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Posts Tagged ‘Ray Winstone’

They say there’s no such thing as a job for life any more (personally, right now I would settle for a guaranteed six months), but that’s not the case for everyone. Once a movie star, always a movie star – which is to say that, once you achieve a certain level of success, you are always going to be guaranteed some kind of gig simply because of how recognisable your name is, as long as you don’t mind lowering your standards and possibly working abroad. Every maker of low-budget genre movies is delighted to be able to slap a proper movie star name on the publicity, often in inappropriately large print.

But why should you, as a successful movie star, contemplate demeaning yourself in this way? Well, most likely because you can’t get a decent gig any more, either because no-one is going to see your films or you have done something so unspeakable even Hollywood film producers won’t be seen in your company. Yes, we are here to talk about Mel Gibson, who managed to almost destroy one of the most successful careers in Hollywood with various bouts of alcohol-fuelled bigotry. Even through Gibson’s wilderness years, however, he was still managing to land the odd part, with the longest pause between lead roles coming between Signs, in 2002, and Edge of Darkness in 2010. This latter film appears to have been a slightly marginal release – the end of January is not a prime juncture to be releasing a thriller with an $80 million budget – and possibly Gibson agreed to do it for a reduced fee, or perhaps because he was a big fan of the original material.

The movie is directed (not entirely surprisingly) by Martin Campbell. Gibson plays Tom Craven, a veteran Boston detective who has a slightly awkward relationship with with his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic). Nevertheless, Craven is delighted when she comes round for dinner, even though there is clearly something on her mind. Maybe even more than that, for she is suddenly taken violently ill, and on the way to the car they are jumped by a masked gunman. Emma is shot and instantly killed and the killer makes his escape.

Everyone’s assumption is that this is someone from Craven’s past with a score to settle, but he is not so sure. His investigations lead him to Emma’s employers at Northmoor, a private company linked to the defence establishment, and also reveal that she was part of a group of activists working to limit environmental damage and nuclear proliferation. His discoveries eventually attract the attention of Darius Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), an enigmatic British security consultant employed by Northmoor and its allies in the government to keep situations like this from attracting publicity: Northmoor is illegally producing nuclear weapons for deniable use, and when they attempted to reveal this, Emma and three of her friends were murdered. Can Craven bring the truth to light or will the conspiracy silence him as well?

Yes, well, the key thing to bear in mind about Edge of Darkness is that it is based – loosely! – on a British TV serial (mini-series, I suppose) from 1985, which Campbell also directed. To call the TV series critically acclaimed is an understatement – for many serious critics as well as viewers, it remains a landmark piece of TV drama, emblematic of a time when British television drama was not afraid to be bold, ambitious, and include a touch of fantasy. Although ostensibly about a conspiracy within the nuclear industry, the series touches on a vast range of themes and ideas, incorporating the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, the implication of a generational feud between rival secret societies, Anglo-American politics in the 1980s, and some genuinely fantastical elements (the original script ended with Craven mystically transforming into a tree, symbolising the coming restoration of the balance of nature by the elimination of the human race). It is a mind-boggling, frequently breath-taking achievement.

This is not true of the movie version of Edge of Darkness, which is, not to put too fine a point on it, just another bog-standard Mel Gibson revenge thriller, about a man on a mission to get justice for his daughter’s death. Forget the place of humanity within the ecology of the planet, the closest this comes to a substantive subplot is Craven’s increasing realisation that he didn’t know his daughter as well as he thought he did.

It does make you wonder what Martin Campbell really thought the core of Edge of Darkness was, for once past the initial set-up and Emma’s murder the two pieces diverge in almost every imaginable way – the characters of Craven, Emma, and Jedburgh are just about recognisable (the fact that Robert De Niro walked off the movie led to Winstone being cast, which at least inverts the nationalities of the characters from the TV version), but the character of Bennett is promoted to being chief villain, and Danny Huston plays him almost as a panto bad guy. This is another of those movies which sets up the stock figure of the private security contractor as a hissable villain – which I suppose is as good a way as any of allowing American audiences to process any ambiguity they may feel towards their country’s foreign policy adventures over the last two decades without the film criticising, even implicitly, members of the country’s armed forces.

It’s not just that the movie takes a genuinely thought-provoking and multi-faceted drama and reduces it to something not unlike Death Wish, it’s that even on its own terms Edge of Darkness is just not a very good movie. It is oddly paced, slow at the start (many scenes of Gibson wandering mournfully around empty rooms on his own) and rushed at the end. The requirements of the plot result in many very odd and often inexplicable contortions: there’s a repeated motif where someone poisons someone else, usually with irradiated milk, but as it takes a long time for someone to die from radiation poisoning the film chivvies things along by having them subsequently shot anyway.

If I say that Gibson is competent, then it may largely be because the film has obviously been tailored to suit his persona: he looks intense and beats people up a lot. Ray Winstone actually makes a fairly positive impression as Jedburgh, though this is an almost completely different character from the TV version: rather than a rogue CIA agent pursuing his own rather cryptic agenda, here Jedburgh is yet another security consultant, albeit one who has improbably grown a conscience. Hardly anyone else in the film makes much of an impression, but then the film as a whole hardly lingers in the memory much. The best I can say for it is that it made me want to watch the British version of the story. I fear it may have the opposite effect on anyone not familiar with the TV show, which is possibly the most heinous sin it commits. A bad movie, regardless.

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Once upon a time, if you were an actor of any standing whatsoever, you would not be seen dead appearing on TV: you went on the stage if you wanted respect, and in front of the cinema cameras if you were more interested in intangible stardom and cold hard cash. Times change, of course, and – the stage notwithstanding – we are informed on a fairly regular basis that films are no longer Where It Is At, and that the location of Atness is in fact now television. The fact that this is usually said by actors famous from the cinema, but now to be found popping up in productions on the smaller screen, is surely neither here nor there. The stigma of the glass bucket seems to have abated somewhat, anyway.

One of those actors who once verged on the ubiquitous but hasn’t been seen in films much recently is Robert Carlyle, who hasn’t had much of a cinema presence since the mid-late 2000s: and even then, perhaps it’s not unreasonable to suggest that his movie career never quite lived up to the promise of his early appearances in Trainspotting, The Full Monty, and The World Is Not Enough. He has, of course, been off in TV Land all this time, but now he has popped back for his debut movie as a director, The Legend of Barney Thomson.

THE LEGEND OF BARNEY THOMPSON

Carlyle himself plays Thomson, a middle-aged Glaswegian barber whose progress through life becomes bumpy when his lack of natural charisma and somewhat mournful appearance (‘you look like a haunted tree,’ he is helpfully informed) begin to drive away the customers. His boss eventually has enough and gives Barney his notice, which causes him some agitation and results in the entirely accidental, though extremely suspicious-looking, death of his employer.

Rather than risk fessing up to the police, Barney ends up stashing the corpse in the flat of his elderly mother (Emma Thompson). The one piece of good fortune he has, if you can call it that, is that a serial killer is already making a habit of dismembering the flower of Glasgow’s manhood and sending various bits of them through the post, so one more mysterious disappearance may not attract much attention. Nevertheless, on the case is DI Holdall (Ray Winstone), who soon develops his own suspicions about the hapless hair-wrangler…

The trained monkeys of the national media, ever keen to keep people from actually having to have original thoughts, have already discerned an influence upon The Legend of Barney Thomson that has prompted them to dub it ‘Tartantino’. It is true this is a film with some grisly moments, a spot of unrestrained gunplay, and an F-bomb count soaring towards three figures, but it seemed to me to be rather more in the (collapsed) vein of The League of Gentlemen than anything trans-Atlantic in origin.

This is ultimately a jet-black comedy film, and a rather absurd one, too: but it does get its laughs, mainly because of the deadpan responses of a strong cast to some of the more outrageous moments of horror. ‘You’ve labelled him!’ cries our man, aghast, on opening his mum’s freezer to discover she has chopped up and plastic-wrapped his first unintended victim. ‘I label everything!’ responds Mrs Thomson.

I rather suspect it’s Emma Thompson’s performance as Barney’s mum that this film will be remembered for – she is playing a 70-something chain-smoking foul-mouthed ex-prostitute bingo addict (‘not a role with which she is usually associated’, according to the ever-helpful Wikipedia). Does she manage find the truth and reality in this character? Well, probably not, in all honesty, but it is a very memorable comic grotesque and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Thompson virtually walks off with the entire film, but she is given some resistance by (as I said) a good cast, many of whom have history with Carlyle. The star himself is very much playing the straight man, which allows other performers to push the boat out a bit. Winstone may approach the realm of geezerish self-parody but is still very funny, while Tom Courtenay tries very hard to steal all his scenes as the local chief of police (‘I refuse to eat off a plate that’s served up a human arse,’ he declares at one point).

The whole film is an odd mixture of gory slapstick farce and finely-observed scenes of atmospheric Scottish life – at one point a poster for Kasabian appears on someone’s wall, but apart from this the film could be set in the 1960s and 70s, filled as it is with faded bingo halls, sepia-tinted pubs, old-fashioned barber shops and crumbling tower blocks. The soundtrack likewise seems to hearken back to an earlier age – there are signs of an odd sort of nostalgia, amidst all the severed body parts.

This element of the film is rather languid and naturalistic and probably shows off Carlyle’s direction at its best. He seems rather less comfortable dealing with the requirements of the main storyline, although it could just be that the script isn’t quite tight enough to really sing. Certainly there are signs of it running out of ideas in the third act. To be fair, the story starts off as fairly absurd, but the climax is well and truly ridiculous, totally impossible to take seriously as the conclusion to an even partly-serious film.

Still, I enjoyed it, I think: I do remember laughing a lot and the chance to see a lot of fine actors putting pedal to the metal and really going for it in their performances is not one that comes along every day. On the strength of The Legend of Barney Thomson, Carlyle should come back from TV Land more often, as an actor and a director, although something slightly less frenetic and bizarre might suit him better in the latter department.

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There are, I suppose, weirder choices of film projects than blockbuster fantasy versions of tales from the depths of the Old Testament, but not many. I suspect that the fact Paramount have embarked upon such an adventure, in the form of Noah, is not based upon the studio’s confident belief in the bankability of this kind of film, but the past acclaim and success of director Darren Aronofsky and the box office clout of leading man Russell Crowe.

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I suspect you know the story to this one already, more or less at least. The script is by Aronofsky and Ari Handel (based on an idea by some 6th century Judaean priests) and is rather coy about the exact setting of the film – you can treat it as proper history if you really want to, but the fantasy quotient is also comfortably high. Ten generations after the creation of the world, humanity has split into two factions along ideological lines – with those who see the Earth as something to be relentlessly exploited very much in the ascendant, and those desiring to live in harmony with nature living in fear of their lives.

Noah (Crowe) and his family are pretty much all that is left of the latter group, eking out a fairly miserable existence in the wasteland the mechanistic civilisation has reduced the world to. But then Noah has a vision: and, not to put too fine a point on it, it looks like rain…

Not quite sure what to make of this, Noah and his nearest and dearest trek off to the remote hermitage of his grandad Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who fills him in on the finer points of what’s in the offing. With the help of a gang of fallen angels who look rather like cobbled Ents, Noah sets about measuring his cubits and gathering the gopher wood.

Inevitably, as the time of the inundation draws closer, others take an interest in Noah’s little project, particularly Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), king of one of the destructive human nations. Tubal-Cain is quite keen to get a berth on the Ark for himself, and isn’t above attempting to suborn Noah’s kids to do so. Noah himself has other problems, not least the issue of finding wives for all his sons. Sometimes it never rains, but it pours…

There has been some media coverage of Russell Crowe’s industrious efforts to secure a celebrity endorsement for Noah by showing it to the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, mainly (one suspects) because of the sheer size of the potential Christian audience this could help the film tap into. The slightly quirky decision not to use the word ‘God’ once in the entire movie aside, it seems to me that there’s very little here to frighten the Biblical-literalist horses, in the sense that the movie takes the Book of Genesis at face value – for all that it embellishes the story in some fairly eye-opening ways (battles with giant stone angels and so on), there’s nothing here that directly contradicts the scriptural account.

There is something compellingly bizarre about the way in which the film works very hard to treat such an extravagant story so seriously. Tranquility on the Ark, for instance, is secured by doping all the animals aboard it into suspended animation for the duration of the voyage (this also explains why it doesn’t fill up with dung before the end of the film). Noah himself is treated with an unexpected level of psychological realism, but then in these particular circumstances this makes a certain degree of sense. All in all, watching Noah I had a strange sense that this was a blockbuster fantasy film of which the Christian right might well approve.

I’m not sure I was very comfortable with that, and it did make me wary of the environmental message which is central to the story: the subtext of the film is ‘live green or die’, which ordinarily I’d agree with, but not when it’s presented as some kind of religious fundamentalist dogma. (On the other hand, another major theme is whether the planet wouldn’t be better off without the human race, a suggestion which I can’t imagine many religions getting behind.) The earnestness of the film in this and other departments is a bit of a problem, too: Anthony Hopkins does his usual formerly-Welsh twinkliness, but apart from this Noah is an extremely po-faced film, presumably in order to avoid charges from its target audience of irreverence towards scripture.

This doesn’t stop the film being very, very strange for most of its running time. It looks good, as you’d expect from Aronofsky, with the antediluvian world looking pretty post-apocalyptic anyway, and some decent special effects. Jennifer Connelly honestly doesn’t get much to do as Mrs Noah – Emma Watson as the daughter-in-law gets more decent material – but Crowe, Winstone, and Hopkins all bring their customary commitment and presence, as well as a slight tendency to chew on the scenery (in light of which it’s a bit unfortunate that various scenes depict characters wandering about shouting ‘Ham! Ham!’).

On its own peculiar terms the film remains interesting and pacy for its first two acts, but I did find the final third to be rather tough going, to the point of actually being slightly twisted. The stuff with everyone on the Ark, post-flood, does go on a bit, and wanders off into some distinctly unexpected areas (there’s some hand-to-hand combat, for instance, plus Noah threatening to turn into a swivel-eyed murderous headcase). I was looking forward to the bit where Noah says ‘At my command, unleash doves,’ but this doesn’t happen. Genesis 9:23 does make it into the movie though, just another example of the permeating weirdness of the project.

Going in to see Noah I was fairly certain that this was the proverbial win-win scenario: either Aronofsky was going to make an interestingly original and visually sumptuous film, or just a hilariously bad one, either of which I would happily watch. In the end, though, I think Noah is somewhere in between: the conception of the film is deeply, deeply odd, unless you genuinely believe the Flood to have been an actual historical event, in which case you may well take exception to some of the film’s more idiosyncratic embellishments on the traditional story (wondering what happened to the unicorns? Looks like Ray Winstone ate them both). But set against all this, it is a beautifully designed and photographed film with moments of real vision and power. I don’t foresee a full-scale revival of the Biblical Epic as a major genre (though, hey, I’m the guy who predicted that Strictly Come Dancing would be a famous disaster, so what do I know?), nor even a massive box office return for this particular film. But I’ve never seen another film quite like it, and I’ve always found it hard to dismiss originality. Even so, Noah is engrossingly strange more than anything else.

 

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One of the advantages of my DVD rental package is the ability to sign up to have the life’s work of any of the great film-makers of history sent to my garret one film at a time. All of Kurosawa! The complete Michael Powell! The greatest names of cinema!

Naturally I plumped for Jason Statham’s entire back catalogue. I am a unashamedly big fan of the Stath and have been so ever since seeing The Transporter nearly a decade ago. In the intervening period Mr Statham has appeared in an impressive number of movies, including quite a few I completely missed on their cinematic release, mainly due to my (ahem) international globetrotting lifestyle in the late 90s.

Amongst these is Gela Babluani’s 13, a – hmm – crime drama originally released in 2010. On paper this movie is an eyepopping prospect, with a remarkable cast, and the kudos attendant upon being a remake of an acclaimed French-language thriller. If you are getting the impression that there is an almighty ‘But’ rumbling in our direction, I commend you on your perspicacity.

Sam Riley plays Vince Ferro, a young blue-collar worker in desperate need of funds to help pay family medical bills (there’s something about the opening sequence suggesting this is going to be an implicit critique of the US healthcare system, but it doesn’t really go anywhere with this). When his employer dies, Vince remembers overhearing the man speaking of an opportunity to make a vast amount of money in a matter of days, doing something unspecified but risky.

Vince opts to take the dead man’s place, and after a circuitous journey discovers just what he has let himself in for – he has signed up to be a player in a highly illegal and incredibly dangerous game, basically a competitive version of Russian roulette, watched and betted upon by numerous wealthy gamblers. Also competing is a Texan convict (Mickey Rourke), overseen by a handler (Curtis ’31p at the current exchange rate’ Jackson) and a mentally ill British man (Ray Winstone), managed by his brother (The Stath) – this plotline is bizarrely reminiscent of Rain Man in a twisted sort of way.

Ferro is horrified to discover just what he’s got himself into, but the gamblers funding his appearance refuse to let him back out, promising they will honour their arrangement and make him rich if he wins. But even if he survives, the police are on his trail and there are vengeful other participants and their sponsors to consider – can he possibly make it out alive…?

I’m going to cut to the chase with uncharacteristic speed on this one – 13 is really, really not a very good movie. It just comes across as weird and repellent in a way it’s quite hard to define. I’m not sure whether this is a result of conscious artistic decisions which are fundamentally misconceived, or simple ineptness on the part of the director.

To begin with, with a cast like this one you would expect either a tough drama or possibly a serious action movie – or maybe something with elements of both. This is really neither; none of the characters are particularly engaging, even Ferro – and it’s mystifying why this should be given the strong motivation he possesses and Riley’s skill as an actor.

The main problem is that the game at the centre of the story is just not that cinematic to watch, being repetitive and at the same time quite random. The randomness is crucial – at no point can you thrill to the cleverness or skill of the protagonist as he survives from round to round. And, in terms of the plot, why would serious gamblers (as opposed to, say, vicious psychos with an interest in snuff entertainment) bet on an event with an almost totally random outcome? At one point someone announces that experience is a key factor in the closing stages of the event – given that all that’s required is to pull a trigger as fast as possible, this seems to me to be overstating the case a bit.

Possibly the randomness of the game is indeed central to the story of the film, and Babluani is making a point about the cruel caprices of fate and the randomness of existence. If so, he’s not doing it very well or with any clarity, and in the process he’s squandering the talents of a lot of great actors: Michael Shannon, for example, spends virtually the entire film up a stepladder shouting at people in a way that feels vaguely silly. Ray Winstone and Mickey Rourke really don’t get the material they deserve (and Rourke is more dependent than most actors on the quality of the script he’s working with), to say nothing of Jason Statham. There’s no real action in this movie and his character manages to be both unsympathetic and thinly-drawn. Virtually the entire extent of his characterisation is the hat he wears throughout the movie.

I am actually slightly curious to track down the original, much-lauded version of this film and see how it can be any better than this load of old tosh. 13 is strange and inaccessible, with no engaging characters and a plot that feels laboured and disjointed. A real disappointment considering how good Mr Statham’s quality control usually is.

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

For all that it’s arguably the greatest English myth, I still think we’re waiting for the definitive movie version of the Arthurian legend. Now this isn’t a particularly easy story to fit into a two-hour movie, but that still doesn’t excuse most previous attempts being quite so dire (First Knight, this means you). And to be honest, I didn’t hold out much hope for Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, given he’s best known for contemporary urban thrillers, producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s best known for making overblown tripe, and the publicity campaign for it runs mostly along the lines of ‘Cor, what about that Keira Knightley eh? Phwoarr!

The new angle Fuqua’s opted for in his movie is to take a slightly more historically accurate approach to the tale. Set in the middle of the fifth century, the film finds Britain still a province of the Roman Empire, though this state of affairs about to change. As the story opens, Arthur (Clive Owen) is actually Artorius Castor, the Romano-British commander of a group of indentured heavy cavalry from Samatia on the other side of Europe – his warriors are battle-scarred hard-cases who just happen to have the same names as famous chivalric figures: Galahad, Gawain, Lancelot. But their period of service to Rome is almost over: Arthur dreams of returning there, while his men just want to go home.

But before this can happen, Rome demands one last service of them. With a Saxon invasion sweeping down from the north, the Romans are leaving the native Celts to their fate. But an influential Roman family must be rescued from the path of the Saxon advance – an incredibly dangerous mission that takes Arthur and his men out of their own territory and into the wilderness controlled by native British tribes in the sway of a sorcerer known as Merlin…

The small component of this movie’s publicity not devoted to Ms Knightley’s bone structure and glandular development (both are undeniably charming) mainly goes on about how this is the first historically accurate Arthurian movie, based on actual archaeological evidence. This would be a neat trick, as – to my understanding – all the physical evidence for an historical King Arthur would comfortably fit in an eggcup. Some degree of fabrication is inevitable, but even so, those unfortunates who put historical accuracy ahead of dramatic merit in the list of movie virtues will find lots to complain about here: the climactic battle (based on an historical event) occurs in the wrong place and wrong century, while the Saxon bad guys stomp around toting crossbows that didn’t appear in Britain for another six hundred years.

None of this would matter to me if the story itself was solid but the emphasis on (rather spurious) realism guts the Arthurian legend of most of its magic and potency. The round table makes it in, along with a new take on the Sword in the Stone (conflated, as usual, with Excalibur), but virtually all of the rest of the story is omitted: there’s precious little Merlin, no sign whatsoever of Morgan le Fey or Mordred, no Camelot, Lady of the Lake, or Grail quest… in short, almost none of the stuff you’d expect in a King Arthur movie.

To be honest, King Arthur reminded me most of a fairly recent take on another great British legend: the 80s Robin of Sherwood TV show. The resemblence is there in the mixture of soft-focus historical verisimilitude and low-key mysticism, and the occasionally lyrical score. Mark Ryan, a member of that show’s regular cast, is the fight choreographer here. Most of all, I suppose, the Sherwood connection is reinforced by the presence in King Arthur‘s cast of Ray Winstone, who memorably redefined Will Scarlet as a mixture of East End bully-boy and football hooligan. His performance here as Bors hits almost all of the same notes (Winstone is surely the only knight in history to go into battle armed with a brace of knuckledusters). It’s a terrific, vital turn, overshadowing the supposed stars of the film: Bors is the only character you really like or care about.

That’s not to say that this is a film that doesn’t owe heavy debts elsewhere: that it resembles Lord of the Rings is a no-brainer: it’s punctuated with long shots across primal landscapes and there’s a lot of fuss about whether or not the lead character will accept his monarchical destiny. There’s a tiny smidge of The Magnificent Seven in the presentation of Arthur and his boys, too. Thankfully, though, beyond some blockbuster silliness and a deeply duff villain (Stellan Skarsgard with a stupid accent), this bears very little resemblence to most of Jerry Bruckheimer’s other movies.

Now I’ve been mostly negative about this movie so far but I should make it clear that I actually really rather enjoyed it. The mixture of myth and Romano-British reality is novel and quite inventive, the film goes to some lengths to make the cultural divisions between Romans, Celts, and Saxons clear, most of the performances are fine, and there’s some impressive action – a battle on a frozen lake being a particular highlight. Admittedly Clive Owen (a low-key, metropolitan actor if ever there was one) seems a little ill-at-ease declaiming in his chainmail, but he livens up as the film goes on.

King Arthur isn’t the greatest rendition of the legend (that title still rests with Boorman’s Excalibur, a film with its own set of flaws), but it is a solidly put together, highly entertaining adventure. Perhaps the truth is that we don’t want to know the true story of King Arthur when the myth is so irresistible. But enough of it shines through to make this movie worth a look.

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