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'The Shipping News' is about Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), an uncommunicative man trapped in a loveless marriage to the loathsome Petal (Cate Blanchett), who doesn't even have the good manners to sleep with her boyfriends outside the family home. When Petal is killed, Quoyle returns with his Aunt (Judi Dench) and his strange daughter Bunny (played by triplets, fact fans!) to the remote Newfoundland coast where his family originated. Falling into a job at The Gammy Bird (the local paper), Quolye starts to rebuild himself through writing, friends, and a tentative romance with local widow Wavey (Julianne Moore). I haven't read the book by E. Annie Proulx, and someone will no doubt tell me that I should have, so I might be at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, a film should definitely be able to stand alone. Watching this, I found myself becoming increasingly irritated, because I was sure I had seen the film before. The plot, certainly in this movie, seemed to have been assembled from off-cuts of great American novelists - the opening stretch of the film, with Quoyle's unhappy childhood, disastrous marriage and bereavement are straight out of a John Irving novel. In particular, the way in which Petal's death is a blend of nasty cynical farce (she sells Bunny to a black market adoption agency) and dumb, pointless fatal bad luck (plunging off a bridge in a car) feels as it has been dragged from 'A Widow for One Year' or 'The World According to Garp'. Thereafter, the film becomes a relocated rewrite of 'The Accidental Tourist' by Anne Tyler - emotionally constipated man retreats from the death of a loved one, only to be brought out of his shell by eccentricity. The only difference seems to be that Quoyle becomes a writer, rather than being one already, and that the eccentrics surround him, rather than being just one person. I'm sure I read that William Hurt, who played Macon Leary in Lawrence Kasdan's
classic film of that book, was in the running for this. I guess it's better to plagiarise the best of American literature rather than copy, say, Danielle Steele, and the book may be more distinctive, but 'The Shipping News' feels overly familiar. On the surface, it's an entertaining film - a cast this good is always likely to be worth watching - but there seemed to be precious little going on underneath. Quoyle's problems seemed to be solved too neatly, too easily. Having been plunged into tragedy, all of the elements for Quoyle's rehabilitation seem to have been assembled in Newfoundland, and all he has to do is find them; friends, family, a job, a home, it's all there waiting for him, and he just has to be sensible enough to identify them. The sense of déjà vu is heightened by the prospect of Spacey played yet another middle-aged man finally getting in touch with his inner self, Dench playing another crotchety but loveable old bag, and Moore being yet another soulful Woman With A Story. Every year, Miramax, a company founded and run by the Weinstein brothers, but now owned by Disney, assemble a prestige production, usually based on a quality novel ('Shakespeare in Love' was a rare original), load it with good stars and get a high quality director to make it all worthy of an Academy Award. 'The Shipping News' is this year's edition, and this is definitely the problem. The locations are gorgeous, the performances solid, the script good, the direction is very fluid and imaginative (Lasse Hallstrom, who made superb versions of 'Chocolat' and John Irving's 'The Cider House Rules'): but it feels like something that has just rolled off the production line. Even if it's a bit bland or shonky, there'll be another one along next year. The mixture hasn't quite failed, but it hasn't quite hit the mark either.
For those unhappy few of us who were left cold by the fluffy fairy-tale optimism of 'Amelie' comes the astringent antidote, another tale of a naïve outsider attempting to right wrongs in a bizarre, hyperreal world. But 'The Royal Tenenbaums' is not a jolly effects-enhanced adventure, sprinkled with magic. This is a tale of dysfunctional families, betrayal, loneliness, selfishness, vague hints of incest, and suicide. And it is one of the funniest, and maybe the best film I have seen in years. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is old, lonely, and broke, and so he returns to the family he abandoned to see if he can put a roof over his head. Royal's three children were all child prodigies - Chas (Ben Stiller) was a business genius, adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) a playwright, and Richie (Luke Wilson) a tennis star. But Chas is a wreck after the death of his wife, Margot is blocked and locked in a loveless marriage with a lunatic neurologist (Bill Murray) and Richie's career has faltered, his mind clouded by the fact that he is in love with Margot. Just as Royal returns, pretending that he is dying, the children all flock home to mum Etheline (Anjelica Huston), who is at last getting over Royal, and working tentatively towards a romance with her accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). From the opening shot (a book called 'The Royal Tenenbaums' being checked out of a library, and the start of the narration by Alec Baldwin), the film comes over like an animated story book. It's actually divided into chapters, and you see the page onscreen as Baldwin's voice starts to read each new section, and the film makes use of titles and freeze-frames to introduce characters and give background information. Apart from Royal, who says what he thinks all the time, all of the Tenenbaums are interior people, and it's only through the narration and the expressionist direction that you work out what's going on in th
eir minds. The look of the film deliberately evokes a children's book - people wear stylized costumes (Chas is always dressed in a vivid red tracksuit, as are his two kids), and the colours are bright and bold. Moreover, the soundtrack is full of bright, excitable pop music from the sixties and seventies, and there is a good deal of old-fashioned slapstick. But dark clouds hover over the film from the outset - Royal is selfish, self-obsessed and unintentionally very cruel. He casually throws aside his family, leaving three deeply damaged children, all of whom are incapable of normal, sane behaviour. Chas is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, obsessed with the idea that he and his children are at constant risk; Margot is completely unresponsive, conducting a string of meaningless affairs, and Richie is a complete zombie, totally uncommunicative and hiding himself behind a massive beard and sunglasses he never removes (when he finally emerges, it is with tragic consequences). Meanwhile Etheline, who has always attempted to put the kids first, seems finally on the verge of finding a little bit of happiness for herself when her errant husband and psycho kids descend on her once more. And yet, at the same time, it's staggeringly funny. Royal's thick-skinned crassness is appallingly funny, and the film is full of deranged supporting characters (Murray, co-writer Owen Wilson as family friend, western writer and drugs fiend Eli) who constantly keep the laughs coming, even as the central characters seem to be falling apart. Even when events become genuinely tragic, the same comedy still comes through. The cast is outstanding; Huston and Glover are effortless, and it's nice to see Gwyneth Paltrow in a part which does not require simpering or a hefty period frock. Stiller and Owen Wilson do pretty much their standard stuff (angry little man and stoned surfer respectively), but I think they're funny, so this works for me
. Three performances stand out - Bill Murray keeps all of his cynicism and smart-arsed persona inside to play a frustrated, pinched oddball, while Luke Wilson, who I have only seen playing Boyfriend to Cameron Diaz in 'Charlie's Angels' and Reese Witherspoon in 'Legally Blonde, is superb as Richie, crippled by his feelings for his adopted sister, and carrying with him an innocence which is palpable. Best of all is Gene Hackman, revelling in a part written for him (against his wishes); Royal is, as he admits, an asshole, selfish, self-serving and unbelievably rude. And yet, despite himself, he achieves almost total redemption, unaware of how much he actually loves a family he thinks he's trying to exploit. Hackman seems to have got the handle on this complex character completely, and his performance is genuinely hilarious and very moving. Ultimately, some of the messages from 'The Royal Tenenbaums' are the same as 'Amelie' - people are fundamentally good, and you should always try to do right by other people - but the film is painfully aware of how fragile and helpless people can be. You know from the start how the characters feel about each other, but it takes them an age to speak up. Moreover, there is none of the usual emotional hand-holding and emphasis - one of the most important emotional climaxes comes when two characters have a cigarette together (and that's it). It's complex, vivid and very intelligent, and is the absolute antithesis of overblown Hollywood cinema. I take no responsibility if you watch this film - it's distinctly odd, and you may very well find it too weird (four couples walked out of the free preview screening I attended). But if you connect with it, the rewards are limitless, it's a classic in the making.
So, a few years on from 'Braveheart', where Mel Gibson starred and directed from a Randall Wallace script, we have 'We Were Soldiers', where Gibson stars and Wallace directs. It's a Vietnam War movie based on a true incident, a bloody battle fought at the beginning of the US Army's official war against the communist Viet Cong. Let's try to be positive - the spectacle in 'We Were Soldiers' is hugely impressive, its specific historical setting makes for a fascinating, and quite novel view of very familiar cinematic terrain, and there is a sincere attempt to put forward the Vietnamese point of view. Most Vietnam films are set in the thick of the war in the late sixties, with jaded soldiers being sent into the heat of an already entrenched battle. This film is set in 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson ordered troops into Vietnam officially, rather than the 'advisors' who had previously been in place, ostensibly to help locals fight the Viet Cong. In other words, this is the very beginning of the war. Even though the point of the film is to emphasize the waste of young lives on the American side (some of the actors are evidently teenagers), the director Randall Wallace is clearly eager to present the war from the other side as well, with sequences shot inside the enemy bunker, with the North Vietnamese guerillas presented as men fighting hard for a cause they believe to be as just as that of the Americans (and in hindsight, you have to wonder whether the US Army's mission stacks up against the Cong at all). There is a particularly good sequence where a soldier prepares himself, looking at a photo of his girlfriend, writing in his diary, and then charging across the battlefield only to be shot down by Gibson without a second thought. I was, perhaps unhappily, reminded of the gags in 'Austen Powers', where you get to see the friends and family of all the henchmen who are thoughtlessly wasted, but at least
they are trying to humanise the enemy, so often depicted as a nasty, faceless horde of asian goblins. Wallace's other big agenda is to show the extreme brutality of war - every bullet hole sprays thick syrupy fountains of blood, a man caught by an exploding grenade is shown with glowing bits of shrapnel visible in his face (which someone else then cuts out, onscreen), and in the most intense bit, a soldier burned by the US Army's napalm is turned into a burnt piece of meat. It is extremely difficult to eat pizza after watching this film, I can tell you. The use of helicopters and special effects is well judged, and the action - essentially one drawn-out battle) - is very well orchestrated, just coherent enough to follow, but nevertheless difficult and confusing enough to be convincing. But I can't keep this up for too long - 'We Were Soldiers' is severely compromised by some very poor judgement. The opening stretch in the Army Barracks is deeply sentimental, and Gibson's stolid hero is one of the most preachy, self-righteous prigs I've ever had the misfortune to watch. This is a true story, so reality must intrude, but most of the people who die in this movie are ill-characterised extras, ripped to shreds so the name actors can grimace and make speeches about how bad a thing war is. While some of the emotional meat is very subtle - Gibson is shown tucking two dead soldiers into their bodybags with the same care and affection he tucked his kids into bed towards the start - much of it is jaw-droppingly naïve and designed to get the audience weeping. I'm sorry, but I remained stony-faced. An unapologetically catholic central character is already a problem for me from the outset, but this is a pious, stuffy, and rather prim film which pales in comparison to the rigour and sheer bloody-mindedness of 'Full Metal Jacket' or 'Platoon'. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but
it's a somewhat unnecessary one - better than 'Pearl Harbor' (which Wallace scripted), but a long way behind 'Black Hawk Down'.
If you haven't seen 'The Omen', don't read this review as I am about to give away the ending. What was subversive about 'The Omen' was that, unlike 'The Exorcist', it was about a genuinely evil child. Regan, the possessed girl in 'The Exorcist', is an innocent infected by something external. The chubby little kid in 'The Omen' is simply evil, wholly and irretrievably wicked. The final frame of that film, with Damien holding the hand of the First Lady at his father's funeral, tells you everything you need to know about how easy it is going to be for the Son of Satan to rise through the ranks of the American political system. It's a neat joke for a film made a few years after Richard Nixon was President, and makes a sequel wholly unnecessary. Of course, you don't make shedloads of money with a film that has an open-ended conclusion and then say to yourself, nah, let's leave it at that. With only Leo McKern available to make a cameo appearance (and get killed), virtually everything about this film is different - entirely new cast, new director (actually, two directors, because Mike Hodges started the film and was fired), and a subtly different structure. The extent to which this film is a rather subversive is in the way that Damien, now a teenager, and played rather well by Jonathan Scott-Taylor, works his way seamlessly through the higher echelons of the ruling class; star student, adored by everyone, and linked irretrievably to capitalism, money and politics. It's like a horror movie directed by Karl Marx, making an absolute link between money and the work of Satan. One important difference between this film and its predecessor is the complete absence of atmosphere; this is not a gripping suspenser, this is a horror cartoon. From the opening sequence, in which McKern and Ian Hendry are buried in a collapsing temple having seen Damien's face on an ancient wall,
the film's action stops every five minutes for a ridiculous shock killing. Old ladies die from unexpected heart attacks, doctors are cut in half, men are crushed by trains and in the most famous sequence, a man falls beneath the ice of a frozen lake, and is sucked around by the current. There is no suspense any more, just the enthralled wait for another poor sucker to rub Damien up the wrong way and get theirs in a suitably ridiculous accident. The evolutionary end of this is the bit where Damien's beloved cousin (vague subtext of homosexuality here, not quite sure why) realises that his friend is the Antichrist, and refuses to get along with him, in the sure and certain knowledge that he is thereby guaranteeing a psychic lobotomy. 'Damien: Omen II' is like a spell in the gladiatorial arena - you wait for the carnage, and are repeatedly awarded with insane killings. It's not excessively gory - even the most notorious sequences (the bisection and another bit where a woman has her eyes pecked out by a raven) are unpleasant but strangely clean, somehow easy to watch. It's not badly made by any stretch of the imagination, and the cast is very strong - William Holden, Sylvia Sidney, Lee Grant (though it's hard not to laugh when you see the bloke from 'Falcon Crest as one of Satan's smarmy henchmen) - and it's all mounted with the requisite glossy high-quality. But compared to the diabolical neatness and inevitability of its predecessor, and lacking the outstanding central performance of Gregory Peck, the ending seems like a cheap shot, rather than a shivery triumph for unstoppable evil. 'The Omen' took place in a weird, supernatural world of plausible but unnatural happenings - 'Damien: Omen II' is undeniably entertaining, but completely hollow.
If you don't like 'The X-Files', look away now. Though Mark Pellington's belated follow-up to his paranoid masterpiece 'Arlington Road' tries all the angles to convince you that it isn't just another sci-fi mystery, twisting itself into all sorts of arty directions, you still expect David Duchovny to wander in at any moment. In fact, such an entrance would not be necessary; the hero is played by Richard Gere, an actor with many things in common with Duchovny. Pretty, clearly talented and intelligent, impossibly vain and fond of raincoats, it's like having Mulder's Dad on the case. At least 'The X-Files', while insanely po-faced, never pretended to be rooted in fact (except in the minds of people who believe that crop circles are not made by really bored hippies). 'The Mothman Prophecies' is based on a book by a Washington journalist; the book is a supposedly true account of freaky events which took place in a small Virginia town in the 1960s. Though fictionalised and updated, the film nevertheless uses the same crucial details - it's fairly close to what the author claims actually happened. Despite this, what makes the film fun is the fact that for all its claims of authenticity, it constantly lurches into David Lynch territory. The film starts with John Klein (Gere), a Washington Post reporter, and his wife being involved in a car crash caused by Mary Klein (Debra Messing) having seen a strange moth-like figure in the road. In the aftermath, it transpires that Mary has an inoperable brain tumour, and she dies soon after. Two years later, Klein is a wreck, cut off from normal relationships. On the way to interview the Virginia Governor, Klein's car breaks down near the little town of Point Pleasant, far from where he intended to be. Immediately, things start to spin out of control, as the local (Will Patton) he seeks help from accuses him of having already been there twice before
. Point Pleasant is gripped by a series of strange happenings and events, and Klein soon realises that his dead wife's vision has been shared by the locals, and that something very odd is afoot. One of the best things about the film is the reluctance to play too closely to the sci-fi manifesto. Pellington is careful to avoid two things: he doesn't show the Mothman, and he doesn't properly explain what it / he is. You can fill in your own ideas of what the visitor is, what motivates him, especially as the haunted expert drafted in to explain things (Alan Bates), a standard figure of sci-fi cliché, actually has no real answers for Klein. Most of the running time is like a ghost story, with Klein interviewing the various people who seem to be targets for the Mothman's incomprehensible mission, trying to piece together random phrases, recording weird messages and having strange visions. The Mothman gives one character hints about disasters which happen around the world, clearly to establish that he can predict them, so that when he predicts disaster for Point Pleasant, he'll be taken seriously, but you don't know why, what this is all for. Go into 'The Mothman Prophecies' in the wrong kind of mood and you've had it. Even though I enjoyed it, I could see that it was incredibly daft, and the doomy atmosphere of tragedy and madness surrounding such an unlikely scenario, and the daftest title for years might give you the giggles. But surrender to it, and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Pellington's reticence with the SFX makes it seem more plausible, as does Gere's admirably straight-faced performance. Moreover, Pellington has watched a lot of Hitchcock, a lot of Brian De Palma and has probably ruined his collection of 70s paranoia classics - the direction invests everything, doors, mirrors, sinks, telephones with a sinister significance, and his camera is either prowling around his characte
rs like a stalker, or circling above them like the titular Mothman. And the final payoff, the disaster which has been inevitable since the opening frame, is handled with real flair. This isn't as significant as it thinks it is, and should be enjoyed as high-class fun rather than anything more serious. But it is very well packaged, very effective, and quite creepy, with two or three first class scares, one involving a mirror and a sudden glimpse of something which made the walk back to the multi-storey on a dark, wet Manchester night considerably more intimidating than I would have expected.
You have a list that starts with 'Manhunter', followed by 'The Last of the Mohicans', 'Heat' and then 'The Insider'. Sooner or later, you make this many films that are this good, you have to fail. Like a prizefighter constantly going back into the ring and getting a knock-out, you know that, in the end, Michael Mann, one of the most consistently interesting and intelligent of American filmmakers, he has to fail. And so, we come to 'Ali'. This is a film which could have, and perhaps should have been made by Spike Lee, with perhaps Denzel Washington (who has already played a boxer convincingly in 'The Hurricane'), or perhaps Wesley Snipes, a man with an ego and swagger equal to the man himself. This could have been a politically charged, energetic biopic with the sweep of 'Malcolm X' (himself a player in the Ali story), and the fire of 'Do the Right Thing'. But a man whose approach is as cool, reflective and detailed as Mann's usually is doesn't seem right for a man once known as The Lip. And so it goes. What's good about 'Ali'? Well, the supporting cast are excellent - there are some superb performances here, from Jamie Foxx as Ali's trainer / sidekick Drew 'Bundini' Brown, from Mario Van Peebles as a troubled and doubtful Malcolm X, from Mykelti Williamson in a superb cariacature of the vile Don King. Indeed, should an Oscar not be awarded to Jon Voight, you know they're rubbish: buried in unbelievably convincing make-up as US TV's answer to Des Lynam, Howard Cosell, he still gives both an astonishingly accurate impersonation and a genuinely humane performance. Indeed there are even moments when Will Smith would have you believe that Ali's Parkinson's disease was gone, and the Greatest was back. But we'll get to him in a minute. Much of 'Ali' is superbly directed, and all of it is stunning to look at. The ope
ning montage, building up to a fight, (intercutting a Sam Cooke concert, with Ali as a child, training for the fight, and attending one of X's sermons) is one of the most impressive bits of filmmaking and editing I've seen outside a Scorsese movie. The look, the sound, the rhythm, it's all perfect, setting the tone and the themes perfectly. Moreover, the boxing matches are the best I have ever seen. Full of the mauling, clumsy moves and wrangles that cinematic boxing is nearly always ignorant of, Mann manages to put you in the ring, delivering and taking blows with the fighters.When George Foreman has Ali on the ropes, seemingly cornered and cowed, you feel like you're hemmed in alongside him; each one of the protracted fight sequences is stunning, flawless, completely convincing. When you consider how many great directors have stepped into the ring, how many classics have made about boxing and boxers ('Force of Evil', 'Raging Bull', 'Fat City', 'Rocky', 'The Quiet Man'), Mann's achievement is considerable. It's worth watching for these bits alone. But - and it's a big but - there are crucial ways in which 'Ali' completely fails to work. For one thing, there are issues about Ali which have to be addressed, which this film ducks entirely. A highly political, hugely charismatic, hugely assertive man in public, Ali has had four wives, is pretty incapable (as Smith admits onscreen) of staying faithful, and crucially, was manipulated to quite an alarming extent by the Nation of Islam. The film depicts all of this, without ever making a judgement about why Muhammad Ali was so strong in public, and so flawed in private. The film even shows him repudiating his mentor Malcolm X (later murdered by the Nation of Islam), only to realise later that Islam leader Elijah Muhammad has exploited him, and then he still deals with them - why was Ali such a chump, you ask, and there is no answ
er. Worse yet, the film covers a ten year period of Ali's life from the early sixties to his successful attempt to regain the World title from Foreman in Zaire in 1974 - and Smith doesn't look a day older. If you've seen 'When We Were Kings', the documentary about the Foreman / Ali fight which tells you far more than this film does, you'll know that by 1974, Ali looked tired, beleagured, and it was quite credible that some people believed he might die in the ring. Smith looks like a pop star, ready for the big moment. There's no sense of the passage of time, the effect of Ali's experience on his physical and mental being. And while this might be the director's fault, I think that the blame lies at Smith's door. With the exception of 'Six Degrees of Separation', the only other film for which Smith has received an Oscar nomination and which I'll bet you haven't seen, this is the first film in which Smith has played someone else, as opposed to a polished version of himself. And it utterly fails to work. Most of his wild, OTT routines sound completely synthetic - Smith declaims his lines as if they are heavily rehearsed rather than smart improvisations. He sounds like Ali, he even looks like Ali on occasions, but he comes across as a man doing a Muhammad Ali impression. Meanwhile, in the quiet scenes, robbed of the big lines, Smith has no insight whatever into Ali's weaknesses - he can't communicate what made the man tick because he doesn't seem to understand. There are all sorts of good things about this film, but ultimately it is unsatisfactory, compromised and robbed of something vital. Smith might well win the Oscar in a week or so, but it will be as a reward for making the movie industry a lot of money, not for the quality of his performance. Muhammad Ali was a massively significant figure, but even a biopic which starred Ali as himself failed to capture the magic, so thi
s one, loaded with pulled punches, doesn't even make it on points.
I don't know about you, but there's nothing I like more of a Friday evening than to go out and watch a jolly flick about a schizophrenic maths genius. I just can't get enough of number-obsessed loons, I can watch them all weekend. Actually, the timing and casting of 'A Beautiful Mind' is probably fortuitous for UK audiences - it hits the screens at the same time as news of its Oscar nominations, and the advance word that the star - Russell Crowe - may be looking at a second Academy Award in as many years. And even though the subject matter may not appeal, Mr Crowe, who cleverly had a fight with a BBC executive last weekend at the BAFTAs, nicely boosting the film's profile, is probably a sufficient draw to put bums on seats. To be honest, it wasn't the maths or the psychosis that put me off, simply the fact that the advert made this look like every other triumph over adversity biopic, where the facts are whipped up into an inspirational blancmange that tastes of nothing. The fact that 'A Beautiful Mind' was written by Akiva Goldsman, whose credits include such classics as 'Batman Forever' and 'Lost in Space', was equal reason to think to myself 'what time is 'The Mothman Prophecies' on?'. Indeed, the film's one major flaw is the latter section of the script, which rather glosses over aspects of Nash's life which make the story a bit less inspiring. And yet, this is a bloody good film. For one thing, the story is actually fascinating - John Nash was a maths genius who did ground-breaking work on game theory (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994), despite having suffered from schizophrenia for most of his life, and being consumed by delusions for long periods. For another, at 2 hours and 15 minutes, the film is not too long (big Hollywood dramas are regularly over 2 and a half hours when they have no great story to tell). And the acting is quite stunning.
Crowe makes absolutely no attempt to make Nash anything but awkward and hard to like. He's difficult, remote and anti-social (the natural instinct of most actors would be to humanise Nash, and Crowe won't). Moreover, he evokes the fear and paranoia of the mentally ill, aware that their view of reality is skewed but unable to restore mental equilibrium, with complete conviction. Jennifer Connelly, whose good looks and nice figure has condemned her to playing bimbo roles for most of her career, is equally good as Nash's wife, especially as the part consists largely of providing a sane foil for Crowe. There are superb character turns from Ed Harris as a sinister secret agent, and Paul Bettany (my current favourite British actor) as Nash's exuberant English friend. The film was made by Ron Howard, who specialises in low-key, intelligent prestige filmmaking - in his own quiet way, he has managed to make a string of superb films, starting with 'Splash', and crossing genres and boundaries to cover 'The Paper', 'Apollo 13', 'Ransom' and even 'The Grinch', with rarely a clinker to speak of. What he manages to do with great skill is animate the excitement which patterns and numbers provokes in Nash's confused and extraordinary mind. It's a light, frequently very funny film - this means that Nash's virtual imprisonment in madness in the third quarter of the film doesn't quite have the same force as it might, but equally ensures you're not locked up in some dour Issues movie about mental illness. Indeed, because much of 'A Beautiful Mind' is so sparky and fast-moving, the film is wholly successful in its attempts to elicit sympathy for the mentally ill, the central plea that people with psychological problems be integrated and understood (the film depicts Nash finding his own way to deal with his illness, remaining outside institutions after traumatic experiences at th
e hands of well-meaning psychiatrists). It's very well made and acted, and remarkably entertaining, especially with some of the surprises inherent in the story. You might be looking for something more exciting, but this is the good stuff, and you probably won't see a better piece of screen acting all year, whatever the Academy's voters might have to say about it.
We turned up for 'Charlotte Gray', but it had already started, so in desperation we had to turn to 'Don't Say A Word', a clearly missable suspense thriller which did well in post-September 11th America, but isn't exactly the cinematic highlight of this spring. I usually like Michael Douglas, and there were a couple of interesting names down the cast (Famke Janssen, the ever-reliable Oliver Platt, who you will have seen in a dozen movies even if you don't know who he is), and it was either that or nothing, so off we went. By 'eck, as Sean Bean seems close to saying, even in his most threatening moments, it's just like every other Hollywood thriller I've ever seen, only more so. Predictable, based on fundamentally ridiculous notions of how mental ill-health can be treated, it's overwhelmingly adequate. It's not too violent, not too complex, not too much of anything, and deserves to be your number three choice at Blockbuster when the two movies you genuinely wanted to see aren't available. Douglas is a psychiatrist treating trust-fund hypochondriacs, with the movie-requisite gorgeous wife (Janssen, who I will not talk about in detail because I fancy her to bits and will lose my critical distance) and a cute moppet child. His friend (Platt) asks him to see a genuinely disturbed girl (Brittany Andrews) who has withdrawn into a psychological shell and will not emerge. Douglas quickly realises that she is faking her catatonia, but can do nothing more. It Just So Happens that the girl is also keeping hold of a six-figure number which is the key to a missing jewel, stolen in a robbery ten years previously by Sean Bean and his cohorts, and Bean then kidnaps Douglas' daughter, telling him that if he doesn't obtain the number by the end of the day, the girl is dead. The entire enterprise is founded on a series on hard and fast rules which no-one in Hollywood seems capable of breaking. So if y
ou know that: Hollywood Rule Number One: All mental illness is caused by a single traumatic event. Hollywood Rule Number Two: All mental illness can be solved simply be reliving the event which caused the illness, and killing any bad guys associated with the event. Hollywood Rule Number Three: Grown-ups can be massacred in large numbers, but the life of a single child is sacred and inviolate. Then you know exactly how this nothing-in-particular thriller is going to turn out. There are some clever sequences which have allowed the film to be labelled as 'Hitchcockian': Douglas' attempts to spring Andrews from the nuthouse are suspensefully cross-cut with Janssen's attempts to find their daughter, a feat made more difficultby the fact that she has a leg in plaster. But all the most interesting elements are fumbled. The potential for a re-run of 'Rear Window' (with Janssen in the James Stewart role) is dropped almost as soon as it is raised. Moreover, the quite effective use of paranoia (Bean and his team have bugged the nuthouse and Douglas' apartment with web-cams and listening devices) is equally allowed to fall by the wayside, and the film never quite explains how they managed to bug so many secure locations in the first place. Andrews actually gives quite a credible performance as the loony teenager, though it's a waste of time as the mental illness is just a MacGuffin to keep the film running. In reality, Bean knows the significance of the number (we don't) and you can't help thinking that if he just got his hands on her and put a gun in her mouth, she'd probably tell him everything he wanted to know. But that's in the real world, not some silly, airport-novel world where things like this happen. Bean is useless in a thinking man's role (where's Alan Rickman or Jeremy Irons when you need them?), and the most embarrassing thing of all is Michael Douglas, looking like
a fat man wearing an ill-fitting Michael Douglas rubber mask. He looks tired and old, and can do nothing in a role that makes no demands on his talent for sleaze and moral equivocation. 'Don't Say A Word' wins one cheese point for having its title loudly included in the dialogue (I always like it when that happens), and it's not the worst film in the world. But so what? Given that cinemas are currently crowded with good quality stuff (even good quality nonsense), this really should be pushed back to the video shelf where it belongs.
From the moment it starts, you should have no illusion about 'Ocean's Eleven' - it's a fun movie, nothing more. Steven Soderbergh's unlikely renaissance with 'Out of Sight' came after his film 'Schizopolis', a film which is as close as possible to a resignation letter from mainstream film-making as it is possible to come. Since then he has alternated between commercial and experimental: 'Out of Sight' was followed by the kaleidiscopic 'The Limey', the crowd-pleasing 'Erin Brokovich' was succeeded by the more difficult 'Traffic', and the next one will be a micro-budget satire called 'Full Frontal'. This film is deliberately positioned as a big audience picture, and it never strays far from that. The purpose of the movie seems to be to become the kind of movie that the original 1961 film, starring all five members of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop), aspired to be, is generally remembered as being, but isn't. The original is leaden, slow-moving, and smug. Soderbergh's film would like to be, and generally is, funny, stylish and fast-moving; it's a tribute to the collective skill and good judgement at work here that even the music (courtesy of David Holmes, who also scored 'Out of Sight') is better. The plot is fairly straightforward: George Clooney is Danny Ocean, a con-man who is released from prison and immediately decides to rip-off Terry Benedict, a Las Vegas casino owner (Andy Garcia) who has unimaginable fortunes in his vault, and just happens to be dating Ocean's ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts). Assembling a team of criminal experts who include Ocean's old mate Dusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), one of Benedict's rivals (Elliot Gould), a elderly scam artist (Carl Reiner), and an expert thief (Matt Damon), the team go to work. First things first - this is not a masterpiece. It's desperat
ely glib and cynical, bearing as little relation to the real world as Cinderella. This is a world where Benedict deserves to be taken for everything he's worth because he's not cool, and Ocean is. This is a world where dialogue is spoken because it sounds clever, not because it has any real meaning or purpose. Here's what I mean. Clooney: "Does he make you laugh?" Roberts: "He doesn't make me cry." or Roberts: "You're a liar and a thief" Clooney: "I only lied about being a thief" From their exchanges, Danny comes across as a snake, but that's not important; what is important is that Clooney looks fabulous, and snaps out his glittery lines with great skill. None of the characters has any depth, and the tug of love over Tess is won with staggering ease - from the first moment you see Garcia and Clooney on screen together, you know exactly who Tess will end up with. Compared to the seamless blend of hard realism and cinematic expressionism in Soderbergh's previous movies, this is fantasy. As a heist movie, it fails, largely because the scam is accomplished with far too few hitches - you're simply invited to admire how clever it is as each new wrinkle and trick is revealed. But you couldn't give a monkey's chuff about any of this: Is It Any Good, Mr Lazenby? Well, yes. I doubt you'll see a more purely pleasurable film all year. Provided that you know that Soderbergh and Co. are simply attempting to make the most dazzling, polished entertainment of the year, you're in for a fine night out. This is beautiful people being beautiful, being stylish and witty in marvellous clothes, spitting one-liners out at each other and generally enjoying being in each others' exhalted company. Because none of the stars has brought an ego along, you get frequent jarring shots of Hollywood's most famous stars jumping around
on the screen together (in a Tom Cruise film, you are guaranteed that most of Tom's shots will be close-ups, and he won't allow other actors in the frame with him). The robbery sequence (the only good bit in the original) is dazzling - the joy of a normal heist movie is, as I said, the succession of disasters which plague the conspirators as their well-made plan collapses. Here, whenever it seems that things are going pear-shaped, another incredibly clever and well-planned device appears to smooth things along. The performances are universally likeable; though Don Cheadle's cockernee bomb-expert seems to have wandered in from the 'From Hell' accent school, the rest are superb. Particularly worthy of note are Clooney, who can do this kind of thing in his sleep, Reiner and Gould, the elder statesmen lapping up the attention, and Brad Pitt, who is to my mind one of the great character actors of his generation, hanging around in the background the whole time, and managing to steal the film from under everyone's nose. Julia is lovely, but isn't she always? This is empty-headed but dazzling, pointless but hopelessly diverting, glossy but rivetting - it deserves no Oscars, no lasting reputation, but join the queue and enjoy it. A slick night out at the movies is rarely put together with such skill, so you might as well take advantage of it.
The most important thing to remember about Easy Rentacar is that it is an explicitly no-frills car rental service - you are not supposed to be a valued customer, and so you will not be given unctuous service. The main disadvantages of the Easy approach are obvious: 1) There is no choice over what kind of car you can drive 2) They cut costs on the staff, and so signs in offices explicitly warn of delays of up to an hour before you can get your car in peak periods 3) They operate a ruthless policy towards damage to your car - the standard insurance excess is £500. 4) The offices are located in inconvenient places, and the opening hours are not as good as other car rental companies (not 24 hours). 5) You can only book on the Internet - even in an Easy Rentacar office, you have to use an Internet PC to rent a vehicle. But... There's no pretence, you know that they're supposed to be cheap. The one car you can hire is the Mercedes A Class, a spacious, stylish and attractive car. The prices are genuinely cheap (as low as a tenner a day, plus the £5 set-up fee), and the nasty excess can be reduced, on payment of £15, right down to £25, which is lower than I think you can generally do it. I've never had to wait that long (20 minutes was the longest) and my local office is in Piccadilly, which is a very easy bit of Manchester to get into, and convenient for public transport if you are transportless having dropped off the car. If you don't have Internet access, it might be a problem - but you have Internet access, friend, because you're reading this review. In the end, I've found it easier to book online than having to phone other car rental companies, and the fact that they only carry one car means there's no question of having to rent a size of car that doesn't suit, or fiddle with various tariffs. They either have a car or they don't, and the earlier you book, the cheaper the car is. Gen
erally, I consider car rental companies to be the worst for standards and customer care anyway. Given that Easy Rentacar offer, at least in Manchester, an efficient and straightforward service, and most branches of Hertz and Avis are staffed by (in my experience), miserable incompetents, I don't see the problem. I've had Hertz try to rip me off before now, and I had to write to the Chief Exec to get my money back, so the straightforward nature of the Easy Rentacar system seems like a model of transparency. I have hired from them four times, and have never been charged for any damage. Most car rental companies make the business of checking the car for damage passive - they give you the keys and tell you to come back if there's a problem, probably in the hope you either won't bother at all, or won't bother to walk back to the office (which may be a considerable distance). Easy Rentacar make the checking of the car part of the process - they send you out to check the car and won't finalise the transaction until you return and actively say that you're happy. On one occasion I found a scratch that wasn't mentioned on the contract and they changed it immediately. The only disadvantage is that I spent three weeks driving a smooth, extras-packed A Class before buying my current car, an old banger for whom the words 'clapped out' could have been devised. Equally, they check it all with you at the end of the day when you're returning the car. The vehicles are clean and they don't break down, and if you aren't so self-conscious that you can't bear to drive a car with an orange sticker on the side, it's a pretty satisfying drive. All in all, I think that this company, like the airline that started the Easy empire, is a practical and worthwhile alternative to mainstream companies, and will be renting from them again if I need to.
Jack the Ripper should probably not be considered about the cinema's pre-eminent true-life serial killer - that disreputable crown should go to Ed Gein, who inspired such classics as 'The Silence of the Lambs', 'Psycho' and 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'. The films that have featured Whitechapel's least favourite son have in the main been crap - a couple of invented Sherlock Holmes movies, some dismal horror movies (including one starring Michael Caine before his recent renaissance). The only good one I can think of is 'Pandora's Box', a film made in 1921, released at a time when people might have actual memories of the killings. The Hughes Brothers, writer / directors of 'hood drama 'Menace II Society' and the underrated masterpiece about the black experience of city life and the Vietnam War 'Dead Presidents', have gone back to the ghetto for the second decent Ripper movie; the only thing is, the ghetto is London's East End in the 1880s. It's based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic novel which I haven't read, but understand to be a stunning dissection of the tabloid society which Jack the Ripper helped to create; the movie isn't quite as complex, but it's a decent thriller. This means that in terms of what it could have been, it's a disappointment, but as a night out, it's probably worth it. If you haven't seen Bob Clark's lacklustre 'Murder by Decree', or the book that it was based on, I'll be careful over the plot of 'From Hell' because it uses the same theory, and it's framed as a pretty good mystery. Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp) is a drug-addicted police inspector who uses psychic visions to solve cases; his powers are tested as a group of prostitutes are savagely killed on the streets of Whitechapel. From the start, it's clear that the conspiracy involves members of the Establishment, the police and
the aristocracy, and Abberline quickly realises that identifying the killer is only the beginning of his problems. At times, 'From Hell' feels like a Victorian James Ellroy adaptation - real characters are mixed in with fictional ones. The murders are recreated with a close attention to factual detail, and famous names (John Merrick the Elephant Man, Queen Victoria) rub shoulders with real people connected to the Ripper killings; William Gull the Queen's surgeon (Ian Holm), the coachman John Netley (Jason Flemyng), the Duke of Clarence (Mark Dexter). Even Abberline existed, though he probably wasn't a laudanum-loving clairvoyant, and he wasn't a Londoner. The attention to historical detail is almost pedantic, and despite the fact that the whole film was shot in Czechoslovakia, the film conjures up a sense of place and atmosphere, right down to the use of accurate street and pub names. However, the emphasis on dry-ice fog does sometimes make real locations look like sets. The explanation of the murders is a popular one, and though it's one of the less likely suggestions, the killer finally unmasked here is almost certainly the guilty man, even if his motives were less elaborate. This doesn't matter, as the plot is fascinating, and for a cynic like me, very persuasive. And besides, what 'From Hell' really gets right is its role as a nasty thriller. The dank streets of Whitechapel genuinely seem like the corridors of Hell, and the Hughes brothers manage to communicate the force of the Ripper murders, their combination of an obviously intelligent mind operating with an unspeakable combination of sadism and precision. This really isn't a movie for people whose stomachs turn at the sight of blood; some of the Ripper's excesses are genuinely too horrible to be depicted in a mainstream film, and the worst things in 'From Hell' are generally glimpsed in long shot, out of focus, over someone's
shoulder. I think that the most unpleasant scene is actually completely bloodless, with the Ripper crouched over a victim we can't see, his unseen hands committing unthinkable crimes behind his cape - you can't see what he does and you don't see the result, but it's horrible all the same. Nevertheless, there are flashes of intense violence and a huge amount of blood sprayed in all directions. Where the film really falls is in the performances - Depp looks the part as a tortured poetic soul, but his accent is mannered and synthetic, sounding false in a cast composed almost entirely of Brits. Meanwhile, Heather Graham is a beautiful woman, but she can't do accents and is the least convincing cinematic prostitute since Julia Roberts. There's generally a sense of gorblimey guvnor apples and pears, very much the American view of how cockneys talk - it's like Dick Van Dyke is a model to be emulated. The day is saved by everyone else: Coltrane as Depp's Shakespeare-spouting sidekick, the gaggle of quarrelsome streetwalkers, Ian Holm, and Ian Richardson as the bigoted police chief with incredible sideburns. The film lacks a genuine feeling of dread and fear, but it's still quite gripping, and I think it is persuasive in making its point about the way in which ordinary people are at the mercy of powerful forces which they cannot control, that those with power and money treat those below them like animals.
It's become a cliché to describe Denzel Washington as the finest black actor of his generation, though this completely obscures the crucial point about Washington's career - that he is just one of the finest actors of his generation, whatever their colour. Indeed, his success is based on the fact that he has successfully fought for parts his white contemporaries could have had: 'Crimson Tide'. Philadelphia', even routine movies like 'The Bone Collector'. Nevertheless, Washington does seem to behave as if he sees himself as representative of black people - he has a tendency to play upstanding, role model parts (he is unquestionably the modern heir to Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda in this regard), as if he wants to set a good example. In this way, had I been casting 'Training Day', my first thought would have been to have Washington play Jake Hoyt, an idealistic policeman who genuinely wants to do some good, and has to spend a training day with a seasoned narcotics officer Alonzo Harris, who seems to have a slightly more pragmatic, if not cavalier, approach to the law. But Hoyt is played by Ethan Hawke, and Washington is Harris. Antonie Fuqua's film plays on the upstanding roles Washington has previously played - as the day goes on, Harris goads Hoyt into ever more risky and compromising situations, forever with the justification that on the streets, you need to be practical, not tied down by propriety or laws that get in the way. When Harris tells Hoyt that he's only telling it like it is, despite the ferocity of Washington's performance, despite the excesses in which Hoyt is involved, you want to believe him. In this way, 'Training Day' steps away from simply being a well-acted, well-made thriller into something more interesting. Hoyt wants to do the right thing, but Harris increasingly seems to say that only by doing a succession of wrong things can this be achieved. As the day wears
on, Hoyt is talked into trying drugs, they allow criminals to go free, torture informants, and rip off drug dealers. All the while, it seems that something is building up, and Harris plans to end the day with a move against a big local drug dealer. The chief issue in the film is whether Harris is for real, using controversial methods to hit the real criminals, or whether Hoyt has been hooked up with a corrupt psychotic - and it's an issue they sustain brilliantly all the way to the predictably violent conclusion. Technically, the film is strong. Best known for a rather plastic attempt at a US version of a Hong Kong action film ('The Replacement Killers') and getting sacked from 'Entrapment', Fuqua handles the action with skill, especially considering that whole film seems to have been shot on location in Los Angeles - generally around the worst bits. It's an energetic and well-paced film, a difficult trick to pull off when you're dealing with a plot based around cumulative events rather a clear and well-defined story. As it happens, this is one of those clever films where a seemingly random assortment of details come together to make sense at the end, and Fuqua's sleight of hand is impressive. Fundamentally though, this is Washington's film. Hawke is very good as the idealist whose principles come under siege, and there are some amusing cameos from the likes of Snoop Dogg (as a crippled street pusher) and Macy Gray as a junkie housewife having a genuinely bad hair day, but it's Washington who you can't take your eyes off. Charming but mercurial, seemingly genuine but capable of appalling cynicism and brutal violence, he inhabits the part like a second skin, and never seems to worry about whether or not the audience will like or hate him (generally, Denzel is presented as the warm human being with whom we are supposed to identify). If a black actor receives an Oscar this year, I believe it will b
e Will Smith (for all the wrong reasons), but with this sudden and surprising change of direction, Washington proves yet again to be absolutely at the top of the game. It's a magnificent performance, and in the context of a generally intelligent and exciting film, makes for a superb reason to get out to the movies before it drops out of view,
Japan has always been a conservative, male-dominated and conformist society, but if you judge the culture by the movies that have made a big impact in the West over the last couple of years, they're obviously starting to worry that the collapse of the might economy, a generation of kids seduced by western movies and pop music and questions over the role of the monarchy might spell the end of stability. 'Audition' is a brilliant evocation of the middle-class, middle-aged Japanese male under siege, but in Kinji Fukasaku's 'Battle Royale', the whole world's going down the pan. The Battle Royale Act is passed in Japan just after the turn of the Millenium, where rioting teenagers have the nation in a panic. In order to force a bit of discipline into the little blighters, every year an entire class is picked at random, deposited on an island, and told to wipe each other out in the next three days. And at the end of that, if there is more than one survivor, they all die. If they misbehave, they die. And of course, they're all given weapons, so whatever happens, they all die. I can't imagine this is a movie ever likely to get a wide release in the USA, as the schoolkids are already gunning each other down for real, but I was surprised by how popular and successful 'Battle Royale' was in UK cinemas last year. I suppose it comes down to the fact that 'Lord of the Flies', the book upon which this movie is more or less based, is taught in GCSE classrooms. It is massively, savagely violent - dressed in their twee little uniforms, the class of 42 schoolkids rip each other to bloody shreds using knives, sickles, and of course, machine pistols. Unlike most UK and US movies involving teenagers, these kids really do look like 15 and 16 year olds - one minute they're squabbling over crushes and cookies, the next minute they're slitting each other's throats in full colour. If ultra-violence isn
39;t enough to put you off, the tone of this insanely grim satire might do for you instead. From the beginning, it's a playful, sardonic movie, full of nasty little jokes and routines. Throughout, Fukasaku makes ironic use of classical music to undercut the tragedy (one of the teacher's six-hourly updates on who has been killed is backed up by 'The Blue Danube'), and he's completely callous about the horrendous body count. The film has a lot of similarities with 'A Clockwork Orange', as it equates the stupid, thoughtless criminality of renegade kids with the monolithic cruelty of the state's reaction, but whereas Kubrick was cold and detached, Fukasaku directs the growing mayhem like an action film, with slow-motion, spurting blood and one-liners. I'm not selling this very well, am I? I actually think that 'Battle Royale' is one of the most interesting and exciting films to be released in the UK last year - it's just that I won't pretend it's safe or easy to watch. Fukasaku knows that violence is exciting and enticing, that's part of the point. The central plank of William Golding's manifesto in 'Lord of the Flies' is that if you take people out of civilisation, you take civilisation out of people; this is what 'Battle Royale' wants to say, but it's not softly spoken like Golding, but grabs you and rubs your nose in the idea. While some of the characters grip their humanity tight and never let go (the heroes Nanahara and Noriko), many of the other kids are all too eager to start shooting and stabbing their way to survival. In many ways, the opening segment is the hardest to watch, as the jokes come thick and fast, and the cruelty of the situation is emphasized. The rules of the game are explained in a video hosted by a squeaky voiced bimbo who makes the situation seem like a game show, and indeed the perfunctory nature of the ceaseless killing is deliberately made t
o seem like a video game (scores flash up after each death, telling you how many 'contestants' are left). The film's cynicism is obvious in a scene where five girls who have survived by working together end up blowing each other to pieces because one of them is unable to trust someone else - the self-sustaining alliance is broken up in minutes. As the film progresses, the action increasingly centres on the sympathetic characters who refuse to get involved in killing, and thus, becomes easier to watch. By the end, the emphasis has shifted entirely to a more optimistic sense that there will always be people who are solid, decent and dependable, no matter what the circumstances. There are nagging doubts. Though the conclusion implies hope for the young generation, the film's structure and action definitely implies that the youth of Japan are something that the adults cannot control or understand - put another way, that maybe Japanese society really does have something to fear from the children, just like the fascists seem to think in the movie. There's a similar sense of this in 'Audition', which seeks to satirise male insecurities, and yet implies that they're justified. But in the end, 'Battle Royale' doesn't want to kick depressed audiences in the guts, and the conclusion is generally quite optimistic about humanity. But you have to be prepared for a wild and deeply subversive ride through some very dodgy territory before you get there. Be warned, this is an exceptionally dark and occasionally unpleasant film that pulls absolutely no punches and makes few concessions to subtlety or good taste. There will be no Oscars for 'Battle Royale', but if you can take it, it's a classic.
Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is the American ambassador to Rome, and on a dark night, his wife (Lee Remick) gives birth to a child which takes one breath, and then dies. Convinced that his wife will never get over the shock, a priest offers to allow Thorn to adopt an orphaned child as if it was his own, and his wife will never know. Thorn is then transferred to the UK, and things start to go a little awry. As young Damien grows up, he starts to attract misfortune - his nanny throws herself from the roof of the family home during a birthday party, the replacement (Billie Whitelaw) is a psychopath, and he throws a fit when he approaches a church. I don't need to tell you any more - you know exactly what's going on in 'The Omen'; generations of kids have now been cursed in the playground purely because of unwise parents and ill-chosen names. We had a Damien at our school, and his life was, appropriately, hell. 'The Omen' is a film about the Anti-Christ; Damien is the son of Satan, dropped into Thorn's family like a cuckoo drops its egg into the nest of another bird. Thorn himself seems destined for the presidency, and Damien has been positioned to ensure maximum power as he grows up. With a huge budget, prestige stars and produced by a big studio, 'The Omen' was made in the shadow of William Friedkin's 'The Exorcist', a massively successful horror film based on the potent mix of demonology and religion. But whereas William Peter Blatty's book and Friedkin's film of it captured, perhaps for the only time in cinema, a genuine sense of the demonic, a real insight into something unexplainable and really horrific, 'The Omen' gathers together the right pieces (stars, solid director, a demonic plot about an evil child) for a much more commercial, mainstream package. This isn't to say 'The Omen' is a bad film - it's a very good one - but what 'The Exorcist' does i
s to conjure up a frightening, fearful atmosphere which haunts you for days. 'The Omen' is simply a Rolls-Royce suspense film, very stylishly mounted and packed with incident, but fundamentally designed to entertain rather than undermine. Most of the films which followed 'The Exorcist' were either crappy ripoffs ('The Devil Within') or big dumb studio nonsense ('The Sentinel', Holocaust 2000'). 'The Omen' is like a machine; once it starts, it runs on rails. Every couple of minutes there is some new horrific incident - accidents, violent encounters, supernatural happenings. It's like a rollercoaster ride which never seems to stop. The first half - with Peck receiving persistent warnings from an Irish priest (Patrick Troughton) while Remick rapidly cottons on to her son's evil nature - is very creepy. And all the while, photo-journalist David Warner is gradually piecing together the story through a series of bizarre photographs, leading up to the second section, a bizarre and gripping search for the truth. Even though David Seltzer later denounced his script as written entirely for the cash, it's still a superb piece of portentous thriller writing. The film ends up loaded with wild incidents, and some superb shock moments (the bit where David Warner reveals the photograph of himself is superb). Richard Donner directs with full-blooded enthusiasm, handling the set-piece deaths with style, and managing to keep a straight-face on a plot which could easily have descended into farce. Whatever else, the final sequences of 'The Omen' are devious and subversive (revolving as they do around a plot to murder a child), and Donner conjures up one shock moment the equal of the 'Alien' chestburster, and the 'Scanners' exploding head. What seals the film's success are the performances - Peck is superb, retaining all his gravitas as a man gradually being tortured by appallin
g revelations. He's probably the only actor in Hollywood who could convincingly play out the last scene. Meanwhile Remick, one of the most underrated actress of the 60s and 70s gives a surprisingly moving (in context) account of the gradually unhinged mother. A supporting cast of outstanding British character actors (Warner, Troughton, Leo McKern, and the magnificent Billie Whitelaw as Damien's protector) help to make the supernatural goings-on more convincing. This isn't profound - it's a robust piece of entertainment with moments of extreme violence and one of the daftest plots going - but watch it for ten minutes and I guarantee you'll be hooked. The film is available in a very nice three DVD set with its jolly but incredibly silly sequels; you'd have to be a fan of ridiculous death sequences and wailing-choir soundtracks to own it, but it's a fun way to spend a day off.
For some men, the life of Oliver Reed was probably the complete male life. He was famous, he shagged an inordinate number of women, he drank like a fish, and he died in a pub. What more could you want? Reading Cliff Godwin's 'Evil Spirits', you don't actually get any contradiction of that; Reed did live a life of debauchery, drinking games, affairs and drinking. But nevertheless, every time I put the book down, I did so with the same thought in my head: thank God I was not born Oliver Reed. There is a significant flaw with this book which from a film-lover's perpective, it never quite recovers. Though he is writing about a film actor (unlike most UK stars, Reed had virtually no stage experience), Godwin has no real critical skills. Whenever he is talking about the movies, he is very comfortable with anecdotes about how the films were made, and what went on during the filming. But he's rubbish at the films themselves. He never attempts to analyse what Reed's movies were like, and generally relies on a summary of what contemporary critics thought. Because Reed managed to make so few good films - aside from 'Gladiator', his only real successes lay his first movies with Michael Winner (the only decent films Winner ever made were in the sixties, featuring Reed), and those he made for Ken Russell (most notably 'Women in Love' and 'The Devils'). But Godwin isn't really able to analyse what kind of an impact Reed had, or why his post-60s choices were so dismal. But the reader has probably bought the book to learn more about the offscreen antics, knowing the actor more for his appearances on chat-shows than his acting talents. This is a tragedy, as Reed was one of those actors who had phenomenal talents which he spent his entire life entirely failing to capitalise on, but he condemned himself to this fate, and you can't blame Godwin for concentrating on those things which Reed allowed to dominate
his life. So you learn about Reed's staggering capacity for alcohol, his complete unability to behave in any normal situation, and his amazing knack for screwing his own life up. Denied any real insight into why Reed was such a child, such a sophisticated charmer without booze in his system, and such an animal once it was in him, you're left with about 400 pages of slowing down past a traffic accident. Yes - Reed's patriotism led him to refuse a move to America in the early-seventies, a move made by his contemporaries Sean Connery and Michael Caine (actors who remain commercially successful, widely admired, and alive), a decision which saw key roles in major movies going to an inferior British actor (Robert Shaw, in both 'The Sting' and 'Jaws'). Yes - the most famous incidents of Reed's drunkenness on television (for example, his singing and dancing on 'Aspel', still a favourite for Denis Norden-style shows) were hoaxes, hoaxes which irretrievably damaged his career. Yes - even when he had a good chance of a comeback (Nic Roeg's 'Castaway', 'Gladiator') he threw the chance away, by getting shitfaced and trashing a restaurant, but exposing himself, by dying. Having read 'Evil Spirits', I know all the wrong things - he had a permanent inability to deal with women, he had a habit of throwing cakes on himself when jokes went wrong, he had eagle's claws tattooed on his penis. I'll pause, and say that again, he had eagle's claws tattooed on his penis. And yet, Godwin doesn't explain why. Perhaps Reed was an enigma, perhaps he was just an incomprehensible idiot, and yet watch some of his movies ('Women in Love', 'I'll Never forget Whatsisname', 'The Jokers') and you can see that he had enormous talent, great charisma, and one of the richest speaking voices any British actor has had in the past forty years. So the question is -
do I recommend it? Well, sort of. I would insist you do a little digging and see some of Reed's worthwhile work, but 'Evil Spirits', as a simple catalogue of a man going completely off the rails, is a fascinating, deeply depressing read.