Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Debt

John Madden's ambitious thriller 'The Debt' spans two time periods 30 years apart using six actors to tell the story through the eyes of it's three main characters.

Did you get all that? It may seem like a lot of numbers but for the most part, 'The Debt' is perfectly engaging. It suffers from a contrived, stick-on ending and some dubious pacing but the acting is strong and the action is plentiful.

It's 1965 and David, Stefan and Rachel are three Israeli Mossad agents given the unenviable task of capturing Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel, the so-called Surgeon of Birkenau, and bringing him to justice. Vogel has earned his nickname with the mutilation and murder of thousands of people at wartime prison camps but we first encounter him as Dr Bernhardt, trying to go it straight as the gynaecologist helping Rachel overcome her apparent fertility issues. As you might expect it is not long before the not so good Doc has Rachel's legs wrapped tightly around his neck as she delivers the near lethal shot of whatever is required to facilitate his capture.

But before all that we find ourselves in 1997, with Rachel (Helen Mirren) busy taking the plaudits from what everyone believes to have been a roaringly successful mission. Their version of events has even been turned into a book by Rachel's daughter, but what really happened in the days after Vogel's capture? Whatever it was is enough for David (Ciaran Hinds) to step in front of a bus rather than face up to it, while Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) seems equally keen to hide the truth.

And so the film sets about telling the tale. It is during the kidnap of Vogel that the three young actors show us their best. Fans of Avatar and Clash Of The Titans (if there are any of you out there) will have enjoyed the work of Sam Worthington before but Jessica Chastain and Marton Csokas will be less familiar. Worthington plays the young David who it seems has the greatest chemistry with the young Rachel (Chastain), but it is somehow Stefan (Csokas)who gets to the goods first. I hate to nit-pick but I must take issue with this. Moments earlier David had pulled away when he and Rachel were about to kiss, but if she has to jump on the next available bus after every knock-back then she has serious problems. For now it is David and Stefan who have problems, but this being the movie business they were always going to while there was a girl in the room.

Far more interesting are Vogel's attempts to pschologically destroy his captors. His gag is only removed at meal times but that seems to be all he needs to drive a further wedge between the two men and to get under the skin of an increasingly nervous Rachel. Though they may have benefitted from a little more editing, these scenes are the film's strongest. Jesper Christensen is highly convincing as Vogel and the young actors seem to bounce off him during these tense, dramatic moments. But then we find out what really happened to Vogel and things start to head downhill from there for 'The Debt'. Driven so well by it's plot and it's ability to throw up some interesting moral questions, the film's strength gets perilously close to becoming it's weakness as things get decidely implausible and the whole things starts to feel like it has been on for far too long,

If only Madden had known when to stop.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

"Spy on our own spy as he searches for their spy? Yes, why not? -- sounds rather fun."

Some of you may recognise the above. It is a direct quote from General Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth. Irked as I am by prefacing sit-com episodes with the words 'the one where', I should explain that it is 'the one where' there is a spy among the troops and Blackadder is given the unenviable task of rooting him out.

Such is the task handed to Gary Oldman's George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an adaptation of John Le Carre's apparently page-turning novel of the same name which was also turned into a successful television series starring Alec Guiness in 1979. Where Melchett fits in to all this is that frankly, I felt as utterly bewildered and clueless throughout the whole of this drab affair as Stephen Fry's brilliantly portrayed General is throughout much of the Great War. The Oscar talk has already begun regarding Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so it is likely that I have got it all wrong and it is the masterpiece that all of the billboards tell you it is. However, I have to report that I lost interest well before the half way mark and by the end, well it is no exaggeration to suggest that I was on the verge of sticking a pencil up each nostril and sticking a pair of pants on my head, such was my delerium amid the tedium.

This film is apallingly, chillingly slow. The basic premise is that there is a mole (and he lives in a hole) among MI6. Oldman is charged with uncovering the wretched traitor before the audience wakes up. In doing this, he has a series of hopefully mysterious and tense conversations with the main players. One of whom is Mark Strong's Jim Prideux, sent to Budapest by 'Control' (John Hurt) to meet Polyakov, who is Russian not Hungarian and has something to do with spying somewhere along the line. Jim makes the schoolboy error of getting himself shot but instead of suffering the altogether more favourable fate of dying there and then, he is sent back to England to teach French to, among others, a fat loner called Bill. At a point inbetween he is strapped to a chair and slapped with a pair of headphones from which only the screeching cries of a baby can be heard. It is supposed to be a method of torture aimed at finding out something or other which I am not quite sure of. If they wanted him to sing like a bird they should have just sat him down and made him watch the rest of this monstrous, excuse for a spy thriller.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy never comes close to thrilling. It excelled at confusing, but only due to the fact that the utter banality of the thing had forced me to stop listening to what was being said and start focusing instead on what I might want from the chippy on the way home. It lacks any kind of suspense or tension and the end, while a mild surprise, is hardly likely to have you leaving the cinema with a feeling of 'well I never'. More like 'well I wish I never'. And while we are at it can Colin Firth get any more smug? Every time he appears on screen not only in this debacle but throughout his career I have been overwhelmed with the urge to bash him over the head with a garden spade.

This review may not be of any higher standard than the film that is it's subject. I'm sorry about that but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy really is quite the most mesmerising rot and it has had a profoundly negative effect on me.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 2

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?

These were the questions I was left to ask at the end of the first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in J K Rowling's celebrated child-wizard saga.

To be quite honest if I were to answer those questions on these pages some people might get quite cross. People don't like spoilers and the film is still in cinemas after all. I should know, I've just been. Oh go on then, I'll answer one question now, maybe another later. No, Emma Watson does not and could not get any easier on the eye. There, feel better now?

If like me you are a bit of a casual, Johnny-Come-Lateley Harry Potter observer you might find yourself a little confused at the start of Part 2. We're in a poky little room with a goblin named Griphook, whom Emma reliably informs me has not just been plucked from nowhere but who actually appears in the first film. Maybe some others, she's not so sure. Anyway, we then move from Griphook to John Hurt looking older than it is possible for him to ever be. There's a confusing conversation about something or other but mercifully it is not long until we are back into more comfortable Potter surroundings.

Specifically that means Harry, Ron and Hermione doing what they are reknowned for, trying to get into places they have no rights to be in and magically morphing into completely different entities. It took me more time than I'm comfortable with to realise that Emma Watson is not Helena Bonham-Carter. Regardless, a veritable gala of special effects ensues, sparking a chain of similarly exciting if a little overblown episodes as our heroes make their way to the real endgame.

Which, of course, is killing the once unspeakable Lord Voldemort. It doesn't matter if you say his name, we are told at one point by the wonderful Maggie Smith, he's going to kill you all anyway. Fine, all that you-know-who stuff was becoming a little tedious. You may remember from Part 1 that the only way to kill Voldemort is to find and destroy the horcruxes, or parts of his soul that he has left lying around in some place or other. 'We don't know what we are looking for or where it is?' admits Harry at one point. Sounds like you're screwed, mate.

Without giving away the many twists and turns and the film's very own Empire Strikes Back moment, Harry really should be screwed. That he may not be is thanks mostly to Nevile Longbottom, a man who sounds like he opened the batting for England some time in the 1930's, and more surprisingly good old Draco Malfoy who to my mind last made a significant contribution to this story when he was comically punched in the face by Hermione about four films ago.

If you can get past the argument you will have with yourself over the whole logic of the set-up, the climactic face off between Harry and Voldemort is the stuff of which cinema was made for. Huge bolts of lightning which don't do very much harm to either party abound, while Hogwarts falls to pieces around their very ears. Assuming Voldemort has ears. He only has around a quarter of a nose, so who knows. Nose. Get it? Whatever.

There's a little nose-to-nose between Ron and Hermione somewhere in the midst of all this. Either Rowling or the screenplay writers obviously felt that it was a bad idea to follow up on the possibility of pairing Hermione with Harry. Ron's sister is a reasonable consolation prize and anyway, that means two ginger-haired people win. What do you think of that, lazy stereotypers? A big up yours to you.

Loose ends tied in a mostly satisfactory way, the ending feels unecessary in a film which is already well over two hours long. It seems to be the trend among film-makers these days to steadfastly refuse to give up on a project until they have squeezed every last possible drop of storyline out of it. I remember cringing at and complaining on these very pages about a similar botch job in True Grit, to mention just one.

Deathly Hallows Part 2, for all my cynicism, wet-wit and general air of sneering-ness, is a fine conclusion to this exhaustively long, till-ringing, child-star making series of films.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

I have read almost all of John Grisham's novels and seen almost all of the film adaptations that have followed. If you have too, you might be tricked into thinking that you have seen The Lincoln Lawyer before.

And yet it is not even adapted from a Grisham novel. The original text, which I haven't read but have made a mental note to do, is by Michael Connelly. Apparently a lot of it doesn't make the cut here, but that doesn't stop this from being an engaging, entertaining legal thriller.

It stars Matthew McConaughey, seen here on top 'A Time To Kill' form, but this time as smart-arsed legal whizz-kid Michael Haller. Michael gets bad people off, if you'll pardon that kind of expressionism, meaning that he gets people out of jail terms that they really should have to serve. In that sense he's a sort of anti-hero, but trust me by the end you'll be rooting for him in the courtroom.

The film is so titled because Haller works mostly from the back seat of his Lincoln. That's a car for the uninitiated (like me before I knew of this film) and in all honesty, not enough is made of it's use for legal chicanery to justify naming the entire shebang after it. The best use of the vehicle comes when Haller is negotiating with a group of very hairy bikers. It's all set up to project an image of devil-may-care, maverick law practise. You're not supposed to like Haller, yet.

Not that is until he starts the defense of Louis Roulet (like the wheel, he announces wrongly), played by Ryan Phillipe. He's a rich kid accused of the brutal assault and rape of an expensive prostitute. Why does a rich kid need to be using prostitutes? Those with money tend not to need it, don't they? Anyhow, it doesn't take long before we realise that Roulet is guilty, and we start demanding that our man Haller do something about it. At this point I began wondering about Haller. He can't tell anyone that Roulet has confessed to the crime, and a much worse one to boot, because of lawyer-client confidentiality. Yet rather than walk away and let Roulet find himself another defender he carries on, performing brilliantly considering the amount of alcohol he has consumed.

All of which leads to a mildly surprising and slightly less than mildly satisfactory ending. This film is not a classic but there is much to enjoy in McConaughey's return to form, from the all-too-short involvement of William H Macy as the investigator who sniffs out the details of Roulet's involvement in the grisly crime, to the woefully under-used but permanently smiling Marisa Tomei as Haller's ex-wife and mother of his young daughter.

They're still friends. Well, you'd want to stay in Marisa Tomei's good books.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Do you ever think that some things were just meant to be, and some not?

Well, mostly not. Yet if you're a believer in destiny then you'll at least be intrigued by the basic premise of The Adjustment Bureau. It stars Matt Damon as New York Senate candidate David Norris who, after flunking badly in the election, happens upon a chance meeting with Elise (Emily Blunt). She's in the gents toilets for reasons best known to herself, and he's talking to himself in preparation for his acceptance speech. Acceptance of defeat, that is. They're a right pair.

Within minutes they kiss. Of course they do. This kind of shit happens to me every day. Regardless, their meeting and the subsequent kiss spells trouble for both, if only they would know it. Enter The Adjustment Bureau. They wear fedora hats, and they do what it says on the tin. They make adjustments to people's lives and events so that things don't deviate too far from 'the plan'. It's all been worked out by 'the chairman'. Are you confused yet?

What you really need to remember here (as if you could forget it) is that The Adjustment Bureau will do almost anything to stop David and Elise from seeing each other again. It's just not part of 'the plan', despite the fact that they think they were meant to be together and seem to care about little else. So determined is David, in particular, that after another chance meeting on a bus he rides the same bus at the same time every day for three years in the hope of finding her, this following another irritating intervention from The Adjustment Bureau. And their hats. Remember the hats, they are important later in the film.

The great problem with all of this is that you probably won't believe that it's so important to the Bureau for David and Elise to be kept apart. They certainly don't. Not that is until the introduction of Thomspon, played by Terence Stamp, at which point it all becomes clear. Clear but still less than convincing. Surely they have caused more trouble than they have fixed with their continued efforts to keep the happy couple apart?

The ending reminded me of one of my novels. Stop laughing now as I tell you that I wrote two (arguably unfinished) novels a number of years ago, but what came between me and becoming the next Nick Hornby (who?) was the fact that I would set up a premise and several subsequent scenes without having any clue as to how it was going to end. It's just possible that that is what has happnened here, although this being an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel you might choose to buy into it. After all, Dick was a proper writer, not some journalism graduate with an hour for his lunch break.

Yet to my mind the ending is rushed and unlikely, though it is difficult to criticise a film with a premise as unlikely as this for having an unlikely ending. This is sci-fi. One could question any number of events before the ending (not least of which is how a man manages to pull Emily Blunt within a minute. A minute spent talking to himself. Even if he is Matt Damon). Still, it remains an interesting concept, and could have been a great film had it been blessed with a plot with a little more substance. It should get you thinking about free will and the choices you make, but it probably won't influence them.

I'm off to finish those novels.........

Friday, 4 March 2011


Emma and I are going to Las Vegas this summer. It's going to be a bit of a road trip, actually. We've hired a car and we're going to travel out to California, spend a few nights in Los Angeles and a few more in San Diego before heading back to Vegas for the second week.

I mention this not to gloat (although......), but because it is similar to the journey taken by the main protagonists in Paul, the latest comedy vehicle of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Graham Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) start in San Diego at the Comic-Con convention (Emma says we'll be starting at the zoo) and several mishaps later end up journeying quite blindly across America in the company of an alien. That's Paul.

Along the way they pick up the fanatically religious Ruth, prompting much creationism versus evolution debate between her and Paul. God botherers may want to look away at the point when Paul appears to prove that all of Darwen's theories are correct and that humanity evolved over millions of years and was not created by a supreme being with an afternoon to kill. Personally, I didn't need much convincing on that score.

As a matter of fact it is the most believable notion in the whole film. But that's alright because this is a film about an alien. Look elsewhere if you're seeking gritty realism. Not that it lacks any attempt at philosophy. One of Paul's 'things' is to impart his wisdom on the otherwise hapless Willy and Gollings aswell as Ruth. He also smokes dope, dances and revives a dead bird before stuffing it into his mouth and swallowing it whole. Paul is not just any old alien. He's a multi-talented alien.

All of which gives you an idea of the kind of comedy you're dealing with. You are either going to like it or you're not. It has been criticised for allegedly paying homage to too many other sci-fi films and while it is true that some dialogue is lifted entirely from elsewhere, it is done with good intentions and will work quite well for sci-fi fans who are prepared to let go and not take the genre too seriously. Assuming such people exist. Paul is good fun but nothing much more. It will not be remembered 100 years from now and may not even bear comparison to earlier Pegg/Frost efforts like Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz.

The ending is predictable and features a wholly unnecessary cameo from Sigourney Weaver. Why they didn't break the bank for Carrie Fisher I'll never know. Anyway, it does at least offer a final chance to shine for possibly the film's strongest character and best performer, Jason Bateman as government agent Zoyle. What? Didn't I mention that Paul had been working for the government but, fearing that he had outgrown his use to them, had decided to flee back to his home planet with Zoyle in hot pursuit?

Must have had my mind on that road trip...............

Sunday, 27 February 2011

True Grit

I'm not a fan of westerns. Actually that's a little unfair, because I'm not sure I've ever seen one in it's entirity until now. I read somewhere that Star Wars - which taken as a whole and nothwithstanding the disaster that is The Phantom Menace - is my favourite film of all time, is a space western. Well, that's as maybe but having never seen anything more cowboy-related than the Dallas cheerleaders, I wouldn't know so I'm sticking to my story. I've never seen a real western, until now.

Indisputably, no amount of gunslinging, shot-swigging or large moustaches has ever convinced me to sit through anything starring John Wayne before, so it might be considered odd that I took an interest in the remake of his 1969 classic True Grit.

Until that is you consider that this particular remake is the work of the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. I am a fan of the Coen brothers. The Big Lebowski remains one of the best films I have ever seen, and my appreciation of more recent efforts like No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading made this a must-see. In addition, I'd been promised that this was a story much closer to that in the original novel than the one played out in Wayne's movie. No, I haven't read the book either but everyone knows that books are better than films, right?

Like Lebowski, True Grit stars Jeff Bridges. Here he plays Rooster Cogburn, a washed up old Marshall who somehow finds himself on a mission to avenge the death of a young girl's father. He engages in this potentially deadly pursuit despite being drunk, unconscious or both regularly throughout. His inoxication, added to his Texan drawl make him rather difficult to understand at times but that's ok because he has help in moving the plot along.

At just 14 years of age Hailee Steinfeld produces a stunning performance as the recently bereaved Mattie Ross. She weighs in with a bit of narration too. Her Oscar-worthy efforts are certainly helped by a snappy and witty script, less quirky than Coen brothers fans may be used to but no less entertaining for that. Yet this should not detract from Steinfeld's excellent endeavours, stealing almost every scene from the acting powerhouse that is Bridges, himself delivering another sterling effort as Cogburn. Academy gongs are handed out just hours after the time of writing, and fingers are firmly crossed for both. Bridges is up for Best Actor, while if there is a better candidate for Supporting Actress than Steinfeld then her's is a performance I need to see.

In support are Matt Damon as rival Chaney-chaser Laboeuf and Josh Brolin in the all too brief but wonderfully dastardly role of Chaney. Damon's Laboeuf keeps you guessing from first sight to last, and is in posession of a moustache that is as impressive as anything else his character manages to contribute. Brolin is criminally under-used but as such retains an air of mystery which adds to the intrigue. This might slightly irk those who need a little more screen time in order to truly invest their hatred in a character, but for this viewer it was enough to know what he had done. I couldn't help but get dragged along by Bridges and Steinfeld in any case.

At bug-bear time I do wish the film would have ended a little sooner than it did. The ending seems somehow tacked on, with some unecessary sadness thrown in for what was obviously a stab at prolonging the drama. If it ain't broke though, cowboy. Or something.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Fighter

I can't present it as fact, but I'd venture to suggest that all men my age love Rocky films. Before it all got a bit silly, Sylvester Stallone's original rags to riches tale was an inspiration for a generation. Go on, admit it, at the very least you left the cinema belting out the famous theme tune and shadow boxing with your mates.

'The Fighter' could do the same for this generation, but I had hoped for and began to expect so much more. The film charts the true-life rise to prominence of former Light Welterweight champion Micky Ward, who battled all manner of adversities thrown at him by his dingbat family to beat Liverpool's Shea Neary to secure the WBU crown. Yet having fulfilled that aim so beautifully to a point, the film then takes a worrying diversion down Rocky Road. From musical training montages and unrealistic climactic fight scenes, right down to the freeze-framed moment of glory, 'The Fighter' decides at some point that it must pay homage to it's 1976 Oscar-winning predecessor.

And it's unwise to have done so. The better part of this film is a moving, well acted, genuinely human story. While Mark Wahlberg delivers a confident performance as Ward, acting honours are carried off serenely by Christian Bale. The Batman madman turns in a fully believable performance as Ward's half-brother Dicky Ecklund, himself a former fighter. Ecklund's bitterness at having failed to build on knocking down the great Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight he would go on to lose lead him to a life of crack addiction and violent crime. As such, the story is as much his as Micky's. His is the real tragedy.

All of which personality weaknesses mean that as Micky's trainer, Dicky continually drags his brother down with him. He fails to turn up for sessions and promotes impossible fights against men two stones heavier, yet Micky sticks by him for far longer than this viewer was comfortable with. There's further family interference from the pair's mother Alice, who calls herself Micky's manager but is seemingly as manipulative and selfish as Dicky. It's here that the film really starts to examine it's central theme, that of the importance of family and the moral dilemmas that can ensue between pleasing them and doing what is best for oneself.

Pulling Micky in the other direction is girlfriend Charlene, played more than adequately by Amy Adams, of whom there are at least two gratuitous but potentially prize-wininng posteria shots. Notwithstanding that, you are very much in her corner as she struggles to prise her man out of the clutches of the increasingly manic Dicky, Alice and a gaggle of trailer-park trash sisters who make The Simpsons' Patti and Selma look like The Corrs.

Ward's career never really kicked on from his dramatic victory over Neary, though he went on to take part in three epic bouts with Arturo Gatti between 2001 and 2003. In many ways his fate mirrors that of this film, never quite hitting the heights that it could have had it shown a little more focus. Perhaps the director was persistently bothered by some Dicky Ecklund-esque screenwriter, persuading him to take the more sensational path to Box Office glory.