Talking Movies

August 27, 2018

From the Archives: Babylon A.D.

Another trawl thru the depths of the pre-Talking Movies archives recovers what Vin Diesel was reduced to before Justin Lin.

The Dark Knight was so sublime that it caused every other studio to delay their releases, hence the recent avalanche of nonsense which reaches its apotheosis of ridiculousness with Babylon A.D.

Vin Diesel’s gravelly voice and gruff presence are all that keep this inane attempt at a futuristic thriller limping along. He plays Toorop, a hard-bitten American mercenary with a liking for good food, exiled in Russia. He is kidnapped by Gerard Depardieu (wearing outrageous prosthetics) and entrusted with delivering a naïve young girl Aurora (Melanie Thierry) to New York City. The mysterious girl is accompanied from her convent by the enigmatic Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh). Other clichés occur as they struggle against harsh landscapes only to find that the truly dark places are within…the human heart…

Matthieu Kassovitz, the maker of La Haine, co-writes and directs this disastrous attempt at a post-apocalyptic action epic with great meaning. The problem is he never bothers explaining how this future came about. It looks like Dark Angel’s Seattle but James Cameron explained that vision of 2019 as a result of a truly global terror attack. Kassovitz, however, seems to think explanations are unworthy of him. Sister Rebeka astounds Toorop by knowing kung fu, but we have been told nothing of her Neolite religious order by that point so the revelation falls flat, and we still don’t know enough about them to make any sense later on of the Machiavellian plotting of their founder, Charlotte Rampling. Kassovitz has flailed around badly since La Haine with The Crimson Rivers, (which explored the fine line between un homage to Se7en and un rip-off) and Halle Berry’s truly awful Gothika, so this mess is really no surprise.

Things start well with RZA sound-tracking realistic action in a grimy Russia but after that fake-looking CGI and plot-destroying bending of the laws of physics start to abound. Staggeringly a French director seems not to know how to showcase the Gallic invention of parkour, with an action sequence fizzling out as it fails to even palely imitate Casino Royale’s thrilling free-running extravaganza. The utter waste of talent in this film is exemplified by noted British character actor Mark Strong who is out-shone by his bad peroxide hair-do as the smuggler Finn. Melanie Thierry sleepwalks her way through proceedings, but perhaps she’s just trying to understand her apparent, and only occasional, Neo powers. Indeed, you will persistently shout ‘What?!’ at the logical lapses, especially the ending.

Vin Diesel can act when forced (Boiler Room) and deliver great big dumb blockbusters (xXx). This falls into some hellish in-between zone and its disaster status can be confirmed by the presence of Wilson Lambert as a mad scientist. Lambert has starred in Catwoman, Sahara, and both Matrix sequels and is the cinematic equivalent of a dead canary in a mining shaft. Avoid.

1/5

August 7, 2018

From the Archives: The Duchess

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives throws up an English period drama with many wonderful moments that never cohered into a wonderful whole.

Photo by Peter Mountain

Keira Knightley tramples all over memories of her turn in Pride & Prejudice by showing us the dark side preceding Jane Austen’s Regency era. Indeed The Duchess begins at the point where an Austen novel would end, as Georgina (Knightley) is married to the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) in the film’s pre-title opening sequence. Any romantic notions the teenage bride has are instantly dispatched after the wedding ceremony as the Duke dismisses Georgina’s servants and uses a scissors to quickly strip her naked and get on with the business of producing an heir for the Devonshire estate.

The publicity for this film has made painfully obvious the parallels between Georgina Spencer’s marriage and that of her great great great great niece Princess Diana as the Duke soon introduces Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) as the third person in their marriage. The Duke even echoes Prince Charles late in the film when, protesting his love to a stunned Georgina, he quickly clarifies “I love you in my understanding of love”, just as Charles infamously told the media shortly before his marriage that he loved Diana, “whatever love is”. That is one of the few explicit references in the film though which instead deserves much praise for recreating the mores of the period and keeping characters spouting anachronistic modern values to a minimum. It is a particular joy to see the Whig leader Fox and the Irish politician, playwright and gambler Richard Brinsley Sheridan appear in support as Georgina’s friends. She brings an air of glamour to their electioneering while they value her in a way the Duke does not.

Atwell is magnificent in being both hero and villain of the story as she plays the game of Regency society while Charlotte Rampling is utterly chilling as Lady Spencer, sacrificing her daughter’s happiness on the altar of duty. The Duke is as cold a figure as we’ve seen in quite some time but Ralph Fiennes excellently hints at a humanity that is only occasionally glimpsed beneath the cold aristocratic exterior. And he does get to deliver the immortal line “Please put out her Grace’s hair”. Joe Wright seems to be the only director who can get a confident performance from Knightley and her performance here suffers from comparison with Fiennes and Atwell as her tendency to be a bit brittle in her acting surfaces from time to time.

Though replete with splendid individual scenes there are times when The Duchess drags badly as they don’t quite cohere into a driving narrative. However when Georgina’s ménage a trois comes to a crisis the film shifts up a gear with a heartbreaking scene that owes a lot to Brief Encounter and Brokeback Mountain. While not equalling their impact this is still worth seeing for a more brutal take on Georgian love.

3/5

March 12, 2018

Run now, to ITV 4, and watch The Avengers in colour!

In Colour! Sorry. They do like to point it out though. And also change colourful clothes every other scene to showcase the full spectrum of 1967’s new colour broadcasting technology. The real reason you should watch is because season 5 is so damn good. Tune in tomorrow evening and you will see a superlative episode starring alongside Patrick MacNee and Diana Rigg the following greats in their youth: Brian Blessed, Charlotte Rampling, and Donald Sutherland.

But don’t just stop watching with ‘The Superlative Seven’.

Season 5 is the season where every cold open featuring the usually bizarre murder is followed by Steed alerting Mrs Peel to the fact that they’re needed in some absurd fashion. Indeed one imagines they stopped opening the show in that fashion because even with the fertile imagination of their writers they’d simply run out of improbable/insane things for Steed to do. Things like – putting the message “Mrs Peel – We’re Needed” in the traffic lights as they change in front of Mrs Peel’s car, putting it as a headline in a newspaper she buys, putting it behind the wallpaper she’s stripping off her apartment wall, putting it on a carousel, etching it into her painting, shooting it on an arrow into her apartment, appearing on her TV set in colour to say it while she’s watching an old black and white episode of … The Avengers.

February 8, 2011

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro’s celebrated novel is brought to affecting life by a glittering trio of English stars: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and a villainous Keira Knightley.

Mulligan is Kathy, our narrator, a pupil at isolated English boarding school Hailsham. Her fellow pupils with whom her life will be intertwined both at school and afterwards are Tommy (Garfield) and Ruth (Knightley). The first act sees superbly cast child actors play these three characters on the cusp of adolescence. Life at Hailsham can be idyllic, with its emphasis on artistic and sporting excellence, but Tommy despite being big-hearted is a failure in both these fields and so frequently, despite the best efforts of Kathy, explodes in impotent rages. Ruth meanwhile quietly observes their growing intimacy from a distance, and manipulates events to her own ends. Their existence, however, is more seriously unsettled by a new teacher (Sally Hawkins). Her insinuation that there is something sinister about the isolation of the school is keenly rejected by Charlotte Rampling’s charismatic headmistress…

Alex Garland’s lucid screenplay inevitably loses some of the texture of Ishiguro’s novel but captures the essence of its technique by subordinating the central mystery to the emotional turmoil of the characters. Ruth changes the course of all of their lives by an act which is subject to different interpretations, and so they leave Hailsham for The Cottages where, for the first time, they meet students from rival boarding schools. Domhnall Gleeson and Andrea Riseborough appear as a couple from an Irish school who challenge the Hailsham worldview and in doing so unwittingly break the bonds that have kept Kathy, Tom and Ruth so close… Garfield is endearingly gawky as Tommy while Mulligan is a rock of compassion and Knightley in a bold move chooses the smallest role of the triptych as the villain and excels. Except Ruth’s adolescent action had a different motivation than we thought and years later, in a role-switch from Atonement, she is eager to amend for her romantic meddling and reunite the scattered trio.

But this is not a story of everlasting love for Valentine’s Day. No love is everlasting, adolescent jealousy can leave permanent emotional scars, some sins cannot be atoned for nor their consequences reversed, and no one ever has enough time on this earth. Mark Romanek draws great performances from his cast in a setting of emotional realism but stylistically his direction is self-effacing to the point of anonymity. The novel is obviously truncated with some ideas sadly abandoned, as well as the greatest gag of the novel, which Ishiguro then converted into the most upsetting scene of the novel within paragraphs. I was lamenting the absence of the gag and that scene when Garland inserted it as the final scene, which left me in tears.

On a scale of 1 to Atonement this scores about a 7 for heartbreaking.

4/5

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