A Little Chaos

A Little Chaos (dir. Rickman, wr. Brock/Deegan/Rickman)

It’s worth it just for one last glimpse of Alan Rickman in full uncomfortable sneer, the pained uncle, so wounded and so wise… And it’s worth it for some other stuff too, including a Winslet somehow more mature, and some truly beautiful images from Rickman as director.

But there’s a sense that – like its late lamented director – the script of A Little Chaos could have given us so much more. Having decided for dramatic purposes to get so chaotic with the truth – in reality Le Notre the head gardener was decades older than the King, not t’other way round, and Winslet’s radical female gardener simply didn’t exist – the writers don’t take much creative advantage.

Perhaps lacking confidence in any of the strands, they try to throw in too much that remains undeveloped: the back-story of Winslet’s family is worthily sad, but neither necessary nor developed into any explanation of her relationship to natural forces; supplanted mistress Jennifer Ehle’s semi-secret court of wounded women is a surprising, haunting and beautiful moment, but basically a digression; Stanley Tucci is wasted; a couple of pat metaphors aside, the tension between order and chaos doesn’t go anywhere.

Structurally, Rickman the writer-director has made Rickman the actor part of the problem. Because from the opening scene we see the fragile warmth behind the monarchical mask – and because it’s Alan Rickman and everyone knows that Professor Snape always secretly cares – he can’t carry the kind of threat required of the capricious absolute ruler. If the King was still a distant authority, his scene with Winslet and the pear tree would be a moment of revelation and transformation; instead it’s just pleasant and a bit poignant. And by then, there’s no chance that he’s going to be anything other than indulgent of the apparent hiccough of the waterlogged garden.

There’s a similar lost opportunity around Schoenaerts. His Le Notre doesn’t develop at all. He’s a bit snooty in his first scene, but after that he’s just sort of romantically moody. The potential conflict and tension between a (much more) austere, order-obsessed Le Notre and a (more) wild and wilful Winslet is never realized. Because Madame Le Notre is such a horror, and promiscuous, and already signed up to an open relationship, there’s no practical or moral obstacle to Schoenaerts and Winslet leaping into the shrubbery. There’s no tension, and no sense of achievement.

(And they don’t even leap into the shrubbery. All that mud, and all that luscious fruit, and they finally get it on indoors, which seems rather a waste – as well as a defusing of the little passion there was.)

Pruned (sorry) and chopped around a bit, the script would have more energy and grip. If Schoenaerts was really uncomfortable about Winslet’s garden planning, and about the idea of betraying his wife, Winslet and the story would have something to aim at and work on. If Rickman seemed capable of ruining lives by banishment from employment in his Eden, the risks and tensions would have consequences and impact. Say Schoenaerts is still uncertain, about the funky horticulture and about Winslet, when the more perceptive Mrs Le Notre ruins the garden to forestall the threat of losing her husband; Schoenaerts and Winslet then have their moment of near-death near-passion in the tempest; Jennifer Ehle’s boudoir then becomes a place of real refuge, from a very grumpy King and from the unknown result of the passion; the nicely-staged Mexican stand-off between the wounded ladies and the King’s posse can then be a moment of real resolution – what if that’s the moment when she realizes that the King who could be about to ruin her is the same mysterious figure she met under the pear tree? – when Winslet’s spirit and argument must convince the King, and when Schoenaerts must decide to follow his heart and speak up for her.

Instead Rickman denies himself a fitting farewell, and we’re left wanting what might have been.

Jason Bourne

Jason Bourne (dir. Greengrass, wr. Greengrass & Rouse)

A confession: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all the Jason Bourne films, but I can’t distinguish any of them now. To be honest, I thought I’d already seen one where Vincent Cassel was the baddie. (Maybe that was one of the Ocean’ses, which also rather blur.)

There’s usually Damon, and an intense-hippy girl, and a car chase around a European city, and other assassins, and Revelations about Damon’s mysterious past, and some high-level Government type trying to bring him in or work him out or kill him. It’s all professionally done, and moody, and at the end Damon more or less comes out on top, but let’s face it there aren’t any real winners in the international assassination game, are there?

So here we are again. Jason Bourne: a tense, vaguely intelligent dose of international espionage procedural, breathless action and millennial angst. And an hour after the credits I’m starting to forget chunks of it. Like an international assassin who’s seen too much.

It’s all well done: a strong cast and high end production values, all skillfully handled. (Though the problem with Greengrass’s trademark dizzy action is that half the time you don’t know what’s going on. There’s a general sense of confusion, which is presumably the point. But it’s hard to care if you don’t know what to care about; and it’s rather a shame to throw all that money at a car chase, but not to give a strong idea of who’s chasing whom, or more than a general impression of a dodgem ride in darkness.)

Much has been made of how few lines Damon speaks; it’s tight, effective writing. But the general uncertainty about his character – his numb remorseless endurance as yet another bit of Government sneakiness bounces off him – makes him a blank reflecting no more than a general sense of paranoia and nihilism.

(And in trying to have its cake and eat it, the film ends up with neither: we get glimmerings of a potentially interesting idea that Damon and Cassel are in the same predicament, victims of the times/the Man/the unbearable melancholy of existence; but by making Cassel part of the villainy in Damon’s past, and making him the climactic fight rather than uber-cynic Tommy Lee Jones, the film strains at the last for a bit of goodie v. baddie exuberance that the mood can’t support.)

And so to the over-extended postscript, with Alicia Vikander the fastest-promoted probationer in history, setting up for next time the same plot all over again. We’ve seen it before, and it’s getting harder to care. The 21st Century may be this bleak, but at least leave us a bit of entertainment on the screen.

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies (dir. Spielberg, wr. Charman & Coen)

Steven Spielberg is getting awfully stately. He’s always been family-friendly, but there used to be an energy, a bit of sass about him. Now the challenge to authority is no more than Tom Hanks being a bit smarter than the Government men, and the whole thing is played at an unchanging ceremonial pace at least as reverential as Lincoln.

This is Cold War thriller become costume drama. Despite the genuinely tense storyline, and some normally bullet-proof anxiety scenes (crossing the wall! waiting on the bridge!), not once does the pulse get above what you’d get from watching the documentary.

It’s an extraordinary true story with the extraordinary taken out. And the interesting: there’s some potentially really thoughtful stuff about Hank’s relationship with Rylance, and where patriotism might be when American interests clash with American values, and what he’s inflicting on his family by his stubbornness – but none of it comes to anything. Hanks attracts danger (more in America than in Germany) and shame, but then his family gets to see him on TV so it’s all ok.

Risen

(Risen, dir. Reynolds, screenplay Reynolds&Aiello)

It’s a film of two halves: a rise, indeed, and then unfortunately a fall. The first half is brilliant: a credibly gritty look at Roman Empire frontier life, a fresh angle on the troublesome Jesu and his followers, and a strong story thrust as Tribune Joseph Fiennes’s investigation of a missing body in a time of political complexity and tension starts to get into some really intriguing issues of colonialism, radicalism, and belief. Fiennes is excellent, and the rest of the cast is helpfully unstarry – and, amazingly, look like they might actually have lived in that part of the world. Scenes with Mary Magdalene, Bartholomew, and the terrified fugitive legionary who witnessed the resurrection successfully humanize and refresh things over-familiar and over-reverenced.

And then… he’s risen. And immediately the film falls into a bit of made-for-TV holiness that feels like it’s been paid for by a local Church group. Crucially, the perspective shifts from the Roman point of view, sceptical or neutral, to a clearly Christian sober ecstasy: a couple of miracles-to-order and some nice skies and kumbaya. Which may be the Truth, but we’ve seen it all before, and we badly miss the intelligence and uncertainty of the first half.

Always looking on the bright side of life already seemed ridiculous and naive when the Pythons covered this ground. Reynolds and co. would have been better stretching the first half of Risen out for the whole film. The challenging, uncomfortable, disruptive power of strong belief is a much more important story for a 21st century audience, and a much more powerful film.

About Time

About Time (w.& d. Richard Curtis)

Gosh; what a mess.

I should say that I’ve been a shameless enjoyer of Richard Curtis films. First 20 minutes of Four Weddings – probably the funniest bit of sustained comedy in twenty years of films; Notting Hill perhaps slightly less funny, but a better film (had plot and Julia Roberts); loved Love Actually.

This doesn’t come close. In fact, it makes you realize weaknesses about Curtis that in previous films were covered by the comedy and the likeability: principally, a lack of confidence in any one character or storyline, an unwillingness to trust them to carry the film. Which is why Four Weddings is a set of vignettes with some running gags and one very loose linking story, and why Love Actually is basically a variety show. And why he feels he needs to rely on a voice-over, here spectacularly dumb (“We’d get the train” over picture of speeding train; this is cinema for three year-olds).

Here the one set of characters are in a linear (if bouncing back and forth a bit) plot – and he doesn’t know what to do with them. Time travel films are fun because the superficial appeal is immediately overtaken by the unpredictable side-effects, which then have to be resolved – the Back to the Futures etc. Repeatability means the ability to learn and improve when faced with a challenge – Source Code, Edge of Tomorrow – and to get new perspectives and information.

About Time lasts an hour: that’s how long it takes boy to use his powers to overcome the obstacles to being with girl. End of film, really, except there’s then another hour of a series of episodes in which he uses time travel to solve other minor problems. (Simply swapping the two halves would at least give more of a sense of progress and climax.) Where unforeseen side-effects crop up, he immediately goes back and solves them. There’s never any sense of difficulty or tension.

The Rom is just sort of pleasantly there, without drama. And there’s basically no Com, just some low-level Curtis-upper-middle-class-banter. (I like Domhnall Gleeson; but Curtis has written a script for Hugh and not for Domhnall.) Tom Hollander: wasted. Richards Griffiths and E.Grant: utterly wasted. How can a scene with those two not be funny? And as it’s not funny, what’s it doing there? Along with up to 30 other minutes of the 120.

The film does slip in two meaningful and moving thoughts at the end. But the issue about the final loss of his father feels like an add-on when there’s been no challenge or tension with that earlier (and there’s the uneasy sense that the film can’t decide whether it’s in love with Bill Nighy or with Rachel McAdams); and so does the pleasant bit of facebook mindfulness about approaching each day as if you were reliving its most positive energies. Either theme could have carried a thoughtful and moving film; this is neither.

Legend

(Legend, director/writer Brian Helgeland*)

Could have been interesting, but instead it’s almost remarkably bad, thanks mainly to the script.

Even the rather nauseating soft ride the Krays get – Reggie is a bit of a rogue, Ronnie is an amusing freak – could have been overcome, but not with a voice-over that’s more criminal than anything they do in the film. The voice-over’s flawed because it exists at all, and particularly flawed because it’s so lame: an endless and pointless series of truisms about gangster life, bland bits of narrative of things we’re about to see, and irritating descriptions of things that would have been far better shown. Some of the key bits of drama and emotion, particularly for Frances herself, are lost because they’re narrated.

Frustratingly, there are three or four interesting films available here: from Reggie’s point of view, coming close to a kind of redemption through Frances but blowing it because of his own nature and his loopy brother; more clearly from Frances’s point of view, coming to understand and eventually react against Reggie; or picking up a particularly fatuous bit of voiceover – the idea that the aristocrats and the gangsters have much in common – that would have been much better as storyline; or even, along the same lines, the similarities between the police and the gangsters, here flagged up in the brief exchange between Reggie and Inspector ‘Nipper’ Read and then ignored. (How you can put Christopher Eccleston into such a juicy part and then completely forget him for all but a couple of bits of secondary plot point?) In the end it’s nothing but a mildly entertaining if not-too-much-of-a-stretch outing for Tom Hardy, and it could have been so much more.

* Yes! The one who did L.A.Confidential. This is not that.

Mortdecai

(Mortdecai, dir. Koepp, script Aronson)
Wow, it really is as bad as they said. Not even silly funny. Just witless and pointless, a car crash in slow-motion – and that slowness is significant. Annoyingly, it could have been really enjoyable: it’s a great cast, with money to throw around ($60 million, apparently), and a theme that should always be good for some lightweight suspense and twists. It could have been a caper. It could even have been a romp.
But they forgot to pack a script. Johnny Depp’s got a lot of criticism for the film, part of the wider whatever-happened-to-the-great-Depp thing, but he’s actually good. Channelling Terry-Thomas, he’s spry, energetic, absorbed in the character and willing to make a fool of himself, while managing to keep the vain feckless Mortdecai likeable. The problem is the drivel he has to speak. He needs to be screwball; he needs to sparkle. Instead he’s ponderous. He could get away with pompous if the stuff around him – action, other lines – were sharp enough to puncture the pomposity and keep things moving. It isn’t. The lines are turgid and constipated, and it’s painful to watch.
Mortdecai does a voice-over. As almost always, it’s a huge mistake. It does absolutely nothing except give Depp more time to do his funny voice. Fatally, it narrates what we see. (Hint: film is supposed to be a visual medium.) So Mortdecai tells us about his return home, the trouble with his debts, and the trouble he’s going to have with his wife over his new moustache. And we see him arriving home, and having a conversation with his wife about his debts, and her reacting badly to the moustache. Those lines of voice-over are valuable moments of life that we’re not getting back again, and more importantly they kill the dialogue that follows. Rather than one bit of sparkle we get two bits of dull. Do a voice-over if you need to challenge what’s on screen. Do a voice-over if you can’t show the earthquake or can’t show the passing of the years, and can’t think of another way to represent them visually. If Depp is insisting on doing his funny voice, do a voice-over in which Mortdecai brags about his status and how much of a turn-on the new moustache is, and then have Gwyneth Paltrow given him the gas bill and the cold shoulder.
The script’s flabby sentence-by-sentence. It’s also flabby scene-by-scene. Too many unnecessary flashbacks, which don’t give us anything new. Too many unnecessary baddies, who don’t develop or do much.
We start with a ponderous introduction of Mortdecai and the inscrutable oriental baddies, incorporating an unrelated and lame disagreement. We have voice-over to announce the homecoming and the whole debts-and-moustache business, then replayed. We have a voice-over and flashback to introduce manservant Jock’s unquenchable libido. We have a voice-over and flashsideways to present the murder and theft that launch the main plot. We have a MI5 man Ewan Macgregor at the crime scene (where we’ll return), and then a voice-over about his attitude to Lady Mortdecai. Then we go to the Mortdecai home with him – and we get a bit more voice-over to explain the tension between the two that we’re seeing on screen – so that he can re-describe the murder that we’ve just seen.
Alternatively, why not open with a more blatant scam by Mortdecai, from which he has to flee more desperately? If we have to introduce Jock’s libido (which would be funnier if it was completely unspoken), why not have him rescue Mortdecai while himself having been caught in flagrante with baddie’s mistress, increasing the chaos and vengefulness of the scene? Why not give Mortdecai just a few seconds at home with Lady Gwyneth for her to scream at his moustache and complain about their poverty, before Macgregor is outside with sirens wailing. There’s far more energy in the scene if Mortdecai thinks he’s being pinched for his latest scam, Lady M. is still coming at him for the moustache and taking pictures off the wall to sell, and the MI5 man is drooling at her while trying to dragoon her husband. And let Macgregor, who gets too little to do, actually act all that rather than having to pick up the fag-ends of what Mortdecai has already narrated. Rather than being a series of laboured scenes, that lot becomes lively background for Macgregor introducing the murder to us all.
Bringing the story strands together – rather than letting them wander off down side-tracks – reinforces the momentum of the plot, increases the sense of mayhem, and gives more chance for the characters to collide. Why not have Mortdecai’s victim/Jock’s cuckold in that introduction be the Duke who ends up crucial to the hunt for the painting? What’s that going to do to the dynamism of the scene when they have to go back there? Don’t divide and weaken the thrust of the plot; multiply and reinforce it.