Sunday 29 March 2015

Wolf Hall by Mantel & Straughan

I blog so much about American drama series — and I was just about to write about another one — that it is only fair to acknowledge the first British TV drama I've seen in years which seems emphatically worth celebrating.

Wolf Hall is a novel about Tudor England written by Hilary Mantel. I first began to feel kindly disposed towards Ms Mantel when she won the Booker Prize for fiction and they asked her what she was going to do with the prize money. "Spend it on sex and drugs and rock and roll," said Hilary.

Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall was published to a similar level of acclaim and now the two novels have been adapted for television (under the title of the first one), directed by Peter Kosminsky with scripts by Peter Straughan, a very gifted British screenwriter who was also responsible for the magnificent film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, co-written with his late wife Bridget O'Connor.

Wolf Hall is like a medieval version of The Godfather. Lit only by natural light — which in this period means daylight or candles — the enveloping shadows suggest the encroaching conspiracies that surround the throne. (The impressive cinematography is by Gavin Finney.) 

It tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's political fixer. Cromwell is generally regarded by history as a bad guy. Notably in Robert Bolt's brilliant play A Man for All Seasons, Cromwell is the heavy and Thomas More is virtually a saint.

Wolf Hall sets that record straight, showing Cromwell from a new perspective, and revealing startling facts about the unsavoury More – like him having captives brutally tortured under his own roof (presumably to save him the chore of commuting). Cromwell is played with quiet precision by Mark Rylance, More is Anton Lesser and Henry  VIII is Damian Lewis, whom I just finished praising for his acting in Homeland.

Mention must also be made of Claire Foy, who pulls off the profoundly impressive trick of being despicable and loathsome as Anne Boleyn while she is solidifying her position in the power structure, and then becoming heartbreaking and tragic when she is sent to her death.

A quality production all the way. But don't worry. Next week I'll be talking about American television again.

(Image credits:  The poster of Rylance's face is from Sharing Series. Damian Lewis as Henry and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn are from Live for Films. The Blu-ray cover is from Amazon.)

Sunday 22 March 2015

Kingsman by Goldman, Vaughn and Millar

Mark Millar is a prolific and successful writer of comics, an impressive number of which have been adapted into films. 

His work (with John Romita) was the basis for Kick Ass, which was a lot of fun, while his work with J.G. Jones was adapted as Wanted, which proved to be a thundering dud. Now his comic The Secret Service, illustrated by the great Dave Gibbon, hits the screen as Kingsman, which is deliriously good.

I must warn you, though, that it is an incredibly violent film: Colin Firth slaughters an entire church full of loathsome fundamentalists to the strains of 'Free Bird'. 

It is also, very, very funny. I was hooked on it from the (violent) opening sequence. Director Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman have actually managed to pull off a 21st Century spy thriller in the vein of a classic James Bond fantasy movie. (They were the team behind Kick Ass, too.)

The film is also rooted in reality, thanks to the neat narrative conceit of enlisting a young working class hoodlum into the elite cadre of posh spies. This is Eggsy, played by Welsh actor Taron Egerton. Eggsy is an engaging character. Pursued by the cops with his friends while joyriding in a stolen car, he crashes the vehicle and gets caught rather than running over a fox and getting away clean. His friend in the back seat reprimands him. "It was vermin, bruv. You should have driven it over." Eggsy responds with wistful bitterness: "Should have done a lot of things."

It's a great line, and a great movie, charting Eggsy's training as a 'Kingsman' secret agent. There is a top drawer cast, with Colin Firth as Eggsy's mentor and the 007 surrogate, Mark Strong as a 'Q' figure and Michael Caine as a malign 'M'.

Most importantly there is Samuel L. Jackson lisping his way brilliantly through the role of Valentine, as splendid an evil villain as ever coughed up by the Bond franchise, superbly supported with the most deadly of hench-women in the shape of the blade-limbed Gazelle, played by Sofia Boutella.

My only beef is that Eggsy's fellow trainee Roxy (Sophie Cookson) is left with too little to do in the explosive grand finale. 

If you are up for the extravagant fantasy violence, Kingsman is a sheer delight. Lynyrd Skynyrd's greatest hit will never sound the same again, though.

(Image credits: All the posters are from the redoubtable, and fast downloading, Imp Awards.)

Sunday 15 March 2015

Homeland by Gordon and Gansa

There is such a plethora of great television drama out there (mostly American, it has to be said) that I have only just caught up with Homeland. It came highly recommended by friends, and they weren't wrong.

Homeland is instantly riveting. It tells the story of — don't worry about spoilers, all this is revealed early, in episode 1 — an American marine sergeant, Nicholas Brody, who has been held captive in Afghanistan for eight years. 

Brody is rescued and is returned home, a hero. But a female CIA operative, Carrie Mathison, has reason to believe he has been turned and is in fact a sleeper agent for the enemy. Tension builds when no one believes her and it looks like our "hero" might even be a candidate for high political office.

It's great stuff, and our heroine is a terrific character. I particularly love the fact that Carrie is a jazz fan, which leads to one of the great title sequences in TV history — featuring Louis Armstrong. And a lovely jazz theme for the show. 

Carrie is played by Claire Danes, Brody is British actor Damian Lewis (recently a terrif Henry VIII in Wolf Hall). They are both splendid, as is Morena Baccarin (the evil alien empress from V) as Brody's  wife Jessica.

Homeland was developed for American television by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa and they've done a splendid job. The show is based on an Israeli drama known in English as Prisoners of War created by Gideon Raff. 

Prisoners of War is considerably different, though. In it three soldiers are brought home and it is a shell game — which have to guess which one might be the traitor.

I haven't seen Prisoners, but Homeland is a delight. I'm on episode five of Season 1 and it is looking good. Where else do you get a show which drops the F-bomb every week in its title sequence?

Just one question. Why does Brody's wife call him Brody instead of Nicholas?

(Image credits: The Hero/Threat poster is from Wikipedia. The red burka is from IMDB. The others are from Collider.)

Sunday 8 March 2015

Blackhat by Foehl and Mann

Blackhat is vanishing from your cineplex screens even as I write these words, after a very brief run. Which is a criminal shame, because it's Michael Mann's best picture in years and a strong return to form. 

It tells the story of a series of dangerous cyber strikes (performed by the Blackhat of the title) and the race against time to thwart them.

The first attack is on a Chinese nuclear power station and it's a powerful and suspenseful sequence, with Mann's virtual camera diving into the innards of the computer system and showing us the microscopic details of the hacking — electrons scuttling along chip pathways like rats under the floorboards.

With the power station reduced to a radioactive no-go zone, Chinese security officer Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) is tasked to find the culprit. 

Dawai is a computer expert and he recognises the RAT (remote access tool) used by the hackers as being based on one written by his old friend Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth — also known as Thor or James Hunt, depending on which movie you saw last). Hathaway is cooling his heels in prison on a long sentence for his own cyber crimes, but Dawai gets him sprung.

Also along for the ride are Dawai's sister Chen Lien (Wei Tang), who is a computer expert in her own right and begins to fall for bad boy Hathaway. Keeping an eye on them all is Viola Davis as the lead FBI agent Carol Barrett.

Brother and sister Lien and Dawai were both raised in the States, so I initially found it annoying that they had such different accents, and so disparate a command of English. 

But Wei Tang is such a splendid, affecting actress that my objections soon dropped away. It's an admirably strong cast, and includes the impressive Yorick van Wageningen (the rapist social worker from Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who is a perfect choice for the chief badguy — the eponymous black hat.

With an excellent script written by Morgan Davis Foehl (his first movie credit), Blackhat has great characters, fascinating locations and impressive action sequences, both virtual footage inside computers and brilliantly filmed real-world shoot outs. It delivers on suspense and surprises and deserves to be a much greater success.

Catch this film on the big screen if you can. If not, put it on your list for home viewing.
(Image credits: Remarkably thin pickings for this movie at the usual sites, which I suppose is an index of its lack of blockbuster success. The poster is from Imp Awards. The other images are all from the very useful Collider.)

Sunday 1 March 2015

Jupiter Ascending by the Wachowskis

Jupiter Ascending is a science fiction adventure movie in the classic mould — a space opera — from the Wachowskis (formerly the Wachowski brothers) who created The Matrix and recently made the strange, extraordinary and beautiful Cloud Atlas, which wasn't a box office success but was a marvellous film. 

Perhaps bearing Cloud Atlas in mind, Jupiter Ascending is obviously an attempt at a mainstream hit, but it misses by a breathtaking extent. It does have an outstanding cast and spectacular, gorgeous special effects. And it delivers extravagant, imaginative action sequences which, unfortunately, leave the viewer cold.

This is because we don't care anything about the character involved, just one of the fatal flaws in an amazingly weak screenplay. The movie tells the story of Jupiter Jones (yes, really), a young American-Russian woman. 

Jupiter's Russian family is depicted with hair-raising racism. Just try imagining African Americans being subjected to the offensive hijinks depicted in this movie and you'll see what I mean. 

Jupiter has a miserable existence of poverty and drudgery. She works as a skivvy in the houses of the rich where she cleans toilets. In fact, the Wachowskis are so obsessed with her cleaning toilets that we get five shots of her doing so and then the Big Evil Space Bad Guy even has a speech about it.

But, in the manner of classic fairy tales and cliched fantasy scripts everywhere, Jupiter has a destiny. She is the chosen one. The reincarnation, or genetic recurrence, of a space princess. So evil people from space want her dead and good guys from space intend to save her.

Sadly, Jupiter is a miserably badly written character. She is weak, stupid and utterly passive — the other protagonists move her around the story like a piece of baggage. By the time she finally stands up for herself at the end, it's really too late.

The only reason we have any sympathy at all for Jupiter is because she's played by the luminous Mila Kunis. Kunis is a proper movie star. She lights up the screen and all the film makers need to do is shoot a close-up of her to make the movie watchable — albeit briefly.

Channing Tatum plays a disgraced space cop come to rescue Jupiter. He brings dignity and conviction to a thankless role and carries off some awful dialogue with admirable grace. However, because he has wolf DNA he's buried under some silly make up which minimises his screen presence. You screw with a movie star's look at your peril, Wachowskis.

There is one effective scene in the movie, where Tatum takes Kunis to an odd, dilapidated safe house out in the sticks surrounded by bee hives. Here Channing's old commanding officer, played by Sean Bean, is waiting for them. 

Bean (decapitated in Game of Thrones a few seasons ago) is another terrific actor. And he and Kunis have a startling amount of chemistry between them in their brief scenes together — way more than Kunis and Tatum, sadly for the film makers (all those posters pushing an epic romance between Kunis and Tatum are offering an empty promise). This bit in the bee house, thanks to the odd environment and Bean's contribution, is the only segment of the movie which really comes to life.

Jupiter Ascending features a memorable villain portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, who under-plays it in a chilling fashion, instead of eating the scenery. And there are epic space battles, ravishing science fiction panoramas and brilliant special effects shots — of such a calibre that I wished I'd seen the movie in the 3D print. 

There are also occasional flashes of wit and imagination to remind us the the Wachowskis have previously written some great scripts. But nothing is going to save this one. If you want to see this sort of space opera done properly, then check out Guardians of the Galaxy.

(Image credits: the posters are from Imp Awards. The still of Mila — we're on first name terms — is from Wall Paper.)