Saturday, 24 August 2013

Dorian Gray - Oliver Parker - 2009

Director Oliver Parker follows up his luxurious adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest with a sumptuous new rendering of Wilde’s classic Gothic horror story The Picture of Dorian Gray, which like the previous entries in his ‘Wilde trilogy’ makes a fair stab at being a definitive adaptation, but lacks the edge to make a lasting impact. Playing the titular role, Ben Barnes certainly has the pretty boy looks necessary for the role and has undoubtedly matured as a film actor since he first appeared in Stardust but he still lacks the leading-man charisma to carry a film singlehandedly and the dramatic chops to make sense of a character who is essentially an enigma on the page. Barnes was an excellent replacement for Dominic Cooper in The History Boys on stage but he fails to match that achievement on film with Dorian coming across as nothing but a shallow and charmless dandy, turning the audience off even at the moment we’re meant to be empathising with his downfall. Far more entertaining is Colin Firth as Dorian’s mentor Lord Henry Wotton who effortlessly steals the film away from Barnes with some brilliantly underplayed menace, relishing the sardonic humour and the chance to play a real rotter. In Firth’s capable hands Wilde’s deliciously witty bon mots are delivered with a beautiful throwaway precision that ensures that the story is never just another Victorian melodrama. Parker makes a fair stab at creating some horror out of the secret that Dorian keeps in the attic, helped by a guitar led score from Charlie Mole that is initially effective but quickly gets tiresome when the same two chords are played every time the Picture is ever glimpsed. Ultimately though Parker pushes this too far by attempting to turn the Picture into an actual monster for an action climax that, partly thanks to some obvious CGI, negates the atmosphere of dread and cheapens the theme of redemption versus damnation that holds the story together. Oscar Wilde did not write a B-movie monster novel and Parker has done him a disservice by reducing his only novel to that level; as a film Dorian Gray has enough effective sequences to make it a minor entry into the Gothic canon. As an adaptation this is sadly not the definitive version Parker was clearly hoping for.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

W - Oliver Stone - 2008

Having formulated his own conspiracy theories in JFK and dug into the psyche of Nixon, barnstorming director Oliver Stone completes a presidential trio with this fascinating biopic of one of the USA’s most controversial presidents, George W. Bush. W examines the surprisingly chequered life of Bush in the run-up to his time in office and some of the crucial decisions behind the 2003 Iraq invasion that has come to define his presidency but happily delivers a balanced critique rather than the straight lambasting some might have expected (or hoped for). Demonised across the world for starting a war that many still believe to be illegal, Bush is crucially (and interestingly given Stone’s anti-establishment reputation) depicted as a lot more complex than his detractors would have you believe, portrayed by Josh Brolin as a man struggling to find a path in life whilst growing up and eventually falling into politics to prove himself to his authoritarian father (President George Bush senior in a powerful performance by James Cromwell) as much as anything else. Increasingly out of his depth in the shark pool of politics, Bush comes across as a misguided but actually well meaning President who was easily manipulated by politicians who can think a lot faster and therefore speak a lot better and (as personified by Richard Dreyfuss’ sneering Dick Cheney) are only in the business to serve their own ends. Given that this is a far more recent biopic than Stone’s previous work all of the characters are still alive and many still in the public eye and so it is to his credit that across the board all of the familiar names are convincingly portrayed; even Ioan Gruffudd who looks nothing like Tony Blair neatly hits the Prime Minister's air of anxious subservience, while Brolin himself soon becomes indistinguishable from his real life counterpart. Of course Stone has imagined a lot of the private White House conversations but crucially, like he did previously with Richard Nixon, he has created a complex human figure out of a controversial public figurehead and although the policies of Bush’s government are predictably criticised through the portrayal of his Cabinet, it is nice to see that Stone has elected to deliver a fairer portrait of Bush himself than the reputations of both director and subject might have warranted.

Monday, 19 August 2013

The Mask of Zorro - Martin Campbell - 1998

The character of Zorro, a blend of Robin Hood and The Scarlet Pimpernel living in colonial California, had been hugely popular in films, television and magazines throughout the Twentieth Century but with nothing fresh since the parody Zorro, The Gay Blade in 1981, the time was ripe for a reimagining. Rather than going directly down the traditional remake route and retelling the story of original Zorro Don Diego de la Vega, The Mask of Zorro introduces another traditional narrative trope and brings an elderly Diego (Anthony Hopkins) out of retirement to train a young wildcard to be his successor. From there the story follows fairly predictable routes blending the swashing and buckling that made Zorro originally so popular with the master/student bickering, training montages and pontificating that are now recycled for almost every origin story. Spanish heartthrob Antonio Banderas is the perfect choice to play the wildcard Alejandro Murrieta (fictional brother of real life outlaw Joaquin Murrieta), embodying both the clumsy stooge and the suave hero with a natural ease and charm that most American actors could never dream of, equally at home flashing gracefully through the swordfights as he is wooing the very lovely Elena de la Vega, played by the very lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones. Banderas and Zeta-Jones have a sizzling chemistry that lifts the film whenever they are onscreen together although the scene of Zorro tearing off Elena’s clothes with his sword is actually tamer than its reputation would suggest; the best moment between them is an incredibly sexy tango by the end of which the screen is literally heaving with barely disguised passion. Hopkins completes the central trio as the elder Zorro, a surprising choice to play a Spanish Don given that he’s an elderly Welsh actor with an impeccable RP accent, but he attacks the part with enough relish to ensure that this is never noticeable and that Diego is more than just another movie mentor, often managing to overshadow Banderas with the sheer weight of his charismatic presence. Given how good the three leads are it is then a little surprising isn’t as much fun as it should be. There is lots of well-choreographed action, the sets and locations are beautiful and James Horner delivers a lovely Hispanic flavoured score but the villains (Stuart Wilson and Matt Letscher) are forgettable, Martin Campbell’s direction is merely functional and the script doesn’t quite capture the sense of fun that marked both the original Zorro films and the writers’ later work on the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Nothing in the film is notably bad but aside from the performances there is little that is notably memorable either; Robin Hood has had several centuries to build up folklore, Zorro barely a hundred years and on this evidence he may struggle. 

The Legend of Zorro - Martin Campbell - 2005

1998’s The Mask of Zorro was quite successful financially but hardly set the action-adventure genre on fire and so it is a little surprising to find director Martin Campbell and stars Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones returning for more nearly seven years later. This time not just California but the whole of the United States is in peril from more evil-accented Europeans and so once more Zorro is forced (to the chagrin of his wife) to don the mask and swash and buckle his way through a succession of ridiculous action scenes in order to save the day, a task Banderas rises to with his usual aplomb and only minor CGI enhancements. So far so predictable and mildly entertaining – Rufus Sewell is a more charming and memorable villain than Stuart Wilson and anything with steam trains is always fun – but this clearly isn’t enough and so this time the whole family, now including cute young son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso), are along for the ride. Stuck with having let Alejandro and Elena walk happily into the sunset last time around Campbell is forced to raise the personal stakes by writing a flimsy marital row in order to separate them (ignoring the fact that this couple clearly make up even more passionately than they fight) long enough for Elena to acquire her own mission. This would be fine except Alejandro is kept in the dark and so much of the film becomes an attempted comedy of marital misunderstanding which is all well and good but this is hardly what the audience has come to see even if the writers were well practiced in the art of light comedy and sadly that is not the case. Banderas plays drunk and jealous very well but it cheapens the Zorro character to see him reduced to competing with Sewell’s Count Armand (unflappably suave throughout the silliness) for Elena’s affections. Zeta-Jones has many talents but physical comedy is not one of them and so the slapstick moments of her trying to maintain credibility in front of Armand are more embarrassing than funny. Unfortunately this nonsense eventually spreads across the entire story when the macguffin is revealed to be… exploding soap, a laughably ridiculous plot device (even by Hollywood standards) that the film struggles to recover from, even after a relatively exciting and competently executed runaway train climax. Sadly but unsurprisingly Zorro is yet to return again.