the departed

16 06 2007

Martin Scorsese 2006



ocean’s 13

16 06 2007

Steven Soderbergh 2007

The problem with these big cast franchises is the Star Trek problem of finding everybody something to do. The focus isn’t as firmly on Clooney this time as he isn’t the originator of the plan, so the others have a bit of breathing space. Matt Damon comes off best; a leading man elsewhere, he has so far been the junior member of Ocean’s crew, but 13 is his coming of age. With a big fake nose.

Carl Reiner essays a far more successful English accent than Don Cheadle’s weirdly-accented Basher, who spends most of his time fiddling with a large drill but is compensated with a flamboyant scene pretending to be a stunt motorcyclist. Bernie Mac, however, only gets one decent line for a film’s worth of hanging around. Shaobo Qin displays a bit more attitude and there’s plenty of life in the running gag that he doesn’t speak English. Eddie Jemison is saddled with being the least cool of the gang, although nothing is ever what it seems.

Scott Caan and Casey Affleck are the best served outside of the leading troika, with a whole subplot involving their infiltration of a dice factory and their involvement in industrial relations proving a comic highlight.

At the heart of it all is Elliott Gould’s Reuben, whose heart attack provides the catalyst for the job. He doesn’t do much but drift around in his pyjamas, but you feel for him anyway.

Reuben has been laid low after Al Pacino’s casino boss screwed him over in a business deal. Affronted, Ocean’s crew decide to take him for everything he’s got. For once, it’s not about winning everything, as making sure the other guy loses everything. What this adds up to is a series of complex cons to make sure that the casino’s grand opening breaks the bank.

This means several additions to the cast, including a criminally underused Eddie Izzard and a typical hard-luck turn from David Paymer.

The marquee names are poorly treated, however. Pacino’s Willy Bank is more clown fish than shark. Despite all the Godfather references, his meeting with Andy Garcia is disappointingly limp. We only know he’s tough because he’s Al Pacino, rather than from anything in the script.

Worse is Ellen Barkin, whose supposedly icy enforcer Sponder comes across like Cameron Diaz’s halfwit aunt. Olga Sosnovska’s Debbie is much more interesting. Her role should have been expanded to take over Sponder’s, giving a slinky frisson to the Ocean/Rusty/Linus troika and perhaps tempting Ocean and Rusty from the straight and narrow with their respective partners (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Julia Roberts, neither of whom show up here).

Julian Sands is also criminally limp in a role that David Thewlis, say, would have seized by the scruff of the neck (were all the decent British actors too busy with Potter…?)

More knockabout than previous entries, 13 virtually invites you to disengage your brain and just feel the comedy, as the dialogue and story is frequently impenetrable until the second viewing. Fortunately it is pretty funny, and pretty charming, but despite the complexity of the various scams the whole thing still tends to flabby – just like the leads.

power down II

10 06 2007

Islington Arts Factory

No power. No refrigeration. No lights. Candlelight and drums flickering… a piano in the dark.

Chris Lyons inhabits a spellbinding space somewhere between Regina Spector and the Exorcist, the church in which we stand dislocated in the ether to stand jagged and proud on a glittering moon. Hairs on the back of the neck coruscate as we spin in the night.

Ahuman bring out the shamanistic qualities of When Doves Cry. We strain for every word. They inhabit the space and time so completely it’s near impossible to imagine them in any other context. Post Postmodern Anxiety Blues is a bit Alabama 3. Bowling Shoes is a bit like Just The One by the Levellers while legging it down the Golden Mile.

Portico Quartet sound a bit like they’re soundtracking your day if you’re Michelle Pfeiffer in The Witches Of Eastwick. Or something. The intensity is gone, and so am I, staggering into the sleeting rain.

el topo

10 06 2007

Alejandro Jodorowsky (1970)

While it is thoroughgoing bonkers, don’t be put off by the film’s mental reputation. There is a logic to the narrative, albeit an elliptical, right-angled unlogic. In many ways, it follows the conventions of the Western, but filtered through the unconscious of a child, or a madman.

El Topo, a black-clad gunslinger, crosses the desert with his young son and avenges the massacre of a town by some giggling, scuzzy bandits led by a powdered Colonel. He leaves his son with monks and returns to the desert with a woman who will only love him if he is the best gunfighter. So he takes on four master gurus of the gun to prove himself. Shot and left for dead, he is revered as a god by a group of deformed exiles trapped in a cave. Upon waking from his coma, years later, El Topo decides to dig a tunnel so the cave-dwelling freaks can be free. To finance this effort he and his dwarf lover entertain the corrupt citizens of a nearby town. Predictably disaster and death are never far away, in an apocalyptic climax that would have had even Peckinpah scratching his head.

Many Western conventions and tropes are present, but often skewed, exaggerated and rendered abstract. The central figure is a black-clad Man With No Name. Outlaws are filthy, lascivious and bestial. Authority figures are corrupt: The Colonel is vain andmegalomanical, the town Marshals are obese sadists (and homosexual predators). The townsfolk are incestuous, slavedealing degenerates.

What’s worse is the townsfolk commit the ultimate sin of hypocrisy. The women of the town call themselves the “Decency League” but appear in the mise-en-scene of the bordello, enslaving, molesting and then sentencing black servants to death. The menfolk live in fear of the women but conceal an orgiastic speakeasy. The local preacher leads the crowds in games of Russian Roulette, which is to him a show rather than a religious service.

By contrast, El Topo, a stone killer, is an honest man. He avenges the massacre of a village with no personal motive for gain. Later he takes up the cause of the freakish exiles as a shot at personal redemption for his duplicity in killing the gunfighting masters.

Peckinpah would have approved of the portrayal of women: hypocritical grotesques or beautiful, seductive betrayers.

The characterisation of the guru-like gunslingers of the desert gives the film a spiritual angle that sets it apart from the nihilism of the spaghetti Westerns El Topo closely resembles, giving it the feel of an Asian fairy tale. There’s a messianic subtext as well: the Colonel asks El Topo “Who are you to judge me?” and gets the reply “I am God.” He shows the power to bring forth water from the desert, a power he bestows on the woman after ravishing her.

After defeating the masters, El Topo cries out “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? “, only for the women to inflict the stigmata upon him in a gunfight.

But later, when he is revered as a god, he denies it. “I am just a man” he says. A man near impervious to bullets, but yet a man.

It’s no surprise that Jodorowsky went into comics later. The desert setting, oblique dialogue and grotesque characters lend the film an otherworldly, post-apocalyptic aesthetic. El Topo himself is a visual treat, whip thin in black leather and hawk-like eyes.

There’s a delight in visual detail like a bandit wearing three ever-smaller sombreros, or the graphic design simplicity of the eye symbol on the church, or El Topo’s incongruous umbrella. The character of the Double Man is pure visual audacity: a man with no arms carries a man with no legs on his back, thus forming a whole being.

The Mole. A tale of man becoming a god of the gun. No surprise he loses his humanity and must earn it once again. No surprise it ends in fire and flame.

london 2012 logo: a friend request

10 06 2007

I like it.

The newly unveiled official logo of the 2012 London Olympics isn’t perfect: It’s a bit too fragmented. I agree with one comment I read that suggested the logo evokes a map of London’s boroughs, harshly divided. So I would like to see the four sections being a bit less opposed to each other, and that funny little block in the centre merged into the others in a more harmonious fashion. And I’m not sure about the placement or the font of ‘London.’

Otherwise, I like the thinking behind it: to avoid the obvious.

The outcry has been every bit as predictable as the proposed alternatives. Showing admirable journalistic rigour, most of the major papers (The Standard/Metro, the free gossip rags that litter the Tube, the Sun, and more) just recycled the user-generated content from the BBC’s website, which were, almost without exception, rubbish.

This week’s Coventry Telegraph featured a double-page article titled ‘Proof that a child can do better’. While the children came up with an admirable showing, they were all as predictable as the BBC readers’ efforts: lots of Union Jacks and London landmarks. Nothing wrong with that, you cry. I’m not suggesting for a second that the Union Jack should be kept off the logo because of nationalist associations. I just agree with the thinking behind the official logo that the Union Jack, Tower Bridge et al are just too literal.

As Sebastian Coe said, this logo is not a corporate brand. Almost all of the general public’s attempts have been literal, obvious, corporate brands. I thought Coe’s comment about avoiding polo shirts for doing the gardening in was quite self-aware for the Olympic folks in charge. With such politicians and corporate branding wonks, high-handed talking shop beaucratese of ‘engaging’ with the public is rarely coupled with meaningful action.

So by coming up with something that eschews the knee-jerk, lowest common denominator London landmark approach, the creators are challenging the public to think about the Olympics as a contemporary, exciting event.

Just look at previous logos: worthy, tasteful, respectable… and dull dull dull. So if they are a distillation of the Olympics, what does that say about the proceedings? I find athletics in general to be reaaally boring, but I like this logo.

And for anyone still clinging to the dream of a London landmark/Union Jack-related logo, look at the symbol of the last British Olympiad. Big Ben and the Olympic rings. Very worthy. Very tasteful. Very Respectable.

Very 1946.

Of course, I can’t ignore the elephant in the room: the small matter of the £400,000 bill. Which is by anyone’s standards, ludicrous. But the contrarian in me (who has had pretty much free reign over this post) can’t help asking:

What price great design (whether this is an example of it or not)?

A tasteful logo featuring the Olympic rings on a Union Jack might have appeased middle England, but would it have sold any T-shirts? What if the £400,000 gamble pays off?

Christ, I’m not even convincing myself on this one. £400 grand? You’re having a laugh. Selling all the T-shirts in the world wouldn’t redress this slap in the face to everyone involved in cash-strapped grassroots sport in this country. Hell, the world.

But I still like it. Kind of. Bring on the MySpace Olympics.

spider-man 3 (sam raimi 2007)

4 06 2007

Tobey Maguire
Kirsten Dunst
James Franco

It’s very brisk, innit? Plot point/plot point/plot point/fight scene/plot point etc. The acting is delivered in a broad, almost old-fashioned kind of way, that, along with the slapstick/slapdash attempts at comedy remind you that this is, in fact, a kid’s movie. The musical interludes (I know! WTF?!) and effects sequences are so disconnected from the actual human acting bits that they feel imported from a whole other film. Quite a weird film.

There’s too many contrivances and coincidences. The Venom symbiote comes from space: so a meteor just plops down near where Peter (Maguire) and MJ (Dunst) happen to be. The plot calls for MJ to become disillusioned with Peter: so they just happen to bump into Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard) at a restaurant. The plot calls for Peter to realise what he has become under the influence of the symbiote: he and Gwen just happen to turn up at the bar where MJ now works.

Worst of all, when the plot calls for Topher Grace’s Eddie Brock (a man with a number of legitimate dramatic reasons to follow Spider-Man around) to bond with the symbiote, we are asked to believe he has suddenly found religion, and has chosen, of all the churches in New York, the same one as Peter Parker.

The characters are subservient to the plot structure, and the plot subservient to the effects. It should be completely the other way around.

The special effects aren’t even that captivating (with the notable exception of the stunning realisation of the Sandman). The big action set-pieces are weightless and cartoony, like video-game interludes. The change between ‘real’ acting and CGI fight is so marked, it’s like the grain change in old sitcoms when the characters step outside the soundstage.

Worse, the effects wranglers mistake dizzyingly fast movement across incomprehensibly large spaces for spectacle, so it’s hard to see what’s going on, and harder to care.

A fight in the subway tunnels – when at one point Spider-Man grinds Sandman’s head to powder against the side of an onrushing subway train – is the only point where the excitement and drama of two people in conflict is enhanced by the effects, rather than the scrap acting as a showcase for the digital trickery of cartoon characters bouncing about a cartoon storyboard city.

Even an effects-light stand-up fistfight between Parker and Franco’s vengeful Osborn feels overedited and overcooked, and would have benefited from a Bourne-style stripping down.

And why, exactly, is James Cromwell even here? As with Jon Favreau and Joe Pantoliano’s thankless appearances in Daredevil, maybe Cromwell has one patrician eye on the future franchise paychecks.

James Franco’s performance is ten times as seductive as Maguire’s, and spending half the film grinning like a head-injured four-year-old is a waste of his slow-burning charisma. Having the whey-faced gimlet-eyed Kirsten Dunst within fifty miles of him is a waste of my time and yours.

Thomas Hayden Church is wicked, though. The Sandman effects are consistently gobsmacking, combining with his new granite physique to create a memorable character through the synergy of acting and effects.

Meanwhile Topher Grace’s camping-it-up works well but Venom’s rubberiness doesn’t, while Maguire’s doughy Peter Parker seems like a completely different entity to the loose-limbed Spider-Man.

But forget the kid’s stuff. The big question is, as ever: does it work as an allegory for Iraq (another one!)? Of course it does (doesn’t everything?). Six years after the Twin Towers fell off-screen and were digitally erased from in the first Spider-Man film, the threequel is all about the danger of revenge as a long-term motivation.

The black suit represents vengeance. Vengeance feels good; but it transforms the wearer into an unrecognisable monster. And anyway, the act being avenged wasn’t as simple as we thought. Vengeance is simple: black and no white. Real life is in colour.

It’s no coincidence that Spider-Man’s triumphant return to the good – in red and blue – sees him swoop past an enormous US flag, while the closing voiceover talks about personal choice. Hurray!

So, not exactly great, but with yawnsome effects comes pleasing weirdness.