Posts Tagged ‘Robert de Niro’

There’s a danger that the general comprehensive grimness of much of this year will end up eclipsing the fact that there have been positive glimmerings of different kinds, as well. But neither should we let the disaster of the pandemic obscure other regrettable events that we might ordinarily have paid more attention to. Of course, our culture operating in the way that it does, we are approaching the time of year where tributes to some of the people we have lost make convenient and popular material to fill airtime. They showed Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables the other night, primarily as a tribute to Sean Connery, but of course it works just as well as a reminder of the gifts of Ennio Morricone.

This is one of those movies I originally ended up watching quite without meaning to. The film got its UK TV premiere back in 1991, when my sister – I hope she will forgive me for revealing this – had a bit of an adolescent crush on Kevin Costner. You can be silly when you’re young, and the fact that she wanted to tape The Untouchables (despite being a few years too young to watch it, strictly speaking) was enough to put me off the idea of seeing it. And yet, for whatever reason, I ended up watching the very beginning of the film, fully intending to switch off.

I learned a couple of important lessons that night: the most obvious one, that it’s possible for people you may have differences of opinion with to still like great movies, but also about the power of a great film soundtrack. Something about the main theme, with its drivingly urgent percussion and strings, hooked me instantly, and gave me the strongest impression that this was a movie made by people who really knew their craft.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie did nothing to dispel this impression. The story takes place in 1930, and concerns itself with the consequences of prohibition: specifically the rise of immensely wealthy and powerful gangsters, and the rise in violent crime accompanying this. One of these men, Al Capone (Robert De Niro) has reached the point where he has essentially become the unelected mayor of Chicago. However, Capone’s organisation is responsible for one atrocity too many and the government appoints Eliot Ness (Costner), an earnest and idealistic young agent of the Treasury, to bring the bootleggers to justice.

However, Ness’ initial operations end farcically, and it soon becomes apparent that the Chicago police department is as corrupt and compromised as the rest of the city’s establishment – well, almost. A disconsolate Ness encounters veteran beat cop Malone (Connery), who does seem – to coin a cliche – like the one honest policeman in the city. Against his better judgment, Malone helps Ness assemble a team including sharpshooting young cop George Stone (Andy Garcia) and accountancy expert Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), and they set about finding a way to bring Capone down…

This is, of course, the film that Sean Connery won an Oscar for. Some would say ‘finally’, although this rather depends on whether you’re of the school of thought that Academy Awards should genuinely reward the best pieces of film acting in a given year, or go to people with lengthy careers and impressive bodies of work as movie stars. I’ve often been quite lukewarm about Connery and his acting – there’s a good deal of potboiling dross on the Connery CV, alongside the undeniable classics – and the baffling accent he deploys as the supposedly Irish-American cop Malone is distracting, to say the least. In theory Connery is doing the same kind of thing as in Highlander a year or two earlier: he’s the wise old mentor, imparting his wisdom to a slightly dull and callow lead before obligingly letting himself be killed off in the second act, in order to allow the hero to have the spotlight to himself for the climax to the film. In Highlander it’s just a big character turn, with Connery at his twinkliest – but here, he manages to bring the film heft and depth, as well as humour. This is certainly one of Connery’s best films outside of the early Bonds, and it’s largely as good as it is because of his performance.

Nevertheless, a classic movie is rarely a one-man-show, and even before Connery appears and after he departs, the rest of the movie is slick and effective: it’s true that Costner initially comes across as a rather bland and insipid hero, but that’s almost the point – the journey here is of a man being blooded, only achieving success at the cost of losing some of his innocence. This finds its apotheosis in the moment when Ness finds Capone’s chief enforcer, the man who has killed many innocents and two of Ness’ friends, and has him at his mercy. The camera does an enormous zoom into mega-close-up on Costner’s eyes, and you can see the conflict in them as he contemplates simply killing the man out of hand: one of Costner’s finest moments, I would say.

Of course, the zoom and the mega-close-up are very obvious directorial effects, but then this is a Brian De Palma film and a degree of show-offishness comes with the territory: this is one of Tarantino’s favourite film-makers, after all. De Palma has lots of fun with long fancy shots and other tricks in the course of the film, but this never becomes downright irritating. He also manages to pull off the bravura sequence with the gunfight on the train-station steps and the lengthy build-up to it: it would almost seem pretentious to drop such an obvious homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin into what is, after all, a studio gangster movie, were it not that De Palma manages to make it work so well.

Understated restraint isn’t really De Palma’s thing, and the way the film ping-pongs between bloody violence and some quite sentimental scenes would usually be tricky to pull off. However, he has Morricone in his corner, and the composer supplies a score which draws the viewer in and manages to smooth the various transitions, as well as being lush and beautiful to listen to. It’s not quite the case that the soundtrack makes the movie, but once again it makes a significant contribution to it.

Film-making is a collaborative exercise, in the end, and the quality of this film is another reminder of that. On paper, it doesn’t sound like anything particularly special – maybe even a bit hackneyed and predictable. But the contributions of De Palma, Morricone, writer David Mamet, Connery, Costner, and the rest of the cast crew result in something which is entertaining, powerful, and even oddly poetic and beautiful in places. This is the kind of film anyone would be happy to be remembered for.

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There are a number of ways one could approach the discussion of Todd Phillips’ Joker. One of the best jokes in last year’s Teen Titans Go! To the Movies concerned a succession of spoof Batman spin-offs desperately trying to wring every last drop of commercial potential out of the character’s mythology – a movie about the Batmobile, a movie about Batman’s utility belt, and so on – and from a certain point of view the new movie does look like exactly this sort of thing.

Or, one could suggest that the new film comes from the same place as recent successes like the Deadpool films and Venom: there does seem to be a market for dark, morally ambiguous fantasy films aimed at an older audience, and you don’t get much darker or more morally compromised than the world’s most famous supervillain. (If you wanted to be really nasty you could start comparing it to the 2004 Catwoman film, which it likewise bears a passing resemblance to, but that would surely qualify as unnecessary cruelty.)

Then again, you could also view it as the inevitable next step in the rise of comic book movies to complete world domination: superhero films routinely make billions, and are beginning to acquire a certain sort of respectability – Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture, and it’s a reasonable bet that Avengers: Endgame will be, too – and Joker looks very much like a calculated attempt at a classy, serious film intent on receiving critical acclaim in addition to its almost-inevitable financial success.

Who knows? Maybe it’s all of these things. What we can definitely say is that it is set in a squalid, 1980s version of Gotham City, where we find Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). By day, he is a white-faced, green-wigged clown for hire; by night, an aspiring stand-up comedian (unexpectedly, pretty much the only joke we hear him deliver is a classic Bob Monkhouse line). He is a deeply troubled man twenty-four hours a day, though, living alone with his mother, obsessed with a TV chat show host and comedian (Robert De Niro), taking seven different medications for various psychiatric conditions, and afflicted with a curious nervous complaint causing him to laugh uncontrollably in stressful situations.

But, over the course of one hot summer, with the city wracked by a financial crisis, those stressful situations keep coming, taking their toll on Arthur’s fragile mental state. The tipping point comes when he is attacked on the subway by three entitled, arrogant young employees of the Wayne corporation: in a matter of seconds his assailants are dead and he realises he feels much more cheerful and comfortable with himself. News reports of a killer clown preying on the wealthy are soon spreading, while it is becoming increasingly clear that a nihilistic force of chaos is incubating within Arthur, only waiting for the right moment to manifest itself…

It may be a coincidence, but films featuring the Joker have a tendency to attract controversy more or less in proportion to the acclaim received by the actor in the role: the 1989 Batman featured one of Jack Nicholson’s biggest turns, and was a very rare example of a film which required the BBFC to create a new certification for it (the 12 rating, should you be wondering). Heath Ledger famously won a posthumous Oscar for his performance in The Dark Knight, but the film was again mired in controversy for supposedly glamorising knife violence. It should come as no surprise that Joker is also getting some commentators hot under the collar, the suggestion being that it may inspire copycats to perpetrate the same kind of violence that the Joker indulges in here.

There is certainly a question to be asked about what exactly is going on with a film like this, and it’s the same one many people asked about the last movie to feature the Joker, 2016’s Suicide Squad: why do a movie about the Joker without Batman in it? Isn’t the whole point of the character that he’s an antagonist and a foil to someone else? One of the many smart things about The Dark Knight was its handling of the unhealthily co-dependent relationship between the two of them. All the word on Joker is that this is a standalone film; any appearances of the character in the foreseeable future will feature the Jared Leto version, not Phoenix’s. So what’s the point of an origin film for a someone we’re never going to see again?

Well, the quality of the film is more than high enough to answer most criticisms along these lines: the depiction of a grimy, seething Gotham is as good as any other we’ve seen in the movies, and the film is built around a characteristically intense and committed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. This is quite a long film, with the recognisable Joker persona not appearing until the closing stages of it, and Phoenix takes us through every step of Fleck’s psychological disintegration and transformation. This is the kind of performance that normally gets award nominations when it isn’t in a comic book movie; it will be interesting to see how hard the old prejudices die.

Phoenix works hard to be pitiable and relatively sympathetic early in the film, but by the climax the character has convincingly become a genuinely unsettling and frightening psychopath. The film obviously owes a big debt to The Dark Knight – in both films the Joker chooses to paint his face, rather than having his skin chemically bleached in an accident – but the climax is equally obviously inspired by a sequence from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (probably the single most influential Batman story of all time). It’s Miller’s version of the Joker which Phoenix seems to be channelling.

It’s still the case that the film-makers have made up a new genesis for the Joker from scratch (the Joker’s creators felt that giving him a history would humanise the character too much, something Christopher Nolan later agreed with) and so the decision to make the film about mental illness is a deliberate choice on their part. Again, one wonders whether this is a slightly portentous comic book movie which has adopted some very mature subject matter in order acquire some spurious gravitas, or if it’s a seriously-intentioned drama about the corrosive effects of urban alienation and isolation that’s roped in some of the Batman characters to make itself more commercial. I’m really not sure; the answer may actually lie in the film’s various homages to films made around the time it is set – most obviously King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, of course, but there are also surely references to Network and The French Connection.

All the call-backs are respectful and clearly sincere, but they seem to be the main reason why the film is set decades in the past. This is another decision which does have awkward consequences, especially when you consider that Joker seems to want to comment on various current social issues – for instance, the Joker finds himself adopted as the figurehead for an Occupy-style anti-capitalist movement (in line with this, the film features an atypically unsympathetic take on Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen)). None of this feels especially thought-through, though, and the film doesn’t feel like it’s presenting a cohesive thesis. Heath Ledger’s enigmatic Joker was an agent of chaos and madness, demanding the other characters in the film re-assess their attitudes and moral choices; Phoenix’s more accessible Joker is just a symbol of chaos and madness, the film too introspective for him to be anything more.

Then again, in the absence of Batman, he doesn’t really need to be. I suspect that this is a film which is liable to be over-praised for the way it brings a grim, gritty, psychologically naturalistic approach to its comic book source material (ironically, the writers of comic books figured out that going dark and mature was essentially a blind alley over two decades ago). The film is impressively made and Phoenix, as noted, gives a brilliant performance, but it offers little in the way of genuine insight and it runs the genuine risk of taking itself too seriously. Without Batman or an equivalent figure to engage with, the Joker isn’t an especially interesting or significant character. Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix are to be commended for making a film which to some extent manages to avoid confronting this problem, but this doesn’t mean they’ve solved it. Joker is very impressive on its own terms, it’s just that those terms are undeniably odd.

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Is it my imagination, or are there still not that many new films being released at the moment? Films for grown-ups, I mean; if you’re after CGI animations aimed squarely at the family audience, you don’t have anything to worry about – but Disney’s heavy investment in the stellar conflict industry seems to have frightened nearly everyone else off.

Still, there are some people at least attempting to stick to How Things Are Usually Done, and how things are usually done is that January is when the films hoping for a big awards season tally start to make their presence felt. And, lo, this is beginning to happen, and one of these films is David O Russell’s Joy.


This is one of those films which is theoretically based on a true story, but which casts loose from the anchor of historical accuracy so energetically that the movie-makers haven’t really bothered emphasising its basis in reality. Certainly I hadn’t heard of the person whose life-story it purports to tell, one Joy Mangano, played in the film by Jennifer Lawrence.

The film seems to be set in an intentionally non-specific past (I would have said early 80s, probably, but it turns out the events portrayed actually happened in in the late 80s and early 90s), with Joy working for an airline and contending with all manner of disasters at home: her mother (Virginia Madsen) is a virtual recluse, obsessed with absurdly glossy TV soap operas, her father (Robert De Niro) has just been thrown out by his third wife and is living in the basement with her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez, who it must be said looks a bit like Bradley Cooper – this is confusing, as Cooper is in the movie too). All this and looking after her children too has taken its toll on Joy, who has had most of the creativity and promise she showed as a child ground out of her. The only person who remembers and believes in her is her grandmother (Diane Ladd, who looks a bit like Meryl Streep – this is less confusing, as Streep is not in the movie).

Well, anyway, life goes chaotically along until one day some wine gets spilled in a place it shouldn’t, and the ensuing trauma inspires Joy to design a new kind of mop to help with this kind of crisis. This is a mop like no other. This is a mop that could change the world. Or so Joy thinks, and so she sets off to make her dreams a reality (her dreams being of her new mop).

But the path to success is a hard one, and Joy finds herself sinking deeper and deeper into debt as she struggles to give her mop the success it deserves. Finally there is a glimmer of hope, when her ex-husband manages to help her get a foot in the door at the revolutionary new shopping channel QVC, where she meets thrusting young visionary Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper – told you he’d turn up). Is this the chance she has been waiting for?

Well, given it’s fairly rare for Hollywood to spend $60m on a biopic of a bankrupt inventor, you can probably guess the answer to that one yourself, but there are several more twists in the tale before the closing credits start to roll. It is an undeniably engaging and curious story, very much in tune with the mythology of America (unemployed single mother becomes multi-millionaire due to enterprise and hard work), although some of the subject matter is slightly less, er, heroic, than one might expect in this kind of film. Or, to put it another way, this is probably the most significant film ever made concerned with mops and the shopping channel.

I feel like I now know more about Joy Mangano’s mop than I do about many significant human beings in recent world history. People go on about the mop at great length, as well as several associated topics, such as injection-moulded plastic and the intricacies of patent protection law. It’s a sign of the cachet that David O Russell clearly has around Hollywood, following Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, that he was permitted to make a film about such unpromising subject matter.

It probably helps that, firstly, Joy is primarily the kind of relationship-based comedy drama the director has previously shown such facility for – there’s an undeniable warmth and humour to the satellite characters whirling around Joy that makes the film quite pleasant to watch. And, secondly, the appearance of Russell’s rep company of actors (Lawrence, De Niro, Cooper), all of whom the Academy have a marked fondness for, probably helped the suits at the studio decide to greenlight this movie.

That said, this time round Cooper has a decidedly supporting role (he is as solid as ever), and the focus is definitely on Lawrence. She is turning into one of those performers who the Academy seems to feel obliged to nominate for something every year, almost on principle, and this film feels very much like a vehicle for her, almost precision-tooled to permit her to show off her always-impressive range as an actor – she gets to be emotional, show strength, and so on. The various scenes of her building her mop, pitching for funding for her business, and then finally fly-pitching the thing in mall car parks do sort of summon up the spectres of The A-Team, Dragon’s Den, and Only Fools And Horses, but the fact that it never quite becomes absurd is probably largely due to the strength of Lawrence’s performance.

In the end this isn’t the subtlest of movies: the message about empowerment and self-realisation may as well flash up on a caption at key moments, and the contrast between Joy and her in-retreat-from-reality mum is handled with a broad brush, too. But it’s never actually tedious to watch, and the performances and writing are strong throughout. I’m not sure the topics of mopping and shopping are quite deserving of the skill and talent that have gone into this movie (I thought there was frequently a distinct whiff of bathos pervading the whole thing), but I can think of many worse things people could be making films about. I don’t really believe in portents, but if Joy is pointing the way for the rest of 2016’s films, they’re going to be impressively made, quite enjoyable, but also just a little bit weird.


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You often hear people talking about proverbially unfilmable books – Ulysses, or A Suitable Boy, or whatever – although, of course, there is a long history of ‘unfilmable’ stories actually making quite decent and occasionally exceptional films, given the right treatment. What seems to me to be less commented-upon is the phenomenon of certain novels being endlessly adapted for film and TV, but never both well and faithfully.

We’re usually talking about ‘classic’ literature here – though it’s getting to the point where certain superhero comics also qualify – and I’m thinking particularly of 19th century Gothic Horror. There have been umpty-tump versions of Dracula, to say nothing of sequels and spin-off movies, and generally the ones that have really succeeded have been the ones with a less reverential approach to the source. The same goes for Frankenstein: this is one of those novels which, in many ways, defines the modern age, and yet I’ve never seen a film adaptation of the book which has really impressed me. (The best version I’ve seen was a TV mini-series from 1973, with Leonard Whiting and Michael Sarrazin in the two lead roles, and even this diverged a lot from the novel in many respects.)

Still, until recently I hadn’t seen the 1994 version of the story, helpfully titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to distinguish it from all those other stories with the same name by other people. Or, perhaps more fully, Francis Ford Coppola’s Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as this was the key talent involved as producer and director.


Ken Branagh being Ken Branagh, he naturally casts himself as Victor Frankenstein, here a precocious young scientist (there’s no mention of him being nobility this time around, but he is still clearly rich and posh). And Branagh being Branagh, the cast list is also stuffed with British thespians: this does actually resemble a dress-rehearsal for a Harry Potter movie, so many of the performers here moved on to that series.

This movie sticks to the original structure, which opens at the North Pole with some explorers happening upon a desperate Frankenstein being pursued across the ice by… what? Scenes of sled dogs meeting a sticky end suggest we may have wandered into Mary Shelley’s The Thing by mistake, but no. Frankenstein tells his story, with accompanying flashback: traumatised by the premature death of his mum (Cherie Lunghi) – a motivation-bolstering amendation of Shelley – a youthful Frankenstein puts aside his romantic feelings for his adopted sister (Helena Bonham-Carter) and heads off to university, where he finds himself drawn to forbidden areas of research. Despite the misgivings of his mentor (John Cleese, playing it straight behind some rather peculiar dentures), he sets about manufacturing a perfected form of human life – and when that mentor is pointlessly murdered, Frankenstein instantly sees a way for his patron to live on. Well, bits of him, anyway…

The artificial man created by Frankenstein’s experiments is not quite what our hero was expecting, and in the context of the movie he cuts a striking, unusual figure, mainly because he is played by Robert de Niro rather than another of Ken’s luvvie mates. Frankenstein tries to get rid of his creature almost at once, and believes it has perished in a cholera outbreak. Henceforth swearing off unholy experiments and demarcation disputes over the provision of the vital spark, our man heads home to marry his sister. Sorry, adopted sister.

However, the Creature has survived, and wandered into an 18th century episode of The Good Life. Hiding out in the pig sty of elderly smallholder Richard Briers, the Creature learns to read, speak, and generally make sense of the world around him. Yes, this bit does stretch credulity a bit, but the film tries hard to make it work, and I think there’s an even dodgier subplot in the book about a fleeing Arabian princess which has actually been cut. Eventually the Creature decides he has not been treated properly by his creator and sets off to demand reparations…

This is a good-looking, pacy movie, and for the most part reasonably faithful to the book – much moreso, it has to be said, than either of the most famous versions from Hammer or Universal. The cast is good and there is nothing particularly bad about the script or direction either.

And yet I couldn’t really say this was a great Frankenstein. I know this film has drawn a good deal of sniggery criticism for the sheer number of scenes in which Ken Branagh runs around in leather trews with his shirt off, the suggestion being that this is evidence of a certain self-regard on the the director’s part. I’m inclined to cut Ken some slack on this front, not necessarily because there is something thematic about overweening vanity going on – though I’ve heard this argued – but because it does tie into a sort of Romantic hyperactivity which is central to this film.

Ken’s a bright bloke and he has clearly settled on the famous connection between Frankenstein and the Romantic poets as being a worthwhile line of attack. And so it is that the emotional pitch of this movie is never knowing understated. People are never happy in this film, they are convulsed with ecstatic joy; they never just dance, they hurl themselves across the screen while the camera swoops around them; they never just grieve, they are consumed with devastating, paralysing despair. The film is always turned up to 11, and considering how fast the story rattles along the results are desensitising, not to mention exhausting – you never have a moment to catch your breath and really think about what’s happening in the story.

This is a shame, as Frankenstein is obviously a story loaded with ideas, and this version of it doesn’t really get a chance to explore them. The handling of the relationship between Frankenstein and the Creature is, surely, central to whether or not a version of this story works – and this one is just about there, but no more, simply because they don’t really share enough screen time.

And this doesn’t really work as a horror movie for most of its length, either. The film tries hard to be credible and avoid the cliches of other versions – but substituting the iconic bolt of lightning with a shoal of trained electric eels is not a decision I would personally have gone for. The moment in which the eels are let loose is central to all of the creation sequences in this film and I suppose it’s a minor miracle they do not become unintentionally funny as a result. Needless to say, the eels are not in the book; nor is a sequence in which Frankenstein and the Creature find themselves in a very strange love triangle with a ‘bride’ character. This is the bit of the film which actually does work as a piece of horror, all about twisted passions and dangerous obsessions – but it comes very late and it’s over too soon.  (In contrast, the major plot point that Frankenstein is in a quasi-incestuous relationship with his adopted sister is barely explored.)

So I would say this movie is okay, both as a movie and as a version of Frankenstein. I suppose this is a bit of a disappointment given the magnitude of the talents involved in making it, but there you go. Full marks for trying to be faithful to the novel (eels excepted), and also to Ken for finding an interesting new take on the original material. But it doesn’t quite (ha, ha) bring Frankenstein or his creation fully to life.

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Is it my imagination, or are the Oscars happening earlier than they used to? I know it’s early to start talking about the gong season, but something seems to be afoot – the mature, thoughtful, serious films that studios release in order to try and secure a little gravitas always used to come out around new year, but now it feels like a fair number of them are showing up earlier and earlier. Christmastime seems to be dominated by blockbusters more than ever, which may also be a factor.

Anyway, if nothing else this means that sensible films for grown-ups are in cinemas across a much wider period, which has to be a good thing. As ever, responsible for a goodly proportion of these are the Weinstein brothers, late of the phenomenally successful Miramax company: their new outfit made The Master, which is surely a shoe-in for nominations, and also the slightly more audience-friendly Silver Linings Playbook, written and directed by David O Russell.

As this is a seriously-intentioned movie, Russell has arguably taken a bit of a risk by casting Bradley Cooper in the lead role, Cooper being best known for – er – broad comedies and dubious blockbusters like The Hangover and The A-Team. Cooper plays Pat Solitano, who at the start of the movie is released from a psychiatric institution. His presence there was a result of discovering his wife in flagrante and nearly beating her lover to death, following which he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.

Now he moves back in with his parents (Robert de Niro and Jacki Weaver), still intent on winning back his wife, despite the advice of everyone around him that his expectations may be unrealistic. Through friends, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who has experienced serious psychological issues of her own. Putting aside the instant, if somewhat spiky, chemistry between them, Pat and Tiffany strike a deal: she will take a letter to his wife for him (a restraining order prevents him from contacting her directly), in return for which he will be her partner in a forthcoming dance contest. What could possibly go wrong…?

Well, I was accompanied to this movie by my former Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs and Motorsport, who has requested a transfer to the post of Senior Dubious Comparison Wrangler. As his response to Beasts of the Southern Wild was ‘Waterworld meets City of God’, I thought he was in with a shot at the job, but what clinched it was his summation of Silver Linings Playbook as ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest meets Dirty Dancing’. On one level this is a spot-on description of what the film is about, but it’s also utterly misleading in terms of what it’s actually like to watch.

What this film is, is an extremely well-assembled and well-acted comedy-drama with a strong romantic element, and very engaging to watch. There are laughs in the right places, but also darker and more moving scenes, and the odd bit which actually made me Feel Good (which is no mean feat given that most so-called ‘feelgood movies’ make me contemplate opening a vein).

That said, I was a little uncomfortable in some places while watching the film, mainly because it seemed to me that a lot of the comedy could be intepreted as being predicated on the idea of ‘Look at these wacky mentally ill people! How funny they are!’ I discussed this afterwards with the newly-appointed Comparison Wrangler, and he pointed out that what the film is saying is that everyone has their own issues of some kind or other, and it really doesn’t make a distinction between people with issues and those without. The film’s depictions of bi-polar syndrome and OCD are sympathetic, honest, and non-judgemental, and the more comic moments should probably be viewed in the context of the rest of the film.

This is a Proper Acting Drama, and as such possibly something of a watershed moment in the careers of both stars: Bradley Cooper is really good, giving a proper, nuanced performance. Jennifer Lawrence has made something of a name for herself doing superior work in dodgy blockbusters – it’s not that difficult to look good in that sort of film, but a Proper Acting Drama is a different proposition and she is customarily superb here too. Robert de Niro is not perhaps as magnetic as his reputation might suggest, but neither does he embarrass himself. Perhaps most startling of all, Chris Tucker is in the movie, and not only is he not intensely annoying, he’s actually quite funny. Cripes.

I got a strong sense of Silver Linings Playbook working hard to keep the audience onside, mainly through the inclusion of the comedy and also a tried-and-true dramatic structure like the concluding dance competition (suffice to say, much is riding on the outcome). Parts of it are not terribly original or challenging, which may affect its chances when the gongs are handed out next year – but, on the other hand, the psychiatric disorder stuff is sufficiently integral to the plot for it not to seem like a standard rom-com-dram with a peculiar gimmick. I liked it; worth seeing.

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It occurs to me that it is a little-commented-upon fact that Sigourney Weaver has carved out a rather good career for herself despite the fact she is, to some extent, typecast. By this I mean that I would be willing to bet a modest sum that, if I were to ask someone to name one of her movies, they would come out with something which featured somewhere along the SF/fantasy/horror axis – quite apart from the obvious, there’s Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest, and Avatar. A couple of recent high-impact cameos in Paul and The Cabin in the Woods only adds to this impression. Weaver doesn’t seem bothered by it, but it does feel like a while since she’s had a properly meaty leading role in a movie.

Well, she sort of gets one in Rodrigo Cortes’ Red Lights, a thriller with paranormal elements which is currently doing the rounds. On paper, this is a film with a considerable amount going for it – but in the brave new world of 2012, films are made digitally, not on paper. Certainly, this week I had the choice of taking a gamble on seeing a movie which has had mixed reviews, or seeing the reissue of Jaws (a film I’ve already seen umpteen times, including once on the big screen for its twentieth anniversary back in 1995 – and, yes, that does make me feel terribly old). Now I ask myself – was it worth passing on Spielberg’s undoubted classic in favour of something new and possibly surprising? I can only answer ‘Mmmm, well…’

It’s not really fair to compare Red Lights to Jaws, anyway, as the films are really quite different. (The title Red Lights, should you be a-wonderin’, is only alluded to in passing in the film itself – but wondering about the title is only one of the many points for rumination you will be left with if you actually see it.) Sigourney Weaver plays Margaret Matheson, a psychologist who specialises in debunking paranormal phenomena of various kinds. In this she is assisted by her physicist sidekick Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), and – a newcomer to the team – research assistant Sally (Elizabeth Olsen, who’s showing signs of getting lodged in the horror-thriller ghetto herself). Decades of research have uncovered not one iota of evidence for the existence of supernatural forces.

However, the media is suddenly filled with news of the re-emergence of Simon Silver (Robert de Niro), a celebrity psychic from years gone by. (You can have fun spotting the references to the supposed real-life psychics that Silver appears to be based on – most obviously, Uri Geller, but also, for example, Ted Serios.) Tom is keen to investigate Silver, but Margaret is more cautious, knowing what a slippery and manipulative customer the man can be. Given his wealth and popularity with the public, it could be dangerous to expose him as a charlatan. The fact that it could be even more dangerous to antagonise him, should he truly have paranormal abilities, is left unspoken…

I have to say that my overriding reaction throughout the early sections of Red Lights consisted of that mildly inexplicable phenomenon, deja vu. I do seem to have watched a few of these paranormal thrillers over the years, and the fact they exist close to a very porous border with full-on horror movies doesn’t help much. I probably shouldn’t have been sitting there going ‘This bit’s like The Awakening… this bit’s like Mothman Prophecies… this part is a bit Sixth Sense…’ but unfortunately I was. Now, this is not to say that Red Lights is a bad movie because it feels derivative, but I do think it should perhaps have worked a bit harder to do something new and original with its premise. You know that this kind of film is going to open with a spooky event which the characters cheerily debunk, following which we will get to know them better and become party to the personal issues and tragedies which have led them to become involved in this particular area (no-one ever becomes a psychic researcher in movies just because they’re intellectually stimulated by psychic research, they’ve all had a sister abducted by aliens, or lost a loved one to a war and become obsessed with proving consciousness persists after death, or [spoilers deleted]). Less driven characters will openly question the value of their fixation, pointing out the very real sense of comfort people draw from visiting a medium or astrologer. Events will demand the protagonists reassess their materialistic world view. (As I said when reviewing The Awakening, the thing about ghost stories is that they do tend to have ghosts in them.) And so on, and so on.

Red Lights sticks to this pattern quite faithfully, but – despite not having anything new to add – manages to do so with intelligence and gravitas. It doesn’t look or sound sensationalistic and it’s aided considerably by the performances of Weaver and Murphy, both of whom are reliably watchable and continue to be so here. Elizabeth Olsen, alas, doesn’t really get the material she deserves. On the other hand, de Niro does not take an axe to his own reputation with the vigour he’s shown in other recent movies, but nevertheless there is little here to mark him out as an especially noteworthy performer. This whole opening section is psychologically thoughtful and contains a lot of interesting nuts-and-bolts detail about psychic research, which I found rather absorbing to watch despite the tone of the thing being so familiar.

Then, about halfway through, an Unfortunate Event occurs and the film goes into a bit of a tizzy. It becomes much more of a supernatural thriller as the protagonists attempt to figure out if Silver really does have special gifts, and if he’s using them in an inappropriately malevolent fashion. It all gets a bit overwrought, if you ask me, with quite a heavy reliance on ‘jump’ scares and explicit weirdness. The plot unravels into a series of strange events and the characters’ reactions to them, and it becomes much more Murphy’s movie. While he’s as good as ever, I did miss Weaver and Olsen.

And, subliminally, one gets an irresistible sense of a Twist Ending heading one’s way. (It may be that even revealing that Red Lights has a Twist Ending counts as a spoiler, but given that comparisons between it and The Sixth Sense are plastered all over the publicity, I don’t think I can really be held responsible.) Well, as twists go, the one in Red Lights is about a B- : it doesn’t feel like something completely new and unexpected that’s been shoehorned in just to pep up the finale, having been carefully seeded throughout the movie, but on the other hand neither did I go ‘What a brilliant idea! How stupid I was not to have figured it out!’, which is the mark of something special. To be honest I was more relieved than anything else when the twist was revealed, because up to that point the film was showing severe signs of not knowing how to finish and collapsing into an incoherent mess. The twist just about holds the main plot together, but doesn’t help with lots of other irksome little questions and story points the film never really gets back to.

A strong cast, mostly working well, and a sober and thoughtful atmosphere are the main things that Red Lights has to commend it. It doesn’t really do anything new, and certainly doesn’t appear to have anything interesting or really original to say on the subject of why people believe or disbelieve in paranormal phenomena. The story doesn’t completely hang together – lots of major and minor events basically go unexplained as the closing credits roll – but it passes the time reasonably enough. A fairly average movie, but that’s the fault of the script rather than the cast.

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As fate and the vagaries of my DVD rental package would have it, we go straight from Touch of Evil‘s handling of cross-border prejudice and political corruption to another film with a slightly different take on the same themes: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ 2010 movie Machete. Marching towards this review with ineluctable certainty are the words ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’… oh look, they’ve arrived.

Machete, as you may or may not know, originated as one of the spoof trailers that accompanied the two Grindhouse movies on their various releases (a complex story). It apparently received such a positive response (I must admit I probably enjoyed it rather more than Planet Terror, the film it was accompanying) that a full movie was duly made. As such, this film is arguably a textbook definition of being an extended joke.

The meandering and not especially coherent plot concerns the exploits of a Mexican ex-cop known as Machete due to his love of sharp objects (and also of hitting people with them). He is played (well, this is a bit of an issue, which we will return to) by Danny Trejo, a leather-faced performer who has carved out a bit of a niche for himself as convicts and lowlives on movies and TV. Machete is illegally working as a labourer in Texas when he is hired to assassinate John McLaughlin (Robert de Niro – yes, that Robert de Niro), a senator whose support mainly comes from his toxically anti-Mexican rhetoric – he also associates with a gang of murderous vigilantes led by Von Jackson (Don Johnson – yes, that Don Johnson).

Accepting mainly so he can pass his fee on to an underground network for the betterment of Mexican illegals run by Lus (the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez), Machete sets out to kill the senator – but rapidly discovers he’s been set up by McLaughlin’s aide (Jeff Fahey), intent on creating sympathy for the senator’s views and drumming up anti-Mexican sentiment. Needless to say, our man embarks on a blood-splattered revenge against those who have ruthlessly betrayed him.

(And I haven’t even mentioned Jessica Alba as a government agent, Steven Seagal (yes, that Steven Seagal) as a drug baron, or Lindsay Lohan (yes, that Lindsay Lohan) who wanders through the final section of the film as a gun-toting nun. It’s not that the plot is especially complex – far from it – it’s just utterly all over the place.)

Well, you know, I sat down to watch Machete with reasonable expectations, willing to cut it some slack – Robert Rodriguez is, if nothing else, a consistent film-maker, I’ll watch anything with Michelle Rodriguez in it, and Danny Trejo has certainly got presence. I was hoping for a moderately OTT action movie pastiche that didn’t take itself too seriously. The problem I have with Machete is that it’s actually… well I’m not really sure what it’s supposed to be, and I suspect some of the people involved don’t know either.

Spoof, satire, parody, broad comedy, genuine exploitation (perhaps in this case that should be Mexploitation) movie: the film lurches back and forth across genre boundaries almost at random, its intelligence level going up and down wildly in the process. Particularly baffling is all the stuff about the rights of Mexican illegals in the USA – while I understand this parallels the political dimension of blaxploitation films of the 70s, it’s not in itself particularly funny if it’s here as a parody, and if it’s seriously meant then it’s horribly trivialised by its inclusion in such a determinedly stupid film (‘the most absurd thing I’ve ever read’ was the verdict of one major actor who declined to participate).

That said, some of the Mexican jokes are quite amusing – there’s a running gag where Machete infiltrates the bad guy’s house simply by pretending to be the gardener, and later on beats up a bevy of henchmen using horticultural equipment – even if the climax (our hero raises an army of illegal labourers to battle the forces of evil, and they all turn up waving the accoutrements of their jobs) is again too silly to be genuinely funny. Basically, as a comedy, Machete is only consistently amusing if you subscribe to an oh-ho-ho-isn’t-this-just-so-intentionally-crap? sensibility, and as anything else it’s undermined by the presence of all these laboured attempts at humour.

Compared to this, the film’s problems in the acting department are relatively small beer, but – come on, this is a movie with Danny Trejo in the lead role, which if nothing else demonstrates that presence and charisma are not the same thing. On the strength of this outing Trejo’s range as an actor runs from A to very nearly the far end of A. It’s like making a movie with Chewbacca playing the lead – Trejo just lumbers around making noises and everyone else either tries to copy his style or wildly overacts in an attempt to compensate for it. Almost all the other performances are paralytically lousy, one way or another, which is especially shocking given some of the people Robert Rodriguez has (God knows how) assembled.

Not that long ago, Robert de Niro was routinely being hailed as the greatest screen actor of his generation – one has to wonder what happened, given that his late-period work seems to mostly consist of deeply underwhelming extended cameos in things like this and Killer Elite. Never mind being acted off the screen by Jason Statham, here de Niro is outperformed by, of all people, Steven Seagal. Steven Seagal! To be fair, the world’s least agile martial arts star is on rather good, self-parodying form here.

When Steven Seagal’s acting is one of the best things about a movie you know you’ve slipped a long way off the map of cinematic excellence. Still, neither that nor Michelle Rodriguez kicking ass in a bikini top were quite enough to redeem the movie. At the end of Planet Terror I told anyone who’d listen that it’s all too easy to make a bad film by accident, and plenty of people do every year, and so for a film-maker like Robert Rodriguez to make a bad film intentionally felt like a terrible squandering of both time and talent. I feel exactly the same about Machete, except perhaps even moreso. Of course, I am in the minority, as usual: financing for the two sequels we’re threatened with promised at the end of this film has apparently already been secured, and production is only waiting on Rodriguez to finish writing the scripts. Don’t rush on my account, Bob.

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As regular readers will hopefully have noticed, I try to stay positive, but every now and then circumstances seem to be conspiring to put me into a bit of a grump. For example, I’m starting to get a bit exasperated with the (what seem to me to be) snobbish film-booking policies of the major cinema chains in central Oxford: whoever’s in charge here seems to have something against no-frills low-brow action movies. In the last year, Machete never made it into the city, nor did the remake of The Mechanic, and it looks like Killer Elite isn’t going to put in an appearance there, either.

However, thanks to the good nature and willingness to try something new of my landlady, this turned out not to be a problem and off we trundled to the out-of-town leisure complex to see the aforementioned Killer Elite, directed by Gary McKendry and starring – but of course! – one of my favourite performers, Jason Statham. To be perfectly it honest it feels like a long time since Statham turned up in a genuinely good movie, but, as I said, I try to stay positive…

In the early Eighties, Danny Bryce (Statham) and his old friend Hunter (Robert de Niro, sleepwalking) have a good thing going as soldiers of fortune (‘assassins’ might be a less charitable description) in troublespots around the world. But Bryce’s attempts to put all the killing behind him hit a snag when Hunter is taken hostage by an exiled Omani sheikh, who has a simple request to make.

During the Dhofar rebellion, three of the sheikh’s sons were killed by members of the British SAS. Now dying himself, the sheikh is determined to avenge their deaths – or he’s determined that Bryce is going to avenge them, which is much the same thing. For the sake of his friend, Bryce takes the assignment. However, the SAS look after their own, and his research into the targets attracts the attention of a cabal of former members of the unit. Not taking kindly to having former comrades assassinated, they assign slightly-unhinged veteran Spike Logan (Clive Owen) to stop him…

Well, I didn’t turn up to this one with very high expectations, which may be why it turned out to be such a pleasant surprise: for me this was a genuinely really good action movie (after a somewhat dodgy opening section, admittedly). It does feel like a bit of a long haul towards the end – there are just a few twists and turns too many – but it makes up for this by having more than the usual excuse for a plot and a genuine sense of verisimilitude about it.

McKendry employs his crash-bang-wallop sequences more sparingly than you might expect, but there’s definite tension as the assassins and the SAS counter-strike group cagily circle each other, and the action that there is is gritty and mostly credible. Statham gets a moment of glorious, characteristic nonsense when he beats up two men and jumps out of a window, all the while tied to a chair, but better still is a crunchily effective fight between him and Owen. This manages to be credible, yet cinematic: both actors are easily convincing and – crucially – the camera isn’t jumping around all over the place so you can actually tell what’s happening. The rest of the action is lower-key but just as effectively staged.

Statham’s action man credentials are surely well-established by now, but the extent of his acting ability is still subject to some debate. I think he does a very good job here: Bryce is a lot more conflicted than most of the characters Statham’s known for and that’s all there in his performance. The film is helped hugely by having two performers like Statham and Owen facing off at its heart – Owen is just as good in a slightly trickier part. I’m not sure what it says when both of these actors comfortably outperform Robert de Niro on virtually every level – except that de Niro’s decline as a great screen actor is surely no longer a matter for debate.

Very pleasingly, McKendry has taken a film that’s set in the early Eighties and made it look as though it was made at that time – the colours look washed-out, the picture is almost grainy, and even the graphic design looks decades out of date. (I hope this was a deliberate choice or I’ve just delivered a massive insult.) It all adds to a story which operates almost entirely in shades of grey and in the shadows themselves – for all that he’s motivated by friendship and doing so reluctantly, Bryce is still planning the murders of three men – and his associates are thugs and psychos, mercenaries in the purest sense of the word. On the other hand, while Logan is in theory protecting his old comrades, he’s clearly more than a little unhinged and totally unable to walk away from the military life. This film is not a serious psychological drama by any means, and these aren’t much more than grace notes – but it’s still massively more believeable and involving than the characterisations in, to choose a recent example, Colombiana.

Killer Elite is based on a book by the famous explorer and adventurer Ranulph Fiennes (which in turn was supposedly based on fact). Fiennes himself was in the SAS for a while before being kicked out for trying to blow up the set of Doctor Dolittle (not the Eddie Murphy version – no jury would have convicted, obviously), which explains the connection. Anyway, the only serious brick I must throw at this film is that Ranulph Fiennes himself appears in it as a character. This just seems bizarre and slightly surreal, given how famous he is for other things these days. ‘Get me everything yer’ve got on Ranulph Fiennes!’ snarls Jason Statham to his researcher at one point, and later on Statham and the Fiennes character actually have a fight. Writing Fiennes into the film is unnecessary and it’s arguably a serious misjudgement to do so, threatening to turn the whole thing into an offbeat, bathetic comedy. It just about survives with its credibility intact, though.

Killer Elite‘s chances of success seem to have been hampered by the decision to release it on the same day as a couple of other films which are gunning for the same blokey audience, but which seem to be garnering rather better notices for their style or performances or whatever. Killer Elite may not be the best film of the week, but I would still hate to see it fail simply through being overlooked: in terms of performance, atmosphere, credible plotting, and even in some ways the quality of the action, this is probably one of the best movies Jason Statham has ever made.

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