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Posts Tagged ‘Woody Harrelson’

I am not ashamed to say I have a certain fondness for many of the films of Roland Emmerich, particularly his SF and fantasy output. Let me at once qualify that by saying that I’ve never much liked Stargate, and I was in Italy when 10,000 BC came out and never got to see it, and, come to think of it, Universal Soldier was about what you’d expect from an early-90s vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. But I did enjoy 2012, The Day After Tomorrow was likeable tosh, his version of Godzilla was a decent monster movie (just a very bad Godzilla film), and I have very little time for people who go around bad-mouthing Independence Day (even if the sequel is rubbish).

Emmerich does have a real talent for wrangling these big, slightly bonkers special effects movies; it’s his other films that I find slightly hard work. Obviously, it’s nice to be respected and treated as a serious artist – but, you know, stick to what you’re good at. Bearing this in mind I didn’t quite know what to expect from his new movie, Midway. On the one hand, this is a big, epic film with lots of special-effects action sequences – but on the other, it proclaims it is intended as a ‘true account’ of some of the events of the Second World War.

So, nothing to do with the initial marketing of Space Invaders in the US, then (though I can just about imagine Emmerich coming up with a spin on that which would suit his talents). The film is named after, and largely concerns, the naval battle at Midway in June 1942, although it opens five years earlier with a meeting between US naval attache Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) and Japanese navy officer Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) in Tokyo. Yamamoto warns his counterpart that if the US leaves Japan with no other option, it will fight to protect its access to the natural resources it needs: the hawks in the ascendancy in the Japanese government will see to that.

This struck me as an unexpectedly nuanced and even-handed opening to the movie, attempting to give some context to the beginning of Japanese hostilities in late 1941. However, from here we proceed almost straight into the events of December 7th 1941 and the Japanese attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. There are a few things to be said here: firstly, as a movie whole and entire, Midway is certainly better than the grim Michael Bay offering Pearl Harbor, which troubled cinemas in 2001 (it doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but I am depressingly aware that movies from that period are now old enough to drink) and covered much of the same material. However, the decision to go straight into the first of several major action and effects sequences is questionable – apart from Layton, we’ve barely got to know any of the characters and so our investment in the story is still quite minimal: it’s all just bangs and flashes and fairground thrills. There’s also the problem, which persists throughout the movie, that while the special effects are lavish and a great deal of money and talent has clearly gone into them, the movie still ends up becalmed in the nautical equivalent of the uncanny valley – it looks very pretty, but never for a moment do you feel like you’re watching something actually real.

Anyway, with Pearl Harbor out of the way, Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson in a wig) is put in charge of the US fleet and the movie proceeds through the events of the next few months at a brisk clip: the initial American response, which is severely limited by the fact that their main torpedo would more accurately be called a torpedon’t, the air raid on Tokyo commanded by James Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart and his chin pop up for what’s not much more than an extended cameo as Doolittle), the battle of the Coral Sea, and so on. Eventually we get to the battle of Midway itself, as American intelligence analysts figure out where the Imperial Japanese fleet are going to be making their next move, allowing the US navy to set a trap for them.

And, you know, it’s never actually dull, and it does move along very briskly, as noted. Of course, the film is kind of obliged to do this, simply because it has given itself such a lot of ground to cover, as well as the actual battle of Midway. It’s good to have a bit of context, obviously, but I wonder how much sense this actually makes to people not already familiar with the events of the Pacific war – Wilson and Harrelson rattle out the exposition heroically, but I’m not sure how much of it sticks. There is a real danger of subplot overload well before the end of the movie, which honestly feels bloated and unwieldy much of the time. Cutting a lot of the Doolittle material would have been one obvious choice, but given that a lot of this concerns the aid given to Doolittle by heroic Chinese fighters, and the Japanese occupation of part of China, I imagine that keeping all this in was stipulated by the Chinese investors who I understand provided a significant chunk of the film’s budget.

The other main problem I had with the film is that I found it rather difficult to actually warm to. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and many of them are honestly fairly indistinguishable. Most of the movie is pitched at the same level of macho, stoic, belligerent patriotism, and most of the characters are naval personnel; there is consequently a lot of blurring together which only a few actors manage to avoid. Usually this is via some kind of prop: Wilson wears glasses and looks concerned, Harrelson has his wig, Eckhart has his chin, Luke Evans has a moustache, and Dennis Quaid turns up as Admiral Halsey with a permanent growl and a case of shingles. The de facto main character is Dick Best (Ed Skrein), one of the most distinguished pilots in American history, but the issue here is that the script makes him out to be a swaggering, arrogant loose cannon, a characterisation that Skrein happily runs with. This made him quite difficult to empathise with; I was much more inclined to identify with his co-pilot, who eventually becomes very reluctant to fly with someone who seems to have a death wish. You may be wondering who plays all the female fighter and bomber pilots: well, the Progressive Agenda Committee were clearly unable to locate the offices of the production, for they have managed to get away with not including any. The only female character of any significance is Best’s wife, who is played by Mandy Moore. I have to say this is a largely decorative role and she is much more prominent on the poster than in the actual movie.

This just adds to the sense that Midway is very much an old-school war movie, although one has to wonder if we really need all the unsubtle tub-thumping patriotism – verging, to be honest, on jingoism in places – nearly eighty years on from the actual battle. It is, of course, distinguished by modern special effects, and plenty of them, but as noted the film does often feel like you’re watching someone else playing a computer game. I haven’t seen the 1976 film based on these events – however, I would be willing to guess that it has less impressive visuals but a rather better script. This film passes the time decently, it’s interesting to look at, and it does contain a bit of history. It’s just that the actual story is not that engaging or moving – it is war as an almost totally empty spectacle. Emmerich’s films are much more fun when he isn’t trying to be so respectful.

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Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland: Double Tap concludes in a manner which summarises the whole film rather nicely: as the credits roll, Woody Harrelson treats the audience to a full-throated rendition of the Elvis number ‘Hunka Hunka Burning Love’. It is enthusiastic, not actually awful, and indeed sort of entertaining, but it’s also a bit baffling and you do wonder what the point of it is.

It has, after all been ten years since the first film appeared. I did say at the time that a sequel would be welcome, but I didn’t quite anticipate there being quite such a long delay before its appearance – the Optimum Period Before Sequel is something we have discussed here as well, of course, and a decade is really pushing it. Even the film seems to be aware of the distinct possibility that it’s turned up too late for its own party – ‘Hello again! And after so long!’ are the opening words of Jesse Eisenberg’s voice-over. Given that the main players have gone on to bigger and more reputable things in the intervening period, one can only assume they genuinely have come back out of fondness for the material on this occasion, though I note that Emma Stone now qualifies for an ‘And’ in the credits, unsurprising given she is now probably the biggest star involved.

I could take up quite a lot of space listing all the various handwaves the film deploys and the ways in which it kind of demands the audience cut it some slack – the main one is to do with just how much time has elapsed since the original movie. None of the zombies have actually rotted away to nothing (then again, this is almost a convention of the zombopocalypse genre), and there are vague references to ‘a few years’ having gone by. On the other hand, Abigail Breslin was 13 when she made the first film and is very visibly 23 now, so they do have to sort of address this. What it all means is that from the start the film demands the audience be complicit in its silliness and the fact it doesn’t really hold together as anything other than a knowing piece of popcorn entertainment.

Anyway: as the film starts, the quartet of survivors – Tallahassee (Harrelson), Columbus (Eisenberg), Wichita (Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Breslin) – have made the derelict White House their new home, mainly because this is just a funny idea. The plot struggles a bit before managing to contrive stresses within the group that result in the two women departing, leaving the men behind. Columbus is initially bereft by the departure of the love of his life, but then comes across Madison (Zoey Deutch), an epically dim young woman who’s been living in a fridge since the collapse of civilisation. Then Wichita reappears, delivering the news that Little Rock’s rebelliousness has reached the point where she is now heading for Graceland in the company of a pacifist folk-singer.

Needless to say, the group agree to put their differences aside and make sure Little Rock is all right, although the presence of Madison amongst them inevitably causes some friction. A bigger concern is the appearance of a new and much deadlier breed of zombie, which they are bound to encounter if they go back on the road…

When Zombieland initially came out I was rather positive about it, noting the surprising longevity of the zombie boom which was kicked off by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland in 2002. That was ten years ago, and things seem to have got to the point where the zombie movie has become something of a staple of the horror genre: doing a new zombie-themed TV show or movie or book or comic isn’t really noteworthy anymore – just more of the same. Double Tap acknowledges this when it jokily refers to the wide availability of zombie-themed entertainment these days.

It doesn’t actually try to spoof or parody the zombie genre any more than the original film, though, nor is it a particularly serious attempt at an actual horror movie – there is plenty of gore and splatter in the course of the story, naturally, but it’s only fleetingly scary. Nothing is taken seriously enough to be actually disturbing or frightening. Instead, this is basically just a rather offbeat comedy film which happens to feature a handful of elaborate sequences with the stars blowing the heads off undead extras with impressively big guns.

So how does it hold together as a comedy? Well, I did kind of fear the worst for the first few minutes of the film, as it really does struggle to find its groove, with the various developments in the relationships between the quartet feeling laboriously contrived, and good jokes being rather thin on the ground (the film is set in a world where the Trump presidency never happened – one good thing about a zombie apocalypse, maybe – so any satire derived from the characters being in the White House is only implicit). However, once the plot is laid in, and especially once Deutch’s character appears, it does pick up quite considerably and there are some very funny moments.

These are mostly due to the skill and efforts of the cast – Harrelson is on particularly good form, though Eisenberg and Stone also contribute deft comic performances – because the script itself is really all over the place when it comes to things like the actual plot. The story is episodic to the point of feeling actually disjointed, with weird digressions and tangents happening throughout, regardless of whether they actually make a great deal of sense (at one point Tallahassee and Columbus meet their near-doubles, Albuquerque and Flagstaff) or advance the story. The film seems to take a (not inappropriate) shotgun approach to comedy, blasting away wildly at anything in sight in the hope that at least some of the jokes will hit the mark. It just about manages to get away with it.

What is interesting, and kind of refreshing, is that as a result the film feels a bit less inhibited in terms of its humour than many modern films. By this I mean that Double Tap quite shamelessly includes jokes about dumb blondes who love pink things, gun-loving right-wingers, hippies, and so on (jokes about a hippy commune in a 2019 movie? Yes indeed. See what I mean about the film being a bit all over the place in some respects). At a time when it feels like most mainstream movies have to subject themselves to a rigorous vetting by the Progressive Agenda Committee (apparently the focus group decided it’s a much friendlier name than the Thought Police), it is nice to find a film which apparently doesn’t care at all about that sort of thing.

It doesn’t quite change the fact that Zombieland: Double Tap is really a superfluous sequel trading heavily on fond memories of the first film. As a comedy, it is funny enough to justify its existence, and it is honestly  quite nice to spend an hour and a half watching something so openly and inoffensively silly, intended only to entertain. It never quite trashes the memory of the first film, but neither does it really add lustre to its reputation.

 

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I have to confess that I do occasionally have a problem remembering which of the McDonagh brothers (John Michael and Martin) is which. Which one of them wrote and directed In Bruges? Which one did Calgary? Or Seven Psychopaths? Or The Guard? Luckily this is a less serious issue than it could be, as no matter which McDonough is responsible, the films themselves are almost always witty, thoughtful, and provocative in a good way. And so it proves with Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, yet another film which finds itself almost uncannily positioned to comment on and possibly take advantage of the unusual moment in which the United States finds itself.

The film opens just outside the small town of the title, and finds Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced woman with a teenage son, being struck by a moment of inspiration when she sees three long-disused billboards near her home. Some months earlier, her teenage daughter was raped and murdered, and there has been no word from the police department about this for a very long time. Incensed by the lack of progress, or indeed communication, Mildred rents the boards and puts up a set of messages highlighting the apparent inertia of the cops, in particular the police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

Willoughby, a basically decent man, is frustrated and irritated by this, but he has deeper personal problems to deal with and is inclined to be understanding. However, one of his men, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is somewhat less inclined to show empathy. Dixon is a little bit dim and more than a little bit bigoted, and happy to use any means necessary to get Mildred off the police’s case. Neither side seems willing to consider moderating their position, and with Willoughby stuck in the middle, it seems that only a further tragedy stands any chance of bringing resolution to the situation…

This is another case of a film proving slightly tricky to review, mainly because there is a significant plot element that doesn’t feature in the trailer, presumably because McDonagh wants it held back as a surprise for the viewer (despite the fact it’s established very early on in the story). The trailer, more to the point, seems to be pitching Three Billboards as a kind of offbeat, somewhat Coenish black comedy. And I’m really not sure that this does the movie justice at all.

There are certainly moments of comedy here, and the film is shot through with darkness of the most uncomfortable kind, but this does not feel like a film really setting out to amuse the audience. It would be equally easy to describe it as simply being the story of a woman setting out to confront the forces of male establishment prejudice, but I don’t think that this is what the film is truly about, either.

Certainly, it touches on elements of racism and bigotry, not to mention police brutality, but there’s almost a sense in which the film can’t pass a potential issue without trying to be provocative about it, from homophobia to child abuse in the Catholic Church. But touching on a subject doesn’t mean the film’s actually about that thing, and if anything, Three Billboards seems to me to be a deeply serious film about a number of things, one of them being anger and guilt. (McDonagh himself has said the film is about rage.) It seems to me that the film is suggesting that Mildred is provoking and sustaining fury as a coping method to help her deal with her own issues of grief and regret: McDormand’s performance, a masterclass of intensity and quiet stillness, certainly seems to suggest as much, as do the numerous striking moments in which the film pauses to become almost lyrically meditative.

If the film does have a message for the United States today, it is a more complex and (perhaps) less easily digestible one than the simple platitude that prejudice is bad. Mildred is an essentially good person, the film makes clear, but a good person whom events transform into an implacable righteous avenger. The problem is that a righteous avenger can be just as destructive a force as a thuggish, reactionary brute like Rockwell’s character, if neither of them is prepared to compromise. And so it transpires – neither side refuses to show any consideration for the other. Mistakes are made. Misunderstandings occur. People caught in the crossfire are the ones who suffer.

It seems to me that here McDonagh is creating a parable about the modern United States, which (as far as many observers can tell) is currently as divided and factionalised as it has been in living memory. The tendency towards unthinking demonisation of the opposition, and a lack of basic kindness and decency – these are other things that (again, it seems to me) Three Billboards is about, but they could surely equally be said about the culture wars taking place in America currently. If the film ultimately suggests that there is hope for some kind of rapprochement and a new kind of unity, then it is couched in the most unsettling terms – then again, there are few films which conclude on such a finely judged note of ambiguity and ambivalence as this one.

McDormand and Rockwell are both really excellent (in an example of just the kind of inflexible ideological puritanism that the film appears to be warning against, it has been suggested that Rockwell should not receive any awards for his performance in this film, as it is apparently morally wrong to reward someone for playing a racist), but so is Woody Harrelson, who has perhaps suffered for having a somewhat smaller role than either of the others. Then again, this is a film stuffed with classy, well-judged performances. The only very mild issue is with Abbie Cornish’s appearance as Harrelson’s wife – I think it’s probably a good performance, but the fact that it’s impossible to work out what kind of accent Cornish is attempting is inevitably a bit distracting.

There are plenty of laughs in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I think this is a very serious film that has the nerve to try and tackle some big subjects, both emotional and topical. As a result it includes a lot of a material which I suspect many viewers will find off-putting. This really is a drama, and one that goes to some extremely dark and potentially upsetting places. But it’s also a highly intelligent and very humane film, even if the notes of optimism it eventually strikes are inevitably somewhat muted. Most likely one of the films of the year.

 

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I was sitting at my desk the other other day, trying to look busy, as usual, when one of the very senior fellows from where I work sidled up. This in itself is fairly unusual, and at this point in my career I’ll grasp at any straw that floats past, so I sat up straight and braced myself for whatever was coming.

‘Have you seen the new Planet of the Apes film yet?’ To say this came totally out of left field would be a bit of an understatement.

‘Er, not yet. What they’ve done is – stop me if you find your eyes starting to close – you know how they say that nothing succeeds like success? Well, apparently the best way to have a successful film is to have a successful film; I mean, if you have a really good opening weekend, then you can put that in the publicity and it will make people go and see it on the second weekend. So what they’ve done is release it on a Tuesday, because that means they have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday -‘ I believe I may have been counting on my fingers ‘- a six day opening weekend, to guarantee a good total.’

‘That’s just fraud.’ (Amused incredulity.)

‘That’s showbusiness. But all the early showings are in 3D, which I don’t like, so I’m seeing it on Friday.’

‘Really? I like 3D. A Planet of the Apes film in 3D is one of my guilty pleasures.’

I tell you what, you get a better class of afficionado around the Planet of the Apes films, that’s for sure. (All the more dismaying that 20th Century Fox should find it necessary to indulge in such sharp practice when it comes to the release strategy.) Yes, here we are with Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, the kind of title to make a cinema give up and list it on the ticket as simply WFTPOTA (with an extra 2D in my case).

The new film continues the story begun in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. For a couple of years, elements of the surviving human military forces have been attempting to hunt down and destroy Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of genetically-uplifted apes. Caesar has been attempting to make peace overtures, but the human commander, known as the Colonel (last name not Taylor, sadly), is implacable in his hostility and a raid on the ape settlement kills several of Caesar’s loved ones. (The Colonel is played by Woody Harrelson, who is on top form.)

Consumed by rage and the desire for revenge, Caesar sets out in search of his enemy, accompanied only by a few of his closest lieutenants. In the wilderness they find evidence of a transformed world – a young girl who has lost the ability to speak (Amiah Miller), and a zoo ape who has risen to intelligence and acquired the power of speech independently of Caesar’s group (Steve Zahn). There are also strange signs that the humans are starting to fight amongst themselves. But all Caesar is interested in is the Colonel, who he learns has made his base in an abandoned military facility. The looming conflict will settle the destiny of the planet forever…

I do wonder sometimes why I’m not more enthusiastic about the new Planet of the Apes series, because these are by any metric highly intelligent, well-made genre movies, that certainly honour the classic Apes series from the 1960s and 70s (those who know their Planet of the Apes will certainly find little touches to reward them here and there in the new film). I’m not sure – maybe it’s just that the new series doesn’t have quite the same epic scope or loopy imagination as the originals, or indeed their willingness, at their best, to tackle big issues – animal and civil rights, the inherent self-destructiveness of man, the morality of self-protection, and so on. The new films may be technically more proficient and possibly more credible, but they are essentially just superior action-adventure movies, strongly characterised, but rarely very innovative.

The new movie continues this trend, albeit in an even bleaker and more intense vein: this is a dark, brooding film, full of characters driven to do the most terrible things in the name of that which they believe. There’s a very Heart of Darkness-y vibe going on – the Colonel has clearly been inspired by Brando’s performance as Kurtz, and I would have entitled this review Ape-Ocalypse Now had the gag not already been used in the movie itself. It adds up to a pretty full-on experience, with most of the leavening moments of lightness coming from Zahn’s character (who is interesting, but the notion behind his origins doesn’t really go anywhere).

And, once again, there’s nothing actually wrong with it, but at the same time it is never irresistibly surprising or thrilling, nor does it fully engage the brain. It is being suggested that this is the concluding entry in this particular incarnation of Planet of the Apes, which is fair enough. However, ever since Rise I’ve kind of felt this series was promising to build up to the big moment of revelation, when we got to see something akin to the actual planet of apes from the original 1968 movie – a dominant, technologically-advanced ape civilisation, feral, speechless humans, and so on. Key plot points in this movie just added to that impression while I was watching it, and got me quite excited about what seemed to be on the way. In the end, though, we’re told about all this but never shown it. I was expecting something along the lines of a fade to black, the caption ‘1950 YEARS LATER’, and then a shot of a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere. But no, nothing like that, not even post-credits. So in the end I have to say I feel slightly cheated – this series of films still hasn’t made good on its promises.

Then again, while the end of this movie does have a definite finality about it, apparently plans for at least one further episode are apparently afoot, so we may yet get our shot of a famous landmark, half-buried on a beach somewhere. This is a quality movie, intelligently made and very well performed, and fans of both SF in general and Planet of the Apes in particular should find much here to enjoy. Perhaps my problem is that my own personal expectations are just too high, because by any reasonable standard this is a distinctly superior blockbuster.

 

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Another week, another installment in one man’s odyssey round every Vue multiplex within the M25. Yes, it’s New Cinema Review again, and this time it’s the Vue Islington, offering yet another scam new pricing option – ‘Vue Extreme’, with bigger screens, better sound, and so on. The effect of the giant screen, etc, was really lost on me as I found myself sitting about a quarter of a mile away from it. I was quite impressed by the fact that the theatre actually had an usher who occasionally popped up in an attempt to ush the teenagers going berserk in the aisles – though this was still really just putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. O tempora! O mores!

Once upon a time it was quite unusual for a film to get what is called a day-and-date release – this is when a film is simultaneously unleashed upon audiences around the world. Before theatres went digital, the cost of striking all those extra prints was prohibitive except in the case of the very biggest, and most prone to be pirated, films. To give an example, Attack of the Clones got a day-and-date release, but the first Spider-Man didn’t, arriving in the UK two weeks after its US launch: something almost unthinkable for a major summer blockbuster today.

Now You See Me is a movie which looks like it’s pitching for blockbuster status – a decent stab at an all-star cast, populist director, big set pieces – and yet it’s arriving in the UK six weeks after the States. Possibly this is just one of those things, but possibly not.

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It is, on the face of it, a curious movie anyway: the trailer makes clear this is going to be a polished, slick movie with a twisty-turny plot concerned with multiple levels of ‘reality’ and a degree of gamesmanship in its dealings with the audience. This, put together with certain story elements and the presence in the cast list of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, instantly made me certain that this was a major studio’s first attempt at a Christopher Nolan pastiche.

What suggested that the movie might prove memorable was the fact that the director selected to duplicate Nolan’s wizardry was Louis Leterrier. Now, I have enjoyed every Louis Leterrier film I have seen, and he is the man partly responsible for The Transporter, surely one of the landmark films of the 21st century so far. I love The Transporter, but I also love Inception, and it would be stretching a point to say that the two films share much of a sensibility.

So I turned up to Now You See Me expecting either a pleasant surprise or an uproarious calamity. It is the story of four magicians – an expert in close-up magic, a street hustler, an escapologist and a mentalist – who are played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco (no, me neither), Isla Fisher and Woody Harrelson. (To preserve a sense of mystery about the plot I will not reveal which of the quartet is required to appear in their opening scene wearing a clinging, glittery swimsuit.) Initially working individually, they are assembled by a shadowy figure who provides them with detailed instructions and blueprints to carry out a fiendishly complex plan.

The plan primarily involves doing naughty things with other people’s money: apparently robbing a Parisian bank during a live show in Vegas, for example. The FBI and Interpol take a dim view of this sort of thing and the job of figuring out how they did it is given to Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent. As the FBI is reluctant to suggest that the magicians actually robbed the bank using genuine magic, Ruffalo recruits ex-magician turned professional debunker Morgan Freeman to help him figure out how they did it – but the group’s backer, Michael Caine, does not want to see his investment ruined, especially with all the publicity they are attracting…

Now You See Me is predicated on one simple idea, which underpins the plot and whole philosophy of the film. This is that Magic Is A Good and Wonderful Thing In And Of Itself, and that – by extension – Magicians Are Innately Good And Wonderful People. As a result it is okay for them to rob banks, drive businessmen close to bankruptcy, and break into safes, as long as their victims are established as being Not Nice People. The script really does a number in terms of ensuring that the thieving conjurors come across as good guys, although there’s still the problem that one of their targets ends up going to prison, most likely for the rest of his life, his offence apparently being not much more than having a smug and annoying personality. Hmmm.

That said, the film looks good, it’s energetically directed by Leterrier, and the first half is filled with good set pieces and scenes where charismatic performers like Eisenberg, Caine, Harrelson, and Ruffalo get to trade some quite snappy dialogue. I rather enjoyed all this, and the appearance of Freeman’s character reassured me that this wasn’t going to be some dodgy thriller-fantasy fudge where the ‘magic’ would be left unexplained.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really hold true for the entire film – some fairly outrageous things go on with barely a sniff of explanation given. There’s a fight sequence between Ruffalo and one of the magicians which almost plays out like something from an episode of The Avengers – the guy seems to disappear into thin air, starts shooting sparks out of his fingers, and so on. It looks good but it’s still a bit nigglesome.

The same can be said for most of the second half of the film – Michael Caine’s character does his own vanishing act, and it all becomes increasingly vague and far-fetched in plot terms. It is all capped off by the sort of twist ending which has you shouting ‘What! That’s completely absurd!’ at the screen. I’m virtually certain the plot of this film doesn’t actually make sense in light of the climactic revelations – even if it does in strictly logical terms, it’s still massively implausible – but the idea of watching it again in order to check really doesn’t appeal at all.

Still, it’s by no means the memorable disaster I was half expecting. Looking back on it from the closing credits Now You See Me is probably not a very good film, but while I was watching it I did quite enjoy it – particularly the first half. It is not deep or clever by any means – but it is glitzy, silly, forgettable, crowd-pleasing fun. All in all, and with all due respect to recent events, this is less Christopher Nolan than it is the Nolan Sisters.

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The last ten years have seen the adoption by all the big studios of something called day-and-date releasing: this is the strategy whereby a new film gets released globally on pretty much the same day. It’s supposed to help combat movie piracy, but one of the fringe benefits is that the rest of the world gets to enjoy new blockbusters on the same day they come out in America, thus putting an end to the phenomenon of people timing their holidays in order to catch a particular film as early as possible.

Day-and-date is still very much the norm for most big movies (although apparently Skyfall came out in the USA later than virtually anywhere else so as not to clash with the election), but for smaller offerings a degree of slippage in the schedule is not unknown. So it is with Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths.

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Back in October I got a message from an American friend making sure I was planning to see (and then, with grim inevitability, write about) this particular film. I wasn’t, at the time; indeed I’d never heard of it. I’d heard of McDonagh, not so much for his well-received films like In Bruges but because he was the brother of the director of The Guard, my favourite film of last year. But I’m a sucker for requests and the cast list for this film looked interesting, at least. Paying only the most cursory attention to the plot synopsis, off I went, anticipating a comedy-crime-thriller. Hmmmm.

In the film, scripted by Irish writer Martin McDonagh, we meet an Irish writer called Marty (Colin Farrell), currently seemingly adrift in Los Angeles. He is struggling with his latest project, a script entitled Seven Psychopaths, mainly because he doesn’t have enough psychopaths and no ideas for what they’re going to do anyway. Real life around Marty is about to get somewhat psychopathic, anyway: a masked killer nicknamed the Jack of Diamonds is slaughtering his way through the LA mob, Marty’s strange best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is involved not only with the lovely girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko, very briefly appearing) of a nutso gang boss (Woody Harrelson), but also in a lucrative dog-napping business with the strangely devout, or should that be devoutly strange Hans (Christopher Walken, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out there even by his standards).

Billy also wants to help Marty write the movie, and to help with the research has placed an advert inviting every psycho in California to get in touch with them and provide material for the script. Up turns Tom Waits, carrying both a live rabbit and a metaphorical torch. Meanwhile Marty is having second thoughts about the whole psychopath angle – is there no way he can do an action movie called Seven Pacifists instead?

There’s a weary old saw about how some movies review themselves – this usually meaning that the film in question is self-evidently either good or bad: you can just write about what’s up on screen without having to think too much about expressing the finer points of its quality. Seven Psychopaths also has a go at reviewing itself, but in a slightly different way.

This is because the script of the movie that Marty and Billy are writing bears an uncanny resemblence to the script of the movie they are actually appearing in – characters from the film start appearing, mixed up in the slightly awkward situation he, Billy and Hans find themselves in when Billy kidnaps the gang boss’s prized Shih Tzu. Most obviously, at one point Marty decides that their script will take a bizarre and uncharacteristic left turn – at which point his real life starts to follow exactly the same route.

It sounds cringingly knowing and clever-clever, but this element appears so subtly and unexpectedly in what starts off as a gonzo LA comedy-drama that I was quite taken in by it. It makes it hard to shake the suspicion that when someone starts criticising Marty’s writing in the film, this is really Martin McDonagh owning up to a few flaws in his own script – most obviously, Marty is criticised for writing very few, and very small parts for women, most of whom are decorative and also meet untimely ends. Does this excuse the way Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and Linda Bright Clay are used (and sometimes abused) in this movie? Does saying ‘I know I’ve been bad’ excuse you for being bad? I’m not sure.

Anyway, this layer of cleverness, added to the talent at work throughout the movie, results in something which is a huge amount of slightly guilty fun: very violent, profane, and more than a bit absurd. This is not to say that there are not serious and even quite moving moments along the way – there’s a very tense scene in which Walken’s sick wife is cornered by Harrelson, who’s out to get him but doesn’t realise who she is. This could have come out of a serious thriller. As the film goes on, though, it drops these occasional pretences and becomes much more about Sam Rockwell, who’s off the leash as a kind of demented idiot-savant who – not inappropriately – seems to have lost track of the boundary between reality and fiction. Rockwell is very funny and gives a very big performance, but then so is Harrelson, so is Walken. Colin Farrell is stuck in the middle playing the straight man and actually does a really good job of it.

I haven’t seen a story crack itself open and start to play with its own guts in quite this way since Adaptation., and it may indeed be that Seven Psychopaths is not quite so accomplished, never quite escaping its slightly wearisome Tarantino-esque trappings. Certainly there are distinct signs of the film wanting to have its cake and eat it, particularly as the climax unfolds (‘unfolds’ is much too tidy and straightforward a word for it, of course).

Seven Psychopaths is certainly satisfyingly clever and different, and – being totally wrong-footed by it to begin with – I enjoyed it immensely, for a while even wondering if the McDonagh family might be about to (figuratively) take home the (non-existent) film of the year prize for the second year in a row? I think not; while The Guard plays similar games with genre tropes to a lesser degree, it’s built around a genuine piece of characterisation with a proper supporting story. Seven Psychopaths just thrashes around demolishing itself and other Hollywood thrillers to hilarious effect – not that this is in any way not a worthwhile undertaking, nor one which is executed without skill, panache, and energy. Well worth watching.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 19th 2009:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to the movie review that’s not afraid to be wrong. Well now, first off this week we look at the latest offering from Ricky Gervais, who’s risen from near-obscurity to international acclaim and bona fide movie stardom in only the time it takes a rather lazy and feckless person to write 170 editions of an intermittently popular internet film review column. Currently he’s on screen in The Invention of Lying, which as usual he co-wrote and directed, on this occasion with Matthew Robinson (fans of the Og-monster can take heart: Gervais’ regular collaborator Stephen Merchant gets a tiny cameo).

Gervais has described this film as an attempt at ‘the funniest Twilight Zone episode ever’ , which isn’t at all misleading, although I don’t recall Rod Serling ever launching a Zone story with an extended comic riff about masturbation, as happens here. Anyway, it’s the story of Mark Bellison (Gervais), an unsuccessful staff writer at a film company. His mum is in a care home and his most recent date with the lovely Anna (Jennifer Garner) was hardly a great success. But his life changes forever when Mark discovers he has the unique, near-supernatural ability to say things that aren’t literally true!

For Mark lives in a world superficially almost identical to our own, but where everyone is completely, literally and brutally honest all the time. All their movies are documentary lectures on historical fact. Their advertising is unrecognisable. People openly admit to the shallowness of their love lives. In this world Mark’s new faculty gives him immense power, as everyone takes every word he says at face value, but it brings unexpected responsibilities with it, too. More importantly, though, is he ever going to get anywhere with Anna in the romance department?

Well, you’re going to find this movie deeply irritating unless you cut it some serious slack right from the start, because the premise is so high-concept it’s practically piercing the ozone layer. Do people in this world have dreams? Don’t they ever use conditional sentences? Isn’t the use of the imagination crucial to our existence as human beings? Forget all these questions and many more, as the film ignores them, and while you’re at it do your best not to notice that a lot of the humour derives not from simple honesty but people apparently lacking any kind of interior monologue and being compelled to say every thought that crosses their minds, which surely isn’t quite the same thing.

This is really a one-joke comedy, but Gervais is tremendously inventive when it comes to continually putting new spins on it. Most striking is a long section in the middle where the film suggests that not only is fiction essentially a kind of lying, but so is religion – there are shades of Life of Brian in how this is articulated. The laughs never stop coming – quite the opposite – but the movie is quite serious in exploring the ramifications of its central idea. At first glance the movie appears rather thought-provoking, but in the end it seems content to simply nose around big and complex ideas rather than do anything with them or come to any kind of conclusion about its main theme – is it okay to lie to people if it makes them happier?

Probably quite sensibly, it doesn’t try too hard to be naturalistic, but Ricky Gervais gives a typically classy deadpan performance in the middle of everything – and hints at having considerable potential as a straight actor, one sequence where he attempts to comfort his sick mother being startlingly moving. Garner is her usual perky self, and it’s presumably a credit to Gervais’ growing international clout that he’s secured cameos from actors of the calibre of Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry off EastEnders. The direction is nothing to be ashamed of, but for me the reliance on using classic pop songs to set the atmosphere got wearing – Charlie Kaufman was mercilessly lampooning this six or seven years ago.

It won’t split your sides, and I suspect a lot of people will be left distinctly unimpressed, but I found The Invention of Lying consistently amusing and rather likeable – even if it’s a bit less clever and profound than it probably aspires to be.

Moving on, one fictional milieu which has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years is the good old Zombie Apocalypse, which is so ubiquitous nowadays you wonder if the media know something we don’t. Forty years after its arguable invention, it’s even gone multimedia – in addition to movies like the Resident Evils, the 28… Laters, the fruits of George A Romero’s sudden increase in work-rate, and various others, there are now high-profile Zombie Apocalypse comics (The Walking Dead), TV series (Dead Set), and novels (the utterly brilliant World War Z). It’s getting so it’s difficult for any new project featuring hungry cadavers and the collapse of society to stand out from the (probably quite smelly and slow-moving) crowd.

Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland solves this problem by playing the whole thing for laughs. In this movie Jesse Eisenberg plays Columbus, a fairly useless twitchy geek making his tentative way across the corpse-ridden US after – we’re told – mad cow disease mutates into a zombie-causing strain. Hmm. (Taxonomists of the undead will note that this movie features another sighting of the recently evolved ‘running zombie’, which seems to be competing well with the traditional strain, particularly in relatively low-budget projects which can’t afford vast mobs of extras.) Anyway, he soon hooks up with zombie-hating, cake-loving badass Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a man crazed with a lust for revenge since zombies ate his puppy, and the duo in turn encounter Wichita and Little Rock (the agreeably comely Emma Stone and surprisingly tolerable child-actress Abigail Breslin), sisters who are heading for a supposedly zombie-free enclave outside Los Angeles. (The thing with the weird names is just one of a few slightly laboured elements of a script which in places tries a little too hard to be quirky). Will this odd quartet survive the manky hordes roaming the land of the free?

Hang on, you may be saying: didn’t the peerless Shaun of the Dead do the whole comedy Zombie Apocalypse routine over five years ago, and set the bar extremely high to boot? True, Shaun was my point of reference going into this movie, and to start with Zombieland falls a long way of its standards – the opening sequence just isn’t particularly funny, with the script somehow missing the right beats and the tone distinctly uncertain. But things improve considerably as soon as Harrelson comes on screen, as he gives a barnstorming and endearingly absurd performance which is exactly the thing the film needs. It improves enormously as it goes on and stops trying to be funny and horrific at the same time. In the end it’s not a true comedy-horror fusion, or a parody of zombie movies, but simply a broad and very offbeat comedy (a bit too offbeat to be really credible in places), which adeptly includes effective moments of romance, emotion, and action. Not to mention splatter and pus, of course.

I found myself enjoying it hugely as it went on, but am reluctant to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the fun. The small cast give likeable performances, the post-apocalyptic landscape is convincingly rendered (well, the electricity’s still on everywhere, but…) and Fleischer’s direction is mostly neat and effective. There are a few whistles and bells with the graphic design (captions whizzing around the screen) which I wasn’t mad about, and the thrashing heavy metal soundtrack didn’t do a lot for me, either, but by the end I was laughing out loud longer and more frequently during Zombieland than The Invention of Lying. My sources (okay, the inter web) tell me it’s done rather well at the box office – and this is one instance in which, if they can keep the quality up, a sequel would be very welcome. It’s definitely a comedy more than anything else, but Zombieland is also a quality piece of work.

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