There are some movies that I’m sure are made specifically with me in mind. Last year Speed Racer, Redbelt, and John Woo’s magnificent Red Cliff made me incredibly happy, much as I had expected. They would have had to be total failures for me not to appreciate them on some level. This year the same applies to Ninja Assassin, Inglourious Basterds, and Transformerbots 2: Revenge of the Subset of Transformerbots Known As The Fallen Transformerbots. In different ways they all feature something that appeals to some part of my brain, be it fighting robots, Rain kicking people in the skullparts, or Nazi scalp-hunting.
Another genre I eat up with a big-ass spoon is the dour corporate thriller, which seems to be undergoing a revival thanks to the success of Michael Clayton. Tony Gilroy appears to be thriving with these movies. His next, Duplicity, looks like a frothier entry than most, a Thomas Crown Affair-style romp with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts flirting through Europe while conning evil corporate scum played by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson. Other than the presence of the bafflingly successful Roberts, that’s another movie you would have to restrain me to stop me from seeing. As I said in my Push review, I adore con movies, though it’s hard to be caught out by one as you go in expecting a big shock twist in the final scene. That’s deadly, as I spend the whole movie trying to figure out what that final con will be. One day I’ll learn how to switch that impulse off.
Another genre piece I felt compelled to see (even though it nearly killed me to see four movies in one week) was Tom Tykwer’s The International, a much-sterner, Pakula-esque kind of corporate thriller than Gilroy’s forthcoming movie. Just to really sell me on it, the cast was headed by Clive Owen (this time in vengeful, non-flirty mode), Naomi Watts at her most pale, and Armin Mueller Stahl, again staking a claim to the roles that would previously have been automatically handed to Max Von Sydow. The two leads are guaranteed to raise my interests, Owen since his superb performance in Children of Men, and Watts ever since playing Jet Girl in the otherwise unforgivable Tank Girl. Yes yes, I know…
I hadn’t even noticed the movie at first, so hectic are things at the moment, until I read the usual slew of reviews on its day of release. The plot grabbed my attention instantly, even if it is doing little more than taking the standard corporate conspiracy thriller template and adding topical(ish) elements to the open slots. Owen is a former Scotland Yard police officer now working for Interpol, investigating the shady actions of a bank (the International of the title) with the help of the CIA (and pale Naomi). While everyone around Owen thinks this is a standard investigation that will proceed along traditional lines, our hero is convinced that the bank is responsible for numerous obstructive acts, from bribery to murder. No one believes him, and throughout the movie his options shrink to none, until he is forced to go off the grid to find justice.
It’s shocking how little The International deviates from convention. Europe is traversed many times over, bugs are found in phones, pencil-pushing superiors shut down investigations with the phrase “You’ve no idea what a shitstorm you’ve created!”, hyper-capitalist bad guys are as nonchalant as you can be without starting every sentence with “Meh”, and assassins know where video cameras are located in airports and tilt their heads accordingly.
That adherence to convention is almost laughable at times. In one scene our heroes have gone to Milan to meet Umberto Calvini (played by Luca Giorgio Barbareschi, with the finest head of hair cinema has seen in years), a politician who is willing to give them the lowdown on what The International is trying to achieve with their plan to facilitate the sale of a few measly missiles. It’s a fantastic stream of exposition, linking international banking to arms deals and profiting from war and the crippling debt it generates, turning the people of the world into indentured slaves.
Thrilling stuff, and based not only on the BCCI scandal of recent times (rather cheekily, The International is officially called the International Bank of Business and Credit), but also the kind of revelations you could find in John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman, as well as being a not-too subtle dig at the International Monetary Fund’s method of generating indebtedness in the countries it “helps”. It’s the kind of revelation you don’t expect to see in a mainstream movie, unless it really is a sign that people are waking up to the unsavoury practices of our financial institutions, and seeing that Capitalism is a system that can easily be abused to wreck billions of lives when ethics are compromised and regulation is removed.
Sadly, that scene ends with Calvini hilariously announcing that he doesn’t have time to give Owen and Watts any more info at that moment, even though it surely couldn’t take long. The dialogue goes exactly like this:
You’ll have to excuse me, I’m afraid. I couldn’t possibly give you that easily explainable piece of information you desperately need, because of Reason X. I have to go outside to give a speech to my supporters on a stage in the middle of a plaza surrounded by buildings that provide a perfect vantage point for numerous snipers, and as you can imagine, this being Italy, the movie birthplace of corruption, the head of the Carabinieri has almost certainly been bribed into helping cover it up. Kindly wait for a few minutes, and when my brains exit stage left, please rush through a panicky crowd in a futile attempt to get to me. You could also solve the crime that the few honest policemen cannot figure out while you are here. Use those techniques from CSI and a modicum of common sense to do so. That will prove entertaining to the audience, and will please me while I watch from the afterlife.
Okay, he doesn’t say all of that, but he might as well have done.
The International sure does love the idea of political assassinations. The film begins with Owen’s partner getting killed in much the same way Georgi Markov was killed in 1978, and ends with a Mafia hit that brings up memories of the murder of Roberto Calvi. Inbetween those scenes, so many people get shot by unseen assailants that by the midpoint of the movie you expect every character filmed in medium frame to suddenly erupt in squibby death. A lot of the time that is indeed what happens.
So why, if the movie is so predictable, did I think it was the best film I saw last week, far superior to Franklyn, Push, and Zack Snyder’s lamentable waste of time and money, Watchmen? Mostly because I lap this stuff up with a spoon. The lone avenger, abandoned by everyone, facing down the might of the corporate-military-industrial complex in a heroic last stand, assailed by the seemingly unvanquishable monolith of The System, and dwarfed by their sterile, inhuman steel architecture; that’s the stuff. The Parallax View, Michael Clayton, All The President’s Men; even the fantasy sub-genres like The Matrix or the first X-Files movie; I can’t get enough.
Just to make me even happier, Clive Owen does a fantastic job as the rumpled loner, out of his depth but driven to break the law to find the truth. He even gets to wear his trademark long coat, that has served him so well in Children of Men and Shoot ‘Em Up, making him look like a rumpled, handsome Jacques Tati driven to the edge by the vicissitudes of modern life. With every new performance I like him more and more.
Watts has much less to do, but I’d happily watch her play a switchboard operator for two hours. The supporting cast are great too. Patrick Baladi (forever to be known as David Brent’s super-competent boss in The Office) is amusingly slick and obstructive as the IBBC lawyer who gets in Owen’s way. Ulrich Thomsen is suitably impassive and creepy as the IBBC head who calmly leads his bank down a immoral path. Bryan F. O’Byrne radiates unnerving professionalism as the assassin that Owen chases for much of the movie.
Best of all, Mueller-Stahl does superb, haunting work as the former Stasi officer who has sold his soul to Capitalism, still performing terrible acts but now so dead to the ramifications of his actions that he no longer cares who he works for or what political beliefs they hold. An interrogation scene between him and Owen that comes late in the film is chilling, even though, yet again, Eric Warren Singer’s script serves up a beige platter of “truth this” and “justice that”. The committed performances transcend the humdrum dialogue.
The only real variable when deciding whether or not to watch this was Tom Tykwer. I’ve only seen Lola Rennt, which was a lot of fun and doubled as a great introduction to the sorely underemployed Franka Potenta. Other than that, I’ve missed out on Heaven, his adaptation of Kieslowski’s last script, and even though I have recorded Perfume seemingly dozens of times via Sky+, it always gets deleted before I get to see it as we need room for Daily Show, Colbert Report, or Grand Designs. Some day, you weird-looking film based on a beloved German novel. Some day.
I’ve always had the impression that Tykwer was like the German Danny Boyle, randomly throwing wacky visuals at the screen with little care for whether the scene needed them or not, or what the overall tone of the movie should be. It’s not really fair of me to assume that on such little evidence, but this reputation has existed whether or not I’ve seen them. Considering the material he is working with here, would he wreck the movie with endless, pointless flashiness?
The answer is hell no. Tykwer turns in a classy, restrained, but exciting thriller, swallowing any showy impulses to deliver a taut conspiracy piece. Even better, he delivers a couple of superb set-pieces. The first, the murder of Owen’s partner, builds brilliantly from innocuous calm to panic and death, and all it features is a heart attack and Clive Owen crossing a road. Tykwer takes what should be a simple scene and imbues it with horrible menace. Not bad for one minute of film. De Palma would have been proud.
The second is the lauded shootout in the Guggenheim Museum, with Owen attempting to apprehend the assassin who has been busy killing the majority of the supporting cast to that point. What starts as a simple tail ends up being a bloody and brutal massacre, leaving the gallery shattered and bullet-ridden. In a way it’s probably a terrible scene, being far more violent and extreme compared to the mild thrills to that point, but a setpiece as thrillingly staged as this deserves praise, especially when it is shot and edited with such clarity and attention to detail. Even more impressive, the scene is filmed on a set built to the exact specifications of the original building. It boggles my mind. Some of the effects are rough and ready, but no matter. It raised the blood pressure brilliantly, and certainly throws Owen’s life into such turmoil that he can no longer afford to play by the rules, thus setting up the finale.
For all of the predictability of the conspiracy plot, as well as some glaring illogicalities (the final confrontation ends with an unbelievable leap of logic, and I don’t mean Owen’s sudden ability to travel internationally despite the warrant for his arrest), it was a satisfying experience. Would it get on my end of year list? Not a chance, unless we’re in for a terrible year. However, I’m thrilled that Tykwer, a director I had ignored in the past, has been able to serve the story so well, intelligently staging the action and the suspense, creating a coherent visual template (all cold steel, granite and glass, until the finale in an alien locale where all bets are off), and not distracting the audience with extraneous narrative and/or visual trickery.
That ability to adapt his style to the material has given me new respect for his talents, even if The International is merely on the right side of average. There is a possibility that his next project will be an adaptation of David Mitchell’s stunning novel Cloud Atlas, produced and co-developed by the Wachowskis. Of all the dream projects seemingly made with me in mind, that has now become the ultimate.
It’s a testament to the success and widespread acceptance of the superhero genre in recent years that David Bourla and Paul McGuigan’s Push has been derided as a second-rate superhero movie and not a second-rate rip-off of Scanners and The Fury. To be honest the idea of a group of psychic-powered individuals hiding in plain sight from dubious governmental agencies certainly is a staple of superhero stories, but this feels more like the kind of thing Stephen King touched on in Firestarter, Carrie, or The Dead Zone. The major difference is that now we are able to leapfrog past the long set-ups of those late 70s / early 80s stories – as we already accept the conventions of this sub-sub-genre through over-exposure – and can instead tell stories with large and complicated mythologies. A billion comics, usually in lower-tier comic universes separate from the big two of Marvel and DC, have taken this approach, and now we see it in a brand new potential franchise.
The question is, have Bourla and McGuigan brought something new to the table to justify investment in that potential franchise, or will this fade into the background like some Hong-Kong-based Misfits of Science? The backstory, blasted through in hyper-exposition-mode during an inventively created title montage, sets out a humdrum universe of scientific experimentation into creating psychic soldiers, based on Nazi research during the war. The powered types can be divided into different groups based on their powers. From what I can remember, Pushers are able to manipulate people’s minds (though not read them), Watchers can see the future, Sniffs have a kind of psychometric power that regrettably manifests only when they sniff objects (there’s no way to make the act of intensely smelling something look anything less than stupid), Stitches can manipulate living tissue, Shadows are able to hide powered individuals just by hanging around them, and Bleeders have a scream that can demolish things (and makes their eyes go lizardy for no apparent reason). Thankfully most of this info is revealed as we go along, interspersed throughout the mostly dreary back-and-forth of much of the movie’s running time. Here is a list of them if you’re desperate to know more.
All of this is surface dressing on a predictable story about psychics on the run from the evil government psychic division, known as Division (not to be confused with the inept bureaucratic jerks in 24, also known as Division). This sort of thing has been done before, and I have to admit, I’ve been in two minds about seeing Push for exactly that reason, and not because it looks like Jumper, as pointed out by Masticator. That, too, had the plot of powered individuals chased by shady operatives of a mysterious organisation, which just goes to show that it is a very appealing kind of story on a deep level. Who hasn’t fantasised that they are somehow special, and yet misunderstood and persecuted by a force greater than themselves? (Please don’t tell me that’s just me and a lot of Matrix fans!)
Luckily, Push has more up its sleeve than just having a bunch of photogenic people with Amazing Powers of the Brain trying to elude The Man. Those photogenic people with Amazing Powers of the Brain are also trying to elude a power-crazed Chinese gang who also have Amazing Powers of the Brain. The film tends to get rather busy with the powered people a la Heroes, though sadly we don’t get those powers used willy-nilly as in Jumper.
Our hero, Nick, played by Chris Evans, is a loser whose psychic powers (he’s a telekinetic, or Mover) have done nothing to stop him being a jerkoff dropout living in Hong Kong and getting into trouble with gambling debts, as people do in the movies (though they don’t usually look as hott as Chris Evans). His loser status is attributed to the trauma of seeing his psychic father murdered by a dastardly member of Division played by Djimon Hounsou, wearing an evil goatee. Haunted by relentless Flashback Syndrome in times of great stress, Nick is a burnout, and to make things worse, his Amazing Powers of the Brain are actually very Mediocre.
Into his life comes Cassie, played by a pubescent Dakota Fanning wearing punkish gear and a skirt so short Canyon exclaimed in horror upon seeing the trailer. It fits the character, weirdly. She’s older than her years, bossing people about and getting hammered on cheap booze to “improve her powers”, though really she’s just being a brat. Her past is also filled with that screenwriting staple of emotional pain caused by the fate of her parent, this time her super-Watcher mother, a woman of immense power who has been captured by Division.
Eager to save her, Fanning enlists the help of Evans in the search for Kira, a Pusher played by Camilla Belle (winner of 2008′s prestigious Caruso Award for Most Improbably Styled Hair as well as a Worst Actress Dishonourable Mention, thanks to her mystifyingly poor performance in 10000 B.C.). Belle is on the run from Division after absconding with a MacGuffin; a syringe filled with a drug that causes Amazing Powers of the Brain, as well as Not So Amazing Side Effects of the Death, except in certain arbitrarily determined circumstances.
In order to prevail against the machinations of Division, Evans and Fanning enlist the help of various other psychics dotted about Hong Kong. Cliff Curtis, Ming Na, and Nate Mooney (as a nine-fingered sleaze called Pinky Stein) get dragged into the proceedings with varying degrees of enthusiasm. This sadly does not mean we get to see a lot of exciting action, but then the movie has other ideas on its mind. We also don’t see the psychics here use their powers to help people, which I’ve banged on about before. Okay, so I’d argue this doesn’t really count as a superhero movie, so these guys have no real narrative obligation to do it, but any conversations within the film about stopping Division from creating an army of super-soldiers seem even more feeble than usual when the two main characters are more interested in gaining some kind of leverage over Division in order to settle their old scores / parental issues.
Okay, sorry, bugbear rant over. As I was saying, in addition to the cliched shady operative antagonists, our heroes also have to contend with a ruthless clan of cliched Chinese gangsters who are desperately seeking the MacGuffin. The number of confrontations between good and bad guys is minimal, which is probably down to the low budget (about $38m; it looks fantastic for the money), and is thus understandable. Instead, for the most part Push features our photogenic heroes meeting a variety of powered people to find other powered people who will help them find their MacGuffin in order to something something. One of the posters for this movie shows someone using telekinesis to blast a car into the air. Trust me, no cars get blown into the air. There are lots and lots of sarcastic conversations, but that’s a little harder to dramatise in a poster. Also, who wants to watch a film like that? Other than me, obviously.
There are a couple of action sequences, but sadly they’re cut with such a shockingly poor understanding of how editing should work that I silently raged in my seat. McGuigan does such a piss-poor job of cutting these sequences that he makes Quantum of Solace look like it was directed by Tarkovsky. Any joy I might have had at the sight of faceless goons getting thrown through the air with telekinesis was totally scuppered. This scene, from the big finale, is cut and shot so unclearly that you can’t tell who is getting hurt, and how. Are the light FX denoting energy in the punches, or deflections? I’ve watched it a number of times and I just don’t know what the hell is going on. I do know it looks as goofy as hell, though.
What does set Push apart is that it evolves into a peculiar hybrid of the usual psychic runaway blah blah as described above, and stern Ocean’s Eleven-style con job japery. Again, this is very hard to communicate through trailers and posters, and so I was taken aback as the final half of the movie becomes a chaotic and barely logical series of tricks, counter-tricks, and final act twists, except here the con is complicated by the various superpowers of all the major players. And believe me, when I say complicated, I really really mean complicated.
Complicated is fine if the con has been worked out properly, but regrettably the con makes very little sense. Our heroes — who, in a nice touch, are not all that great a bunch of psychics compared to the professionals — need to get hold of the MacGuffin, but not only do they need to figure out where it is, they also have to do so without alerting the various Watchers who are monitoring the future for signs of alteration. The precognition powers are the ones given the most attention and exposition, which was gratifying. Most tales featuring precognition tend to fudge the details of how such powers would affect the actions of everyone involved, or get tangled up in messy continuity. For the most part, Push gets it right, setting out some solid ground rules early on, and sticking to them for much of the film.
Especially interesting is Fanning’s explanation of how the future is so malleable even talking about her predictions can often change the future again. So often people hear about their destiny and either do nothing about it, or make it come true through their attempts to avoid it (a million bad stories have ended that way). Push at least accepts that the future is not set in stone, which creates new storytelling opportunities, as every move they make changes something in the future, until at some point they seem doomed thanks to the intervention of a super-Watcher, a Chinese gang-member who apparently has no name, if IMDb and Wikipedia are anything to go by.
This Watcher, focused only on our band of sarcastic heroes, is predicting every move they make, so they have no hope of changing their destiny. Bourla has decided that the future actions of a person can be deduced as soon as they make a decision to do something. It’s as if their precognition is linked to some kind of telepathy. It’s this conceit that allows Evans to come up with his too-complicated con plot, which involves giving sealed instructions to his group of psychics and then getting his memory wiped so as to confound The Pop Girl (seriously, that’s what she seems to be known as). As no one knows what they are going to do right up until the moment they are going to do it, The Pop Girl can’t predict what is going to happen.
That’s a pretty cool idea, and seems to make some kind of sense within the parameters set out earlier (as well as making the most of the heroes’ ingenuity in the face of superior brainpower), but the execution is confusing. Evans’ mind gets wiped after three of the envelopes are opened, which seems to contradict those rules. Even weirder, The Pop Girl is already sketching her vision of the future when this happens, and then makes a big fuss about losing that image.
What, she can’t remember what she was drawing two seconds earlier? I guess that’s the downfall of this new sub-sub-sub-genre; cons work fine onscreen when it’s all crafty hand-offs, rigged props, and Matt Damon in a fake nose. As soon as you bring metaphysics into the equation, that flow of set-up / con / “prestige” falls apart.
There’s also a lack of rigour to it, especially as the twists and deus ex machina of the final act start happening. One is kinda clever: Fanning is saved from the death she has been predicting since the start of the movie by the intervention of the creepy brainsuck guy who has been hovering around in the background for a while. He has been hired by Fanning’s mother, who has seen so far into the future that she can maneouvre people into place years in advance. It’s a cute twist, though having an offscreen character influence the plot in such an extreme way inevitably feels like a cheat, no matter how well it has been set up.
There is also a lot of back and forth between Evans, Belle, and Hounsou about whether Belle was his former girlfriend or a sleeper agent from Division that goes through several complicated twists, all of which contradict each other. The only way the final scene could possibly work is if you fanwank like crazy, assuming that Fanning’s previous vague predictions were suddenly incredibly precise, or Evans’ written instructions to Belle were very complex and called for her to Push Hounsou the moment she meets him, though even that would require yet more contrivance and fanwanking.
That final scene seemed very clever when I first saw it, but by the time I had returned home it had started to fall apart with even a tiny bit of scrutiny. Much of the rest of the film seemed hollow too, suggesting the script wasn’t thought through enough during writing, and the filmmakers figured no one would notice, or there were reshoots and rewrites that rendered some of those twists incomprehensible. It’s a shame, because the idea of creating a movie like this is very appealing. Yes, I like to see psychic action scenes, but this felt like there was a fresh idea trying to break out from all of the intense concentrating, elaborate gesturing, and eye-morphing effects.
It wasn’t all bad, though. Chris Evans has long been a favourite in our house, thanks to his pitch-perfect work on the otherwise risible Fantastic Four movies, as well as his charming performance in Cellular and his intense grouchiness in Sunshine. Watching him turn up in forgettable dreck like The Nanny Diaries (as, I swear to God, Harvard Hottie) has been dispiriting, and then appearing in an underpromoted action film like Push makes things worse. When is he going to hit big? Does anyone else even care? His Wikipedia page hasn’t even been updated with the news that he’s going to be playing one of the evil ex-boyfriends in Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Am I going to have to join to update the damn thing myself? I could be Keeper of the Flame, I guess.
He’s predictably terrific in Push, playing a stock character (the lovable and acerbic loser) with much charm and conviction. Even better, he’s paired up with Fanning, who does a great job as the old-beyond-her-years Cassie. Plagued with visions of her own death, she’s a nihilist and alcoholic 13-year old who sasses everyone. I gather I’m supposed to dislike her because she’s precocious, and yes, I usually have a problem with child actors, but I thought she was one of the best things about War of the Worlds, and the same thing applies here. Her chemistry with Evans is one of the things I enjoyed the most about Push, their snarky paranoia tempered by growing affection and concern.
Much of the supporting cast are entertaining too. Cliff Curtis can be variable, depending on the movie he is in. I was deeply disappointed by his work in Fracture and Die Hard 4, but he was great in Three Kings and Sunshine. Here he’s light and charming, which is a nice departure from his more serious roles. Nate Mooney, as Pinky, is also very likable, and won over the group of teenage girls sitting at the back of the cinema when I saw it. Everything he said was greeted with a delighted cackle. Ming Na gets little to do other than be cynical about everything, which was a bit of a waste. Hounsou glowers a lot. There’s not much else for him to do, I guess.
In an improvement on her performance in 10000 B.C., Belle adds a third expression to her repertoire. As with the caveman movie she has happy and scared down-pat, but now she has intense focus mastered too. At this rate, she’ll be a watchable actress in about 30 movies. She was recently featured in a Glamour magazine photoshoot of up-and-coming talent pretending to be icons of fashion and female empowerment, for which she should thank her publicist with diamonds and unicorns and suchlike. Nothing she has done on film to date has warranted any attention. Maybe there are hidden depths there, but they are really really well hidden so far.
(N.B. I appreciate that picking on Belle for being out of place in that photoshoot is a bit rich, as the equally micro-talented Hayden Panettierre, Alexis Bledel, and Odette Yustman are also in there too. Basically, except for the inclusion of America Ferrera, the whole thing is an embarrassment.)
McGuigan may fluff the action scenes, but there is other stuff to enjoy there. The Hong Kong location shooting is interesting, only occasionally succumbing to the temptation to postcarditise the city. I also liked his use of pastel colours. It’s possible he did that annoying thing of using colours like this because that’s what comics do (seriously, only Warren Beatty made that work in Dick Tracy, and only because he went all-out), but nevertheless, it made my eyes very happy. The annoying flashy over-editing irked, though, and not just in the action scenes. At times it feels like Slumdog Millionaire, if Slumdog was about psychics and not implausible fairytale gamepieces.
One decision he has made doesn’t work as well as he would have hoped. Turning his back on digital effects (except for where they are necessary), McGuigan fills the screen with physical effects, with the powers having a visceral effect. When people are being thrown around using wirework, that decision pays off, but a floaty gunfight between Evans and Hounsou’s Mover right-hand man (played with silent scowly menace by Neil Jackson) rapidly become ridiculous. Seeing two guns hover through the air, obviously stuck to the end of green sticks removed in post, is unintentionally hilarious. Seeing one gun pressed against Hounsou’s temple totally broke the spell. I didn’t bother to check the credits to see if there was a gun-pole wrangler, as his/her work was terribly unconvincing.
So is it worth watching? As a rental, maybe so, even though that labyrinthine plot is contrived and filled with illogicalities, and the finale hints at future installments that will almost certainly not happen (even with a small budget, it’s not going to make a profit, unless there was an amazing deal made for post-theatrical rights). Considering the interesting additions made to the stock plot, it still feels humdrum, and would only really appeal to fans of Chris Evans, psychic-story completists, and people who enjoy seeing things fly through the air because some guy is gesturing like someone infected with Ultra-Vogue Fever. So that’s probably just me and three excitable girls who liked Pinky. I will say that even though Franklyn was an underdog film with lots of ambition, I got more out of this psych-heist flick, though again that’s mainly because I get a thrill from this kind of thing. Nevertheless, I’m not going to lie to myself and everyone else and act like it’s a good movie. It’s not even as good as Jumper. I can imagine that anyone reading this it not about to rush out and rent it now. Oh, Chris Evans! Forgive me!
::Disclaimer – I almost made it this time! Stuff got in the way, as ever, and I’m currently as tired as I’ve ever been, but I nearly made it. I might beat the US West Coast screening of LaFleur, but even so, after my recent run of failures, I’m just glad to be this close to the screening hour. Next week will be another matter as we’re on holiday, so forgive me if I treat this like some kind of success::
Throughout its run, Lost has alienated viewers by leaping from one event to another whenever that event looks to be leading to something revealing or exciting, though there are probably many more who enjoy that mischievous gameplaying from the showrunners. Even so, audience sympathy is usually tested depending on which character next comes under the microscope. If it’s Jack or Kate, the complaints rise. If it’s Desmond or Sawyer, no one seems to mind. These episodes always fill in important details that we need to decode the show, but it’s arguable whether any of them is the true focus of the show. As we approach the end, it’s tempting to assume that no matter who the show skips to next, the core of the show that all the other characters revolve around is the battle of wills between Locke and Ben.
The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham managed the neat trick of going over a time period we already know a lot about via flashbacks, while still giving up lots of new info, big surprises, and resonant thematic imagery to add to the wealth of detail from previous episodes. That’s the stuff we expect. However, I don’t think we expected performances of the calibre on display in this episode, with Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson again giving award-worthy performances. Their final scene together, with Ben begging Locke not to kill himself in such a convincing manner that even I was momentarily fooled, was an acting masterclass, and instantly one of the most incredible and iconic scenes in the history of the show, and possibly ever. That’s right! I’m gonna go hyperbolic on your ass, reader! If you don’t believe me, here it is. Warning: contains grisly sound effects of a trachea being crushed.
Even if you were prone to bitching about how the episode gave us little new information (I’m looking at you, Noel Murray), or you’ve been partially spoiled by accidentally looking at a Lost Alert email from EW that contains the line “And more on that shocking murder!” (not naming any names), surely this moment would nevertheless chill the blood in your veins and organs and other body parts. To us this is a big deal, but is it to Ben? How evil is he really? Can we ever again think that there is ambiguity here? Somehow Michael Emerson’s performance, and the relentlessly ambiguous nature of the show, cons us over and over into thinking he is somehow going to become the hero of the show, but we’re reallly only fooling ourselves. As broken as he is on a psychological level, as entertaining as he is as a weaselly trickster, and as awesome as his hair is in this picture, he’s a total fucking douche.
Or is he? Oh God, it never ends. Often we can only gauge his alignment by contrasting him with other figures, most notably his nemesis Charles Widmore. This week we see Widmore as a caring soul, no doubt with his own motives but nevertheless committed to helping Locke get the gang back together. Locke points out that Widmore has, in the past, sent a gang of murderous assholes to the island to kill everyone, but even so he’s helping Locke out and being very friendly. He was even recognisably human a few weeks ago when asking Desmond for information about Penny. How can we not compare that behaviour to Ben, who apparently kills Matthew Abaddon and then throttles Locke once he has the information he needs?
Ben truly is a colossal asshole of the highest magnitude. This, of course, is the kind of bait and switch Lost does all the time, giving us a ton of information that turns out to be nothing more than a huge, and satisfying, fakeout. There’s a possibility that he already knows that Locke will come back to life when he returns to the island. If so, this act of dastardly murder is actually part of a scheme to fulfill Alpert’s instructions, taking Locke’s inevitable death and making the “prophecy” come true, but on his terms. Even though that’s the kind of labyrinthine thinking we can usually to Ben, I doubt that’s the case. We’re probably going to get a Ben flashback at some point that shows him visiting Eloise Hawking and finding out he can indeed return to the island, but only by recreating the conditions of Oceanic 815′s final flight. This would be a perfect moment for some schadenfreude until he realises Locke’s death is advantageous.
Or does he already know how to get back to the island, and has planned Locke’s death knowing his corpse would replicate Christian’s? Do you see why I’m having difficulty attaching expectations and judgement on Ben? Even now, having seen him kill one of the most important people in his life, and in an incredibly personal and brutal manner, I still can’t be sure that he really is as bad as he seems to be. Time for more hyperbole; I’m beginning to think that Ben Linus is the most complex character in contemporary fiction, in any medium. Every second he is onscreen I’m unable to take my eyes off him for fear of missing some gesture or expression that opens up some new avenue of conjecture. His murder of Locke is brutal but also seemingly traumatic. Is he crying in this shot?
His behaviour after killing Locke, feverishly cleaning every surface to remove fingerprints and then offering an affectless and unconvincing confession of some kind of weird affection for the man he has used, toyed with, and assaulted, was electrifying. I am in awe of Emerson, as well as Cuse and Lindelof for creating this incredible character.
What is especially weird is that this is, of course, not the first time Ben has tried to kill Locke. At the end of season three, Ben shot Locke in the hole where his kidney should be. Are Ben and Locke doomed to keep repeating this pattern of murderous abuse forever, like Horace Goodspeed is trapped in an endless cycle of treechopping? Perhaps not that exact fate, but I do suspect Ben’s ultimate fate will be along the lines of being trapped in some kind of timeloop. Call it a hunch.
This one scene affected me so profoundly that afterwards I forgot nearly everything else that had happened before, which is a shame as there is some gold there. The most interesting stuff revolves around Locke’s miserable quest to convert his former castaways to his cause, which he does in the most half-hearted way possible. Maybe that’s not fair, but he certainly doesn’t seem to be trying too hard (as has been said elsewhere, that’s probably due to an understandable reluctance to die). Even Abaddon calls him out on it, which is odd as the rest of the time he’s really deferential to his cranky passenger.
Speaking of Abaddon’s pointed comments, his line about how someone must want to see Locke stuck in my head. My own theory for why he doesn’t try hard with the Oceanic Six is down to their pretty unpleasant behaviour toward him. No one is happy to see him at all. Poor bastard. If I was trying to get back to a magic island I’d really hate to have to drag along a bunch of snarky ingrates like these. Sayid is reasonably polite to him, but then he always did have an air of civility, even though he has a habit of killing people with his legs or kitchen appliances.
Also polite to him is Walt, who seems to have no recollection of visiting Locke in the Dharma mass grave at the end of season three, which gives credence to the possibility that it was the island manifesting as someone else. Or Smokey, doing his new trick of mimicking people.
Not bringing Walt back to the island is a very nice gesture, but it’s deeply frustrating for those of us who want to find out what the deal with his psychic powers was. Is this a plot thread that has been dropped for good? If so, I shall write a strongly-worded letter of complaint to Lindelof and Cuse.
It gets much worse for Locke after that pleasant diversion. Hurley has yet another meltdown upon seeing him, refusing to return to the island. At this point I was wondering why Locke was going through the Oceanic Six in this order, as there was no way Hurley was ever going to agree to go back to the island. Was Locke trying to fail? Hurley’s reaction was almost uncharacteristically mean, but in the middle of storming away, he offers a folrorn, “Bye!” even though he’s just been yelling. I love Hurley.
In contrast, Kate is flat out horrible to him. She basically goads him into talking about his lost love, Helen, by making bitchy comments about how he has never loved anyone. Maybe it’s just because we’ve been following his life story for so long, but to me the desperate unrequited love pours out of him. O’Quinn’s heartbreaking performance during this scene is a sight to behold.
And anyway, it’s a bit rich for Kate to be coming out with this kind of snarkiness. She’s got two guys chasing her around like love-sick puppies, at least one former boyfriend who died helping her rob a bank to get a fucking toy plane back, and her husband, poor Nathan Fillion, is probably crying somewhere because she drugged him and left him behind, like someone out of a warped C&W song. She’s the last person to be making comments about loving people. Shut up, Kate.
If she’s rude, Jack is psychotic with rage. Foxy’s unhinged performance was another highlight, and the last straw in Locke’s terrible journey towards his suicide attempt. Some have thought he tries to kill himself because he now really does have no one (Jack’s comment about him being a lonely old man was way way harsh and, apparently, pretty accurate), but it’s probably more that his dream of being a leader of men is dead and so there is nothing else for him.
It’s not just that these people don’t like him. They won’t follow him. His requests are ignored, but he understands that they would never go back to the island unless he did something exceptional to show how important it is that they do so. All along he wants to be a leader, but even when he gets a chance to flex that muscle, the only thing fate allows him to do is convince a bunch of desperately hostile and miserable people to do something they would never do. With his options narrowed to nothing, it’s no surprise he does it. It would also be a leap of faith to mirror Jack’s in the next episode, though of course this is not the way it turns out.
His doubt in his ability to convince the Oceanic Six to come back is so strong that he openly admits that the only person who could actually do that is Jack. He pretty much cedes his responsibility to him, which is a total turn-around considering how often he fought with Jack for leadership of the castaways. He also self-pityingly refers to himself as a failure to Ben, but then I guess if you’ve decided to kill yourself, there’s little reason to hold back on something like that. All of this self-loathing made me very sad, as I’ve been rooting for Locke for some time now, even though he’s a bit of a dick. I hope that the series ends with Locke actually fulfilling his weird fantasy about being the main man.
Ah yes, Saïd Taghmaoui. As expected, there is way more going on with our new islander, and with Ilana, who are both interested in raiding the Hydra station for information about something. Ilana seems more interested in Locke, plying him with mangoes for details on how he got to the island. Saïd Taghmaoui, playing Caesar, is more interested in… well, something. Is it the map of the island, bearing an “Unknown” notation that is reminiscent of a Here Be Monsters warning?
That reveal alone is enough to make my brain whir into overdrive. As of yet I have nothing concrete to wonk on about here, but I’m sure I will in time. (An aside: giving Saïd Taghmaoui’s character the name Caesar is deeply confusing, as Ilana is played by Zuleikha Robinson, formerly playing Gaia in Rome. I’m sure she was cast for her talent as an actress, but surely playing a character with such an evocative name in a show that is already hinting at the idea of a sentient landmass was a side consideration as well.)
For now, pontificating about the show’s meaning has taken a temporary back seat due to brainfog. Even so, I was thrilled to hear Matthew Abaddon (played by Lance “Intensity” Reddick with an air of wry detachment. And intensity) back up my Sirens of Titan theory. When finally confronting Locke about his weird sour behaviour, he says of his employment to Widmore that he “help[s] people get to where they need to get to.” He is one of those who puts the gamepieces into place. Who else has been doing this in the past? Eloise Hawking for certain, but will we find there were others? How many seemingly unimportant characters from the past will turn out to have been agents of Widmore or the island?
A lot of people have made a big deal about the cover of the Life magazine that Caesar looks at, as it is now super-relevant to the show…
This is easily the worst fake newspaper I’ve ever seen on a TV show. I know UK newspapers are traditionally ugly, but this is ridiculous.
Actually, now that I think about it, it’s not that bad, I guess.
For a long time I had suspected that the second island was in fact the actual island, but sent back in time and space at the end of season four to exist next to itself in the past.
I guess now Locke and the Ajira survivors (who I now suspect are all minions of Widmore) are all hanging around on its beach with those crazy boats, that is not the case. It also makes me suspect that the Ajira survivors, who will undoubtedly be shooting at the Island Six in a forthcoming episode, will be made to do that by Locke, who will remember it happening the first time around.
Hey Sayid, our landlady still hasn’t fixed our roof after a year of complaining. You wanna help us out?
I was, until a couple of hours ago, convinced that the site of Locke’s impressive car crash…
If ever there was a case for wrapping someone in bubble wrap…
Jack’s deeply upset reaction to the news of Locke’s suicide now makes sense, as we now know that Jack was the last castaway to see Locke before his death was announced. The guilt is what Jack is fighting through during the previous episode, and why his reaction to Locke’s note was so pronounced. I gather Lindelof and Cuse were unsure what order to show these two episodes in. I can see their point, but I reckon they got the order right. Rewatching 316 after seeing The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham was a fascinating experience, so that means I got to enjoy it as new twice in a row. It was like a little present from the Lost showrunners.
The visual references to Locke as Christ didn’t crop up as much this week, though we did get this lovely shot of the dismal hotel room he dies in.
…somehow reminded me of Calgary. I don’t know why. (And by Calgary, I do indeed mean the Canadian city, as pointed out in the comments by Masticator. This shot totally has a real Canada Olympic Park vibe, despite that being snowy and this picture being barren desert. I’m sure any Canadians reading this would agree that the Canada Olympic Park is synonymous with the place where Christ died.)
One of the best and most chilling moments came when Abaddon pulled a wheelchair from the back of his car.
Worst road trip ever?
I know Abaddon is a bit creepy, but even so, he shouldn’t have to put up with the snottiness he gets from Locke. Funnily enough, Abaddon is the one person taking orders from Locke and that lonely old man doesn’t even appreciate it. He also runs away when Abaddon gets plugged by Ben. Coward! And Abaddon was trying so hard, too. He even smiled!
Nice visual metaphor for Locke’s condition during his stay in hospital. While he might think he is in control of his destiny, he is actually at the mercy of others.
Of course, Ben might also have no friends, but he’s never alone. He’s in the desert for a couple of minutes before he’s thwacking people in the head with a collapsible baton. Locke has to wait hours for help, even with cameras looking at him. That’s a pretty sad state of affairs.
Is Widmore’s comment about the aptness of Locke’s new name the first time anyone has made a reference to the naming of some of the characters on the show?
From my studies of the genearl opinion of internetters everywhere, I see I’m not alone in thinking Helen isn’t really dead.
If Widmore can put a fake plane full of corpses at the bottom of the sea, he can swap a gravestone around. Now it would be nice for Locke to finally be reunited with his lost love, but I get the feeling that isn’t going to happen. As much as he professes to love Helen, I think he was just hoping to get a bit of affection from anyone after being treated like a pariah by everyone who isn’t Walt. I’m beginning to wonder if the only reason he wants the Oceanic Six to return to the island is as a form of punishment for not being nice to him. He does let Walt off, after all.
Am I the only person who thinks that Locke’s weird wave is kinda creepy?
Can you see a runway here?
There is a lot of online conjecture suggesting Ajira 316 landed on the runway being built by Kate and Sawyer in the third season, but it looks to me like the plane crashed into some trees. I’d like to think that someone as awesome as Frank Lapidus qouldn’t miss a runway. Because he is awesome, beard or no beard.
Someone has pointed out, elsewhere, that Ben keeps stealing Locke’s destiny from him. Not only did he move the island even though Christian had said it was Locke’s responsibility, but Ben also killed Locke even though Locke was supposed to do it himself.
I’m not sure about that, as Christian said he had to die, not that he had to kill himself. It did make me remember that Locke was also supposed to kill Anthony Cooper in order to join the Others, but he conned Sawyer into doing it instead. He just wants to be accepted without having to do the hard work to get there. This kind of self-delusion, thinking there is a path to greatness and happiness via an easy route, is utter anathema to me. ::hides recently purchased Euro Lottery ticket::
Okay, time to move on to other things. Those who have already seen the next episode, LaFleur (which, of course, was the first Dharma Initiative password in last summer’s aborted ARG Lost Experience), I hope you had a good time. Those of us who have it to look forward to, fingers crossed it keeps this amazing run of excellence going.
Have you ever wanted to like a movie because hating it makes you seem like a big jerk? Have you ever railed against your country’s film industry for not trying hard enough, and then, when you get your way, you can’t stand what you end up with? Seeing Gerald McMorrow’s Franklyn was pretty much the ultimate downer, as I finally got to see what I thought was going to be an ambitious sci fi thriller, but ended up being an empty exercise in puzzle-movie mechanics with some extraneous fantasy trappings from a first-time director who should surely earn praise for getting such an anti-audience project off the ground. Disliking it makes me feel like I’m dropping a rock on a tiny bird moments after it has learned how to fly.
Franklyn concerns four lonely people, played by Sam Riley as a hopeless romantic trying to connect with his childhood sweetheart between moping sessions, Eva Green as the world’s most pretentious art student, Bernard Hill as a delusional man looking for his mentally unstable son, and, in the movie’s most striking scenes, Ryan Phillippe, as a vigilante-cum-militant-atheist roaming a gothic land called Meanwhile City in search of an evil prophet called The Individual.
(Warning! Franklyn spoilers from here onwards!!!)
So far so perplexing. Sadly, the links between these characters are nowhere near as interesting as you would hope. As soon as it is revealed that Bernard Hill’s son is mentally ill, all the efforts to hide photos of him from the audience come to naught. The fantasy land exists in Philippe’s head, and the reveals of how all of the peculiar details from his plot-thread match up to the real world unfurl much as you would expect. It’s rather disappointing.
For the most part the visually impressive Meanwhile City sequences could have been dropped from the film, as they add little but a bit of variety to the drawn-out scenes of Riley, Green, and Hill wandering around various unpleasant backstreets of Grey London. Riley seems almost totally fixated on Tottenham Court Road, and even passes within projectile vomiting distance of my old haunt Bradley’s Spanish Bar. The meat of the film seems to be pushing the characters together through “cosmic intervention”, with the only true fantasy element of the film being the two mysterious beings who intervene throughout. One is an Eastern European hospital janitor who is probably God. That detail, sure to infuriate xenophobic Mail readers throughout our dyspeptic and crotchety land, was delightful, though sadly reminiscent of the Godly janitor from The Hudsucker Proxy. The other Godly presence is a doubly-employed Eva Green, this time wearing a mad red wig. This also delights, in a different way.
That’s one of the fatal flaws of Franklyn. Working like a cross between Dark City, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Lost (with regards to its interconnected plots), Franklyn‘s ambition is hobbled by echoes of other stories. The moments where McMorrow allows his film to become a torrent of ideas, especially the religious mania of Meanwhile City, are the most interesting, but perhaps there’s a movie to be made about that, instead of stapling it to this other story. To be honest, I doubt even that would work. As enjoyable as the detailed matte paintings are, Meanwhile City’s conceit – that living there is only allowed if you adhere to a faith – is at worst an ill-thought out satire on New Age thinking, at best part of a greater theme throughout the movie about belief and self-deception.
Perhaps I’m being generous. Sam Riley’s plot-thread revolves around his unrequited love, caused by a fixation on a childhood sweetheart who turns out to have been an imaginary friend-cum-guardian angel. He has created a fantasy world of his own, a lot less elaborate than Phillippe’s, but containing more mad wigs. He also refers to a tale about a Storyteller who spins yarns that can then come true (Riley’s onscreen BFF, played by Richard Coyne, makes a wet comment about that being a great superpower, which is kinda unfortunate, as this means McMorrow has never heard of this recently introduced Marvel character). That theme, of the delusion made real, pops up at the end as Phillippe’s fantasy bleeds out into the world, to be seen by Eva Green. So what’s the point McMorrow is making? That we make the world in our own image? That perception is all? That faith is the same thing as that, or perhaps a lesser form of self-delusion than daydreaming? It’s a thread that could have been followed with more vigour, but instead falls short.
To make matters worse, it seems like all of the cosmic interventions are all in the service of so little. Green, who appears to be on the way to killing herself (her attempts disguised as a boring art project), is redeemed at the end by meeting Riley, who seems thrilled to have found a non-bewigged version of his guardian angel. Of course, he meets her in the final moments of the film, so a couple of weeks listening to her wittering on about her shitty art will probably put him off, but I think we’re meant to find her solipsism and brattiness charming. As for Phillippe, he dies, and his dad sees it happen. I think he’s meant to be given the opportunity to move on, but it seems like a pretty crappy way to do it. Your crazy son is dead, dude. Time to get a hobby. Thanks, Janitor God!
Maybe if there was a sense that more was at stake this would have worked better, but even with the threat of Bernard Hill dying at his son’s hands, the loudly-whirring machinations of the plot signal that any attempt on his life is merely going to trigger something else. In that sense, Riley’s flesh-wound seems to be important, but it really isn’t. He doesn’t have to be hurt for him to meet Eva Green. It’s all meant to seem like something has happened, but nothing really has. The film runs on the spot for an hour and a half just so we can see a couple meet-cute. Or, considering the bloodshed, pyrotechnics, matte paintings, Godly interventions, and contrivance, perhaps I should say meet-complicated.
It’s not all bad. Green is, as ever, a compelling screen presence even while playing an obnoxious art-school YBA parody, and effortlessly rises above the material. Phillippe is obscured by a mask that screams Desperately Seeking Iconic Status, and it’s tempting to think he’s been replaced by a body double for the majority of the film. When he’s not in the mask, he speaks his dialogue through his traditional mouth-full-of-intensity, though his diction clears up when adopting a British accent for the final act. Bernard Hill is typically brilliant, though playing an infuriating loser strips him of all of his King Theoden charisma, which is a shame. Art Malik crops up in a dual role, and is almost unrecognisable while wearing his Meanwhile City White Contact Lenses Of Otherworldly Freakiness. It’s good to see him around, even though he’s not given much to do.
Sam Riley, sadly, is pretty bloody awful. I’ve been hearing a lot about him since he played Ian Curtis in Control, but this introduction to his work has soured me, hopefully temporarily. It doesn’t help that his character is utterly wet and silly, whining repeatedly about how sad he is about not finding the right girl. Jilted by his fiancee in his first scene, he never recovers, so much so that after an hour and a half watching him mope and then stalk his guardian angel (yes, you can actually stalk imaginary people, apparently), you wonder how someone as feeble as him could ever appeal to someone as intense as Green’s pretentious artist.
Perhaps that’s why I felt so robbed at the end. All of this because two self-absorbed twits are meant to hook up in the final scene? And there’s no way on earth they could ever make each other happy? It all felt like a lot of effort in service of nothing. The Meanwhile City ideas are left to dissipate in the air, unloved and undeveloped, with some gratuitous fight scenes added just to make you feel like something is happening. Bernard Hill is only there to look sad, for all the effect he has on the plot. Riley does literally nothing for the first hour of the film. Only Green gets anything meaty to do, and even then it’s just giving up, though giving up in suicidal style.
Anyone who knows me knows I get very upset at the British film industry for not trying hard enough to tackle ambitious projects, and am rarely happy with the films that do get a wide release (this was one of the few times I ever sounded optimistic about it). Film4 and the UK Film Council funded McMorrow’s project, and with the small budget (approximately $6m), he has done wonders. Ben Davis’ photography is impressive, capturing the greyness of modern London depressingly well. Joby Talbot’s soundtrack is also worthy of praise. However, McMorrow – who is originally a video and ad director – has fallen into the same trap as the mighty TARSEM! by letting his visual imagination run riot to the extent that any old narrative bolted on will serve to deliver those eye-bending images (if you think I’m being harsh about Tarsem’s likeable and beautiful The Fall, bear in mind even that very slight film was based on Valeri Petrov’s Yo Ho Ho, a fact that struggled to be discovered in the press coverage upon the film’s theatrical release. That’s how little attention people were paying to the plot).
Of course, McMorrow doesn’t have the resources Tarsem had on hand, so his film is bound to be a lot less interesting visually. That’s not his fault. However, while The Fall felt unsatisfying on a narrative level but still delivered a generally satisfying experience, Franklyn is a major disappointment. Though I commend McMorrow for getting this project onto the screen (no mean feat these days), he would do well to consider directing screenplays by stronger writers before he does so again. One day, with the inevitable support he will get from the fans that will champion this film as a visionary success (inevitable, if misguided, IMO), he could make something really worthy of attention. I look forward to joining that band of fans.