Talking Movies

September 22, 2019

From the Archives: The Serpent

Delving into the pre-Talking Movies archives I find a neglected French film featuring Olga Kurylenko just before Quantum of Solace.

Divorcing photographer Vincent (Attal) is surprised to run into an old classmate Plender (Cornillac) but it is no surprise. Plender is in fact about to destroy his life by a series of cleverly executed frame-ups.

This is a French film which certainly doesn’t conform to stereotype of endless existential debates between philosophising left-bank Parisians. It is in fact distinctly Hitchcockian, most particularly reminiscent of Strangers on a Train, but then this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as the source material is a novel by English crime writer Ted Lewis. Director Eric Barbier and his co-writer Tran Minh-Nam have fashioned a taut screenplay from that brutal work. Vincent (Yvan Attal) is a divorcing photographer locked in a bitter custody battle with his shrill selfish wife (Minna Haapkyla) who wants to move their young children to Germany. Life couldn’t get much worse…or so you’d think. But Mr Plender (Clovis Cornillac) is about to enter his life, a crooked PI who specialises in setting honey-traps with his accomplice Sofia (Olga Kurylenko) and blackmailing judges and lawyers with the resultant photos.

Imagine a young Ray Winstone and you have some idea of the sheer physical menace that Clovis Cornillac brings to his role as Plender. Plender was a classmate of Vincent’s and slowly we find out their shared dark past. It is one which drives Plender to frame Vincent for the attempted rape of Sofia before he improvises in order to blackmail Vincent with a threat of murder based around a missing body. It would be a pity to give away any more of Plender’s machinations but trust me they’re nasty and exceedingly brilliant as from the outside it looks like Vincent is a paranoid maniac offering delusional conspiracies rather than accept his own guilt. Attal is excellent at conveying the desperation of Vincent as the nightmarish net closes around him. Casino Royale actor Simon Abkarian stands out among the supporting cast as Vincent’s beleaguered friend and attorney Sam who sets out to prove the conspiracy his friend alleges has been directed against him is in fact real.

It’s hilarious to have to say it but the flaw of The Serpent is that it has too good a villain. Plender is as terrifying as Robert Walker’s Bruno in Strangers on a Train and then some. He’s a grade A psychopath of formidable intelligence and resources and the ability to switch on the charm to convince people that Vincent is out of his mind. The vise-like tightening of his plots during the first hour and a quarter is so chilling, implacable and masterful that the process by which our hero attempts to squirm out of them can’t help but feel tagged on. It is like Minority Report, where the reveal of the villain could have led to a shock end but the film instead trundles on for another 30 minutes in search of a happy one. A flawed but very gripping thriller.

3/5

April 14, 2015

Life-Logging or All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

Life-logging is the subject of the current exhibition in the Science Gallery, which explores the way in which we can use data logging to track and improve our lives. HeadStuff is exploring various aspects of data and life logging, and here’s a teaser of my brief survey of life-logging in film and television.

Countless_lives

As a Far Side cartoon has it people have recorded data to improve their lives since the first caveman brought down a woolly mammoth with a single spear to the beast’s heart, and another caveman said maybe they should make a note of that spot for future reference… But let’s jump ahead from that implausible beginning to where we are now. The relentless, exhausting positivity that Facebook encourages is only the digital equivalent of the split between Dr Johnson’s public bonhomie and high spirits, and his private grief over the death of his wife and his agonies over the fate of her soul; which his Anglicanism did not allow him to pray for under the doctrine that as the tree falls so must it lie. But such gaps between public personae and private selves only became apparent through posthumous discoveries of journals and private letters. And for every Victorian keeping a tremendously revealing spiritual diary of their failings for the purpose of self-improvement, there was a Horace Walpole keeping fair copies of letters full of scandalous gossip and little else.

Click here to read the full article (focusing primarily on Nineteen Eighty-Four, Minority Report, CSI: NY, Person of Interest) now on HeadStuff.org.

July 24, 2013

The Wolverine 3-D

Walk the Line director James Mangold salvages Hugh Jackman’s signature role after 2009’s ho-hum outing by injecting some genuine tension and feeling.

the-wolverine-hugh-jackman-rila-fukushima1-600x472Mangold’s trademark disruptive flashbacks enliven an opening which unexpectedly drops us into a POW camp in Nagasaki just as the bomb drops. Logan, incarcerated in a deep pit to contain him, saves the life of noble young Japanese officer Yashida (Ken Yamamura). He awakens from this memory to find himself talking to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), but this is a hallucination… Despite 2009’s teaser Japanese bar scene this film is defiantly actually a continuation of X-3; with Logan living peacefully alongside grizzlies in the Yukon, still traumatised by his murder of Dark Phoenix. Forced by his sense of justice into a confrontation in a bar he is unexpectedly assisted by petite samurai Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an emissary of the dying Yashida (now played by Hal Yamanouchi). Logan arrives in Japan to find Yashida wants to capture Logan’s healing power for himself. Can Logan fight the Yakuza as a mere mortal…?

Wolverine’s repeated clashes with Sabretooth in the last instalment were ridiculous as they couldn’t kill each other. By contrast the moment here when Logan first gets a shotgun blast and staggers back in agony rather than taking it in his stride takes the breath away. The initially too busy script by Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4.0) and Scott Frank (The Lookout, Minority Report) layers family power struggles and mutant plots. Yashida’s son and heir Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada, Emily’s mentor in Revenge) is insistent that his daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) marry the justice minister, rather than her true love Black Hand ninja Harada (Will Yun Lee), for Shingen’s political advancement. Yashida though wants his granddaughter as his corporate successor, and has instructed Harada to protect her from the Yakuza, while his mutant biochemist Viper (Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova in increasingly outrageous costumes) works on crippling Logan, and furthering her own agenda.

Mangold’s interesting casting of newcomers yields many very distinctive faces, with the instantly adorable Fukushima in particular shining as Logan’s self-proclaimed bodyguard. Visually the Yakuza assault on a funeral is impressively staged, especially in following Harada and his lethal arching along rooftops as he protects Logan and Mariko. The Wolverine’s highlight is a brawl atop a speeding bullet train as a wounded Logan strategically leaps to avoid dying by signal lights and scaffolding, while trying to also take out Yakuza assassins. Thereafter all momentum is lost for a second act in which Logan and Mariko fall in love at her remote cottage: a protracted sequence lifted from Elektra in which a lost assassin connects with someone and so girds themselves for the third act. The third act does deliver a tense medical sequence, a nicely choreographed samurai v mutant duel, and both wonderful imagery and visceral brutality at the snow-covered Black Mountain lair of the Viper. But you feel that Mangold is striving throughout for a level of emotional depth that the script simply lacks, and hasn’t noticed that Jackman is fed precious few good gags to deliver…

Mangold doesn’t quite deliver his gold standard, but silver Mangold is a substantial improvement on Wolverine; and the teaser for X-Men: Days of Future Past, following after Logan’s coming to terms with Jean’s death, bodes well for the franchise.

3/5

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

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