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Posts Tagged ‘Nicole Kidman’

Film lead times being what they are, it’s only now that we are starting to see big studio movies that were greenlit in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and everything that followed it. As the Weinstein case itself is still sub judice, or whatever the American equivalent is, studios and producers are having to look elsewhere for material for this kind of film. It’s a no-brainer that Jay Roach’s Bombshell has settled upon some particularly promising source material, which is very resonant with Weinstein’s case as well as opening up all kinds of other areas which can be usefully exploited.

Bombshell is largely set in the offices (and concerns employees) of the Fox News network. Even over here in the UK Fox News has become a byword for a certain kind of hard-right, not exactly impartial broadcasting. It is, notoriously, Donald Trump’s news outlet of choice, and the bulk of the film is set during the last American presidential campaign. Nevertheless, Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly (Charlise Theron) is given permission by the network’s owners, the Murdoch family, to give Trump a hard time during a TV debate, to which he responds with typical restraint, thoughtfulness, and humility (i.e., none whatsoever). Kelly is hounded as a result, with the network’s founder and head, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) reluctant to fully support her.

Other plotlines run parallel to this one: Kayla (Margot Robbie), an ambitious young woman seeking preferment, attempts to get ahead at Fox, but finds that this involves making certain accommodations with Ailes that she was not expecting. Another woman broadcaster, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), is fired, with no specific reason given. She has her own suspicions about this, and proceeds to sue Ailes for sexual harassment. This is the storyline that proceeds to dominate the film. Carlson assumes that she has been far from the only recipient of Ailes’ attention, but she is reliant on other women coming forward to corroborate her story. The question is, is anyone prepared to risk their careers by taking a stand against the prevailing culture at the network?

Here’s the thing about Bombshell: it’s written by Charles Randolph, most celebrated for the sterling job he did co-scripting The Big Short, and the trailer and other publicity material for this movie suggests that it’s going to be in the same kind of vein as both The Big Short and last year’s Vice – smart, fast, angry films, unafraid to be politically engaged, but also very blackly comic and with a real willingness to be formally inventive and even subversive. Bombshell is a bit like this to begin with – there is a flashback to a profoundly awkward conversation between a woman and her boss, in which he explains he will happily promote her if she’ll sleep with him, during which we are privy to her thoughts – but certainly by the end of the first act it has settled down to become a largely serious drama about a workplace culture in which sexual harassment is virtually part of the ethos.

I mean, obviously, I don’t think sexual harassment is something to be treated lightly, by any means – it’s just that Bombshell isn’t quite the film I had been hoping for. It is still distinctive in other ways, of course, not least because it is still a surprisingly political film. Standard Hollywood procedure, certainly in the current riven times, is to affect to be studiously apolitical: when the makers of one of the new stellar conflict movies jokingly drew parallels between the Trump administration and the Empire, they were quickly slapped down by Disney and various soothing press releases issued: the red cap brigade are a volatile bunch and the studios want them to turn up to movies, for their money is as good as anyone else’s. Bombshell does feature Donald Trump in archive footage, but it is set prior to his most notoriously misogynistic comments became widely known and it is not explicitly critical of the president. On the other hand, the tune being played by the mood music is very obvious, and it will be interesting to see if other films take a similar approach over the coming year.

Todd Phillips, who rose to notice making dumb comedy films before receiving critical acclaim for Joker, has said he’s stopped doing comedies because the modern world is such a minefield of potentially contentious issues that people can’t wait to get outraged about. It seems he’s not the only one, but once you get past the considerable cognitive dissonance of the director of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me making a largely serious film about sexual harassment, there are many good things about Bombshell. Certainly one of the most noticeable things about it is the extent to which various members of the cast have been slathered in prosthetic make-up to make them look more like other people. I suspect the effect may be rather lost on audiences outside of the US, for here in the UK at least the likes of Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are virtually unknown: Nicole Kidman just looks like Nicole Kidman with a distractingly fake chin (I think), while Charlise Theron is bemusingly difficult to recognise. That said, there is some fun to be had when Malcolm McDowell turns up as Rupert Murdoch – McDowell certainly seems to be enjoying himself, although I am not sure his ten-minute cameo warrants his prominence in the credits.

Not wearing any prosthetics at all, on the other hand, is Margot Robbie, who does give a very good performance. The issue is that she is playing a fictional character – a composite of various real people, to be sure, but still essentially, well, fictional. I am always very wary when makers of supposedly fact-based films start doing this sort of thing – it gives the impression that the true story they’ve decided to tell needs pepping up a bit, or otherwise adjusting in order to make it more commercial – ‘like giving Anne Frank a wacky best friend’, to quote someone whose name I have regrettably forgotten.  It also seems to me that there are ethical issues involved in showing a real person basically molesting a fictional character, in a movie depicting various other real people. To be fair, Bombshell takes great pains to make clear that the truth has been edited to make the movie – but it doesn’t go into much detail about exactly how.

Oh well. At least, as noted, Robbie is on form; so is Kate McKinnon, who plays another fictional character (the rather unlikely role of a closeted lesbian liberal who works at Fox News because she can’t get a job anywhere else). McKinnon is also prominent in the trailer, which may be another reason I was expecting the film to be funnier – she generally does comedies, after all, not least because she is one of those people who can’t help but find the humour in any character or scene. That said, she does find the more serious notes here with no difficulty at all, confirming that if you can do comedy, the more serious stuff is a comparative doddle.

But the performances are generally good all round, the script is solid, and the storytelling reasonably assured – after a discursive start, the film finds its focus and sticks to it. If I sound a bit lukewarm about Bombshell, it may be more because it’s not the film I expected, rather than a genuinely poor one. It treats its subject matter with respect, and if it sometimes feels like it’s a message movie rather than a piece of entertainment, that’s probably because it is – to some extent, anyway. Nevertheless, a worthy and watchable film.

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I’m not going to beat around the bush – I’m just going to come straight out and tell you this. Julie Andrews, movie legend, international treasure, beloved (it would seem) of millions, has decided to lend her talents to her first live-action movie in nearly ten years. Now, if you had told me this a couple of days ago, I would have said ‘Ha ha! Secret cameo! But of course. It was inevitable,’ in the full and certain knowledge of which film she was coming out of (semi-)retirement for. But I was wrong. She is not in the movie you would expect her to be in. Instead, Julie Andrews is playing a giant kaiju-esque sea monster living in a mystical subterranean ocean in James Wan’s Aquaman. This is one of those facts that causes me to wonder if I am having some kind of psychological episode, or at the very least have eaten the wrong kind of cheese.

On the other hand, it does give you a general sense of the kind of tenor of Aquaman, which is in no way the film I would have expected a year or so ago. With Marvel Studios cheerfully pumping out three films a year on a regular basis, it feels – perhaps unfairly – a little surprising that their rivals at Warner Brothers/DC should basically have taken most of 2018 off, as we’ve seen nothing from them since last November’s could-have-been-much-worse Justice League. On the other hand, the DC movie line has routinely been met with such eviscerating reviews (I put my hand up unashamedly) and use of words like ‘omni-crisis’ that it’s entirely understandable they should take a breather, listen to what people are saying, and rethink what they’ve been doing. Aquaman is definitely a change of gear.

Thirty-odd years ago, lonely lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) is startled to find a woman (Nicole Kidman) in an outlandish outfit washed up during a storm. After  a bumpy start (she eats his goldfish and sticks a trident through the TV while Stingray is showing – clearly not a Gerry Anderson fan) romance blossoms between the two of them. It turns out she is Atlanna, queen of Atlantis, in self-imposed exile to avoid an arranged marriage. The pair of them end up having a kid, before her past resurfaces (sorry) and she is forced to leave them both and return to the underwater world.

The child is named Arthur and grows up to become the definition of a strapping lad (Jason Momoa), who leads a fairly carefree life when not appearing in other movies as ‘the metahuman known as the Aquaman’ (note the addition of the definite article – which I don’t recall ever seeing applied to the comics version of the character – in an attempt to somehow make him seem more mature and portentous), as he can swim at incredible speeds, breathe water, and talk to fish (historically the source of some embarrassment to writers of Aquaman), in addition being very big and tough.

The movie has been practically dancing along so far, but at this point the plot kicks in, which is fair enough – but as much of the exposition is delivered by Dolph Lundgren, with CGI magenta hair, while riding on a prehistoric sea monster, I was rather distracted and not in the best state to take it all in. Basically it goes a little something like this: Arthur’s younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is intent on uniting the various splintered kingdoms of Atlantis and having himself declared Ocean Master. His plan to achieve this is to provoke a war between the people of the ocean and those living on the surface. Already King Nereus of Xebel (Lundgren) has signed up.

However, Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) and Orm’s vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe) recognise a mad scheme when they hear one and have a plan to stop it. This involves persuading Arthur to press his claim to the throne of Atlantis and go off on an epic quest to retrieve the magic trident which is one of the symbols of power in the sunken city. Orm, naturally, is not pleased when he learns of all this, and despatches a high-tech pirate calling himself Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to stop them…

Now, I became aware of Aquaman at a fairly young age, along with most of the other core DC characters. At this point he was still a fairly nondescript chap in an orange shirt whose signature ability (talking to fish) didn’t really match up to running at the speed of light, having an invisible plane, or being able to shoot heat rays out of your eyes. Various attempts to make Aquaman a bit more interesting as a character ensued over the years, with the most effective (if you ask me) being the one done by Peter David (credited on this movie) in the middle 1990s – this would be the version of Aquaman with the attitude, the beard, the gladiator vest and the hook replacing one of his hands. Do I detect the influence of the David Aquaman on this movie? Well, Momoa obviously has the beard and the attitude, so maybe, although ultimately they go back to the orange shirt costume, and don’t bother with the hook (someone did point out it would make it difficult for Aquaman to go to the bathroom, although I’ve never been able to work out how the sanitation in Atlantis would function anyway).

Momoa basically plays Aquaman (or Ah-quaman, as some of the people here pronounce it) as a not-especially-bright bro, a take on the character which works in this context even if it’s not particularly authentic to the comics. It’s a perfectly good, charismatic performance, although I suspect the best he can hope for is a Chris Hemsworth level of stardom, where people will flock to see him only if he’s playing one particular role. Perhaps I’m damning with faint praise, for Momoa does do the heavy lifting when it comes to carrying what’s a big, hefty movie.

Anyone expecting the kind of industrial gloom of something touched by the hand of Zach Snyder will be in for a big surprise, for there is a very different sensibility at work here: this is a light, fun fantasy epic, somewhat influenced by a bunch of other recent blockbusters (and not just ones from Marvel Studios), with its own very distinct aesthetic – there are garishly-coloured vistas throughout, and all manner of unlikely CGI critters (including, and we mustn’t forget this, Julie Andrews). Perhaps they are overcompensating somewhat, for the grim-and-gloomy of the earlier films has been replaced by a tone which is often as camp as Christmas (shrewd choice of release date, guys), sometimes absurdly so, with a rainbow-hued fluorescent colour-scheme.

In the end, popcorn fun results, thanks to a script which hangs together well and doesn’t worry about too many other DC references (there’s an attempted HP Lovecraft in-joke at one point, but they seem to have chosen the wrong book). The film has an interesting, eclectic cast who do good work, on the whole – personally, I can’t believe I’ve turned up to see a major Hollywood release featuring Dolph Lundgren two weeks in a row. His appearance here isn’t as good as the one in Creed II, but could we nevertheless be seeing the start of a Lundgrenaissance? Fingers crossed. I’m not entirely sure what Black Manta contributes to the movie beyond a major second-act action sequence, but then again the character is saddled with an especially silly costume design.

Aquaman is such a change of pace for the DC movies series that I’m genuinely curious to hear what fans of these films make of it – apparently there were a lot of complaints that Joss Whedon’s cut of Justice League was just too entertaining and faithful to the comics, and that Snyder’s depressing and misconceived vision should be respected and preserved. We’re off into a whole new world of camp nonsense with this film, and on its own terms it works just fine – I imagine it will do rather well for itself, although this does seem like an unusually crowded Christmas for aspiring blockbusters (in the absence of a stellar conflict movie, everyone seems to be piling in). I’m not sure if this approach will work for any other characters in the DC stable, but then again maybe the trick will be to not worry about the consistency of tone which has been such a mixed blessing for the Marvel films. I don’t think Aquaman has quite the same quality as Wonder Woman, but it’s still a very enjoyable piece of silliness, much better than any of the other recent DC films – fingers crossed they can keep this standard up in future.

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Overheard in a cinema in the Earth Year 1994, prior to a revival of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver:

‘Did you see that Clint Eastwood film on telly the other night?’

‘Oh yeah – he goes into that girls’ school and has them all wrapped right round his little finger, right up until the moment when they [spoiler redacted]. Top movie.’

Overheard in a cinema in the Earth Year 2017, after a screening of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled:

‘So, what did you think?’

‘Well, I thought he was perhaps suited a bit more to the part than Clint Eastwood was…’

‘Well, Clint Eastwood’s not a very good actor, is he?’

(I had to absent myself from the vicinity of the conversation at this point, lest an eruption occur.)

Perhaps I should make clear that the people I was earwigging in 1994 were both youngish men, while my companions for the new version of The Beguiled were somewhat older ladies. Does this tell us anything about the differences between the 1971 version of the movie, directed by Don Siegel, and the remake? Well, perhaps.

Like the original, Sofia Coppola’s movie is set during the latter stages of the American Civil War, in and around a finishing school for girls in Virginia. Due to the turmoil of the conflict, only a tiny group of pupils remain, along with a couple of staff members – headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst).

One day, one of the girls is out picking mushrooms in the woods near the school when she comes across John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded enemy soldier. She helps him back to the grand old house in which the establishment is located, at which point the question becomes one of what they should do with him. Obviously, the sensible thing to do would be to call in the authorities of their own side straight away, but somehow it doesn’t seem quite so simple – McBurney would probably die on the way to a prison camp, so the charitable thing is surely to keep him around until he feels better, isn’t it?

There is, not to put too fine a point on it, a little unrelieved tension in the air, as the presence of McBurney has an alarming effect on a group of women and girls who have apparently been living without masculine company for far too long. McBurney’s own natural charm and manipulative nature don’t help matters much. The women are soon all under his spell, and he seems to be on to a very good thing at the school. But has he underestimated the strength of the emotions his arrival has unleashed?

Being a hate-filled fanatically misogynistic crypto-fascist (apparently), I am constantly surprised by the fact that I frequently admire and enjoy films directed by and starring women, but there you go. I did not catch Sofia Coppola’s last couple of films, but I did see Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, and had a pretty good time watching them both (even if my review of the latter does contain the suggestion ‘would have been much improved by the addition of a story and some decent dialogue’). The Beguiled is likewise not a film which anyone is likely to decry as an offence against cinema, but at the same time I can’t see it becoming as big a critical darling as some of this director’s films.

I mean, the actual carpentry of the story holds together pretty well, though it would possibly have been better if we’d got more of a sense of what life in the school was like prior to McBurney’s arrival. Creating atmosphere is one of Coppola’s strengths as a director and she duly creates a strong sense of unspoken tension between the various women as they slowly begin to compete for McBurney’s favours. The performances are universally strong, although everyone seems to be operating very much within their comfort zone as a performer. I’m sure I’ve seen Nicole Kidman do that mannered southern lady schtick before, and the same is true of Kirsten Dunst’s repressed schoolteacher. Elle Fanning perhaps does something slightly new as a somewhat out-of-control young girl. On the whole this is the kind of film you would expect it to be – atmospheric, fairly intense, and not especially light on its feet.

Then again, perhaps I’m biased, for I have seen the original Don Siegel movie on which the new one is based (although admittedly not recently). The 1971 Beguiled always seemed to me to be very much framed and marketed as a Western, although that may just be down to the presence of Eastwood and Siegel. The new movie is much more open about its identity as a drama (perhaps even a melodrama) in the Southern Gothic tradition, though perhaps this is also the result of the story being seen from a more openly feminine perspective.

Even so, this is hardly a radical new interpretation of the story – all the key plot beats survive very much intact (at one point someone is sent to fetch a book on anatomy and a saw), but I suppose the characters are drawn a little differently – McBurney is less of a sexual predator, perhaps, and the incestuous elements of the original story have been removed. The movie has also drawn flak for, would you believe it, a lack of diversity, because the character of a slave who featured in the Siegel version has likewise gone. (In her defence, Coppola has said that she felt that it would not do justice to the importance of the issue of slavery to just touch on it in passing, as would most likely have been the case had she included a single minor character in this way. Sounds reasonable to me, but, hey, I’m apparently not the best person to judge this kind of issue.)

I would imagine you are more likely to enjoy watching the new version of The Beguiled if you are not familiar with the one starring Eastwood, simply because the plot will contain a few surprises for you. This is a well-mounted, well-played, capably-directed movie, but it doesn’t really add that much to an original which was a memorably unsettling and quietly powerful psycho-drama in its own right. A moderately engaging piece of entertainment, I think: not much more than that.

 

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What is going on with movies these days? I am quite as comfortable not having my emotions unnecessarily perturbed as any other man on the cusp of middle-age who is more-or-less resigned to his place on the Asperger’s spectrum, but it seems like I can’t sit down to watch a movie these days without feeling a sudden rush of, well, feeling, sometimes to the point where I actually start, you know, actually emoting in the theatre itself. Is it my age? Am I coming down with Bendii Syndrome? Or is it just something about the films at the moment? It’s a poser.

Hey ho. The latest culprit is also the first major ‘based on a true story’ film I’ve seen this year (not sure that Silence strictly counts, and virtually certain that xXx: Return of Xander Cage doesn’t), Garth Davis’s Lion. This is a film based around story elements with which I feel no particular connection – Indian social services, international adoption agencies, hotel management, Google Earth – but, as someone I was talking to just the other day suggested, that which is most personal is also most universal, which may explain how it managed to bypass my defences so neatly.

lion

Things kick off in India’s Khandwa region in 1986, where we encounter five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar), who is living in extreme poverty with his mother and siblings. Nevertheless he is happy, until one night when he and his elder brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) head off by rail to do a little casual labour. They are separated and Saroo ends up on the wrong train; two days later he arrives in Calcutta, 1500 miles away.

Saroo only speaks Hindi and the primary language in Calcutta is Bengali; also, no-one seems to recognise the name of his home. The child ends up living on the streets, only narrowly escaping all kinds of grim fates, and finally the authorities place him in a care home, which is really more like a rather brutal prison for children. And from here he is adopted by an affluent Tasmanian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Twenty years pass and Saroo grows up into a strapping young hotel management student (he is now played by Dev Patel, who does indeed look appropriately leonine), embarked upon a relationship with fellow trainee Lucy (Rooney Mara). Then a meal at the home of a friend from India sparks all kinds of memories, and someone casually suggests Saroo could work out roughly where his train odyssey began and use the then-new Google Earth to identify the station and backtrack from there to his actual home.

He dismisses the idea, but a seed has been planted, and it quickly turns into an obsession for him, as memories of his brother and mother resurface. Saroo becomes isolated from both his family and his partner as this seemingly-hopeless quest takes over his life. (And if you can’t guess how it all ends, I’m rather surprised.)

Got to say, I was rather dubious about this one when I first heard of it, because it just seemed like another attempt to channel that same sort of heartwarming subcontinental vibe as – apologies, but it’s inevitable – Slumdog Millionaire, while at the same time doing its bit to boost the share price of Google. I feel obliged to mention that my experiences watching films where Dev Patel plays a hotel manager have also been not entirely satisfying, either.

And the first two things at least do have at least a little bit of validity to them, in that the film can’t help but touch on some of the same topics as Danny Boyle’s big hit, and the Google logo does prominently feature throughout the second half of the film. Nevertheless, both of these things seem to happen only because they’re an intrinsic part of the story the film sets out to tell, rather than because of any other agenda on the part of the film-makers.

This is sort of a film of two halves, in that the first, quite-lengthy, non-Anglophonic section featuring Saroo’s travails as a small child lost in Calcutta is a very different proposition to the rest of the film featuring him as an adult. The fact that the opening is focused on a five-year-old boy, often in significant peril, inevitably makes it feel just a little bit manipulative, plus I suppose the setting and the fact it’s all in Hindi or Bengali also have a certain distancing effect. Speaking as a person of privilege from the First World, I found the story a bit easier to engage with once the setting and language became a little more familiar (and the film does address the issue of the gulf between these two worlds).

I suppose there’s a slight problem here in that this latter part of the film is short on what you’d call actual incident – the scriptwriter has spoken of the problem of ‘screens on screen’, and the perceived problems involved in stories largely revolving around people looking at computer peripherals. They have a good crack at making Saroo’s personal issues significant enough to influence the story – there’s the strain on his relationship with Lucy, plus the fact that he has a brother, also adopted from India, whose personal problems are of a different magnitude than his.

But it all really works, mainly because the performances are so strong. Wenham and Mara possibly don’t get quite the material they deserve, but Dev Patel gets a chance to do more than recycle his ‘lovably plucky young chap’ performance, and portray someone with some real angst and conflict going on. Nicole Kidman is also in more of a secondary role than you might expect, and her performance is very understated, but nevertheless highly effective – there’s one scene in particular where she talks quietly about the choices she has made in her life, and her hopes for her sons, and it’s one of those gut-punches of sheer human decency it’s almost impossible to resist.

The same can be said for most of the conclusion of the film, which articulates most clearly its themes of finding home and a connection to your family. You know more or less how this will play out. You know what’s going to happen. And yet, when it does, the sincerity of the film and the strength of the performances are enough to bypass your rational brain – if you’re anything like me, anyway – and the result is, well, as profoundly emotional as anything I’ve seen on screen in a long while.

Lion is the kind of film which in a normal year might sneak a couple of minor Oscars, but this year – I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s quite a movie of the very first rank, but it’s still skilfully made, with very impressive performances, and worth watching if you like a proper human interest drama. Other people may not take so kindly to having their emotions interfered with – but the fact remains that if you’re not deeply moved by the last few scenes of this film, there’s quite probably something organically wrong with you.

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Summer is officially over. How do I know? Easy: they are starting to release Colin Firth movies again. Fine actor though he is, Mr Firth’s essential Englishness takes an idiosyncratic form, in that he never seems to come out in the sun (not unlike myself, I suppose). In one of those quirks of production and release, a veritable flock of Firth movies is on the horizon: he’s in this year’s Woody Allen, due out in a few weeks, and slightly further off he turns up in Matthew Vaughn’s new comic-book adaptation, too. Right now, however, he is appearing in Rowan Joffe’s Before I Go To Sleep, based on the book by SJ Watson.

before

It would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is a full-on Colin Firth vehicle like The King’s Speech, however, as once again he is essentially giving support to the leading lady (though a chick-flick this probably isn’t). On this occasion the top-billed star is Nicole Kidman, deploying a fairly solid English accent to match the movie’s greater London setting.

Kidman (adopting vaguely unflattering hair for the occasion) plays Christine, a youngish woman with a peculiar problem. (I say youngish because the film, for no very necessary reason, repeatedly states she is 40, a fair few years younger than the actress herself. Hmmm.) Following a traumatic incident in her past, she is afflicted with one of those rare and discriminating forms of amnesia most often to be found in movies: every night her memory resets, erasing the previous day’s recollections and leaving her with no idea of who or where she is.

Luckily the first person she meets every day (Firth, who has very good hair for his age now I think about it) is able to fill her in on minor details such as her name, who he is (Ben, her husband), what exactly is going on, and so on.

However, unbeknownst to Ben, Christine has embarked on a new course of therapy – or so it seems, anyway. A man (Mark Strong, who… well, you can’t have everything, can you) calls her up every morning claiming to be Dr Nasch, her neuropsychologist, and reminding her of the existence of a digital camera she is using as a sort of external back-up memory.

Naturally all this is very confusing to Christine, whose Movie Amnesia means that she has to take a lot of what she hears on trust. It just makes things worse when the things that Ben tell her seem not to tally with those she hears from Dr Nasch – Ben claims she was injured in a car accident, but according to the doctor she was the victim of a savage beating from an unknown assailant. Is everyone being completely straight with her? And can she possibly uncover the truth about her past?

Well, long-term moviewatchers will already know that the answers to these questions are ‘Almost certainly not’ and ‘Very probably’, for this wouldn’t be much of a thriller otherwise. And a thriller is ultimately what this is – the kind of mid-budget genre movie I seem to remember watching rather a lot when I first started reviewing movies on the internet (so watching Before I Go To Sleep was an oddly nostalgic experience for me). That said, the presence of a quality cast like this one means that the dramatic and emotional elements of the story have obviously been beefed up, possibly to the point where they could be accused of milking it a bit.

Overall, though, we’re in a vaguely Hitchcockian territory, even if I can’t help thinking Hitch would have made the movie a bit more intense a bit earlier. Everything starts off fairly low-key and naturalistic, which gives you plenty of time to mull over what you’re being presented with. I have to say that well within the first ten minutes I was thinking ‘this is utterly preposterous, no way would normal people possibly be capable of behaving this way’, but – very much to the film’s credit – by the time the closing credits roll, everything that had occurred seemed a lot more credible.

The nature of the film requires that Firth and Strong engage in a sort of contest to see who can be the most understatedly sinister, which is a lot of fun (hard to pick a winner, by the way) but the focus is very much on Kidman for most of the film. In keeping with the wintry, claustrophobic atmosphere of the film, Kidman gives a performance based pretty much on a single note of fraught, brittle anxiety. Christine spends most of the movie as a passive victim, which put together with some male-on-female violence might make this film problematic for some viewers – naturally she gets her own back, to a degree, before proceedings are concluded.

It took me a while to warm up to Before I Go To Sleep, mainly due to the mismatch between the film’s rather contrived and unlikely premise and its downbeat and serious style, but the strong performances of the three leads, coupled to a bravura twist at the end of the second act, eventually won me over. I think an actual winter release would have suited it better, simply because I’m not sure people are in quite the right mood for such an intense, intimate movie, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a solidly entertaining piece of film-making.

 

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2014 has, so far, proved to be a pretty good year cinematically, with genuinely great films of all kinds never seeming that far away: the first few months alone have seen the release of Under the Skin, The Raid 2, The Winter Soldier, and 12 Years A Slave (hey, I didn’t like it much, but as usual I’m in the minority). So it is only right and proper that the balance be somewhat restored by the unleashing upon the world of a complete dog.

So, then, to Olivier Dahan and his Grace of Monaco, another stab at the ever-popular celebrity biography movie. Or possibly the recent-history true-life drama genre. The family of some of those depicted in this film have kicked up a bit of a fuss about it, however, which is presumably why it opens with a caption carefully making it clear that this film, though based on historical events, is a work of fiction. A statement of artistic intent, or just an attempt to avez le cake et mangez it aussi? You decide, mon braves.

grace

Anyhoo, things get underway with the retirement of Oscar-winning actress Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman) and her marriage to Prince Rainier (Tim Roth), ruler of the principality of Monaco. Five years on, Grace receives a visitation from Alfred Hitchcock, who wants her to come out of retirement and appear in Marnie opposite Sean Connery. Grace has been finding palace life a bit oppressive and is tempted, but there are wider concerns: Monaco’s status as a tax haven is rubbing their French neighbours up the wrong way and an international incident looms, with a blockade and potential invasion on the cards…

What follows is a multi-stranded narrative, with all the stories focussing on the Princess to some extent: there’s the wider, political crisis, with the attempt to persuade de Gaulle to back down and allow Monaco its independence, and then there’s some stuff about court intrigue in the House of Grimaldi and a possible traitor amongst Grace’s staff. Finally, there is the most personal story, about Grace struggling to reconcile her celebrity past and natural free spiritedness with the demands of her royal role. There’s a lot going on here, and Dahan does an impressive job of keeping it all balanced: all the elements are equally banal and exasperating.

It’s not just that this is a film which basically requires you to care about the fate of an ancient Mediterranean tax haven. Nor is it the not terribly subtle way in which the film is coded: it’s about a young blonde woman from a relatively humble background who marries into a royal family and finds it an oppressive experience – it may be Princess Grace’s name on the script, but we know whose story they’re really interested in. The real problems with Grace of Monaco arise from its clumping, banal script, peculiar casting and performances, and bizarre directorial choices.

There’s no life or sense of surprise to any of it, really: the dialogue is stilted and obvious. This film features a large number of very fine actors, everyone from Frank Langella to Derek Jacobi, and none of them makes very much impression. They are either stereotypes or completely inert. Tim Roth plays Rainier rather like a harassed bank manager – his Latin nature indicated primarily by the fact that he possesses a very thin moustache and always has a tab on the go.

And as for the direction… well, Dahan’s most obvious little trick at moments of key emotional importance is to park his camera about three inches away from Nicole Kidman’s face, so close that you can’t actually see it all at once. From here it wanders around as the situation demands – is she expressing emotion through her eye? Up goes the camera to take a look. Is she about to deliver some dialogue? The camera jerks down to cover her mouth, just in case. This gets very wearisome very quickly. Thankfully, he restrains himself during the climax of the film, which is essentially a speech from Kidman which goes on for what feels like ages, delivered practically straight down the camera lens. Even so, this just leaves us with a string of platitudes containing no real force or insight.

At least the cinematography is quite nice. I might even venture to say that Grace of Monaco is pretty and looks quite expensive, but is really much smaller and less interesting than it first appears – and that as such it really has quite a lot in common with Monaco itself. Whatever. Grace of Monaco is a movie which takes a relatively obscure period of recent history, uses it as the basis of a story, and in the process makes you realise how dry and tedious these events actually were.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 5th 2004:

Oh, dear: another classic SF thriller broken on the wheel of pointless reinvention. Isn’t this where I came in? I refer, of course, to The Stepford Wives, a thriller by Ira Levin made into a rather fine film by Bryan Forbes in 1975, and into a rotten one by Miss Piggy now.

Nicole Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, a TV executive responsible for many cruel reality game shows: these are supposed to be over-the-top parodies but actually aren’t that far off from where TV is right now (and so aren’t particularly funny). After a disgruntled participant goes on a shooting spree, Joanna gets the shove from her network and has a comedy nervous breakdown (we don’t get to see the comedy electro-shock treatment she receives). She and her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) decide to move to the idyllic gated community of Stepford, Conneticut.

Stepford is a place where men are men and women are domesticated: they cheerfully do all the cooking, cleaning, and washing up, all the while managing to keep their smiles perfect and their nails intact. This is, of course, anathema to a modern woman like Nicole and she rapidly begins to suspect there’s more to this place than meets the eye. But it soon becomes apparent that anyone who doesn’t fit in receives a thorough and not entirely voluntary makeover to suit the intentions of the town’s founders…

(We have reached an awkward point in this review. I would hate to spoil the central plot-twist of the Forbes version, as it’s central to the movie – which, as I say, is rather good. But I can’t really talk about the Piggy version without giving it away. So, if you know the twist, read on. If you don’t, just steer well clear of the new movie and stop reading at this point. Okay? Okay.)

The thing about the original Stepford Wives was that it was a twist ending movie: that was what made it memorable. The problem is that the nature of the twist is pretty widely known by now: ‘Stepford Wife’ has become a shorthand term for a certain kind of unreconstructed home-maker or domesticated woman. I would guess a lot of people going to see this movie already know the twist, which gives the film a major problem in trying to generate any kind of tension or surprise. And to be honest it doesn’t try to, or at least not especially hard. It actually seems a bit unsure as to whether it wants to at least try to make the surprise work, or simply to assume that everyone already knows and just wink at them about it throughout. The result is that the big revelation is a damp squib for the entire audience rather than just part of it.

That’s one big problem for the film, but the biggest is that this is supposed to be a comedy version of the story. The fact that it isn’t particularly funny is bad enough, but I find it hard to believe that anyone seriously thought that such a creepy, paranoid and grim tale could honestly be made to yield up big laughs. This isn’t a dark, witty comedy, either: it’s a broad, frothy, camp farce. And it doesn’t work. The film can’t sustain this tone – the darkness of the original story keeps oozing back to the surface in the form of some genuinely unsettling moments (Broderick’s very decent performance would be pitch-perfect for a ‘serious’ Stepford remake), before vanishing again under a torrent of chronic overacting from Glenn Close. The comic tone even demands that a new ending be tacked on, which not only undermines one of the great last scenes in cinema history (the final scene of the Forbes version is repeated here, then lampooned shortly afterwards), but makes the film internally inconsistent: at some points the Stepford wives are android replicas, as before – but at others they are just the originals, surgically modified. It’s a mess.

And at least in the Forbes version you knew who to blame: the evil old chauvinists of the Stepford Mens’ Association. Katherine Ross, who played the Kidman part in the Forbes version, was just a regular person, who really didn’t deserve to be replaced by an android. But the Piggy version wilfully messes this up: the women in this are all wild overachievers, the sort of ‘superwomen’ certain ‘quality tabloids’ in the UK constantly have it in for. The implication is that the men are sort of justified in wanting to have them replaced by proper women. But both before and after their ‘modification’ the women are just grotesque stereotypes: bitches or bimbos. There isn’t a two-dimensional character in the whole movie.

Oh, well. I suppose there are a few quite funny lines, Broderick isn’t that bad, and David Arnold’s score deserves to be attached to a rather better film than this one… but on the whole this is a real mess of a film that slimes the memory of a good one. Stick to acting, Miss Piggy.

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From the earliest days of the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 20th 2001

When exactly did Hollywood decide the Middle Ages were so filthy? I blame Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Once upon a time we had lovely shiny knights in primary colours, but now every excursion to medieval times seems to take place in a sea of mud with everyone either caked in the stuff or covered in rust. Well, maybe John Boorman’s Excalibur is an honourable exception, but you see my point. It certainly applies to Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale, an enjoyably frivolous movie with a bizarre new take on the genre.

It’s the story of a peasant named William Thatcher (the audibly Australian Heath Ledger). When their noble boss dies of dysentery, he and his fellow commoners hit upon a cunning plan – Ledger enters jousting tournaments (supposedly the most popular leisure activity of the age) using the deceased’s armour, and they all split the prize money. There is of course the drawback that only the nobility are allowed to compete, but fortunately they encounter a down-on-his-luck scribe (Paul Bettany) willing to forge Ledger’s aristocratic credentials. This is supposed to be Geoffrey Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales fame, so listen out for a grinding, rotating sort of noise if you live anywhere near his grave. Ledger is, inevitably, rather successful, and as the tale progresses he meets a beautiful princess (the audibly American Shannyn Sossamon, who can’t act, but is so easy on the eye she doesn’t have to bother) and a suitably wicked villain who wears black all the time (Rufus Sewell).

The pitch for this movie was probably along the lines of ‘Gladiator meets Shakespeare in Love‘ – it has the martial pomposity of the former and the broad humour of the latter. It all takes place in a generic medieval Europe that combines details from Arthurian legend with architecture from the Tudor period, and the end result is about as historically convincing as an episode of The Flintstones. But it doesn’t really need to be as this is no more or less than a fun romp. There are no great surprises or insights but a lot of good jokes and the odd touching moment. There’s rock-solid thesping support from Mark Addy as a squire, Bettany’s performance as Chaucer is witty, and Laura Fraser is good as a female blacksmith who joins the gang. If it has a real flaw, it’s that one joust looks very much like another and the director runs out of original ways to film them quite early on. I enjoyed it a lot, far more than I expected to, as I only wound up going to see it because the cinema wasn’t showing Rush Hour 2.

Not long after, I trundled along to see Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, and the two films have a good deal in common. Like A Knight’s Tale, Moulin Rouge is a period piece, and also like A Knight’s Tale, it features a supposedly historical character in a supporting role. It’s the story of naive young writer Christian (Ewan McGregor in his best role for some time), who in the year 1900 moves to Paris. He befriends a group of Bohemian artists, including Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) – that’ll be another spinning celebrity corpse, then – who want to put on a show at the famous (and titular) Moulin Rouge nightspot, run by Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent). A misunderstanding during a visit to the club leads to Christian and star attraction Satine (a glacially beautiful Nicole Kidman) falling in love, after she initially mistakes him for a rich Duke who’s considering financing the refurbishment of the club. When the real Duke (Richard Roxburgh, who does a pretty good impression of the late Terry-Thomas) turns up he agrees to stump up the cash provided he gets, ahem, exclusive access to Satine, if you follow my meaning. Will true love triumph?

Moulin Rouge is, and let’s be honest about this, completely insane. This being a Baz Luhrman film, restraint and naturalism were escorted from the cinema before the opening credits rolled. For the first twenty minutes I felt pinned back into my seat by the overwhelming, frenetic audio-visual onslaught – crash zooms, jump-cuts, slo-mo, freeze frames, crane shots, mixes, Luhrman uses them all – but eventually either the film calmed down a bit or I acclimatised to it. Probably the latter, with hindsight, as the story slowly changes from broad farce to tragic melodrama as it goes on, the transition being flawlessly executed. It’s all been art-directed to within an inch of its life, zips along with elan to spare, and in its early stages is often very funny. Most of the jokes are broad, though, and many of the laughs come from deliberate incongruities – when McGregor starts singing the theme to The Sound of Music, or Kylie Minogue’s cameo as the Absinthe fairy (barely credibly, she’s dubbed by metal legend Ozzy Osbourne).

This use of deliberate anachronism is the most striking similarity between A Knight’s Tale and Moulin Rouge. In A Knight’s Tale it takes a number of forms – at the ‘Jousting World Championships’ all the peasants behave like football supporters. Chaucer, as a herald, hypes up his master as if he’s a WWF wrestler. Several contemporary songs feature on the soundtrack. My favourite moment of the movie is a deliriously exuberant sequence at a banquet where everyone starts gettin’ on down to David Bowie’s Golden Years. But in the end it’s just a device to boost the fun quotient in a film that has absolutely no aspirations to be taken seriously.

There are lots of pop songs in Moulin Rouge too, deliberately famous ones – songs by Elton John, by Queen, by Nirvana, and – once again – by Bowie, who should have a good week on the royalties front. We get to see Jim Broadbent in a ginger shock-wig and (one hopes) padded fat-suit doing a full-on song and dance version of Madonna’s Like A Virgin, for example – just take a moment to mull that image over. Admittedly, the musical director appears to have been Darius from Popstars, so weird are some of the arrangements, but these are still familiar, stirring tunes, and, crucially, they’re central to the story’s development. However, the reason for their use, as opposed to a more conventional means of character development, is unclear. Is Luhrman trying to say something about the power of popular song? Is it a strange emotional shorthand? Is it an attempt to draw parallels between the decadence of the Moulin Rouge and that of our own society? Or is it just done purely for laughs and novelty value? It’s really impossible to tell. More importantly, so studiously artificial is the conceit, along with the rest of the setting, that it creates a real distance between audience and story. This is by no means a bad film; it’s visually astonishing, the performances are great, and the music’s often stirring – but it’s very hard to engage with the characters and story on an emotional level. One is left with a whirling, staggering, multicoloured dervish that captivates the senses but doesn’t stir the passions. Like one of its’ characters, Moulin Rouge is beautiful, but with a cold heart. This was probably inevitable, but it’s still a shame.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 8th 2001:

Let us suppose you are a British character actor yearning to make it big Stateside. You have paid your dues in the RSC, or perhaps you have appeared in a BBC or ITV classic serial shown over a Bank Holiday Weekend. (Or you may just be a lovably violent ex-footballer with no real talent but a high profile.) How do you secure your big break into the cinema?

Well, you have two options open to you. If you are young and virile-looking enough you can trundle over to the Suits at the major studios while they assemble their latest pre-fab blockbuster and ask to play the villain. Here you will join an illustrious roll-call alongside Alan Rickman (Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, etc), Gary Oldman (Leon, etc), Dougray Scott (Mission Impossible 2), Jeremy Irons (Die Hard 3), Tim Roth (Planet of the Apes), and even that bloke off Poirot (Executive Decision). (In fact my spies tell me that so short are the studios of unfamiliar British villains that we will soon see Bruce Willis fighting Alan Bennett in Die Hard 4.)

On the other hand you may be knocking on a bit and/or still have some self-respect left, in which case you should wander over to the Historical and Comedy department and be prepared to play the butler or maid. Many others will have preceded you here, too – Sir John Gielgud (Arthur), Denholm Elliott (Trading Places), and George Cole (Mary Reilly) to name but a few. And now the stalwart writer and comedian Eric Sykes has joined their number following his appearance in Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenabar’s highly engaging new film The Others.

The Channel Islands, 1945, and wealthy householder Grace (Nicole Kidman) is forced to recruit some new staff for her isolated, perpetually fog-shrouded mansion – the previous lot having mysteriously vanished. The new set are Mrs Mills (Fionnula Flanagan, who judging from the internet is best known for an interesting set of political beliefs and the fact she played Data’s mum in Star Trek. Yes, really), Mr Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and the mute Lydia (Elaine Cassidy). Life in the mansion is complicated by the extreme photosensitivity of Grace’s children Anne and Nicholas (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) – prolonged exposure to daylight will kill them. And it soon becomes apparent that there’s more going on than first seems to be the case – footsteps echo from empty rooms, doors unlock themselves, and the children report seeing ‘the others’ – inexplicable strangers in the house…

This is a really solid piece of work, a haunted house story in classic style – albeit with the obligatory twist ending. It’s quite extraordinarily creepy and atmospheric, almost always shrouded in mist or lit only by candles. As a ghost story, the key question must be – is it frightening? And I’d answer with a firm yes; in addition to the generally nervy atmosphere there are lots of genuinely scary moments. It’s hugely refreshing to see that such a straightforward, non-ironic movie can still make a modern audience jump out of their seats in shock – even amongst the usual Saturday matinee crowd of urchins, guttersnipes and delinquents there was a lot of nervous giggling, fluttering and clenching, and even a few screams.

The success of this film is really down to two contributors – the first being Alejandro Amenabar. His script flawlessly captures the idiom of 1940s speech (‘Cowardly custard!’ etc), and his direction is knuckle-whiteningly effective. (He also manages the best lost-in-the-fog sequence since Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.) He even does the score rather well, keeping it low-key and wisely saving the shrieking Psycho strings for crucial moments. The other key element is Nicole Kidman’s performance. While I’m not a great follower of hers, I’ve seen quite a few of her movies (even her debut in BMX Bandits) and I don’t think she’s ever been better than here. As the uptight, emotionally brittle Grace, she’s quite convincing, and from the opening seconds you’re entirely certain something’s not quite right in the mansion.

Flanagan has the other major role and she’s the most alarming screen nanny since Billie Whitelaw in The Omen. The kids are excellent too, none of your Haley Joel Osment doggy eyes and wispy voices here. Christopher Eccleston pops up briefly, and – to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan – while he doesn’t actually do much, he does it very well. The same can be said for Eric Sykes and Keith Allen (who has a short but crucial cameo).

If I had to find fault with The Others, it’d be that the story meanders ever so slightly from time to time, allowing the tension to seep away. There isn’t the big finish you might expect, either, and this gives the film an insubstantial, lightweight quality – highly involving while you’re actually in the theatre, but not lingering much in the memory. There’s always the possibility that one person’s great horror film is anothers’ bad comedy (and vice versa, of course), but I spent a very satisfying and pleasantly terrifying two hours in the company of The Others.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January the 5th 2004: 

History, as we’re frequently told, is written by the winners. This is usually taken to mean that the losers in any given conflict can expect to be ridiculed and demonised once the dust has settled. In today’s more sensitive climate, of course, this isn’t always the case, particularly in the cinema – where having a go at certain nations or ethnic groupings can seriously damage potential box office takings.

Anyone looking at movies about the American Civil War, in particular, would be forgiven for getting the impression that these days everyone in Hollywood thinks the wrong side won, given the number of films with noble and tragic Southerners in them. The only film I can think of offhand with the North as the unambiguous good guys is the fairly obscure Glory, while sticking up for the Confederacy you’ve got Gone With The Wind, Run Of The Arrow, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and many others – including Anthony Minghella’s new Cold Mountain, based on a novel by Charles Frazier.

Minghella the Merciless’s latest is, like his best-known film The English Patient, an epic romance about the inhabitants of Cold Mountain, a small town that’s technically in the United States but in fact seems to be largely populated by Australians, Brits, and Canadians. Preacher’s daughter Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) finds herself strangely drawn towards ruggedly virile carpenter and part-time facial-hair cultivator Inman (an interestingly-cast Jude Law), but before they can explore their feelings the war breaks out and off he goes to fight those damn Yankees, eventually winding up in a military hospital. In his absence Ada has fallen on hard times and finds herself forced to rely on the help of no-nonsense country girl Ruby (an eccentric and extremely loud performance by Renee Zellweger), while the town itself falls under the sway of the tyrannical militia captain Teague (an almost unrecognisable Ray Winstone, looking like a cross between Brian Blessed and Yosemite Sam). But help is on the way as before you can say ‘I’m freeee!’ Inman escapes from hospital and decides to head for home and the woman he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about…

There’s not a huge amount about Cold Mountain that’s terribly original. It strongly reminded me of Josey Wales and O Brother Where Art Thou? in particular, but just one of the impressive things about it is the way it manages to seem to be about classic and resonant themes rather than simply being derivative. Others include some spectacular photography, impressively grisly and visceral battle scenes (particularly one sequence which is basically a vast scrum in a crater slowly filling with blood), a haunting soundtrack, and an extremely solid script. This is quite a long film but it doesn’t seem like it all, so carefully is it paced.

This is, of course, an extremely strong cast – apart from the leads it also includes Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Eileen Atkins, Brendan Gleeson, Donald Sutherland, Cillian Murphy, and Natalie Portman (practicing her wan-and-anguished face ahead of Episode III), and they all pretty much deliver the goods. There’s a very slight tendency for the southern accents to get out of control – Zellweger in particular seems to think she’s auditioning for Calamity Jane – but on the whole Minghella keeps the ‘Well I do declare’-ing under control. The director also displays a hitherto-unseen talent for action. The old-school shootouts punctuating much of the movie are very well put on, with Law and Winstone making surprisingly credible gunfighters. This is being promoted as a classy, Oscar-trawling drama, but Western fans will probably enjoy it too.

In fact the only thing about this film that didn’t quite ring true for me was the romance between Law and Kidman. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the scenes of their initial courtship just seem a bit implausible (we’re invited to believe that Law is drawn to the sound of Kidman playing the piano on the back of a moving cart a hundred yards away), while the outbreak of rumpo which rapidly follows their eventual reunion is shot and edited to resemble a particularly competitive bout of Naked Twister (it’s still extremely watchable, I hasten to add). But this thankfully isn’t a major problem, as it’s hope and unresolved feeling that draws these people back together, rather than the strength of their actual relationship.

I can’t actually fault Cold Mountain very much at all – it’s yet another film that I wouldn’t begrudge picking up major silverware in the awards season just around the corner. It may not be quite as good as The English Patient, but it’s arguably more accessible, and Minghella is to be praised for taking such an eclectic set of actors and influences and creating a film so steeped in traditional storytelling virtues. Recommended.

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