Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Tourist

Surely you can't go wrong with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp?

Jolie, the searing sex siren and ultimate leading lady of the modern era, alongside the preposterously and irritatingly handsome Depp, the best actor of his generation. So how is that The Tourist is so underwhelming?

Well there's the plot, for a start. Jolie is the classic mystery lady, looking astonishing at all times despite the fact that she is being watched at every turn by Scotland Yard and some very bad, bad guys. It turns out she's the lover of a man who once stole an unimaginable amount of money from both. Following his instructions (by letter) Jolie's Elise Clifton-Ward boards a train to Venice, picks up Depp's Frank Tupelo (a teacher of "math" from Wisconsin), and so begins what should have been a comic farce containing chases, slapstick, sharp dialogue and all around sizzling sexiness.

Yet there is precious little of any of that. Jolie goes all out for the Hepburn-esque movie icon look and, while she is not far short of pulling it off, she seems to forget that her character is in the midst of 'a situation'. Meanwhile Depp's character lacks humour or charm, and instead spends the film in a state of awe and confusion. While few actors can pull off mild confusion as well as Depp, we have seen it all before from him. Isn't it time that this most versatile of actors gave the Jack Sparrow thing a rest? Maybe you think that if it ain't broke and all that.........but I expected a little more.

The baddies are, as alluded to, just that. Lead gangster is Steven Berkoff, a man so bored with his lot that he cannot even summon the acting prowess to unsettle his audience at the point when he promises to re-arrange Jolie's facial features. I'm paraphrasing but he tells her life would not be so kind to an ugly woman, but he also should remember that this film is bad enough without it's redeeming feature being carved into little pieces for the sake of a wedge of stolen cash.

So what's to like about The Tourist? Well, the scene in which Depp is pursued across a Venice hotel roof-top in his pyjamas is half-way amusing, while Rufus Sewell's ubiquitiousness puts one in mind of Waldo from the 'Where's Wally' book series. Only without the stripes. Regardless, you know he's important because he keeps turning up. The film has a few comic moments to enjoy, but it's not certain that they are intentional and you leave the cinema feeling that they could have done so much more with it.

Overall this is not one to recommend unless you are a fervent Jolie or Depp devotee. If the very presence of either on screen is enough to entertain you for two hours then don't let me stop you. Otherwise, you might want to give this one the slip.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 1

After 10 years and what will eventually be eight films the Harry Potter series is finally coming to an end.

Whether you love J K Rowling's stories or you hate them, you have to agree that it is time. The film's stars have grown up before our very eyes. They're real people now, holding onto only minimal traces of the annoying children they used to be. What started as a mystical journey into child wizardry has now developed into an adult drama, with characters with real feelings and emotions.

And it is so much the better for that. The first of two installments of The Deathly Hallows is by far the best of the Potter movies so far. Perhaps this is because the long awaited denoument is now in sight. This film really moves, and the often contrived and confusing plots of some of it's predecessors have been replaced with one of real drive and purpose. We know where we are with this one, even with only a rudimentary grasp of what has gone before. Yet it still feels like a good time to leave Harry, Ron and Hermione behind. Even to this casual Potter observer everything seems to be tying together nicely. It is hard to see where Rowling would go were she to pick up her pen for an eighth book.

We begin with the bad guys. Fresh from his slaying of the much cherished wizard Aldus Dumbledore, the despicable Lord Voldemort is turning his attentions to Harry and his friends. Visiting with his Death Eaters, Voldemort hatches his plan. Yet not before demonstrating the depth of his evil by feeding a former Hogwarts teacher to his snake for the heinous crime of believing muggles (those ordinary folk not possessed of any magic skills) should be free to mix and indeed mate with wizards and witches. Preposterous. Everyone knows that parakeets don't mate with armadillos.

So with Voldemort's quest established, we turn to Harry's which is basically to stay alive in the face of this dogged pursuit. This is every bit as difficult as you might imagine, with Death Eaters seemingly at every turn despite the fact that Hermione possesses the ability to whisk herself, Harry and Ron away to any location of her choosing. My personal favourite is the Forest Of Dene. Complicating their task further is the knowledge that to end Voldemort's pursuit they must find and destroy the five 'horcruxes', pieces of the evil Lord's soul carelessly left lying around for reasons best known to Potter afficianados and geeks. Dumbledore has left clues as to their whereabouts but not much on how to destroy them. What's more, one of them is a locket which is making it's wearer awfully grumpy. Lord Of The Rings, anyone?

Lockets aside, it is the clash between Harry and Ron over the all-of-a-sudden stunningly beautiful Hermione that is causing the real consternation. Ron's clearly in love and, mad as it sounds, there's even a hint that she might feel the same way about him. 'I'm always mad at him.' she offers at one point, as if any further evidence of being in love with someone were required. Yet her relationship with Harry is also growing stronger and, though the specky dufus doesn't seem to know it, there's every chance he might get the girl by the end. Well that would be only right wouldn't it? He's the hero. It's his name above the door.

Though much of the action is focused on these three and their pursuants, the film's makers are acutely aware that they have a loyal audience to stay faithful to. Thus there are brief appearances from many of the films' weird and wonderful characters and the stellar British actors who have contributed so much to the series. Along with Ralph Fiennes' expert turn as Voldemort you can expect to catch glimpses of Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Richard Griffiths, Rhys Ifans, Timothy Spall, John Hurt, Brendan Gleeson and of course Michael Gambon as Dumbledore among many others. Death doesn't stop wizards from making a contribution. Lord Of The Rings, anyone?

For the first time ever, I left the cinema at the end of a Harry Potter movie actually looking forward to the next film. So many questions to answer. Will Harry find the remaining horcruxes and/or slay the revolting Voldemort? Will he get Hermione, or will Ron confound the lazy stereotyping of ginger-haired people by making off with the goods? And will Emma Watson get any easier on the eye? Could she? Not if her boy's haircut at the official premiere is anything to go by. Almost sacrilege. Even the ludicrously short dress couldn't rescue the situation.

All will be revealed in July 2011 when Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 2 finally opens.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Red (Retired and Extremeley Dangerous)

The colourful title refers to the CIA alert level of Frank Moses, a former Black Ops agent played by Bruce Willis in this action comedy yarn. Also starring are Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and the always show-stealing John Malkovich along with the love interest provided by the stunning Mary Louise Parker.

It's an hour until we see any trace of Mirren. In the meantime we get to look at Parker a lot, and take a trip down Memory Lane with Willis as he gamefully reprises some of his most treasured Die Hard material. Frank's retired, but he's been calling Parker's Sarah Ross endlessly at work. She works for the company dealing with his pension plan, and he just likes the sound of her voice. Wait till he sees her.

When his house is invaded by CIA assassins Frank has to find out why he is wanted dead. Given her new connection to Frank, Sarah is no longer safe either and so Frank kidnaps her (calling it a rescue). And so begins the adventure as one by one Frank assembles his old team of agents to get to the bottom of the mess. Malkovich is delirious as Marvin Bogg, a man who has become paranoid through the enforced use of LSD, while Freeman plays along with the tired old notion that the black guy gets it first. He tells us early that he has stage four liver cancer, and it's a matter of when, not if, from that moment on.

Mirren has thus far managed to escape the madness but the trail of destruction finally leads to her and she is forced to swap the flower arranging and the 'routine' for a spot of sniping. Between the four old heads(along with former Russian agent Ivan played by the manic Brian Cox) they discover who's behind the plot. I say plot, it's all rather convoluted towards the end as it leads eventually on to the American vice president, running for the top job but soon to be running for his life.

RED is not to be taken seriously under any circumstances. If you enter the cinema expecting mindless and unlikely violence done cartoon-style with the odd wry quip thrown in you will have fun. If you go in expecting a serious political thriller you will be sorely let down.

In such circumstances, just stare at Parker.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Wall Street - Money Never Sleeps

I only saw the first Wall Street film three days ago. That means I'm new to this whole 'Greed is Good' thing. Until Monday the name Gordon Gecko meant very little to me. I knew he was a character played by Michael Douglas wearing large braces and smoking an even larger cigar, but that was where my knowledge of Oliver Stone's shady trader began and ended.

But now I feel I know Gordon a lot more. That is thanks largely to Stone's two intriguing movies in which most people seem to get fat by shouting about money that doesn't exist, before losing it all in some self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Some get it back again, some end up in front of underground trains. It's the luck of the draw from what I can gather.

Wall Street - Money Never sleeps is mostly set 21 years after Gecko was banged up for insider trading and something called 'Security Fraud' in the denoument of the 1987 original. After which time he has been doing an awful lot of thinking, and writing. While giving a lecture to some wannabe financial players (mostly to promote his own book) he meets one named Jake Moore, his soon-to-be son-in-law it turns out. If that isn't too many hyphens for you.

Moore is played by Shia Leboeuf, last seen rolling around with the octogenaeric Harrison Ford in the needless fourth installment of the Indiana Jones story. Yet here he seems much more comfortable, even if his character tends to lack a bit of focus. Does he want to engage with Gecko to help re-unite him with his estranged daughter, or does he really want to pick up a few tips on how to become absurdly rich overnight? Well, both actually.

Mixed in with all of this is a revenge plot featuring Josh Brolin's Bretton James, mega-rich megalomaniac and big-shit of the monumentally capitalist Churchill Schwarz bank. James will stomp over anyone to make more money and win what Gecko later calls 'the game'. James is something of a re-incarnation of Gecko's character from the first installment. I'd question whether the film needs another Gecko, since it already has Gecko. Yet my main bug-bear with Brolin's greed is that it is at one point illustrated by a motorcycling scene which, though important in one obvious way, is mostly pointless posturing.

It takes an hour for the film to establish Jake's dilemma. One the one hand he knows that his fiancee Winnie (played by the currently ubiquitous Carey Mulligan) will flip her proverbial lid if she finds out that he has been in cahoots with her father. She still blames him for the overdose which killed her brother Rudi. On the other he has this nagging feeling that won't go away that he could learn so much from Gecko. Did I say learn? I meant earn. Either way his idyllic relationship is heading for rockier times.

And so a more human tale emerges than anything seen in the first film. Douglas goes about the business of reclaiming his daughter's love, and it seems that the game and the money no longer matter. Yet leopards are notoriously reluctant to change their spots, so the question is whether Gecko will be lured in again by the rampant, greedy gambler that lies within.

There's no mileage in giving away the ending, except to say that I found it a little disappointing. To my mind Stone goes past the point of no return plot-wise, before slamming on the brakes regardless.

As a character study and morality tale this is every bit as good as it's predecessor. Leboeuf bares favourable comparison with Charlie Sheen's young gun Buddy Fox from the original, while Mulligan and Brolin are very believable and watchable as Winnie and Bretton respectively. Yet it's Douglas who steals the show as expected. Gordon Gecko is back.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


The word is that Salt was a script initially written with Tom Cruise in mind for the leading part. Instead, and not unpleasantly, we get Angelina Jolie as quadruple-crosssing, gun-toting, high-kicking CIA agent Evelyne Salt. Yet it is easy to see comparisons premise-wise with Cruise's more futuristic action thriller Minority Report.

Where Minority Report had a sci-fi theme, Salt is more of a spy thriller. Yet it does not lack for action. For over 100 bone-rattling minutes Jolie barges, blasts and blags her way through a multitude of certain death situations, while still managing to look stunning and totally in control for the vast majority of the time. The film's many plot twists don't seem to trouble her either. She reacts to seismic changes in her circumstances in the way that one might react to the cancellation of a favourite television programme.

We first see her in North Korea being tortured for being a spy. This sets the tone for the introduction of the slightly barm-pot yet nostalgic renewal of Hollywood hostilities with Communism. A film hasn't been this anti-Commie since Ivan Drago mused that 'if he dies, he dies' in Rocky IV. Yet the North Koreans disappear as quickly as they appear and it is that old foe the Russians who are absolutely out to get America and it's allies. To prove this they have planted Salt into the CIA. Yet they're nothing if not subtle, so her first mission is to assassinate the RUSSIAN president on his visit to New York.

We get all this news from a former Russian agent wanting to defect. Salt acts like it's news to her. She has a cover to protect, a regular home life with a husband and everything. She's just trying to get home for their anniversary dinner. But the evidence mounts and she decides that she's going to have to kill a few people after all.

That's about as much plot as you can stomach but trust me when I tell you there is a very different endgame. Along the way there are more twists and turns than a twisty-turny thing could ever hope to contain and we get the full range of Jolie's action heroine talents. She runs a lot, jumps a lot, fights a lot and even crosses genders to keep the authorities if not the audience guessing. She's like a female Jack Bauer. You're sure that what she is doing is good but you are not so sure that her methods are not equally if not more damaging.

I'm not suggesting that Salt is a likely story. Some of it's stunts and scenarios are so absurd they make James Bond movies look like documentaries. The climactic scenes are especially guilty here, as they ignore the golden rule about never leaving a witness alive. Yet none of this should detract from the enjoyment on offer. Far better to be absurd, know it and just enjoy it than to try and make some intellectual or salient point as so many films try and fail to do these days.

Salt is very definitely open for a sequel which, if it happens, has a lot to live up to action-wise. And a nagging problem about what to do with that witness.......

Friday, 13 August 2010

Knight And Day

In case you missed the transition, Tom Cruise is now a comedian. Following on from his admittedly hilarious cameo in Tropic Thunder, the slightly doo-lally Scientologist with the winning smile brings you this mostly pointless quip-fest.

Cruise plays Ray Miller who, it turns out, is a secret agent. After deliberately bumping into Cameron Diaz at an airport, the pair find themselves on board the plane exchanging pleasantries and trying to emit chemistry. All of which is quite incidental, because the real reason that Ray has engineered the meeting is because..........well actually I don't know........

Ray has something that lots of bad people want to take from him, but the film never satisfactorily explains why he has to take Diaz's June Havens along for the ride. Maybe it is just because the director thinks that she'll look good in a bikini later in the film. Who knows? June is on her way back home for her sister April's wedding. I have no idea what happened to May, but she's better off out of it if what follows is any yardstick.

The bad people are on the plane. So while June is off powdering her nose in the implausibly small toilet, Ray is left to ruthlessly murder a succession of henchmen, two of whom happen to be piloting the plane. What's an action comedy hero to do but get up front and land the plane himself? Ray does so with the minimum of fuss, finding time to apologise to June for every slight bump along the way. Ray's manners are the film's most prominent running joke. He never forgets to apologise or pay compliments about June's dress. Not even if there are 50 machine-gun wielding lunatics on his tail. Which is almost always the case.

From here on in it is a battle to protect the thing that the bad guys want which means tracking down it's inventor, the brilliantly named Simon Feck (Drink! Girls! Arse-biscuits!) Simon's a young genius, but has all the character of a Katie Price novel. All of which makes him pretty difficult to protect from the hail of bullets at times, but that doesn't stop Cruise wise-cracking his way through the madness all the same.

The stunts in this film are monstrously silly, and it never makes it's mind up about whether it is a rom-com or an action film. There is some acting among the special effects but nothing that will be remembered. If Cruise's movement towards comedy has anything to do with his 47 years it is not evident here. He remains determined to prove that he can do action and humour in the same 100-odd minutes. He can, but it doesn't mean it works all the time.

Knight And Day is fun if you like this sort of thing and are prepared to leave your belief at the door. There are moments of genuine humour and a passable love story. Cruise and Diaz are a believable couple, but the comic banter they spend so much time delivering is effortlessly overshadowed by Ray's parents in one short scene.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Toy Story 3

I don't know what Freud would make of the fact that two out of the three films reviewed on these pages are aimed at 6-year-olds. Freud can go and fuck himself anyway.

Before we begin I have to report an assault. This being the school holidays and Bargain Tuesday, the cinema was unusually busy. Happily we had got to our seats early enough, but within a few minutes the rush began. A small boy attempted to squeeze past me to get to the seats further up our row. Wouldn't you think I'd just bloody well stand up and let him through? My failure to do so caused him to lose balance, and so in an attempt to steady himself before his head hit the seat in front of him he pushed out a hand straight into my groin.

Still, at least HE didn't fall over.

And so to the film, the third in the series but the first for 11 years. Interestingly, the screenplay writers have chosen to acknowledge this passing of time and so we arrive (via a western-style, roof-of-a-train duel between Woody and Mr Potato Head) a few days prior to Andy's departure for college. John Morris, who was 10 at the time of the original Toy Story, again provides the voice of Andy, who must decide what to do with his old toy collection before he leaves. He can take them with him (a curious option since I can't imagine anyone turning up for their first day at University with a box full of plastic cowboys, space rangers and evil Dr Pork Chop piggy banks), he can leave them in the attic at his mum's house, or he can throw them in the bin. Or the trash.

This taxing dilemma takes the film into prison break-out territory, and our heroes end up in what seems like an idyllic day care centre. However things are not quite what they seem there. At this point we meet the show-stealing Lotso, voiced by Ned Beatty. He's a cuddly bear who's had his mind twisted by a bad experience with a previous owner. An Anakin Skywalker for the Pixar Generation. Lotso rules the roost and is not a bear you can trust, not like that nice Fozzy I grew up with. When Woody and the gang find this out they must launch a desperate bid to escape to the relative safety of Andy's mum's attic.

Comedy highlights include Ken and Barbie's on-off relationship, and the running joke of Mrs Potato Head's eye seeing independently of her head. For reasons too complex to go into here (no, really) Buzz develops a 'Spanish mode' which although arguably xenophobic and milked just a little too much, is undeniably amusing. Laugh out loud moments are not that plentiful (indeed some of the best come in the added material accompanying the closing credits so stay in your seat), but there are more than enough chuckles along the way to keep the adults interested and to entertain the kids.

Toy Story 3 has more emotional depth than can reasonably be expected of a children's animation. The notion of one's childhood finally passing by forever will resonate with many of the adults who see this film. Those who really allow themselves to buy into the surprisingly moving storyline might want to equip themselves with some hankies, especially those young adults who were small children at the time of the original's release in 1995.

You just hope that the people behind the series will be able to resist the temptation of a pointless pot-of-gold fourth installment somewhere down the track. It's a fine end to the saga, and should be left well enough alone now.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


Inception: an event that is a beginning. A first part or stage of subsequent events.

Well that's one way of defining it, but it hardly prepares you for the mind-bending, logic-defying silliness of Christopher Nolan's journey into the subconscious. Nolan is the man behind Memento, a film which, it turned out, was about a man who had short term memory loss which somehow led to the entire thing being played out from back to front. Mercifully, Nolan also does Batman movies.

I have had some silly dreams in my time. I once dreamed (dreamt?) that Diego Maradona and Michael Jackson were the same person. I still can't explain what use the moonwalk is to a footballer, but I am sure Diego would have found a use for Michael's glittery glove. Anyway my point is that dreams, or at least mine, tend to be a hotch-potch of snippets of reality which invariably make no sense whatsoever. I'm dreaming now if I think I can go to bed tonight and have a sensible, coherent dream that I will be able to make sense of in the morning.

This is something which Nolan fails to recognise with Inception. The main protagonist is the terribly named Dom Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) who has somehow landed a job as a dream thief. Using new technology, sedatives and other such arse-wash, Cobb can enter another person's dream and steal just about any information he can find there. Again it is difficult to see what value he would find in my Maradona-Michael Jackson dream, but in his reality (or at least one of them) dreams unfold in a more straightforward manner.

Cobb is challenged to carry out the inception, that is to actually plant an idea in someone's head without that person knowing that it has been planted there. To fake inspiration, as the film would have it. To do this he assembles a team of dream dabblers including the sedative guy, and a suspiciously attractive young architect. Not just any suspiciously attractive young architect, mind. An architect who constructs the settings for dreams, whether they belong to her or not.

The team embark on their mission, to convince the son of a business tycoon (played by Pete Postlethwaite, who hasn't looked this ill since Brassed Off) to bring down his father's empire. Why would he want to do that when he is about to inherit it? Well, he wouldn't, which just makes the job of making him think it was his own idea all the more difficult.

It is at this point where the dreams get out of control. We're into the realms of dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams now, and the whole thing has more layers than Ashley and Cheryl's wedding cake. Fiendishly, each dream level runs at a different speed so that five minutes in one dream could take an hour in another and so on. Just as well, as Nolan takes the last hour of the film to lead us to the denouement.

Spurring Cobb on throughout is the romantic thought of getting back to reality with his wife and two children. The only problem is that his wife died some time ago, something of which he seems to be reminded in whichever dream he happens to pop up in. Yet being told that someone is dead in Inception means very little because it's all a dream. Or is it? I'm buggered if I know actually.

An attempt at this kind of deep thinking is to be applauded, though it's a little depressing to note that originality now necessarily involves a film drowning in it's complexity. Inception is in real danger of convincing it's audience that it doesn't actually know where it is going or care how it is going to get there. Just believe, will you? Maybe.

Another complaint is that the film could have done without it's nod-to-the-matrix style special effects, all of which thinly disguise the fact that Nolan is trying to distract the people who would otherwise be getting frustrated at the fact that they don't get it. Or that they do get it and it just doesn't work for them.

Rather like dreams themselves, the success or failure of Inception is very much open to interpretation.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Shrek Ever After

The fourth and hopefully final installment of the animated ogre's tale walks on very little new ground.  All routes seem to have been explored in the previous three films, so we end up taking a trip back to where it all started.  And having to go through what we already went through again........if you see what I mean.

Shrek's fed up with his perfect life.  Yes he's got an ogress wife with the voice of Cameron Diaz, aswell as three perfect ogre children, but he is just so ordinary now.  He wants to go back to a time when he was special, when people feared his roar, or fled screaming from his very presence.  Of course the trouble with getting what you want in life is that it causes more problems than it fixes.  Thus our hero is taken all the way back to a time where Diaz's Fiona doesn't know or want to know him, where the kids don't exist and where even donkey (voiced again by a still singing Eddie Murphy) finds it hard to believe that the two could be best friends.  And don't even get him started on the notion that he has children who are a mix between him and his fire-breathing dragon wife.

Leading Shrek back to this alternate reality is the demented wizard-cum-dwarf Rumpelstiltzkin.  For reasons that I might have missed in Shrek 3, Rumpelstiltzkin has the power to grant Shrek his wish, and so a deal is struck between the two.  Shrek gives up one day of his life in return for one day of genuine ogredom.  He's genuinely scary again, and he no longer has to suffer the indignity of having tour buses full of sightseers drive past his home.  The only thing is that the day he happened to give up was the day he was born.  And so he was never born.  Complicated?  The kids won't think so, will they?

And so begins Shrek's quest to win back Fiona (for it is only true love's kiss which will break the curse that Shrek's new/old life becomes).  Hence we have been here before, back to the days when Shrek released the then Princess Fiona from the tower of her incarceration.  The fact that she is now a warrior Queen busy rallying the ogre troops for battles ahead is not making Shrek's job any easier.  Nor is Puss In Boots, reprised by Antonio Banderas but suffering from something of a weight problem.  No longer the flashing blade of old, Puss is a fat housecat who is massaged twice a day and seems to sleep for the rest of it. 

Dreamwork's ultimate motivation here seems to have been to knock out a 3-D movie while the going is good in that particular market.  I chose the conventional, 2-D route for my experience, but it may be that adorning uncomfortable eye-wear could enhance yours.  The scenes which are designed for the 3-D audience are stupefyingly obvious.  Having seen the 3-D show in Forida recently I already feel like I kind of know what I would have got if I had gone the other way and donned the specs.  I don't feel like I missed out on anything.

The dancing ogres and witches will entertain your young well enough, as will the few belly laughs you get from Banderas, but this is not a film that you or they will remember all that fondly.  It's at least one Shrek too many, which is almost certainly the reason that the screenwriters chose to go down the alternate reality route in the first place.  If you don't expect Finding Nemo and you don't take it too seriously, this a perfectly enjoyable but not life-changing way for the family to spend 93 minutes.