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Posts Tagged ‘Toby Jones’

Where do I begin with Carol Morley’s Out of Blue? Let’s get that title out of way, to begin with. That is not one of typos to which all flesh is occasionally prey, as a quick glance at poster below will confirm: movie really is called Out of Blue. But why? It is based on a novel by Martin Amis, which was titled Night Train; just why Morley has decided on retitling of it is by no means clear (one of many things about this film which is fuzzy, to say least). What does Out of Blue even mean? I don’t know. Omission of the definite article must be significant on some level: I wouldn’t mind having a bit of significance to blog, which is why this particular piece will be an experiment in not including definite articles too (hopefully we won’t be required to discuss Matt Johnson’s well-known post-punk band, as that could get a bit tricky).

Basic plot of Out of Blue proceeds something like this: Patricia Clarkson is arguably cast somewhat against type as veteran New Orleans PD homicide detective Mike Hoolihan. Early in film she is assigned to a new case: body of a young female astronomer is found, dead from a gunshot wound. Her enquiries initially focus on dead woman’s colleagues, mainly Toby Jones and Aaron Tveit, but eventually move on to her family, a secretive and wealthy bunch led by patriarch James Caan and his wife Jacki Weaver. However, as investigation proceeds, Hoolihan discovers similarities with a series of unsolved killings committed by a serial killer decades earlier. Hoolihan finds herself becoming obsessed with discovering truth of case, even if it means having to grapple with her own personal demons.

When you distill it down like that, plot of Out of Blue sounds like that of fairly straightforward police procedural movie, and I suppose that on some level it operates as such. However, this is a very deep and well-concealed level, because no-one (I would imagine) is coming out of a screening of this film saying ‘Hmmm, that was a fairly straightforward police procedural movie’: critics are using words like incoherent and silly, and likening film to a clown car, while general audiences… I don’t know, but there were only three people at screening I attended, and I had to battle quite hard to stay focused on it; film is that unengaging.

As I say, film is based on Martin Amis’ novel Night Train, which I am not familiar with. Given that we have already discussed hereabouts dismal nature of certain elements of Amis’ career as originator of genre movies, my natural inclination would be to blame him – but on this occasion it seems that master of absurd grotesqueness is off hook, as his novel has been very freely adapted for silver screen. There seem to be some vague similarities of plot and theme, but also some very significant differences on many levels, particularly when it comes to serial killer storyline (wholly new, as far as my very limited research can discern).

So Carol Morley is clearly up to something beyond simply adapting Amis, problem is trying to figure out what this is. Obviously on one level film is trying to work as a piece of genre cinema, adopting familiar form of a very slightly noir-ish police procedural detective story – there are various suspects, and odd twists, and revelations, and  so on. Then again, there are also signs of it attempting to function as a kind of character piece: Clarkson is giving a very intense central performance and she’s in virtually every scene. Finally, there is way film appears to be grasping for some kind of profundity or resonance by exploring deep metaphysical and philosophical themes. There are various allusions to astronomy and astrophysics, and scenes where characters sit around having po-faced discussions about Schroedinger’s cat (at one point they even put a cat in a box as a kind of visual aid for the hard-of-thinking, just in case any of audience couldn’t quite grasp concept).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this in principle – when this sort of idea is executed correctly, it can give heft to an otherwise lightweight genre film and provide big ideas with a way of reaching a mainstream audience. The problem is that Out of Blue fluffs the police procedural aspect so badly that deep thoughts about nature of universe just feel incongruous – and, to be honest, hopelessly pretentious. Or, to put it another way, thriller angle is handled in such a clumsily mannered way that it provides no comforting context for more outre aspects of the movie to embed themselves in. You do almost wonder if there is an element of send-up going on here, so hackneyed is background given to Clarkson’s character – she’s a dedicated, brilliant cop with a history of psychological troubles and a drink problem, and so on, but film is almost totally lacking in humour or warmth. Patricia Clarkson is a fine actress, but she seems all at sea here, the script requiring her to do some fairly ridiculous things before story concludes.

In a way I am almost reminded of Paul Anderson’s Inherent Vice, another peculiar crime thriller with a notably impossible-to-follow storyline. There is a school of thought that actual plot of Inherent Vice is secondary to it giving you experience of what it feels like to be high on drugs: you just sort of drift mellowly from moment to moment as things occur in front of you. In a similar way, I suppose that Out of Blue would make much more sense if it was actually intended to make share experiences of someone undergoing a psychological breakdown – nothing seems to make sense, things seem to occur for no particular motivation, and so on. Alas, I have seen nothing to suggest this is actually case, but film certainly seemed to be giving me sense that I was drifting in and out of consciousness (of course, there is always the possibility that I genuinely was drifting in and out of consciousness – one should never rule this out at a matinee in the middle of a heavy week).

Very seldom does an English-language movie, especially a genre movie, fail to connect with me quite as completely as Out of Blue did, but I do note that Mark Kermode has seen it three times and found something new to enjoy on each occasion, while film’s publicists have managed to find people apparently willing to describe the film as ‘dazzling’, ‘thrilling’, and ‘mesmerising’ – although I note they are picking single words and using them out of context. Only one of those I would even come close to agreeing with is last one, and this is one trance I was very happy to wake up from.

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If you were the producer of a lavish, Anglophone fantasy movie, featuring stars from noted American franchises, and released in that period of early-to-mid-summer when some of the biggest hits of the year are traditionally forged, you would usually be a little bit irked if your project ended up relegated to the wilderlands of art-house showings. But if the film in question is Tale of Tales and you are its director, Matteo Garrone, it may be a different matter, for something about this film tells me it is the product of a sensibility for which mass populism is not the over-riding concern.

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I suppose there is a sense in which this is not really a fantasy but a fairy tale (the differences between the two: discuss), although there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that – recent evidence indicates that over 51% of British voters are suckers for fairy tales, provided they are pitched just right and repeated frequently enough. On the other hand, fairy tales are traditionally associated with quite young people, while Tale of Tales is packed with enough gore, nudity, and associated naughtiness to make it very questionable entertainment for all but the broadest-minded of families. (Slightly ironic, given that the collection of folk tales which inspired the movie was also a primary source when the Brothers Grimm were assembling their own fairy tales.)

This is one of them there anthology films, recounting a trilogy of off-beat narratives, very loosely linked at the beginning and end. The first concerns the dangerously broody Queen of Darkwood (Salma Hayek), who is prepared to take advice from very suspect sources in order to actually have a child. As a result her devoted husband the King (John C Reilly, briefly appearing) is prepared to put on a deep-sea diving suit and engage in mortal combat with a sea-monster, as the Queen has been told that only by eating the heart of such a beast can she actually bear a child.

Well, the beast is slain and the Queen has her baby – but in an unforeseen wrinkle, the woman who cooks the heart also has a child, and as the two boys grow up they prove to be identical to one another, with an unnatural affinity for water and a very close bond. As one of them is a peasant and the other the heir presumptive, this is very much not to the Queen’s liking… but with her beloved son and his hated friend being quite so identical, is there anything she can safely do about it?

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring kingdom of Stronghold, the highly-sexed king (Vincent Cassell) falls in love with a mysterious woman based solely on the beauty of her singing voice, little realising that the shy Dora (Hayley Carmichael) is actually a wrinkly old crone in her seventies or eighties who lives with her equally wrinkly old sister (Shirley Henderson). The king remains insistent, Dora is – on reflection – wildly over-optimistic, and something very farcical seems to be on the cards.

The final story concerns the foolish king of Highmountain (Toby Jones), who becomes fascinated by his pet flea, which he indulges until it reaches a quite extraordinary size, in the process neglecting his sweet and high-spirited daughter (Bebe Cave). What follows is more like a parody of a fairy tale than anything else, involving an ogre, brave gypsies, impossible quests, and much more along the same lines.

Something else that links the three stories is the fact that none of them exactly come to a happy ending. The story of the twin boys is pretty dark all the way through, the tale of the crone sisters initially seems like a bawdy romp, and that of the king and his flea is just absurd, but they all conclude with gory unpleasantness and, more often than not, violent death. There’s a sense in which this is probably quite true-to-source – the ending of the original version of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, is quite horrible – but it does make for rather a downer ending for what started off as a drolly whimsical film.

If I had to make a comparison, I would say the closest thing to Tale of Tales that I’ve seen would be a Terry Gilliam film – maybe either Holy Grail or Jabberwocky, though this isn’t quite as anarchic as the former or as scatological as the latter. It has the same almost-palpable sense of earthy history to it, some of the same visual flair, the same understated comedy and fine performances – though, to be fair, most of it is played deadpan-straight. (Some good monsters, too.)

I suppose I should also mention that the tale of the old crones, which prominently features attractive naked young women and concludes on a moment of proper grand guignol, also put me rather in mind of a late period Hammer Horror, albeit one made on a very big budget. This story probably benefits from obviously being about something (our obsession with youth and beauty), while the other two storylines just meander about amiably.

All Tale of Tales‘ quality and visual lavishness – this is a beautiful, beautiful film, as exquisitely designed and photographed as any I’ve seen this year – is really a bit undermined by the fact that, as an anthology movie, its pacing is inevitably a bit disjointed – a great movie has a beginning, a middle, and an end, after all, not a beginning, a beginning, and a beginning, then a middle, a middle, and a middle, and so on.

I suppose this is the really odd and frustrating thing about Tale of Tales, in the end: this is a film about stories – the title kind of gives it away – and formidable talent has clearly been brought to bear in every department of the film… except that of the script itself. This is by no means bad, and the film remains engagingly odd throughout, but you never really lose yourself in any of the stories – it’s all just a bit too calculatedly arty or arch for the stories to work their own magic, and the fact that none of them have what you could really call a satisfying climax is a bit of an issue too.

As I said, this is a fabulous-looking movie and it does have a more authentic sense of the genuinely weird about it than any of the Hollywood fantasy films I’ve seen this year – more of a sense of humour, too. But in the end I can’t shake the impression that this is intended to be more enjoyed as a work of art than as an actual exercise in storytelling. Still, worth seeing if you like this sort of thing.

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In the closest thing to miscegenation you’re likely to find in a mainstream multiplex, Universal Pictures (producers of the Fast and Furious series, amongst other high-powered blockbusters) have come together with Screen Yorkshire (producers of a wide range of generally quite miserable low-budget films) to make Oliver Parker’s Dad’s Army, a new version of the legendary British sitcom. Does that sound weird? It should. But in a good way or not? Well, if I tell you that in the new Dad’s Army an innocent young woman is clubbed into unconsciousness and lovable old Corporal Jones shoots someone in the head, you may get some inkling of how horribly astray the new proceedings go.

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In rather the same way that the historical existence of the British police box is now only widely known thanks to Doctor Who’s TARDIS, so I suspect the British Home Guard – a military organisation in existence between 1940 and 1944, made up of men too young and old for the army, intended to assist in the nation’s defence in the event of a Nazi invasion – would long since have become a footnote of history were it not for Dad’s Army. Even having to explain what Dad’s Army is feels very odd, but anyway – the sitcom ran between 1968 and 1977, clocking up 80 episodes, repeats of which have been a staple of the schedules pretty much ever since. In the UK it is genuinely beloved and instantly familiar in a way that is matched by only a tiny handful of other programmes.

So you can kind of understand why people might think tapping into the vast well of affection the public still have for the series was a sound commercial idea, despite the fact that virtually the entire original cast has been dead for decades (two members are hanging on and are duly wheeled out for cameos here). Certainly this film assumes familiarity with the Dad’s Army set-up – unlike the 1971 film version, which depicted the formation of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon, this one starts with them as a going concern.

In command is the fussy, pompous Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones), assisted by the terribly smooth Sergeant Wilson (Bill Nighy). In the ranks are panic-prone old soldier Jones (Tom Courtenay), young and callow Pike (Blake Harrison), wide boy Walker (Daniel Mays), grumpy Scot Frazer (Bill Paterson), and terribly nice old gent Godfrey (Michael Gambon). As a military unit their effectiveness is close to absolute zero, but they do try hard.

Walmington-on-Sea is sent into a very mild state of shock with the arrival of glamorous reporter Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta Jones, who probably qualifies as an imported Hollywood star even though she comes from Swansea), intent on doing a story on the unit. It turns out she and Wilson have history of a sort, which only increases Mainwaring’s normal inferiority complex. Even more important, however, is the revelation that there is a Nazi spy operating somewhere in the town, just as the Home Guard have been charged with protecting a vital supply depot…

Hmmm. You may be expecting a clever twist when it comes to the identity of the spy. You will not get one. You may in fact be expecting all sorts of things from the new Dad’s Army, for this is a film based on an undeniable classic, filled with brilliant actors from many different film, TV, and theatre traditions. But if your expectations are at all positive, a mighty disappointment is coming your way.

We seem to be having a mini-boom in the production of movies based on British sitcoms, possibly fuelled by the unreasonable success of the two Inbetweeners films (two of the Inbetweeners regulars have snagged roles here), with not just this but a movie of Absolutely Fabulous on the way. However, anyone making even the most cursory survey of Brit sitcoms on film will instantly see that these films are almost always utterly awful, and it is this tradition which Dad’s Army proudly, grimly, upholds.

Honestly, in 96 long minutes I felt the urge to laugh twice, mildly both times. There are a lot of talented people on this film which inevitably leads one to wonder just what the hell has gone so badly wrong. The obvious answer is to say that it’s simply because the original series had such unique, perfect chemistry between the cast, and such strong writing. Well, that’s true (though I have to say I often find the series to be rather too broad and sentimental for my tastes), but it’s not just the case that this movie is trying to copy the TV show and failing. This movie is a rather different beast.

The TV show, and indeed the 1971 movie, were both ultimately quite cosy and soft affairs, ultimately driven by a deep affection for the characters: a sort of ongoing cartoon or music hall sketch, delivered by wobbly videotape into people’s front rooms. In the new movie, someone gets shot dead in the first few minutes, which tonally feels terribly wrong for Dad’s Army. But it’s more than this: writer Hamish McColl doesn’t even seem to like the characters that much, and has felt the need to give most of them psychological issues and back-stories that are new to this version. There’s a undercurrent of harsh emotional realism and angst that somehow makes them all pitiable at least as much as lovable.

And this new-found realism does not sit well with the broad slapstick and sight-gags which are traditional Dad’s Army fare and which the film also works hard to include. To be honest, it kills most of the humour and the film often feels slightly childish as a result. You can’t be traditional Dad’s Army and something darker and grittier at the same time; one would have thought that was obvious. But apparently not.

I suppose some people might also take exception to the inclusion of Mrs Mainwaring as an on-screen presence (played by Felicity Montagu), arguing that the whole point of the character was that she was left to the viewer’s imagination – perhaps even to the fact that the womenfolk of the town play a rather more significant role than they ever did on TV, to the point where in parts it’s almost more like Last of the Summer Wine. The Diversity Police have paid a visit, I suppose, but given this is by far less incongruous than the badly misjudged tone of the film I find it hard to get very exercised by it.

The structure of the film is, I suppose, solid, and it does provide a showcase for the various performers to a give a virtuoso display of how one uses brilliant acting technique to avoid being embarrassed by substandard material. But the fact remains that it’s nowhere near funny or warm enough to be worthy of the Dad’s Army title – and, as a result, it’s actively depressing more than anything else.

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Describing the products of non-mainstream Western cinema as unusual and rare kinds of animal (as opposed to the comfortable domestic beasts we’re all rather more familiar with) is all very well – which is a relief, as I was doing so only last week – but it’s a metaphor more than usually ripe for abuse and potential confusion. Most obviously, personal bias and cultural stereotyping rear their ugly heads as soon as you get into this territory, and there’s the issue of quite how you describe something totally strange and unusual and generally off the wall without making it sound unattractive and unengaging. Yet this is exactly the kind of film under consideration when one talks about Peter Strickland’s utterly peculiar Berberian Sound Studio. Is this a horror movie, a drama, or a black comedy? I hesitate to offer an opinion except that it appears to have a little of all of them in it.

Toby Jones gives the kind of performance that actors are immortalised by as Gilderoy, a mild-mannered and somewhat rumpled English sound engineer, previously specialising in nature documentaries, who finds himself recruited by a company based in Italy. Here he is employed to work on the sound for The Equestrian Vortex, a lurid and ludicrous giallo horror movie of the kind that was very popular at the time when the film is set (the mid 1970s). A long way from home, and not really used to this kind of subject matter, Gilderoy finds himself having to contend with the film’s pretentious and oversexed director (Antonio Mancino) and tyrannical producer (Cosimo Fusco), to say nothing of having a lot of trouble getting his expenses reimbursed. The peculiar working atmosphere and corrosive personal relationships between his colleagues begin to have decidedly negative effects on Gilderoy’s own mental state…

The vaulting weirdness of Berberian Sound Studio begins with the first scene and continues throughout – the film is almost entirely set in the titular facilty, with a very small cast, and much of its dialogue is in Italian. It initially appears to be, on some level, a love letter to the mechanics of old school film production – especially on the sound side. There are lots of lengthy, loving shots of spools and sprockets and reels and projectors – all the backstage paraphernalia of a movie. The film-within-the-film itself is never shown, except for a brilliantly mocked-up title sequence, but we get a strong sense of what it’s about from the dialogue and scene descriptions we hear – ‘when a red hot poker is inserted into a woman’s vagina, it’s a serious moment,’ declares the producer, gravely.

One of the more peculiar achievements of Berberian Sound Studio is to have earned a 15 certificate seemingly almost entirely on the strength of its sound effects. These are usually performed on-camera, with Toby Jones and others doing unspeakable things to fruit and vegetables that leave them quite unsuitable for human consumption. The contrast between what you’re seeing on the screen and what it’s meant to be representing produces a weirdly evocative and actually quite unsettling effect.

Toby Jones has had a fairly high-profile couple of years but this is the kind of vehicle which character actors dream of – this is his Theatre of Blood or his Wicker Man (original version, obviously), in that he dominates the film and gives a quite astounding performance, subtle and yet utterly mesmerising. Even at the start of the film, Gilderoy is frankly a bit weird, but Jones keeps him sympathetic and fascinating to watch even when he’s surrounded by a gang of much more demonstrative and openly charismatic Italian characters, with their own set of personal dramas.

However, as the film goes on the plot about the on-set problems and troubled relationships increasingly dissolves as Strickland seems much more interested in totally dismantling the usual relationship between sound and image and then playing games with the bits. As the film starts off dark and then becomes increasingly visually shadowy, this too is unsettling and disconnecting – the audio-visual chaos is obviously meant to reflect the increasing collapse of Gilderoy’s rationality, but it’s achieved innovatively and surprisingly – scenes are replayed, dubbed into different languages and subtitled, extraordinary radiophonic sound effects are unleashed, certain scenes play out without any soundtrack whatsoever… conventional cinematic reality falls to bits completely, just as seems to be happening to Gilderoy’s mind.

It’s a remarkable, technically brilliant journey, and one of the most memorably different films I’ve seen all year. On the other hand, this kind of story doesn’t really lend itself to our old friend the three-act structure, and anyone expecting a conventional narrative complete with a normal sense of closure is going to come away confused and probably quite angry (much like the person behind me, who walked out at the end shouting ‘utter waste of time!’). This is a very, very unorthodox film, but clearly the product of a singular vision and made to the highest standards – I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it in the traditional sense, but I was captivated by it throughout. In its own way Berberian Sound Studio may be one of the films of the year.

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