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Star Trek (2009)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
The new Star Trek is all consuming - undercutting low expectations with a colourful landscape of rich visuals married with pace and driven by kinetic flair both in front of and behind the camera. Abram's Mission Impossible looked flat and felt static but Star Trek really moves with swooning camera movements, conspicuously eye catching composition and a degree of self-confidence that scoops you up and carries you along for that Hollywood Holy Grail – "the ride". There's artistry in its visual effects, an omission from most blockbusters, and the design is a combination of craft and graft, contrasting the smooth sheen of the Enterprise's bridge with her new boiler room bowels. Its future tech with a touch of real world grease and it speaks to the filmmakers intentions of partnering the geek aesthetic with something less esoteric for the unconverted.
Ironically for a movie that turns on future proofing legacies, the film's weakness is its story that feels slight and is driven by the commercial requirement to clear the decks for a new series of films – a deficiency that will become more apparent as time strips away its visual impact. Given that the script lacks any of the emotional or intellectual rigour that at least threatened to punctuate previous instalments, it does at least introduce a sense of fun and bravado that alludes to the best of the original series and it's more of a romp than before, signalling a new direction that owes as much to Star Wars, much apparent in the movie's dramatic thrust, as much to the series whose name it bears.
Goodwill notwithstanding, there are elements to this new approach that won't sit easily with aficionados of the Enterprise. The decision to wipe out 43 years of continuity, well conceived but poorly explained and embodied in a villain who is more plot device than character, is a poor return on a lifetime of devotion for hardcore fans – and the philosophical and moral implications of Nero's actions are given a cursory shrug in the interests of moving the story forward, a treatment which makes the decision seem flippant. The humour is sometimes too broad in a bid to appeal to an imaginary constituency of barely brain-stemmed teens, though it frequently recovers, and those on product placement watch will recoil with the news that both Nokia and Budweiser have made it to the 23rd century – a feat all the more remarkable on account of the nuclear war that occurs in Trek's chronology between our present and the time occupied by the libidinous Captain of the Enterprise.
Once the new cast settle into their familiar positions sometime during the final third, it feels natural and reassuringly familiar. Pine, retaining Shatner's cock sureness but dropping the melodramatic pauses, captures the spirit of his predecessor and is a worthy successor, though Orci and Kutzman could reward his performance by deepening his characterisation in the next instalment. Qunito's Spock is fine but lacks Nimoy's presence – how you miss the dulcet tones and Karl Urban's Doctor McCoy is perfect – instantly evocative of Deforrest Kelley without becoming an impersonation. True to the original series, the rest of the cast are little more than scenery, though the new Uhura is some of the best you'll see all year and certainly deserves more to do in future. Her sexually inspired turn adds a decent measure of human beauty to the gorgeous computer generated vistas.
A sensory treat it may be, visual effects and production design spit roasting your optics, but the impact is undermined by the absence of an equally inspired score. Great genre movies are defined by their musical dimension – imagine Star Wars without Williams, Blade Runner without Vangelis but the paucity of great compositions in recent years suggests that as the previous generation of great composers falls away, no one is coming up to replace them. A movie on this scale demanded symphonic support on an hysterical scale – something akin to Goldsmith's intervention in the otherwise lifeless 1979 film, but instead it's a generic score that substitutes volume for melodic coherence and memorable motifs. You've heard the like many times before and will be pushed to recall a note of it afterwards. The composers will claim that the trend is now toward so called 'emotional augmentation' – atmospheric scoring rather than out and out musical enrichment of the narrative, but this reduces what was once an integral part of these movies to clinical diagnostic support and it's unworthy of the potential of the movie score and the art form's heritage.
Exciting, inviting and a little bit frightening (the new Chekov's accent is as unsettling as any planetary destruction), Star Trek will polarise die-hards but have little trouble charming the uninitiated. It has scale, energy and a likable interplay between the leads, all of which go a long way toward apologising for some of the screenplay's less intelligible choices. Where it does succeed ultimately, is in evoking the spirit if not the intellectual curiosity of Rodenberry's series, and although we'll expect an extra dimension to the characters in the next instalment, there's enough optimism on display here to allow the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt though just this once you understand.
State of Play (2009)
Russell Crowe's Washington hack investigates the apparent suicide of a researcher on Capitol Hill and the murder of a drug dealer, discovering that, somewhat terrifyingly, all roads lead to Ben Affleck's congressman and his crusade against a unscrupulous defense contractor in this solid, if unexceptional compression of Paul Abbot's highly regarded BBC serial.
Several questions permeate the mind as 'Play' unfolds, namely why doesn't a single colleague of Crowe's ask how or why he acquired the hair of a forty year woman and can the skin around Affleck's eyes really be 15 years older than the rest of his face? These investigative omissions not withstanding, all strands of Abbot's plot remain well entwined and although necessarily truncated for the purposes of adaptation, lose nothing of the intrigue that made the TV series manna for the optic nerves.
Kevin McDonald, last seen helming The Last King of Scotland, keeps the tempo up and pastes each frame together with thick set suspense but although State of Play grips from the outset it's an efficient rather than scintillating couple of hours. What's missing you feel, is the depth of character that the longer running time of the television series afforded.
Crowe, our guide to the underbelly of Washington shadow politics and newsroom maneuvering, imbues his journo with an easy manner and a quick wit, but for someone up against a conspiracy involving a slew of homicides and the top echelons of government, seldom lets his canter become a run as he frowns his way to the awful truth. Affleck meanwhile, is never entirely convincing as the libidinous career politician with powerful enemies, gawping when you imagine he was reaching for shock and occasionally very angry indeed when someone behind the camera holds up a white card with 'emotion' scrawled on it. This is a shame because the part, formerly the property of David Morrissey, misses the Gordon Brown lookalike's heft, while the miscast malformed twin of Matt Damon can do little more than oscillate between composed and tearful. If 'Play' is essentially a two hander between the Journalist and the Politician, Affleck's lack of muscle "Beadle's" the enterprise – one good hand and one withered grabbing the viewer and it's not quite the same.
Mind you, despite the occasionally underpowered leads no-one involved is anything less than adequate, Helen Mirren's newspaper editor and Rachel McAdams eye candy hackette providing assured support despite pared down roles. Always watchable and often involving, it's not the bravura thriller it might have been but it won't give Paul Abbot a reason to sue either – besides one day they'll have the technology to paint Affleck out and replace him with a young James Stewart – imagine that.
Crank: High Voltage (2009)
"Bing F**kin' Crosby!"
Want to make a trashy movie but not have those imbecilic executives interfere? Well the trick is to keep it cheap and don't show the script to anyone. Neveldine and Taylor, the duo behind Crank, played the game beautifully and the result was a high octane, low rent orgy of violence, sex, profanity and insanity. If you were in the mood, and more of us needed it than we cared to admit, Crank was a tonic, though one that made you ill and vomit blood for days afterwards.
Anchored by a game and wide eyed Jason Statham who got to deliver lines like 'does it look like I've got C**T written on my forehead?' (yes), Crank was a movie that brushed aside coherence, logic and any sense of it's own importance for laughs and thankfully 'High Voltage', er, cranks it up a notch, though the directorial duo will have to dig deep for a third instalment – though I wouldn't bet against them having a go.
Voltage beings where the original ended with the Stath falling a mile from a helicopter and bouncing off a parked car – dead presumably, but no because the Chinese warlord responsible for his original poisoned predicament has Staham's Chev Chelios scraped off the roadside and deposited in a makeshift surgical theatre where his heart, strong enough to survive the original film and so a desirable commodity for his wizened nemesis, is extracted and replaced with a battery powered stopgap designed to keep him alive and his organs fresh for transplantation. You'd be forgiven for losing the thread at this point but the movie is only 5 minutes old when Chelios thankfully regains consciousness and on Doctor's orders, begins a hunt for his real heart while subjecting himself to electric shocks to keep the temporary one functioning.
That, if you can believe it, is the setup, and you won't be shocked to learn that it's a fairly sober foundation for what follows. Shot on prosumer camcorders, Crank 2 is saturated in the promise of bargain basement vulgarity and doesn't disappoint. Edited with an eye for the absurd, it feverishly presses on across ninety monged out minutes in which guns are inserted into rectums, nipples sliced from torsos, fights segue into Godzilla style monsters battling against miniatures (with actors in caricatured masks of Statham and his enemy battling it out) and in the funniest sequence, Geri Halliwell appears in flashback as Mother Chelios, taking the young Chev to task on a talk show in which a few British cars and a reject from a mad max movie dressed as a British punk are dropped onto a Californian backlot for the least convincing but most enjoyable English flashback you've ever seen. Chelios may be a hardline misogynist and causal racist, "Is that some change loose in my pocket or did I hear a chink?" is his riposte to one of the Chinese Villains, but there's something about the former Sydenham market trader that would make him likable if he were playing a recidivist paedophile and he brings his gruff, er, charms to every scene.
There's little that's fundamentally new about the second Crank – it's structurally the same as the original and hits many of the same beats, but the sense of fun and embellishment of every frame with unashamed excess, makes it hideously enjoyable. Counting the instances of 'f*ck you Chelios' should be your new drinking game when it comes to DVD but in the meantime, High Voltage is essential for those that like their junk movies tasteless and baseless. The end, which such is the pace, you arrive at 15 minutes before the film itself, promises a third which on this evidence would be well worth a punt - as Chelios would say, "Bing F*ckin' Crosby!"
Less is Moore
Alan Moore's beef with Hollywood is that it's a crudifying monster its arms entering the spectator's mind through the eyes and once inserted, frenzied and aimless, pulping the grey matter contents into a kind of wit resistant batter which is no more capable of processing the dense psychological and social preoccupations of his work than wood can hope to ferry electricity.
For Moore, willfully ignorant in an effort to protect his own authorship, cinema just isn't up to it. The detail of each panel within the humble comic book is a gallery of ideas and story specific detail that you, yes YOU the grateful reader, pore over at your leisure, like the fine art connoisseur plotting their time through a superb exhibition and breathing in each piece in turn. This notion that film, by its very nature, is reductive in translation and confected on delivery, has lead the co-author of Watchmen to suggest that his 1986 graphic novel was "unfilmable". For the record, that's senseless toss but this adaptation isn't going to change his mind. It's not the mode of translation that's at fault film is a perfectly viable tool for the job, it's the way that tool has been used.
Watchmen is a fascinating view because it vividly illustrates several of the problems transferring material between two visual art forms that rely on significantly different patterns of consumption and interpretation to work.
Dave Gibbons, who illustrated the 12-part series on which this is based, was, unlike Moore, happy to be credited and that's hardly surprising because Zack Snyder has used his art work like a storyboard, compensating for the rapidity of the moving image where appropriate, with fits of slow motion, designed to recall the experience of forensically eyeballing those all important panels. It is, superficially at least, a good technique, reverent to the original and designed to fluff the fanboys who will have envisioned it thus and will be in a furious masturbatory frisson as a result. Were this the only barometer, Watchmen would be a qualified success but its problems are manifest in those areas that required an artist rather than the fan at the helm a director rather than a acolyte - narrative, backstory, tone; the elements of the graphic novel that, somewhat counter intuitively, may have benefited from a less straitjacketed approach.
Watchmen the graphic novel acknowledges the limitations of the medium, whether it knows it or not, by fortifying each part with written extracts from various fictional sources a former super heroes autobiography, a police report, a magazine article all of which add texture to the characterization and flesh out the stories alternative timeline. Inevitably the three act Hollywood picture isn't the easiest framework within which to add these deets, so what to do? Émigré directors of the 30s and 40s working in Hollywood (and a few of the natives), overcame these sorts of problems by investing scenes with expressionistic composition and shadow, which married with incisive, witty dialogue, hinted at what couldn't be shown or seen, and consequently your imagination became the bridge and added the depth. The result? Film Noir the perfect fusion of artistry and suggestion and some of the finest American films ever made.
Snyder knows he has a problem in this respect but sentimentally in thrall to the source, is incapable of making the decisions that might have saved his bacon. It's a matter of hitting the same psychological points in the story but with greater subtlety than a word for word transfer allows. Much of the dialogue is lifted from Moore's script, but what works within the context of the comic book, feels clunky and coarse when it exits the mouths of real human beings. Rorschach is the case in point. On paper he's brooding, introspective and psychotic on screen he speaks the same words, does the same things but has a pantomime quality that errs toward the ridiculous. Too often, when unable to mark out his roadmap to the story's political and socio-satirical cues, Snyder's instinct is to go for crunching violence and spectacle (as well as adding inches to Doctor Manhattan's flaccid penis not a bad metaphor for his approach), perhaps hoping to overpower the viewer's undernourished cerebellum. He'll say the noise is all on the page of course, and it is, but what felt cutting in the novel's more fully realised world, looks like a blunt instrument on screen. It isn't that you can't film it, you just can't do like this, but it's another case study to add to the files on the issue of how the filmmakers best equipped to replicate the EXPERIENCE of these stories, are seldom the ones who actually have an interest in doing so.
Fincher goes backwards
A quirk of film spectatorship is how, ever so often, and despite being several stages removed from the alchemic processes of collaboration that power creativity, you just sense that a film isn't going to work. In the case of Benjamin Button, the news that Eric Roth, who penned the interminably folksy Forrest Gump, had written a screenplay which David Fincher would direct, raised an eyebrow in the Frames household. The portents were as black as Carol Thatcher's nightmares. Like Gump, Button would chart the lifetime of a boorish miscreant, or cipher, whose job it was to guide us through several decades of American History. Robert Zemeckis, a technocentric director whose movies had been enhanced by bravura visual effects, directed Gump and although being his blandest film, attained a clutch of Oscars for his trouble. Oscars that his funnier, edgier and more entertaining pictures had never stood a chance of winning.
David Fincher, like Zemeckis, is a director whose grip on the use of effects as a story enhancing tool rather than a sideshow, is so tight that his direction is almost an effect itself. He gave us Fight Club, one of the most astute and thematic rich satires ever made. Seven was a classic thriller. Zodiac a genre shredding police procedural where the devil really was in the detail. Three superb pictures and no industry recognition whatsoever. What to do? Well perhaps, reasoned Fincher, doing 'a Zemeckis', was the way forward. After all, good as he is, the man's got an ego right? This alone must explain why a filmmaker previously attracted to such engaging, edgy material, was motivated to direct Roth's fatuous slab of homespun whimsy - a light touch jaunt through the 20th century as seen through the eyes of a glaze eyed non-entity.
If Forrest Gump succeeded at all, and the debate goes on, it was as a result of it's canny juxtaposing of the dull everyman with extraordinary moments in US History and the characters that populated it. Look, there's Gump shaking hands with President Kennedy! There he is with John Lennon! But Benjamin Button, bless his one dimensional heart, barely makes a mark on history as he inoffensively passes through it. The fact he's aging backwards making him one of the most extraordinary humans to have ever lived, if anything, goes virtually unnoticed, as if it was no more remarkable than an unusual skin disease. The potential of the premise is therefore offensively wasted, to the point where you're not convinced his aging normally would have made much of an impact on his life. Button's plight (he is born computer generated) might have given him a unique perspective on the human condition and what a different movie it could have been had Pitt played someone with the mind of Oscar Wilde - a cutting intelligence and wit brought to bear on his inverted existence and the lives he touched upon the way. But the Gump model only works it's magic if you find profundity in the banal and the chocolate box truisms that have the least demanding members of the audience nodding their heads and wiping a tear from their sentimentally swollen eyes. Thus it's a superficial, curiously still piece of work that hopes you'll graft your own experiences on to Pitt's blank canvas and in doing so, squeeze out the melancholy as you remember your own lost loves, your own disappointments, your own missed opportunities. That's fine if you're in the mood but otherwise you might think Fincher is wasting your time and unlike Pitt, you're not getting any younger.
The only thing that saves Button from complete irrelevance is the technical showmanship on display. As with Fincher's previous efforts, the meticulousness in the framing of each shot married with the highly inventive use of CGI speaks to the intelligence behind the camera. It's also a handsome film, as they say in New Orleans, impressively mounted and richly photographed. But Fincher, who to his credit pulls back from fully fledged Gump levels of sentiment, can do nothing with Roth's mawkish script and consequently Button is easy on the eye but unforgiving on the mind. Has Fincher sold out with it? Well he may finally get his Oscar but as he stands at the podium, golden statuette in hand and grin fixed for the cameras he'd do well to remember Tyler Durden's warning from the long long ago - "The things you own end up owning you".
Nighy of the living dead
Directed by budget FX minnow Patrick Tatopolous, the man who inflicted Emmerich's Godzilla the 9/11 of creature features, on an a world barely recovered from the actual terrorist atrocity, this is further proof, not that any more was needed, that not only do visual effects people make poor directors but that inexplicably, and for reasons no-one really understands, their film's are almost always marred by middling effects work. If that's counter-intuitive, the finished film surely is not, as it's just as derivative as you'd expect, though thankfully not as long.
Tatopolous sets out his stall early and invites you to pick over the knocked off tat on display. This Underworld adventure, we soon learn, is going to be saturated in the bleakest blue and lovers of grain should cancel their social engagements for the weekend, there's enough grit on these atmos inducing tinted frames to soak up Rancor vomit. In mid-budgeted genre fare the level of grain is usually proportionate to the use of sub-standard CGI, possibly because the likes of the Greek Geek imagine it hides effects flaws. It doesn't, and there's some lousy pixelage here, but it hardly matters Rise of the Lycans, that's the hairy brigade to you, has a human special effect that computer power can't hope to match his name is Bill Nighy.
He's the centre of the old story about an overprotective father from an aristocratic family who hates his beautiful and well heeled daughter's boyfriend, particularly as she's predictably opted for a bit of rough - yawn. He's a grubby, long haired, stubbled up bruiser from the underclass and no sooner has he preened his way into her affections with a bit of macho posturing (he impales a wearwolf through the head with a sword), she's positively agape, not to mention as hot as a solar flare. Toss in the spectre of a probable insemination as a consequence of covert coitus, add Daddy's well known snobbery, plus a temper that could char flesh and the stage is set for familial gubbins with a bit of stodgy teen-friendly mythology added to keep the metal heads awake.
So you may hate the plot but what about Daddy Cruel himself, the blazen blue eyed Nighy? He's a vampiric dandy having a wonderful time, so much in fact that it's nearly infectious. Nearly. A lank with fangs, he's the instigator of a dialogue chewing contest that spreads to most of the cast, with inflections and emphasis' all over the spectrum. Sometimes it's as if all the laws of pronunciation have been abandoned, but if phonologists are apoplectic with rage at King Viktor's murder of the language, Nighy couldn't care less. He's gapes and twitches and swills syllables around his mouth like fine wine. Sometimes it's as if he's trying to stab the air with his lines and if you like that, you'll love the way his dialogue oscillates from olde world 'I know not' nonsense to the contemporary vernacular in less time than it takes for a werewolf to have it's head severed with a broadsword. Mad eye fans are also in for a treat.
Chuck in the man with the world's deepest voice and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is a very odd bag. Michael Sheen doesn't have much to do except look angry and kill things his girlfriend does less and everyone else is on screen to be mutilated, sliced or chased. "It's over" the baritone piped brick sh*t house tells Sheen at the end and the rug was well and truly ripped from beneath my feet when he replied "No it's only just beginning." Not for me it isn't Michael, I couldn't take another minute.
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Artistic licence to kill
Daniel Craig returns to the role he saved from irrelevance and if we find him in a gloomy place, spare a thought for the blue eyed assassin - that's a dark corner he now shares with the filmmakers as well as the villains.
We have reason to fear Quantum. Their reach extends to the film's editors who are shadow men doing evil work to what you imagine was a fairly exciting thriller. They're complicit in an attempt to make each action sequence as elusive as possible. As an audience you're aware something is happening but it's like being caught in the middle of a bar fight having been glassed in the head from behind. This is maddening, frustrating editing a Bond movie chewed up and passed through the Bourne Trilogy's celluloid digestive tract. Not even the theme song escapes this butchering. Constructing action this way is tossing money on the fire, necking whisky and urinating on the flames. Each sequence is as furious and cold as Craig's Bond but while this is highly effective as a tool for characterisation, its effect on each set piece is to brutally undermine the line of action, truncating what may have been show stopping moments and robbing them of those beats that fuel anticipation, nervous tension and most crucially, excitement.
The moments in between, where a Bond film breathes and is punctuated with humour, chic and yes, sex, are either mercilessly brief or absent and this makes Quantum of Solace feel slight and uninvolving. Obfuscation is the name of the game this time round but the filmmakers have extended this principle to the story and have confounded us all in the process.
Perhaps this pared down inelegance is what Bond's producers imagine a modern action audience wants, after all the aforementioned Bourne movies have been praised for their crack head cutting and real world brutality. The aesthetic is disorientating, messy but has a visceral punch that shakes up an audience in a way conventional editing struggles to replicate. That's fine of course but Bond's audience expects elegance, refinement and a sense of style, not stylisation that causes a film to eat itself. Solace struggles because it's so involved in machine gunning imagery into its audience that it forgets to entertain them. Consequently you have a strange post-view sensation that there was much that was good in it Craig, the sumptuous visuals, the expressively mounted action, the Bolivian cab driver it's just that you struggled to see much of it; it all fell between the gaps in the shots.
A prick tease picture through and through and the first movie to fully replicate the deep seated frustration that results from sexual abstention coupled with a gyrating beauty on your lap but one you can't touch because there's a gun in your mouth; Solace is still preferable to the series parodying itself but Royale showed you can pull this trick better and with greater heft.
A razor across your eyeballs, corneas ripped to shreds, Solace's climax has Bond and Camille, who watched her family burn, huddled as an inferno closes in around them. Teary and terrified she speaks for herself and the audience as shot after shot dies having only enjoyed barely a second of existence mayfly editing; "not like this, not like this" she tells a battered Bond. Well quite.
Hamlet 2 (2008)
Armed with long foppish hair, a non descript American accent of the kind you use for comedy sketches and a truckle of comic energy, Steve Coogan is likable, if not memorable as a failed actor turned drama teacher that rouses his troop of slack jawed misfits to stage his self-penned sequel to Shakespeare's opus, in an attempt to save his drama class from the axe. A self-conscious riff on the likes of Dead Poet's society, it combines vulgarity and stupidity to good effect in a formulation that will be familiar to fans of writer Pam Brady's work on South Park and Team America. There are lots of good setups Coogan's drunk wife lamenting the couple's fertility problems in a restaurant, Elizabeth Shue popping up as herself, having given up acting for nursing and the play itself including the memorable number '(I feel like) I've been raped in the face'. It's a quirky enough vehicle for Coogan to adapt his slightly awkward, self-important f*$£ up persona for an American audience and there are laughs to be had, though occasionally it feels a bit laboured. Not the breakthrough Coogan may have envisioned but it won't do his stateside reputation, whatever that is, much harm either.
It wasn't exactly a meeting of minds, nor was it motivated by a need to get to the truth, but the set of interviews that brought disgraced President Richard Nixon into a room with David Frost, is a fascinating historical tit bit an act of opportunism on both sides that lead to one of the most sensational disclosures in the history of television political journalism. Nixon had broken the law and this unlikely confessional took place in the company of a light entertainment presenter. Imagine Tony Blair confessing he lied about the reasons for going to war in Iraq to Des O Connor and you realise how amazing this actually was.
Howard's film is fairly dispassionate in its treatment of both men. Frost, played with delicious smarm and just the right amount of arrogance by Michael Sheen, is constituted as a fledgling but highly libidinous talk show host, who in Nixon sees an opportunity to reinvigorate his celebrity and gain credibility in the US. Nixon on the other hand is in denial about his role in the Watergate scandal, fired up with a sense of self-righteousness and indignation at the liberal 'sons of bitches' that brought him down and is determined to use the encounter to rewrite history to his own advantage. Both men, it's suggested, have something to prove to themselves and their peers but mercifully the shadowy reflection angle isn't laboured en route to the tense exchanges. The climax, when it comes, manages to be both mesmerising and moving, not least because both actors meet the requirement of transcending mere impersonation and inhabit their characters. When you're told that Nixon's face betrayed, better than any trial, the personal regret, hubristic folly and watershed breakdown in the relationship between the American electorate and its government, thanks to Frank Langella, you believe it.
History with the story safely removed
When a film is introduced to you as important your first instinct should be to ask, 'to whom?' The answer, in the case of the artist Steve McQueen's debut, is to the filmmaker - but the audience? That's more problematic. McQueen's exactitude in recreating the horror within the Maize prison the barbaric and often mindless tussle between Republican prisoners and the Queen's screws, is total. It's a brutal document told in long takes, still close-ups and punctuated with occasional narration from Mrs Thatcher, whose cold and unflinching assessment, though grossly hypocritical ,"There is no such thing as political murder, there is only criminal murder", is mischievously juxtaposed with the dehumanising spectacle informed by that piece of political positioning. The devil though, is as always in the detail, though in this case it would be better to say that it lies in the devil's advocate. McQueen's assertion is that this is reportage, veritie, not myth making, but he should know better, and in fact does, because the details as presented are his details, so should the occasional moment of Christ like iconography slip through, benignly written off by the director as something he was unaware of ("honest to God"), we might infer that McQueen indulged himself and has chosen the path of least controversy plausible deniability.
It's a curious picture as it's ostensibly a political film, though in fact, appears benign in this respect. McQueen's own political position is as effusive throughout as a viable solution must have been to the protagonists. Ultimately this becomes frustrating because it's a subject matter that demands closer examination of the contexts. Hunger provides the reality, occasionally overlaid with artistic overindulgence, but bubble wraps it it's polemically inert, which is welcome in documentary but disappointing in a piece of pure cinema. It's also frustrating self-conscious, going out of its way to subvert convention (long takes, little or no score, sparse dialogue, careful composition) but in doing so safety adhering to those associated with art house movies. It strives to be taken seriously and although its impact is undeniable, its lack of political heft is unforgivable, making it a far less brave piece of work than its makers imagine it to be.
Nothing left to believe
Timing is everything in life. The first x-files movie was arguably too early, as it's usually customary for a series to end before it makes the transition to movies, and was therefore bankrupt as a self-contained sci-fi potboiler. The 'sequel', forever delayed due to contractual constipation, arrives far too late. Originally scheduled for 2002 - the perfect time for an x-files movie you'd think with the world gripped by post 9/11 paranoia, love for the series has long since fizzled out. The, I suppose you'd have to say, unintended irony is that the new film has unwittingly tapped into its audience's indifference by being an indifferent offering - an excitement free zone perfectly married to the ticket buying public's lack of expectation and thanks to a non-existent marketing campaign from Fox, awareness.
The greatest mystery Mulder and Scully may want to look into here is why this underpowered and distended television episode was given so little push by its financial backers. Did the litigation required to sort out the contracts cost Fox so much that there was nothing left for the movie itself? On this evidence the FBI have a case. 'I want to believe' is a remarkably low key affair and in terms of ambition, a pale shadow of its cinematic predecessor. There's no scope to the plot, merely atmosphere, which isn't to say that it isn't suitably murky or uneasy - only that it's bereft of any setpiece, construction or incident that would justify a cinema release.
Essentially you have a movie that's as flat as a pancake and just as bland. Watching Duchovny and Anderson look beleaguered and stone faced in drawn out scene after scene, you're marking time waiting for the enterprise to come alive - it never does. X-Files creator and helmer Chris Carter resolutely fails to imbue the proceedings with any humour, thrills or surprises. In their stead the film is cold, reflecting its icy winter setting, and pedestrian in its pacing, mise-en-scene and performances. There's no bad acting here per say, its just looks and feels as though no one really wanted to be there and as the film progresses, that sense of lethargy becomes contagious.
Eschewing the original opening which would have seen pederast priest Billy Connolly buggering 37 boys in real time, the plot we're given ploddingly ponders over matters of faith and redemption but tests ours as well as making the latter for the filmmakers less likely. Some of the blame must be leveled at the studio who made it, lavishing a remarkably thrift $30M on what used to be one of their most lucrative properties. Doing it on the cheap and then stubbornly refusing to spend money trying to create anticipation for the release has hit the box office hard, probably killing this particularly franchise stone dead. Its unlikely to pick up much of a following on DVD either, on account of its pulse slowing approach and lack of spectacle meaning that X-Files: I want to believe that I'll be able to make the second sequel in which the alien invasion that we built up to for 9 seasons actually happens, will remain the one that got away for Carter and company. If you're a real x-phile you may also want to leave before the end credits are over, 'less you're forced to endure one of the cheesiest Hollywood endings in years. I'm afraid the truth is out there and it turns out that it was 'they shouldn't have bothered' all along.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The last laugh
An engaging and psychologically rewarding character study that paints the word 'dichotomy' across the screen in blood red lipstick and forces you to reflect on it over two and half bleak but for the most part well judged hours. Why so serious? Because Joel Schumacher is always watching that's why.
If characterisation is the yardstick, The Dark Knight is the most dense and finely drawn Batman movie yet made - interweaving the motivations and moral complications of its cast with a magician's slight of hand and a calculating intelligence. The ambiguities thrown up by the plot aren't subtle by any means but that it feels less signposted than we've come to expect in comic book fare is attributable to Nolan's deft handling of the material and his refusal to over egg the pudding with laden dialogue or simplistic conceptions of good and evil.
As entertainment it fares less well. One of the sublime pleasures of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie was your total immersion in a hyperreal Gothic dystopia, augmented with a score that perfectly partnered the aesthetic.
Nolan's Batpics have one dirty foot in the real world making them less cartoons than Film Noirs with costumes but there are times during this 150 minutes when the lack of stylized backdrop or sweeping score make it a relatively still and cold experience.
Nolan takes his directorial cues from the likes of Johnathan Demme and Michael Mann but doesn't frame action or build suspense with their assured touch. That isn't to say that TDK isn't involving but there's a workmanlike quality to some of the spectacle here and nothing to wrongfoot the audience with the same verve as say Silence of the Lambs did 20 years ago.
An occasionally elliptical narrative and confused framing in fight scenes sometimes suggests that Nolan's realisation of his script was more sure footed than his choices in the editing suite but where he scores major hits is in his handling of tone and the drawing out of the comic book's more challenging themes. This is a Batman movie that has been futureproofed in being aimed at Adults and consequently it should have a long and respected self-life when the likes of Spider-man are filling space on charity shop shelves marked up for 75 pence.
One disappointment with this Batflick, particularly given the prominence he was afforded in 'Begins' is that Christian Bale gets somewhat lost amongst a large cast with character trajectories more integral to the plot. The deceased Heath Ledger is very good, giving a creepy, dread soaked performance. He's the bastard child of Seth Brundle in mid-transformation and Hannibal Lecter with all the discomfort that implies while Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent/Two Face is less involving but well handled and performs a public service in permanently wiping all memory of Tommy Lee Jones horrific turn in Batman Forever. God Bless you Aaron.
Ultimately its easier to admire than to love but TDK is superior, involving fare which talks up to it's audience without ever really getting their pulse racing. The storytelling values displayed bode well for the series but if this can married with a little more care in constructing setpieces and please please please a proper score rather than this ambient mood music (two composers and not a single, memorable note), the next film might be a real treasure. As it stands this is just very good but with the likes of Michael Bay forever circling I'll take that with thanks.
"Don't look at it, don't look at it whatever happens."
Do the people who defined popular culture have a license to destroy it? This is a minor philosophical diversion you may want to use to centre yourself during this belated and unnecessary bolt on to the Indiana Jones series. It isn't a film at all so much as a deliberate and sinister act of cultural vandalism.
Why was it made? Putting aside the fatuous nonsense Ford and co. have vomited out at press junkets, nostalgia fed self-indulgence seems to be the motive. Three sixty-somethings, pillows stuffed with laurels, have collaborated, perhaps with some sense of desperation on Ford's part, to relive past glories. This was the screenplay, we're led to believe, that they all agreed was the best out of the many versions produced over the years. David Koep's effort is so anaemic however, that it simply beggars belief that this was the superior treatment. The reality is that his clunky, unwieldy discharge of a script - a Frankenstein collage of previous (and one suspects superior and more coherent) drafts was a compromise between director, star and producer disagreements between which kept this one in development hell for two decades. Once you've seen the finished product you will rue the day they settled their differences.
Clearly the will to make the movie was greater that the need to get it right. Consequently what's made it to the screen is conspicuously and unforgivably deficient in the elements that made the original movies the gold standard for this type of action adventure. David Koep, fumbling to adapt a story from George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, might have deserved a greater share of the blame were it not for the notorious and disastrous interventionism of Lucas, who famously binned a draft from the Shawshank Redemption's Frank Darabont and was determined to saddle the film with Ed Wood style b-movie stupidity. Koep's inheritance of this poison chalice, making him the Walter Donovan of those who stepped up to pen this sequel, has nothing to do with aptitude in crafting 120 pages of platinum movie fuel, more his pliable tendency as a hack for hire who'd be unlikely to fight his corner when faced with Lucas' imbecilic vetoes.
The finished film is flabby, awkward and overcooked, not least in the absurd nuclear opener. The Fifties b-movie cues are all present and correct flying saucers, the red peril and the aforementioned atomic threat but they're integrated with variable success and although its better made than its progenitors its not always better executed. This is a movie that runs on with everyone both behind and in front of the camera trying to ape the style and tone of old but not being quite able to remember how they did it. Spielberg hasn't shot in this aspect ratio for many a moon and it shows. Compositions lack depth and inventiveness, as though he wasn't sure how to fill the screen astonishing given his talent and experience, and the editing, so precise in the previous three pictures, is slapdash in places, rendering such sequences confusing with some shots poorly matched. But with Indy movies the film is just half the picture. The other John Williams' score, is as much a character as any on screen and unfortunately he's a match for most of the one dimensional supporting cast in this installment. His effort is anonymous, continuing a downward trajectory that began in the early nineties and shows no sign of recovery here. With not one memorable cue, Williams appears to be following contemporaries like Jerry Goldsmith who were once masters of big orchestral compositions but settled into self-plagiarism and melodic schizophrenia. Williams is of course alive, unlike poor Goldsmith but this score wouldn't pass mustard as proof of life following a kidnap. Much of what we hear sounds like a random collection of notes looking for a tune and that's a shame because an on form Williams might have elevated the proceedings, not least in the interminable middle section. This second act lags and is laden with exposition rather than incident. Film students will appreciate the lesson from the most successful filmmaker in the world in how not to sustain audience interest but the rest of us will wonder what happened to Spielberg's red pencil as we're treated to scene after scene in which Koep's screenplay tells us what's going on without troubling itself to show it.
The cast is variable, with Ford occasionally good value as a long in the tooth Indy. Too often however he looks slow and stilted and the supporting cast give him nothing to spark off. The real tragedy however is a reanimated Karen Allen, looking as if she'd just stepped out of a Beverley Hills Plastic Surgeons and given little to do but looks startled. Her rebooted Marion Ravenwood bares no resemblance to the character of old and her presence seems forced, which it is as it's a device to introduce Shia Labeouf's heir apparent Mutt Williams. There's a joke there somewhere Indy named himself after the family dog and his son has given himself a pet moniker too but that's about as subtle as the new film gets. For a movie allegedly made for the fans, the irony is that Crystal Skull delivers the, er, nuclear family many of them would have seen in their worst nightmares. It's exactly the film you'd have expected a sentimental and egregious Hollywood machine to have made when tailoring a blockbuster to its imagined family audience but Spielberg should know better and the syrup drenched ending should be a colossal embarrassment for all concerned.
A lyric from the Elvis song that opens the film is neat shorthand for what follows; "You said you were high classed, well that was just a lie." Indy fans will wonder how they ever fell for it.
The geist in the machine.
Something is happening in escapist genre film-making, can you feel it? My zeitgeist gland started to vomit chemical nausea into my body twice recently and the reasons are obvious like you my friend. It's this notion that escapist genre fare is starting to appropriate the language of cultural trauma in order to entertain us and a new kind of blockbuster is the by-product a style in its infancy that is flirting with immorality. This is the kind of flirting that unchecked can lead to a violation of the audience and what it understands to be normal in terms of how it should get it rocks off. Be careful says I because like a dirty old uncle that whips out the little gentleman for his unsuspecting niece, the consequences are a potential warping of what we consider to be harmless fun something David Director and Sidney Scribe must ultimately take responsibility for.
Rambo was at it recently, hijacking Spielberg's D-Day realism approach from Saving Private Ryan to murder the Burmese Militia. In Spielberg's film the technique had been used to strip warfare of its Technicolor entertainment value and give the battle scenes an unsentimental air of reportage. Stallone reversed this idea by applying the same tools to sate the blood lust of his seen it all before ghoulish adolescent audience a corruption of the original style. What used to be fun about genre movies with high death rates and judicious dollops of wanton destruction is that it was escapism larger than life, utterly ridiculous and therefore completely safe to enjoy.
Cloverfield may be a better film than Rambo but it uses the same methodology to get it jollies. Here its 9/11 that gets plundered to add an uncomfortable real world sensibility to the old monster on the rampage movie. Filmed from the perspective of a single camcorder, events unfold in fits and shaky hand held starts with the beast periodically glimpsed whenever the terrified documentarian gets the chance. The characters aren't up to much and are irrelevant in any event but their panic feels genuine enough and its in these scenes of fleeing, glancing upward to see a building topple and the like that déjà vu hits you in a very unpleasant way. One scene in particular the collapse of a apartment block and the unfolding dust cloud is a direct lift from Al-Queda's greatest hits. This of course is a very effective device to make something absurd genuinely mortifying but when popular entertainment starts to play on its audience's real fears by appealing to direct experience rather than the base instincts that traditionally were its bread and butter (you didn't need to have seen real footage of a shark eat a man to buy into Jaws the premise was primal in its efficacy) then arguably a line has been crossed. There's no doubting the filmmakers exploitative glee here or the skill in which the enveloping disaster is juxtaposed with the couple's day out recorded on the same tape and occasionally 'cut' to in the gaps in recording, to produce emotional punch but there's an air of cynicism about the execution. Fun doesn't seem well, fun any more.
The human waste
Consider for a moment what it must be like to be Uwe Boll. Somewhere, perhaps in those places that Jack Nicholson said 'you don't talk about at parties', Boll knows that David Lean had head lice as a child that had more talent for film making than him. Gore Whores, metal-heads and the socially dysfunctional may bump into him on the circuit and tell him otherwise but general audiences find the Teutonic helmsman's output so bereft of originality, wit or imagination that he's become the internet's bogeyman an online discursive synonym for photochemical excrement. Boll does his best to ride over these naysayers, exploiting tax credits available in Germany and Canada to keep working and raising money from a network of dentists as Zero Mostel did with old ladies in The Producers. The difference being that Mostel's character knew he was making bowel fill. Maybe Uwe knows it too.
Such is the level of hostility toward each new 'Bollbuster' that IMDb patrons sabotage their ratings by voting 1 before they've seen it. Boll's attempts at silencing his critics by challenging them to a boxing match and knocking them out just made them more determined. Indeed he's probably the only filmmaker that's boosted thesaurus sales as critics search for inventive ways of describing garbage.
This onslaught has made Uwe a very thick skinned man, so much so that he must feel like he's wrapped in a carpet, but one who feels as if he's bullied by the entire world. Like most people in that situation he lashes out, determined to upset as many people as possible with the memory of a tearful evening holding Variety's review of House of the Dead, never too far from the surface. This 'I know you are but what am I' strategy for reclaiming the initiative produced the blunt satire of Postal, which attempted to napalm the dissenters with jokes about 9/11, Christian fundamentalism, Jihad, Nazism and paedophilia. Such a litany of invective requires a satirist with the mind of Peter Cook and the visual imagination of Chris Morris but the closest Boll gets to either man is the o in their surname.
In Seed, shot back to back with the aforementioned game adaptation, Boll is back with a story about a sadistic serial murderer (is there any other kind?) who gets the chair only for two attempts to fail in permanently curtailing all signs of life. Mindful of the fictional law that says anyone still alive after 3 attempts must go free, though if you'd been fried with that much electricity why would you want to, they pronounce him legally dead and bury him, only for the disgruntled killer to resurface and begin a whirlwind tour of his gaolers.
Boll begins his 'exploration of nihilistic rage' with Seed watching footage of animals being tortured for experimental purposes. From there we're treated to the killer's stock in trade kidnapping dogs, babies and grown women and allowing them to starve to death on camera only to become maggot food. We're invited to reflect on what a depraved race of amoral meat sacks we all are our inhumanity to each other and our fellow creatures acting as a lighting rod that acts as a catalyst for the most disgusting vestiges of the human condition. Yes, we're worthless, gormless sadists and worse than that, we won't give Uwe a good rating on the IMDb. In short, humanity is bunk.
Of course you might think that Uwe relies on our worst excesses for his livelihood and with that in mind it's a bit of a bipolar piece, on one hand hating its audience and positively basting itself in the sour milk of human kindness the milk that poor old Boll has had to drink for so long, while simultaneously whipping out its member and inviting those with a pornographic lust for on screen depravity to marvel at its sheer arse splitting girth.
The result says nothing about society and its discontents, more the corrosive effect bad press is having on its director. Poor Uwe is obviously a very angry man one scene in which a poor woman gets her brains hammered to a pulp while tied to a chair, no doubt a surrogate for his own fantasy's about dispatching various web critics. That it's there but takes an avant-garde approach by failing to be attached to any kind of narrative thread, shows that Boll is a pornographer whose happy to engage with the blood lust of his audience and knows that plot is surplus to requirements. He's made a film which is competently shot but utterly desolate. "I wanted to make a horror movie that was no fun" Boll told the audience at the film's world premiere and he has, on that flimsy manifesto, succeeded but if this was supposed to convince the director's detractors that he was a serious genre filmmaker, he'll need something genuine to say as well as a better, more original way of saying it.
Rush Hour 3 (2007)
Rush hour was originally produced under the working title 'demographic splice missile' but then a focus group sampling the target audience found that too obscure and thus the title was changed to reflect the time the session took place. That the original was such a huge hit is testament to the fact that the cynicism that green lights the likes of this derivative, formulaic toss is very well founded. American audiences really are that easy and frankly, if this is what they want, they deserve a double shunting each.
To recap the original partnered the matalan Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan with 'funnyman' Chris Tucker. Why the inverted commas? Because Tucker, a man with a voice that sounds like the a recording of a pig being slaughtered, is a witless hysteric whose trademark rapid fire noise ruins any film in which it features. The fifth element might have survived the ridiculous production design by gay fashion moron Jean Paul Gautier but it had no chance against Tucker's high pitched squealing. Why anyone of any age, sex, colour or nationality would find this milk curdling sound audible yet alone funny, is one of the great mysteries of the modern film era. Regardless millions of mentally retarded wide eyed drones laughed the first film to blockbuster status awed by Chan's chop sockey manipulation of common objects in contrived situations, bowled over by Tucker's bolt on wisecracks and positively arse over face at Brett Ratner's workmanlike direction.
Rush Hour 2 followed in which the crazy cops did more of the same and were rewarded by a gross that made you pinch yourself with the severed fingers of the woman you'd killed in that first flush of anger. Were American ethnic minorities really so underrepresented in the studios annual output that they'd flock to see this in their millions? To put Rush Hour's coinage into some kind of perspective, imagine Shanghai Noon making $300m at the American box office. Doesn't feel right does it? No, dark forces were at work here jet black in fact and now they're back for another bite of an already maggot ridden cherry.
Rush 3 was much delayed, not least because Tucker, a man in such high demand that he's been offered precisely nothing between Rush Hour movies, held out for an obscene $25m payday. There's no mystery as to why you don't see CT in anything else what else can he do? He's completely hopeless. Cynical enough to rest on his non-existent laurels and obviously as clueless as the rest of us as to why he can become a multi-millionaire for doing absolutely sod all, he returns here to extend a franchise that was tired from the moment it started. The irrelevant plot is your standard washing line arrangement onto which a string of predictable comic and action set pieces are hung. The action shifts to Paris for reasons that won't concern you and from that point it really is an easy assignment for Hollywood script software B.A.N.G (the b-movie action narrative generator) here given the non de plume 'Jeff Nathanson'. America hating cab driver George is introduced as a clumsy stab at satirizing Franco-US relations post Iraq but this being a Brett Ratner movie the joke is as weak as a pint of p*ss topped up with tap water. George becomes a convert to American aggression of course but an attempt at self-deprecation 'It feels good to kill people for no reason' is lost on the Christopher Pike, bleeping chair crowd this thing is aimed at. If the jokes have all the polish of one of those grimy vans onto which someone has hand written 'clean me', what about the action? Its pedestrian stuff, predictable seen it all before cut and paste histrionics underscoring Ratner's reputation as a hack par nonchalance. To his eternal shame Roman Polanksi has an extended cameo here and considering his past it really is something to say he's never looked more embarrassed and thank God Ingmar Bergman died recently because the sight of Max Von Sydow in this mindless trudge might have killed him otherwise.
Punishingly poor and half an hour too long at just 90 minutes, Rush Hour 3 is the reason that people talk about the slow death of cinema, though in this case its a case of suicide. Its not that it's risible, every year has its crop of photochemical waste, it's simply that it's done so well. Inexplicable. Interminable. Intolerable.
Dead in the water
Mark Kermode memorably described Dead Man's Chest the bloated and ever so slightly creaky sequel to the 2003 Johnny Depp jokefest as the 'death of Western civilisation'. That kind of criticism is ridiculous of course, the second Pirates movie was far worse than that, but assuming he judged the scale of the artistic degeneracy correctly, At World's End is just that the end of the friggin' world.
It's fair to say that the original film was far better than an adaptation of a theme park ride had any right to be, though the script for Alton Tower's ghost train is rumoured to be incredible apparently Robert Towne's greatest since Chinatown. Its pantomime humour and breezy swashbuckling plot felt like a fresh wind blowing through a room of soul crushing sequels. Johnny Depp hammed it up and somehow captured the admiration of the entire world; the world showcasing its egregious taste in the process. An Oscar nomination followed, that's right an Oscar nomination for Christ's sake, which thankfully didn't translate to a win but nevertheless seemed, like the box office, out of all proportion to the quality of the film that had been made. It was not too bad, overlong and an intermittently exciting affair. Orlando Bland and Kiera Knightley provided the good looks and teeth but characterisation was a plush bounty that remained hidden and on the evidence that made it into cinemas, safe from seeking filmmakers.
Disney couldn't quite believe how much it had made, which made two of us and sticking to the business model now well established in light of Back to the Future and the Matrix, two sequels were green lit to be made back to back to maximise the potential box office and allow two visits to the well while the series was still popular.
So, inevitably the tonic to those summer sequels of many a year ago is now responsible for summer sequels of its own. Talk about irony sitting on your face without invitation and jostling from side to side.
The problem with making two sequels back to back is that the temptation, so far irresistible to the 'creatives' at the helm, is to make one long film and split it in two. This way you give the audience an incentive to return for the second sequel, effectively locking them into it. It's a bad move, principally because the second film is inevitably open ended and the third, lacking a self-contained plot, begins abruptly and relies on the audience's foreknowledge of characters and incident to work. Artistically you may think it would be better to make two self-contained movies with their own resolved story lines perhaps the merest hint of a joining plot thread deftly inserted to act as that cliffhanger. Well, wouldn't you?
But Disney didn't do that and so at World's end begins where the old film left off with all manor of plot threads bleeding in from the previous movie. The finished film just sort of meanders along, joining up the characters, then splitting them up, then uniting them again while contrivance buggers incident follows setpiece and repeats en route to the show stopping conclusion. It's so long that when the certificate came up I'm pretty sure there were real pirates still on the high seas and that the cinema I was sitting in was just the lunatic daydream of an old seadog, albeit a seadog with an extraordinary scientific imagination.
Initially it seems as if the middle tenet of a pirate's life rum, sodomy and the lash, is missing from the series all together but as the third part went on you realised it was there alright, just symbolically afflicting the audience. Did Verbinski have his script and film editor killed? On this evidence someone should be looking into it. A DVD of this would surely be enough to send Gore to the gallows.
One area that should be praised however, is ILM's special effects which are simply superb and occasionally, and somewhat impressively in this era of CGI saturated boredom, genuinely exciting to look at. The film's climax, which comes sometime during the movie's 15th hour, is a triumph of computer animation and pyrotechnic excess. The sheer all consuming nature of it and the pace at which every digitally stuffed frame is cut together, is the right side of breathtaking and yes, a ship cannoned to destruction in slow motion as it's captain walks down her stairs may be pure Bruckheimer balls-out action porn but that wood shattering goodness is stunning to look at. It goes on for a long long time certainly, in fact I dropped my popcorn during the third act because of the onset of acute arthritis, but in the absence of wit, economic plotting or a real story it's by far the best reason to see this groaning behemoth drag itself over 168 waterlogged minutes.
Ironically unlikely to be affected too much by online piracy it made a shocking $401M around the stupid world over it's first weekend the third Pirate's film stretches one pantomime turn across three movies, one of them okay, and in doing so shows that deprivation of quality in all other departments, bar those effects people of course, is no barrier to success on an earth shattering scale. It may not be a good advertisement for cinema but many, Michael Bay for one, will have slept better once they'd seen the film and taken in the figures, while others like old school blockbuster veterans Spielberg and Zemeckis will wonder why they ever bothered in the first place. The storytelling values of 40's and 70's Hollywood are as much under threat as Depp's pirates but unlike Sparrow and crew, it's no laughing matter.
An open letter to IMDb readers from Zodiac
There I was, the most incisive, quotable, culturally literate review I'd ever written just sitting there on my desktop, awaiting internet publication a review so good it was almost a religious experience and what happens? I get a letter from my old friend the Zodiac killer whom having seen the David Fincher film based on his case, felt compelled (as he inevitably does) to write what he thought of it and would I mind posting the text of his letter instead? Normally I'd have told him to go and shoot some teenagers but he let me advertise for a room mate on his myspace once so
An open letter to IMDb readers from Zodiac
Hello David, this is the Zodiac.
Did you see it? I suppose you must have by now. You better have made an attempt for your sake and not, as you threatened to do, go and see that Pirates of the Caribbean crap. Looks like I won our little wager but it's like I told you if you want a movie made about you you'll either have do something important or do what I did and murder some young people (and one idiot cab driver, though to be fair they're sort of okay as they're always overcharging people anyway I mean, $6 for a $3 fare? You know he deserved it).
So last night, after what seemed like an eternity, I finally got time off to go to the Castro Theater and see Zodiac, the long overdue film about me. I mean what took them so long for Christ's sake? I don't want to hear about Dirty Harry, I mean, sure, good movie and I loved the girl in a hole stuff wish I'd thought of it, but Andy Robinson was such a flake. Getting caught so easily and laughing like a pervert. That's supposed to be me? If murder wasn't a capital crime I'd have sued their asses clean off.
So anyway, the Fincher movie isn't too bad. #$%****() there you go, pick the bones out of that. Did I confound your analogue mind? I've got a books worth of these. So yeah, It was pretty good, took me right back to the glory days lots of great period detail and that pig Toschi was just like I imagined him absolutely clueless. Well I say clueless, he did interview me but you don't get arrested for sweating like a rapist and licking your lips every time a murder is mentioned. Incidentally that was a shock to me too.
&&**((%^#. Any ideas? You don't have a clue do you? Its important to have a USP if you're planning on being a serial murderer, people forget that and that's why in the league of psychotic media folk legends I'm still in top five, though Jack the Ripper is always going to be no.1 and overrated for the same reason as the Beatles will always supersede the Stones history never forgives you if you go on too long.
Gore Verbinski take note.
Even though I wasn't in Zodiac as much as I would of liked I still enjoyed the stuff about bird brain Avery and that geek Graysmith, to whom I'd have paid a visit if he didn't live on the other side of town and it wasn't two buses. It's certainly ironic that I killed several people and slept pretty well at night, sometimes better because of what I did and these guys fell apart and got all obsessive. And they didn't even shoot anyone! Merely slaves in my world. Watching Avery, as played by Downley Jnr, stuffing popcorn into my mouth was all I could not to laugh. I suppose you noticed (and would have droned on about) the recurring time motif in the movie? I named myself after a watch, time is always referenced, the search for me goes on across decades, etc Loved that 'time lapse' scene with the Transamerica pyramid isn't it incredible what they can do these days? Yeah, my work certainly did burn up those pigs lives.
Also, did you notice how Fincher took a celluloid swing at me by flouting thriller conventions? I'll bet you did you geeky freak. I love the movies, this is well known and the one I dreamt about, involving myself, had more gore and just focused on how good I was, particularly toward the end when the pigs gave up and I laughed at their embarrassment. You saw Seven, right? That was my movie in all but name. So having waited all these years I finally get the film of my life and it isn't about me at all, plus it doesn't even stick to the formula of these things. Why wasn't Graysmith psychologically connected to me in some way and where was the climax? John Doe got a head in a box and I get a photo I.D in an airport? Man, I couldn't have killed enough people.
&*#$$%!^. See what I did there? Of course you didn't you servile camel jacker.
By the way, are we still on for Wedding Daze?
The Queen (2006)
Letting daylight in upon magic
The Queen is an unusual proposition because the events it dramatises pose similar concerns for the filmmakers to those experienced by the characters. The emphasis is on striking the right note the challenge for Helen Mirren, reflecting the conundrum faced by the real monarch back yonder, is presenting the monarch in the best light possible. In a mirror of September 1997, the trick here was to avoid some potentially disastrous hurdles and struggle for the right balance.
As a viewer I have difficulties of my own watching the Queen. The constitutional monarchy is as gross anachronism in a modern state that has pretensions of being a meritocracy and for that matter a fully fledged democracy. It embodies some fairly grotesque principles, not least hereditary privilege and deference to an institution that personifies inequality, ironically held in the highest regard by the strata of society that is least well off. If you could design a system from scratch it's hard to imagine a model that would seem more ridiculous. Those who defend the idea and indeed the Royal family itself usually do so because so embedded is the class system in Britain, bleeding as it does into the every vein and capillary of British life, that something in their breeding tells them they're inferior and lack the mythic aura to hold the highest office in the land. It'd be like letting a chimp fly an aircraft. This inverted snobbery hits at the collective immaturity that allows the British people to subordinate themselves and preserve elites. Anything that threatens their existence is therefore desirable.
On the other hand, public reaction to the death of Diana was one of the most hysterical and outright bizarre outpourings of public grief in modern times. An inexplicable gush of sentimentality that gripped the nation as though someone had put ecstasy into the water supply. Papers, furious of the Queen's typically measured and withdrawn response, spoke of her subjects 'suffering'. Martin Lewis fought back tears on the BBC news. Millions left flowers and cried their eyes out in public. Nothing had been seen like it before or since. Anything approaching normal behaviour had obviously forgotten to wear its seat belt too.
So unusually, I watched the Queen both sympathetic to the confusion and outright indignation she presumably felt, at having to cow to this ludicrous collective nervous breakdown and the publics legitimate right to demand her compliance and example in a time of so called national crisis. Stephen Frears' film respects both arguments.
Helen Mirren, taking on the unenviable job of making the Queen a three dimensional human being, successfully presents Elizabeth as both dutiful and understandably perturbed by the public mood.
Whether you believe in the monarchy or not, it's hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Liz as she attempts to reconcile her own values with those of her equally insane subjects. The flip side of course is that the public comes off less well, epitomised in no small part by Cherie Blair and Alistair Campbell, representing the kind of cynicism that gives apologists for the status quo the Oxygen for their reactionary arguments. They decry the fact she's out of touch, a funny sort of criticism when it's that very fact that's kept the Monarchy going throughout the 20th century. The public's hypocrisy was berating the Royals for acting like the rest of us divorcing, having affairs, etc , what Bagehot famously referred to as letting daylight onto magic, and then lambasting them for not acting in step with Joe Public when the occasion demanded it.
Martin Sheen, reprising his role as Tony Blair, following the TV drama 'The Deal', is equal to Mirren in inhabiting his character completely, transcending mere impersonation. Frears pokes gentle fun at the New Labour figurehead, the scenes in his self-named Newcastle football shirt designed to show a little bit of the self-gratification that marked his early years in office. The closing scenes with Mirren, in which she warns him that the public are a fickle bunch whose affection can disappear faster than a princess in a Paris tunnel, hint at the hubris and the inevitable fall from grace. The script succeeds best however is showing the clash of Blair's new politics with the old establishment. The film mischievously toys with those in reverence to both worlds with James' Cromwell's Prince Phillip aghast at the homosexuals attending Diana's funeral highlighting aristocratic opposition to changing social attitudes, while Blair's lack of substance is hinted at when he gets a ringing endorsement from Tracy Ullman, phoning in her gushing tribute from Los Angeles in a CNN interview.
Ultimately the film is a bit of a valentine to its subject matter. So what if The Queen mourns a stag more than the mother of her grandchildren Blair sums the argument up a nutshell when he launches a tirade at a flippant Alistair Campbell. Diana lacked the selflessness and devotion to the institution that the Queen, perhaps alone, had upheld. "She (Diana) threw what she (The Queen) offered back in her face and then flaunted it in front of the media, undermining everything she stands for" is Blair's and the filmmakers assessment of the martyred princess. It's hard to disagree and harder yet to understand what an odd people we are for caring about it all in the first place. Sometimes it seems that cut off from the rest of society really is the sanest place to be.
Incidentally, in an interesting bit of life imitating art symmetry, Mirren a republican by all accounts, withered like Blair, another moderniser, when accepting her Oscar. "Ladies and gentleman, the Queen!" she proudly announced, like she was proposing a toast to an invisible set of dinner party guests. It was wince inducing and grotesque but good shorthand for the establishment reverence that guarantees the monarch's continued existence. Will we ever learn? The events of 1997 suggest we'd have to grow up first.
It's the counter factual rambling of movie loving drunk; what if Paul Verhoven, the dutch director of such big-budget exploitation fare as Robocop and Showgirls, and not Hollywood master Steven Spielberg, had abandoned his commercial comfort zone to make Schindler's list his personal war project? Though such a thing may seem more Verboten that Verhoven, it is nevertheless now a reality. The man who would have put an invisible rape into cinemas if the MPAA hadn't stopped him has returned to his homeland to front a $40M exploration of the Netherlands under Nazi occupation and if we're surprised that the result is so straight-laced, fans should know that the old pervert isn't going to let something as undignified as the conduct of the Dutch under occupation put the brakes on his pet obsessions of sex, nudity, bodily fluids and gratuitous violence.
This, at least in the mind of the director, is the Basic Instinct helmer's think piece. You can rationalize this as the surrender to inverted snobbery. After all, Robocop is a thoughtful piece of work no really plenty to say about what being human actually means, the bleed of corrupt corporations into national institutions, etc.. but you don't win many plaudits for melting a man in a toxic waste dump or shooting a rapist in the groin. What gets you credibility, particularly if you're Paul Verhoven the only man to collect his Razzie, is something a bit more worthy and that means historical drama with European backers.
The return to Holland was rationalized by PV as essential for the film's dramatic and tonal authenticity a European cast adding a polyglot polish to a impressively mounted recreation of the occupied territory and to begin with it's a sober, carefully paced affair, detailing Carice van Houten's plight as a hidden Jew living with a Dutch family under an assumed identity. When the barn where she spends most of her time is bombed, her I.D card is discovered by the Germans and she accepts an offer for her and family to escape by boat to Belgium. Unfortunately, in the first of some pornographically realized sequences, the Germans are waiting for them and slaughter the family with close up machine gun fire, the girl narrowly escaping and subsequently joining the Dutch resistance to gain revenge on the Nazis.
As it goes on however, Black Book's tone starts to feel a touch confused, the cinematic equivalent of a beaten wife trying to reconcile her love for her abusive husband. The script, co-written by Verhoven with Gerad Soeteman, is content to paint its plot in very broad strokes. It relies on a fair amount of contrivance and unusually for a film that has pretensions of seriousness, airport lounge novel plotting the kind you'd expect in a Hollywood thriller but not in a film that has one beady eye on the non-English speaking European market. PVs time in the US has certainly given him ample opportunity to indulge in his love of excess and his time in America has left an indelible signature on his method. A certain amount of Hollywood blowback is evident here, so during some sequences, for example the scene in which the resistance attempt to free their captured comrades from a German base, it's almost like watching a Nazi version of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves only not quite as much fun.
It's a strange fugue; yes that's right fugue, of continental fastidiousness and old fashioned pulp espionage plotting with the overall package not entirely satisfactory for either the Dutch destroyer's audience of gore whores and masturbators, or the subtitled set that might have expected something more subtle and less predictable.
As befits a Verhoven picture, it's confidently realized and well staged stuff but as you might have expected, as subtle as a naked man in a girl's school. The Dutchman is no Spielberg and can't reign in his penchant for breasts and blood. It's widely known that squib making families eat for a year when Verhoven is in town and true to form the violence, through sporadic, is graphic and abruptly rendered. The sex too is vintage Verhoven, painted pubic hair, fondled mammaries and a great riff on the 'is that a gun in your pocket are you just happy to see me' line. None of this adds much to the story of course and only serves to highlight its lack of depth and the simplistic take on wartime morality and its complexities the good German solider and the bad Dutch resistance fighter. There's probably a myriad of fascinating stories about such things but Verhoven may not be the man to tell them.
They'll be letting James Cameron make a film about the Titanic disaster next!
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
You may have missed it but something extraordinary happened recently. Perhaps you were busy romancing your best friend's girlfriend, drowning the kittens of your partner's grotesque children in the canal or like me, trying to remove an entire layer of fatty tissue from your bath tub after the acid had drained out but over in America, punters paid $148M to see Spider-man 3. That's nearly 5 pounds sterling.
What made them do it? Well it wasn't coherence, good writing or sharp plotting but we can assume millions of dollars worth of marketing played their part. A popular character, two reasonably entertaining and well judged films and the kind of brand recognition that would make Coke envious, all fed into the pre-summer hype and when there's that much anticipation amongst the young and the socially stunted these things have a habit of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. It's just a pity that the movie itself isn't very good.
Its fascinating, you might think and even if you wouldn't I would, that parents are a great deal more relaxed about entertainment than other confected consumables. Spider-man is the ultimate corporate movie making exercise and the big spiders forced to pay for their egg sack progeny to watch the bloody thing, see it all as harmless, if juvenile fun. It'd be a real killjoy that berated people for enjoying this sort of thing wouldn't it? And with that in mind, on we go.
The thing is you see legions of kids, accompanied by well meaning but unconsciously hypocritical parents, lap it up like maggots to human remains. These are the same people who won't let their kids eat anything that isn't organically produced and spend hours examining packaging in supermarkets for additives. Imagine for a moment that they applied the same standard to movies. Lactating mothers whose husbands work in the city all day and didn't know they were ever pregnant, let alone looking after their 3 children, would accost miserable cinema staff and ask them things like 'has this film been written by a single individual nurturing his own idea and is the story true to the principles of creative film-making, nurtured by independently minded professionals and funded with the profits from art house festivals?' If the poor sod said no then Mum would take her offspring elsewhere, looking for wholesome, and intellectually nourishing entertainment. But we don't think this way of course and so consequently our offspring get force fed a sickly sweet diet of confected glop like 'ol Spidey here. Okay, says Sony's marketing department, the script is Sam Rami's vision of the arachnid super-hero but you only have to watch the new film to see the tension between commercial interest and the auteur imperative and you better believe the latter always gets snuffed out when there's a budget of $258M involved.
What's so depressing about Spider-man 3 is how synthetic is actually feels. It's a demographically minded, committee made 140 minutes with numerous plot strands all jockeying for attention, amidst some admittedly impressive special effects and a truckle of characters, none of whom have any time or space to develop in any satisfactory manor. Every moment is calculated with such cynicism that it's almost impossible not to feel embarrassed watching it flaunt its crowd pleasing conventions. They're well worn certainly, but we keep coming back for them like a sadist making a homeless man dance for his pleasure for the price of some cigarettes and a subway meatball sandwich. You know its self-destructive but you can't help yourself.
What works is mainly held over from previous films, which means it's extended into this one without being developed further. Maguire still doesn't have any descent quips but he's reasonably endearing if too bug eyed by half as the hero and Dunst still has a sweetness about her but the sentimental etchings of her failing relationship with Tobey, vomited into the proceedings, is enough to turn an unfocused script into pure flab in some places. You'd think a man who could ejaculate through his wrists would be interesting enough not to have girl trouble but true to her sex, Dunst is never satisfied.
Reversing a good decision from previous Spider-mans, this one has too many villains and subsequently can't give them room to develop. Thomas Haden Church is wasted as Sandman, having nothing to do but morph into a sandstorm and the film's promised "battle from within" following Peter Parker's infection with an alien parasite, turns him from an irritating but hubristic do gooder into a bit of a sticky tosser who dresses like Gomez Addams and does poor impressions of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Based on this evidence half the clubbers in Britain have been exposed to venom and before you rush out, that isn't a new name for an old venereal disease though if you're concerned you've probably got that too.
Cluttered and lacking the, er, intelligence of previous outings, Spider-man 3 is big, well dressed multiplex fodder but is in turn both childish and sugary enough to be fairly disappointing overall. Rami's screenplay is pretty dreadful so a bit of the old directorial bravado might have helped but these days the man who used to run his work through with wit and vigor behind the camera is content to point and click, leaving the real work to the effects artists. Fine but don't be surprised if you find yourself as undernourished as a kid who survives on sweets and soft drinks alone. Your Mum would have told you these things were bad for you but she was busy buying the tickets and stocking up on the popcorn.
Glazed with cash but bland as butter.
28 Weeks Later (2007)
Maybe its because I'm a Londoner...
Those who live in it have always known it to be so, but now it's official, that is to say - enshrined on celluloid; London is a hard place to live. Still at least in the world of 28 weeks later you aren't forced to share a tiny space with millions of bad tempered, brain dead, herd minded lunatics, always in a hurry to get everywhere. You'd think a situation like that would be ripe for satire but...
Then there's the tube. Everyone knows its a dank, cattle transport system where people would step over you rather than give you room to move. A repository of the living dead. Bags of social comment there. But again...
With the war in Iraq now entering its 349th year with 3 trillion people dead and the landscape reduced to a bombed husk; murderous, blood thirsty insurgents bleeding out of every damaged building, public space and cranny, the presence of American solders attempting to police and reconstruct a decimated Britain would the perfect plot device to carpet bomb an audience with allegorical abstraction but no, not a bit of it.
All of which is as true as the notion you can contain a monkey-based zombie emulating virus. 28 weeks later starts 28 weeks ago with Robert Caryle, later just slightly less insane than he was as Begbie in Trainspotting, leaving wife Catherine McCormack to be ravaged by some human rape bombs. He's later reunited with his kids and interned in the Isle of Dogs, perhaps the only scenario which might make you long to be back amongst the infected, vomiting blood. Her kids want a picture of Mum though, bless 'em, and improbably escape the blockade, returning to their house where McCormack is discovered alive, infected but curiously not that angry. She alone it seems has partial immunity to the virus and is brought back to the Dogs with predictably horrific results.
Despite having much more money at his disposal, at least enough to put film in his camera, Juan Carlos Fernsadillo, taking over from Danny Boyle, still manages to retain the lo-fi grainy bleakness of the original film. He alternates between lavish aerial shots of a deserted London and frenetic, hand-held close up horror - upping the ante in terms of both gore and gun play - the introduction of the army providing much scope for the infected getting chunks blown out of them by trigger happy snipers. For all that, its a less human film than it's predecessor, perhaps because the one character with the most interesting moral conundrum - Caryle, is dispatched before he's had a chance to really face up to his actions (though getting a dose from the wife is pretty bad but does vindicate his decision to initially run for it). Following his descent into blood lust, Begbie - sorry, Don - improbably chases his children across most of London, bumping into them enough times to suggest that all the statistics about kids being most likely to be killed by their genetic forebears are spot on. If that wasn't enough, a line from Juan's own screenplay inadvertently undoes the entire first film, suggesting he may missed the first five minutes of it, when we learn that that the virus doesn't travel between species. I know we're close to apes and I'm no zoologist but they're still not quite humans are they? Still its good news for the Irish.
Still Juan makes good use of his locations and the momentum is with the film, driving it forward to its lip curling conclusion in which another nation looks to pay the price for its decision to elect a right wing charlatan with designs on dismantling the country's well preserved social model.
Yes, 28 jours plus tard should be a lot of fun.
The thing about looking at Next is once you look at it, it's different, because you looked at it.
Say what you want about Nicolas Cage because if you don't I will, but one charge that will never be on the indictment at the man's crimes against cinema trial is that he doesn't have a sense of humour. Recently in Rob Zombie's Grindhouse trailer for Werewolf man of the SS, Cage was stunt cast for all of 7 seconds as oriental criminal mastermind Fu Manchu. That's not a bad joke you're saying to yourself but wait a minute, you haven't seen him as Frank Cadillac in Next yet! Unless you're allergic to laughter, and I mean badly so that any involuntary muscular contractions could aggravate your osteoporosis and snap your spine, you should be booking tickets as you read this because if there's a more ridiculous thriller this year, I'd sit in a chair with semtex strapped to my chest like Jennifer Biel and get blown to smithereens.
Very loosely based on a Phillip K. Dick story, in the same way that Michael Bay's Pearl Harbour was loosely based on historical events, Next is about a fifth rate Vegas magician who can see 2 minutes into the future. Handy, you'd think but someone, as we're told in an extraordinary expositionary scene featuring a very bad tempered Julianne Moore as the FBI agent on Cage's case, has stolen a nuke and they need Cage to find out where it'll be so they can get there far too late. Doesn't sound too bad does it? But Next plays like a distended spoof that schizophrenically imagines itself to be a serious movie. When Cage is on the run at the casino you're a liar if you've ever heard a government spook scream into his radio "gift shop, gift shop, gift shop!" before but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Cage lives with Columbo, here revealing where he went after he left the plot of Fracture and is obsessed with Biel, who allows him to see further into the future than the obligatory 120 seconds but crucially for Next's star rating, not her chest, that's covered by sheets that stay in place no matter how far in the bed she sits up. And who said movies were better than life? This loophole is exploited so that Cage's gift remains inconsistent throughout the film. Usually potentially plot stunting conceits are changed in sequels when they cause problems remember Highlander 2? No? Well thank Christ for that but here the 2 minute rule doesn't even last to the half way mark. Not only goes the period of Cage's clairvoyance shift as the story demands but sometimes it changes to the point where it threatens to scupper the entire plot. Without explanation Cage develops a gift to see multiple versions of the same two minutes to facilitate a few reheated Groundhog Day jokes but the screenwriters really hit their devil may care stride during the final third where, in one of the films many bonkers sequences, he develops the ability to split into multiple versions of himself and search an entire area a sort of two minute zone if you like. Could he have done this earlier and saved an hour? You bet, but maybe it was written in a kind of screen writers' guild version of the game where you write the first line of a story, fold over the paper bar the last line and let someone write the next part with hilarious results. This alone would explain the Dallas ending, in which disbelief isn't so much suspended to breaking point but fired and given two minutes to clear its desk. If couldn't be more ridiculous if Cage's character had imploded after eating a chocolate.
But good as Cage is, in an awful sort of way, it would be criminal to ignore the contribution of Julianne Moore. We may never know what Lee Tamahori said to her, the man who's directorial muscle went into spasm to produce Die Another Day but 'remember you're an aggressive, no nonsense FBI agent' might not be too far off the mark. That or Moore discovered her agent had negotiated a pay deal linked to gross points, just before shooting began, effectively meaning she was going it all for free. Whatever the reason, her scowl, fixed from the off and present to the bitter end is enough to melt steel. When she isn't looking at Cage as though she were about to chew through his joy sack, she's shooting at a cardboard target...really really hard and storming off after shouting at her bosses. She even looks depressed after Cage has saved her life. It's a nice gesture but letting her be crushed by some falling logs might have been kinder in the long run.
So Next is great fun, anchored by some poor plotting, unlikely romancing (would you really love a man who'd contrived to have you kidnapped and strapped to explosives by terrorists?) and pretty poor effects work but its nice to see the Amiga back in use. Go and see it, you owe it to yourself, not to mention that girlfriend you've been trying to get rid of but can't because you don't have the friggin' guts.
This Is England (2006)
Some of my best friends are black shirts
This 80s set drama reinforces Shane Meadow's reputation as an actor's director and one that thank god, is actually interested enough in his indigenous culture not to take a cheque from a Hollywood studio and waste his talent making American genre movies. Danny Boyle take note. Paul Anderson, stay where you are.
This is a considered, exceptionally well acted story centred on a 12 year olds adoption by a gang of skinheads in the months after his Father's death in the Falklands. Initially it's all harmless enough, smashing sinks and wasting time. They listen to good music and smoke dope not a problem you may think, in fact I once worked for a man who essentially built a career on that. But things turn ugly when old gang member combo returns from prison, having had any vestige of racial tolerance buggered out of him. He's a proto-Nick Griffin, in the days before he opened an account with tie rack but with more visible tattoos, determined to fight the "war" against ethnic undesirables and no, that doesn't means Geordies (I had to check that too). The boy is drawn in by Combo's pitch, particularly the part about wasted solders liberating sheep in the Falklands, which strikes a simplistic note and before you can say "wasted youth" trouble ensues.
The period is vividly recreated, though Meadows can't resist having the greatest hits of the day playing on the radio as people walk down the street, and a cast who weren't even sperm and ovum in the real 1983, are superb and have a great career ahead of them, or rather would, were there an independent domestic industry to speak of. Mind you, Shane should be working for a while at least.
What impresses are the finely rendered details. Mass recruitment to the National Front is portrayed in relatively benign terms a cosseted meeting in a working men's club. There, then as now, a hatred of immigration and cultural diversity is rationalised as a rescue mission hauling Englishness back from its diluted and fractious state to something bound to a fictitious idyll represented by the likes of Churchill (who opposed all emancipating reforms throughout the first three decades of the 20th century and pioneered the use of chemical weapons and labour camps), war time working class solidarity and that kind of male sack contents. Then, again as now, the ringleaders pass themselves off as respectable patriots, suited and business like, trotting out the familiar mantra of welcoming the hard working immigrant but rejecting the rest ergo they're not racists at all. Obvious really! Having presented this pack of lies, Meadow's discredits it with equal verve. When combo storms into the hard working Pakistani shop owner's newsagent, threatens to kill him and steals his stock (because presumably working for it wasn't an option) there's little in the way of appreciation for the man's contribution to the economy. A simple "thank you for the annual 2 billion pound surplus in 2007 money you and your fellow immigrants contribute, subsidising benefit dependent ex-cons like myself" would have sufficed but no, its abuse a giant knife. As combo listens to Milk describe the simply pleasures of his family life a scene that's like watching someone sit on a bomb you know is about to explode, his decision to try and batter him to death in a jealous rage is a tacit acknowledgement of what actually lies at the heart of the future BNP's membership - simple envy and bitter resentment coupled with an idiots view of history.
When Meadow's explores the personal motivations for this hate his characters and the film as a whole have an air of authenticity, built on universally excellent and naturalistic performances. It's the attempt to tie the characters to the wider political and social context that strikes a false note.
Meadows locates the mutation of the skinhead movement from anarchist to racist by showing us footage of the Falkland's war and Thatcher. Combos been in prison for three and half years and it isn't a coincidence that his captivity dates from Thatcher's accession to government he's a symbolic globule of Thatcherite folly. Sending your armed forces to protect a hill and kill sheep Meadows suggests, proved a stark reminder of Britain's loss of status in the world and this, coupled with Maggie's systematic and ruthless destruction of the working class through mass employment and the atomising of society, which essentially ate like acid through traditional working class communities (which was always the point), was decisive in inflaming social tensions. This is a fair judgement of history but labouring the Falkland's as an inciting incident overstates its importance, when a more rigorous look at the domestic situation might have struck a stronger note. All of this suggests that while Meadow's is a vintage documenter of his own childhood experiences and has an gift for social realism, his credentials as a social historian are less secure.
Mind you, this may be all a misreading. Perhaps Meadows is suggesting Roland Rat is responsible the morning TV menace featuring in the opening archive footage, and who'd bet against it?
Or Columbo goes on a summer sabbatical...
The problem with something as perfectly realised as Columbo is that when people remake it they're making a rod for their own back. In keeping with the theme of Fracture I offer into evidence, er, Fracture - a Columbo episode in all but name in which Anthony Hopkins takes on the mantle of many before him as the intelligent but arrogant affluent would-be murderer who, in a opening 20 minutes that could have been extracted from almost any Peter Falk outing, plods around, putting the finishing touches to his plan before the carefully thought out execution. Hopkins, an aeronautical engineer and self-made man of means, punishes his wife for having affair with a bullet to the brain. Rough justice you might think and at this point it would be Falk's cue to awkwardly meander into Hopkin's abode, establish his guilt in anything between 5 and 50 seconds and then spend the rest of the movie unravelling the killer's many mistakes before presenting them to him in time for the end credits.
Whether Falk was unavailable is never explained, not even a note to say that the lieutenant in Europe seeing relatives. Instead at the point where the entertaining bout of class war fare would commence we meet self-inflated (not literally you understand), cock sure prosecutor Ryan Gosling. Ryan's so full of himself he should be registering as morbidly obese but in the event we find him ready to accept a new high salaried job. With a signed confession from Hopkins his final case with his public office firm should be open and shut. In case we're bored with his ego and the inevitable pride before a fall elephant trap into which Gosling is walking, head in the clouds - there's pretty Rosamund Pike to look at. She's Gosling's new boss elect and she's ready and willing and show him the parts of the law that he can't read about in the public library. So hes arrogant, slow talking, as charismatic as top soil and just as interesting to look at but thank goodness, hes a man of humble origins and as such this sets up the dynamic familiar to fans of Falk whereby the two can clash is a suitably dramatic fashion - one the debonair socialite, the other aspirational and determined to wipe the $250,000 a year smile off Lecter's crumpled face.
This isn't quite as promising as it sounds because enjoyable though Fracture is, there's precious few surprises. That's because unlike its televisual progenitor that pretends to show you everything but keeps its best cards hidden for the final reveal, this one gives you too much information too early and thus saps any suspense from the remaining running time. We're never as impressed by Hopkins plan as he is because we've got a fairly good idea of what hes done long before the dim witted Gosling. Perhaps its savings the best for last you're left to wonder and like the glass eyed template, there is of course a twist which will wrong foot the homicidal mastermind but once again, not far from the finish, the screenwriter wrong foots himself and tips the audience off so that when Gosling delivers the final blow, we've been aware of it for the previous 15 minutes. That, as Hitchcock would have said, is bad technique but thats not to write off Fracture because its a breezy, occasionally absorbing courtroom potboiler. Hopkins has a lot of fun toying with the runtish Gosling like a kitten with a toy mouse and the interplay between the two is entertainingly soiled with testosterone. Its that banter and the look on Hopkins face when the hole in his plot is revealed to him that stays with you, long after the implausible contrivances and the gaping Falk shaped gap in the narrative has faded in the mind faster than the blood from Mrs Hopkins face. If Gosling had just had the guts to say "just one more thing sir" it'd have been marvelous. Instead just, er, worth a shot. If you know what I mean.