Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Tucci’

Jack The Giant Slayer (2013)

Jack the Giant Slayer

When the lights go down and the digestive juices are eagerly expecting creative sustenance, Jack The Giant Slayer (2013) immediately tells you this is an impressive and exciting film by a piece of over-the-top-bombastic music that can’t possibly be sustained. If it was going to be this deafening, sorry exciting, for the next 114 minutes, our ears be worn down to the quick and that would never do. We would lack the strength to rise from our seats and go eat some monster nibbles at the nearest fast-food outlet? So the volume, pace and tempo must drop, and then duck in and out of gentle storytelling mode. So here comes the set-up. Young Jack and Princess Isabel sit in their respective low-born and high mucky-muck beds while their parents tell the story of how monks first attempted to grow the bridge between Heaven and Earth, but instead opened the door for the giants to come down the beanstalk and start eating us. Now there you have it. Hubris! It always gets people into trouble, particularly when they start deluding themselves into believing there’s a shortcut to Heaven. The moral so far is don’t go down to the woods today because giants are holding a finger-food event.

Ewan McGregor, Eleanor Tomlinson and Nicholas Hoult

Ewan McGregor, Eleanor Tomlinson and Nicholas Hoult

We then get one of these nice fairy story ideas that would require explanation in any other context. Needing a way to control the giants, the humans kill a giant (no mean feat), extract its heart (not so difficult once deceased) and then melt it down to make a crown for the king to wear (hmmm — giants have metallic hearts and, as an aside having no significance whatsoever, the tract for food to pass down into their stomachs is full of water and not an acid or enzymes or anything else that might consume input as food). Consequently (sic) when the king wears the crown, he can control the giants and tell them to climb back up the beanstalk. Once the last one has climbed back up, they (probably the humans working from the bottom up) cut down the beanstalk and promptly relegate all the factual aspects of the invasion to myth (in rhyme so it can be told to children). So that’s all right then. All done and dusted, as these British types say.

Ten years later (wow, time sure does pass fast in these tales), Jack (Nicholas Hoult), the daydreamer, is sent off to market to sell the horse and cart, but is distracted by a pantomime version of the fairy story and the now beautiful Isabel (Eleanor Tomlinson). Of course we have the usual palace conspiracies for Roderick (Stanley Tucci) to marry Isabel and rule the world (which plans have already led to raiding the old King’s tomb and extracting both the fatal seeds and the magic crown). Why is it, I wonder, that villains are usually called Roderick in these fantasy films? When a monk steals the seeds who else can be trusted to do everything wrong but Jack. Take the seeds to the Abbey (yes) and on the way, don’t get them wet (now that shouldn’t be so hard, should it).

Bill Nighy and John Kassir gesture two horns at the world

Bill Nighy and John Kassir gesture two horns at the world

At this point the Princess knows she’s in serious danger of becoming the token woman and so makes a dramatic speech claiming not to be some fragile creature. No, she wants to take responsibility, get to know the people, and set herself on the path to being a Queen. When King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), still overcome with remorse from the loss of his wife, hears this, he tells her to shut up and marry Roderick. So much for empowerment and the mediaeval feminist movement. That’s why she runs away, like any self-respecting Princess would in a fairy story. Inevitably, because that’s what the plot requires, she ends up in the tenant farm occupied by Jack — it’s dark, raining and she can’t see where she’s going. This is a bad thing because, with the roof leaking, one of the seeds is going to get wet. Obviously these are GM seeds because this specimen sure does grow fast and carry the farmhouse and the Princess up to the land where giants have been imprisoned (they’re led by General Fallon (Bill Nighy and John Kassir — it’s a big body to move around and it needs all the brains it can get). As a further aside, there must be a time distortion effect in operation because it’s the same exclusively male army of giants that were beaten the last time around. They have survived the hundreds (?) of years without any female companionship to make life worth living or perpetuate their species.

Stanley Tucci looking villainous despite the comic hair

Stanley Tucci looking villainous despite the comic hair

As the excitement rises to fever pitch, i.e. the music wakes us up, we meet Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the wannabe Jedi knight in charge of the rescue expedition up the beanstalk. He has his moments but lacks credibility, a fact made abundantly clear when they meet the first giant. This leaves Jack and the villain, who conveniently has the crown with him, running free in the land of the giants. Naturally, the villain uses the crown to control these poor creatures and plans to take over the world. With the first signs of true love blossoming, Jack gives the inspirational speech to the Princess. She’s not useless. She’ll make the world a better place. So then it’s divide and rule. Jack takes the Princess down the beanstalk and the Jedi knight type stays up top to kill the villain with the controlling crown. This creates a problem because when you’ve spent the first part of the film establishing the villain, it’s not good to kill him off and leave the giants as the villains when we don’t care about them. In the best fantasy films, the best villains are always the ones who are the most human. They betray and scheme, laugh when they succeed and cry when they suffer a reversal, i.e. they are credible as characters. It would have been so much better if Roderick had led the giants down to attack the kingdom. Jack could then have sneaked into the giant’s camp and killed the “old man” in a “fair fight” and taken the crown. That’s the right level of heroism for this Jack. When it comes to the ending, Jack’s got a great cart horse and he’s the saviour of the kingdom (more by luck than good judgement), relegating the Princess to the pretty one who gives birth to children and so loses her good looks.

I think the problem is that Bryan Singer and the people behind this film couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted it to be scary or camp. The result is that it’s neither frightening in the slightest nor genuinely amusing. As a plot, it would have made a great thirty-minute episode in an animated series of fairy stories. It ticks the right boxes but it drags everything out to interminable length with poor CGI. The script is a dead weight round the necks of the high-powered cast of actors so they can’t get laughs to paper over the cracks. The giants are suitably massive and throw trees around like matchsticks (not sure how they set then on fire first), but they’re not used to frighten. Although he does kill one by accident and causes two more to die, Jack never feels like a heroic giant slayer. And just telling them all to quit making a nuisance of themselves and go home is a ho-hum ending. Sadly, Jack the Giant Slayer is just dead on arrival.

The Hunger Games (2012)

March 31, 2013 Comments off

HungerGamesPoster

More years ago than I care to remember, I was a classical scholar and something of an expert in not only the languages but also the cultures of the Ancient World. Amongst other things, this meant a basic familiarity with the mythology. Theseus was caught up in the dispute between Athens and Crete. Androgeus, the son of King Minos, had been assassinated in Athens. The price of peace was that, every year, Athens sent seven young men and women to Crete as tribute to be fed to the Minotaur. Coming forward in time, here’s a science fiction novel and now film. Ostensibly, this is a young adult post-apocalypse dystopian novel by Suzanne Collins where one young man and woman from each of twelve Districts is sent to the Capitol to participate in a televised fight to the death. The Hunger Games (2012) is the first in a projected series with the second being in production thanks to the massive amount of money made by this film both in the cinema and through DVD sales.

 

This has all the usual faults of a piece of science fiction aimed at young adults. To begin to understand the extent of these problems, let’s meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). They like to hunt in the forest around their District’s living area, hence our heroine’s expertise with the bow — there’s no large game, only squirrels and other small mammals. We immediately note the poverty of those in District 12. Later, this is juxtaposed with the high civilisation of the Capitol. It’s always interesting in dystopian contexts, to speculate on how the distribution of wealth and privilege could become so skewed. If, as shown in the historical newsreel, there was a nuclear civil war in which the twelve satellite states turned on the central state, the major population centres would have been levelled. Indeed, with twelve states shooting at one, it’s hard to see how the one could survive at all. Anyway, if this is the old USA, why were only twelve states involved? What happened to all the rest?

Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lawrence relax before the big event

Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lawrence relax before the big event

 

Even if we accept this curiosity, why would the defeated survivors have agreed to rebuild only one? The idea that the defeated rebel states could have been coerced into this arrangement followed up by this tribute system is not convincingly explained. There’s always a delicate balance of power between the oppressors and the oppressed. In the parade, we’re told the Districts specialise in mining, power-generation, and so on. This would suggest rather smaller units, rather like a core city with suburbs, yet the train journey from District 12 obviously goes on for hours at high speed. So let’s say there’s a rebellion among the people who dig up the coal for the power-generation people to turn into electricity. If these people are the only miners, sending in troops to kill large numbers of them completely destabilises the interdependent supply system. The oppressive regime can try intimidation, but extermination is impossible until there are sufficient replacements prepared to take over as miners. More generally, has the land not been irradiated by nuclear fallout or perhaps chemical weaponry? Perhaps District 12 is the only area where it’s safe to dig. Worse, the downtrodden citizens in District 12 all look remarkably well fed with no sign of starvation, yet we see only a few pigs fed on reject bread and no obvious farming. Where is all the food coming from, not just in the Districts, but also to support the lavish lifestyle of the Capitol? There’s no way the Katniss we see on screen has been deprived of food even though we do see her apparently desperate for a crust of bread from Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). More generally, how can anything grow if this was a widespread conflict involving the use of nuclear and/or chemical weapons? Surely the soil is irredeemably polluted?

 

Now let’s come to the tribute itself. Each year, there’s a ballot across the twelve Districts to pick the twenty-four victims who are sent to the Capitol. Why, you might ask, should there be a “winner”? If the Capitol simply wanted to intimidate the Districts, it could execute twenty-four young people randomly selected every year. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) explains the tribute is slightly more insidious by offering all participants the illusion of hope — an illusion for twenty-three since only one can survive. This is political nonsense. Surely the only real outcome is to depress eleven Districts who get to see their children killed on live television while the twelfth only gets back one child. Why do any of the victims have any hope? Why are the Districts not more angry? Finally, why must the winners go back to their Districts? Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who acts as mentor to Katniss and Peeta, is still in the Capitol after winning twenty years ago. Why was this drunken streak of misery privileged while everyone else was sent back to live in poverty?

 

If we look back in the cinema, films like Battle Royale, Death Race 2000, Rollerball and The Running Man have shown us dystopian futures in which mass entertainment is used to manipulate the mood of the people. It’s the old blood-and-circuses idea from Ancient Rome. So this film flirts with the Capitol being a new Rome as our carefully coiffed victims ride in in their chariots to be greeted by their adoring fans. This is reinforced by the naming system. The game’s manager is Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), the interviewer and all-round television face is Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and stylist Cinna (Lennie Kravitz) (originally a long-serving consul of the Roman Republic).

The wounded Josh Hutcherson gets comfort from Jennifer Lawrence

The wounded Josh Hutcherson gets comfort from Jennifer Lawrence

 

When sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected as District 12’s female victim, it’s up to Katniss to volunteer in her place. The other ballot “winner” is Peeta. She receives moral support and image advice from Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna. As is required for a young adult heroine, Katniss ranges between surly and spunky in early scenes at the Capitol. Her display with the bow, however, breaks the ice and makes her a popular favorite. Peeta consolidates her star quality by confessing a long-time crush on her. In the end this battle is all about the ratings and she becomes dominant, a fact displeasing to President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who fears this spunky volunteer may incite riots among supporters in outlying Districts.

 

When we get to the games themselves, like The Truman Show, the managers of this closed environment can control the day/night cycle. More importantly, they can start fires and force the contestants out of safe hiding places and towards a confrontation with the others. Otherwise one or two could just sit out the contest until everyone else was dead or wounded. Of course, all kinds of outside interference are possible if the government or sponsors permit. But what seems to be achievable is pure fantasy not science fiction. The fires are absolutely controllable, complete with RPG balls that can be shot at people, plus trees that fall on command. At the press of a button, they are extinguished and there’s no sign of smoke damage or burned vegetation during the rest of the film. And then there are these genetically modified dogs. I suppose they must be kept in kennels somewhere and then uploaded. But how are they cleared away so quickly?

 

So where does this leave us? At 136 minutes (including the credits) it’s too long. This is not to say the individual parts are not interesting but, when put together, it’s excessive. The fatal game sequence has its moments and, in strictly technical terms, there’s a certain fascination in seeing how the numbers are whittled down and the final deaths occur. This being a film aimed at a young adult audience, there’s little or no blood shown. The necessary deaths are managed with taste and decorum — many out-of-shot. Similarly the game romance is suitably chaste. Just a peck or two on the cheeks and lips, and lying down together platonically to maintain body temperatures while “healing” takes place. All this is quite enjoyable. But the major failing of the film is to explain how the Hunger Games came to be and, more importantly, how they fit into the current political framework. It seems even the managers are not entirely sure of their roles. The result is snatched scenes of rioting with white, helmeted troops moving in to quell the disturbances but nothing is explained.

 

As a final question, is District 11 racially segregated? In writing this I’m not trying to reignite the racist tweeting over the casting of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) but, when we see shots of District 11, the majority of the inhabitants do seem to be African American. So is this the agriculture District where they grow the cotton? Although it’s good to see African Americans and a Nigerian in the cast, it seems we’re not post-racial in this post-apocalypse, i.e. we do not see a general ethnic and racial diversity across all parts of this state. We spend considerable time in District 12. Why is there no clear racial integration on display? If the film-makers had wanted to defuse suspicion of racism embedded in the structure of this fictional world, all they had to do was show a real mixture of races in District 12.

 

This leaves me thinking The Hunger Games is probably very entertaining for young adults but deeply frustrating for anyone with a fully developed brain.

 

A number of people have suggested that this film borrows a little too heavily from the two Battle Royale films. Here are the reviews: Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 (2000)
Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルII (2003)

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Margin Call (2011)

December 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Margin Call (2011) is my kind of film. In fact, I would go further and confess liking anything that manages to combine intelligence with the more general dramatic stereotypes. In this case, we’ve had decades of office scenarios in which our cast of stalwarts looks around the room. “Holy shit (the use of Batman’s name is optional), what we gonna do now?” is the usual question blurted out by the least significant member of the team. Grizzled heads shake. There are close-ups on eyes as they shade from horizon-focus to steely determination. They nod at each other in silent confirmation of the strategy. “Let’s get this thing done!” declaims the Boss and they all hit their desks with manic enthusiasm for their thing, whatever it may be. Well, in the proverbial nutshell, that captures the plot of this Hollywood epic. Yes, I know we’re only supposed to use “epic” to describe some brainless adventure film featuring heroes (now of both sexes) with rippling muscles and optional explosions (even in classical mythology, they knew how to blow stuff up). But this is as tense and exciting a film as you could want to see, assuming you like intelligent drama.

Kevin Spacey: both his dog and something else dies

 

I can imagine swathes of people emerging from cinemas around the world, their brains numb with boredom because all people did onscreen was talk. Most of the time, this was done without anyone raising their voices. Despite the tendency to panic and throw themselves of tall buildings, everyone remained calm and got on with their jobs as if this was another day at the office. Yet, when you look at the real world and see what happened when Wall Street almost melted down in September 2008, you can see how a small group of lemmings might feel if they suddenly realised they were standing on the edge of a cliff.

Zachary Quinto as a rocket scientist with great eyebrows

 

This vision of financial Armageddon was triggered by Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) the senior risk manager of a large financial organisation. He’s been quietly working his way through some historical data but not connecting up all the dots. As the organisation is downsized, he’s escorted out of the building but, in the lift lobby, he gives a file to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a young rocket scientist turned risk manager. Curious, young Peter crunches the numbers and comes up with a picture of the cliff. He calls his boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) who calls his boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) who calls his boss Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) who puts in the final call to the überboss John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). In the midst of this, Demi Moore appears as the senior officer who dismissed Eric Dale. So, in the space of a few minutes, you find yourself watching some of the most watchable actors on the planet. At this point, we need to say a few words in praise of J C Chandor who both wrote the script and directed. This is a “new” director who has signed a deal with Warner Brothers for two pictures. This is his first film.

 

I can imagine the excitement the actors must have felt when they received scripts. The news suggests there was a queue of talent lining up to compete for these parts. When you see this final cast list, you realise something strange is going on with seasoned professionals all wanting to work on a first picture. Everyone wants a meaty part that allows them to act — particularly Demi Moore who’s not in this film because of her looks.

Demi Moore allowed the chance to prove she can act

 

So, as politicians like to ask, “Where’s the beef?” Let’s start with a simple statement. This is not an apologia for the banking industry. While it doesn’t go out of its way to condemn, it equally doesn’t show the individuals or their role in society in a good light. Nevertheless, it does cunningly explain why we tolerate this excessive greed and conspire with Wall Street, the Square Mile, and their shadows around the world. Think of it this way. Politicians have encouraged a desire in us to own our own homes. Marketers press us to spend our money on their clients’ goods and services. So we all want mortgages, loans for our cars and other “necessities”, and credit cards that extract money from ATMs like there’s no tomorrow. It doesn’t suit us to look behind the curtain to find the Wizard is a pimply youth who spends tens of thousands of his bonus on hookers. So long as the money keeps on flowing, we’re more than happy to turn a blind eye to excesses. Indeed, we’re likely to be somewhat upset during times of obvious prosperity, if banks and finance companies put barriers in our way, e.g. demanding proof of income or that we provide collateral with a provable minimum value. In our entitlement culture, we expect to be given free access to what we want. When the economic worm turns and we find we can’t afford to repay all these loans, the bankers become the scum of the Earth for facilitating our greed.

Jeremy Irons is outstanding when making the hard decisions

 

One line captures the quality of the decision at issue in this film. If a fire in a theatre is anticipated, does anyone blame the first one who runs out of the door? Should there be no fire, the world laughs at the first for unnecessary worry. Should there be a fire and the first to react is not responsible for causing it, why should the world judge them harshly? Well, in this instance, the only solution to this particular corporation’s problem is to sell all its dodgy assets before the world catches on. That means no-one will trust you again (well, until they’ve forgotten this crisis and need you to trade with). But the decision to sell without shouting “fire” is going to cause a lot of short-term damage. You can salve your conscience as a seller because everyone else is a willing buyer. If they can’t smell smoke, that’s their problem. More importantly, you are suddenly going to have a big cash fund and can cherry pick from all the fire sales held by the others without foresight. Better still, you may even be able to afford buying a bank or another financial corporation in distress. If your financial model is correctly predicting a cliff, you could end up richer in the long term.

Stanley Tucci — we all need risk managers like this

 

I was fascinated by the discussion and mesmerised by the performances. Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons are outstanding. Everyone else is merely excellent. Although financial catastrophes come along quite regularly, it’s important to have films like this to focus our attention and persuade us to think about what happened. Sadly, we’re all like Aesop’s grasshopper and have short-term memories. As soon as the credit tap gets turned back on, we’ll all no doubt rush out to borrow again. But this film should give us pause for thought. As to the anonymous corporation’s decision to sell, this is financial Darwinism. It may not be the survival of the fittest, but rather the survival of the early bird. As a final thought, the nearest comparison in subject matter is Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Whereas that failed, Margin Call delivers “big time”. For those who like films without explosions, this is a must-see.

 

%d bloggers like this: