Ian McKellen

Restoration (1995, Michael Hoffman)

Restoration is two parts period drama, one part character study, one part comedy. It’s often tragic, both because of events occurring and because it takes place in 1665 England and 1665 wasn’t a great time to be alive given the state of medical knowledge versus, you know, disease. Or mental health. The general complete misunderstanding of mental health (though at least they don’t think people are possessed with demon) plays a big part in the dramatics, the comedy, and the character study. There’s always the possibility for comedy… until the plague shows up. Once the plague arrives, it’s full dramatics for a while. The film doesn’t lose its sense of humor, just—appropriately—doesn’t employ it.

The film tells the story of 17th century medical doctor Robert Downey Jr. (who does an amazing job playing English). Despite innate medical talents, Downey doesn’t like how it’s the 17th century and people die from terrible things all the time. It’s a downer. So when he lucks into a court appointment for the King (a delightful Sam Neill), he takes it. It means he gets to drink and carouse and not go bankrupt from it like if he were a working stiff. Things get complicated when Neill then makes Downey marry one of his mistresses (Polly Walker) to legitimize her because Downey immediately falls for her. This portion of the film, after the gruesome medical realities of the opening, is the most comedic. Especially after Hugh Grant shows up as a portrait painter who annoys Downey so Downey annoys him back. Downey’s also got a sidekick—an affable Ian McKellen—during this sequence.

But it’s 1665 and Downey’s in his position by grace of the King and when the King decides no more grace… down Downey falls. He ends up in the 17th century equivalent of a sanitarium, run by Quakers—Downey’s best friend, David Thewlis is a Quaker, which the film actually never plays for jokes when contrasting Thewlis and Downey in the first act. In fact, Downey’s played for the laughs. A fantastic Ian McDiarmid runs the sanitarium and Meg Ryan is one of the… well, patients. They call them “inmates” though; not treating them unkindly but bound by the Quakerism when it comes to trying to help them. Outsider Downey’s the one who has the idea maybe people suffering mental health problems can (and should) be helped. If one of the better off patients who’s clearly suffering from profound depression and happens to look like Meg Ryan… well, bonus.

The plague’s arrival changes everything—again—and puts Downey through multiple harrowing experiences, some small, some big, some internal, some external. Rupert Walters’s script is never particularly outstanding, but the plotting and pacing are fantastic. Restoration moves at a steady clip, knowing exactly when it needs some humor, knowing exactly when it needs some sympathy. Hoffman’s direction of the actors is quite good, making up for his mostly mediocre composition. He and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton do a fine job showing off the beautiful, ornate Eugenio Zanetti production design—the film’s got some great sets, gorgeous costumes, and so on—but Hoffman’s pretty obvious with all of it. He’s clearly more confident with the lighter elements than the more serious ones. It works out but it’s where Restoration feels like a missed opportunity. Hoffman feels essential when it comes to the performances, but not with the film’s visuals.

Downey’s character only develops because of the people he encounters in his life—Thewlis, Walker, Ryan, Neill, McKellen, Grant—but none of the supporting parts are substantial. Neill has a lot of screen time, but he’s a plot foil. He’s the King after all. Ryan’s kind of got the biggest supporting part, but not really any more screen time than any of the other supporting parts. Her performance (as an Irish woman) is fine; she’s very likable. She and Downey definitely work well together. But not a great part, as written.

Everyone’s good—Walker, Thewlis, Grant. No matter what they do, funny, sad, whatever, it’s all about how they play off Downey anyway. The film’s narrative distance is superbly steady in its tracking of Downey.

James Newton Howard’s score is good. Appropriately lush and dramatic. Restoration is a well-executed production.

The key is Downey, who’s essential to the film’s success even though he shouldn’t be—i.e. that quarter character study. Downey’s experience of the film’s events and how they affect him is the film’s greatest achievement. Downey’s performance sets the tone, everything else has to meet that level. Great performance in a solidly but not superlatively written or directed film. The film’s all about Downey, letting it hinge entirely on his performance. And he excels.

Thanks to Downey, and also Hoffman, Walters, Ryan, Neill, and everyone else in various degrees, Restoration’s consistently successful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Hoffman; screenplay by Rupert Walters, based on the novel by Rose Tremain; director of photography, Oliver Stapleton; edited by Garth Craven; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Eugenio Zanetti; costume designer, James Acheson; produced by Sarah Black, Cary Brokaw, and Andy Paterson; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Robert), Sam Neill (The King), David Thewlis (John), Polly Walker (Celia), Meg Ryan (Katharine), Ian McKellen (Will), Hugh Grant (Finn), and Ian McDiarmid (Ambrose).


Stardust (2007, Matthew Vaughn)

Stardust has a problem with overconfidence. The overconfidence in the CG is one thing, but would be easily excusable if director Vaughn didn’t double down and go through tedious effects sequences. Ben Davis’s photography keeps Stardust lush, whether in the magic world or the real world–but that lushness doesn’t help with the CG. The CG is excessive and exuberent–it’s always supposed to be obvious–it’s just not good enough. The CG, technically, isn’t there.

The other overconfidence is the stunt casting.

The film starts in a prologue setting things up. England. Nineteenth century. There’s a small English town with a nearby wall. No one can cross the wall. There’s a nonagenarian (David Kelly) who wields a staff to keep people away. One day, intrepid young man Ben Barnes crosses the wall and gets seduced by a mystery woman.

Nine months later, he gets a baby. Eighteen years later, the baby has grown into “protagonist” Charlie Cox. Stardust, from its narration (by Ian McKellen, natch), is going to be about Cox embracing his destiny as a hero. Until then, he’s just going to make a fool of himself for town beauty Sienna Miller. Cox wants to marry Miller, Miller wants to marry Henry Cavill. But then they see a falling star and Cox gets Miller to promise to through Cavill over for him if he gets her the star.

Except it’s not just a falling star, it’s also the ruby necklace of the King of the magic world, called Stormhold. Stardust doesn’t get into the nitty gritty, like how can this magical world exist across a wall in England and what would’ve happened to it in the hundred years between the movie’s present action and its release date. Because it’s just fantasy. Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman don’t have to take any responsility for character if they keep it just genre.

The scene setting up Stormhold is where the stunt casting starts. Peter O’Toole is the dying king, Rupert Everett is his presumed heir. Presumed because O’Toole’s sons have to kill one another for the throne. The ghosts of the defeated princes hang around and watch the film’s events, sometimes offering commentary. They’re fun ghosts, even if they were all trying to kill one another and the film’s heroes.

In the biggest of the prince roles is Mark Strong. He’s not stunt casting. He’s got Inigo Montoya’s hair and Count Rugen’s personality.

So the star falls. Except since it lands in magic land, it’s not a hunk of space metal, it’s Claire Danes. Stars are sentient and they watch the earth because human beings’ love is unique throughout the cosmos. Vaughn and Goldman’s dialogue, which is so entirely expository it’s an accomplishment, is about as obvious and artless as that sentence. Vaughn seems to think he can get away with it because of Davis’s photography, the CGI, and Ilan Eshkeri’s enthusiastic, original, and not great, not bad score. He’s wrong.

Anyway. Cox finds Danes and kidnaps her. He’s going to let her go after he brings her to Miller. Danes points out the questionable behavior of kidnapping someone for a gift, but Cox doesn’t care. His character to this point is: half-prince of magic land, personal failure (he wasn’t good in school at anything, including fencing), and just fired shop boy. Cox doesn’t even get to dwell on being half-magic. He’s too busy dragging Danes through the woods.

Oh, and Danes has the necklace.

So Strong and the other princes are looking for the necklace. Because O’Toole says they don’t just need to kill each other, they also have to get the necklace.

And then Michelle Pfeiffer is a witch looking for Danes to kill her and eat her heart to make herself young. Pfeiffer’s got two sisters, Joanna Scanlan and Sarah Alexander, who ought to be stunt casting and aren’t. The makeup on the witches is decrepit faces, but not overly so on the bodies. Like Vaughn didn’t want to be too gross. The witches get played for laughs occasionally, so they can’t be too visually unsettling.

Pfeiffer is terrible with Scanlan and Alexander. Maybe she can’t figure out how to act under the makeup. Once she gets out on her own (and out of the makeup), she slowly gets better. By the end of the movie, she’s almost good, even with some makeup back. She has zero chemistry with Scanlan and Alexander, which doesn’t help things.

Of course, Vaughn doesn’t direct for that sort of thing. Chemistry. Pah. Danes falls for Cox after he saves her from Pfeiffer’s inital trap and Danes decides to help him win Miller’s hand, delivering herself as a gift. Because she really, deep down, loves Cox. Danes, I mean. She’s sacrificing herself. It might make sense if Danes had her stars watch earth because of perfect human love monologue early on, but it’s end of the second act stuff. She’s just making poor choices as far as anyone knows until then.

She also has a unicorn for a while.

Eventually Danes and Cox end up on Robert De Niro’s sky pirate ship. De Niro should be Stardust’s stunt casting at its worst. He’s a closest, effeminate, aging, anglophile gay sky pirate. He has to hide everything from his crew of tough sky pirates. They mine lightning to sell to Ricky Gervais (who’s actually the worst stunting casting). They capture Danes and Cox and De Niro confides in the young couple.

He teaches them to dance, he teaches Cox how to sword fight, he does a makeover on Cox, giving him some romance novel cover hair. He also gives them new outfits.

So then they’re ready for the multiple showdowns–Strong and the princes, Pfeiffer and the witches, Melanie Hill’s traveling salesperson witch who has enslaved Cox’s mom (Kate Magowan). But Cox isn’t look for his mom, because he forgot about her once he kidnapped Danes and he never comes back to it.

Cox is a bad kid. No spoilers, but Nathaniel Parker (as the grown-up dad) gets a shockingly thankless part. You’d think being raised by a single dad in nineteenth century small village England would have an effect on Cox’s character, but since he doesn’t get a character until he gets the hair cut… you’d be wrong.

There’s also a thing where Vaughn’s “magical” direction of magic land is exactly the same as his idealized English village. Cox is just traveling through Disney movies, one without magic to one with magic.

Cox never gets to be the protagonist. Top-billed Danes doesn’t either. They both play second fiddle to the bigger name stars, Pfeiffer and De Niro. Where it’s unfair is how Strong gets to do his own thing without Pfeiffer or De Niro and isn’t even a serious antagonist.

Cox and Danes are fine. Their writing is often lousy. De Niro is not fine. It’s an insensitive, if enthusiastic, caricature. Vaughn’s poor direction of actors is most obvious with De Niro. De Niro’s vamping it up and Vaughn directs it all to beg for a laugh. Ha. Robert De Niro is a miserable, closest gay guy who’s worried his only friends will ostracize or kill him if they know he’s gay. But, hey, it’s De Niro in drag.

Then there’s how Danes is a simply damsel, even if she’s an anthropomorphized luminous spheroid of plasma. Cox is the hero prince, even if he’s been passive in every single one of his scenes. Vaughn needed some confidence in his leads.

Stardust is occasionally amusing, when the bad performances and bad writing aren’t too overwhelming. Danes and Cox are quite likable. The movie’s just got a weak script and lacking direction.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Matthew Vaughn; screenplay by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Jon Harris; music by Ilan Eshkeri; production designer, Gavin Bouquet; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Michael Dreyer, Gaiman, and Vaughn; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Charlie Cox (Tristan Thorn), Claire Danes (Yvaine), Robert De Niro (Captain Shakespeare of the Caspartine), Michelle Pfeiffer (Lamia), Mark Strong (Prince Septimus), Sienna Miller (Victoria Forester), Melanie Hill (Ditchwater Sal), Ricky Gervais (Ferdy), Kate Magowan (Princess Una), Joanna Scanlan (Mormo), Sarah Alexander (Empusa), Jason Flemyng (Prince Primus), Rupert Everett (Prince Secundus), Nathaniel Parker (Dunstan Thorn), Henry Cavill (Humphrey), David Kelly (the Wall Guard), and Peter O’Toole (the King); narrated by Ian McKellen.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, Peter Jackson), the extended edition

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is really long. Director Jackson’s greatest achievement with the film has to be making that length work. He runs out of ideas for action sequences (worst is when he repeats one just a couple set pieces later), he doesn’t give his actors anything to do (he’s more concerned with showcasing the makeup jobs on most of them); in fact, he barely has any enthusiasm for anything in journey.

He starts to wake up when Hugo Weaving arrives, but Weaving isn’t particularly good. Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee show up just after Weaving, which is good, as they’re both great (and they lessen the load on Ian McKellen, who’s otherwise got to maintain the film himself). Not enough can be said for McKellen, who isn’t just excellent in an underwritten role (they’re all underwritten), but he’s also the only regular cast member who Jackson trusts. While Martin Freeman’s supposed to be the protagonist, Jackson doesn’t trust him. He gets around to it by the end of the film (after a number of aimless, if decently paced, adventures for Freeman) for Freeman’s scene with Andy Serkis. Or Serkis’s CG stand-in, which isn’t just the best performance of a digital character (by far), it’s the best rendering of a digital character. The film cuts between Serkis’s painstakingly rendered character and the rest of the party’s adventures in a video game. The CG isn’t ever so much cheap as boring.

Okay, the monster cats look cheap.

The party refers to thirteen dwarves. None of them make much impression, except the leader, played by Richard Armitage. His part’s poorly written and the script gives him a lot of bad dialogue and strange behavior–the best being in the film’s inert climax, accompanied by some real bad music by Howard Shore–but Armitage makes it work. He at least brings consequence to his performance. None of the other twelve dwarves bring anything–like I said, Jackson and photographer Andrew Lesnie are far more concerned with showcasing their makeup.

When he does get something to do, Freeman is likable, never exactly good. Jackson and his fellow screenwriters skip over character development, fully utilizing Hobbit’s position as an afterthought prequel to Lord of the Rings to get them out of first act responsibilities. Sadly, the exposition–and Journey has nothing but expository dialogue (except maybe between Blanchett and McKellen)–litters the rest of the film.

It could be a lot worse, though it should be a lot better (Jackson could’ve just done all CG for the amount of use he has for his human stars). And it is impressive how he manages to be boring overall but not from scene to scene.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; director of photography, Andrew Lesnie; edited by Jabez Olssen; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Dan Hennah; produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Walsh and Jackson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Richard Armitage (Thorin), Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), William Kircher (Bifur), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Stephen Hunter (Bombur), Dean O’Gorman (Fili), Aidan Turner (Kili), John Callen (Oin), Peter Hambleton (Gloin), Jed Brophy (Nori), Mark Hadlow (Dori), Adam Brown (Ori), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saruman) and Andy Serkis (Gollum).


The Keep (1983, Michael Mann)

For almost fifty percent of its run time, every shot one of Michael Mann and Alex Thomson’s shots in The Keep is extraordinary. Mann’s seems more concerned with precise composition than he does narrative and Thomson’s photography perfectly complements it. So, while the film isn’t much good in its first half, at least it’s wondrous to watch.

Then there’s the second half, after Ian McKellen (as a sickly historian) and Alberta Watson (as his daughter) show up. Maybe The Keep is supposed to be a metaphor for Watson losing her virginity and abandonment and loss or something, but it’s not. It’s a complete mess and a soap opera between Watson and Scott Glenn (as a savior figure) doesn’t help simplify it. Worse, their romance–and McKellen’s decision to, as a Jew, to side with a demonic evil against the Nazis–confuses the things Mann’s able to do right in The Keep.

Except the German army is about all Mann does right. He’s ripping off Das Boot–with Jürgen Prochnow as the sympathetic Wehrmacht commander who doesn’t care for the Nazi stuff. It’s a decent enough rip-off and not uninteresting (Nazis versus demons). Gabriel Byrne shows up as the S.S. guy and bickers with Prochnow before they both disappear so Mann can focus on McKellen.

Prochnow’s okay, Byrne’s great, McKellen’s awful, Watson’s weak, Glenn’s unintentionally hilarious. Mann’s dialogue and plotting is terrible. There’s nothing good about the film except the special effects and Thomson’s photography.

At least it’s relatively short.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mann; screenplay by Mann, based on the novel by F. Paul Wilson; director of photography, Alex Thomson; edited by Dov Hoenig; music by Tangerine Dream; production designer, John Box; produced by Gene Kirkwood and Hawk Koch; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Scott Glenn (Glaeken Trismegestus), Alberta Watson (Eva Cuza), Jürgen Prochnow (Captain Klaus Woermann), Robert Prosky (Father Mihail Fonescu), Gabriel Byrne (Major Kaempffer), William Morgan Sheppard (Alexandru) and Ian McKellen (Dr. Theodore Cuza).


Last Action Hero (1993, John McTiernan)

Though pre-Internet, one can still find all sorts of trivia about why Last Action Hero supposedly failed. Apparently the studio rushed the release, not allowing for editing or proper post-production. That rush might explain why some of the special effects appear far cheaper than one would expect (I’m thinking of the magic beams appearing drawn and the gunfire lacking definition). But those excuses don’t refer to the film’s real problem–the child star in the lead, Austin O’Brien, gives one of the worst mainstream child actor performances ever. Forget the Episode I kid… O’Brien makes you wish someone would run him over just so the movie could stop.

Otherwise, Last Action Hero still isn’t very good, but it’s far from terrible. Michael Kamen’s score is amusing, aping the composer’s other action movie scores. But the score does signal the film’s problem–it’s not really aping Joel Silver movies or most Schwarzenegger movies, it’s aping even lesser works. It’s a Joel Silver movie without Joel Silver. It clearly needed him.

McTiernan’s direction is subpar. He does well with the action sequences, making them exciting against the odds (they’re intentionally absurd and have no dramatic weight)… but when it comes to the emotional, he’s got that awful O’Brien performance and can’t defeat it. The magic stuff is just awful.

It’s too bad because Hero‘s probably Schwarzenegger’s best performance. And Charles Dance is amazing as the villain. His performances alone almost recommends it.

But I can’t. Not with O’Brien’s depthless awfulness.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by Shane Black and David Arnott, based on a story by Zak Penn and Adam Leff; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Richard A. Harris and John Wright; music by Michael Kamen; production designer, Eugenio Zanetti; produced by Stephen J. Roth and McTiernan; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Jack Slater), F. Murray Abraham (John Practice), Austin O’Brien (Danny Madigan), Art Carney (Frank), Charles Dance (Benedict), Frank McRae (Lieutenant Dekker), Tom Noonan (Ripper), Robert Prosky (Nick), Anthony Quinn (Tony Vivaldi), Mercedes Ruehl (Irene Madigan) and Ian McKellen (Death).


X-Men: The Last Stand (2006, Brett Ratner)

Apparently all the X-Men movies needed was the vapidness of Brett Ratner. What’s strangest about his replacing of Singer is the mutation being a metaphor for homosexuality. Singer used it as a metaphor (poorly) for race in the first one. I don’t think there were any metaphors in the second one, but it works perfectly in this one–especially since the mutation can be hidden and so on. But Ratner doesn’t harp on it, it’s just a little detail.

Maybe it’s Ratner’s lack of harping–Dante Spinotti’s cinematography and some great special effects sequences (the whole Golden Gate bridge scene is handled maybe better than any superhero movie moment since Superman)–but X-Men: The Last Stand is a lot of fun. It features some great character actors in bit roles–Michael Murphy, Bill Duke, Josef Sommer, Anthony Heald–finally casts some good actors in the supporting roles–Ben Foster and Kelsey Grammer. Grammer, under pounds of makeup, is great.

The regular cast is better this time too. Berry’s not as annoying as usual, Hugh Jackman’s fine, Patrick Stewart and James Marsden aren’t in it enough to hurt much… Ian McKellan finally gets a director who understands encouraging his overacting is funny. And even though Aaron Stanford’s a terrible actor, it’s hard not to get a homoerotic vibe off he and McKellan’s scenes together.

Anna Paquin’s terrible, but no worse than usual. Ellen Page is pretty obnoxious. Famke Janssen’s blank, but it’s finally her role.

It’s a good time.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Brett Ratner; written by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Mark Helfrich, Mark Goldblatt and Julia Wong; music by John Powell; production designer, Edward Verreaux; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Ralph Winter and Avi Arad; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Halle Berry (Storm), Patrick Stewart (Professor Charles Xavier), Ian McKellen (Magneto), Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), Anna Paquin (Rogue), Kelsey Grammer (Dr. Henry McCoy), James Marsden (Cyclops), Rebecca Romijn (Mystique), Shawn Ashmore (Bobby Drake), Aaron Stanford (Pyro), Vinnie Jones (Juggernaut), Ben Foster (Warren Worthington III), Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde), Michael Murphy (Warren Worthington II), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Dr. Kavita Rao), Bill Duke (Trask) and Josef Sommer as the President.


X2 (2003, Bryan Singer)

X-Men 2–sorry, X2–is one of the worst movies I’ve ever sat through, if not the worst.

Singer does a lousy job on X2. It looks like it was filmed in Canada on a restricted budget; it looks goofy and cheap. The story is idiotic and the script is terrible. There’s no good split between the characters in terms of screen time. Patrick Stewart disappears for a while, so does James Marsden.

There’s one scene with promise–when Hugh Jackman is talking with Shawn Ashmore and it’s an awkward moment. It doesn’t really fulfill any of that promise, but it’s not as bad as most of the film.

There aren’t any good performances, which is disappointing if not surprising. Ashmore gives one of the better performances. Bruce Davison’s all right. As opposed to the first one, Jackman’s not good in this one. Patrick Stewart’s bad. Halle Berry’s bad. Famke Janssen’s less bad than those two, but still bad. Ian McKellan’s not as bad as he was in the first one, but he’s still lousy. Anna Paquin’s no good. Brian Cox is awful. Alan Cumming is awful. Cotter Smith plays the President–he exudes a Canadian production.

There is the one amazing scene where Wolverine kills all the army guys–the U.S. Army is the bad guy in X2. They’re child killers. This movie’s from 2003, demonizing the U.S. Army, which is kind of ballsy. It’s a gratuitous scene and its presence in a huge Hollywood blockbuster is startling. It’s great.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Singer; screenplay by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and David Hayter, based on a story by Zak Penn, Hayter and Singer; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by John Ottman and Elliot Graham; music by Ottman; production designer, Guy Dyas; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Patrick Stewart (Professor Charles Xavier), Hugh Jackman (Logan / Wolverine), Ian McKellen (Eric Lensherr / Magneto), Halle Berry (Storm / Ororo Munroe), Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), James Marsden (Scott Summers / Cyclops), Anna Paquin (Rogue / Marie D’Ancanto), Rebecca Romijn (Mystique / Grace), Brian Cox (William Stryker), Alan Cumming (Kurt Wagner / Nightcrawler), Bruce Davison (Senator Kelly), Aaron Stanford (John Allerdyce / Pyro), Shawn Ashmore (Bobby Drake / Iceman), Kelly Hu (Yuriko Oyama / Deathstrike), Katie Stuart (Kitty Pryde), Kea Wong (Jubilee) and Cotter Smith (President McKenna).


The Da Vinci Code (2006, Ron Howard)

Hans Zimmer did the score for The Da Vinci Code? I hope he apologized to James Horner for all the plagiarisms (particularly from Horner’s two Star Trek scores and then Aliens).

I don’t know where to start with The Da Vinci Code, except maybe to say it’s the finest film of its kind. It’s actually amazing–even to me, someone who tried to watch Bloodsport–but The Da Vinci Code is the most soulless film I’ve ever seen. It’s not even in a bad way. It’s just perfectly clear absolutely no one involved with the film, from Ron Howard cashing his paycheck to Tom Hanks cashing his, cares at all about the motion picture they are making. The cinematographer–Salvatore Totino (whose work I am unfamiliar with)–doesn’t even care if the lighting in an interior (shot on set) scene matches. At the start, I at least thought–as Howard needlessly spun the camera around–the photography would be professional. It is not.

My degree in fiction writing is only at the master’s level; studying the fine work of Dan Brown is, I believe, a select post-doctoral program–possibly involving lots of French actors speaking English (Jean Reno and Audrey Tautou) and British actors doing poor Spanish accents (Paul Bettany and Alfred Molina). In other words, I have no idea if the most interesting aspects of The Da Vinci Code are from the source novel or from Akiva Goldsman’s magic quill. For example, Hanks’s apparent superpowers. He can do some weird thing where letters flash white and rearrange themselves. He can also conjure up holographic representations of the past or faraway objects. Tautou has a similar power, but she can interact with these conjured apparitions. Her powers are different, because she’s the descendent of Jesus. The movie never makes clear where Hanks gets his powers from, but it might have something to do with his hair looking really stupid.

If I were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas–and could pay someone to read the novel to make sure the elements aren’t in there first–I would sue Howard and company. The Da Vinci Code not only borrows full scenes from the third Indiana Jones and lines from the first, Howard and Goldsman go so far as to steal the Force. They steal the Force and give it to Tom Hanks and his bad hair. There’s something wrong about that one.

The film’s notoriety–and the Vatican’s denunciation of it–is misplaced. It’s such an absurdly terrible film, I can’t believe the Vatican didn’t get behind it all the way. Besides it being sacrilegious and all, it’s so stupidly handled, it’s not going to convince anyone of its credulousness.

The film is not, however, intentionally incompetent. It’s just such a giant paycheck for everyone involved (except maybe Goldsman, who did better writing work on his first great epic, Batman & Robin). Ian McKellen, so terrible in all the films he can’t stop lauding, is actually kind of funny here. Almost every delivery is mocking the film and the dialogue–one could really study the dialogue Goldman writes for Hanks… it’s particularly stylized and recognizable and atrocious; McKellen even goes so far as to mock Hanks, whose performance might be the film’s worst (except for Bettany, Tautou, Reno and Molina). Jürgen Prochnow, who has done the made-for-cable tripe Da Vinci belongs with, brings some humor to his performance as well.

I’m not exactly sure how Howard and Hanks, who made Apollo 13 for you know who’s sake, rationalized making this project. They didn’t demand it be good or even attempt to be good. The film moves well-enough, the frequent stupidity and the short scenes keeping up a decent pace, and surely some good screenwriter could have come in and tried to make something enthusiastic out of the material. With all the special effects and the terrible music (Zimmer sets a car chase to some classical movement in an astoundingly incompetent sequence), with Hanks summoning a miniature solar system, it’s bewildering. There’s a lengthy scene with Tautou and Hanks trying to find some hidden secret–the clues are all written in sweat, only visible under black light, all encrypted so only Hanks can decode them. Just to stretch this asinine scene out, there are three different messages. If only Hanks can read them, why not just one? Howard doesn’t even try to disguise the pointless material.

The whole film–given the competency of everyone involved (except Goldsman, who’s always awful)–is something of a mystery. It’s a fine example of the sad state of Hollywood filmmaking. But at least it’s really, really funny. I’ve never had a movie so vehemently refuse to engage my brain–I’m even considering writing a monograph about it, examining the film scene-by-scene.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; written by Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown; director of photography, Salvatore Totino; edited by Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Allan Cameron; produced by Brian Grazer and John Calley; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Audrey Tautou (Sophie Neveu), Ian McKellen (Sir Leigh Teabing), Jürgen Prochnow (Vernet), Paul Bettany (Silas), Jean Reno (Bezu Fache), Alfred Molina (Bishop Aringarosa), Jean-Yves Berteloot (Remy Jean) and Etienne Chicot (Collet).


X-Men (2000, Bryan Singer)

My wife wanted me to mention the only reason we watched X-Men was because she wanted to see Hugh Jackman with his shirt off… I watched it to insure she didn’t have a cardiac arrest.

Back in the old days, before IMDb edited their trivia section, the X-Men trivia featured defenses of some of the terrible performances. There was some excuse for Halle Berry’s terrible accent and another for Anna Paquin’s mysteriously appearing and disappearing one. It’s too bad IMDb got classy and took them down, because there were even more defenses and they were a lot of fun.

But if one is trapped and watching X-Men, in between parts where Hugh Jackman’s giving a fine performance, there are amusements. It’s fun to see Bryan Singer composing his shots for a pan-and-scan VHS version (faces occupy one half of the screen while empty space occupies the other or the action is in the center, with empty space on the sides). There’s also the obviously Canadian sets–which make the Statue of Liberty finale all the more amusing. I mean, X-Men is an action movie where one of the big sequences takes place in the Liberty Island gift shop. Not many movies can make that claim. Or the train station… wow, that one’s exciting.

There are more amusements, some not recognizable at the time. It’s not really an amusement, more an unfortunate reality–Michael Kamen’s embarrassing score, which would be terrible on a razor commercial, is one of his last. But on the more amusing things–like trying to take Tyler Mane seriously. The guy’s 6’8″ but the make-up and costume are so silly, he looks like he’s performing at a kid’s birthday party.

The most fun, however, is trying to figure who gives a worse performance, Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan. The script, which has some of the worst dialogue in any major motion picture I think I’ve ever seen, does neither any favors, but I do think Stewart edges McKellan out. Though McKellan is worse, he’s in it a little bit less and doesn’t have the long expository monologues Stewart gets to deliver.

The plot is smartly bound to Jackman, which kind of makes the thing deceptively okay in parts. Thankfully, the moronic ending (it’s Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, get it?) erases any memory of his fine performance.

Speaking of performances, there really aren’t any good ones other than Jackman. James Marsden is hilariously bad, as is Berry, as is Rebecca Romijn. Famke Janssen’s bad, but nowhere near as terrible as the others. Bruce Davison, who really sets off those made in Canada flags, is awful.

I’ve seen X-Men three times now and I still don’t understand how it was a hit or how it is considered “good.” It kicked off the modern superhero movie genre, which has produced some worse entries, and maybe it just doesn’t seem as bad in comparison to those. But with the exception of Jackman, the whole thing feels like a syndicated, shot-in-Canada TV show. It’s like “RoboCop: The Series.” Only worse.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Singer; written by David Hayter, based on a story by Tom DeSanto and Singer; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Steven Rosenblum, Kevin Stitt and John Wright; music by Michael Kamen; production designer, John Myhre; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Patrick Stewart (Xavier), Ian McKellen (Magneto), Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), James Marsden (Cyclops), Halle Berry (Storm), Anna Paquin (Rogue), Tyler Mane (Sabertooth), Ray Park (Toad), Rebecca Romijn (Mystique), Shawn Ashmore (Bobby Drake) and Bruce Davison (Senator Kelly).


Flushed Away (2006, David Bowers and Sam Fell)

There’s something a bit off about Flushed Away. There’s some lazy storytelling, but I can forgive it since the rats aren’t physiologically accurate anyway and it is really enjoyable to watch–no, it’s something a lot more base. It’s obvious no one really cares. Aardman productions used to have passion by default–they were stop-motion and stop-motion meant a lot of time making things work–Flushed Away is CG and there’s just something off in the storytelling’s adaptation to the technology. I’m not a fan of CG–I’ve gotten better about it, much like I got to be a DVD supporter over laserdisc (I’m forced to out of necessity)–but Flushed Away’s problems aren’t in the literal adaptation. The fiancée thought the film was the traditional Aardman style, so it’s a visual fit, but the laziness hasn’t got anything to do with the technology. It’s the damn story. There are some nice moments to the film, but it’s all really pat. Maybe it’s just because it goes platonic… Maybe I’m pissed because it’s a cheat.

Anyway, there’s something great stuff–the casting is real good, particularly Kate Winslet, which surprised me. She’s willing to have a lot of fun and her character’s good, surprising even. Hugh Jackman plays the foppish rat who ends up in the sewer and he’s fine, but almost impossible to identify with for a lot of the film. Not in a bad way, he’s just the butt of the jokes. Bill Nighy is great as a thug rat, big shock, but Jean Reno is wasted. Not because his character is “Le Frog” (get it?), but because it’s Jean Reno and that casting is supposed to mean something. It doesn’t. He’s just a French guy.

If you do see the film–and I do recommend it, I’ll probably buy it because it is a pleasant diversion–and you notice there are characters missing from the trailer (I guess Aardman found it easier to produce scenes to cut on computer instead of in reality), you’re not alone. In fact, you’re seeing the big problem with Flushed Away. It’s too short (IMDb says eighty-four minutes and I say long credits) and it’s too slight. It’s an exercise in amusement, nothing more.

CREDITS

2/4★★

Directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell; written by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Christopher Lloyd, Joe Keenan and William Davies, based on a story by Fell, Peter Lord, Clement and La Frenais; edited by John Venzon; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, David A.S. James; produced by Cecil Kramer, Lord and David Sproxton; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Roddy), Kate Winslet (Rita), Ian McKellen (the Toad), Jean Reno (le Frog), Bill Nighy (Whitey), Andy Serkis (Spike), Shane Richie (Sid), Kathy Burke (Rita’s Mum), David Suchet (Rita’s Dad) and Miriam Margolyes (Rita’s Grandma).


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