Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Michael Caine”

Youth

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 6th December 2015

Many adored it, but for me Paolo Sorrentino’s last film, The Great Beauty, jarred with its sledgehammer morality tale about the horrors of materialism, superficiality and the obsessive desire for beauty.

His latest, Youth, is in fact just as unsubtle in its wistful evaluation of the charms of youth versus the travails of old age. However, due largely to a typically intoxicating performance by Rachel Weisz and the interesting reappearance of Harvey Keitel, Sorrentino sneaks closer to making a fan of me yet.

Weisz plays the adult daughter of a retired virtuoso conductor (Michael Caine, fine but not especially distinct from all of his recent roles), the pair endeavouring to spend quality father-daughter time at a luxury spa in the Swiss Alps. Caine wears the oblivious conceit of someone who has long got used to the esteem in which he was held, while the slightly neurotic Weisz harbours childhood grudges behind a tight smile. They spend their days and evenings in the company of a curious ensemble cast which comprises indie starlet Paul Dano and an unfortunate cameo from Jane Fonda (whose late-reel entrance sadly derails the film after what should have been a satisfactory, natural ending).

As with Beauty, the narrative in Youth feels largely observational and shares lots of tropes with its predecessor. It’s very “scripty”, and many of the performances come across as too mannered – but this is Sorrentino, after all, and to that end it’s practically Fellini.

Nestled in the spectacular Swiss landscape, wonderful cinematography and clever musical cues underwrite two old men comparing their plumbing while lusting after a visiting Miss Universe. Once again, the theme is what it says on the tin, but there is enough in this offering to induce occasional delight.

The Last Witch-Hunter

Are you thinking of making a movie and want to cast someone famous? Just call Michael Caine! He’ll do it. And judging from The Last Witch Hunter you wouldn’t even need to send him a script.

It’s a contemporary story, set in New York, where witches have for centuries walked secretly among us while keeping their noses clean. Vin Diesel is Kaulder, the titular hunter, who is tasked with destroying the Queen Witch once and for all.

This is not the worst immortal-slayer-of-evil film ever made, but it’s an odd choice of vehicle for Caine, paired as he is with the smoothly spoken Diesel, and odder still when LOTR’s Elijah Wood steps into the frame as the enthusiastic young priest who takes on the role of Kaulder’s “historian, fixer and confidante”.

But wait, there’s more: the feisty, Titian-haired female who joins this motley crew is none other than Rose Leslie from Game of Thrones/Downton Abbey (depending on your TV-viewing proclivities). Actually, the easy rapport between these disparate actors is initially part of the movie’s charm, and with impressive production design and some economical storytelling, The Last Witch Hunter begins with promise as it juxtaposes the beautiful with the sinister. There’s even an unexpected cameo by Kiwi Rena Owen.

However, soon the plot loses its thread and a couple of supposedly important moments have the air sucked out of them and land with a thud. The trailer promises aspects that the film mysteriously doesn’t deliver, so it’s hard to know whether the ensuing narrative incomprehensibility can be blamed on the cobbled-together additional photography or whether the recipe for this broth was spoilt even before it was brewed.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Since the internet is hotting up about Kingsman and I never did put my view out there, it’s high time I cast my mind back several weeks to the evening I came out of the cinema feeling sullied and woefully disappointed.

It’s a great, if not novel, conceit. Eggsy is an unlikely lad (newishcomer Taron Egerton) who loses his dad in mysterious circumstances when he is small, and grows up on a London council estate with his long-suffering mum. Living in a bad scene (the mum takes on an abusive gangster boyfriend) but not hopeful about being able to change his lot, Eggsy’s evident streetsmarts and a longtime promise see him recruited to a shady, super-secret spy organisation by the impressive Harry Hart (Colin Firth, relishing the opportunity to play against type while retaining his cut-glass accent and sartorial prowess).

What follows is just as you’d hope and expect from the writer of Kick-Ass and the director of Layer Cake: an ordinary guy plays out our superhero fantasies as he avenges his father’s death and attempts to save the world from the despicable vagaries of an over-the-top Samuel L. Jackson. While Firth and his band of Arthurian goodies are Moore-era James Bond, the baddies are Tarantino circa Kill Bill in their flamboyance. It’s a perfectly enjoyable mash-up, with even Jackson bearable thanks mainly to an endearing speech impediment and a fantastic wardrobe of sneakers. Egerton acquits himself superbly against a cast that includes Michael Caine and Mark Strong, imbuing Eggsy with the right amount of cocky-geezer arrogance and something bordering on sympathy as he holds his own amongst a bunch of young toffs.

So far, so fun.

But just past the halfway mark, as I find myself contemplating a possible four stars and praise for screenwriter Goodman’s smart update on the well-trodden genre, Jackson’s evil machinations take over the plot and Vaughn’s movie loses it. A bloodbath in a church is foreshadowed uneasily as a grotesquerie of bigoted characters make us shift in our seats, but even the most objectionable factions of humanity don’t deserve the comeuppance that follows. There is something distinctly distasteful about watching Firth dispensing death in a scene which is over-shot, over-scored and over-hyped – intentionally hyperbolic perhaps, but such a misstep (the film plummeting to a conflicted two and a half stars) and so out of step with the film’s tone thus far, that it shifts the story into a whole other register.

From then on, Eggsy’s story is overpowered by super-villain nonsense of the Austin Powers kind, with an inevitably bombastic finale which will evoke either hysterical delight or grim-faced silence from viewers. And then – to top off the indignity – an appalling moment of misogyny which is no doubt designed to leave the principally young-male audience titillated and sated at the end of what is bound to have been a widely-considered “classic”.

So much potential. So much disappointment. So much box office.

Now You See Me

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 4th August 2013

A terrific cast of magicians, each with his or her own forte, a zingy script and a story that moves at the speed of light – like a magic trick itself, Now You See Me promises much in the build-up, boasting all the elements of a rollicking good film.

Look behind the smoke and mirrors and you may realise there is absolutely no character development and the plot possibly has a few holes… But you don’t want to look too hard, because this film is entertainment with a capital M.

Four illusionists (perhaps a more accurate term) are enticed into a game of They Don’t Know What by They Don’t Know Who. But being adventurous egotists at the top of their respective games, Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg (reunited from Zombieland), Isla Fisher (The Great Gatsby) and Dave Franco (forging his own path out of the shadow of brother James) embrace the opportunity to fool the world. Putting on hi-fi magic shows in Vegas, they are ostensibly under the patronage of Michael Caine’s millionaire, Arthur Tressler. But who’s really behind all this larking about?

The rendering of the magic acts is sensational, all spinning camerawork and souring music – overblown but undeniably fun and exciting. If anything, the starry cast is there to dazzle us into not noticing the feeble plot. An exotic Melanie Laurent joins the typically shambolic Mark Ruffalo, while Morgan Freeman just looks to be having as much fun as the name Thaddeus Bradley suggests.

Directed by the bloke who brought you The Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans, the film is a bit of a cheap trick but it’s refreshingly gangster-free and at least there’s only one car chase.

The Dark Knight Rises

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 22nd July 2012

This final in the trilogy of deeper, darker Batman films places a considerable weight of expectation on the shoulders of director Christopher Nolan.

It was he who brought us the gravelly voiced Christian Bale and one of the first comic book “origin” stories with the excellent Batman Begins, reinvigorating a franchise that had started joyously with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in the 1980s, but had then gone downhill in its sequels. By 2005, the world was clearly ready for a grittier side to this very self-made superhero (don’t forget, Bruce Wayne builds his muscle and relies on gadgets, borne out of anger, not scientific mishap). Three years later, it was Nolan who staged one of cinema’s greatest bank robbery scenes and garnered Heath Ledger his posthumous Oscar in The Dark Knight.

So here we are – hotly anticipated, The Dark Knight Rises’ tagline alleges “The Legend Ends” – and it’d better end good.

Nolan is a great storyteller, and the narrative gets under way quickly. Eight years after Batman was falsely accused of killing district attorney Harvey Dent and his beloved Rachel was killed, we find Wayne holed up in his mansion, a recluse still tended to by the patient butler Alfred (Michael Caine), but physically the worse for wear and clearly not over his grief. The city which once loved Batman now carries on without need of him, as prisoners are locked up under a law enacted in Dent’s name. Clearly, any intended rise for our sallow-faced billionaire is going to be steep.

It takes a bat to catch a thief, as Wayne’s interest is piqued by Anne Hathaway’s cat burglar. Hathaway is superb, not just kick-boxing in six-inch gold heels, but casting out witty lines and welling up in tears with equal skill. The black-suited duo find themselves embroiled in the evil machinations of Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist with a bone to pick against Gotham, and one of the best, most frightening baddy voices since Darth Vader. If Hardy is unrecognisable in his Hannibalesque mask, it’s as much because he has bulked up and is clearly photographed to look gigantic.

One small gripe is Nolan’s reuse of – count ’em – five core actors from Inception. While it can be charming when directors recast their favourite talent in other films (Wes Anderson makes no bones about it, yet people can’t seem to get enough of Bill Murray and Owen Wilson), so much of the tone of this film evokes Inception that seeing Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Hardy and Caine at times distracts from what ought to be a Batman story. Similarly, the predominantly daytime shots of Gotham City make it look like any big American city, and less the comic-book land where a police commissioner might summon a superhero by shining a bat silhouette into the sky. When the roads don’t fold up into the sky, it’s almost disappointing. But not quite. In every other way the film is exhilarating, with a relentlessly exciting soundtrack and some sensational set-pieces, with fantastic police chases and impressive, explosive action.

 

While Bale is consistently good, the standout performances are Hathaway’s cat lady and Gordon-Levitt’s empathic policeman. Neither steals the show quite like Ledger did, but they bring energy and, remarkably, emotional meaning to Wayne’s life, and a superb movie-going experience to ours

Don’t dream it’s over

Thoughts on Inception

(Spoiler alert – though frankly if you haven’t seen it by now, you’re presumably not going to)

If you haven’t seen Inception yet, just go.  Trust me.  Especially if you don’t go to the cinema regularly – hire a babysitter, get decent seats, and make sure you go to the bathroom beforehand.  And stop reading now – with this film, the less you know in advance, very much the better.

SO.  I saw the trailer months and months ago and I think I even did my involuntary quick-hand-clap-of-excitement the minute it said “From Christopher Nolan”, as Hans Zimmer’s wonderful bass soundtrack pounded my brain.  Here’s another example: Anyway, there were shots of cliff-edge cities crumbling into the sea, of Parisian cityscapes folding onto themselves, of backdrops exploding in slow motion while the characters sat, unscathed and oblivious, in the foreground.  Leonardo getting serious.  Joseph doing Matrix-style moves down a corridor.  That lovely Marion Cotillard from La Vie En Rose.  Awesome and exciting.

Months, and a whole heap of hype, later – Inception is so good I’ve seen it twice.  Not that I didn’t understand it the first time – remarkably (for me), I followed the story and its many, many layers and it totally clicked.  But the second viewing enabled me to capture every nuance, appreciate every line, as well as re-enjoy some of the more satisfying performances (Tom Hardy in the bar in Mombasa boasts some of the most natural acting I’ve seen in a long time; Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s acrobatics in the hotel have me in thrall every time).

For me, Inception‘s beauty is all about the concept.  Just as A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s brilliance lay in the fact we all have to fall asleep at some stage, Inception riffs on the various elements of the dream state – something every audience member can identify with (regardless of whether they might question the science of some of the assertions).  It’s true – dreams seem real when we’re in them, and it’s only when we wake up that we realise something was in fact strange.  Sure enough – the action in our dreams feels like it last hours when in reality we’re only asleep for minutes.  The film uses the mystery of our subconscious to great effect – poignantly in the notion that our bugbears will hijack our happiness or good intentions, and ingeniously when the people populating our dream treat us suspiciously the moment we (in the dream) sense that things aren’t quite as they should be.

The very notion of being able to enter someone’s dream, share that dream with others and communicate with them within the dream in full knowledge that it’s only a dream, is frankly mind-blowing.  Further concepts of pain and death within dreams have a basis in our existing experience (that if you die in a dream, you wake up in reality – but if you’re injured in a dream, your brain feels the pain just as intensely as if it were real, since the brain reads pain on an emotional level).

One key element is of course the dream-within-a-dream motif.  The fact that this is stretched further into not just a third, but a fourth sub-dream, makes this all the more fascinating.  On first viewing, I must admit to losing interest in the 4th level towards the end – the action in the snow scenes, necessarily slowed down to allow us to watch the progress within the other three dream levels, is purely perfunctory.  As, appropriately, is the central plot – Cillian Murphy has to change his mind, for himself (not suggested by others), and thus change the course of his future.  Considering the method by which this is achieved has to be so complex, it’s entirely right that the quest is straightforward.  But the other three levels are brilliant, and I gained great pleasure from my second viewing in terms of tracking the characters’ progress in each mini adventure.

Viewers will be divided over Leonardo DiCaprio’s role and performance, but I like him.  I heard a veteran screenwriter say recently that the most important thing is that we (the audience) connect and empathise with the protagonist.   Of course, we know this to be true, and I think this was well achieved over the course of the film’s two and a half hours.  Leonardo’s Dom Cobb can’t return to the US to see his children because of a slowly-revealed criminal charge.  In itself that’s not so interesting.  But Cobb is wanted for the murder of his wife Mal (the lovely Cotillard) who threw herself to her death because she believed she was still dreaming – and as we all know, if you die in a dream, you wake up.  The fact that Cobb carries the guilt of effectively leading her to that place where she could no longer discern dreaming from reality, is compelling and horrific.  We may bear him no ill-will for it, but we still want to see him set her, and himself, free.  The love story in the film is frequently beautiful in its rendering, and Cobb’s unrealistic idealism of his marriage ultimately redeemed by his admission that he can no longer see Mal with all her faults and complexities that made her real to him – hence his ability, finally, to let her go so he can return to reality and move on with his life.

I enjoyed some of the in-jokes (doubtless there are many I did not pick up).  Marion Cotillard is best known for her Oscar-winning role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, and the “wake-up” trigger song in Inception is Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”.  It’s also nice when a director re-uses favourite cast members: Cillian Murphy (from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) and of course Michael Caine (from the same).  He used Carrie-Anne Moss in Memento just after she had shot to stardom in The Matrix, echoes of which abound in this film.

Once again, Nolan has created a film that plays with memory (as in Memento) and riffs on perception (Insomnia and The Prestige), tying in spectacular special effects (many of which were done old-school, that is to say with specially constructed moving sets, rather than as CGI) with a meaningful, universally-accessible story and some entertaining performances.  The set-pieces are breathtaking in their execution (I could watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt leaping and floating around that hotel for hours), and the concept is thought-provoking and compelling.  Even after 148 minutes I didn’t want to wake up.

Post Navigation