THE BIG PICTURE / L’HOMME QUI VOULAIT VIVRE SA VIE

Glasgow Film Theatre, 27.07.11

The first hour of Eric Lartigau’s The Big Picture is a French thriller straight form the plot of a classic Claude Chabrol film of the 1960’s or early ’70’s, when Chabrol was turning out Hitchcockian thrillers at a rapid pace – two, sometimes three, a year.  Indeed, one of Chabrol’s best, La Femme Infidèle (1969), covers almost exactly the same ground.  In that superior thriller, Charles (Michael Bouquet), a successful business man in Paris, with a wife and child living in the suburbs, begins to suspect his wife, Hélène (Stephanie Audran)  is cheating on him.  He hires a private detective, who confirms his worst fears. Charles confronts the man Hélène is having an affair with and in a crime of passion murders him, before disposing of the body. For a while Charles seems to have got away with it, but eventually the police track him down and the film ends with him being led off by the detectives, leaving his wife and child behind.  

It’s surprising to learn then that the source novel for Eric Lartigau’s European set thriller is in fact an American novel from 1997 by Douglas Kennedy entitled The Big Picture (a title reinstated to the film in English-speaking countries). In the novel, the plot begins in Connecticut, where Ben Barnes lives with his wife and children in a happy marriage and is the partner of a successful law firm. When he learns his wife is having an affair with a local photographer, Ben confronts the man and in the ensuing fight kills him. He disposes of the body, fakes his own death, leaves his family forever and heads out West, where he takes on the identity of the photographer, something he has always wanted to do.

So Chabrol’s Charles and Kennedy’s Ben become Lartigau’s Paul (Romain Duris), a partner in a law firm in Paris, who lives in the suburbs with his wife, Sarah (Marina Foïs), and their two children.  Paul begins to suspect Sarah of cheating on him and soon confirms she is having an affair with their neighbour, Grégoire (Eric Ruf), a local photographer.  Paul confronts Gregoire and in the ensuing scuffle fatally wounds him.  He decides to dispose of the body.  Here, though the two plots go their separate ways and The Big Picture switches to resemble another thriller, Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, filmed in 1997 by Anthony Minghella. And with this start the films problems. Where as Charles thought he could get away with murder and return to his family, Paul realises he cannot, so he fakes his own death, leaves Paris behind and assumes Grégoire’s identity, leaving for rural Hungary and working as a photographer, a dream he had given up pursuing in his previous life.  Unexpected success means his past catches up with him and he is forced to flee again. Having survived being thrown overboard form a ship heading for South America, we leave Paul in Italy, free to start another life all over again.  

A key problem, which the film tries unconvincingly to deal with, is that in the present day, a quick internet search and a little investigation makes it almost impossible for someone to assume another’s identity, especially if that identity is of a moderately successful person (in this case a photographer).  The original Ripley novel was written in 1955,  thereby negating this obstacle, and a similar solution may have helped here.

A more serious problem is the disconnect between the two halves of the film. As with any novel adapted into film there is too much information to be crammed into under two hours, and the discarded elements are felt here. While the Paris half of the story feels right, the Hungary and particularly the final scene fleeing on a tanker ship for South America, feel rushed. There isn’t enough time to fully appreciate Paul’s anguish at leaving his children behind, and once in Hungary he seems to overcome the trauma and find success as a photographer, and find love and friendship once more, in the blink of an eye. Indeed, a couple of thumpingly incongruous rapid montages are used to explain Paul’s motivations as he pictures his children’s future if he was a convicted killer.  Chabrol trusted his audience enough to let them draw their own conclusions about his characters motivations.  Similarly, in a novel where the reader is constantly hearing the thoughts of the principal character it is easier to abandon characters from Ben’s first life.  In the film version it becomes much more of a problem. We have Anne (Catherine Deneuve), Paul’s business partner, who we learn is terminally ill, and of course his wife, Sarah, who are introduced and then abandoned as Paul flees. It’s a waste to lose Deneuve halfway through any film. 

Despite these flaws though, this is a decent thriller, and the French title – literally translating as “The Man Who Wanted to Live His Life” – is far more revealing than the lumpen The Big Picture, and perhaps expresses what Lartigau is more interested in exploring. Paul has given up on his passion for photography to settle with his office job and support his wife and children. It’s that old tale of rediscovering one’s passion in life and art, but with added manslaughter. If you’re going to copy the master of French thrillers, then you may as well do it properly and much of the film’s first half recalls Chabrol’s oeuvre.  The stark office that Paul works in is similar to Charles’s in La Femme Infidèle.  The disposal of the body too, with Paul heaving the weight in a body bag through streets, into a car boot, weighing it down and dumping it in the sea almost identical to the way Charles disposes of his own victim.  It’s all beautifully shot and the cast are exceptionally good. Duris holds the piece together, equally at home as an urban business man in Paris, and the arty photographer in Hungary.  He’s ably supported by (a wasted) cameo from Deneuve and particularly Niels Arestrup as a drunken newspaper editor, Bartholomé.  Following on form his turn in A Prophet (2009, Jacques Audiard) and Farewell (2009, Christian Carion), Arestrup is becoming something of a must in classy French thrillers.

The film’s conclusion wraps everything up hurriedly and too quickly, a smiling Paul free to start over again, showing nothing of the weight of the two lives he has had to leave behind and the love, friends and family he has lost, but, again, there is simply not enough time in film to explore so much that could fit into a novel. However, it’s a well made, suspenseful film with a superb central performance and enough intelligence and intrigue to keep it interesting, and well worth seeking out.

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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CARTE BLANCHE

The new James Bond novel, by Jeffrey Deaver.

The last novel authorised by the Fleming Estate was in 2007 , when Sebastian Faulks chose to write as Ian Fleming and deliver a classic cold war Bond tale in Devil May Care.  It was set in the 1960’s, contemporary with Fleming’s original novels and tried to imitate both Fleming’s terse literary style and the original glamour and grittiness of the original character.  It was a moderate success in its aims and suggested that the stories could be continued to be set in the cold war years, when the spy genre was at its peak in both novels and films.  However, like the films by Eon Productions, which  successfully updated Bond with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (2006), the Fleming Estate have decided that a new, modern re-boot of Ian Fleming’s classic cold war spy is needed to bring him to the attention of new fans and to keep him relevent in the new war on terror world.  To achieve that aim they have hired American crime writer Jeffrey Deaver to take over authorship and provide a modern take on the well-worn spy story.

First the plus points.  In bringing Bond into the modern world, Deaver, clearly a fan of the original novels, has managed to cram in all the essential characters and characterisations that will keep Bond fans happy.  Indeed, it almost seems that Deaver, thinking he had to please everyone and that this may be his only shot at publishing a Bond novel, kept a list of everyone from the original stories that he simply had to include.  So in an overcrowded spy world we are reintroduced to Felix Leiter, Rene Mathis, M, Moneypenny, Q branch, Mary Goodnight and Bond’s faithful Scottish housekeeper, May, still maintaining Bond’s flat in Chelsea.  There is the familiar cars, an antique E-type Jaguar nodding to the original stories, with an updated Bentley substituted for the original.  There is the customary globe-trotting form London to South Africa via Serbia, and a collection of villainous bad guys and alluring women mixed with an extravagant plot and action set pieces.  So far, so familiar, however, despite Deaver’s obvious appreciation of the original material, unfortunately he fails to live up to the original novels both in form, style and plot.

The initial and costliest error by Deaver is to write the novel in his own style, rather than attempt to imitate Fleming, as Sebastian Faulks did.  The problem with this is that Deaver is quite simply not a stylish enough writer to maintain the very style that makes Bond novels stand out from every other spy story out there.  He is, after all, a writer of conventional pot-boiler crime novels, sold en mass at airports around the globe and thrown away as soon as they are finished.  His technique is flawed and conventional.  Throughout the book, we are presented with a third person narrative that is deeply flawed.  Consistently we are led to believe that Bond has fallen into a trap, or made the wrong decision, only for Deaver to reveal in the next page or two that, hoorah!, Bond knew what he was doing all along and has out thought the bad guy.  For example, in the book’s plot conclusion we are led to believe that Bond hasn’t been able to get warning out via a mobile phone to the authorities about a bomb blast set to go off in England.  Lo and behold, the bomb goes off, but what’s this? A warning had been received, because unknown to anyone, including the third person narrator of the book, Bond had secretly planted another phone and had made the call with that moments earlier.  This selective narration is clearly illogical – why Bond went through a desperate fight to obtain a mobile phone when he knew all along he had another waiting for him – and also cheap trickery, a convention that Fleming used sparingly, but Deaver deploys throughout, so that by the books conclusion, you already know not to trust the narration because Bond has it all figured out, he just isn’t telling us.  So all suspense disappears.  There are also some amazing aberrations in style and narrative convention.  Take this section from chapter 58:

”…The video footage showed a half-destroyed building, smoke, glass and wreckage covering the ground, rescue workers running, dozens of police cars and fire engines pulling up. The crawler said, ‘Massive explosion at university of York.’
In this era we’ve become inured to terrible images on television. Scenes appalling to an eyewitness are somehow tame when observed in two dimensions on the medium that brings us Dr Who  and advertisements for Ford Mondeos and M&S fashions.”
                                                                                                                                    -p354

The narrative voice actually steps out of the story it is telling to address us as readers and give us an opinion about the state of the world.  If Deaver wishes to make this point he can always put it in the mouths or thoughts of Bond or his chief villain, but he bizarrely compromises the narrative and narrative voice in order to chastise the society of today. Not only that, but quoting Dr Who, Mondeos and M&S is crass, both as an example of Deaver forcing himself to sound British and in name checking such things in a James Bond novel.  Another annoying habit that I don’t recall Fleming resorting too quite so much is Deaver’s tendency to take us away from Bond and shift the narrative to the enemy, explaining events from others point of view.  We don’t follow Bond, but wherever it is most convenient for the narrative to take us.

Deaver also suffers by his constant desire to spell everything out to the reader, not trusting the reader to realise for ourselves how clever he is being.  So every acronyms has to be explained, every fighting style, every type of car, gun, drink has to be not only named but described in deadly dull exposition.  Here is an example of Deaver halting us just as an exciting action fight is about to begin

Then Bond was on his feet, facing the man, who stood in a fighter’s stance, a knife in his hand, blade protruding downwards, sharp edge facing out. His left hand, open and palm down, floated distractingly, ready to grab Bond’s clothing and pull him in to be stabbed to death.
On the balls of his feet, Bond circled.

[so far, so exciting, baited breadth, what will happen next? But then this…]

Ever since his days at Fettes in Edinburgh, he had practised various types of close combat, but the ODG taught its agents a rare style of unarmed fighting, borrowed from a former (or not so former) enemy – the Russians. An ancient martial art of the Cossacks, systema had been updated by the Spetsnaz, the special forces branch of GRU military intelliegnce.

[Okay, so meanwhile back at the life and death fight….?]

Systema practitioners rarely use their fists. Open palms, elbows and knees are the main weapons. The goal, though is to strike as infrequently as possible. Rather, you tire out your adversary, then catch him in a come-on or take-down hold on the shoulder, wrist, arm or ankle. The best systema fighters never come into contact with their opponent at all…until the final moment, when the exhausted attacker is largely defenceless. Then the victor takes him to the ground and drops a knee into his chest or throat.
Instintictvely falling into systema choreography, Bond now dodged the man’s assault.                                                                                                    -p314

[My God, James, just hit the guy already.]                                                   

Another unfavourable comparison with Fleming comes form the attempts by Deaver to describe both the glamour and realism of the modern spy world.  Fleming of course, had served in the British Secret Service, was well-travelled and a member of British aristocracy, all of which came across as parts of himself that he transposed onto his fictional character of James Bond.  So the cars, fashion, countries, food and drink that Fleming described seemed genuine.  Deaver comes across as having written Bond with Wikipedia sitting open on his laptop in front of him.  I have no idea of course if this is the case, but that is how it reads.  Every item he uses he has to explain, almost as if trying to prove he knows as much as Fleming/Bond – see the example of systema  fighting above. Facts and figures and cod-history are introduced with each country, building, town and car we meet. 

The modernisation of Bond has both its good points and its pitfalls.  Yes, Bond is more relevent to what is happening in the world today.  Terrorism, Afghanistan and the middle East, Serbia are all name checked regularly, but it comes at a cost.  Superficially, Bond is quite simply less cool in the modern world than he was in the 1960’s.  It’s excruciating and thumpingly depressing to have Bond described as constantly using an ‘app’ (as Deaver insists on naming them) on his ‘iPhone’ to gather intelligence, being guided by ‘sat-nav’, or stopping mid chase in order to ‘send a text’. (One of the low points is Deaver’s attempt at Bond-style humour by having Bond’s adapted iPhone nicknamed the iQPhone after Q branches invention – one can see Deaver chuckling to himself at his misguided cleverness. Equally, I think we’ve moved beyond Bond having to say things like this is how real life spying is, not like in the movies – nudge nudge, wink  wink.).  This is decidedly not the description of a suave spy conjured up by the 007.  Other misguided steps include: the creation of a new organisation for Bond to operate in called ODG (Overseas Development Group) – for some reason a section of MI6 is no longer covert enough; ‘Q’ being revealed as Sanu Hirani, Deaver feeling for some reason that political correctness necessitates having a man of Middle Eastern lineage on the goodies side; and a completely unneeded and even throw away attempt to rewrite Bond’s past as his parents dying in a climbing accident is rewritten to reveal that his mother was in fact a spy herself – what would Ian Fleming make of it?

Deaver also manages to miss on other factors intrinsic to the Bond novels. Quite simply, the plot is rubbish – literally.  Severan Hydt, as the main villain, has an empire based on waste disposal and much of the novel is spent in the squalid poorer areas of South Africa. This of course lacks primarily the requisite glamour of a Bond location, but also as a front for criminal activity is conventional to say the least – mafia anyone?  Not only is Deaver determined to give us an over simplified essay on the problems that beset Africa, but he bases his main dastardly plot on a plan to deliver food to mercenary soldiers, in order to stage a coup in Sudan.  Yes, the main thrust of the villains plan is to provide food. I do not wish to underestimate the problem of waste, famine and food supply in Africa, but as the basis of a meglomaniacal plot, waste disposal and food supply are decidedly underwhelming. 

So what we have in the end is a conventional crime spy thriller, not exceptional but not disastrous.  It would be fine except that it has the name and reputation of James Bond, 007 attached to it, and as such falls way short of expectations. In fact, the greatest criticism of Deaver’s attempt is not his lack of style, poor plotting or use of conventions, it is that the central character may well have been called Joe Bloggs just as easily as James Bond, because there is nothing here that distinguishes the greatest spy character in literary history from any of the others to be found in airport book shops.

Deaver has remarked that:

 “In reading Carte Blanche fans will be treated to a typical, relentless, fast paced, rollercoaster of a Jeffery Deaver novel centred around everyone’s favourite spy, James Bond 007, who, the poor fellow, never gets a moment’s rest throughout the entire book.” *

 Here, Deaver unwittingly sums up the main problem – A Jeffrey Deaver novel is simply not good enough for everyone’s favourite spy. Should Bond fans or Deaver fans read this book? Yes, probably, but unfortunately, I suspect that both sets will come away disappointed.

*quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Bond_novels#List_of_books.2C_by_publication_sequence

page and chapter numbers from Carte Blanche, Hodder & Stoughton, 2011 hardback edition.

HORRIBLE BOSSES

Cineworld Glasgow, 22.07.11

With the global recession rumbling on and economies showing no signs of coming back into the black (in the week of the UK release, the EU agreed a second bail out for Greek economy, while the US teetered on the brink of defaulting on its’ debt), it would seem the perfect opportunity for film to address the desperation and insecurity that many feel in their workplace.  There have been attempts to address this in dramatic film, such as John Wells’s earnest The Company Men (2010), but so far satire and comedy has remained on the more immediate, topical TV programmes.  The difficulty of finding gainful employment is touched on in one bar scene in the first half of Seth Gordan’s Horrible Bosses.  Three friends Nick (Jason Bateman) Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) meet in a bar and console each other over beer about the misfortune they have in their current job.  Each has a boss who abuses them in different ways.  When they suggest to Kurt that he simply quit and find a new job elsewhere, they are unsubtley interrupted by another old school friend, Kenny (P.J. Byrne).  A former banker with Lehmann Brothers who has become unemployed, lives back with his mother and now resorts to offering blow jobs for cash to make any income.  It’s not a particularly subtle point, it’s delivered for broad laughs rather than biting satire,  and unfortunately it is brushed over as a simple plot device that compels the three leads to see that the only way out of their current predicament is to murder the bosses that are making their lives so miserable.

Which neatly encapsulates both the pros and cons of the film as a whole. Despite the opportunity presented to use the global financial meltdown as the backdrop to the real life effects on everyday life for ordinary people – modern-day tragi-comic material ripe for the taking – instead Horrible Bosses cops out and goes for the easy money and lowest common denominator of broad laughs, toilet humour and slapstick.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s good moments and some genuine laughs mixed in with the non-sensical plotting.  Jason Bateman is always watchable and provides the most rounded character, as the put upon Nick, whose boss, Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), abuses him constantly, while tempting him with the chance of promotion, only to renege on his promise and crush Nick’s hopes.  Bateman’s sense of frustration at the knock back and revulsion at his boss’s treatment is justified, if not realistic.  No one who behaved as Harken does would be allowed to get away with it, and the film nicely ignores all the other options on the ladder leading up to murder as a solution – human resources department anyone?  Jason Sudeikis is Kurt, who has to put up with a coked-up son, Bobby Pellit (Colin Farrell) inheriting the family business, dismissing staff and making morally dubious decisions for pure personal profit.  Again, realism is not called for, and the decision to resort to murder as the only solution seems a bit tenuous – a quick phone call to the police would leave Bobby in jail for any number of offences.  Sudeikis can deliver a decent comic line, but is unrealistically cast as a man who seemingly can seduce any woman he wants within five minutes of meeting them, a running joke through the film.  At no point is it clear why any woman would want to fall for him in any way, unable as he is to act with charm without becoming instantly smarmy and stupid.  Lastly, comes Charlie Day as Dale, his problem being that his dentist boss Julia Harris, played with relish by Jennifer Aniston, is insisting on having sex with him, while all he wants to do is remain faithful to his fiancée.  As is repeatedly pointed out to him by his friends, this is hardly the worst situation in the world to be in, and again, resorting to murder seems a rash decision.  Of the three leads Day begins most energetically, a furry ball of energy, but it is all one-paced frantic action and dialogue, so that by the film’s conclusion, he is the one character the viewer would happily murder in order to shut him up.

The three ‘horrible bosses’ of the title are filled by the big name cast.  Kevin Spacey gets the meatiest role and the most screen time, but he has done this thing much better before (see his genuinely evil boss Buddy Ackerman in Swimming With Sharks, George Huang, 1994) and is on auto pilot here.  Given the few number of film roles he takes on these days, it’s a wonder why this is the one he plumped for – perhaps because he could do it without exerting too much effort.  It’s nice to see Jennifer Aniston get to play something other than her usual Rachael-like rom-com leads and she clearly enjoys the chance to play on her clean-cut image, liberally spitting out dirty sex talk with gusto.  But she is let down by the script – her character is almost redundant in the end, disappearing as the murder plot revolves around Harken and Pellit. Indeed, she suffers the ultimate Hollywood insult to women – she is there to provide the sex and nothing else. There is no back story as to why she acts as she does, and why, out of all the men she could have affairs with, she seems to fixate on the unimpressive Dale.  A waste.  Then, there is Colin Farrell, under prosthetic comb-over wig, overweight and sporting dodgy facial hair.  Why the film-makers have chosen to use Farrell in this way is beyond reason, and why he felt the need to appear in a small part equally obscure.  As slapstick humour goes it’s fine, but any number of actors could have filled this role, or indeed Farrell minus bizarre look could have done it, but once the initial sight gag of his appearance wears off, it becomes just bizarre.

So as the usual Hollywood comedy clichés mount up – our heroes become coked-up inadvertently, ugly guys get to sleep with attractive women, no one can pronounce Middle-Eastern names in America, there’s a car chase where Kurt suddenly has the driving skills of a racing driver, and of course, a happy ending that neatly, if rather weakly, ties up any loose ends.  And so, as this is Hollywood, no one is left unhappy by the global crisis, everyone ends up in contented jobs they love and the world is a pleasant place for everyone. The bad guys who run the big businesses remain largely untouched – Harken may end up in jail, but in the final denouement we learn that his boss, now Nick’s boss, is equally despicable.  Which all seems to run against both public feeling and recent current events.  Imagine a Horrible Bosses based around the current scandal engulfing NewsCorp. and the Murdoch empire, or even the recent banks in crisis, or what about the bosses at Enron – now they were horrible bosses – not to mention ripe material for comedy.  As it is, Horrible Bosses will disappear into irrelevance and the general ho-hum catalogue of Hollywood’s recent comedy efforts.  Which is a shame, because somewhere in here, probably before any studio execs got involved, was the opportunity for a smart relevent satire instead of the illogical broad slapstick we’re left with.

Film Rating – 2 out of 5.

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

Cineworld Glasgow, 08.07.11

One of my favourite entries in one of the best film study books available is David Thomson’s entry for Michael Bay in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film (5th edition), which he finishes with:

So, in the event that Mr Bay is ever looking for help, I’ll spell it out here-he makes noisy garbage; it is his calling, his being and soul. There is no cure. We may respect his suffering, but we know this: ours is greater. And he has millions [of dollars] as medicine.
                                                                                                  -p.67 (Little, Brown; UK edition)

As a teenage film student the films of Michael Bay were a guilty pleasure in the late ’90’s.  The likes of Bad Boys (1995) and The Rock (1996), even Armageddon (1998) were loud, sexy, stylish, fun, dumb entertainment, and provided an escape from the heavy-going, intellectual, art cinema I had to study.  They featured accomplished serious actors and indie favourites alongside big stars – Sean Connery, Nic Cage, Ed Harris, Bruce Willis, Will Smith and Liv Tyler to name a few.  You knew they were stupid, vapid and empty – but they were pure entertainment that allowed you to switch off your brain and enjoy.  They even had some funny dialogue mixed in with all the loud bangs and orange-tinted slo-mo.

Then came the disaster that was Pearl Harbour (2001).  There was a lot wrong with this film, and little right. Casting, plot and dialogue were awful and the spectacular action sequence couldn’t save it. The main error was Bay attaching his particular brand of mindless mayhem to historical fact.  the seriousness of the real life war were completely at odds with his over-sentimental romance and slo-mo heroics.  It was rightly panned by critics.  A lame sequel, Bad Boys II  (2003) and the smaller scale (by Bay standards) The Island (2005) passed the time without much impact until 2007, and the first Transformers film. 

Based on the Hasbro toys, the first film was typical Bay at his biggest and brashest.  Action-packed, loud, nonsense, with the right mix of knowing humour and thumping action. It also had the novelty factor of the sight of the Transformer characters impressively rendered on the large screen. As a child growing up watching the original cartoons and playing with the toys, like his earlier films, this was a guilty pleasure for many adolescent and adult males. By that time I had grown up, become a cynical adult, but could still find a soft spot for this bit of nonsense.  Unfortunately, Michael Bay had refused to develop, mature, or just grow up in the intervening years, and all the good work of the first film was completely undermined by the disastrous sequel Revenge of the Fallen (2009).  Even more than Pearl Harbour, this film was an unmitigated travesty, ruining many people’s fond childhood memories. The low point of Megan Fox having her leg humped by a randy CGI robot in a supposedly funny moment is unforgivable, and stands as the nadir of Bay’s brand of filming women and an example of not knowing the difference between smart comedy and appalling slapstick.

With some trepidation then, comes the third installment – Dark of the Moon. Those hoping Bay would have listened to the criticism of Revenge and learned his lesson will be sadly disappointed, because this film is a complete mess.  Too long by about an hour, it falls into the majority of the same pitfalls that Revenge suffered from – and makes no attempt to apologise for it.  Megan Fox wisely jumped ship for this film, to be replaced by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, although she adds none of her own personality, and fulfils just a carbon-copy of the Fox role.  Witness the opening shot of the film, where her scantily clad derrière is shown in close up walking up the stairs – she is nothing more than window dressing for the hormonal teenage boys Bay is targeting, and is degraded throughout the film as pretty, sexy and helpless.  Bay’s attitude towards women hasn’t matured in any way in 15 years of films, and this epitomises all aspects of his film style.

The rest of the cast fair little better.  Shia LaBeouf continues his downward spiral, becoming more and more annoying with every film he appears in. Here, you really hope the machines will just kill his character Sam Witwicky to save us having to listen to his whining, screaming and smarmy smart alec dialogue any longer. Josh Duhamel returns and looks suitably heroic without doing much. Again, Bay manages to attract some fine character actors, presumably happy to take a big pay check at the expense of any artistic integrity.  John Turturro at least has fun with his slapstick role, although he was tiring in the first film, let alone across three. What possessed Frances McDormand and especially John Malkovich, who disappears a third of the way through the film after a pointless cameo, to get involved, is beyond me. A special mention for Ken Jeoung as Jerry Wang – surely the worst and most irritating piece of acting, and writing, to be seen in a long time in any big budget Hollywood film.  Buzz Aldrin deserves a moment of criticism for agreeing to appear in a cameo role as well.

The machines and the effects are the real stars of course, but Bay makes the same crucial errors as in the first sequel in his handling of them. He focuses on the leader of the good Autobots, Optimus Prime, and his former teacher, turned traitor, Sentinal Prime, along with Sam’s friend Bumblebee, at the expense of every other character.  The rest of the Autobots barely get a look in, even in the battle scenes they’re in the background or posted missing – it becomes impossible to tell which ones have survived and which are killed, and no one mourns the loss of any.  The evil Decepticons fair even worse.  Leader and prime, Megatron, is reduced to an afterthought.  Bay is obsessed with Shockwave, who gets most of the evil action, but without any attempt to provide any character – just destruction and mayhem. Starscream is the only other recognisable Decepticon to appear.  The rest of the Decepticons are a faceless army.  Aside from that, Bay again chooses to include Autobots for purely comic relief, and it’s as woeful as it was in the previous film.  Wheelie and Brains pop up every so often to provide relief from the endless action, but with such awful dialogue it beggars belief that it made it passed the first version of the script.  Just not funny in any way.  All the impressive special effects that goes into creating the machines is in the end wasted.  Another special effect that deserves comment is the appalling attempt to recreate John F. Kennedy in the White House in the film’s opening.  It stands out as so badly done that it is laughably noticeable, and completely unnecessary.

The plot, of course given the initial premise, is nonsense, but that doesn’t excuse the bloated running time, the lack of tension, and the lack of logic within the created world.  The final battle in Chicago (no reason is ever given as to why exactly Chicago is chosen – probably the city was willing to close its streets to allow filming) is just an ongoing mess of carnage that seems like it will never end.  There are so many explosions, collapsing buildings, fighting humans and machines that one becomes completely lost after a while.  Even the script seems to lose focus as to what anyone is trying to achieve in all this mayhem, so it’s no wonder, as a viewer it was difficult to tell what on Earth was going on most of the time.  At the end of the two and a half hours of too loud, non-stop action (it is evenly paced, just evenly paced at overly hectic mayhem from start to finish) I had a slight headache, so goodness knows how anyone watching in 3D is able to cope with it all.  Broad brushstrokes are used for the human relations, and even humour that worked to some degree in the first film – Sam’s parents, Turturro’s oddball agent – falls flat or is downright annoying here.

Only my fond memories of the Transformers as a child, and the fact that it is marginally better than Revenge of the Fallen, stop me from giving this film zero out of five.  It’s time Michael Bay grew up and tried to do something different with his films – but I suspect he has no intention of doing anything of the kind, because his millions keep rolling in.

Film Rating: 1 out of 5.

GREEN LANTERN

Cineworld Glasgow, 24.06.11

Martin Campbell seems to have created a niché market for himself as a director expert in launching, or rather re-launching, known popular characters.  Twice he has introduced the world to a new James Bond, first with Pierce Brosnan in 1995’s Goldeneye, and then with Daniel Craig in 2006’s Casino Royale – both with great success. In between he brought the South American freedom fighter Zorro to a new audience as Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro (1998).  Alongside this success though he has also given us the disastrous Vertical Limit (2000), and then subsequently buried the Zorro franchise with the lazy The Legend of Zorro (2005).  All of which probably goes to prove that as with most, if not all, film directors, they are only as good as the source material they are working from.  With his proven ability to launch well-known characters onto the big screen, Campbell must have seemed an ideal fit for the latest attempt to launch a superhero franchise.

The source material for Green Lantern is (yet another) long-running, established American popular comic, this time from the stable of DC Comics.  Although seen in animated series on television, this is the first attempt to bring this particular superhero to the big screen, and it quickly becomes clear as to why that is.  This is high-concept sci-fi, with a capital ‘H’.  There is no grounding in gritty realism here, or attempts to link the world of fighter pilot Hal Jordan to the real world.  Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is chosen by the green ring to protect Earth after the death of previous ring bearer Amin Sur (Temura Morrison).  He becomes part of the Green Lanterns, a police force for the universe. The lantern and ring give him special powers which enable him to bring to life anything from his imagination in order to help him fight evil. Meanwhile, Parallax, an evil force powered by fear and embodied in a massive black cloud threatens the universe and Earth, and it is left to Hal to defend his planet. 

It is all, frankly, bonkers, and by trying to cram so much of the years worth of comic history into a less-than-two hour film, leads to some massive leaps and shortcuts.  The opening prologue rushes through the Green Lantern Corp. history and the story of Amin Sur and Parallax so quickly that it paints broad brushstrokes and the real menace of Parallax (and why it becomes evil) are skipped over.  Similarly, Hal’s initial rejection, then acceptance, of the responsibility bestowed upon him by the Green Lantern – not to mention his quick comprehension and mastering of its powers – are all achieved in the blink of an eye.  Characters such as love interest Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) are given little time to make an impact. Peter Sarsgaard registers as scientist-come-Frankenstein Monster baddie, Hector Hammond, although he is so pathetic that his actual threat to Hal seems minimal.  There are other mis-steps in plot, such as Parallax, a massive, large city sized, black cloud with enormous tentacles entering the Earth’s atmosphere, and threatening to engulf an entire city, seemingly completely undetected by any authorities.  Perhaps budget constraints account for this, and the fact that although Hal can make real anything he imagines, he keeps things very small-scale when it comes to battling enemies.  It’s also alarming that the universal Green Lanterns give up pretty hopelessly against Parallax and simply leave Hal to battle it on his own, although of course the rookie soon dispatches Parallax, where his more experienced and powerful colleagues gave up.

Daft as this all is, the film does have some good points.  Ryan Reynolds finds it almost too easy to inject his easy-going, lazy charm into the laid back Hal, and is also suitably earnest when it comes to serious hero time.  Sarsgaard has fun as Hector and Mark Strong is nicely ambiguous as Green Lantern Sinestro (the post-credits set-up for a sequel temptingly gives hope of a better second film, if given the green light).  While the pace does seem to bog down occasionally as all the comic book origin story plot points are hit, there is enough charm and inventiveness in the set pieces to hold the interest.  Indeed, the biggest complement for Green Lantern in the already crowded superhero canon is that, as a film, it doesn’t hold back or distill elements of the comic, but embraces the silly costumes, monstrous make-up, bizarre aliens, lack of logic, and runs with it, which gives it just enough momentum to stand out in the crowded market place.

With a bit of care and attention to the plot, the makings of a decent sequel are there, it’s just a shame that it hasn’t all come together in this film.  And in the already world of far too many comic hero movies, unfortunatley, Green Lantern doesn’t add anything the audience hasn’t seen before.

Film Rating – 2.5 out of 5.