You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Friday, 27 December 2013


Released in the immediate aftermath of its subject's death, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom has the unenviable task of standing as cinematic testament to perhaps the most vital political figure in African history. Close enough is the time you could be forgiven for thinking that the film's publicists may have bumped off the ninety-five year-old Mandiba for the sake of a publicity coup. That were, if Long Walk wasn't otherwise quite so respectful.

Justin Chadwick's film sets itself apart from its biopic predecessors - such as Richard Attenborough's 1982 Best Picture winner Gandhi - in focusing primarily on the personal issues of its protagonist, Nelson Mandela, the immediate impact of the breakup of his first marriage, his trial and imprisonment, in relation to his struggle against apartheid. Long Walk is slightly rote in its rendering of tragic events - the massacre at Sharpeville, for instance, is presented in heart-rending montage - though Chadwick's direction is notable for its fluid camera movements.

Idris Elba (Pacific Rim) turns in a muscular performance as Nelson Mandela, a man forced to forsake his family for a greater cause.  Mandela's gradual transformation from strapping fresh-faced lawyer to the stooped, white-haired figure embraced by history makes up the majority of the run-time, but it's when Long Walk examines that against that of his wife, Winnie, that the film is at its most interesting. Naomie Harris (Skyfall) embodies Winnie's metamorphosis into righteously vengeful militarist - a Best Supporting Actress nomination seems a cert - especially in how it places at her at odds with her long-parted husband's credo of forgiveness.

William Nicholson's script could do with more focus, but perhaps adapting a 630 page book was always going to be an overambitious task for a single film. Likely Long Walk could have benefited from the same freedom given to director Steven Soderbergh in his two-film study of the life of Che Guevara. Mandela is no less iconic a figure, and, if occasionally this biopic feels like an endurance of predictability, it's maybe to be expected given what Mandela himself went through. The behavior of the Boers guards, for instance, is suitably sadistic, but we know the triumph that awaits.

Long Walk to Freedom is a worthy counterpoint to, say, the likes of Kevin Macdonald's 2006 film Last King of Scotland and Idris Elba's performance - if memorably less bombastic than Forrest Whittaker's as Idi Amin - may stand, at least, as the definitive portrayal of Mandela himself. It's a hopeful film, solidly built and lightly poetic. Given its timing - the lack of critical distance from events, etc. - that is perhaps the most that can be asked.


Thursday, 26 December 2013


Sorry about the delay in this. First I got caught up in preparing for Christmas then I got tangled up in Who. There may be a review of that along shortly.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has been in the movie pipeline for a while. Based on a short story published in 1939, this particular version of the tale has been in development hell since the mid-nineties. There have been plenty of would-be Walters in that lineup, too: Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, just about every comedic actor out there with a bit of dramatic range has been attached to star as the milquetoast fantasist.
The role was not only eventually taken by Zoolander star Ben Stiller, but also the director's chair too. Perhaps looking for a Carrey/Williams-style reinvention, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty might not have quite the ingenuity of The Truman Show, but it provides plenty of opportunity for Stiller to immerse himself in the character of a seemingly less-than-remarkable man.

In fact, it can be hard to believe to believe that this is the guy who played action hero idiot Tugg Speedman in Tropic Thunder. Just as Tropic Thunder made fun of overly earnest, Oscar-worthy fare - Speedman's attempt to ape Forrest Gump in 'Simple Jack' earns him the admonition of a dark-skinned Robert Downey Jr. to "Never go full retard"1 - The Secret Life of Walter Mitty initially seems to be treading corny territory in its exultation of the power of the imagination.

Stiller's Walter is a slight, colorless man. He lives alone and works a job processing photos in the back offices of Life Magazine. A less henpecked version of Danny Kaye's 1947 take on the character, Walter Mitty is a man whose life is summed up by his eHarmony profile: under "Places visited" and "Things done", he's been forced to simply left it blank.

With his stillness and sense of restraint and his grey-blue eyes, so different than any role he's played before, Stiller is perhaps most reminiscent of Peter Sellers in Being There, a film given a shout-out in Tropic Thunder. Pensive and lightly incredulous, it's not a role made for show-boating; in that regard, it makes for something of a perverse choice for a star vehicle. As with Mitty himself, however, this sense of absence, of not quite being there, belies a vivid internal life.

This takes the form of abrupt segues in which Walter suddenly finds himself immersed. From hurtling into a burning building to rescue a three-legged dog to engaging with his obnoxious, bearded boss in a Family Guy "Chicken Fight"-esque chase (Adam Scott cast seemingly to type) these sequences are certainly broadly imaginative, but they serve mainly to take you out of the flow of the film.

They're the sort of daydreams we've all had, but, while they serve to illuminate Walter's hopes and wishes, they can come across a tad creepy. The second time you see Stiller romancing his coworker, Cheryl (played by Kristen Wiig), this time as a rugged mountain adventurer, it's quirky and endearing. By the fourth time, the charm begins to wear off. It's only Stiller's endearing wistfulness that stops it ranging into truly creepy territory.

There's also a protracted Benjamin Button gag that's particularly weird and off-putting and seems to know it. It feels like an insert from a different film, a joke at the expense at the type of film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty could so easily become: expansive and saccharine. It any case, it's uncomfortable, which, in the case of most of these fantasies, may be slightly the point.

Instead of being just a peon to the role of fantasy in our lives, Walter Mitty takes the anti-Terry Gilliam route and instead impresses upon us the need to life one's life. Walter is drawn into doing so when a photo negative by roving photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) disappears en route to the office. Given it's supposed to capture "the quintessence of Life"2, Walter sets out to track down Sean and recover it before the final edition of the magazine goes to print.

As plots goes, it's fairly light in jeopardy, more of an excuse to get Mitty moving, take him out of himself. As he begins to branch out - notably leaping aboard a helicopter being flown by a drunken pilot during a thunderstorm to the tune of 'Space Oddity' - Walter begins to blossom as a person. Its in these moments that the film is at its best.

Like his performance in the film, Ben Stiller's direction of Walter Mitty is quietly impressive. Cribbing liberally from Wes Anderson's playbook3, every shot is perfectly framed and each scenario dusted with whimsy. If occasionally the ergonomic cleanness of it all makes it feel slightly like Walter is making his way through at Nike commercial4, it does equally manage moments of near genuine inspiration. There are even a few great lines ("It's not a poorpoose!")

Kristen Wiig is lovely in her role as single mum Cheryl. If never a fully developed human being, she at least feels like she might exist beyond Walt's circuitous pursuit of her. Sean Penn is memorable in his short appearance as daredevil Sean, bringing cool and gravitas to a part with next to no agency of its own5. "Todd" from eHarmony, meanwhile, makes for a nice surprise.6

Ultimately, Walter Mitty's secret life may not be as interesting as his real one - as far as "real" moments go, the understated box hug is perhaps my favorite. Nevertheless, it serves for cheery, aspirational escapism about living your dreams, not dreaming about living. It might not really be quite as simple as growing a beard and serving Afghani warlords fruit cake, but, as far as end-of-the-year viewing goes, it's a welcome break from The Hobbit/Wolf of Wall Street.


1 Don't ask. Or, y'know, just look it up.
2 Not incidentally much of the film's cinematography captures the clarity and dynamism of some of the best-known of these.
3 Stiller worked with him on The Royal Tenenbaums.
4 There's a moment of impromptu soccer playing in which this feels literally the case. The product placement is also fairly egregious (eHarmony, for one).
5 Equally, his performance in I Am Sam would seem to have been the inspiration behind Downey Jr./Kirk Lazarus' "full retards" warning.
6 It's delightful to imagine that Patton Oswald just turned up on set one day apropos of nothing and they decided to incorporate him as an otherwise cutesy deus ex.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013


 Like a winged beast from the North, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is upon us. Its predecessor, An Unexpected Journey - Peter Jackson's first film as director since 2009's The Lovely Bones and our first return to Middle-Earth in nine years - was notably not one of my favorite films of the previous year. Overlong, underdeveloped, and tonally inconsistent, it was, in short, a bit of a mess. I considered returning to it over the course of 2013, but, having been so put-off by my initial viewing, I couldn't quite bring myself to do so. Nevertheless, I endeavored to see the sequel as soon as humanly possible; at the very least I thought I might get an interesting review out of it.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens in Bree where a haggard Thorin Oakenshield arrives at the much-familiar Inn of the Dancing Pony - the tumbling of the One Ring onto Frodo's finger in the first Lord of the Rings film takes place here. Thorin is clearly a wanted man and no longer has he taken a seat and ordered a meal than he draws the obvious attention of two ugly-looking thugs. It's only the timely arrival of Gandalf the Gray that saves his sword arm. As the two thugs slink away, Gandalf engages him as stranger, but his pretense that this is a chance encounter soon slips away. Evil forces are stirring in the heart of Middle-Earth, their attention is turning towards the Lonely Mountain, Erebor, and Gandalf things its high time its unruly tenant, the fell dragon Smaug, was ousted. All Thorin needs to do is recover the Arkenstone of Thrain, announce himself as King of the Dwarfs, and take back their homeland. First, however, they will need a burglar...

After the bookend that opened An Unexpected Journey and which will presumably close out the trilogy, I was pleased to see The Desolation of Smaug begin with a scene that tied directly into the main story, as well as providing a much-needed character moment. Twelve months later, Thorin and Co. are fleeing from Azog's forces down the Carrock on which the eagle landed them at the end of the previous film. Keeping an eye out for Wargs, the giant wolves on whose backs the Orcs ride, Bilbo also espies as giant bear. While not exactly the plate song, this did little to encourage me that the filmmakers had stripped away the padding that had made An Unexpected Journey such a chore: the inclusion of shape-shifter Beorn, while great fan-service, is hardly propulsive to the plot. However, it was this that helped me to finally begin appreciating Jackson's Hobbit series on its own terms.

Taking refuge in a nearby house - whose owner, Gandalf assures them, will either aid or kill them - the Dwarf company barely escape being eaten after forcing the door shut on the bear's snarling maw. It's only then that Gandalf reveals that the terrifying ursus is, in fact, their host. While I complained about the childish, almost irreverent feel of the previous film - Barry Humphries' flamboyantly hideous Goblin King is dispatched in a throwaway gesture - here it began to seem less a marketing decision and more fable-like. Having dealt with the necessary exposition in An Unexpected Journey, vis-a-vis the Necromancer, Jackson here has the space to take a more fantastical approach to the material. Even the severe, unattractive CGI of Azog began to seem like more of a stylistic choice than one born of simple convenience. I can say I honestly began to enjoy The Desolation of Smaug.

I enjoyed it all the way through the hallucinatory, almost Escher-like contortions of Mirkwood, all the way through to the troupes' incarceration in the hall of the Wood Elves. I even thought the psychic appearance of Galadrial was bearable, leading into the inevitable departure of Gandalf and still somewhat superfluous Necromancer subplot. At least he got a mention in the book. In any case, the spider sequence that followed was truly memorable: Peter Jackson has a knack with the creepy crawlies, shown both in King Kong and Lord of the Rings, and the arachnid attack here was pretty flesh-crawling for a kid's film. I could even get on-board with the character of Tauriel, a female elf not featured in the book. Though a bit of Tolkien purist, I can appreciate Middle-Earth's almost complete dearth of female characters - Arwen and Eowyn aside - so, in this particular instance, why not? It was about this point the film decided to do away with all that good will by introducing a love triangle between Auriel, Legolas (yes, Legolas), and one of the Dwarf twins. Sod it.

Given the men-on-a-mission storyline, throwing in an unnecessary romantic element feels like a salve to people who wouldn't otherwise be going to see a film titled The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Similarly, while the Necromancer strands seems to be gathering weight, do we really to need to see Gandalf facing off against the shadow of Sauron amidst the ruins of Dol Guldur. Like the love triangle - which apparently Evangeline Lilly hated and may or may not have been lied to over - the inclusion of Sauron feels like pandering, as well as a way of artificially raising the stakes. It's as if the filmmakers don't believe we're capable of caring about the central quest unless the whole of Middle-Earth is somehow at stake. There's a perfectly good story here, just not 7½ hours worth of it - an obvious criticism, sure, but a fairly damning one. I don't know the financial side of things - Peter Jackson swears that turning The Hobbit into three films was on purely artistic grounds - but do the folks over at New Line really believe all fantasy films need to require a loo break?

  There are still lots of bits and pieces to enjoy: Martin Freeman is a minor delight as Bilbo; the dragon Smaug is a wonderful creation, crawling and clawing his way through the ruins of Erebor, rumbling away in the sonorous tones of Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock reunion!); but there's just too much other stuff. What should, in theory, be supporting material, which should provide drive and clarity to the main story, has been blown out of proportion, meanwhile so much of the key cast remains one-note. Richard Armitage's Thorin, for instance, is still just an obsessive. He's son of a king, he's lived a tough life, he wants his kingdom back, and what? Think what The Lord of the Rings had done with Aragorn by this point, how much more tragic and heroic, how much more kingly, compared to the surly Thorin. Meanwhile, the film gives time over to Stephen Fry's Master of Laketown, a broad, unsanitary caricature of corruption with his own cut-rate Wormtongue. While The Lord of the Rings lent plenty of room for expansion, The Hobbit (both 1 and 2) are the only films of which I'd like to see a reduced Director's Cut - a neat 100-or-so minutes each would be a vast improvement.

There's so much superfluous stuff dragging the main story down that the climax, which would ideally focus on Bilbo and the key Dwarves, becomes a choppy nightmare. You've got Auriel and the wounded Kili getting loved-up in Laketown, Bard the Bowman in The Master's cell, Legolas in pursuit of this film's particular big, bad Orc, and the forces of Sauron marching on Erebor (where they'll presumably arrive just in time for the Battle of the Five Armies). As such, the supposed climax of Smaug taking to the skies to torch Lake Town manages to feel a wee bit incidental. There's also a particular moment where Smaug goes rampaging through the Dwarven forge after Bilbo, dragging down mine carts and shattering stone, that's so overloaded with CG detail that the whole thing achieves a sense of surreality. Even the famed barrel ride feels a bit like Donkey Kong at points.

I know a lot of people who will vociferously defend The Hobbit as a world-building exercise, a chance to return to Middle-Earth, but The Desolation of Smaug continues to squander its dramatic potential. For every nice touch - like the coins falling from Smaug's underbelly that alert the Dwarves to his passage overhead - there are ten muddled moments crowding out the stuff that we should care about, that I wanted to care about. I found myself needing a prescription for Ritalin. I won't draw this painful dissection out any further other than to say that perhaps the most simple criticism I can make of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, like the film that preceded it, is that it forgets the message of Tolkien's books, that often it's the little things that matter most. Amidst all the CGI and spectacle, you lose track of the characters, and that's just a fundamental error in storytelling.

The third film, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, is due out December 2014. Maybe, just maybe, it can find a way to bring all these strands together, justify the focus on so much otherwise superfluous characters and material, and thereby negate many of my previous criticisms. I hope...

Sunday, 15 December 2013


2013 has been a year for many things. Hostage crises in Algeria and North Korean nuclear tests, 3D printers and a meteor explosion over Russia. Meanwhile, the NSA's been spying on everyone and Justin Bieber has been taking up the headlines in "Teenage-Boy-With-Unlimited-Power-Behaves-Like-Dickhead Shock". It's also been a year of films set at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The first to come out, Olympus Has Fallen, directed by Training Day's Antoine Fuqua, was as po-faced as its title; personal tragedy, generic North Korean villains, Gerard Butler, a lantern-jawed, All-American President (Aaron Eckhart) and ever-so-slightly dull. Roland Emmerich's White House Down was almost predictable, but somewhat more enjoyable: zany and fun, it gave Jamie Foxx's POTUS a rocket launcher, and - with Channing Tatum in a sleeveless vest - was incidentally the best Die Hard film since with a Vengeance came out in 1995.


Lee Daniel's The Butler, meanwhile, makes for a very different cinema-going experience. Describable as "Forrest Gump meets The Remains of the Day", it follows the eponymous valet, Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), through six Presidents and thirty-something years of White House service. It makes for a measure if occasionally patchy piece of film-making.

Opening with the elderly Cecil invited back to his former place of work, the rest of The Butler takes place in flashback, from his childhood on a cotton plantation and the murder of his father by a cartoonishly evil Alex Pettyfer - the first of many mini casting coups - all the way through to the election of Barack Obama and the present day. Compared to another notable recent depiction of African-American suffering, 12 Years a Slave, The Butler feels much more self-consciously "Oscar-worthy". It may lay claim to being based on a true story, but The Butler is less concerned with the facts and more with the scope of history.

Taught to be utterly inobtrusive, Cecil subsumes himself in his role as butler. He, like the film itself, leaves the politics to the succession of men whom he serves. Whitaker is perfect for the role: his expressive calmness, his gentle smile, and ability to convey great emotion with only the flicker of an eye. Passive and reactionary, he nevertheless bears the film on his shoulders.

With eighty-or-so years of life to cover, The Butler affords us only brief glimpses of the world through which Cecil, often wordlessly, passes. A succession of recognizable faces take on the procession of Presidents that make up the butler's tenure. Afforded only a few scenes each, these it's up to actors the likes of Robin Williams and Liev Schreiber to sell these one-note appearances: William's Eisenhower is stooped, Schreiber's LBJ haunted by deepening involvement in Vietnam. Their roles are limited to what they did (or didn't do) for civil rights: Gerald Ford appears only in TV footage, Jimmy Carter doesn't even get a look-in.

The other side of the film focuses explicitly on Cecil's son Louis (David Oyelowo) and his increasing activism. While Cecil wanders the corridors of power, a callow Louis takes to the streets, enduring taunts and beatings, even a terrifying if OTT assault by the KKK on his tour bus. Cecil's passivity, his quiet forbearance, is contrasted with Louis' firebrand temperament. A scene where guests rising at a Presidential dinner is juxtaposed with civil rights campaigners remaining resolutely seated at a Deep South diner is neat, but doesn't quite connect with The Butlers' basic view of inequality.

Resolutely tasteful, The Butler never truly delves into the power structures in American life, the prejudices, that allowed (and still allow) for institutionalized racism. Instead, it sticks to a simple, but dramatically potent representation of 20th Century domestic politics. When James Marsden's compassionate, martyred JFK says that he never understood what the black community went through till he viewed it for himself, it feels like the remit for the whole film: illustrative as opposed to analytical, a senior school sociology lesson disguised as cinema.

Meanwhile, The Butler has assembled perhaps the best black supporting cast since The Help (Tate Taylor's otherwise patronizing, overrated gloss on the crusading white woman). Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz - all make honorable appearances. Oprah Winfrey's turn as Cecil's loyal, long-suffering wife, who struggles with loneliness and alcoholism, is the stuff that Best Supporting Actress nominations are made of.

While not as striking or memorable as many of its predecessors to have explored issues of race and power, The Butler is still superficially rewarding. Vanessa Redgrave briefly plays the decorous mother of Pettyfer's plantation owner while Joan Fonda is Nancy Reagan in a blink-and-you'll-miss-her cameo. Again, the casting is phenomenal if showy.

As President's come and go - John Cusack as an understated "Tricky Dick" Nixon, Alan Rickman's unctuous Ronald Reagan - Louis comes to understand his estranged father's reticence while Cecil, worn down by years of silent struggle, finally embraces the need for action, however symbolic. Amidst images of Federal troops at Little Rock and helicopters touching down in the Far East, there's a subtle emotionality to The Butler that sneaks up on you: Cecil Gaines and his pocket-watch tirelessly measuring out the seconds; the movement towards change that, in the words of Sam Cooke, really must be gonna come.

Though limited and somewhat reductive - the film ends with Obama's inauguration, as though that marked the end of racism - Lee Daniels The Butler is unashamedly middlebrow and mainstream, but more accessible, perhaps, than McQueen's 12 Years. Though it lacks the same potency and resonance, The Butler may prove the more enduring for it.


Sunday, 8 December 2013

OLDBOY (remake)

There are many films that have no reason to exist besides turning an ill-conceived buck. Transformers 4, for instance – now with 100% more Mark Wahlberg – or the upcoming Terminator reboot, as if the series’ timeline wasn’t convoluted enough already. Spike Lee’s Oldboy might cynically considered to be just such a film.

Having made only two films since 2006’s Inside Man, both of them flops, Lee is clearly in need of a hit. As such, a remake of a cult Korean thriller made just the decade before would seem to be a counter-intuitive choice, not only in that Park Chan-wook’s original was premised on a series of unrepeatable twists (imagine a remake of The Sixth Sense). The question then becomes whether Lee and Co. have managed to recapture what made 2003’s Oldboy* so memorable without simply rehashing the plot. The answer to that is “not entirely”.

*Which I'll italicize hereon for the sake of clarity. 

The new Oldboy, as expected, more or less simply Americanizes the story of Oh Dae-su, here called Joe Doucett and played by No Country’s Josh Brolin. One of the potential candidates for Batman vs. Superman’s older, more grizzled Dark Knight – before Ben Affleck took the role – he’s an interesting choice to embody the force of vengeance Doucett later becomes.

Which is not to say he doesn’t also carry off the drunken, sleazy, self-pitying asshole Doucett begins the film as. Divorced from his wife, a chronically absent father, slurping vodka from a McDonalds cup and hitting on a would-be client’s wife, Brolin’s Doucett is a fairly loathsome human being, but one at least who seems to have some idea of the mess his life’s become. As such, when he wakes up after a chronic bender after blowing a big meeting to find himself imprisoned in a mock motel room, there’s a long list of people who might have put him there. It’s a point he’ll have plenty of time to dwell on during the twenty years he’ll spend in that room (five years longer than Choi Min-Sik’s Dae-su, presumably with time added for bad behavior).

While Doucett is on the inside, the world changes, as viewed on his motel room TV, his only connection with the outside world. The Twin Towers fall. Barack Obama is elected President. Before all of this, though, Doucett is forced to witness a news report that details the brutal rape and murder of his ex-wife for which hair and DNA planted at the scene mark him as the perpetrator, a true shiver-down-your-spine event as a horrified Doucett is forced to deal with the fallout from some unknown transgression he’s committed.

Unlike the original, Lee’s Oldboy shows the process by which Doucett was framed – the removing of a hair sample while he’s unconscious, the taking of a DNA swab. This more logical, meticulous portrayal to the nature of the conspiracy against its protagonist sounds laudable, but shows, in fact, an approach to the material that doesn’t quite hold up.


After two decades of captivity, of suicide attempts and training montages, a newly empowered Doucett has determined to break out and become the father he never was. A pillowcase full of undelivered letters to his daughter in tow, he’s on the verge of making his escape when suddenly and seemingly apropos of nothing, he awakens in a case in the middle of a field, a free man again. However, Doucett’s trial is far from over: his mysterious captor gets in contact and offers a challenge/ultimatum: he has 72 hours to figure out why he was imprisoned and by whom or his long-estranged daughter, Mia dies.

If this review so far has been largely narrative-based that’s because Oldboy, as a film, has little to comment on in terms of substance: unlike Chan-wook’s, there’s little to savor in terms of symbolism or shocking imagery. For anyone who’s seen the original, the image of a claw hammer being buried in a man’s skull will yield few gasps. For the unititiated, the moment Doucett shares with an octopus will mean next to nothing. Damned if you do…

Spike Lee’s take on Oldboy is, that being said, all about damnation. The motel room in which Doucett is imprisoned – with its eerie photo of a grinning bellhop and interminable Chinese food – seems designed to be unsettling, nightmarish. Similarly, Doucett’s treatment there is far more sadistic than that of his Korean counterpart: he makes friends with a mice only to have it and its young cooked and served to him on a platter.

While the original was content to show you a yellow umbrella with a series of red strikes on it and leave its meaning unspoken, the remake feels obliged to explain it. His direction, meanwhile, is merely competent, unshowy. Spike Lee has done more for the dolly shot in American cinema than anyone outside of Martin Scorsese, but here it feels like an affectation, as does the inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson as the belligerent head of the facility in which Doucett is imprisoned. He even gets a fairly obligatory crack about white people.

Lee’s recreation of Oldboy’s famous fight sequence – our protagonist against a hoard of nameless goons – has a deliberate videogame feel to it, taking place in profile on multiple levels, like a hyper-realistic "Street Fighter". It’s impressive, but, given the next context, can’t help but feel contrived, especially given the less-than-remarkable context.

While The SopranosMichael Imperioli is well cast as Doucett’s loyal and long-suffering friend, Chucky, Elizabeth Olsen seems out of place – Doucett and Chucky share more chemistry in their initial encounter than Brolin and Olsen’s Marie manage throughout the film. As suggested by her breakout performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene (directed by Sean Bobbitt who serves as cinematographer here), Olsen is a remarkable actress with a particular brand of guarded vulnerability, but Lee’s film makes of her little more than a spirited victim. Meanwhile, South African actor Sharlto Copley is put on standby as Doucett’s mysterious nemesis. Dark-eyed and fey, with a Svengali look, he certainly sells the emotional trauma that has driven his character to wreak such torment, but the film makes too much of his instability.

Similarly, the film misserves itself in overplaying Joe’s apparent redemption. Flashbacks review confirm his status as not only a raging asshole but hysterically obnoxious bully – one referred to charitably, almost laughably as a lost soul – in order to foreground his resolution to become a good man. Based on past behavior, however, Copley’s loathing of him seems a good deal less than inexplicable, which somewhat misses the point. After all, to quote Eastwood’s penetrating retort in Unforgiven, “Deserves got nothing to do with it”. 

Without spoiling the twist that made the original Oldboy quite so twisted, suffice to say that it survives here intact.  In this regard, however, the film holds back: by elaborating on its antagonist’s motivations and rushing through Doucett’s debasement, it ultimately feels neutered. In attempting to spare the audience, or perhaps the censor, the revelation loses much of its power. 

Screenwriter Mark Protosevich’s additions to the plot, like TV show Unresolved Mysteries of Crime, feel like an attempt to set Oldboy apart, to explain if not quite justify its existence. Mostly, though, they feel like a gloss on its meaninglessness. Compared to, say, Scorsese’s The Departed, a remake of Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, Lee’s Oldboy is beholden to what made the original show great and, as such, remains firmly in its shadow. 

Verdict: A generally adequate if unnecessary remake that'salmost certain to flop, Spike Lee’s Oldboy is neither good nor bad, merely bland, but, given the strikingness of the original, that's a crime itself. 5.5/10

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


Tony Soprano (Nick)

“Dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction vaffancul!”

Vince Gilligan once said, "Without Tony Soprano, there would be no Walter White." I would now like to go one further in asserting that, “Walter White is no Tony Soprano.” 

First off, I would be a fool to deny the cultural predominance of everything Breaking Bad and more specifically Walter White; or Heisenberg as the case may be. Even a rudimentary glance at this year’s Halloween costume roster – the yellow boiler suits, the goatees, the black trim hats - should provide some testament to just how impactful Walt’s meth-fuelled rise-and-fall has been on our collective cultural consciousness. However, his wide appeal is something of a double-edged sword; here’s why…

Gilligan rarely challenged the audience’s relationship with White in the same way that David Chase did with Tony Soprano; and Walt’s cult-stardom status is something of a testament to this. While there are many disturbing and brilliantly macabre moments that marked Walt’s descent into the criminal (and ethical) underworld, none of them truly endangered his iconic appeal as a man aggressively compensating for a life characterized by emasculation in a disenfranchised America. 

This is partly due to the fact that the majority of Walt’s manoeuvring climaxed with moments that were quite unabashedly cool – explosive wheelchairs, automated turret guns, “it’s not meth” – consequently there was always something inherently fantastical and darkly comic about Walt’s exploits that prevented us from really contemplating the more traumatic implications of his actions. By contrast, The Sopranos made a habit of terrorizing its audience’s affection for Tony in the interest of bringing us a truly dynamic and challenging protagonist.

This uneasy, quasi-sadistic tendency was first brought into sharp relief in the award-winning episode “College”, the fifth episode in the first season of The Sopranos. The challenging precedent set in this episodes unflinching depiction of Tony’s more psychotic tendencies – a lengthy on-screen kill involving Tony strangling a former snitch while spitting a torrent of abuse into his ear - became a hallmark of the series throughout its six-season run. Time and time again audiences bore witness to events that completely undermined their ability to root for a man that occupied the lion’s share of the show’s running time. 

One moment that was particularly defining in its portrayal of Tony’s more vicious and sadistic tendencies came in the closing moments of the Mike Figgis-helmed episode “Cold Cuts” during which Tony goads his sister out of a new-found inner serenity with jeers about her absent son Harpo – “I wonder what’s French-Canadian for I grew up without a mother?” – an episode that concludes with the perfectly fitting melancholic lamentations of The Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” So why did audiences keep watching? What kept them hooked on a story centring on a man that was fundamentally a hypocritical sociopath? Put simply, the therapy. 

It’s by way of Tony’s therapy sessions, played out within the warm confines of Dr Melphi’s autumn-shaded office, that we are able to observe fleeting moments of humanity and existential reflection; a humanity masterfully suggested by the subtle inflictions of Gandolfini’s bar-setting performance. By positioning the audience at a vantage point overlooking the seemingly separate spheres of Tony’s life, Chase was able to build a character complete with an incredible array of contradictions, motivations, insecurities, ambitions and doubts. 

While some may confuse this catalogue of psychological inflictions for “window-dressing”, it’s the details - his blind spot affection for animals, his nostalgia for simpler times ("whatever happened to Gary Cooper?"), his enduring befuddlement as to the ever-shifting cultural landscape of modern America– that serve to provide viewers with an emotional anchor; an anchor fated to brave the tumultuous storms that rage through Tony’s life as New Jersey’s mob-boss.  Additionally, his seeming inability to entirely overcome the inner demons that plague him – his mother for one and his rage for another – is not a testament to the show’s lack of “change” – as some critics may suggest - but rather a symptom of its entirely realistic, albeit cynical, depiction of human nature. Which brings me back to Walt…

Breaking Bad moves at such break-neck speed there is rarely any time left for much in the way of character development; in short, the range of Walt’s afflictions and personality traits are entirely tied up in his oft-cited arc. Consequently, the shows in-built need to transform its protagonist ironically serves to constrain and limit his depth - from "Mr Chips to Scarface" but not much else. Genuinely layered and complex characters command a wider array of motivations, fears and desires. They are not, as Robert may argue, built on a singular premise, however ambitious or grand. Unlike Walt, Tony cannot be summed up in a log line. His motivations are neither obvious nor immediately relatable and to truly understand him demands a keen eye for the plethora of insights that distinguish the true superiority of his portrayal above the many antiheroes he has since inspired. 

It is by virtue of these insights that audiences have been rewarded with a figure so multifaceted he easily ascends to a plane where the lines between fiction and reality are masterfully blurred; rarely has a character been so easily confused for a real human being. Meanwhile, there is a thematic simplicity to Walter that makes him a deeply appealing - and entirely iconic - character, but limits him from ascending to the heights that were so supremely conquered by Tony so many years ago.

Walter White (Rob) 

"If you're committed enough, you can make any story work..."
Walter White is the greatest character ever to appear on television. You can keep your Don Drapers, your Vic Mackeys, and yes, your Tony Sopranos. As much as I love all three of them - and believe me, I devoured The Shield - none of them can hold a candle (or perhaps some sort of welding torch) to Walt's brilliance, both conceptually and as a character. 

More so than Mad Men, The Shield or The Sopranos, arguably the three strongest single-protagonist dramas ever made, Breaking Bad is nothing without Walter White. While I'm sure that statement will be used against me in some future essay on Breaking Bad's supposed limitations, I would argue that the show's greatest strength is in its almost monolithic focus on its protagonist. Jesse may mope, Skyler may wind people up, Flynn may eat breakfast, but Breaking Bad is never better than when it puts Bryan Cranston centre stage. 

Both he and James Gandolfini share an unfortunate bond in that they were both beaten to Emmys by less deserving contenders (James Spader in Boston Legal and, more recently, Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom) who served as mouthpieces for liberal talking points, and, on some level, it's easy to understand why. Both Walt and Tony are fundamentally right-wing figures who embody certain truths about the free market. While Tony cuts a tragic figure as a born-and-bred gangster, the tragedy of Walt is one he shares with most of us: he could have been more. 

Walt may be easy to define in broad strokes - he's gifted, emasculated, dissatisfied with his lot in life, his unassuming countenance masking an overburdened ego. His strength as a character is in his arc. It's possible to argue against arcs as limiting, inartistic, blah, blah, blah, but the truth is that every great dramatic character has one. The Sopranos' own Big Pussy may be dismissive ("You know who had an arc? Noah."), but would we remember Hamlet, King Lear, Oedipus, Michael Corleone were it not for the fact that they change. 

As I've said before on this blog, Breaking Bad is all about the change. Show-runner Vince Gilligan set out with the purpose of, as Nick mentions above, turning Scarface into Mr. Chips, but he achieved so much more than that. If The Sopranos is a Bush-era parable of the American dream, as I believe it is, then Walter White is an anti-hero for the recession. In an age of people who spent their lives doing the right things, saving and providing for their families, only to see it all swept away, Walt is the perfect embodiment of their rage and frustration. 

Over the course of five seasons, we watch as this kindly, soft-spoken individual is slowly transformed, episode-by-episode, is transformed into a vengeful god. Pragmatism gives way to pride, supposed good intentions to darkest deeds. At its heart, Breaking Bad is a Greek tragedy, containing all the hubris and hamartia of anything by Sophocles or Aristotle. It is a story of self-actualization and self-destruction, of coming into oneself at any cost. Tony Soprano, comparatively, comes across as a still-life, but brushstrokes are no substitute for dynamism.

None of this would work, however, without Bryan Cranston's intense, exceptional performance. It's acting that almost exhausts superlatives. Every instant Cranston is on screen is exhausting: you can almost see the mind at work behind every flicker on his increasingly lined face. It's a subtle and haunting character study, from the moment of the broken plate in S01E03 to Walt's mounting hysteria at the end of Season Four's "Crawl Space" (if you've seen either, you'll know exactly what I mean). As the divide between tender father and ruthless drug manufacturer is slowly eaten away by the same acid eating into Walt's soul, Cranston brings us along every step of the way. 

There's a case to be made for the slower, more accumulative approach to character taken by The Sopranos, the small touches, the taste in music, the preferred beverage, but a list of facts does not make up a life and the propensity to document a character's every bowel movement does not make for compelling TV. These stiller waters may run deep, but they're in no danger of sweeping you away. With Tony it's possible to retain objective distance; Walt smashes down the barriers between himself and the viewer with a sledgehammer.

An amazing triumph of Breaking Bad is that we never lose that personal connection with Walt: we cannot help it because, in many ways, he is us, or at least the person we might become. We are complicit in his crimes, too often we condone them, up to and including the poisoning of a child. At the end of the day, Tony Soprano is just a gangster, however complex; there's no precedent for Walt. It’s one thing to watch a proclaimed Mafia Captain bump off a snitch then go home to his family; it’s another to watch a fundamentally decent human gradually become a monster. 

Breaking Bad is not about a man with cancer or the flaws inherent in the capitalist system, though it encompasses both those things: it's about a man bowed by life who, in the words of Travis Bickle, "stood up" and the consequences of it. The standing up just happened to involve hundreds of pounds of prime blue meth, a multitude of deaths (innocent or otherwise), and one of the best and most entertaining TV shows ever to be made, one from which it becomes harder and harder to look away from the darker and more devastating it gets.  

Breaking Bad is simply the more striking and ambitious show and Walter White is testament to that.

Coming next: supporting cast...

Friday, 15 November 2013


It’s been 27 days since I officially went on hiatus. I think that’s long enough. Here's a double review: The Counselor and Saving Mr. Banks. 


From its opening moments, The Counselor is an unusual beast. Cheetahs stalk wild hares on the savannah, not of Africa but Mexico; a flamboyant, eccentrically rich couple picnic nearby in the company of some luxury motors. Sometime soon Michael Fassbender’s nameless eponym will be buying a diamond from Bruno Ganz’s merchant, who pontificates on the beauty of the stone lying in its flaws. A pure diamond, he says, would seem to be comprised of air. The Counselor, however, manages to be both flawed and ultimately insubstantial. 

Cormac McCarthy’s script hides its hollowness behind philosophizing, behind its sparse literariness (he may have written the novel No Country For Old Men, but the adaptation was notably penned by the Coen Brothers). Fassbender is nicely understated in the lead role and shares impressive chemistry with Penelope Cruz as his sexy Catholic fiancé – a scene with them hidden, writhing, beneath the covers, carrying on a breathy conversation, is well-conceived, if a touch too explicit dialogue-wise. 

The film’s fundamental disconnect is summed up in an already-notorious scene where Cameron Diaz’s Malkina mounts the bonnet of a yellow 2013 Ferrari California HS and proceeds to grind on it, panty-less, till orgasm, an act her boyfriend (Javier Bardem) appropriately describes as “too gynecological to be sexy”. Similarly, The Counselor is too gynecological to be insightful. Combine this with the cartel violence, familiar touches like bodies in barrels, and it feels an attempted cross between Breaking Bad and Shame. It even features – SPOILER – a somewhat wasted cameo by the usually great Dean Norris

Ridley Scott shoots the New Mexico brilliantly - dusty, rocky, scrubby, in shades of brown and yellow - but there’s no one to really connect with. Bardem’s vivid, wild-haired, wide-eyed, nut-brown drug dealer Reiner (one of the aforementioned eccentric rich couple) is arresting, but ultimately listless. The autoerotically-inclined Malkina, too trashy to be attractive, is an ingenious apparently all-knowing provocateur. With her cheetah print tattoo and her cool, pouty monologuing, she provides the clearest insight into the film’s nihilistic central theme of greed and survival. Like the film as a whole, though, it's a case of  “all fur coat and no knickers”. 

Despite all this, and its plot hinging on a neatly lamp-shaded coincidence, the film manages to occasionally be both textured and complex. It’s at its best when at its tensest and most technical, like with the rigging of a metal-wire trap across a roadway or the gruesome reminder that a bolito is not, in fact, a type of necktie (well, it is, of sorts). There’s a memorable shootout across a road, gunmen firing desperately across the flat surface from shallow ditches at either side, but, again, no characters to really root for.

Instead of Tommy Lee Jones’ rumpled, deeply human Sheriff a la No Country, The Counselor gives us Brad Pitt’s mysterious, knowing-yet-ultimately-hapless middleman. There’s enough wit to mostly cover the lack of substance (McCarthy, after all, does have a Pulitzer to his name), but being stylish and well-lit cannot compensate for the film's thematic and textual murkiness. Overall, The Counselor is an intriguing failure for the talent involved. It feels more like a more pretentious take on the middlebrow thrillers of Tony Scott (RIP) than a classic Ridley Scott outing; that being said, it’s still a darn sight better than Prometheus

The Counselor gets 5/10.


Try to think of an occasion on which you've seen the celebrated Mr. Walt Disney portrayed in film. Simply put, you can’t: the Disney corporation has fiercely guarded the image of their founder, almost as fiercely as their iconic mascot. It’s only now, some 47 years after his death, that the creator of the beloved Mickey Mouse makes his first appearance in fiction. Who better then to capture his twinkly geniality than another cinematic legend, Tom Hanks?

Saving Mr. Banks, though, is not the story of Disney and the birth of his dream factory, but of P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, and Disney’s attempt to solicit from her the movie rights. Miss Travers – as she insists on being known – is played by none other than Emma Thompson, a British national treasure perhaps best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Remains of the Day. Travers herself, however, is more reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins’ character in that same film: prim, fastidious, and nursing a secret wound. 


Saving Mr. Banks focuses on a trip Travers made to California in 1961, brought there that Walt Disney might try his charm in person. Frequent flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in rural Australia serve to illuminate her attachment to her creation, especially as she relates to the figure of Travers’ roguishly charming but put-upon alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). If this sounds like a dark, complex topic for a Disney movie, it is, of course, never less than family friendly in its treatment

Of course, the film has a lot of fun in its evocation of the classic movie. Thompson’s Travis is wonderfully snippy in her dismissal of Mary Poppins as “careering towards a happy ending like a kamikaze” and hectoring the film’s lyricists, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) for making up a word (prompting Schwartzman to quickly hide the sheet music to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. However cynical you may be, Saving Mr. Banks’ nostalgia factor is irresistible. 


Which is not to say there are no depths. Saving Mr. Banks revolves around Travers’ journey towards letting go of the past, such as in the fraught association between her own father, Travers Goff, and the figure of Mr. Banks. As she exasperatedly remarks to Walt, Mary Poppins isn’t there to save the children at all, though the film dares to suggest that Disney’s attempt to adapt the book may just save her, if only by finally forcing her to confront these issues.

If never quite fascinating as a study of a deeply unhappy woman – Travers’ problems are too lightly and broadly sketched for that – Saving Mr. Banks nevertheless succeeds in bringing to life Disney’s creator. Hanks’ Walt is loquacious and expansive; if a little caricaturist, wandering the streets of Disneyland with his pre-signed autographs. However, Hanks also lends him an indefinable authority: silence falls when he enters a room, not merely out of respect to but because of his presence. 

Paul Giamatti appears as Travers’ L.A. chauffeur, Ralph, whose buoyant nature belies his own troubles, while Ruth Wilson shows the true cost of Travers’ father’s recklessness as her tormented mother, Margaret. The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford is largely wasted as strenuously well-mannered screenwriter, Don DaGradi, but it’s a small enough complaint in a film that otherwise gets so much mileage out of Travers’ biographical jaunt across the pond.

Saving Mr. Banks is heartening and humane, one of the most genuinely feel-good films I can remember seeing in a longtime. It may provide little insight into the figure at its head, but that is, perhaps, to be expected. Thompson and Travers may well pick up Oscar nods for their performances, and deservedly so. In any case, after five years of the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful, Disney is back on live-action form. If this is what it takes for Disney to make good drama, maybe they should stick to self-nostalgia.

Saving Mr. Banks gets 8.0/10.