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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Bettany’

The First World War shows no signs of losing its grip on our collective imagination, even as it inevitably recedes beyond the realm of living memory. Part of this may be due to the fact that we are currently living through the centenary of the war, with regular reminders in terms of the specific commemorations of individual battles and other events, but it may also be because the war in a way marked the death of a particular notion of how the world was, and the birth of another. And there is the fact that it is popularly remembered as the archetypal example of a futile, pointless war, whereas the Second World War is virtually celebrated as the proof that such a thing as a just war is possible. In other words, if you want to make an anti-war war movie, you’re probably going to set it in the trenches, and this is certainly the case with Saul Dibb’s new adaptation of R.C. Sheriff’s famous play Journey’s End.

The film is set in early 1918, with British soldiers on the western front living in anticipation of a major German offensive, intended to break the deadlock between the two sides. Each company of soldiers is required to spend five days a month on the actual front line, and scheduled to be there when the German attack is expected is the company of Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). Stanhope has been worn down almost to nothing by the stresses of command and the war, and is drinking heavily, relying on the counsel of his older second-in-command Osborne (the ever-watchable Paul Bettany). He is less than delighted when his fiancee’s young brother Jimmy (Asa Butterfield) has himself posted to his company as a second lieutenant.

Nevertheless, the company takes up its position in the front line trenches – squalid, dangerous, horrible – and is settling into a kind of routine when word comes down from the top: the German offensive will be coming in a couple of days, on their watch, and no help will be available. Adding to this, Stanhope is ordered to launch a dangerous raid on the German lines just a few yards away, in order to secure a prisoner for intelligence purposes. Being considered too valuable to risk himself, Stanhope is obliged to send Osborne and Raleigh on this insanely perilous and poorly-planned mission – but is there really any point to it…?

So, to coin a phrase, not a lot of laughs in this one – although there is a welcome touch of rather black humour courtesy of Toby Jones’ somewhat put-upon trench chef. The danger here, of course, is that any jokes about dubious cooking in this kind of context will invariably remind audiences of a certain ilk of Blackadder Goes Forth. Is it too much to say that this sitcom played a major role in reinforcing perceptions of the First World War for a whole generation of viewers in Britain and beyond? I’m not sure, but what this film really seems to suggest is that Blackadder Goes Forth is, at heart, a rather liberal adaptation of Journey’s End with a lot of jokes added to it.

The danger here is that the movie might appear to be simply dealing in the tropes of this kind of story, when the truth is that the original stage play (first put on in 1928) probably played a significant role in creating them in the first place. All the stereotypes are here – careworn protagonists, bright-eyed newcomers (a useful device for introducing the set-up to an audience), unfeeling top brass, and so on. This movie actually does a heroic job of keeping you invested in the characters and emotions of the piece, especially when so many of the actual moments are so firmly at odds with our more emotional times: the various characters restrict themselves to simply saying a stolid ‘cheerio’ as they prepare to await the enemy onslaught, for instance.

There are moments when the story and the manner of its telling can seem rather familiar – the callousness of senior officers is made clear when it is established the raid is to take place in daylight, when it is horrendously dangerous, simply because this is less likely to interfere with the dinner plans of the generals who will be considering the intelligence it provides – but on the whole this is a film which manages to feel contemporary and relevant rather than something too dry or retrospective. Mostly this is because of the quality of the performances, which are uniformly extremely good – none of the acting is particularly showy, but the characters come to life, and you are drawn into the story. The build-up to the crucial raid creates a queasy sense of dread which is genuinely uncomfortable, while the action itself is staccato, confusing; characters simply disappear in the chaos and are never seen again. If I have a criticism it’s that the film’s decision to go for a box office-friendly certification means the battle sequences are relatively anodyne – this is the kind of film where a touch more gruelling horror would not have felt out of place.

This is a highly impressive film, well-performed and written, and not showing obvious signs of what one assumes must have been a fairly modest budget. And I suspect the tendency will still be to dismiss it as another piece of heritage film-making, a period piece or a kind of heritage movie. Partly this is down to the subject matter, while the fact that virtually every speaking role is played by a white male means it might also feel a little out of step with the modern world. I’m not really sure what to say about this: it’s a film about British army officers in the First World War, so how diverse can it realistically be? Does its attempt to be authentic make it necessarily flawed?

It would be ironic if Journey’s End didn’t reach an audience solely because it is perceived to be about a vanished milieu that has little in common with the world today. This film does work on a personal level, and bravery, compassion, fear, and all the other human strengths and frailties with which it is concerned are still very much with us. Maybe anti-war films are old-fashioned and redundant today, even ones as well-made as this one. But there are things which I think we will always need to be reminded of, and this film discharges that duty in a highly commendable manner.

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It’s not normally a good sign when you go to see a movie with a friend and can’t decide afterwards exactly what sort of film it was supposed to be. I suppose you could have gone to watch one of those films which sets out to subvert the whole idea of genre, but then those are always a dicey proposition. Generally it just means you’ve spent a couple of hours watching a film with a bit of an identity crisis. This is not inappropriate, now I come to think of it, when we are talking about Brian Helgeland’s vaguely-monickered new movie Legend.

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Legend concerns the lives of the infamous Kray twins, London gangsters of the 1960s, who were notable for being celebrities as well as criminals. This is by no means the first film to be about them, either directly or obliquely, but it has carved out a bit of distinctiveness for itself by using the miracle of modern technology to enable Tom Hardy to play both twins, a challenge he tackles with considerable gusto (maybe a bit too much gusto, but we’ll come back to that).

The movie opens in the early 60s with the Krays rising figures on the London gangland scene, routinely watched by the police (when they’re not actually in prison). Reggie Kray is presented as the brains of the firm, a smooth, plausible-seeming businessman (though not averse to a spot of the old ultra-violence when necessary), while his brother Ronnie, according to the film, is a slightly thick criminally insane maniac. Fairly early on they dispose of their main rivals, the Richardsons, after a gruesomely violent bar brawl, and from then on the city is theirs.

The film is mostly framed by Reggie’s relationship with Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the woman he eventually marries, but covers all the stuff you’d expect a Kray biopic to handle – gang warfare, the Boothby scandal, their connection with the Mafia, the murders of George Cornell and Jack McVitie, and so on. This is, inevitably, the kind of film which concludes with mugshots of the principals and captions relating what happened to them in later life (at the risk of spoilers: an awful lot of porridge).

Helgeland has assembled an impressive, mostly British cast, including Christopher Eccleston, the ever-watchable Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, Tara Fitzgerald, and so on, but the focus is almost always on Tom Hardy. Now, as Reggie, I would say Hardy gives a customarily good performance. The problem is with his turn as Ronnie – it seems to me that playing both characters perhaps allows Hardy to take each a bit further than he would if he were playing only one of them. Or perhaps a good deal further, because as Ronnie he arguably goes way over the top a lot of the time.

There’s rather more Dinsdale Piranha in Hardy’s glazed-eyed performance than is probably a good idea: he makes some rather curious choices, to say the least. ‘What accent is he doing?’ asked the friend of mine I saw Legend with, and I had to confess I had no idea. Is Tom Hardy genuinely playing a real-life convicted murderer for laughs? It’s difficult to say, and that itself is a little disconcerting.

Then again, the whole film is arguably softer on the Krays than it should be – probably more than Peter Medak’s 1990 biopic was. As the title suggests, this paints the twins as glamorous, almost romanticised figures – ‘gangster princes… the city was theirs to conquer,’ gushes the voice-over at one point, while within minutes the film is trotting out that old chestnut that the Krays were lovely boys who only ever hurt their own, and you could leave your front door unlocked in the East End back in the old days… and so on. It’s not until close to the end of a long film that you’re reminded that terrorising witnesses was part of the Krays’ standard procedure, by which point it’s a jarring realisation.

Even so, Legend has apparently been criticised by surviving members of the Kray clan for misrepresenting the twins – particularly the depiction of Reggie brutalising Frances Read, although the film doesn’t make reference to the allegation that Read was actually murdered by Ronnie. Whatever you think of the twins, it’s very difficult to shake the sense that their story has been stretched and twisted to fit Brian Helgeland’s agenda, which appears to be to incorporate some modishly savage gangland violence into an ain’t-those-Brits-quaint-style period piece. I’m not sure the intention justifies the changes – as ever, the morality of making an entertainment out of real life killers strikes me as questionable.

And an entertainment this certainly is. On the way out I asked my companion (who is not well acquainted with British culture or recent history) what kind of film she thought Legend was, and she said she thought it was a dark comedy. I couldn’t honestly disagree, but on the other hand it can’t really avoid being judged as a based-on-true-events crime drama, either. The technical skill and commitment that has gone into the entirety of the film is undeniable, for it is by no means badly made, but – just as with Tom Hardy’s central performances – some of the creative choices that have been made are, to say the least, deeply questionable.

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What in the world is more likely to get a sequel than a movie with a $1.5 billion box office? A movie with a $1.5 billion box office that’s a keystone of a sequence of over a dozen movies which has already made $7 billion. Yes, it’s time for the unstoppable colossus that is Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. I tell you, folks, there’s something almost unsettling about the sheer aura of implacable self-confidence that this extraordinary film gives off: it’s almost as if it doesn’t care whether you like and enjoy it (or even understand it) or not, it’s still going to make more money than the GNP of most African countries. Resistance feels useless.

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As things get underway, the Avengers are in the process of sorting out a HYDRA base in the obscure Balkan nation of Fictionalakia, which they do with a reasonable degree of alacrity: this is more an excuse for the director to get all flashy with the camerawork than a source of genuine conflict, though HYDRA’s pet superhuman pawns the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) give it a good shot.

This looks like the final victory in the team’s current campaign, and it seems to offer the opportunity for a significant step forward in the cause of global security: for Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) thinks he can use captured alien technology to create a sentient robotic security system encompassing the entire planet. He decides not to mention this side-project, codenamed Ultron, to the rest of the team, because what could possibly go wrong? To the surprise of nobody but Stark himself, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) turns out to be an indestructible genocidal maniac with a snarky line in repartee, and after delivering an admonitory spanking to the team flies off to set about his plan for global destruction, recruiting Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver along the way. But will they ultimately prove to be heroes or villains? One thing Marvel Studios’ lawyers are very clear on: they’re definitely not mutants.

While waiting for the film to start, I did find myself observing to a friend that it would be interesting to see how Joss Whedon coped with making a film with nine actual Avengers in it, and that’s before we even get to the villain or supporting cast. The answer, clearly, is to make a film which is almost ridiculously massive in every respect. It opens with a hugely lavish special effects action sequence and just gets bigger and bigger and (in true comic book style) sillier and sillier as it goes on. The crash-bang-wallop-zap-kapow is relentless, reaching an early peak in the long-awaited Iron Man-vs-Hulk fight, which brings new meaning to the word blockbuster, and proceeding all the way to a notably untrammelled climax. (One character even shouts ‘This is crazy!’ in the middle of the concluding chaos, which probably counts as an example of Whedon’s noted self-awareness.)

It does go on for a remarkably long time, but this is because in addition to the actual plot and his nine Avengers (in addition to the original cast and the two non-mutants, the ever-watchable Paul Bettany finally gets some proper screen-time as the Vision), Whedon also opts to include a coachload of other characters, either ones from previous movies, or ones destined for more signifcant roles in future projects: Don Cheadle has a surprisingly beefy role, and also present are the likes of Anthony Mackie, Stellan Skarsgard, and Andy Serkis. We even get to see what an Avengers works do looks like – needless to say, the world’s most famous nonagerian comic book writer puts in an appearance.

Also in true comic-book style, the lavish property damage is leavened by some slightly histrionic soap-opera style interactions between the principal cast, but I would honestly argue that finding a space in a film like this one for actors to genuinely find their characters and act is as impressive an achievement on Whedon’s part as any of the technical wizardry or plot-wrangling on display elsewhere. Whedon’s stated intention was to favour the characters who don’t appear in movies of their own, especially the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and he pretty much pulls this off – although his attempts to wrong-foot the audience are somewhat undermined by Marvel’s fondness for announcing the cast lists of future movies several years in advance. Personally I could have seen a bit more of the Vision, but there is a huge amount to squeeze in and on the whole the film does the best it can in the circumstances. Elsewhere, I found that Whedon’s brand of self-aware knowingness was getting a bit predictable – I was able to more-or-less guess what some of the jokes would be, so perhaps it’s just as well that this film marks the end of his association with the Avengers films, at least: I suspect the writer-director would agree, because to be honest the film sometimes feels like a monumental contractual obligation – it’s never less than competent, but (not inappropriately for a film largely about androids) it often has a curiously mechanical, joyless feeling to it.

At least the sense one sometimes gets watching Marvel movies, that of characters being laboriously shunted around in order to facilitate the launching of the next instalment, is less pronounced this time. But I do wonder how this film will play with some sections of the audience: if you know who Baron von Strucker and Ulysses Klaw are, get all the other references, and have been meticulously keeping track of the meta-plot about the Infinity Stones, you’ll be in some variety of heaven, while if you’re a non-discriminating partaker of overblown CGI action you will find nothing here that disappoints you either. However, if you’re a normal, mature person who expects a film with a bit of focus and a recognisable beginning, middle and end, this may not be your best choice of night out.

However, I get a strong sense that Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t really care about that as it cruises merrily toward the various box-office records it will reduce to smithereens. This doesn’t feel quite like it’s raising the bar on the comic-book movie in the same way that the first film did, nor does it really seem to be intent on allowing the franchise as a whole to regroup: it just looks like another attempt by Marvel to see how crazy they can get before they lose the audience. I suspect they still haven’t reached that point. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a bloated carnival of absurd empty spectacle held together by ridiculous soap-opera plotting, or a grandiose monument to Marvel’s ambition and skill in growing their world-conquering franchise-of-franchises, but either way it’s going to be more or less unavoidable for some time to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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So, truth be told, I enjoyed Ron Howard’s 2009 movie Angels & Demons much more than I was expecting to, and on a greater number of levels – which is another way of saying this is an unironically fun movie as well as a crazed piece of unbelievable nonsense. Bearing this in mind, the sensible thing to do was obviously to check out the other film from the same team, The Da Vinci Code.

This was music to the ears of my landlady, who was very resistant to letting me view Angels & Demons anyway, complaining that ‘it’s the sequel, you should watch the other one first’. I riposted that the two books the films are based on take place in reverse order, so it wasn’t likely to make a lot of difference, and following an interesting and heated discussion resulting in only a small rent hike I settled down to watch the movie of The Da Vinci Code, from 2006.

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Tom Hanks again plays maverick symbologist Robert Langdon, who, in time-honoured movie style, proves his academic credentials by giving a thematically-relevant public lecture at the top of the film. One of the pitfalls of doing this kind of thing is that someone always turns up intent on sending you off on an adventure of some kind. In this case it is the French police (Hanks is visiting Paris, not that he seems much inclined to parley the old Fronsay), who are principally embodied by the marvellous Jean Reno (giving another masterclass in ambiguity).

The curator of the Louvre has turned up dead, his body arranged in the manner of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man and with a strange arcane sigil inscribed on his chest in his own blood. Hanks believes he has been summoned to lend his professional assistance, but passing police cryptographer Sophie (Audrey Tatou), who also happens to be the dead man’s grand-daughter (yup, we’re only just setting up the plot and already everything is creaking like hell), reveals he has actually been framed for the killing.

So, obviously Hanks and Tatou go on the run from the cops, trying to work out why the murder victim was trying to attract Hank’s attention and who actually did the dirty deed. The audience is several steps ahead at this point, as we already know who the killer is. I had hopes for The Da Vinci Code being just as uproariously daft as its sequel, and the early appearance of the ever-watchable Paul Bettany as a (deep breath) self-flagellating albino assassin monk named Silas promised great things in this department. Hanks has already figured out the death is connected to an heretical secret society known as the Prieure de Sion, and Bettany is attached to a militant chamber of the Catholic Church which is intent on wiping this group out and destroying their greatest secret: the Holy Grail itself…

Well, there’s a lot of running and driving and flying around to various places, not to mention the doing of lots of anagrams and other word puzzles. Alfred Molina pops up as a morally-compromised Cardinal, while the veteran Grail-hunter Hanks and Tatou turn to for help is played by Ian McKellen, who appears to be having a quite inordinate amount of fun. So the performances all round are actually pretty good.

And – and my antipathy towards the original book and scepticism towards its sources make this slightly tough to admit to – this seemed to me to be, in many ways, a much better and more classy film than Angels & Demons. (Not having antimatter bombs exploding in the Roman sky and free-falling pontiffs is always a help in the credibility department, I suppose.)

This is, of course, only my opinion, and it’s true that on one level this is every bit as implausible a movie, and equally as much an Indiana Jones pastiche with a very thin veneer of erudition brushed over the top of it. Indeed, the resemblance to the third Indiana Jones is very striking indeed, given both films concern a search for the Holy Grail, and both scripts talk about this mythic artefact using very similar language.

The two films’ takes as to what the Holy Grail actually is vary somewhat, of course, with The Da Vinci Code opting for a less traditional concept. This element of the film is famously derived from the blockbuster ‘conspiracy’-expose The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which proposed that… you know, I think that would probably constitute a spoiler. (By the way, you should not let your opinion of this theory be affected by the fact that one of its authors used to write scripts for Doctor Who.) One of the rather impressive things about this movie is the way in which it seizes upon this rather complex and convoluted theory and serves it up for mass consumption in an accessible and cinematic way.

On the other hand, you could equally argue that this is a rather strange Hollywood thriller, in that the spaces which would normally be filled by high-octane action sequences are here occupied by lengthy and lavish flashbacks – some of them to the personal lives of the characters, others to key moments in church history (whether real or apocryphal). Making these as interesting and engaging as they are is a bit of an achievement. Personally, I’m interested in philosophy, theology, and history, and so a big movie largely revolving around these things was always going to appeal to me on some level – if, on the other hand, you’re more in the market for car-chases, things going bang, and end-of-second-act whoh-ho-ho you may find this particular film more wearing.

But, as I say, I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, and in a mostly non-ironic way. Bettany doesn’t really get a huge amount to do as the self-flagellating albino assassin monk, and in any case the whole action-thriller-innocents-on-the-run aspect of the plot gets resolved a surprisingly long time before the climax. At this point the film really does become more about ideas and philosophies, and ancient secrets being revealed – and on these terms it’s surprisingly effective. Given this is a film which is explicitly about symbols and symbolism, it seems to be working on an almost symbolic level itself, as the characters descend into ancient vaults, decode musty old manuscripts, and generally seek for truth in chaos and darkness. You could quite easily argue that the movie itself is heretical, or anti-Christian – especially anti-Catholic –  and I suppose this is to some extent quite true. Here, however, we find ourselves at one of those fault lines, or barriers, which is in a very real sense impermeable – either you treat the Bible as, er, Holy Scripture, or you don’t, and rational discussion isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about that. You will either be willing to consider the central thesis of The Da Vinci Code (and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail before it), even if just as a thought experiment, or you won’t. Personally I didn’t find this aspect of the movie risible or offensive – and the almost-subliminal fantasy elements it brought to the story just added to its appeal – but I’m well aware others may strongly disagree.

Here again, though, we’re in slightly odd territory in that this film, more than the vast majority of mainstream Hollywood output, treats the existence of God – or belief in this  – as an important fact in the world, and central to its story. And yet, arguably for this very same reason, the film has been criticised and boycotted by Christian groups worldwide. Sometimes the converted don’t want to be preached to, I suppose. It may well be that my own tendency to view the likes of The Da Vinci Code as not much more than barnstorming escapist entertainment, with perhaps a little intellectual meat to add flavour, is just another sign that I have an appointment in the Sixth Circle of Hell when I eventually shuffle off there. Fine, as long as they don’t show a non-stop series of Paul W.S. Anderson movies in that section of the afterlife. In the meantime, a movie like The Da Vinci Code eases the suspense until I find out very pleasantly: it’s slick and it’s fun and it’s just a bit silly, but it also has a surprising amount of soul and intelligence to it, too.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 20th 2006: 

Hello again, everyone and welcome to another edition of the film review column you really shouldn’t get your hopes up about. This week we take a look at a thriller with aspirations to be Hitchcockian, but which instead comes perilously close to falling several syllables short of that ambition.

Ah, when I was a lad, Harrison Ford was probably the biggest movie star on the planet, battling evil and standing up for the decent thing to do, all the while using that funny hoarse-but-rumbly voice he’s got. He still is a big star, of course, but — to paraphrase Norma Desmond — of late the pictures he’s in have become smaller. So it is with Firewall, a rather conventional thriller directed by Richard Loncraine and apparently a bit of a remake of a TV series he made back in the 1980s. Here, our erstwhile megastar plays Jack Stanfield, the head of computer security at a small but prosperous bank. (Making the audience accept that the now-slightly-wizened Harrison Ford is actually a computer programming whiz is but the first of several knotty credibility problems the movie is forced to navigate.) Jack has a palatial house, a lovely view of Seattle from his office window, a beautiful — and obviously much younger — wife (Virginia Madsen, who in her own way is equally a movie veteran, but less wizened), two cute and fairly well-behaved kids, etc, so you just know he’s in for a hard time in the rest of the movie.

Well, after a tough day fending off the hackers and standing up for the integrity of his bank against the corporate slimeballs who want to merge with it (key amongst them Robert Patrick, who’s only a bit wizened), Jack is talked into having a quick drink with a young and thrusting all-American entrepreneur, Bill (the ever-watchable Paul Bettany, not wizened at all). But no sooner does Jack excuse himself so he can shoot off home for Pizza Night with the family (all say ‘Aaaah’ and/or copiously vomit), than Bill casts aside his American accent and reveals himself to be British — and as we all know, British people in this kind of movie are always callous, brilliant and occasionally slightly gay evil geniuses! So it proves, for Bill is a bank robber whose lunkheaded fratboy henchmen have kidnapped Jack’s wife, kids and dog and turned their lovely mansion into the Big Brother house! Bank robber, bank manager — I’m sure our founder would appreciate how wonderfully their two jobs dovetail. Bill’s plan is fairly simple: he’s going to hold Jack’s nearest and dearest hostage until Jack lets him into the server room at the bank so he can download all the money. But Jack, being played by Harrison Ford, didn’t get where he is today by taking any nonsense off uppity Brits and eventually the moment comes when he whirls ferociously into action against his tormentors. Although there is of course a limit to the amount of ferocious whirling that can reasonably be expected from a 64-year-old bank manager.

Now, you may very well be asking yourself the following question: beyond the fact that it’s a snappy and techno-literate-sounding name, what reason can there be for calling this film Firewall, given that the robbery in it still revolves around the bad guys physically sneaking into the bank? And the answer consists of two words, the second of which is ‘all’, and the first of which we have all had surgically excised from our brains, being the conscientious h2g2 habitues that we are (well, you’ve a number of options, but they’re all equally likely to deprave, so purge the lot of them). The fact is that Firewall is incredibly desperate to show how modern and zeitgeisty it is, which is why the plot revolves around (to name but a few) identity theft, online gambling, camera phones, iPods and GPS tracking. This is a largely futile attempt to conceal how incredibly old and hackneyed this particular story is, not to mention silly and predictable (well, to some extent — I was slightly startled when, after Harrison Ford attempted to escape roughly fifty-seven times in the first day of their acquaintance, Paul Bettany’s response was to start shooting members of his own gang, although this may explain why he hasn’t got further in the bank robbery line).

Of course, Harrison Ford looks fairly old and hackneyed himself these days, as I believe I may already have mentioned. He is in fact probably a bit too old to be doing this sort of thing: towards the end, where a younger actor would be doing a flat-out sprint, Ford restricts himself to a moderate trot. This is before we even get to the concluding bout of fisticuffs. But for all this, he still has presence and charisma — star quality, in fact. It’s only Ford that keeps this from being a totally forgettable and routine straight-to-video thriller. There are signs that it could have been more: there’s a very effective segment where Ford is on the run from his former colleagues and the police, having been neatly framed for all sorts of rum doings, and he desperately has to avoid them while simultaneously hunting down Bettany and his gang. But this is only a short section very near the end of the film, rather too little too late. Also quietly effective is Mary Lynn Rajskub (even less wizened than Bettany) as Ford’s much-put-upon secretary, who has nearly as bad a time as him in the film but doesn’t get to growl about it as much.

Firewall is not actually a bad film, it’s just tremendously average and predictable. It’s interesting that it should be in UK theatres at the same time as Inside Man, another film concerning a rather unorthodox bank robbery. The two films are of course different in almost every way, but it’s the unrepentantly retro and traditional Inside Man which is by far the superior piece of work, while the achingly contemporary Firewall very definitely gets the second prize. But it’s watchable, and I suppose it’ll keep Ford in shape in case two-fisted archaeology ever comes back into vogue…

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

Pop-quiz, everyone: if you had a film to release about the Wimbledon tennis tournament, which happens every June, when do you think would be the best time to release it in order to cash in on its popularity? Would it be a) early summer b) Christmas or c) the back-end of September?

Well, anyway, I expect the makers of Wimbledon (directed by Richard Loncraine) have their reasons because it’s out at the moment. The ever-watchable Paul Bettany plays Peter Colt, an ageing British tennis player coming up to his last Wimbledon as a wild card. Retirement beckons, something he’s not keen on. However, a chance encounter with top American player Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) leads to sparks a-sizzling and a certain steely quality appearing in Peter’s forehand. Before you know it he’s thundering into the second week. However, Lizzie’s dad (the equally watchable Sam Neill) takes the quite reasonable view that all this soft-focus fumbling to a David Gray soundtrack is putting his daughter off her game. But if she can’t win if they’re together, he can’t win while they’re apart… so what’s a boy to do?

I normally try and avoid spoilers in this column but I don’t think I’ll be ruining anyone’s day by revealing that Bettany wins Wimbledon and ends up with Dunst. This is of course a rom-com, possibly the most predictable genre at the movies, where the conclusion is never really in doubt, and the film’s success or failure is mainly determined by how entertained you are along the way. And, to be fair, Wimbledon does a pretty good job. For all that he’s second-billed, this is largely down to an engaging performance from Bettany. He’s not the most obvious choice of romcom lead (and, let’s face it, were a certain floppy-haired performer whose name rhymes with Lou Brant ten years younger he’d be the obvious star of this film) but he does a very solid job, bringing an appropriately fraught quality to the less romcommy elements of the story. Dunst is fine as his love interest, but never quite manages to bring her character to life. There’s a rather distinguished supporting cast (Neill, Eleanor Bron, Bernard Hill, Jon Favreau) but none of them really gets very much to do, which I suppose is a shame.

At the risk of sounding fatuously obvious, the main thing about Wimbledon that distinguishes it from all the other Working Title Brit-boy-courts-imported-American-star pictures is the tennis. The tennis sequences themselves look fine, thanks no doubt to the input of Pat Cash and some unobtrusive CGI, but more interestingly the film in passing makes some interesting and genuine-sounding points about the realities of tour life for the various pros. This more than makes up for the sense one gets that the writers were given a tick-list of Wimbledon cliches to include in their script – rain delays, strawberries and cream, dodgy line-calls, mad dads, lesbianism, etc.

Wimbledon is good-natured and entertaining fun, with a nice central performance, inventive direction, and some originality to its background. It’s not quite as funny or as convincingly romantic as it would probably like to be, but if nothing else it presents us with the sight of an Englishman winning the mens’ singles title – so it has novelty value as well. Worth a look.

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