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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Riley’

I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly keen Scrabble player, nor an expert on the game, but there was a point a few years ago when the unruly searchlight in my brain locked onto the game of bag and tiles and I found myself playing hundreds of games over the internet (not quite Scrabble itself, but a copyright-baiting near-clone). I recall one red wine-fuelled face-to-face session which eventually disintegrated into what I can only describe as Scrabugeddon (always agree in advance on what, if any, the time limits on play are going to be, and also how the seating arrangements will be decided), and also Boxing Day 2007, when Mama and I spent about seven hours solid playing in front of a Two Ronnies marathon (at one point I got three bingos on the trot and was nearly disinherited). So, obviously, the lack of genuine Scrabble-based cinema has occasionally been a source of just a tiny amount of angst for me.

And now just such a film has come along, in the form of Carl Hunter’s Sometimes Always Never. I get the impression that the film had the working title Triple Word Score, but I suspect they couldn’t justify the licensing expense, hence a title which is catchy but almost meaningless in this context (apparently it is an old dictum concerning the disposition of a well-dressed chap’s buttons).

In the film we are introduced to Alan (Bill Nighy), who we quickly learn is a slippery and devious fellow, albeit in the most benign and affable-seeming way. As the film opens Alan is meeting up with his son Peter (Sam Riley), as they depart on a rather grave family mission, and the atmosphere is not helped by the obvious tensions between the two men. Peter clearly thinks that Alan’s generally dry and idiosyncratic demeanour has not made him a good father, especially considering that he was a single parent following the death of Peter’s mother.

Their trip turns out to involve a night away, which is a surprise to Peter but not Alan, and their stay in a B&B takes an unexpected turn when Alan starts hustling the other guests at Scrabble for eye-watering sums (old favourites like Muzjiks, Griot and Esrom all make an appearance on the table).  (Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny play Alan’s victims in this very funny sequence.)

However, the father-and-son road trip proves fruitless, and Alan and Peter are left to contemplate their relationship, and the others within their family: Peter has a wife (Alice Lowe) and son (Louis Healy), all of whom have impressive Scrabble skills of their own. The irony, of course, proves to be that for all the massive vocabularies the family possess, their actual ability to communicate meaningfully is almost non-existent. Perhaps it was this that drove away Alan’s other son, Michael. But now Alan has found himself playing online Scrabble against someone with an eerily familiar approach to the game. Could it possibly be Michael, trying to get in touch?

The writer of Sometimes Always Never is Frank Cottrell Boyce, who has an eclectic and rather variable CV, if we’re honest: he started his career on the long-defunct soap opera Brookside, went on to various big-screen collaborations with respected directors like Danny Boyle and Michael Winterbottom, wrote a few novels, and won last Christmas’s celebrity University Challenge match between Keble College Oxford and Reading almost single-handed, Reading scoring no points whatsoever. Personally, I find that for every Goodbye Christopher Robin on the list, there is also a Butterfly Kiss; this film is probably towards the top of the pile, for it is amusing and engaging and only occasionally irritatingly mannered and affected.

That said, you are never in any doubt of the fact that you are watching a quirky British film which has clearly been made on a punitively tiny budget. There are various scenes of characters driving back and forth across the north of England, which are mostly realised using obvious back projection, while one plot development which was obviously beyond the reach of the financing is depicted using stop-frame animation. The director works hard to make this look like part of the film’s general quietly off-beat style, but I doubt anybody will be fooled.

I find myself wondering how much of the film’s general tone and identity is the result of an actual creative decision and how much is something necessitated by the lack of money. The setting is mostly suburban, with various scenes in pubs, cafes, kitchens and bedrooms; people sit in cars and caravans as they talk. But there is a lot of talk and not a great deal of the characters actually doing much, unless you include them playing Scrabble with each other. The film has a low-key, deadpan quality which is quite endearing but not especially cinematic – this is one of those films you could watch on the TV without really missing anything. There is nothing especially cinematic about it.

That said, it is still quite watchable, mainly as a result of Nighy’s contribution. To begin with I wasn’t sure about the rather Ringo-esque Scouse drawl he adopts for the role, but it works for the character and I did get used to it. And it is a very funny performance as a man whose apparently laid-back inscrutability masks an implacably ruthless knack for getting whatever he wants. You can tell that deep down Alan is a decent man whose heart is in the right place – but you’re also entirely sympathetic to Peter, who clearly considers him a nightmare to be around.

The problem with the film, if problem it is, is that even the various excavations of the two men’s difficult shared past are so low-key and off-hand that they don’t feel as though they’re carrying much dramatic weight. The film is much more obviously successful when it is trying to be funny than in its more serious moments, which only adds to the sense that this is ultimately something rather lightweight. You can certainly see why Bill Nighy would choose to get involved in this project (he exec produces as well as stars); the film is built around him and it is a brilliant showcase for his talent. And, as noted, the film is often very funny and never less than pleasant to watch. It’s a nice film. The problem is it never feels like it’s more than that, nor even as if it’s really trying to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Head for the hills! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the cinema, yet another movie bearing the ghastly imprimatur of the UK Film Council (of ‘utter crap’ and ‘makes you want to gouge your own eyes out’ fame) hits the screen. Come to think of it, now The King’s Speech (also a UKFC job) has been nominated for about 400 awards I may have to stop being snippy about it. Bother. And Ben Affleck’s credible again nowadays, too. What the hell am I going to make cheap gibes about from now on?

Oh well. The film in question is another period drama, Rowan Joffe’s new adaptation of Brighton Rock. This, as you must surely know, is a classic novel about good and evil and guilt and innocence, written by Graham Greene and originally published in 1938.

Joffe’s film updates the story to 1964, when the south coast was being terrorised by roving gangs of mods and rockers. The basic plot remains the same, however, as teenage headcase Pinkie (Sam Riley, in the role that made Richard Attenborough’s name) seizes control of an adult criminal gang following the killing of its leader. He murders Hale, the man responsible for the first death, but teenage waitress Rose (Andrea Riseborough) can potentially link him to the crime – and so Pinkie sets about manipulating the girl’s emotions and the infatuation she feels for him in order to secure his own survival. Meanwhile, a friend of Hale’s, Ida (Helen Mirren) has set about bringing his killer to justice in her own way…

Well, first things first, and this isn’t actually what you’d call a bad film. It looks very convincing in a dreadful, crumbling sort of way, and there are great performances from the cast. Sam Riley is magnetic – kudos to the guy for even daring to follow in Lord Dickie’s footsteps – and Andrea Riseborough is also very good in a tough role – Rose is so weak and delusional and gullible, and, well, just plain wet, that it would have been very easy for her to become actively annoying. To Riseborough’s credit, she never does. The more senior members of the cast – including Phil Davis, John Hurt, and Andy Serkis – are also fine, and Joffe’s direction also has moments of inspiration.

That said, the reasons behind the decision to bring the story forward to 1964 seem a little obscure to me. It can’t be solely a budgetary thing, nor can it be to make the story more accessible to a modern audience – it’s still set 47 years ago. The inclusion of the mods and rockers material doesn’t seem to inform the story much – this is too personal and internal a story for that. It doesn’t actually harm the film, but it doesn’t help it in any way. The same could be said for the rather large amounts of blood and what my uncle likes to refer to as effing and jeffing – this must be rather close to the top end of the 15-band, not that it makes much difference.

At this point I’m going to be a little more specific about the story of Brighton Rock, both this film version, the famous 1948 one, and the novel, so, you know – look away if you don’t want to get spoiled. As you might expect, a number of changes have been made – John Hurt’s character is rather more prominent than in the book, for instance. Rather more fundamental than this are the changes affecting Ida Arnold. In the book, Hale isn’t a gangster himself, and not directly responsible for killing Pinkie’s mentor – he’s a loser, but sympathetic in a way that the new film’s version of the character isn’t (he may only stick a knife in someone’s throat by accident, but he was still actively looking to carve the guy up). As a result Ida arguably seems to set out on a crusade for justice for a man who may not really deserve it.

The book is also about the contrast between Pinkie, who’s a practicing Roman Catholic as well as a vicious murderer, and Ida, who doesn’t have any particular belief system but an overpowering sense of right and wrong: she is a woman who fully enjoys pleasures of all kinds, a woman of easy virtue. Greene seems to depict her as an almost pagan, Earth-mother character (his initial description of her repeatedly refers to the size and apparent amiability of her breasts, which has sort of coloured my view of the character ever since). In the film she’s a rather more establishment, conventional figure (so to speak), less distinctive and memorable as a result, and there are almost shades of Miss Marple in the way Helen Mirren plays her. She only begins to resemble the book’s version of Ida in the closing scenes, by which time it seems oddly out-of-character.

You can’t really do a Graham Greene adaptation without keeping the Roman Catholicism in, of course, but it isn’t much more than colour here. Taking its place is… um, not a huge amount of anything, to be honest. The story rolls along in its own rather grim fashion – this is the kind of film where people have awkward, unsatisfying sex in grotty rooms heated only by three-bar electric fires – and it’s never actually boring. Some of the alterations made for the 1948 version are retained here, most obviously the final moments. (On the other hand, the role played by William Hartnell in the first film has been given to Nonso Anozie – given some of Hartnell’s well-documented issues with some ethnic groups, anyone living near the actor’s grave may be able to pop round and use him as a lathe.)

As I said, Brighton Rock isn’t what you’d actually call a bad film, and there are some good things within it. But the strong performances and powerful atmosphere can’t quite make up for a script which never gets into the heart of Greene’s story to bring it to life. This is by no means the worst thing the UKFC ever produced (thank God), but neither is it especially memorable.

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