Subscribe to my full feed.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1


The last time we met Lars von Trier, the earth was being smashed by a rogue planet. Then before that, in Antichrist, Wilem Defoe was having his testicles smashed and Charlotte Gainsbourg was cutting off her clitoris. Time to put the children to bed, because we have the final part of the ‘depression’ trilogy - Nymphomaniac, where it’s Charlotte Gainsbourg’s turn to get smashed, this time by hundreds of penises, one of which happens to belong to Shia LaFuckingBeouf.

Yep, that’s right, Shia LaFuckingBeouf; the weasley, barely sentient kid from Transformers. Thankfully, contrary to his terrifying promises when the film was cast, we don’t get to see his penis, but we do get to see a porn star have their penis grafted onto his crotch via the wonders of CGI. Ah, what a great job for the tech wizards. ‘What did you do today, darling?’ ‘I’m working on Nymphomaniac, the new von Trier film.’ ‘Oh, that’s exciting!’ ‘Yeah, I’m pasting a porn star’s erect penis onto Shia LeBeouf’s crotch as he has simulated sex.’ ‘Oh...’

So yeah, it’s little weird having the kid from Transformers fool around with a girl and then have von Trier suddenly cut to a very artistic shot between LaBeouf’s legs where you can see his massive stunt penis have full penetrative sex.

And now as you shift uncomfortably in your seat and try and change the subject, you ask me how his acting is. Has he matured into a fine thespian? Like fuck he has. His acting is immature and unconvincing and his attempt to perfect an English accent is gut-wrenchingly embarrassing. For half a second it sounds okay, then it sounds fucking awful and then it sounds like he’s swallowed an Australian. It’s one of the worst vocal performances I’ve heard. Just either cast an Englishman in the role or have him speak in his normal voice. Make up some bullshit reason for why an American is living in the UK.

LaBeouf’s undetermined age doesn’t lend him any credibility either. We first see him as a teenager and then we see him as an adult. Funny thing is, though, that as a ‘teenager’ he doesn’t look any different to when he’s an adult. LaBeouf is one of those unfortunate people who looks like he could be aged anywhere between 12 and 35. It’s hard to take him seriously as either a teen or adult.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard don’t fare much better. Gainsbourg mumbles morosely into a cup of coffee and Skarsgard comes across as a pretentious simpleton. Yes, that is a contradiction but von Trier somehow manages to achieve it. While Gainsbourg is recounting her experiences as a teenager where she fucked an entire train-load of men, Skarsgard is comparing it to angling and talking about Fibonacci numbers. It’s Iike von Trier has made a fuck-happy Forest Gump.

But the wraparound story of a sex-obsessed individual recounting their exploits to an avid listener reminds me of Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon. In that film, Peter Coyote tells his story to a salivating Hugh Grant. But while Bitter Moon is joyfully trashy, Nymphomaniac is po-faced. It somehow manages to make sex seem like the most depressing thing in the world. It also doesn’t have the emotion and tragedy of Bitter Moon (at least not in this first part). At heart, Bitter Moon is a deeply sad film. Nymphomaniac, meanwhile, is half joke, half depressed rant.

It also suffers from a man’s deluded idea of female sexuality. There’s a scene where two girls, one of which is our ‘heroine’ Joe, are going through a train, trying to fuck as many men as possible. It’s a competition between the two women. Whoever fucks the most guys, ‘wins’. It’s something that only a man would come up with. Sport fucking. Fucking like it’s a match between Liverpool and Manchester United.

While the portrait of female sexuality is misjudged and adolescent, the portrait of male sexuality is just depressing. None of the men have any willpower. None of them are able to control their impulses. One man, who’s travelling back on the train to see his wife, is powerless to stop our heroine from giving him an earth-shattering blow-job. Everyone here is just giving in to their most basic instincts.

Perhaps the only ‘normal’ character is Joe’s father. A seemingly ordinary, decent man, he shares a love of nature with his daughter and is attentive and kind. But even here you can kind of sense that something is off. At one point he catches his daughter looking at book of female anatomy - she’s looking at the clitoris. Her father smiles but doesn’t say anything. While nothing overt happens, their relationship feels a little incestuous.

But this is perhaps the most believable part of the film. This feels like a genuine human relationship. Joe even lets her father repeat stories she’s already heard many times before just to make him feel better. There’s love there. And this is maybe why Joe engages in joyless sex. She wants to make men happy. She needs their attention.

One of the most plausible sequences in the film is when Joe sleeps around in her father’s hospital. In order to escape the pain of her father’s demise, she repeatedly fucks a hospital employee. But while this feels convincing, von Trier has to be his puckish self and include a saucy detail once Joe’s father dies. Joe becomes aroused and we see a dribble drip down the inside of her leg.

But this is how fucked up this film is. The star performer in this movie is Christian Slater! The guy who was Uwe Boll’s muse in Alone in the Dark and who began turning up in direct-to-video clag like Hollow Man 2. He’s miles better than Skarsgard and Gainsbourg. Miles better. It kind of blows my mind.

With her father dead, Joe decides to pursue Jerome (Shia LaFuckingBeouf). He’s an absolutely worthless humanoid - a vain, greasy, arrogant nincompoop. Why any woman would desire this individual, I don’t know. But sex addicts rarely make sound decisions, so I shouldn’t be surprised that Joe would seek attention from him. Regardless, it’s difficult to watch these scenes because the acting is so damn wretched. And the ending of the film, with Joe crying, ‘I can’t feel anything’ lands with a dull thud. Did you ever feel anything, Joe? Did you really?

Friday, 23 August 2013

Trance


Usually when people escape a shitty relationship they take their books and their CDs. They might even stuff a couple of posters under their arms and run off with the Blu Ray player. At the very worst they’ll sneak into their ex-partners house when they’re at work and nab the cat. Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), though, has other ideas...

Directed by Danny Boyle, you wouldn’t be completely off your nut to expect decent things from Trance. From Trainspotting to Shallow Grave to 28 Days Later to Slumdog Millionaire to the amazing opening Olympic ceremony that had this homesick Londoner in tears, he has an incredibly robust CV. But then Trance rears it’s weird, deranged head.

First things first, I was incredibly entertained by Trance. But I can’t call it a good film. In fact, it’s pretty fucking awful. It’s a colossal mess. It’s nasty, it’s bitter and it’s trashy...which is why I probably found it so perversely entertaining.

Part of me thinks that Trance is a reaction to Kerry Fox’s character in Shallow Grave. In that film you have a scheming, manipulative woman who is outwitted by an equally scheming, manipulative man. But even though they’re equally dastardly, you can’t help but root for the Ewan McGregor character. But why? He’s greedy, he’s a coward and he’s completely lacking in moral fibre. So why should we root for him over a woman with the same kind of characteristics? Do we somehow believe that women should be above such avarice? Or is there some kind of misogyny going on? Are we so insecure that we can’t abide the fact that a woman could be smarter or more devious than a man?

Perhaps. But Danny Boyle atones for his vaguely misogynistic treatment of women in Shallow Grave by having the female lead get away with everything in Trance. She takes the male characters to the cleaners and gets to take home an expensive Goya.

But is this a satisfying role reversal? Not really. The character is painted in broad strokes and her ability to manipulate the minds of others is so strong that she could almost be considered a super hero/super villain; she doesn’t seem human - she’s more like a character out of X-Men.

One of the most egregious things in Trance is the ending. Elizabeth has got away with the expensive painting and she’s screwed over all the men in her life, including Franck (Vincent Cassel), a mid-level hood. The expensive painting was his prize and he’s understandably upset that someone else has it. But Elizabeth offers a solution. If Franck just picks up the ipad she’s sent to him by courier, he can forget that it ever happened. All he has to do is press an app called ‘Trance’ and she’ll erase it from his memory.

This scene is stupid for many reasons. Firstly, it’s way too cute. Elizabeth, speaking through the video on the ipad, is perfectly filmed. Really? Did she do this or herself? Or did she hire a professional, Academy Award level crew to film her message? The lighting and the camerawork are all perfect. And then you have Franck standing there like an idiot. Ooh, I’m attracted to this woman but she screwed me over and I really want that painting back but I want to be able to escape the torment of not having it. Shall I press the Trance app? Yeah, I think I will. No, wait! No I won’t. I won’t touch it. But it hurts so much. I can put an end to the pain. Yeah, let me press it. But I want the painting so much! I can’t do it. But I’m in agony. I can have peace. But I want the painting! *THE END*

The thing that surprised me the most was just how bad James McAvoy is. His overacting in this film is insane. A couple of times he does this evil look. It’s kind of hard to describe. It’s like some weird Tourette’s tic. Or he’s just pooed himself and he likes it. I never knew that he was quite so hammy.

But not knowing anything about the film before going to see it, I was quite surprised at just how fucked up it is. At the beginning it seems like something of a lightweight caper film. Oh, there’s an art robbery and various shenanigans are going to follow. But then an hour and half later James McAvoy is driving around in a car with a rotting corpse in it. And then he’s shooting people in the penis and strangling women to death. [insert evil McAvoy smirk]

Something else James McAvoy’s character likes is a pube-free, little girly vagina. Yep, he’s so turned on by Renaissance nudes that he likes his women to be hair free. Cue graphic shots of Elizabeth’s hairless mound.

He becomes so obsessed with this baby smooth pussy that he begins getting jealous for no reason and starts beating Elizabeth up. So to try and stop him from killing her, she gradually puts him in a trance and makes him forget her and their relationship. Surely this would be enough. No, no it wouldn’t. As compensation she plants an idea in his head - he’ll steal a painting and deliver it to her.

It’s a neat enough idea but the script is too weak to pull it off. For a little while I thought it was going to be a genuinely decent film. I know my wife was hating every second that Rosario Dawson opened her mouth, but the initial trance scenes were entertaining. It’s like a detective story, only the mystery is trapped in your head. But then the film degenerates and becomes a crazy guilty pleasure. Would you like graphic cock violence with your gential close-ups? Yes, please!

I think I could drink a six pack and have the most amazing time watching this film. There are certainly one or two howlers.

In one scene Elizabeth passes three bullets to James McAvoy...into his mouth...and no one notices! Okay, they’re having a romantic kiss before they get killed. But can you really walk around with three bullets in your mouth without anyone noticing? ‘What have got in your gob there?’ [Jangle, jangle]

The unintentional hilarity even extends to the movie poster. It features a multi-coloured James McAvoy screaming at the viewer. Is this the frustration we’re going to feel when viewing the movie? Or is it outright anger? But to me it looks like a Technicolor shit arranged into James McAvoy’s visage. Yes, Danny Boyle did a dump and this is what happened...and it’s kind of amazing.

Hmm. Shall I hit the ‘Trance’ app and forget everything that happened? But the film is so much fun! But it’s such a piece of shit as well! I should just erase it from my memory. But the McAvoy smirk is so amusing! No, don’t let it take up precious room in your head. Get rid of it! But James McAvoy shoots someone in the penis!

*THE END*

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Pain and Gain


I can’t help but feel that there’s a much better film trying to escape the story of Pain and Gain. There are so many ways that this twisted tale tells of the corruption of the American Dream and the greed that lies at the heart of man. Combine this with the fact that the antagonists are bodybuilders and you have all kinds of layers to explore; the decision to chose the surface over depth and the perversion of trying to climb the ladder of success by stealing someone else’s life. You could make an amazingly layered movie here.

Or you could fill it with penis jokes.

Filmed by Michael Bay, I was under no illusions that this was going to be a complicated, multi-textured look at modern day avarice, but I still can’t help but feel a sense of disappointment. Not that Bay does a bad job with the film. After all the shit he’s made, here, finally, is a genuinely entertaining movie. But that’s all it is - an amusing two-hour diversion full of titties and knob gags.

Mark Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, a musclebound crook who lands a job at the Sun Gym in Miami. He excels in his position, boosting membership and making his clientele very happy. There’s nothing he won’t do to help business - he’ll even wax the body hair off of fatties. But a fire burns in him. He wants more. He wants more money.

Lugo is kind of a half dunderhead and half genius. His criminal plans are idiotic but yet he’s still able to pull off something remarkable - he’s able to kidnap a man, torture him and steal all of his assets and move into his house without raising any suspicions. He’s the next evolutionary step of Dirk Diggler. Dirk was a 100% dumbass while Lugo is hovering around the 60% range.

One of the funniest scenes is when the gang first tries to kidnap Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Dressed in ridiculously skimpy army fatigues that show off all their muscles, they approach their target’s house but then run away like frightened children once they spot that a family gathering is taking place. All the while ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ by Coolio is playing in the background.

And then when the gang finally do grab Kershaw they’re dressed in alien and samurai outfits. They look completely idiotic.

Up to this point, the film is silly and amusing, but then once the torturing takes place, you kind of have to question the tone of the movie. In reality, the real victim, Marc Shiller, was abused and tortured for a whole month. Sure some dark humour can be had with this but the real-life ordeal was incredibly brutal. Here the edge is taken off of it. Kershaw is portrayed as an annoying prick and it kind of feels like the filmmakers want you to feel sympathy for the criminals. How does that work? They kidnap the guy, they get him to sign away all of his money and property, and then they try and kill him. How can you have any sympathy for these guys? The simple fact is, you can’t.

And then Michael Bay’s weird homophobia rears its head. The gang takes Kershaw to a warehouse full of sex toys. So everyone seems to be waving a giant dildo around. In reality it was just a regular warehouse. I’m not quite sure why Bay feels the need to shoehorn as many yucks into the film as he can. This sequence isn’t improved at all by stupid, low-brow humour. This is the sequence when you’re supposed to finally realise how horrid and despicable these people are.

The humour is far more successful in sequences such as the aborted hospital assassination attempt. Somehow Kershaw manages to avoid being killed and then becomes the gang’s target when he turns up at a Miami hospital. There’s just one problem...the gang can’t find their way around the hospital and can’t locate his bed. The humour here is entirely appropriate - these guys are morons.

But it’s very disappointing that the film decides to stray so far from the truth of the real life events. One of the gang is turned from a 140 pound weakling into The Rock! And then the murder of Frank Griga (a Hungarian immigrant made good) is portrayed as almost accidental when he was actually beaten to death because he tried to fight back from a kidnapping attempt. And then you have a completely random action scene where The Rock steals money from an armoured vehicle and then gets his toe shot off. It’s clear that Bay is uncomfortable going so long without having any action and so he decides to insert this sequence. Again it makes the criminals look like bumbling, loveable lugs. Oh, look at this buffoon. Look at the scrapes he gets into!

And then another gang member has a bent penis and continues to steal money so that he can pay for his dick injections - he has erectile dysfunction. Again, this is kind of amusing but it’s not the truth at all. The gang kept on stealing because they were greedy pigs.

The film even goes so far as to have Kershaw personally apprehend Lugo at the end. This is Hollywood bullshit of the highest order. The victim did not take down the bad guy and a nice, clean revenge was not had.

But despite all these problems, I still enjoyed the movie on a base level. I kind of think, though, that my enjoyment was in spite of Michael Bay rather than because of him. The story is so outlandish and ridiculous that I’m just pleased its out there, even if its in a highly bastardised form. And even though he often flies wide off the mark, occasionally Bay gets something right. A great piece of dark humour occurs after the Griga murder. Adrenaline pumping after the killing, Lugo decides that he has to ‘get a pump’ and so begins furiously lifting weights. This is what the film needed more of. It needed less dick jokes and more of this ridiculous, clueless narcissism. These guys weren’t loveable buffoons. They were evil, selfish assholes. They were constantly focusing on themselves - so much so that other people were just barriers to the wealth they wanted to acquire. Their victims were just bodies to be thrown aside like used dumbbells once they’d successfully got their pump.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Skyfall


The product placement in the Bond films is getting completely out of control. I could handle the lingering shots of Omega watches and the ever changing car manufacturers (although having Bond drive a standard Ford saloon in Casino Royale was a little sad - it was like he was going on a business trip to Milton Keynes), but now every last thing is dripping with commercialisation. Oh, what’s this, Bond’s in a chase sequence on a train? Let’s drop some Volkswagen Beetles in there and let’s be sure to mention them by name just in case the idiots watching the film don’t know what they are. And what fine beverage shall we give Bond when he needs to unwind? Er, some Heineken. Is this the fucking Champions League all of a sudden?

There’s a particularly egregious moment when one of the MI6 agents is trying to relax after an attack on M. He stands there in the MI6 HQ and swigs some Heineken. Really? Really?!? Somehow that’s more unbelievable to me than Bond falling into some icy water with a bad guy, killing him and then not drowning or freezing to death after seemingly being underwater for about ten minutes.

Commercialization aside, though, Skyfall is a pretty strong entry in the Bond franchise. It doesn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of Casino Royale and GoldenEye, and I probably prefer Licence to Kill as well if we’re talking about relatively modern Bond films, but it’s a pretty solid movie.

However, I did leave the film with a slight sense of disappointment, as Skyfall has a couple of amazing, breathtaking moments that are some of the best things I’ve ever seen in a Bond movie - I just wish they were able to permeate the whole film.

My favourite moment is when Bond fights an assassin in front of an open window in a tall skyscraper. These days the impulse is to get in close with the camera and have lots of fast cuts. But Mendes keeps the camera static and distant. And the scene is lit with the garish electric lights from a huge advertisement on the building opposite, meaning that the characters are cast in silhouette (it ends up looking like something you’d imagine seeing in Blade Runner). As they fight the camera ever so slowly moves in. It turns an incredibly routine fight scene into something beautiful and poetic. And kudos too to Mendes for the sense of vertigo he instills when the bad guy is finally dangling off the side of the building. My legs actually began to feel weak, so convincing was the effect.

I also really enjoyed the scene where Silva (Javier Bardem) attacks the inquiry that M is attending. Dressed as a cop, he manages to walk straight in. I actually really thought that he’d kill M in this scene but Silva wants to take too long to enjoy the moment and fluffs his opportunity. But it’s still a great scene and drips with tension.

And it’s pleasing to have a villain whose only objective is personal revenge. Silva is a former MI6 agent with a serious mummy complex and is distraught when M gives him up so that she can stop some of his shady shenanigans. His only aim is to kill M, although he doesn’t mind collateral damage.

Silva kind of reminds me of a mixture of Roger Moore and Hannibal Lector. The charm and the smoothness are pure Rog, but the creepiness, the mind games and psychosis are Lector-ish.

Silva’s introductory speech suggests that he wasn’t always a bad guy. He tells a story about some rats on an island. In order to get rid of them, he says, you put some coconut inside a drum and allow the rats to go inside and get it. One by one they get trapped, until they have no other option but to eat themselves. But then when you have two left, you let them go. However, they’ll never eat coconut again as they no longer have a taste for it - their nature has been changed. Which is what Silva is suggesting happened to him. That his work for MI6 has changed him and he’s no longer the person he used to be.

There’s also some humour to be found when Silva tries to sexually intimidate Bond. Silva caresses 007 and then begins to unbutton his shirt. Bond counters by saying that this isn’t the first time that this has happened to him and therefore remains cool during the whole exchange.

But it’s kind of amusing to me that even the bad guys now want to fuck Bond. It only used to be the ladies, but now Daniel Craig is so well-established as the buff, beefcake 007 that even the men want a piece of him. I think this is now two out of three Bond films where Craig has been tied to chair by a bloke and has either been fondled or had his genitals abused.

But with Skyfall we’re ever so slowly getting back to the old-style Bond movie. Bond actually shags three different women in this film (what a guy!) and both Q and Moneypenny make an appearance. Pretty soon Bond’s going to be slapping around bald-headed guys and fighting sharks.

Although having said this, Bond does actually go toe to toe with a komodo dragon in this film, which suggests the traditional Bond movie creep is even further upon us than I thought. Oh, and seeing as I just mentioned that Bond shags three ladies in this film, I must applaud the person who had the bright idea of having fireworks immediately follow the scene where Bond nails Moneypenny. Bravo, sir, bravo! Roger Moore would be proud!

The least successful part of the film is the final sequence. Bond takes M to Scotland to his abandoned family home Skyfall. He knows that Silva will find them but at least they’re isolated enough that there won’t be any collateral damage.

The final action sequence is a tad bland and by the numbers. Silva and his men attack Skyfall and mercenaries are blown up and killed by improvised explosives like they’re in Home Alone or The A-Team.

The film only rekindles its interest once Silva has his clutches on M. He puts his hands on her and begs her to shoot them both. It’s a very intense scene that is only rendered somewhat underwhelming because Bond turns up at the last second and throws a knife into Silva’s back, killing him. It’s somehow the most anticlimactic movie death I’ve seen in a long time.

But then Bond films often have this problem. They often start off strong but then descend into huge gun battles that lack the colour of everything that came before. Thankfully Skyfall saves itself by killing off Judi Dench as M and neatly setting up the next movie. It would have been sad if a strong Bond film like this would have ended up with simply a knife in the back.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Before Midnight


There was one scene in Before Midnight that I found surprisingly upsetting. It’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and his teenage son are preparing to say goodbye at the airport. Jesse’s son has been holidaying with his father in Greece but now he has to return home to his mother in America. There’s nothing in the scene that calls attention upon itself. The conversation is the usual stuff. They talk about school, about sports and about other trivialities. Plus, Jesse’s son seems incapable of stringing more than two sentences together. But the understatement is its strength - it bubbles with things left unsaid. And when Jesse’s son finally does say something meaningful, by telling his dad that its the best summer he’s ever had, Jesse is quietly overwhelmed.

But it’s just a great scene overall. There’s a great moment, after Jesse’s son has headed into security, where Jesse waits for his son to turn back and wave goodbye. He’s yearning for it. He desperately wants it. But it never happens. Alas, Jesse’s son is a teenager and has yet to develop any lingering sentiment. This is no big deal to him. He’s still young - he still has plenty of time. But Jesse is now becoming aware of how fleeting life is and how much everyone means to him. He’d die just to receive some acknowledgement from his son.

The scene also kind of echos the end of Before Sunrise where Jesse says goodbye to Celine (Julie Delpy). He exits the train station on his own, kind of in a haze. He’s just had the best night of his life and he wants that feeling to last forever but now he’s been cut adrift; he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. And so it is in Before Midnight as he staggers out of the airport. He doesn’t want to have to say goodbye.

Maybe this is why the scene resonated so much with me. I’m far too accustomed to saying goodbye to loved ones at airports. For a while I seemed to be doing it every couple of months. And it never really gets any easier. The desire is to always have other people orbiting you, but as you get older you realise that’s not possible. People have their own lives and you can’t dictate where they put roots down. But it still doesn’t make it any easier when you have to leave them or if they decide to build a life away from you.

Jesse’s life now is firmly with Celine. They live together in Paris and they have two children. Near the beginning we have a fantastic scene where they talk about what lousy parents they are - their daughters have been wanting to see some ancient ruins, but as they’re asleep in the back of the car, mum and dad are reluctant to wake them and break their peace and quiet. The dialogue and acting are wonderfully natural and it’s a promising beginning to the movie.

After this, Before Midnight begins to wobble a little bit. There are a couple of frustrating scenes that seem to go on for far too long. One deals with Jesse talking about his new writing projects. They sound incredibly pretentious, which is perhaps the point, but lots of the scene revolves around a friend fawning over what a genius he is. But as Jesse talks about his ideas, you begin to wonder what his friend has been smoking, because these novels sound unbearable.

The next scene also had me worried. Wealthy people sit around a table in an idyllic locale, drinking wine and eating good food while trying to figure out love and the problems with the world. Sorry, but I have very little tolerance for these kinds of scenes. It’s hard for me to listen to your bitching while you’re guzzling wine in a locale that looks like it should be an Unesco heritage site. Most people, when they’re trying to figure things out, have to sit around the table eating microwave pizza while staring at flaking walls as Splash plays on the TV behind them. You meanwhile, privileged wine guzzler, should just take a look at the paradise you’re living in. You don’t really have it that hard. Yes, you have the same needs as everyone else, but...you live in fucking paradise, not Romford! I’m sure it’s easier to figure things out when you have the sea to look at instead of chavs stealing your flowerpots.

However, as frustrating as most of the scene is, it does have a poignant ending. One of the guests talks about her dead husband and how she can no longer really remember what he looks like. She also talks about how we appear and then disappear. And this is one of the themes of the film - how transitory everything is. In life we’re doomed to live on this earth for the equivalent of a few seconds. But love can be even more fleeting than that. When it starts, everyone thinks it’s forever, but it takes work to keep it shining. It can die far too easy.

As the film progresses, and Jesse and Celine are thankfully left on their own to hog the screen, you realise that they’re at a crossroads in their relationship. They can either stay together or they can go their separate ways.

The conceit of the film is that they have an evening to themselves away from their children and friends - their friends have booked them a hotel room. The intention, of course, is that they’ll have a romantic evening on their own.

On the way to the hotel they talk about how they met and their hopes and fears for the future. Everything seems fine but there are one or two little cracks. At one point Celine asks Jesse whether, if they were on the train again where they first met, and if she looked as she does now, would Jesse make a move for her. He dithers a little and she gets annoyed at him. She’s looking for reassurance that he still desires her but he fails to provide an emphatic response. In his defence, he’s desperately trying not to lie to her. Were they both single and if they didn’t know each other, his older self probably wouldn’t start that conversation, either because his youthful fearlessness has gone or because a single, middle-aged Jesse would do the cliched older man thing and try and find some young girl. So poor Jesse is kind of trapped. He still loves and desires Celine, but he doesn’t want to lie to her, so his weird response just ends up sounding weasley. Jesse tries to worm his way out of things by saying that it doesn’t matter, that when it counted he made the first move, but it’s too late. Celine’s question was a little test and he spectacularly failed. He should have just said yes.

Later on we find out that there’s maybe more reason for this question than we thought. When Celine and Jesse get to the hotel they have a big fight. As each person digs into the other, foolishly trying to ‘win’ the argument, we find out that Jesse might have possibly slept with a young fan of his while on a book tour. Jesse doesn't admit to it but he doesn't deny it either, which, as far as men go, means that he did it. But the whole feeling that you have as you watch them argue is that these issues should have already been resolved. If you think your partner has been cheating, you should try and find out. And then if they have, you can either leave them or try and give them a second chance. But if you give them a second chance, you need to do just that. You can’t throw it in their face when you have a disagreement. Forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting, but you can’t bring it up as a weapon when things get tough.

But of course, this is much easier said than done. In an ideal world you’d be able to talk about all your problems and get everything figured out with a level head, but relationships are complicated and messy. When you have a row, the gloves can come off. It’s a defence thing. You feel like you’re being attacked and so you go on the counter. And before you know it, things have escalated to a ridiculous extent.

The issues in Jesse and Celine’s relationship are multiple. Firstly, Jesse wants to be close to his son but Celine doesn’t want to move to America for this to happen. Which is entirely understandable. She has a career she wants to start and she has roots in Paris. At the same time, you can understand Jesse’s frustration. He moved across the world to be with her but now he wants to be near his son - his son is entering his most important years and Jesse feels like he’s stranded. Then you have Jesse’s apparent infidelity. It seems like this issue hasn’t been resolved at all and that Jesse hasn’t entirely won back Celine’s trust. Both of these things threaten to be cancers in their relationship. But they needn’t be. They just need to talk about them. They need to forget about scoring points and using other things against their partner and find the answers together.

But then what kind of film would we have if people just talked very reasonably to each other? Instead we have a magnificent film. Probably one of the best in the last few years. Jesse and Celine aren’t married, but what happens in Beyond Midnight is an alarmingly accurate look at what can happen in married life. I know that I saw quite a few echoes in the film.

Most of all, though, I really care about these people. I feel like we’ve grown up with them. It’s kind of the fictional equivalent of Michael Apted’s Up series. Every few years we check in to see how Celine and Jesse are doing. At the moment they don’t seem to be doing too great. But there’s a lot of hope for them. They still have a lot of love for one another. You just hope they can find a way through the bullshit life throws at them and the bullshit they create for themselves, because they’re obviously meant for one another.

I think I’d probably go so far to say that this is the best film in the series. Before Sunrise is breathtaking and magical, and Before Sunset finally makes your hopes and wishes for the characters come true, but Before Midnight is messy and complicated and surprisingly funny. I don’t remember laughing that much during the previous films, but here I laughed a lot. It’s such a rich, vivid film. It deserves all the plaudits and awards it can get its hands on.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Dark Knight Rises


Bigger is not necessarily better. Like a juice-head chugging protein shakes and injecting steroids into his butt, Christopher Nolan’s films have been puffing themselves up. The muscles get larger and larger but the subtlety and nuance disappear.

I’m starting to revise my opinion of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. I’m no longer sure that The Dark Knight is the best film in the series - I’m starting to think that Batman Begins was the apex. Of course Begins has horrible fight choreography and Katie Holmes is woefully miscast, but it also has warmth, heart and excitement, qualities that the other films only sporadically recapture.

Nothing in the second or third films can match the intensity and sheer coolness of the demon Batman flying over Gotham, and nothing in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises has the emotional weight of Bruce Wayne recalling memories of his father. The two sequels, in comparison, are rather hollow affairs.

Just take the big twist in The Dark Knight Rises, that Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Miranda Tate is secretly Ra's al Ghul's daughter. She seems to be on Bruce Wayne’s side and then with ten minutes to go she does a 180, stabs Batman and then promptly dies. It’s like the Two Face story thread in The Dark Knight, but [deploy Jeremy Clarkson voice], on speed!

There’s nothing satisfying about the execution of this. It was so late in the game that I immediately rolled my eyes. Maybe if I were smarter or if I’d read the comics, I would have seen the twist coming and see all the subtle nuances and betrayals, but I had no idea and therefore it felt like it was too little, too late.

And the twist also kills the Bane character. For most of the film he’s this double hard bastard with a prissy voice and then all of a sudden he’s acting all subservient to a little French girl. He doesn’t seem so tough anymore. And they could have at least developed the relationship between Tate and Bane. We get a flashback showing that Bane helped her when she was a child, but other than that there’s very little between them. If they’d spilled the twist sooner, there might have been room for development. I mean, what do a couple of nutters like Bane and Tate get up to in the bedroom? Seeing as he’s a burly bastard, you’d think Bane would be in charge, but I bet that Tate gives him a good pegging in private.

And I disliked the Tate twist because it killed my metaphorical boner (sorry mum, forget you read that)! Throughout the whole of the film Batman’s been getting the shit beaten out of him and now he’s absolutely hammering Bane. I was almost bouncing up and down in my chair like a demented one-year-old. And then Batman does his really cool, gravelly screaming. Yes! Yes!! YES!!! Finally Batman has his balls back!!

Oh, but now he’s been stabbed... [metaphorical boner deflating]

And what a disappointing way for Bane to get finished off. Does Batman rip off his face mask and pummel him to death? Does he get thrown off a high building? No, Catwoman turns up on the Batpod and shoots him. It’s so quick that it’s almost off screen. You’ve built up this almost invincible villain and he’s killed as an aside. Yep, not really satisfying.

Elsewhere though you have a pretty solid movie. It’s nice to see that Bruce Wayne isn’t an invincible superhero and that the years have taken their toll - he has to hobble around on a cane and he’s grown a beard to communicate his inner grief. Most superheroes become tiresome because they’re so resilient - here Batman feels like Rocky, a plucky underdog who really should know better.

And so the first fight between Bane and Batman is much like the first fight between Rocky and Mr T. in Rocky 3. Batman tries his best but he’s completely impotent. He’s lost his eye of the tiger - he’s grown soft; weak. And then in a direct reference to the comics, Batman gets his back snapped. It’s an excellent way of raising the stakes - you really do find it hard to imagine a way that Batman’s going to defeat Bane.

Which makes the finale and Bane’s quick and easy dispatch all the more disappointing. Batman/Bruce Wayne spent all that time in a dark prison and he put his life at risk to climb out of a hole just so that Catwoman could turn up at the last second and shoot Bane? There’s no satisfaction to be gleaned from that.

And it’s especially galling because Bane is actually a pretty interesting villain. Like the Joker, he’s an anarchist, but he plays the role of a revolutionary hero. He’d have you believe that he’s here to liberate Gotham from the tyranny of capitalism. We see rich people being forcibly evicted from their homes and if you have any kind of resentment towards the establishment, you can see how easy it would be to be swept up by such evil. Why should I struggle when there are the few that have so much and help so little? Wouldn’t it be nice to level the playing field. Well, Bane does that quite literally...

And so the siege of Gotham and the phoney show trials are excellently done. Again, it’s about raising the stakes.

But yet again, Christopher Nolan drops the ball. The revolutionary forces and a large horde of cops do battle in the streets of Gotham. Considering that Bane’s force has tanks and machine guns, how would you decide to take them on? Through guerrilla warfare? Or would you all just walk down the middle of the street and allow them to open fire on you? Moronically, the cops decide to do the latter, giving rise to the utterly ridiculous visual of two bands of combatants charging each other down a single street with automatic firearms - Gangs of New York this isn’t.

The end of the movie tries to convince us that Batman died trying to save Gotham, but I’m sure that most people didn’t believe it. A nuclear explosion isn’t going to destroy the Bat! But the film does actually succeed in having a fairly moving conclusion. The film does its darndest to sell the death and who can resist a sobbing Michael Caine? The man is such an ugly crier that you can’t help but be moved to tears yourself. And some footage from previous films helps to sell the feeling - the scenes from Batman Begins, as always, being the most evocative. And even though it’s not a big surprise to see that Bruce Wayne did indeed survive the explosion at the end, it’s satisfying to see a peaceful, content Bruce Wayne enjoying a drink in the sunshine. After many beatings, he certainly deserves it.

But where to place the trilogy as a whole? It’s certainly not some sacred cow. The films are littered with faults and annoyances. But the good certainly overcomes the bad and it can hold its head high. It’s a trilogy where the quality is consistently strong - there isn’t one film that’s significantly weaker than the rest. And it’s nice that the story comes full circle with the League of Shadows (although the last minute Miranda Tate revelation still bothers me). So there’s certainly a continuity there. But anyone who wants to hold this up in the pantheon and declare it as the best movie trilogy ever is seriously deluded. These aren’t untouchable masterpieces of cinema - they’re just good entertainment and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Argo


Argo fuck yourself.

And so the Academy clasps another crushingly mediocre and undeserving film to its geriatric bosom. Seriously, you think this is the best film of the year? This entertaining but overwhelmingly cliched thriller is the height of cinematic achievement for 2012? You must be shitting me.

Listen to this. You’re watching a film that’s supposedly based on a true story. Therefore, you invest a certain amount of faith that most of the events depicted on the screen are based on some sort of truth. Of course you’re not naive enough to believe that everything happens as it did in real life. You know that some things have to be changed for dramatic licence. But then you come to the ending.

The end of the film sees a group of American diplomats trying to flee Iran. The authorities are trying to locate them and their lives are in danger. But somehow, under a fake cover, they make their way to the airport. Simultaneously, little Iranian children are putting together shredded pictures of the diplomats so that the authorities can identify the missing Americans.

There’s much sweating of palms as the Americans progress through the different levels of security at the Iranian airport. Will they blow their cover? Will they be captured? WIll they lose that ridiculous facial hair?

There’s an undeniable level of tension in this sequence. Having once had to spend quite a while trying to convince an American border official that it was okay for me to enter the country (apparently I’d been visiting too much!), I know how scary and stressful these situations can be. But certain things in Argo just don’t make sense. For instance, we find out, after the Iranian revolution, that stricter immigration procedures have been put in place. Part of this involves customs forms. When someone enters the country, they fill out a form. A copy is given to the border official and the passenger gets to keep a copy, too. Then when the visitor leaves, the two forms are married together, so that the official knows that the the visitor entered the country legally and that they’ve left.

But the diplomats here never had that form. So when they try to leave the country, handing in a form that Ben Affleck’s character stole when he entered Iran, there’s no copy for the customs officer to marry it to. The officials have a look around but don’t find anything. Eventually, though, they give up and the guy gets his passport stamped. Okay, it’s possible that a form can get lost - clerical error and all. But what about the five other diplomats? Won’t the guy notice something fishy when the next person also doesn’t have a customs form copy filed away out back? Apparently not. Not that we get to see the subsequent exchanges, as suddenly the entire group are through passport control and the matter is neatly swept under the rug.

Things get a lot worse, though. Our group reaches their gate at the airport, only to be pulled out of the line by Iranian soldiers. They’re quickly interrogated. Pulses quicken but then one of the diplomats speaks passionately about his fake cover - they’re in Iran to look for locations to make a movie. He shows storyboards and explains the story and Ben Affleck’s heart soars (and presumably the audience as well) as his protege proves himself to be a fabulous actor. Okay, this is very Hollywood, but so what? It works. So the group is let on the plane....only those little hands have finally put the pictures together and a soldier is running through the airport screaming at the top of his lungs to stop the plane. Meanwhile the diplomats are finally sitting down. We’re safe! But they’re not...because the soldiers are ripping through doors, forcing their way through gates and revving up jeeps to intercept the plane that’s sitting on the tarmac ready to take off. Yeah, this makes more sense than radioing air traffic control! And then as the plane receives clearance to take off, they put their foot on the accelerator and try and catch up. Maybe this little jeep can ram this massive jet off the runway! They get closer and closer and beads of sweat are percolating on our concerned brows. The diplomats have no idea of the drama that’s unfolding on the runway but then Ben Affleck looks out of the window and sees the vehicle. Holy flurking schnit! They’re going to get us! All of my effort and all of my labour was for naught!

But then the plane takes off. For a horrible second I thought fighter jets were going to be deployed and angry, bearded Iranians were going to try and intercept the passenger plane while kissing pictures of the Ayatollah. But thankfully this doesn’t happen and the passengers receive notice that they can finally booze it up. We’re out of Iranian air space! Cue hugs galore and sweeping music!

What a load of fucking bullshit. None of this happened. None of it! Oh, the diplomats did board a plane and they did fly out of Iran but that’s about it. They arrived at the airport early in the morning, went through security without any issues and went home. Why the need then for car chases and screaming soldiers and phoney baloney Hollywood bullshit? What, just because this film is also about Hollywood means that it has to have a ridiculous Hollywood ending? Congratulations everyone, you’ve just sullied a perfectly entertaining political thriller.

And it’s a real shame, because there’s a lot to enjoy about this movie. The performances are good, the direction is tight, it’s funny, it’s tense, it has an amazing opening sequence that expertly explains the situation at the time. It’s pretty much everything you need in a thriller. But then I guess because the real life escape was so routine, they felt the need to jazz it up. Okay, I don’t mind a bit of fluffing. But jeeps chasing jet planes? It’s too much. It’s way too much.

Argo fuck yourself. And fuck the Academy as well! Yay, it’s a film about Hollywood saving American diplomats from angry, bearded foreigners! Let me stick my head up my ass and vote for this self-congratulatory nonsense!