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Closer (2004) review

After an accident in the streets of London throws Natalie Portman and Jude Law together, they begin a relationship. The end.

Only joking.

Relationships are complicated, occasionally messy, and sometimes as foulmouthed as this.

Patrick Marber adapted this from his own stage play, and you can tell. It has the structure of a stage play which means the passage of time isn’t always clear and it doesn’t flow in the same way a story designed for film would. For what it’s worth I have nothing against stage productions, it’s just that what works on the stage isn’t necessarily something that works in film.

Now, that’s not to say that Closer doesn’t work as a film, because it does – just about. It has that stage play setup to it which I’ve never been massively keen on. Better to make a complete break away from the format of the play and make it work in a cinematic context.

While the setup and interactions between the characters feels a little contrived as a result of this, it’s carried by deep themes and some excellent performances. We’re linked to four people, played by Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen, and we watch as the character’s lives interact and run across one another.

Each of them in their own way is broken or damaged. Clive Owen’s Larry seems the most clear cut of the four, all of his decisions being made because he’s a caveman, defined by his primeval urges. This is in spite of his prominent position as a dermatologist. But at least he’s honest. Then there is Jude Law’s Dan, a manipulative man who has the outward appearance of a caring man but behind closed doors he is planning on sleeping with as many women as possible. He’s emotionally shallow, further defined by his work as an obituary writer with no career prospects (oh, the irony). He pales in comparison to caveman Larry, but in many respects they represent two sides of the same coin. Batman’s Harvey Dent literally split into two people.

On the lady’s side of the table we start with Natalie Portman’s Alice, a needy, clingy sort of woman – or at least, that is how she portrays herself. There’s likely much more to her than meets the eye. And no, she isn’t a Transformer.

Finally there is Julia Roberts as photographer Anna. She’s less outwardly emotional than any of the others, and I would argue less well developed than the other three characters. Or it could be that her lack of emotional output makes her stand out less amongst the quartet.

Truth and honesty are the themes at play, or the lack thereof. The key to any successful relationship is trust, which none of these four really show. The only exception is Larry – he’s flawed but at least he admits to them openly. Where Closer falls flat is in its narrative. It’s occasionally too complex for its own good and the relationship switches didn’t work for me. But then, I’ve never been in that situation. If I had, I certainly wouldn’t have gone about it the way these four do – you have to know when getting out is a good idea.

Taking a break from creative pursuits… and coming back

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For about a month earlier this year I went on a break from creative pursuits.

There wasn’t a specific reason behind it at the time. Perhaps I was feeling burned out? I had posted one blog a day, every day, from January until the beginning of June. That kind of pace is going to have an impact on you eventually.

It happened just before I went away for a week. Despite best intentions there is often little time for me to write when I go away. That’s not actually a bad thing, you have to take a break and experience the world now and again. On this trip, I did take my iPad and keyboard with me, because you never know.

As it happens, neither had much use over the course of that week.

And that’s just fine. It’s key to realise that you don’t need to be switched on all the time. More so when your writing isn’t (currently) how you earn a living. You are allowed to take a break now and again, even of it’s just long enough to recharge your batteries before jumping back in.

My problem before now had been trying to spread my creativity too thinly. I’m my own worst enemy, focusing on too many projects in one go, and not progressing on any of them. You can very easily worm your way into this spot and not realise it.

In my case, the break helped me focus. It helped me decide what I wanted to achieve, to set clear goals and to set about making them a reality. I want to write full length novels, throwing in the odd short story now and again for good measure.

So that’s what I’ll do.

And now and again I’ll be able to write a blog post about my progress for good measure.

Just don’t expect a post every day. That might very well kill me. And you.

The Gatekeepers (2012) review

The Shin Bet are Israel’s secret service agency, tasked with maintaining national security in the face of terrorist attacks and civil unrest due to the ongoing situation with Palestine.

This documentary interviews six former heads of the organisation, the only publicly known members of the group. It’s impressive in itself that the director Dror Moreh has managed to get them in front of the camera at all, let alone speak quite candidly about their role.

Each of them discuss their time in power, the political situation at the time (often tense) and what particular threats they had to contend with. The recurring theme is one of terrorist attacks, trying to understand the enemy and why they fight in the manner they have chosen. Do you take out the enemy with a blunt trauma approach, or do you approach the task with finesse? There are varying thoughts on this one point alone, never mind the moral implications of their actions.

Not that everybody agrees that there is a question of morality in such an act. Or, indeed, many of the other responsibilities that the head of Shin Bet had to oversee.

The Gatekeepers isn’t interested in saying who is right or wrong in this disagreement between Israel and Palestine, although the personal opinions of the Shin Bet leadership do of course get aired. Instead it takes the angle of analysing the impact each of these actions has, the subsequent ripples through time.

If there’s one theme I took away from this documentary, it’s that seemingly no matter how much may change, things invariably stay the same. It’s almost a depressing thought, especially bearing in mind that both sides consider themselves to be in the right. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

An insider context is given to important events in Israeli history, and from their perspective offers a human face to the decisions and plans made by secret service individuals. It’s telling that one of their number, after retiring, relies on his wife to “keep him alive”. It’s a stark contrast to what we normally expect from secret service personnel, the traditionally stern and cold hearted type. These men are anything but, and it’s almost certain that those who have worked for Shin Bet, past or present, will be in the same boat.

The documentary uses a mixture of video sources throughout. The standard talking heads aspect is there, mixed with archive news footage and the odd bit of CGI to mix things up a little. It’s a standard approach to documentary storytelling, but what’s important is that it works. You don’t need to have bells and whistles in your presentation to tell a good tale.

And that is precisely what this is. A good, real world tale. One that as yet does not have an ending. It portrays a dark past, a darker future unless something happens to change. It’s a bleak opinion for sure, but then after forty years plus of conflict how else would you view the world?

Gloria (1980) review

Julie Carmen’s shouting in the first 10 minutes is annoying and set an alarming precedent for the rest of the film. I understand that it’s supposed to convey fear and all that, but it’s genuinely irritating. Angry acting is laughable when it’s like this.

The boy, Juan Adames, is annoying too, like a miniature John Travolta circa Saturday Night Fever, all big collars, big hair and big attitude. That he won the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actor and a Stinker award for Worst Performance By A Child in a Leading Role does not surprise me in the slightest. Nor does it surprise me that this is his only film credit. His high pitched squeal doesn’t get any easier on the ears.

Anyway, to the plot. Gloria is left looking after the boy when the mob circle in on his mother and father. In a plot that has all the usual gangster cliches, they go on the lam as she tries to protect him from those who want him dead. Personally I’d have let them have him, if only to save our poor, poor ears from his voice. And our eyes from his performance. He is truly terrible.

Thankfully Gena Rowlands is exceptional as Gloria, the put upon gun moll. She conveys strength yet fragility, a woman forced to do what she can to survive against the odds. It’s a nice twist on the usual gangster narrative. Rather than a man protecting a woman from the mob, by switching characters and genders around it takes on a whole new vibe.

There’s a definite mother/son vibe to Gloria and Phil’s relationship. Although, with that in mind, he does talk to her as if they are a couple. Run, Gloria! The kid’s a psycho! Except the only running she does is directly to him.

As it turns out, both of them have quite a bit of gumption about them. It’s this that sells the film, despite Juan Adames’ awful performance (no, I won’t stop going on about it), as without Gloria at least it’s just a typically breathless gangster film that jumps from scene to scene without taking much time to breathe. There’s nothing original about it either, the same story had already been played out back in 1980, and has been played out more in the years since.

But what we have works. It does its job without going over and above what the characters would be expected to do. Even if you know almost precisely where it’s headed, it doesn’t matter. It’s the journey and all that.

On the other hand I can’t say I’m a massive fan of Cassavetes’ work on the whole. His later works come across as indulgent and designed solely as an ego stroking exercise. It was like that for Husbands which, despite my generous score, still isn’t that great a film. Technically speaking Gloria is a far more coherent, tighter story but thanks to that annoying kid it’s not high on my “must watch it again” list.

Day of the Dead (2008) review

One of my all time favourite zombie films is George Romero’s original Day of the Dead. Amongst its many positives it has believable characters, real human drama, great gore effects and an interesting twist on the idea of zombies in the form of Bub, the zombie that can remember aspects of his old life.

Which means this 2008 remake/reimagining needed to do a lot to impress me.

It didn’t.

Ving Rhames is Captain Rhodes, taking on the role after he’d enjoyed making the Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004. At the time of this being announced, and having only that Dawn remake to refer to, I was cautiously optimistic about the results. I mean, that film was pretty good and arguably as good as Romero’s original in many respects.

Instead Rhodes is barely in it, a quick appearance, a couple of scenes and then he’s out the door. The focus instead is on Mena Suvari’s Corporal Sarah Bowman (or Cross, it looks like a production mistake), a local girl who ran off to join the military. And, to a lesser extent, it’s about her brother Trevor (Michael Welch). It’s as far from the original as it’s possible to go, although they do spend a bit of time in an underground bunker. So er… that’s nice.

Instead the plot is adapted to suit the zombie market circa mid noughties. That is, there are teenagers involved, running zombies that can also leap great heights, and a great big fat radio DJ. He manages to escape the zombie carnage despite his physical condition suggesting the opposite should be the case. Or so it seems at least.

It’s not entirely bad – just mostly. Mena Suvari is pretty good in the central role. It’s a different sort of role for somebody who is better known for teen comedies like American Pie and Oscar bait like American Beauty. Aside from Suvari, the only other genuine positive point is the way that people turn and become zombies. It isn’t original but it’s presented well. It could have done with a bigger build in the opening with more people slowly turning, but what we have is fine as it is.

And Bub… poor Bub. Rechristened as Bud, he’s a young soldier who gets bitten and turns. But it’s okay everyone, because Bud is a vegetarian and so the thought of eating human flesh doesn’t cross his mind. That they even managed to mess up this a clear indication that the 2008 edition of Day of the Dead is a mess.

It just feels like a colossal waste of time. They would have been better off calling it something else. At least then it could be considered a turkey without having any impact on Romero’s far better film. Gone are all the socio-political allegories, or the notion of a group of people slowly going mad in an underground bunker complex.

It’s vacuous remake gubbins and little else. It would have been far better if they’d positioned this as a direct remake to Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and tweaked the script accordingly. At least then it might have stood half a chance.

Flight of Fury (2007) review

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see Steven Seagal try and recover an invisible stealth jet? It’s not just me, is it? Well if you are as easily pleased as I am, then Flight of Fury is the Seagal film for you.

For anyone who is a fan of Seagal’s direct to DVD efforts, just about all of the usual cliches and slappy hand action sequences are present and correct. Heck, there’s even an amusing fight in a convenience store that sees Seagal sliding along the floor, unstoppable. This apparently is possible thanks to either a highly polished surface, or him owning a coat that lacks friction. And villains beware. Don’t try and grab hold of him whatever you do, he’ll manage to squirm his way out of your grasp and turn the tables on you. Somehow. He’s just that damn good.

The story sees Seagal, a former military man, drafted in to help recover a missing stealth bomber that has a cloaking ability, Star Trek style. Not only do we have to believe that Seagal is capable of pulling off all of his nifty action man moves, despite being blatantly too creaky and overweight to move fast, but that such a plane exists.

Unless he was fighting a Cornish Pasty of course, he might move a bit quicker when faced with such a competent and tasty enemy. Ironically it seems that Seagal was praised for his weight loss going into this film. If this is what he looked like after, I dread to think how heavy he was before.

He whispers his way through all of his dialogue, and much like all of his other non Under Siege films, all of his fight sequences are shot in ridiculous close-up to hide the fact he’s become much slower over time. In fact, I would pay good money to see a “whisper off” between Seagal and Vernon Wells from Commando. Now there would be a fight for the ages. My money would be on Vernon Wells to win.

Other than Seagal it’s another typical direct to DVD cheap action movie. There’s an excessive amount of stock footage used, a plot that doesn’t work anywhere near as well as they’d hoped. In fact there is a rushed feeling to almost every aspect of the production. Plus the story is not only (apparently) lifted wholesale from the 1998 film Black Thunder, it lingers in that noughties era of action cinema that linked everything to the War on Terror.

As far as the remaining cast go, there’s almost nothing to be said about them. They’re there, saying the lines, but they lack anything that makes them stand out. In fact the only part of this that stands out is Steven Seagal. And perhaps his gut. Without him, it would be immediately forgotten.

So unless you’re a sadist you’d be best served watching The Rock instead. Despite the fact it’s a Michael Bay film, it is a far better production with a similar plot, and doesn’t suffer from post 9/11 traumatic plotting syndrome.