’s head). Even so, the performances in this movie are uniformly strong – though I suppose in theory you could argue that this movie is actually slightly misogynistic, given that every major female character either has somewhat loose morals or is a borderline wacko. Barbara Hershey (possibly the only character actress in the world to have a regular character in Judge Dredd named after her) is particularly good as Nina’s creepy mum, while Winona Ryder is literally unrecognisable as an aging, fading prima ballerina.

Gentlemen readers: you may want to wind your DVDs on about seven minutes from this scene.

It’s Portman’s movie, really, though. She hasn’t always realised the extraordinary promise that was there right from her debut in Leon, and indeed for a while a few years ago she even struggled to bring out all the subtlety and nuance in George Lucas’s Star Wars scripts (I forgot to mention that this review may contain irony), but here she’s utterly magnetic from beginning to end, even if she does spend most of the movie wearing a face like a rictus mask of anguish. With consummate skill she manages a pitfall-strewn path, beginning the movie as someone with definite issues. As it progresses, of course, she goes completely and convincingly bonkers.

As, to be honest, does the rest of the movie. This starts off as a fairly realistic and low-key drama, one that doesn’t (for example) shy away from showing the punishing demands ballet dancers make on their bodies. But slowly and gradually there are little eruptions of weirdness into the film, which becomes increasingly intense and claustrophobic. By the closing sequences, it’s become almost phantasmagorical, with drama, melodrama, fantasy and horror bleeding into one another. The final impression is almost overwhelming, as acting, direction, cinematography and CGI come together in an extraordinary crescendo.

The Oscar nominations came out this week and I get the sense that Black Swan is sort of in the second rank of movies, chasing The Social Network and The King’s Speech for the big prizes. Not that I really think the Oscars, or any other awards, actually mean anything, but I wouldn’t necessarily dispute that, overall: but Aronofsky’s direction and Portman’s performance are both unlike anything else I’ve encountered in the cinema in a long time. Parts of Black Swan will remain burned into my brain for a long time (and not just the bit you’re probably thinking of) – it’s a remarkable, memorable movie, even if it’s not always the easiest one to watch.

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