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Posts Tagged ‘not funny’

My taste in movies is broader than most people’s, but that doesn’t mean I expect all of them to be good. I find it is important to bear in mind that, no matter how talented or discriminating someone is, the chances are they have participated in at least one piece of complete garbage in the course of their careers: successful movie actors just have a much higher hit rate than most. I am reminded of something Michael Caine said, about how one needed to make sure only one film in five was a genuine stinker – Caine’s legendary willingness to appear in virtually anything may have constituted an attempt to stack the odds in his favour.

Much as I have attempted to impress this principle on others, it has not always taken. It would have been in the late summer of 2005 that my father approached me and enquired if I would be recording a showing of Joe McGrath’s 1969 film The Magic Christian, due on TV that evening. I had not planned to; reviews in the TV listings were unenthusiastic and it didn’t look like my kind of thing, let alone his. Nevertheless, he asked if I would tape it for him. I agreed, but asked why: ‘it’s got lots of good people in it,’ was his response. This I cannot argue with: the film’s most distinguishing feature is an astonishing cast list, starting with Peter Sellers and going on to include Ringo Starr, Laurence Harvey, Hattie Jacques, John le Mesurier, Richard Attenborough, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Spike Milligan, Dennis Price, Yul Brynner, Roman Polanski, Raquel Welch and Christopher Lee, along with many other well-known faces, some of them playing themselves. That the film does not seem to recognise the value of its assets, and fritters them away rather, is thematically appropriate but still bad film-making.

(NB: staring at the poster for three minutes will mean you probably have a longer exposure to Raquel Welch than her entire actual screen-time in the movie. Caveat emptor.)

Peter Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, an eccentric billionaire, who at the start of the film decides to make up for his childless state by adopting an heir: he chooses a tramp from one of London’s parks, played by Ringo Starr (there have been suggestions the part was actually written for John Lennon, and you can imagine him in it). The duo set out to perpetrate a series of insanely lavish practical jokes puncturing the pomposity of the society they see around them and exposing the venality of the great and the good. As Sellers’ character puts it at one point, ‘Grand’s the name, money’s my game – would you like to play?’

What follows is an almost entirely plotless series of skits and sketches, most of which concern the Grands bribing people to sabotage various aspects of mainstream society. They pay the actor Laurence Harvey to do a striptease in the middle of a performance of Hamlet, pay one of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race teams to ram their opponents and wreck the contest, get someone to enter a black panther (farcically disguised as a dog) at Crufts, and so on. Eventually the Grands set out on a cruise to New York on the liner The Magic Christian, where all manner of strange events start to occur – but is all as it seems? (Hint: no it isn’t, but by this point you will have stopped caring anyway.)

Apart from Sellers and Starr, most of those big names in the cast list turn up for only one or two scenes, and it is a general rule of thumb that the less time they have on screen, the better they come across, as the script for this movie is so slapdash and lousy that hardly any of them can do much with this material. I suppose this excuses most of them, with the possible exception of John Cleese and Graham Chapman: they wrote an earlier version of the script (later replaced by one written by McGrath and Terry Southern, author of the source novel), but the only scenes from this which survived are the ones they appear in – so in a very real sense they are the authors of their own misfortunes here. (This clearly left its mark on Cleese and Chapman: an episode of Monty Python made a couple of years later features an insane, incompetent Scottish film director, and the stage directions in the script drily make clear that he ‘in no way resembles J. McGrath.’)

Some of the more lavishly silly sequences in The Magic Christian do kind of anticipate Python at its most absurd – there’s a bit where Grand goes partridge hunting using an ack-ack gun and a flame-thrower – but the film has a kind of laboriousness about it that takes away most of the fun; much of the humour also comes across as rather problematic, too (many jokes seem racist, sexist, or homophobic).

This is because it seems to be battering away at a supposedly subversive message about how money-obsessed the great and the good of society are. (This is possibly not the most dazzlingly original insight in the annals of British satire.) One has to remember the film was made at the end of the 1960s and does embody, awkwardly, something of the hippy ideal of not being materialist or acquisitive. However, if this film was a person, it would be Sid James dragged up as a hippy at the end of Carry On Camping – the costume is just about right, and he’s saying some of the right words, but it is plainly a disguise and a deeply unconvincing one. It feels more like a hippy exploitation film than a genuine attempt to make a satire embodying the philosophy of the counter-culture – even if it is, it is hopelessly naive and unsubtle.

There is the odd mildly amusing moment scattered through the film – the scene where Roman Polanski encounters a rather unexpected cabaret singer is perhaps the closest it gets to being laugh-out-loud funny – and I suppose Peter Sellers deserves some kind of credit for delivering a solid comic performance that does as much as anything to hold the film together. But even so, this is one sixties artefact which has not aged well, mainly because it was never any good at the time. Paul Merton once went on TV to defend The Magic Christian, suggesting it has a reputation as a bad movie because it has been smeared by various establishment film critics offended by its all-purpose irreverence. Paul, I hate to contradict you, but I have to disagree: The Magic Christian’s reputation as a bad movie stems mainly from the fact it is a bad movie.

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As previously noted, nothing which was once popular – no matter how briefly or how long ago – can ever be allowed to die a dignified death and slide quietly into oblivion any more. No, it must dragged back from the brink, propped up in front of a new audience, given a vague attempt at a new coat of paint, and forced to rake in a few more shekels. This seems to be an iron law of modern culture. I can think of no other explanation for the re-emergence of yet another new version of Charlie’s Angels.

The last couple of years have, after all, apparently brought about a complete rethink about the role and representation of women in popular media. They are no longer mere ornamental objects present only for the gratification of male viewers. Well, fair enough. But even at the time, the original Charlie’s Angels TV show was derided by critics as ‘jiggle TV’, for reasons I hope I don’t have to go into. ‘When the show was number three [in the ratings], I figured it was our acting. When it got to number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra,’ observed original star Farrah Fawcett. It was a show built around the exploitation of attractive young women.

And yet Elizabeth Banks’ new movie bloody-mindedly attempts to retool it as – according to a proper critic, in The Guardian – ‘weaponised feminism’. My head hurts. However, the new Charlie’s Angels movie is definitely aimed at independently-minded young women, which is surely the equivalent of trying to sell hamburgers to cattle. You can only be doing it for one of two reasons: you’ve radically reinvented the product, or you think your audience is very, very stupid.

In the end it’s probably the first one, I think – by which I means that if the film does treat the viewer as thick, it’s not intentional, just something that many Hollywood movies do without really thinking about it. The paradox inherent in the movie does become apparent from the first scene, which features Kristen Stewart talking a lot about her self-determination and formidable polymathic talents and so on, all the while wearing a sparkly pink mini-dress and a long blonde wig.

Soon enough the movie moves on to something a bit less intellectually demanding and some martial arts action breaks out. ‘I’m your new girlfriend!’ cries Stewart, headbutting a bad guy into insensibility. It certainly gives a whole new charm to the notion of remaining self-partnered. More importantly, Patrick Stewart wanders in, playing Bosley – the implication seems to be that he is playing the David Doyle character from the original show (Stewart is somewhat artlessly inserted into photos alongside the original TV cast and that of the early 2000s movies).

Normally Stewart wraps himself in gravitas and integrity like a cloak, but on this occasion he just twinkles a lot, which is a little wrong-footing. I think it is safe to say that his performance in this film is not quite of the same stature as all that work with the RSC or playing Sejanus, Jean-Luc Picard or Professor X, but on the other hand CGI has been used to carefully remove the dollar-signs appearing in both eyes throughout all his scenes.

On with the plot. Patrick Stewart’s Bosley retires, and is replaced by Banks herself as another Bosley – yes, the world is now so feminist that even the token man is a woman. More importantly, perhaps, over in Berlin nice young computer expert Naomi Scott discovers the revolutionary clean energy technology she is working on has dangerous potential as a deadly weapon, which bad actors are taking an interest in (I mean criminal agents, not the cast, but now you mention it…). It’s up to Banks-Bosley, Stewart, and Ella Balinska (playing another new Angel) to save the day.

This involves whizzing around Berlin, Istanbul, and various other locations, in a style which is some way sub-Mission: Impossible and even further sub-Bond. To be fair to the movie, Elizabeth Banks puts together a functional set of action sequences – chases, fights, sneakings-in-and-out-of-secure-places, and so on – but when the gunfire and revving engines fade away, all one is left with is the sound of comic banter falling flat and people expositing blandly at each other, interspersed with the occasional somewhat obtrusive you-go-girl moment.

It brings me no pleasure to report this, as Elizabeth Banks strikes me as a talented person who makes interesting creative choices: apart from this film, just this year she has appeared in Brightburn and the second Lego Movie, both of which were well worth watching. However, as Banks not only directed the film, but also wrote the final screenplay and co-produced it, it is her name which is most prominent on the charge sheet. As an actress, at least, she appears to be trying hard, and emerges from the film with as much credit as anyone else involved in this department.

However, the name of the game is Charlie’s Angels, and it really stands or falls by the quality of the central trio. Quite what philosophy was adopted by the casting team for this film seems a bit of a mystery, as there is – to put it delicately – a bit of a disparity when it comes to the profile of the stars. Whichever way you look at it, Kristen Stewart is globally famous and has done many big movies; Naomi Scott was very prominent in Aladdin earlier this year; while Ella Balinska is effectively a complete unknown. The effect of this is, again, a bit wrong-footing. However, I have to say that the film does prove again that, no matter how bad some of the later Twilight films were (and some of them were very bad indeed), Stewart does have genuine screen presence and star quality: you do find your eye drawn to her when she’s on. I’m not sure the same is true of Naomi Scott, at least not to the same extent, but I discern considerable potential for a future career playing kooky best friends here. Ella Balinska, on the other hand, can’t deliver a joke or a piece of exposition to save her life, but she is about eight feet tall, which was probably useful for the fight choreography.

Whatever you think of the wisdom of the film’s attempt to reinvent Charlie’s Angels for the post-Unique Moment world, or its gender politics in general, the biggest problems it has are that as a comedy it isn’t funny and as an action movie it never particularly thrills. I would be more tolerant and responsive to whatever subtext it is trying to put across if the actual text of the thing was competently done and entertaining. It is not, and perhaps the most indicative thing about it is that there is no sense of great potential being squandered: it just feels like mechanical Hollywood product, with even its big message closely calculated to appeal to the target audience. I remain convinced, though, that even a brilliantly-executed feminist take on Charlie’s Angels would be a deeply, deeply weird film.

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Disney’s current near-hegemony at the box office is always just a bit more apparent at Christmas time, where for some years now it has been very apparent that everyone else is running scared of the power of the Mouse House. One sign of this is that other studios are releasing their festive movies absurdly early: bringing anything new out at a sensible time, like actually at Christmas, risks being squashed like a bug by their latest stellar conflict brand extension or whatever.

As a result, Paul Feig’s Last Christmas has been out since about the middle of November, which is plainly a bit ridiculous, especially when you consider the grim, steely determination with which it sets about spraying the audience with yuletide cheer, like an Uzi set to fully automatic. As is not entirely unexpected for a film heavily trading on affection for George Michael and his music, it opens with a choirgirl singing ‘Heal the Pain’. This is not unpleasant to listen to, but I was almost at once distracted by the fact she is apparently singing it in a church, in – according to a caption – Yugoslavia in 1999. Did they sing pop songs in Balkan churches in 1999? Was Yugoslavia even still around in 1999?

Best not to get too tangled up in such issues, anyway. For reasons which remain obscure, the bulk of the film is set at Christmas 2017, and concerns the now-grown choirgirl, Kate (Katarina to her family), who is played by Emilia Clarke. She is an aspiring musical theatre actress, but is going through a sort of ill-defined long-term personal crisis. She is also (initially at least, though this kind of gets forgotten about) a huge fan of George Michael and Wham, and (in the name of ensuring the film’s festivity quotient is maxed out) works in a year-round Christmas shop run by Michelle Yeoh.

It is while she is working here that she meets Tom, a mysterious stranger played by Henry Golding, in a more than usually contrived cute-meet involving a bird shitting on her face. All the usual stuff blossoms between the two of them, and slowly she begins to reassess her life, be more considerate of the people around her, and generally attempt to be a bit more positive… WAKE UP!!! (Sorry. I just know the effect that this sort of thing has on me, and I imagine it’s the same for other people.)

The first thing I should mention about Last Christmas is that it is a film built around a plot twist. Nothing wrong with that; many fine films can say the same. The thing about a good plot twist is that it should come as a complete and breathtaking surprise when it actually happens in the film, but (in retrospect) seem entirely reasonable. Last Christmas‘s plot twist does not quite reach these lofty heights: unless all the bulbs in your cerebral Christmas lights have blown, you will almost certainly be able to guess the twist just from watching the trailer. Even then, this wouldn’t necessarily be a fatal problem if most people were not then moved to say ‘That’s a really cheesy/stupid/terrible idea’. But they are. Hereabouts we respect plot integrity (even in bad movies), so I will simply suggest that the film’s plot pivots around a uniquely reductionist interpretation of some George Michael lyrics. Enough said.

So: basically, what we have here is the archetypal seasonal story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, involved in a head-on smash with the Richard Curtis rom-com formula. Various often acceptable performers are scythed down by the ensuing shrapnel, and quite possibly members of the audience too. The story was thought up by Emma Thompson and her husband, and written down by Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, possibly all on the same afternoon. I can’t speak about Thompson’s husband or Kimmings, but Emma herself always struck me as a fairly smart cookie, and I am surprised to see her so signally fail to figure out that these two story-patterns are just not compatible. For the Christmas Carol pattern to work, you need to have a genuinely flawed character seriously in need of redemption. Rom-com characters are also flawed, as a rule, but not to anything like the same degree: the form requires them to be cute and loveable from the get-go. Last Christmas‘ problem – one of its problems – is that it can’t get over how wonderful it thinks Emilia Clarke’s character is. We are occasionally told what an awful person she is, but that’s all: the film is almost palpably needy in its attempts to make you root for and sympathise with her. Only having watched certain selected highlights of Musical Chairs on the internet, I am not really familiar with Emilia Clarke; but even if she really is as great an actress as my friends often assure me, she would need a much better script to make this particular character work.

It probably doesn’t help that she is sharing the screen for a lot of the film with Henry Golding, who is playing – and let me just pause for a moment here while I reflect upon the mot juste – a git. Specifically, he is a rom-com git, the kind of relentlessly warm, quirky, caring, decent chap guaranteed to evoke feelings of homicidal animosity in any right-thinking viewer (cf Michael Maloney in Truly, Madly, Deeply, for instance). As the name suggests, it takes an actor of significant skill, nuance, and charisma to transcend the essential gittishness of this kind of role and turn them into someone whose appearance in a scene does not cause the heart to sink. Golding brings to bear all the experience and technique he has acquired in his long career as a presenter of TV travel shows, and yet still somehow falls short.

There does seem to be something awfully calculated and insincere about Last Christmas, and I do wonder if this doesn’t extend to the casting. One of the trends I have noticed in commercial cinema over the last few years is the tendency to stick in a couple of Asian actors, just to help flog the film in the far east, and I can’t help wondering if the inclusion of Golding and Yeoh (Anglo-Malaysian and Chinese-Malaysian respectively) isn’t just another example of this sort of thing. It does make the various jokes in the film about the proliferation of horrible commercialised Christmas tat seem rather lacking in self-awareness, given the whole movie is horrible commercial Christmas tat itself. Nevertheless, we are assured this is ‘the Christmas film of the decade!’, although without specifying which one: possibly the 1340s.

It would be remiss of me to suggest that Last Christmas is all bad, of course: there was one moment which actually made me laugh, although as it featured Peter Serafinowicz this is not really surprising. Unfortunately he is only in the film for about a minute. The rest of it is fairly consistently horrible, containing weird plot holes, mistaking quirkiness for genuine wit, and failing to realise that feel-good moments only come at a price: you have to really believe the characters have been knocked down if you’re going to rejoice when they get up again. The film’s attempts at moments of genuine emotional seriousness and pain just feel trite, though I should note that Clarke is trying hard throughout. The film’s habit of occasionally sticking in a glib and superficial political subtext with little real bearing on the plot is also rather crass, and does rather jar with Emma Thompson’s sizeable performance as a comedy Yugoslavian immigrant.

In the end, this is all surface and sentimentality, without any real sense of believeable characters or genuine emotions, with a soundtrack of George Michael songs (seemingly picked at random) trying to hold it together. I imagine that admirers of this thing (and they must be out there, for it has made $68 million to date) would say that its heart is in the right place. Given how the plot turns out, this is somewhat ironic, but it’s not true, in any case. Last Christmas‘ heart is in the right place only if you believe the right place for a heart is between the ears.

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Well, here we are in a brand new year, still with that fresh plastic aroma, but I am saddened to have to report that a stench not unlike that of rotting leftovers is lingering on in movie theatres internationally. Yes, 2018 produced many outstanding films, but it also unloaded on us a higher than usual number of genuine stinkers, and just to remind us of this, right at the back end of the year we were treated to Etan Cohen’s Holmes & Watson, a film which manages the feat (which I would have thought impossible) of seriously challenging Peter Rabbit for the title of Worst Film of 2018. (I initially thought Etan Cohen was a jokey pseudonym, for hopefully obvious reasons, but apparently not. This is a shame, as if so it would have been mildly amusing, which is more than you can say for anything else in this shocking non-comedy.)

Let me just describe the opening scene of Holmes & Watson and see if that gives you a taste of the very special quality, if that’s the right word, this film possesses. It opens in 1881, with Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) tending his beloved giant marrow, which he has clearly devoted many months to growing. Meanwhile, Dr Watson (John C Reilly) has recently returned from Afghanistan and, shaken by his experiences, decides to commit suicide (good comic stuff this). However, he opts to do so by jumping from the roof overlooking Holmes’ vegetable plot. Holmes, alarmed by the threat this poses to his marrow, tries to persuade Watson to jump off a different roof or possibly shoot himself instead. Naturally, Watson misunderstands all of this and believes Holmes to be genuinely concerned for his wellbeing. In his delight, he loses his footing and falls off the roof, but his fall is broken by Holmes’ marrow, which is destroyed in the process. The two men become firm friends and partners in Holmes’ detective activities as a result.

Just to reiterate, this is supposed to be a comedy film. This scene is, I think, fairly representative of the whole endeavour – in fact, I may have been quite generous, in that there are several other bits which are much, much worse. (I suppose it is just possible you may have read the foregoing and concluded ‘You know what, that actually sounds quite funny’ – if this is the case, then your imagination is doing a better job of realising this scene than anyone in the actual film, and you may want to consider a change of career.) Do you want to hear about the rest of the plot? Oh, God. The general tone of the film is one of knowing and self-satisfied stupidity. Holmes and Watson, who are both depicted as morons, are challenged to solve a murder in four days in order to prevent the assassination of Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris). Along the way Watson falls in love with an American doctor (Rebecca Hall) and Holmes falls in love with a woman who thinks she’s a cat (Lauren Lapkus).

There is actually quite a good cast here – regardless of what you think of Ferrell and Reilly, both of whom have made films I really like, it also includes Ralph Fiennes, Steve Coogan, Hugh Laurie, Rob Brydon and Kelly Macdonald. Unfortunately, the film also seems to have been afflicted by some sort of dreadful supernatural curse, which means that hardly any of these people show any sign of being genuinely amusing or showing more than marginal signs of creative talent of any kind. I would not have imagined it possible to watch a film with all these people and not once, in an hour and a half, feel the slightest inclination to laugh or express pleasure or amusement of any kind. It actually required an effort of will to stay to the end and endure the succession of witless jokes about gerontophilia, masturbation and projectile vomit.

The film’s signature joke is to insert modern ideas into its late-Victorian setting (not that historical accuracy appears to have been a concern). Thus, we have Holmes donning a red ‘Make England Great Again’ fez (along with some other unimpressive jokes about Donald Trump), Watson sending a telegram of his winky to a woman he’s attracted to, jokes about pay-per-view entertainment, and so on. I will say it again – none of it is funny. The film somehow exists within a negative-humour vortex, which even seems to be sucking the usual feeble jokes out of this review. It is uncanny. This comedy version of Sherlock Holmes is without a doubt the least funny version of these characters I have ever seen. The Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes is funnier. Hell, even the Jeremy Brett version is much funnier than this.

One could, of course, pause to wonder at the wisdom of doing a comedic spoof of something which was always intended as light-hearted escapism in the first place: your typical Sherlock Holmes adaptation may look like a serious costume drama, but the original stories were cut from a different cloth. One could also note the rather bemusing fact that much of this film appears to be methodically spoofing the Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law Holmes movies, the most recent of which is seven years old. Why bother? It is genuinely confounding. The only thing about this film which sort of makes sense is the news that, apparently, Sony sensed what a horror they had on their hands and tried to offload it on Netflix – but even the streaming giant, which spends money so heedlessly it apparently thought spending $80 million on Bright was a good investment, didn’t bite on this occasion.

I have to say that Holmes & Watson has caused me to question my whole choice of lifestyle as a regular cinema-goer. I saw over eighty new films on the big screen in 2018, mainly because I always like to see as many as possible and I do genuinely enjoy the mechanics of going to the cinema, buying my ticket, getting  a good seat, watching the trailers, and so on. But why on earth did I go to see this film? I knew going in it was going to be bad – word of a 0% approval rating on review aggregation websites travels, after all. And I know I always say I don’t mind watching bad films, just boring ones. But what is wrong with me? Am I some kind of masochist? Is breaking my own record worth this kind of experience? Is this review genuinely going to dissuade anyone from going to see Holmes & Watson? I don’t know. I don’t know. I may only have another 35 years left to live; do I really want to spend them trying to assimilate this kind of worthless rubbish?

The least I can say is that 2019 can only get better from this point on, because pretty much any film is going to look good after this one. Even so: this is not so much a movie as ninety minutes of existential trauma. An almost incomprehensibly bad film.

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It is what people used to call the silly season, when not much is happening in terms of conventional news, and so the more traditional papers are falling back on hopefully-interesting non-news stories. Catching my eye the other day was another piece speculating about the identity of the next James Bond, despite the fact that Daniel Craig has yet to retire and in fact has another film in the works. Current favourite, allegedly, is Idris Elba, which – as I have discussed before – strikes me as a somewhat questionable move (angry mob, please assemble at the usual place). I’m rather more taken by the prospect of the 3/1 second favourite, who is an actor I can actually imagine playing a recognisable and interesting version of Ian Fleming’s character – Tom Hardy.

I’ve been impressed by Hardy for quite some years now, not least by the way he has kept plugging away and overcome some dubious early career moves (his turn as the Picard clone in Star Trek: Nemesis, for instance). Talent will out, it seems – however, if you check through his filmography to see his track record when portraying suave, lady-killing spies, the first piece of evidence which leaps out at you is not in Tom Hardy’s favour. It is in a spirit of public service, and sympathy for the actors concerned, that I must speak of McG’s 2012 film This Means War.

This movie concerns the activities of a pair of CIA agents, played by Hardy and Chris Pine – it is stated quite clearly that Hardy is British, so what he is doing in the CIA is anyone’s guess, but that’s just the level of attention to detail you can expect from this film. Pine and Hardy are partners, and as the film opens they are embarking upon a mission in Hong Kong to capture a pair of international arms dealers. The level of professionalism of this pair is foreshadowed by the way they end up having a gun battle in a crowded bar, killing one of the people they were supposed to apprehend, with his brother escaping to swear revenge. The duo’s boss (Angela Bassett, basically playing the same role as in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, though I strongly doubt the two films are in continuity) confines them to their desks in Los Angeles.

It turns out that Hardy has split up with the mother of his child, and, gripped by nebulous but powerful sentiments, he joins an on-line dating site. (Yes, even though he is a top international spy.) Here he connects with Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a sort of lifestyle guru who has trouble committing to personal decisions: it transpires she was added to the site by her wacky best friend (Chelsea Handler, saddled with some particularly subpar material). Hardy and Witherspoon are somewhat taken with each other when they meet, but what should happen then? Well, after leaving Hardy, Witherspoon goes into the local DVD rental store (I tell you, this one scene dates the film like you wouldn’t believe) and has another cute-meet with Pine, who has been hanging around in case Hardy needs a hand getting out of his date.

The DVD store cute-meet scene is particularly notable in that it is especially smugly written, with Pine and Witherspoon trading repartee about their deep knowledge of movies and preferences within the field. Except, and this is barely credible, given this film was actually (by definition) written by a screenwriter, neither of them has a clue what they’re talking about, confidently asserting that any Hitchcock film from between 1950 and 1972 is a good choice (one word rebuttal: Topaz).

Well, anyway, the final piece of set-up occurs when Pine and Hardy, both having disclosed they are in a new relationship, discover they are dating the same woman (Witherspoon, crucially, is unaware the two men even know each other). Despite initially having a gentlemen’s agreement to be reasonable about this, this naturally breaks down, with most of the rest of the film taken up with their (it says here) hilarious attempts to impress Witherspoon while sabotaging the other’s chances. (Meanwhile the vengeful arms dealer from near the start occasionally pops up in a B-story, setting up a somewhat obvious climax.)

The best thing you can say about This Means War is that it is visually appealing, on a solely aesthetic level. Basically there are lots of bright colours (garishly so, which sort of matches the cartoonishness of the plot), with extremely attractive people living in immaculately styled apartments. Should you engage with it on any level beyond the utterly superficial (and this includes actually listening to the dialogue), however, this is a very lousy movie.

I watched this movie scratching my head and trying to work out what genre it actually belongs to: it has cute-meets and allegedly comic scenes, but also gun battles and fights and a big car chase. Presumably it is intended to be a sort of mash-up of the action-comedy and rom-com genres, with something for everyone going out on date night. Well, what it really comes out resembling is a rom-com aimed at jocks, which is a novel idea, in the same sense that making ladders out of rubber would be a novel idea.

Let me explain: your typical rom-com is primarily aimed at a female audience, regardless of whether the protagonist is male or female – they are invariably sympathetic and charming enough for the audience to identify with. However, in this film Witherspoon is essentially treated as an attractive trophy for the two men to joust over, too dumb and self-obsessed to notice all the weird stuff going on around her. The two male leads are alpha-jocks and it’s really not clear whether they’re genuinely interested in Witherspoon for her own (undeniable) charms, or just overtaken by the urge to outperform their former friend.

Of course, this leads us onto another major problem, which is that the film is just not very funny. Not only is it not funny, but most of the unfunny comic material is rather questionable: both Hardy and Pine deploy the full apparatus of the intelligence establishment in order to get the girl, which means that Witherspoon spends most of the movie under CIA surveillance with her apartment bugged. Unauthorised government surveillance – that’s the stuff of real comedy gold, folks! There’s also a lot of very broad stuff about Hardy shooting Pine with a tranquiliser gun to stop him having sex with Witherspoon, Pine following their car with a drone (Hardy shoots it down with his handgun), and so on.

Reese Witherspoon, who I have always found a fairly agreeable performer, genuinely seems to be trying her best in a very unrewarding role. What’s more interesting is what’s going on elsewhere, for as well as the in-story contest between Pine and Hardy as characters, there is also the issue of which one of them takes the acting honours. Well, it may be that I am biased, but on several occasions I have come away from movies having been very impressed by a Tom Hardy performance, while the best I can say for Chris Pine is that once in a while I have been rather impressed by a film in which his performance was competent. It may in fact be that Tom Hardy is going easy on his co-star and not giving it 100%, but he still easily steals the movie from him.

The resolution of the actual plot of the film is another matter. While watching it, I was scratching my head (again; a lot of head-scratching went on during This Means War) trying to work out how they would conclude the story. Whichever one of the guys Witherspoon chose, I thought, it would risk disappointing that section of the audience rooting for the other one (although I suppose we should be grateful she even gets given a choice). For her to assert herself and (with justification) give both of them the boot would constitute too severe a violation of rom-com norms. The only other option (the three of them settling down to some kind of menage a troi, possibly involving Pine and Hardy admitting to having more than fraternal feelings for each other) would clearly be much too innovative and interesting for this kind of film. Needless to say, the movie bottles it.

Oh well, you can make bad films and still be a good James Bond (just look at some of the things Sean Connery was doing in the late 1950s), and we can only hope that This Means War doesn’t count against Tom Hardy too much. The fact remains, though, that this is one bad movie – not simply because it is unfunny, and unreconstructed, but also because of the way it treats a deeply suspect premise in such a knockabout manner. No-one emerges from this one with any credit.

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Musings on The Death of Cinema, Part Three – well, hang on, before we really get properly stuck into Will Gluck’s CGI movie version of Peter Rabbit, perhaps a little more context is required. Beatrix Potter’s original tales of the adventures of woodland characters were amongst the very first stories that I was ever read, and as a result they retain a power to affect me on a deeply emotional level: my memories of them have a fondness and delicacy to them that I find it extremely difficult to articulate. Anyone tampering with the elemental stuff of my childhood is, in effect, jabbing a sharp stick down into my subconscious. I didn’t go and see either of the Paddington films for exactly this reason: I wasn’t sure I could cope with the upwelling of emotion even a good Paddington movie would inevitably produce. But at least the Paddington films did get universally good reviews. This is not true of Peter Rabbit.

So why in sanity’s name would I go near this film? Well, to bear witness, mainly; to stare down into the blackest pits of horror and debasement unblinkingly, so I can vent my spleen all over the internet with at least the semblance of an informed opinion. Plus someone asked me to, because he thought the ensuing review might be quite funny. I ask you.

Proper critics have said some quite peculiar and arguably silly things about Peter Rabbit: ‘not all bad, just very nearly’ is just one of the far too generous notices it has drawn. There have also been various references to Beatrix Potter herself ‘spinning in her grave’, when as any fule kno Miss Potter was cremated in December 1943. However, if the rocks and stones themselves of the Lake District were to rise up in violent revolt against this horrendous travesty, if the trees and waters and small furry creatures were to gather their strength and strike a terrible blow of vengeance against all the works of man – well, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

This is apparently ‘an irreverent, contemporary comedy with attitude’ – yes, think of Miss Potter’s famous The Tale of Peter Rabbit and the first three words that bound into your skull are ‘irreverent’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘attitude’, aren’t they? James Corden voices Peter Rabbit with all the heart-warming charm of a blocked drain, while Margot Robbie is Flopsy Rabbit and Daisy Ridley is Cottontail Rabbit. (Mrs Rabbit has been killed off, as she is obviously just not street enough for modern audiences.) The rabbits spend all their time sneaking into the vegetable patch of grumpy old Mr McGregor (Sam Neill).

The substance of the book is still just about visible off in the distance, but there now follows a sequence in which Peter Rabbit actively contemplates inserting a carrot into Mr McGregor’s rectum while the latter is chasing him about the garden. The exertions of the chase cause Mr McGregor to drop dead, however, before the deed can be done.

Yup, that’s right: this is a version of Peter Rabbit in which Peter Rabbit basically kills Mr McGregor. It makes that film version of Dad’s Army where Corporal Jones shoots someone in the head look like a triumph of authenticity. The film does squirm around on this point, though, claiming that McGregor’s ‘poor lifestyle choices’ were to blame, and including a throwaway gag about Asbestos poisoning. Ha! Ha! Asbestos poisoning! That’s so contemporary and irrelevent, not to mention hilarious!

Well, inheriting the house (and, of course, the vegetable patch) is Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a virtually unhinged control-freak who used to work for Harrods (which appears to have financed the film, as it features the most blatant and extended product placement I’ve seen in any film since Power Rangers). Cue another attitude-heavy gag about McGregor drinking water out of the Harrods toilet bowls. Needless to say, McGregor hates the rabbits and their woodland friends, but he is quite taken with his nature-loving neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne, who does not receive her customary ‘sigh’ on this occasion).

Yup, once again you are ahead of me: Bea is, we are invited to infer, Beatrix Potter herself, but rather than a multi-talented artist, natural scientist and expert mycologist, in the movie she is presented as a hippy-dippy free spirit and slightly inept abstract painter. Young McGregor is much taken with her, and she with him, rather to the chagrin of Peter Rabbit. Can Peter Rabbit drive McGregor away? Can McGregor successfully woo Bea? Can Bea make the rabbits behave, and encourage McGregor to be a bit less retentive?

All this, plus rapping sparrows, a sight gag where Mrs Tiggy-Winkle walks repeatedly into an electric fence, and the already-notorious moment when the rabbits pelt McGregor with blackberries, which he is allergic to, causing him to go into anaphylactic shock and collapse. Ho ho ho! Anaphylactic shock! That’s just so contemporary!

Once again, the film tries to smarm its way around any potential taste issues here, as the whole blackberry scene is prefaced by a moment where Peter Rabbit basically turns to the camera and says ‘Allergies are a serious business, and we’re not making fun of sufferers, because we don’t want to get letters’. Before the film proceeds to make fun of sufferers and do the whole comedy-anaphylactic-shock routine.

Just how bad is Peter Rabbit? Well, for once, words fail me. I have to resort to the following picture, which basically depicts the expression on my face for most of this movie:

In short, it is horrendously, almost indescribably bad, assuming you come to it from the point of view of someone wanting a movie with even the barest resemblance to Beatrix Potter’s charming, gentle stories.

It’s not even as if the guilty parties can claim ignorance, for the tiny sliver of the film which is actually pleasant to watch is a fully-animated flashback, done in the style of the book’s original illustrations, depicting the happier days of the rabbit family. It completely gets the sweetness and subtlety of the original tales, which just makes the ghastliness of the rest of the movie all the more reprehensible: they could have done a whole movie like that. They chose otherwise. They have no defence.

This is almost the Platonic ideal of a well-known property being wrenched violently out of shape simply in order to exploit its name-recognition factor. In places this almost resembles a mean-spirited parody of Beatrix Potter, with her stories subverted by the inclusion of a knowing, desperately self-aware sense of humour. Is the whole thing supposed to be ironic on some level? I’m not sure. The closing section certainly seems to be having some fun at the expense of grisly and formulaic Richard Curtis-style rom-coms. Fair enough; there’s fun to be had there. But don’t do it if it means doing this kind of violence to poor little Peter Rabbit.

Normally I could find the generosity to suggest that this film has a certain level of technical competence, and the performances of the two leads are serviceable enough. But not in this case. This is a knowing, premeditated violation of an innocent children’s classic, a wilful, unconscionable cash-grab (and before you say anything, I used my free ticket card to get in to see it, so my conscience is clear) of such mercenary awfulness it is almost impossible to watch without despair swallowing your soul. The success of the Paddington films means more horrors of this ilk are almost inevitable, I fear. The one faint glimmer of hope I can offer is that there were only five people at the screening I went to, and none of them were from the target demographic for this film. So there is at least a chance it is dying on its cotton-tailed arse. It deserves to; it honestly deserves to. Not so much a work of art as a sin against nature.

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There were, of course, many things about the pre-financial crisis world that any sensible person might look back on with a sense of regret and nostalgia. For myself, one of these is Borders, a chain of bookshops which operated on an epic scale – just a bit too epic, as it turned out. These days the Borders which I most often frequented have turned into branches of Tescos or pet supply shops; I suppose I should just be grateful that Waterstones survived the cull.

Adding just a little piquancy to all this fond remembrance (don’t worry, we will get to something of substance fairly soon) is the fact that, during the last months of Borders’ existence, I found myself somewhat financially embarrassed and was entirely unable to take full advantage of the bounty on offer. The only thing I remember buying was a book which, on later reflection, I found myself almost wishing I hadn’t: Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (based, obviously, on the famous novel by Jane Austen, who is rather cheekily credited as co-writer).

I will spare you yet further ramblings about my somewhat turbulent relationship with different incarnations of Pride and Prejudice, and merely note that Grahame-Smith’s parody is another manifestation of the Great Zombie Boom of recent years. The book itelf was successful enough to spawn various follow-ups, with titles like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina, while Grahame-Smith put his obvious talent for a snappy title to work and went on to write Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, filmed by Timur Bekmambetov a few years ago.

The thing about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that it’s a funny title which tells you exactly what to expect, but is it actually something you can drag out for the length of a whole novel? It’s a funny concept, but you need a bit more if you’re making anything longer than a comedy sketch.

All very relevant, one would suspect, to the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, written and directed by Burr Steers, and produced by Natalie Portman, who was clearly at one point really desperate to play Elizabeth Bennet, no matter what the context. This is another of those films that never made it to the local cinemas in Oxford, and I was quite glad to catch up with it, even if my expectations were, shall we say, moderate at best.

Steers has a conscientious go at setting the scene in a manner which is vaguely coherent: the expansion of the British Empire in the 18th century brings all kinds of foreign exotica to England’s green and pleasant lands, most notably the zombie virus, which proceeds to sweep the nation. London is fortified (a touch of steampunk here), and sensible folk of the upper classes invest in combat training so they may defend themselves against the undead hordes.

It is against this backdrop that much of the same plot as in the traditional Pride and Prejudice unfolds: the Bennets are a well-bred but slightly impecunious family, and Mrs Bennet (Sally Phillips) is determined to find good and wealthy husbands for her five daughters. Top of the list are Jane (Bella Heathcote) and Elizabeth (Lily James). The arrival at the neighbouring estate of the dashing and wealthy Mr Bingley (Douglas Booth) is surely a good sign, but his stern friend Mr Darcy (Sam Riley) seems to disapprove entirely of the Bennets. Meanwhile, Elizabeth finds her head turned somewhat by Wickham (Jack Huston), a young soldier who appears to have been badly wronged by Darcy. Can the Bennet girls find romance and happiness? Could it be that Elizabeth has badly misjudged Darcy?

And, of course, there are also zombies rampaging about the countryside, although as this film is only a 15 certificate in the UK, the actual blood-soaked horror is inevitably a bit low-key. One of the big differences between the Grahame-Smith novel and the movie is that the latter moves much further away from the original Austen story, inserting much more of an action-adventure climax involving the Four Horsemen of the Zombie Apocalypse, not to mention the Zombie Antichrist.

I can kind of see why they’ve done this, as its identity as an action-horror zombie movie is clearly very important to this film – note the poster, on which the word ‘Zombies’ is considerably larger than the others. But it does inevitably take the movie further away from Jane Austen, which – given the whole point of the thing is that it’s an Austen-based mash-up – is surely a mistake. Perhaps it’s just an indication that this film has a fundamental problem, trying to bring together things which just don’t fit in the same story.

Well, maybe, maybe not. My problem with the book was that Grahame-Smith seemed to have chickened out of just putting zombies into Pride and Prejudice – which is, as noted, a funny idea – and had started trying to be actively funny, with creaky jokes like ‘Mr Bingley was famous for the size of his balls’, and the inclusion of the whole martial arts element, which isn’t rooted in the works of either Jane Austen or George A Romero.

Perhaps the problem is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is quite funny as an idea, but once you start actually writing the story and genuinely attempt to stay true to both elements, it turns into something else. You could make it work, probably, but it wouldn’t be the comedy that the title suggests.

Certainly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sort of hangs together as a zombopocalypse movie with a period setting – and in its own way it’s not much tonally weirder than Maggie, for instance – and in some ways it’s the Austen-specific bits of the plot that feel intrusive. It’s as any kind of comedy that it falls down, being fatally short on wit and self-awareness. Mostly, it takes itself painfully seriously, and the actually funny bits are the ones that feel like they’ve wandered in from a different film – Matt Smith (one of many actors who’ve managed to swing the ‘and’ position in the credits on this film) goes into comedy overdrive as Mr Collins and blasts everyone else off the screen, while a crucial scene between Elizabeth and Darcy juxtaposes authentically Austenesque dialogue with the pair of them engaging in hand-to-hand combat: suddenly the film comes to life, even though it feels like much more of a spoof as it does so. (The moment where a hot-under-the-collar Darcy dives into a lake, an emendation of the story first added by the BBC in 1995, makes an appearance, apparently because it’s expected to nowadays. It’s handled completely straight even though it’s surely ripe for spoofing.)

But these are only a handful of moments in what is quite a long film which never quite figures out its own identity – does it want to be a proper costume drama, a rom-com, an action horror movie, or what? Is it actually supposed to be funny? And if so, on what level? Is it trying to be clever, or knowingly dumb? It’s genuinely difficult to tell, not least because the answers seem to change throughout the course of the film.

As I have often noted in the past, you can do a lot with zombies (as recent films have shown). But you can’t do everything with them, or at least not all in the same movie. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes a talented and attractive cast and doesn’t give them the material they deserve, apparently never quite knowing what to do with them. It may be the film-makers never settled on the type of film they wanted to make. It may be that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is only funny as a title, not an actual story. I’m not actually sure. But I’m sure that this is a movie which doesn’t really work.

 

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