Monthly Archives: January 2011

Pistol Whipped: Part (3) in the Seagal Odyssey

Having started backwards through Seagal’s nigh neverending  filmography I’ve always managed to find a hook, a blip, or an absurdity to cheer me up. All too often I’ve got hung up on  some oblique choice of direction, some incoherent narrative leap, or just the terrifying ineptitude of production. Sometimes the degree of our man’s involvement is a sight to behold, especially in what might loosely be described as ‘action sequences’. More than a few of his films have gone to print being far short of what you might call ‘complete’, and the often numerous short comings are an insight to the pressures of independent film production beyond the arthouses. Barely a rung above the porn industry in terms of budget and artistic integrity, the blunt commercial interests of the direct-to-video sector is just a microcosm of the larger forces at work in any Hollywood production. An uncanny parallel, a dark mirror, just something to put it all in perspective.

Pistol Whipped manages to go one further by spectacularly failing to elicit anything. Pure and undiluted apathy in cinematic form. To say it’s boring would be to credit the film with a form of emotional impact it still falls short of.

Lance Henriksen’s in it. You know, Bishop from Aliens, he’s in absolutely everything these days. At one point you see the camera crew reflected in the very shiny door of a car, and that made me laugh. At another Seagal starts drumming on a car window with his knuckles, brushing dangerously close to improvisation, at least in musical form. A priest turns up a couple of times in a cod-confessional scene to help flesh out Seagal’s character, and we get a bit of exposition too. He gets killed at the end, and that’s a bit of a shame, even if he did seem to have come straight off the set of a 90s Werther’s Originals advert. And coincidentally, it has been widely observed that at no point does anyone in the film get whipped by a pistol. This might very well be the only notable thing in the whole film.

I’ve dragged myself through the film twice, rewatched bits, and that’s the sum of all I can muster in recalling the film. The DVD cover is filled with poker and gambling bits and bobs, which I guess is one way of tapping into a big obvious market. Just Googling this film leaves me with a deluge of ads trying to sign me up to Cool Lonely Manly Solitaire with Built-in Money Loss. Of course there’s not much actual poker in the game. Seagal plays a bit at the beginning and fails spectacularly, which is perhaps ironic considering the man is afflicted with a permanent poker-face. Perhaps the wind changed sharply one morning.

So, Seagal sucks at poker; he accrues a lot of debt; being an effective hitman is  good way of dissolving such fiscal obstacles, and therein a plot. There are sub-plots too, but have a guess as to what they might be and you’re probably right.

I’m tempted to say that Seagal just seems contemptuous of even having to be present in this film, but again that might suggest some undercurrent of tension in the film. Which there isn’t. It’s a complete and utter non-entity. It isn’t even bad. It isn’t anything. The whole thing is just a gaping void. I’m sorry to even have to mention it, let alone dwell on it, but this voyage wouldn’t be complete without it.

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Showing at the Showroom: Blue Valentine

It’s perhaps unjust to damn a film for not exceeding expectations, for just being quite good and not a lot else, but Blue Valentine hits a strange middle ground. It comes at the height of the awards season, and standing alongside other expectant contenders it’s been pinned down as the ‘actors film’. A hard hitting relationship drama, with Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling doing some real emotional heavy-lifting, being brave and going where few other actors dare. And they do, and brilliantly so. But that’s about it.

The crux of the story is a splintered and disjointed tale, following the slow coming together of the unexpectant young parents Dean and Cindy. At the start they’re the very model of a dysfunction, a bouncing young five year old daughter delighting the man-child Dean, the burden of being a grown-up wearing thin on Cindy. The live in a big house, surrounded by beautiful long grass which the morning sun catches nicely. The camera likes staying tight on their faces, the many splinters between the couple writ-large on their every darting glance.

Having left the little Frankie with the gruff grandfather, Dean corrals Cindy into taking up a boozy weekend at a saucy novelty motel, to ‘rediscover that spark’ and find the woman he first fell in love with. A nasty passive-aggressive car drive later and the film takes off on an unclear flight towards rediscovering that love from it’s first instance. Unfulfilled prior relationships come and go, and unlikely re/encounters lead towards a beautifully smoldering kindling of love.

From the grating petulance of his older self earlier in the film Gosling goes into an unremitting charm offensive to win over the coy and reluctant Williams, and effortlessly woos the audience along with her. Having a front seat to an almost bottomless falling in love is a warm and fine thing indeed, and in spite of skirting dangerously close to a mobile phone advert [warm colours, du jour indie soundtrack, a stubbly stud wooing a round cheeked girl with A BLOODY UKELELE] of course you get carried along with it.

All the better having then reached the carefree heights of a love unbounded to the pull the chord towards a spiraling tail-spin of bleakness when the realities and hardships of life get, well, very REAL. Which is when the award-winning performances come to the fore, with the daring and brave sex scenes, the raw-like-onions emotional tussling and rending of hearts and wills. The performances are tremendous, make no mistake, and in their strongest (often drunken) moments the film brings to mind the fraught feelings and jangling genuine anger/love of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Yet despite its’ best efforts, Blue Valentine just hasn’t quite got the same painful edge.

To say it almost feels engineered to bait American critics is to paint the film as cynical. Which it isn’t, but by dint of it’s approach it manages to tick a slew of awards worthy boxes. Which isn’t to say it’s pedestrian either. It’s gripping, involving and tremendous in it’s way, but having long left the cinema the film just hasn’t stuck with me beyond the moment itself.

In isolation the constituent parts of the film: the acting, the cinematography, the soundtrack, are all superb and more than worthy of all the prizes and plaudits you care to heap on it. It’s just by some unholy logic that the sum of said parts don’t quite match that same standard.

Three out of Five

Blue Valentine is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 14th of January 2011.

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Showing at the Showroom: The King’s Speech

Perhaps wary of stick-waving, royalist-poking republicans everywhere, The King’s Speech is almost a little desperate to win over any audience that comes across it. You WILL get behind the unproven hero, and whatever your allegiance, lords knows you WILL be rooting for him come the final act. In the simplest terms the film is Rocky recast in a royal mould, with all the pent-up British decorum that might suggest. It’s thoroughly enjoyable for it too.

The underdog is the unassuming Albert, Prince of York (Colin Firth), and the film is his path to succeeding the Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) and becoming the Reluctant King George VI. His struggle is with himself, battling a debilitating stutter which neuters him in the one demand of a royal, that of the public speaker. He was never meant to be a contender, swiftly consigned to the sidelines from birth, the knock-kneed, tongue-tied younger brother had steeled himself for a life outside the spotlight. Not that occasion didn’t demand of him to speak publicly, and the opening scene of the film sees Albert failing to address both an attendant Wembley stadium, and a nation of listeners on the wireless. Ushered in by the King’s finest English, a waiting nation is left hanging in silence, Albert humiliated, unable to even trip over a single word.

Having given up on the prospect of curing his affliction, ‘Bertie’s’ patient and supportive wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) corrals him into trying one last Doctor, whose ‘unorthodox’ approach had a good record of success. Descending into the bowels of Harvey street they meet the gauche Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who’s at no pains for airs and graces around the royals.

The initial session starts with an awkward bickering between a jovial therapist and prickily prince, the question of ‘how -do- I address you?’ opening up the formal and psychological minefield that the two of them spend the rest of the film trying to traverse. It’s not a million miles away from the therapy couch sessions of the equally guarded and overblown Tony Soprano; both subjects in desperate need of therapy, but outwardly set against the idea at every turn. The film skirts past the threat of overt psychoanalysis, as Bertie insists it’s a mere ‘physical affliction’ and that it should be treated as such. The coach (and the audience) obviously knows better, but our champ has to get in the comfort zone if he’s going to win the bout conquer his condition.

Of course, with the unwitting regent-to-be there’s the added tension of how Logue can interact with him on even the simplest of physical planes. The blocking of scenes is something you shouldn’t be too conscious of when watching a film, but the slow unstiffening of protocol, the opening of personal space is a nicely subtle way in which the drama plays out. As the Rocky has to learn to raise his guard (and slip the jab) so Bertie has to learn to drop his.

There’s initial doubt, the sudden epiphany, a training montage, an early victory, the inevitable rejection and push for independence, and the desperate and grovelling return to the mentor. Where the kernel of the story is drawn from historical details, the grand narrative arc is straight out of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and there’s something shamelessly enjoyable in seeing an underdog overcoming adversity and winning through in the end.

Having become the king, and following the nation into war Edward VI manages to lurch his way through a rousing speech to an uncertain nation. For all the grandstanding, the new found pomp carefully undermined with a human touch, the film goes all out to convince you Edward alone practically won the war before it had really begun. And the most embittered republicans aside, it’s very easy to get swept in the swoon of it, and no shame for that.

Many a voice online has been keen to echo this film as ‘one of those Sunday afternoon’ films. A DVD for the parents for Christmas. A safe bet. Could have been made for TV.

But that’s to do the film a disservice, and for all the film’s period trappings and royalist clappings, the heavyweight cast all pitch above average in trying to win you over and get you behind Team Bertie. The film is shot with a slight flair, the struggle (internal and external) played out more in personal space and in strangely conflicting shot-reverse-shot sequences. It’s a treat in more ways that one, and worthy of more than just your distracted ITV-matinee attention.

Four out of Five

The King’s Speech is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 7th of January 2011.

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