The Guardian

Ashton Kutcher in the swimming pool in The Guardian

 

The career of Kevin Costner seems to have come and gone. After having a run of mad popular success with The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, Dances with Wolves, JFK and The Bodyguard (even the Robin Hood movie: Prince of Thieves did pretty well), he followed up with two epic failures. First Waterworld, which went down like the Titanic. Then The Postman, which was so vainglorious – this is the one in which our hero restores civilisation to a post-apocalyptic America – that it stunned reviewers into a kind of embarrassed silence. These belly flops seem to have busted Costner back down to private and since then he’s gone for more modest assignments. The Guardian is one such, a “hell I used to be that guy” mentoring drama directed by Andrew Davis, who is a sound choice for Costner, having made Steven Seagal look good in Under Siege and turned a workaday chase movie into something special with The Fugitive. Davis does it again with The Guardian, a wearisomely familiar tale about a brave yet tragic US Coast Guard instructor (Costner) of rescue swimmers and his friction-filled training of a new kid on the block (Ashton Kutcher). At 27 Kutcher is at the top age limit for US Coast Guard applicants but he has a swimmer’s build and youthful looks, so… Meanwhile, director Davis guides the rookie and the pro through a screenplay that most of us could block out if asked to – the drill training, the locker-room machismo, the “sir, yes sir” dialogue, the crypto-homoeroticism and even the “hell, you remind me of me” scene, with of course each man learning something about life and himself on the way. And yet, in Davis’s hands, it all seems, if not fresh, then at least remarkably watchable, the action movie cliches and Top Gun homages (Kutcher even wears Ray Ban Aviators) piling up on each other with a certain degree of kinetic finesse, Davis’s stock in trade. Costner reminds us and possibly himself how he became a star in the first place – because he is so good at playing average guys. And Kutcher keeps the sullen braggadocio this side of unattractive and rises to the challenge of a more serious role than he’s used to – dude, where’s my career. Having started with a quick resume of Costner’s rise and fall, it’s necessary to point out that this isn’t really his film, or Kutcher’s. It’s the baton’s – this is all about one generation graciously ceding to the next, which is hungrily grabbing at what isn’t being offered quite fast enough. And on this level – and Davis lets looks and gestures rather than the dialogue do a lot of the work here – it rises right above the cliche, and the fact that this is a film containing a training montage set to rock music (Kasabian’s Club Foot) becomes almost forgivable.

 

The Guardian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

The Host

Bae Doo-na, Byun Hee-bong and Song Kang-ho in The Host

 

In Memories of Murder, the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho made an interesting point about the police procedural – that no matter how “tortured” the cop/protagonist, no matter how broken his background, how fractured his family life, how severe his problem with drink, he always remains a hero. Not in Memories of Murder he doesn’t. Nor did the case get solved by inspiration, Sherlock Holmes-ian deduction, or even solid police work – it was mostly luck, that’s when the cops weren’t beating information out of people. The Host is Bong’s observations on the creature feature, another home for the hero. But, again, not here. Bong first gives us a bit of Godzilla-style backstory – toxic waste pouring into Seoul’s River Han has caused a hideous mutation to take place. Meanwhile, on dry land, we meet the family that’s going to be most closely affected once the creature decides to crawl out of the river and go postal – among them a drunken, no-good dad, a horrible sniping brother and a worthy, decent sister who, we learn, was an Olympic archer. In Hollywood there would be only one possible outcome here – that the decent girl would eventually rise to become the hero character. But will she in South Korea? What, for instance is the significance of the fact that she only won a bronze medal when she was at the Olympics? Is the monster going to offer her a chance to go for gold?

Bong takes time to introduce his characters, works within the obviously limited budget to deliver a creature that’s a piece of work, all tail and mouth, as horrible as it is athletic as it is intriguing. And then he plays the intrigue game with the characters, shifting the focus and our expectations from one to the next, sharing out redemption between them, because redemption and heroism are also often linked, he’s making clear. But like Memories of Murder, the strength of The Host is that you can ignore all this “commentary on a genre” aspect entirely and watch it as a straight-out creature feature and it’s very good indeed – fresh, thrilling, tense, humane, even funny now and again – there’s nothing arched or forced.

Films like this are often referred to as a Hollywood calling card, which is a tremendously Victorian way of putting things, but in Bong’s case his film is more like fan-fiction – he clearly knows his sources but is taking things into his own universe, in his own way, as well as he can with the money to hand. If Hollywood wants him, it’s most likely going to be on his terms.

 

 

 

The Host – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

The Interview

James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview

 

 

Like an Inspector Clouseau party that’s forgotten to invite Peter Sellers, The Interview has a gigantic gaping hole where the comedy should be. Unsure if it’s a satire on modern entertainment or a Get Smart-style caper comedy set in the People’s Republic of North Korea, it squats uneasily between the two, leaving its game bromantic stars, James Franco and Seth Rogen, mouthing like beached fish in one unfunny set-up after another.

 

The film arrives after the most brilliantly organised bit of internet brouhaha since The Blair Witch Project. First, Sony’s servers were hacked by the North Koreans, angry at the prospect of a film about an assassination attempt on the Dear Leader. The film was shelved by Sony, after it found distributors taking seriously the threats of cyber armageddon against them. Then President Obama got involved, criticising Sony for being chicken and invoking the Constitutional right for cinema chains to refuse to show a film if they so desired. No, hang on, I think I might have that wrong. Then there was a counter cyber-attack against the North Koreans which, if it was ordered by Obama, must be a rare example of the US going to war to protect a Japanese company’s interests. Then Sony called in favours to cobble together a limited release. Then the film made a day/date online/theatrical debut, a rare example of the cinema chains feeding the hand that bites them.

 

You could not orchestrate a better advertising campaign. If only it had been lavished on a better film. Because The Interview really really stinks. It’s written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and repeats the mistakes they made in two earlier films. The Green Hornet was another tin-eared piece of writing which, like an over-caffeinated breakfast radio DJ, mistook a “comedy” tone of voice for humour. And with This Is the End an initially funny film was run into the ground by Rogen and Goldberg’s dry-humping of the material. And to think these two wrote Superbad.

 

The plot is scant – airhead TV interviewer Dave Skylark (Franco) and his ambitious producer (Rogen) head to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-un, having been co-opted by the CIA (in the shape of Lizzy Caplan) into assassinating him while there. The “entertainment guys as stealth operatives” structure resembles Argo, and the film would have been a whole lot funnier played a whole lot straighter. Missing its open shots at the wide open goal that is entertainment TV – watching Eminem on the Dave Skylark show admit that, yes, he really is gay, might have raised a titter ten years ago – it then proceeds to take such weak pops at totalitarianism that in comparison Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator is Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

 

To Kim Jong-un, a man responsible for the death of how many hundreds of thousands of people, and whose vainglory is another open goal, entirely missed. He speaks in “fuck yeah we can” argot, admits to a liking for Katy Perry and margaritas, even though they’re a bit sissy, in scenes where he bonds with Dave Skylark and they drive a tank about shooting at stuff.

 

It’s screwball comedy as written by the CIA, taking its propaganda cues from the “Hitler has only got one ball” ditty. However, none of this would matter if the interview itself, between Dumb and Kim Jong-Dumber, delivered the goods. It is, however, spectacularly inept. First it does that Hollywood thing where the “hero” has a sudden moment of clarity and does the right thing, Dave here suddenly veering off the script and pitching hardball questions at Kim, who counters with the observation that the US has more people incarcerated per capita than North Korea does. This is a blast so unexpected – because it actually connects with a fact out in the real world – that you want to applaud. Until you remember that this is a film about a totalitarian dictator that has managed to land not one single punch.

 

The Interview – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Snowpiercer

John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in Snowpiercer

 

That sound? The plane taking off from LAX taking a great Asian director back home, sobbing with disappointment. It happened to John Woo, who did at least manage to crank out Face/Off, but his sad run of Hollywood films include Windtalkers, Mission: Impossible II and Hard Target. To the Pang brothers too, whose The Eye was one of the attention-grabbers of 2002. They came to Hollywood, made The Messengers for Sam Raimi, then put their tail between their legs and went home.

So what about the latest Asian import, the great South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, whose uniquely flavoured movies include Memories of Murder, a killer-thriller-whodunit whose cops get their man more by brutality and naked luck than sleuthing. Or The Host, a monster movie in which the hero doesn’t so much step forward, as find that everyone else has taken a step back. How is Mr Bong going to go down in a town where irony is a dish best served not at all?

The answer is Snowpiercer, an adaptation of the 1982 cult French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, a post-apocalyptic thriller set on board a train of 1,001 carriages that has been travelling non-stop for 17 years through a world that is entirely frozen. Outside, the passengers are told, everything is extinct. Inside, the train is run on feudal Orwellian lines, with the bosses at the front, the proles at the back, and a massive system of repression, propaganda and eventism keeping everyone, but mostly the proles, on-message.

The uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Curtis (Chris Evans) and sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), emboldened by ragged spiritual mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) to make a break for the front of the train and either overthrow the Big Brother-style leader Wilford (Ed Harris) or convince him at least of the need for a little more gravy down the back end.

Post-apocalypse, little men against a corrupt leader, steampunk technology, a quest: we’ve seen films like this a lot over the decades, often starring Arnie or Will Smith or Tom Cruise, films that pause to crack a wry one-liner but are otherwise propulsive, fairly humourless and full of action and dead bodies.

The first sign that Bong isn’t quite making that sort of film comes early on, with the arrival of Mason (Tilda Swinton), one of Wilford’s henchpeople, who has come down from the front to the back to the train – and looks very unhappy about it too – to nip rebellion in the bud. In a convoluted speech Mason contemptuously tells the rear-dwellers that they should be happy with their lot, that everyone has their role and, pushing an ill-chosen metaphor beyond breaking point, that “I am the hat; you are the shoe”, all this while a miscreant is having his arm frozen off by exposure to the outside elements, pour encourager les autres. It’s the sort of scene you can imagine being in Total Recall, except that screenwriters Kelly Masterson and Bong Joon Ho have other ideas: Swinton comes equipped with a comic northern English accent, a face full of big teeth and her coat is constantly slipping off her shoulders.

The whole film is like this – familiar sci-fi tropes undermined by Bong’s oblique strategies.

I’m not going to explain the film’s entire plot, except to say that Curtis, Edgar, their ragged-trousered team and a couple of South Koreans (Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-sung) they’ve woken from cryo-sleep do indeed make a dash for the front, each carriage a marvel of Wachowski-esque set design (one’s a classroom teaching elite kids, another is a vast glass house hydroponically growing crops, another is a bespoke tailor’s, another a dentist, a nightclub, a cocktail bar), through a train whose metaphorical purpose couldn’t be made more explicit if the word “allegory” were flashing up on screen every few minutes.

It is a fantastic, fabulous, ludicrous and lovely film to look at, and as Curtis and crew battle forwards they are assailed by bullets, bombs and even a medieval axe attack in one entirely blacked-out carriage. But one great, breathtaking and fanatically detailed scene followed by another doesn’t necessarily equal a great film. And that’s the case here. Partly this is Evans’s fault – he’s likeable but lacks heroic charisma. But mostly it’s because I think Bong wanted it that way. For example, in the middle of the medieval axe fight the combatants pause to wish each other a happy new year. Bong is deliberately subverting the heroic action blockbuster with little human touches (the slipping coat) at almost every turn.

But this deviously ironic film insisting on nuance where the genre generally goes for broad brush isn’t helped – is undermined, in fact – by its blunderbuss approach to satire. In particular the final long rambling “explains it all” speech by Wilford that more or less throws away the claims to specialness that the film has carefully wrought. Is this Bong’s doing? Masterson’s? The studio’s?

Snowpiercer isn’t boring, and there’s really nothing to touch it for production design and world-building. File it next to the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas in the drawer marked Mad Brilliant Messes with a Thumping Message.

Bong’s next film is being made in South Korea.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Casino Royale

Eva Green and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale

 

 

You only live twice, or so they say. Casino Royale is the old Bond song incarnate. Because we have been here before. Not titularly – though we have, in the 1967 spoof made by a gaggle of writers and directors (John Huston, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen and Joseph Heller among them) who must have been high. Tonally, I mean. After A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s last Bond and a bad performer at the box office, moves were made to zhuzh up the increasingly tired formula. In came Timothy Dalton, out went the eyebrow, and for a couple of films, which in retrospect, look better and better, there was a return to a badass Bond. But neither 1987’s The Living Daylights nor 1989’s License to Kill did very well at the box office either. Producer Cubby Broccoli panicked and out went not just Dalton but the grittier style. In came Brosnan and back came the eyebrow. Broccoli died shortly after, leaving his daughter and Michael G Wilson (who’d presided over the Dalton Bonds) to restart the process that Cubby had abandoned. By the mid-90s the time was right. Other directors were cannibalising 007 for their own big-budget actioners – James Cameron made True Lies, a Bond movie by any other name. While John Woo with Face/Off, Renny Harlin with The Long Kiss Goodnight, Tony Scott with Enemy of the State and Michael Bay with The Rock (starring Sean Connery) were clearly all at it too.

But though Brosnan’s Bond got dirtier during his four-film run – he grew a beard! – it’s taken till now to finally reboot properly. And so here we are, with the “blond Bond” – and what a gift to the publicity machine twittering fanboys are when someone takes their pacifier away. A reboot and a reset, Casino Royale puts Bond back in a tux and back at the gaming tables for a film that’s littered with slaughtered sacred cows – there is no pre-title stunt-filled breathtaker, instead a brutal, CCTV assassination by our new favourite Bond. There’s no sign of Q, and his “I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir”, or of many of the usual gang of pantomime regulars. There’s a distinct lack of rumpy-pumpy, though Bond does get a dalliance with Eva Green, as uber-Bond girl Vesper Lynd. And 007 even seems also to be completely indifferent to the making of the perfect martini – when the estimable Daniel Craig is asked whether he’d like it shaken or stirred, he replies “Do I look like I give a damn?” Unwilling financially to match Bay or Cameron and their legions of CG technicians, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson have decided instead to deliver a great spy thriller instead. The plot is bare-bones – on his very first mission, 007 must stop Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) from winning at cards in a casino in Montenegro, because if he does… no idea… something to do with funding all the terrorist outfits in the world. Does it matter? Not really. Because the film is in fact more interesting watched as an exercise in franchise renewal – Bond slo-mo walking out of the waves à la Ursula Andress, Bond actually washing blood off himself, Bond apparently dying. As an actual thriller… it gets about four-fifths there before losing its way towards the end, as some old Bond tropes (moving the action to Venice, in this case, for little reason) re-assert themselves and that familiar “are we nearly there yet” feeling takes hold. That apart, it’s a great Bond movie, and Daniel Craig, scowling when he’s not running (even free-running), is a great 007. Welcome back.

 

Casino Royale – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Night at the Museum

Ben Stiller and Robin Williams in Night at the Museum

 

 

One of Disney’s old standbys is the perky live-action comedy, of the sort they used to put out on the 1960s, invariably starring Dean Jones and a gaggle of pesky kids, plus a cute animal or two. These movies were cute and zippy and had a gee-whizz wholesomeness that was easy to mock but hard to hate. Night at the Museum drills right into that vein, and even gives a small part to Dick Van Dyke, king of Disney’s live-action magnum opus, Mary Poppins. But he’s not the star. Instead there’s an appropriately bumbling Ben Stiller fitting right into the Van Dyke mould, as the hapless, hopeless dad who takes a job at a Museum of Natural History, only to discover that at night the exhibits come to life, thanks to a magical ancient Egyptian tablet, or something. The support cast is strong: Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs as what must be the oldest security guards on the planet – they’re retiring, we’re told, but that still doesn’t quite explain how gents in their 80s are holding down jobs where they might be expected to get physical. Whatever. There’s also a bickering Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan as a diminutive cowboy and a miniature Roman centurion, Robin Williams as a statue of Teddy Roosevelt back to boombastic life, and Ricky Gervais who, aware of the John Cleese rule, it seems (acclaimed British comics often killing US films stone dead), plays his tiny role as the dorkish museum boss as someone who can’t speak.

You won’t like this if you’re hoping for sophisticated comedy, but it’s a fun piece of lightheardedness, done well, with the CG creations – a dinosaur running amok being a high point – never too threatening or convincing. I’m going to make obvious what a lot of critics seem to have missed about this movie – it’s for kids. Sure, a couple of jokes are in there for beleaguered parents in for the long haul, but it isn’t for grown-ups. Not even vaguely. The kids might not know who Teddy Roosevelt is, and they might wonder why the film seems so insistent on the importance of reading, but apart from that and the obviously downplayed icky love stuff with Carla Gugino, it’s clearly old school Disney that’s the target, and director Shawn Levy and team hit it. You wouldn’t want another one, though, would you?

 

Night at the Museum – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Eragon

Edward Speelers in Eragon

 

 

Here be dragons. Dungeons and Dragons, to be more specific. Because that’s what this British Lord of the Rings knock-off most resembles. The 2000 film also heavily featured Jeremy Irons, who moved heaven and earth to save it but could not ultimately fight the sheer dead weight of the script and its deadly fantasy game holdovers. Something similar is going on here, with Irons once again mustering all his considerable charisma to try and float a sodden barque, a tale of a fine-limbed young farm lad (Edward Speelers) who has somehow sprung noble from the poor lumpen volk, his nice-boy accent setting him off against the ooh-aarghs of fellow proles and a token of his specialness. He finds a dragon’s egg – for what is “Eragon” if not “dragon” with a typo? – a discovery that sets him off on a journey. For he has been chosen to save his land etc and rid it of evil etc etc. Every Skywalkerish figure needs his Ben Kenobi. Enter Irons, working like a man might to save a drowning child. Enter also Rachel Weisz as the voice of the dragon (cajoling, caring, a tough-love mother). And enter John Malkovich in a have-cape-will-swish turn that’s also worth five of your minutes.

Based on the trilogy (yes, there are more – shudder) of fantasy novels by Christopher Paolini, Eragon feels like what it is – the regurgitated fantasy reading of a lively 15-year-old (which Paolini was when he started on the series) brought to life by a mercenary production that’s determined to cut any corner, and directed by a visual effects man (Stefen Fangmeier – a not inappropriate name) who seems better versed in the looks of TV than the big-budget movie. The singer Joss Stone turns up as a fortune teller, briefly. Not because she brings anything to the role, but because she brings another demographic to the film. And having done her job, she is dispensed with. If art is all about hiding the artifice, Eragon has a long and mythic quest in front of it. Not only can you see the actors acting and hear the script changing gears, you can see the marketing levers being pulled – and that’s really bad. But ultimately it’s the gulf between the film’s ambitions and its execution, its unwillingness to cut its jerkin according to its cloth that marks Eragon out as a dud. You can make a sword-and-sorcery film for nothing, but not like this one has been made. And with that, incanting up his wizard’s sleeve, your humble reviewer was gone.

 

 

Eragon – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

The Grandmaster

Zhang Ziyi and brothel women in The Grandmaster

 

There are misgivings even during the opening scene of this decade-straddling epic about Ip Man, generally described as “the man who trained Bruce Lee”. There’s legendary martial artist Ip Man (the impassive Tony Leung) in a stylish straw hat taking on a phalanx of uglies in a torrential nighttime downpour. Slo-mo rain. It’s the sort of visual cliché you might expect from Uwe Boll rather than one of the most gifted film-makers in the world.

But, a bit of plot. The film kicks off in the 1930s when, Leung’s voiceover tells us, Ip Man is about 40, a content, wealthy resident of Foshen with a lovely wife and a rich cultural life. This is all kicked into the air after a bake-off between competing branches of kung fu called by the retiring Master Gong, who has in tow his beautiful, skilled and icy daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, of Crouching Tiger fame) and wayward disciple Ma San (Zhang Jin). Over the intervening years the Japanese invade, the nationalists come and go, and the era of Mao begins, with Gong Er and Ma San both re-appearing in Ip Man’s life like punctuation marks.

Why is Wong Kar Wai making a biopic about Ip Man, whose story has already been told many times before (notably by Donnie Yen in two films)? I suspect it’s his attempt to outdo Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And maybe in the original four hour edit it does. But in this incomprehensible two hour ten minute edit (Wong says he will “never” release the original version) little makes sense, and Wong’s choices always tend towards the visual rather than the dramatic. In short, half the time it’s difficult to know who everyone is.

There are two distinct ways of shooting physical action in movies. When it’s people who know their stuff, say Donnie Yen or Fred Astaire, the camera stays back, letting the viewer take in the spectacle – real bodies doing really amazing things in real space and time. When the actors don’t know their stuff, say Bruce Willis or the cast of Chicago, then the smoke and mirrors of the edit suite takes over.

Leung trained for 18 months to do this movie, but even so is no grand master. Wong reciprocates with an ingenious shooting style that is a little bit Astaire, a little bit Willis. And he comes up with something that does actually work: impressionistic blurs of movement, fast edits and swivel pans pausing periodically to focus on a decisive tactical moment – often a “push” move of the hands or feet. It’s very effective and, now and again, breathtaking.

Wong stages these fights in locations that are chocolate boxy in the extreme – a lush high end brothel, a station wreathed with locomotive smoke, a snowy landscape.

But never mind all that, the martial arts fans will be saying, who did the fight choreography? The answer is Yuen Woo-Ping, of Kill Bill and The Matrix fame, and Yuen does put on some mighty fine shows, though I was often not sure who Ip Man, or Gong Er, was fighting, and why – except when the two leads fought each other and all was abundantly clear. This was chop-socky courtship.

With this romantic Ip Man/Gong Er strand Wong is aiming specifically for the withheld love vibe of In the Mood for Love, his most famous film, which he also tried to re-bottle in his Blueberry Nights. And it doesn’t work here either, this time because Wong has introduced Ip Man’s wife early on and then not clearly explained the nature of their relationship. Or maybe all was explained in the four hour version. And who is this guy Razor who pops up here and there, spoiling for a fight? Again the four hour edit might have the answer.

But never mind all that, Wong appears to be saying in his editing decisions, look at all the pretty pictures. In this he’s directly in the tradition of David Lean after his work jumped the shark (about halfway through Lawrence of Arabia) when his visual eye started to get the better of his storytelling brain.

This is a heroically beautiful film but a godawful mess in all other respects. I followed it up with Lav Diaz’s epic Filipino masterpiece Norte, the End of History – a four hour epic I sat through with my eyes glued to the screen. Did Wong Kar Wai not trust audiences with the full banquet? Perhaps he should think again.

 

The Grandmaster – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Snakes on a Plane

Samuel L Jackson in Snakes on a Plane

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

12 August

 

Cleopatra kills herself, 30BC

On this day in 30BC, Cleopatra VII Philopator, last pharaoh of ancient Egypt, killed herself. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes and at first ruled alongside him, later ruling alongside her brothers Ptolemy XIII and XIV, the latter of whom she married. The Ptolemaic dynasty had its origins in Greece, the original Ptolemey having been one of Alexander the Great’s generals. The Ptolemaic era marked the decline of Greece and the ascent of Rome and one of Cleopatra’s strategic couplings was to have a son with Julius Caesar, who became co-ruler with her after her husband/brother Ptolemy mysteriously died of poisoning. Julius Caesar had met his end around the same time, so Cleopatra then aligned herself with Mark Antony, and bore him three children. But with Mark Antony she had chosen the losing side. Because in the struggle for a successor to Caesar, he lost out to Augustus (aka Octavian) and was defeated in battle at Actium. As a result Mark Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra followed her husband (who was incidentally already married to Octavian’s sister), clasping an asp to her bosom, as tradition has it. Her son, Caesarion, briefly tried to become pharaoh but was killed on Octavian’s orders. Egypt became a province of Rome.

 

 

 

Snakes on a Plane (2006, dir: David R Ellis)

Snakes on a Plane is a slightly bigger budgeted version of the sort of film that the SyFy channel churn out for buttons – Sharknado, Frankenfish, Dinocroc vs Supergator – where the accent is on fun and cheesy special effects are all part of the package. And if you’ve got a fading celebrity on board, then so much the better. No such thing here, though, since it’s Samuel L Jackson, very much still riding the wave that Quentin Tarantino got going with Pulp Fiction in 1994, who’s the main man here. He’s playing the badass cop taking a witness to a trial, a witness whose death in transit would be very much appreciated by the accused. Enter the snakes, and exit pretty much any remaining contact with reality. The set-up is borrowed entirely from 1970s disaster movies – we meet a bunch of people: the honeymooners, the uptight Brit, the mile-high couple, the kickboxers, the bimbo stewardesses, the gay steward. Some of them will make it, most of them won’t, and Samuel L will say “motherfuckin’” a hell of a lot.
There is no need to go into more plot than I’ve just laid out, with this film the title is the plot. In fact it’s almost the whole film, once the snakes get loose and start getting busy. One tiny detail – the snakes have been exposed to some gas which makes them extremely violent. “Well that’s good news… snakes on crack,” says Samuel L. Though Jackson looks like he’s doing his scenes in between shooting something else (he was making between five and ten films a year at this point, so it figures), his line readings are never less than brilliant – the notorious “Right, that’s it. I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane” being the motherlode, the line that got the internet jangling and sold the last few pre-bookings that hadn’t already been sold on the title alone.
The good news is that there is a tiny bit more going on, gratuitous sexual wounding, for example. One early victim gets a snake zonking straight onto her tit. A guy taking a leak gets one… yes, he does. More good news is that there isn’t a big message hiding in there somewhere, apart from the “if we all just pull together we might just beat this” which some overheated souls will see as socialism, but there’s not much anyone can do about that.
It’s dumb, it’s fun, you can half-watch and it still makes sense. Sometimes it’s exactly the sort of movie you want, when you’re tired, the pizza is really top notch and the beer is cold and you’re thirsty.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Samuel L Jackson – a tour de force
  • Dumb, but not stupid
  • Funny
  • All the right people die

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Snakes on a Plane – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

31 July

 

Black Tot Day, 1970

Today in 1970 was the last day on which British sailors were issued with a daily rum ration. The ration had initially been beer – much safer than water – and had been set at a gallon (4.5 litres) a day in the 16th century. But that’s a lot of beer if there are a lot of men, and so the ration became a half pint of rum in 1655, after the British had secured whole chunks of the rum-rich West Indies. Drunkenness being a problem, the half-pint ration was mixed with water 1:4 and served twice a day. In 1824 the ration was halved to a quarter of a pint and in 1850 an admiralty committee recommended the ration be ended. However, it persisted until 1970, when it was decided that modern high-tech warships and alcohol didn’t make good bedfellows. On 31 July 1970, after the usual pipe of Up Spirits, the last rum ration was poured at 6 bells (11am), while some sailors wore black armbands. A can of beer was added to rations to compensate.

 

 

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011, dir: Rob Marshall)

Well stap me vitals, a decent POTC movie. Yes, I believe the consensus is that this fourth one in the series is a bit of a dog, but that’s only because the consensus has been in hock to the unsustainable idea that the first three were any good. They weren’t. Number one was passable, though way too long. Number two was pantomime piracy without any jokes. Number three was an unforgivable three hours long (nearly) and still had trouble telling its story without breaks for exposition every few minutes. Which brings us to number four – which removes the bland and increasingly embarrassing Orlando Bloom and the implausible Keira Knightley, promotes Captain Jack Sparrow properly to the lead role and shaves all the shag off the POTC dog to reveal a lean, light questing beast. Penelope Cruz has been drafted in to spar with Depp, and they make a feisty bickering and possibly romantically inclined duo. Ian McShane is a devilishly piratical Blackbeard – “the pirate all other pirates fear” – joining Geoffrey Rush to make a duo of ancient mariners who understand that in this sort of film it’s all about swash, not swish. Talking of buckling, Keith Richards as Depp’s dad – and how many column inches did this bit of casting generate – is a waste of everybody’s time and is in the film so little that there’s the suspicion his performance is mostly on the cutting room floor. Round the edges, again having learned from the other films, is lively but not obstructive character support, with Richard Griffiths making a fabulously fruity King George. And Judi Dench turns up early on for a ten second cameo in the brilliant opening chase-through-London sequence, which probably would have gone on for an hour in POTC 3.
Perhaps best of all is the plot, which is exactly the sort of ridiculous story that salty sea dogs might tell each other on a stormy night on the high seas – sexy mermaids, silver chalices and a zombified ship’s crew all figure as Sparrow, Barbossa and Blackbeard chase across the oceans in search of a fountain of youth. And if the previous films relied too heavily on effects generated in post-production, new director Rob Marshall leans less heavily on them, preferring to set a lot of scenes at night, in the murk and the gloom, leaving a small space for the human imagination to work. There’s real sword fights. And even a bit of seafaring lore, a nod to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels (source of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).
It’s still a POTC film, so let’s not get carried away, but it’s a good one, far far better than might have been expected from a franchise this waterlogged.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A dead franchise brought back to life
  • Penelope Cruz is the right foil for catwalk pirate Jack Sparrow
  • Ian McShane’s Blackbeard
  • Orlando Bloom isn’t in it

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – Watch it now at Amazon