Trying to make sense of the senseless

Posted on Updated on

Who’s your favourite director? Spielberg? Scorcese? Maybe the Coens or David Fincher? For me, one man who stands above all of his contemporaries and has made some of the best films of the last decade is Christopher Nolan. Despite the fact that a number of my favourite directors have already delivered outstanding works this year, including Steve McQueen and Wes Anderson, my anticipation for The Dark Knight Rises couldn’t be higher. Nolan’s last three films are all comfortably 10/10 films in my eyes and while Inception and The Dark Knight are fantastic, The Prestige was my favourite film of the last decade. I saw the outstanding prologue at the IMAX in London last year, and tomorrow I’ll be heading down to London to see the remainder of the film. While I get a thrill from seeing just about anything at the cinema, I knew from the first day of January that this would be one of the highlights of my cinema year.

Then I got up this morning and put on the news.

In a week when the internet has been abuzz with the first reviews of the new film, then with attention seekers posting fake reviews or inflammatory comments, and in some circles even holding a certain opinion cannot be done without judgement, the death of twelve people at a cinema in Aurora in Colorado, only twenty miles from Columbine, puts all of that into desperately sharp relief. In the early hours of the morning, a man walked into a cinema and opened fire with a catalogue of weapons, managing to shoot around one in four people in attendance, twelve of them so far fatally. Words simply cannot express the senselessness of this tragedy, a loss of human life on a tragic scale, all the more so given that these people were simply there looking to enjoy themselves and do what I hope to do tomorrow, to escape the rigours of life for an hour or three and immerse themselves in another world.

But from the moment the first reports came in, this has been described by the the majority of news organisations in some form or another as the Batman shooting. It would be easy to think that this was a random act, a young man simply following in the footsteps of too many others who have sprung to notoriety by their actions, but the media would rather it wasn’t. By immediately reinforcing the association with Batman, the implication is immediately made, and will be harder to shake given that the perpetrator is reported to have worn a face-covering gas mask and is now being reported as claiming that he is “The Joker”, that this is in some way driven by the content of the genre of the very film that the crowd had gathered to watch (and ignoring the fact that The Joker first appeared in published media seventy-two years ago).

I’ve already made such an association myself, in mentioning Columbine in an earlier paragraph. But at that level it matters little, the crimes separated by almost as many years as they are miles and sharing little other than the futility and tragedy of their actions. What matters now are that the actions of one man have transformed the lives of so many others for ever, and left another association in the minds of many between violence in the entertainment media and in the real world which some struggle to distinguish between.

The reason for mentioning Columbine is to wonder how much has changed. I personally don’t believe that violent movies or video games are responsible for creating real life monsters such as these, but at the time it opened the debate once again both in America and around the world about not only the freedom of expression, but also the deeply rooted Constitutional right to bear arms. Both are long standing principles, and neither has changed in any real sense with over a decade of distance from the disaster in Columbine. We find ourselves here again, and while I cannot believe that this will motivate change any more than other previous tragedies have done in the culture of America of the wider world – whether it should or not is a point for debate that’s not really appropriate to today – but I can’t help but wonder how many people will be looking over their shoulders somewhere in the world when, and if, they settle down to watch a film this weekend.

It’s not the first time that something I love deeply in my life has become tainted with tragedy. On a Saturday afternoon in April over twenty years ago, I picked up a small radio and disappeared off into the bathroom, the only quiet haven in my family’s busy house, to listen to commentary on an important football match between Nottingham Forest and my beloved Liverpool. The commentary had lasted barely six minutes before it was interrupted; it seemed to be another unfortunate example of the violence which had occasionally gripped football during most of my childhood, not least when thirty-nine people were killed in fighting at the European Cup final in Brussels four years earlier between Juventus and Liverpool.

It quickly became clear that this was something entirely different, and the disaster at the Hillsborough stadium that afternoon not only claimed ninety-six innocent lives, but also fundamentally changed the face of football in this country. Somehow, the players fought through the emotional pain of that day and picked up the trophy they were competing for, the best tribute they could possibly muster. The following summer, I went to London twice to visit Wembley Stadium to watch Liverpool in action in pre-season matches, watching the match through the metal grill of the high fence erected to keep the hooligans off the field, but manoeuvring myself whenever possible so I could clearly see the action through the small gap in the fence where a gate had been opened, so that if something untoward happened, at least this time fans could escape and not be crushed to death.

There are some parallels, albeit small ones, between the events that occurred that day in Hillsborough and through what followed it, and what happened in Aurora earlier today. On both occasions, fans and families had gathered together to share the experience of enjoying something they loved dearly, only for tragedy to intrude forever in their lives. I pray that those who have suffered a deep loss in today’s events may eventually find some peace, knowing that so many of the families of Hillsborough have never had their closure. But while football has been able to find ways to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy, I’m not sure anything less than turning cinema foyers in half the world into the same kind of security process that you see in the strictest airports could remove the possibility of this happening again, even though one would hope against hope that this is purely an isolated incident.

There was also an unpleasantness in the media in the wake of Hillsborough, where some publications instantly leapt on the Liverpool fans and attempted to castigate them for a role in the immediate aftermath of the disaster which turned out to be entirely fictitious. Emboldened by the fact that a small minority of hooligans had dragged Liverpool’s reputation into the mud after Heysel, they saw fit to publish stories that fans had urinated on victims, picked the pockets of the dead and attacked those trying to help others. It was easy to try to brand these victims with the stigma of previous tragedies, but it wasn’t actually in any way true and only deepened the pain not only of those immediately affected, but by a whole city. Whenever such a disaster with media connections occurs, it’s only a matter of time before someone questions the role of the likes of Christopher Nolan in making such “entertainments” and making acts of violence acceptable in the minds of those who know no better, but Nolan and his contemporaries, and indeed the fictional characters they create, are no more responsible for the creation of such despicable acts of reality than you or I. Maybe we all just need someone to blame when something so wretched happens, whether that’s right or not.

I’m not sure any of this makes sense, and by that I don’t just mean the devastating loss of life in Aurora, but also my attempt to reconcile in my own mind a tragedy from over twenty years ago with much more recent ones, but I hope you’ll forgive my own need to try to pour out my feelings in a hope of making some understanding of them, at least for my own benefit. My overriding feeling of Hillsborough was one of helplessness – so many people with a similar obsession were suffering, and there was nothing I could do except sit, hundreds of miles away, and attempt to come to terms with it with my friends. I can only hope that people are not deterred from watching The Dark Knight Rises, or indeed any other film, this weekend wherever in the world they are watching it, and that they can do so not only in comfort but in safety, but there’s little that I can do to make it otherwise. I don’t know if this Christopher Nolan film will be a fourth 10/10 in a row – earlier this week I had conclude that it didn’t really matter, and I’m more certain of that now than ever. Given that the entire ethos of my blog is to encourage people to the cinema to watch movies, I feel even more compelled to do this today, and hope that rather than being wrapped in fear, cinema can remain the escape that it should be. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy whatever you do this weekend.

Review: Hereafter

Posted on

The Pitch: Ghost bluster.

The Review: The question of what comes after this life has perplexed philosophers and kept religions in business ever since man conjured up fire and learned how to tie stones to sticks to make primitive tools. It may not seem the most likely topic for a writer who’s made his name with a series of Tony Blair biopics, the most famous of which also featured Helen Mirren in a royal role, of course, but Peter Morgan has not solely worked in biographical territory, and here explores the possibilities of what might be awaiting us if there is anything to come. He’s chosen to work together three disparate stories on a global scale to see what impact various tragedies have had on individual lives, and how people react to death and the possibility of an afterlife.

The three stories in question concern Marie (Cecile De France), a reporter caught up in the tsunami which hit Thailand in 2004; George (Matt Damon), a psychic who seems to be able to see people in the hereafter but is trying to hide from the gifts he possesses; and Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), twins who have their bond broken apart in unfortunate circumstances. The global span of the film allows not only the Asian tsunami but the 7/7 bombings to be worked into the narrative. Marie is almost killed in the tsumani and experiences what she believes to be some sense of the afterlife, and she is the most active of the protagonists; the twins are also fairly active, and this offsets the very passive nature of George’s story as the three intermingle.

The script, although produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin production company, has been directed by Clint Eastwood, and his unhurried directorial style will be familiar to anyone who’s seen his back catalogue. While this allows for some lovely characterisation, especially a burgeoning love story between George and a partner at a cookery course (Bryce Dallas Howard), it does mean that the three story strands take a very long time indeed to start to draw together. Damon and Howard are probably the best actors on show, and are in stark contrast to the young boys, who would probably struggle to be first choice in a school play; their delivery early on is so stilted as to almost beggar belief that they were even cast. There’s a lot of familiar faces in the rest of the cast, but most of them struggle to make any kind of impression.

So the direction is sluggish and the script meandering; aside from those few nice character notes there’s very little else that actually rings true. It’s fair enough that the film avoids too many answers about the nature of the afterlife; that it by and large avoids questions as well is more unfortunate and robs the film of narrative impetus for long periods. Given the choice of such well known major disasters on which to hang the narrative, Hereafter doesn’t really know what it wants to ask you, or indeed what it wants you to ask yourself about the impact of these events on the lives of the characters, or anyone else for that matter. When the three stories do finally converged it feels trite and the resolutions to each are slender and in one case almost laughable. Coupled with the visual effects, which have no weight and are totally unbelievable (almost as unbelievable as the fact that they’ve been nominated for an Academy Award), and a bizarre extended cameo from Derek Jacobi as himself, the questionable choices at every turn and lack of real substance make this one to avoid.

Why see it at the cinema: The chance to see very poor quality visual effects on a grand scale doesn’t come along every day. But if you want to see Matt Damon sit in a room and describe what someone else is telling him, slowly, with no recourse to any visual cues whatsoever, then don’t miss this opportunity.

The Score: 3/10

Review: London River

Posted on

The Pitch: Two people from very different backgrounds are drawn together for a common cause.

The Review: There is always the question with any human tragedy of “how soon is too soon?” to reflect on that tragedy through artistic media. It helps, of course, if the works produced are of a high quality and manage not to feel exploitative, a feat Paul Greengrass managed so expertly with United 93, his 9/11 drama. While there hasn’t been much focus on the actual events of what we have come to call 7/7, the London bombings still resonate to this day in our culture, and so there’s plenty to explore and to look for understanding in. London River uses a backdrop of the events of July 2005 to explore a range of issues surrounding the cultural and social impact of this tragedy.

Brenda Blethyn is Elizabeth, a Falklands war widow who has raised a daughter in Guernsey but has now seen her move away to study in London. Her peaceful life of working the land and trips to her husband’s grave is slowly shaken by the realisation that her daughter may have been closer to the events than she would have hoped. As she ventures into unfamiliar territory, her story is mirrored by that of Sotigui Kouyaté’s Ousmane, who’s looking for his son. But where the stories have similarities, they also have differences, not least that Ousmane hasn’t seen his son since he was a child, so doesn’t even know who he’s looking for by sight.

London River is dominated by the performances of Blethyn and Kouyaté. Blethyn perfectly embodies the middle England that remains isolated from the multicultural hearts of our major cities, stumbling through the streets as her understanding of her daughter crumbles. Her performance is understated and doesn’t have some of the extremes of mannerisms she’s shown occasionally, and is all the better for it. She’s still in sharp contrast to Kouyaté, at times wordless and embodying a restrained dignity as he attempts not only to find his son but to steer Blethyn along her course.

For a movie with a short running time and just two major characters, there’s still plenty to take from this experience. Ousmane’s Muslim background not only allows us to examine the attitudes of the characters toward their disparate backgrounds, but also through their eyes see the prejudices that the tragedy has served to perpetuate. Four Lions has already taken a much more comedic slant on cultural and religious issues around terrorism, and thankfully London River avoids too much comparison by covering sufficiently different ground in the same areas. There are brief elements of happiness but overall there’s a sense of gloom and ultimately the tragedy of the events of 7/7 is brought to the fore, and at the end there’s a tinge of optimism, but that’s all we’re left to cling to. A fitting examination of a recent tragedy, but one that still leaves future scope for further examination.

Why see it at the cinema: It’s not hugely cinematic, but director Rachid Bouchareb does make effective use of several long shots of passageways or roads to highlight the isolation of the characters.

The Score: 7/10

Review: The Rebound

Posted on Updated on

The Pitch: What it feels like for a girl … to be the older one. (Or, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Hot. Take your pick.)

The Review: The career trajectory of Catherine Zeta Jones has been an almost fairytale one. Girl from the Welsh valleys, hit British TV series, failed pop career, obscurity, then returns to conquer Hollywood with an Oscar, and a marriage to one of the biggest names in film. There was a fascination at the time with the pairing, not least because at the time, CZJ was 31 and Michael Douglas was 56. It doesn’t take a genius to see how the marketing men came up with this concept. There’s probably a more interesting movie in the concept of the life of the Hollywood actress who wins an Oscar and then finds herself condemned to a life of insipid romantic comedies, but instead we’re saddled with this.

Coming so soon after the recent French hit Heartbreaker, which managed to do so much right in both romance and comedy, it’s genuinely dispiriting to see one that gets so much so wrong. Watching this, you find your mind wandering to better examples of the genres that The Rebound encompasses – better age gap movies (Harold and Maude, for example), better overbearing Jewish parents movies, better obnoxious and troublesome kids movies, better male / female discourse on relationship movies, and so on.

But we’re not talking a midly acceptable movie whose peers best it for quality, we’re talking a painful excuse for a movie whose jugdement you find yourself calling into question at every turn. The initial set-up is poorly handled and doesn’t engage sympathy for any of the characters. There are two interviews whose purpose is to set up the characters which feel hideously unnatural because they come straight out of Exposition for Dummies, chapter one. It takes an unnecessary amount of time for our two leads to interact in any meaningful way, and the various chapters of their burgeoning romance are all slow and obvious, right up until the last act, which goes off in random and unwanted directions and seemingly doesn’t know how to resolve matters. Most of the fault must be levelled at writer / director Bart Freundlich, who’s made so many indifferent or poor movies over the years it does give you cause for concern that studios keep giving him money to spend.

The bright spots? Justin Bartha is OK, and feels sort of natural around the kids, and might do better with decent material, and… well, that’s about it. Catherine Zeta Jones isn’t likeable or sympathetic, the supporting cast get nothing interesting to do, the score is incredibly poor and kills some scenes stone dead, there’s maybe one scene that will linger in the memory after you’ve seen it, the movie has nothing interesting to say about any of the concepts it raises, and there’s scant believability in the passage of time that the movie portrays, which also serves to rob you of whatever emotional investment you had left in the final scenes. Hopefully whatever movie you see on the rebound from this one will be better – it would be hard for it not to be.

Why see it at the cinema: My excuses – I had three hours to kill before The A Team and nothing better to be doing (or so I thought), and I also made comment about CZJ’s face in an earlier blog. I can report that it does look someone’s put a bulldog clip on the back of her head and pulled her skin taught – she shows no facial movement that would be able to be recognised as emotion, which just doesn’t help the movie on top of all its other faults. I had pretty poor reasons, when it comes down to it, and I was the only person in my screening. Hopefully there will be one less at as many as possible of the remainder.

The Score: 2/10

add to :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook

7 Reasons Why Paramount Shouldn’t Have Passed on Anchorman 2

Posted on

I’m new to this blogging malarkey, but also fairly new to this Twitter business. However, my first experience is that all it brings is doom and gloom. From Adam McKay’s Twitter feed last night, came this:

“So bummed. Paramount basically passed on Anchorman 2. Even after we cut our budget down. We tried.”

Followed about four hours later by this:

“To all who asked: no we can’t do Anchorman 2 at another studio. Paramount owns it.”

Maybe it’s understandable in the current economic climate a studio not wanting to take a risk, but there were enough good commercial reasons here for Paramount to feel that this wasn’t a risk at all, as well as some less commercial reasons.

1. Comedy sequels regularly do good business

What do the following franchises have in common? American Pie, Harold and Kumar, Austin Powers and The Naked Gun? In each case, the most successful movie at the US and worldwide box office wasn’t the first movie. In Austin Powers’ case, the take was around four times that of the original. Each of these franchises are live action comedies, not targeted at a family audience. Now of course, for every Naked Gun there’s a Police Academy, but Anchorman should have had enough going for it to ease any such concerns.

2. It may not need to make that much money anyway to make a profit

I know nothing at all in actuality about movie economics and profit making, but the beauty of blogging is that it doesn’t stop me speculating. Back in the 1920s, when all of the money made by movies was made in the cinema, it was said that a movie had to make two and a half times its budget in its theatrical run to turn a profit. Since then, the advent of videos and then DVD have changed the market drastically, and the majority of profits now come from DVD sales and rentals. Given that the original made $85 million in the US alone off a $26 million outlay. Now while the sequel would be likely to cost nearer $100 million, based on the higher profiles of the talent involved, the opportunity for some double-dipping with the DVD, such as releases alongside the original, would surely have helped to offset any cost concerns. And other Will Ferrell movies like Talladega Nights and The Other Guys aren’t cheap, but they’re still getting made.

3. There’s a strong, and young, fanbase

Without conducting extensive polling exercises or market research (which are out of my current resources, for I am a mere blogger), it would be good to know what the audience reaction would likely be to such a sequel. Well, here’s where internet sites such as the Internet Movie Database and Rotten Tomatoes come in.

Consider the Austin Powers comparison. Comparable ratings on these sites (7.1 out of 10 on IMDb and 65% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes; 7.0 and 64% for Anchorman, and around 75,000 voters on both movies on IMDb). But when looking at the demographic breakdowns on Anchorman, Anchorman scores a much higher percentage of 10/10 scores of the total votes and has better scores in the under 18 and 18-25 demographics and also scores equally well with males and females at those ages. So surely

4. The cast will sell the movie more than they were able to originally

When the original was released, Paul Rudd was probably best known as Phoebe’s boyfriend in Friends and Steve Carell was one of those guys off The Daily Show. Since the original came out, Carell has made Little Miss Sunshine, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Get Smart, Date Night and The Office, and Rudd has also stepped up to bigger roles in the last couple of years, with Knocked Up, Role Models and I Love You, Man, and they’ll be reteaming this summer for Dinner For Schmucks. If you put a teaser trailer together with no footage, no Anchorman 2 title card but just the names of the lead actors, you would get bums on seats. Are we suggesting that if they thought it was an Anchorman sequel, it would be less appealing than that?

5. There could be two movies for the price of one

One of the original’s most appealing features wasn’t the movie at all, it was the deleted scenes. There were so many that they were formed into another feature, which almost acts as an alternate universe story to the original – certain aspects (Veronica going to the show, for example) appearing in both, but there’s also a stack of new material here, and the best bits are as good as the original. For example:

If a similar amount of footage is filmed this time, take the opportunity and make a second, fully formed feature out of the offcuts, almost guaranteeing an absolute stack of money. It’s like the Sex Panther of marketing strategies. (And if you’ve seen Anchorman, but not Wake Up, Ron Burgundy, go seek it out now. Stop reading this and go. Go on.)

6. Will Ferrell actually needs a hit, and this is his best character

Will Ferrell has made a career out of Shouty Man-Child (TM), but Ron Burgundy is undoubtedly the most rounded and nuanced (and arguably grown up) of these characters. Through Talladega Nights, Semi Pro, Step Brothers and Land of the Lost, there’s been a law of diminishing returns in action. The best way to turn this around would be to allow Ferrell to go back to the original, and best, character he’s created.

7. Because it’s Anchorman, for crying out loud

I don’t need to paste in links here to news stories to remind you of the world we live in, and how serious it is at the moment. Anchorman was one of the best exponents of consistent quality silliness of the first decade of this century. Endlessly quotable, with surreal scenarios, it was also elevated by the touching love story with added competitiveness and swearing between Burgundy and Corningstone, but the defining quality was the undoubted bond between the four anchormen, and their constant battle to triumph over adversity. So please, Paramount, dig into your pockets and allow this to become a reality. Because the world needs more Burgundy.

Did I mention I preferred Dodgeball?