Thursday, 18 October 2007

The Kingdom; when you suddenly realise that you've got hundreds of bullets to use up

With a title like The Kingdom, I'm fighting to avoid openings like "It's good to be the King" and with the credit sequence I had the terrible temptation to say "Oil be back."

The Kingdom wants to be a much more serious film than that. Which is probably why it's a bit all over the place. The one real pleasure is Chris Cooper. A while back I watched Chris playing the worst traitor in FBI history. I thought he deserved an Oscar for playing a role which didn't make any sense and at least making me buy it while it was happening. He doesn't have anything like as much to do in this movie, but Chris Cooper is always value for money. There's a moment near the end when our battered heroes are heading home and the camera moves from one face to the next, close in to the eyes. Jamie Foxx looks like he always does - as if just before they took the shot, Michael Mann had to tell him his profit points were going to be cut. Jason Bateman - well, to be honest, he's not that interesting to look at in the first place and going in close doesn't help that any. Jennifer Garner - well, she's been criminally under used up to now, so I wasn't expecting much. Then the camera moves to Cooper and without even blinking, Chris' face tells the audience that it's been a bad day and there wasn't even that much point to it. I wish I knew how a good character actor can do that, but it's worth watching even when you don't know.

The Kingdom opens with a didactic credit sequence which explains recent Saudi history for the under fives. Michael Moore would probably have said "MMMM. I don't want to go quite that far over the top this early." Michael Moore, mind you, wouldn't have stumped up for all the fancy transition effects, but I also don't think he would have been quite so unsubtle in trying to hammer home the link between religious nutjobs in Saudia and planes flying into New York landmarks. Hey ho, there you go, the audience is primed. So we cut to the premise. Terrorists attack a random Western housing compound. With way too much bait and switch and organisation. First two terrorists go in shooting, then another one dressed as a cop blows himself up while telling panicked Americans to come towards him for safety. Then we see the first responders getting blown to bits with a third bomb set up for hours later.

In real life, no working terrorist group is remotely that well set up, but this is the movies. Except that it's going to so much trouble to try to make us believe that this is a gritty realistic depiction of the realities of the Kingdom. And this problem keeps running through the film - on the one hand, it's trying to be downbeat and realistic, and then it salts in ridiculous action scenes and coincidences.

Speed up, then slow down. Having blown everything up, the film slows to a crawl as the FBI try to get a team into Saudia to investigate the crime. Jamie Foxx essentially blackmails the Saudis into it. Of course we've been shown why they need the help; we're shown the head of the Saudi National Guard having one of the surviving Saudi police tortured to get a confession. Plainly, what they need is good old American know how.

And in come our heroes. But there's only four of them, and they're given so little access to the crime scene that they couldn't possibly find out anything unless it was so obvious that even the dumb Saudi plods would have to trip over it. And for an hour or so they stumble over clues and connections too glaring for anyone to miss, before getting sent back out of the country by a panicked State Department. And they get to respect their Saudi opposite number, who is one of the few three dimensional characters in the movie. I don't mean he's particularly convincing, but at least it all hangs together. He's a fundamentally sound product of his culture and he makes sense as a person. What he does at the end of the movie is completely consistent with what he did at the beginning. He's recognisably the same guy, albeit too good to be true. Anyhow, they find one cell and the Embassy rushes them out before they can find anything else.

This is where the title of this post comes in. On their way to the airport, they get attacked by the terrorists (duh? This NEVER happens in real life). And it's great fun, in a random bang bang sort of way. One of them gets snatched by the bad guys and the three others and their two Saudi minders go after the snatchers amid a magnificent expenditure of ammunition. I didn't even try to count how many Saudi extremists got killed. The good guys get their hair mussed a little, hardly surprising given that they have four or five RPGs fired at them and bunch of hand grenades and, oh yes, they're out in the open hiding behind cars while people firing from inside cement buildings hose them down with AKs. Saudi extremists, however, seem to get their training in the same place that Imperial stormtroopers do, and they're handily outshot by four forensics specialists using borrowed guns. Not that the FBI seems to be too hot on fire discipline. It's indiscriminate automatic weapons fire on all sides. Well, most sides. Chris Cooper's character has been the one grown up in the piece from the get go, and he's also the one who uses single aimed shots. Somehow that makes perfect sense.

It's a very Bad BoysPoint Break Hot Fuzz kind of shoot out and it completely undercuts the tone of the rest of the movie. The rest of the movie is trying to be about political and moral ambiguity and accountability. But it can't establish much traction against this noise level. And to be brutal about it, it can't do much with the actors it's got.

I don't quite understand what it is that Jamie Foxx thinks he's doing these days, but in this film he's like the non-acting body double for Denzel Washington. You don't see it as much these days as you did in the old times, but there used to be a hollywood job called "stand in". You got a guy about the height and build and complexion of your star and when you were putting together a shot in the hot sunshine or the hot lights, that guy would stand there and fill in the right amount of space until you got the lighting right. If there was a need for actual performance, you got the actor out of his trailer. I'm beginning to think that Foxx is Washington's stand in, except they keep forgetting to get Washington out of the trailer. Jason Bateman; if he was trying to play an annoying person who you'd actually want to see having his head cut off; perfect casting. Otherwise, I don't know what he was there for except to further diffuse the focus of the film. Jennifer Garner; I don't know if she's a good actress, but I do know that she's got charisma to burn and can carry a scene when you ask her to. In this, it's like someone said, "Oh, and we'll need a chick. Send out for someone." She's just not given enough to do. Or, really, anything to do. The one American actor who gets in some good work is Cooper - and I suspect it's because he's used to having to get a lot done with a bit part.

The Arabs come out of it better. The two most sympathetic Arab characters are well played, and the bit parts are picked up by the Arab "that guys" we've seen a hundred times before. They phone it in, but they phone it in well enough for what's going on around them and they give you a sense of a Saudia which isn't quite a cartoon.

I was curious as all hell as to where it was all filmed. It couldn't have been Saudia, because cinema isn't even legal there. Turned out to be a mixture of Kuwait and Arizona. I'm betting the second unit did all the work in Kuwait as exteriors and car chases and establishing shots and the principal cast stayed in Arizona. But that's not why the whole film rings false.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Daywatch; because if you can make one mad horror film set in Moscow, there's no reason to stop there

If you've never seen Nightwatch, look away now. What follows isn't going to make a button of sense. But if you've never seen Nightwatch, maybe you shouldn't be reading this blog anyhow.

Of course, the title of this post is completely misleading. Nightwatch and Daywatch aren't even horror films in any modern sense. No-one gets eviscerated with a scythe or has a foetus torn out of them or any of those cool things you see in hip modern American horror films. I am reminded of a wonderful deadpan Tom Lehrer line (again, if the reference means nothing to you, you're in the wrong place. Nothing to see here. Move on. Go play in Facebook) "My friends in the DJ business, of which I have none...." Thus me and modern horror; I accept, rather numbly, that American horror exists, but I'm waiting for it to go away.

Nothing horrible happens at all in Daywatch. You could argue that a couple of horrible things did happen in Nightwatch, but that's outside my remit this evening; I'm just here to waffle briefly to the effect that Daywatch is rather cool, and to make a case for the notion that what's coolest about both movies is that they're from a different planet.

The set-up is simple; good and evil aren't just real, but a pair of going concerns who long ago reached a modus vivendi rather than risk breaking the whole world by having fight to the finish. Each side polices the other to ensure that it doesn't interfere too much with the mundane world or try to get the drop on the other side. The Nightwatch are the good policemen keeping any eye on the forces of Evil and the Daywatch are the bad guys keeping an eye on the forces of good. You can imagine how Hollywood would do it - just think of everything you've ever seen from the first James Bond movies to Men in Black.

The team behind Nightwatch and Daywatch have a slightly different take on it. The forces of good hang out at the Moscow Light and Power company and they're visibly broke. Everyone is wearing hand-me-downs. All their kit looks like it was recovered after a not quite disastrous fire. It looks like it ought to be held together with duct tape, except that in Russia, apparently there is no duct tape. The forces of evil seem to have more resources, but they have no taste. Everything is tacky. Their headquarters seems to be one of Russia's phone companies, and they have lots of good technology which they mostly use to play computer games (throughout Nightwatch, the leader of the forces of evil, Zavulon spends a huge amount of time practicing on a Playstation for his show down with the forces of good). So good and evil are clearly differentiated. Good dress like impoverished charity workers. Evil dress like chavs with lots of money but no access to anything made outside the Soviet Union. Wonderful notion.

The thing is, they're not doing this to be awkward, but because there's a coherent vision underpinning the whole enterprise. This is what happens when you adapt a series of books with a fanatical fanbase. Not because of the fans telling you what to do, I think, but because the books are so popular in the Russian market that the films could be made without worrying too much about how they'd play anywhere else. You can't please everyone. But if you know who you want to please and what might make them happy, you've got a pretty good shot at getting it right.

They get it right. I suspect that only Russians can completely get what's going on. The actors - particularly the supporting cast - are so good at underplaying their roles that I assume they're the Russian versions of John Heard and William Fichtner and all the other "that guys" who prop up movies in the US. But I suspect that it's even savvier than that - I'm willing to bet that the actor who plays Zavulon was deliberately chosen because it's not the kind of role he usually plays. There's no way for outsiders to know how that kind of thing hangs together. It has to be enough to know from all the other little things that that's what's going on.

Anyhow, it's all huge fun. There isn't anything horrifying at all, but there's plenty of stuff which is scary - because they've made the characters so earthy and grounded and fun that they seem real despite the preposterous background that when they're put into jeopardy it matters to you. And this doesn't stop them from playing a lot of the film for laughs; in a desperate ploy to save the main character, he swaps bodies with a woman - only to find that he's stuck in a car with the woman he's in love with who wants to talk all about what's wrong with him.

There are so many little things which are fun. It's in Russian, with subtitles. And the subtitles change colour and move around and reverberate in counterpoint to the action (this was done wonderfully in the first film, where vampires coax a small child out of a pool; their thoughts are shown as red subtitles, dissolving in the water). The closing credits are done on illuminated bill boards around Moscow as some of the supporting cast drive around at night. And the stunts are weirdly out of synch with the plot. In a conventional Hollywood movie, the big stunts build up the star and bolster the climax. In Daywatch, the biggest stunt is a Mazda RX-8 being driven up and around the facade of a vast hotel before popping through the window and revving down the corridor and through about nine doors into an office. The only reason for any of it is so that one supporting character can step out of the car and deliver some news to Zavulon; news he already knows. It's a great, completely unnecessary scene. God knows what it cost, even as CGI. And it doesn't do a damn thing to drive the plot or anything else. It does give a great scene closing gag, but that's it. At the end of the movie, when everything is coming to climax and the whole world - we suddenly realise - is on the line - there's way less in the line of eye candy.

It's a fun mad movie. It's already made all its money back in Russia, so it's not like anyone needs the money if you go - but you need the fun.

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton is the kind of film about which I usually stay silent, because it's a high quality understated thriller with good performances and nothing that I can point a finger at and mock. Where's the fun in these unsolicited - and pretty much unread - reviews if the project's all high quality and worthy? So generally, even when I go to something which will improve my mind and morals, I'm considerate enough of my non-existent audience that I keep quiet about it.

For this, I will make an exception, because it's not so very often that a film leaves me reflecting on my own personal situation. This is no doubt because - so far as I know - no-one's put any money into making a movie about a sarcastic bureaucrat with a bad leg who leads a humdrum life with no real challenges. And if they did, I wouldn't go to that movie, because I go to the movies to get away from my humdrum life, not revisit it at vast personal expense. Generally, I expect Hollywood to blow stuff up for me so that I can hoot and chuckle. Nothing like that happens in my day to day life any more.

Why single Michael Clayton out? Well, it's got one scene stealing performance from Tom Wilkinson, who gets to play the only character in the film with any morality. Gosh, it must have been hard to get an actor willing to play a character with bipolar disorder who has an epiphany, becomes a crusader for good and is then martyred for his troubles. Anyhow, the casting directors were equal to the challenge, and Wilkinson, all snarkiness aside, is more than equal to the role. What interested me more was Clooney, playing the eponymous Michael Clayton (I should say that I do not plan to use the word eponymous in every single post I make from now on, it's just working out that way). Michael Clayton is a fixer for a large law firm. When something has gone wrong which can't be litigated away, Clayton's sent in to find a way to make it go away by other means. So when one of the firm's star litigators goes mad, of course it's Clayton they call to make the problem go away. And from the outset, we're given to understand that Clayton is a mysterious miracle worker who inspires awe all around him. As the film goes on, we see he's a very flawed man whose personal integrity is a distant memory and who inspires unease rather than awe in most of the people he works with.

The film is shown mostly as a flashback - it starts near the end of the story, then shoots back in time to show what happened, and then ends by showing what happened next. And it does occur to me that as I'm typing this that there's probably a first draft screenplay out there where George doesn't get out alive - where the bomb that blows up his car ten minutes into the movie goes off while he's still in it, rather than fortuitously when he gets out. Everything which happens in the last ten minutes of the movie is somehow out of tone with what's gone before; a bit too pat, a bit too brightly lit. I find myself wondering if they reshot at the end to cheer things up after focus groups told them the ending was too downbeat.

So for, so what. The neat bit is watching George Clooney, who underplays everything and really underplays this, show a man gradually and believably waking up to his own worthlessness. This is no small thing to do - it's the stuff of the great tragic dramas, and it's arguably a bit of a stretch for someone like Clooney, who's got so much sheer charisma he doesn't really need to act if it doesn't fit in with his schedule of endorsements for Nescafe and Fiat and Armani and starving people in Darfur. But act he does. And it's the kind of performance which underlines the difference between acting for the stage and acting for cinema. In cinema, the camera can get in so close and stay on you for so long that the tiniest movements of the face can tell the audience everything they want to know. In Ocean's 13, you can watch Clooney stealing scene after scene with a shrug and a grimace at whatever piece of idiocy has just unfolded. In Michael Clayton, you can see him do even more with even less. It's wonderful stuff.

We see him for the first time doing his stuff for a drunken driver - and he seems disinterested, almost contemptuous. But we've been told he's a miracle worker; why is he so off hand, so disdainful of his customer? Maybe it's just a bad day. Then we go back to four days in the past, and by the time we see that "first" encounter again we've seen the thousand tiny winces of regret and self disgust flit across Clooney's face as he confronts the reality of what he does and what he's become in the course of doing it. And everything falls into place.

Which is where Hollywood coincides with reality. Because for a while now I've been asking myself why it should be that I seem to be happier - and more the sort of person I always wanted to be - in this job than I ever was in my last job. The work I do now is intellectually undemanding, humdrum and unglamorous. The work I did before was demanding, high profile, and glamorous. I knew exactly what I was doing and how do it well and I was taken seriously by people who arguably should have known much better. People in my old line of work show up with speaking parts in movies all the time. For God's sake, Ralph Fiennes has played someone with my old job title. So why am I happier now than I was before?

Because these days, I don't have to sell out anything just to get through the working day. I don't have to accept each day that the cost of getting even a little of what's right is to give up most of it and pretend it was never right to begin with. I don't have to pretend to like people who ought, in a just world, to be chased out of town by large and hungry dogs. And I don't have to spend any of my time trying to cook up justifications for things which should never have been done. Things for which the only truthful excuse was, "We had to do it because we were scared of what would happen if we did the right thing." No more of that. And no-one even had to blow up the Mercedes I've never owned.