Skip to main content

How is the major this evening, sir?


Gambit
(2012)

The script for this remake of Ronald Neame’s 1966 caper had been doing the rounds since the late ‘90s. The estimable Coen Brothers took on script duties, looking for some rewrite work (never intending to direct). Despite the pedigree of most projects their names are attached to, it remained in Development Hell for another 15 years. Which probably wasn’t a good sign. The finished article bears testament to this, but I don’t really think the script is to blame. But it does lead me to suspect that the only people who can make a good movie out of a Coen Brothers script are the Coen Brothers themselves.

Surely a good script is a good script, though? Yet throughout Gambit, I could hear their dialogue and recognise their plotting while fully aware that very little of it was hitting the mark.  Everyone appears to be trying too hard. Pushing the comedy this way ultimately kills the comedy. Michael Hoffman is unable to bring the rhythms the Coens bring to their films, both in terms of pacing scenes (and by extension across the film as a whole) and crafting the performances of their actors. You can see that approach even in their most-maligned pictures, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. It’s the latter I imagine this bearing most resemblance to on paper; intentionally broad but with a zestful delivery.

Hoffman’s directorial career has been nothing if not erratic, and you’d be hard-pressed to claim an out-and-out artistic and box office success (1991’s Soapdish is probably closest). He follows course here; the film looks quite nice, but the wink-wink artifice never engages with the result that it quickly becomes rather tiresome.

The Coens lift the outline of the first 15 minutes from the original (easily the most memorable and bizarre part of a likeable but middling movie), and a few of the names including that of the “villain” (Alan Rickman’s Shahbandar sounds like a Coen Brothers made-up name, so that figures). And the reasoning for employing the female lead in the con is as farfetched as in the 1966 version. But, that aside, they have come up with a completely new caper. Harry Deane (Colin Firth) seeks revenge on his boss by selling him a fake monet (producer by forger Tom Courteny – with Quartet this is the second film I’ve seen him in this week) and enlist’s Cameron Diaz’s rodeo queen to carry out his plan.  

Colin Firth is very good in a certain kind of role, but he lacks the natural charisma of Michael Caine’s Dean (for some reason he’s borrowed his glasses, though). Firth should be mugging away like George Clooney does for the Coen Brothers if this is to stand any chance of working. But he plays Harry Dean very straight, very exasperated, and slightly dull. Which drains away the energy. Meanwhile, Cameron Diaz tries on a Texan accent and Alan Rickman embraces his uncouth side to sometimes amusing effect.

Fitfully, this has its moments (a bit of bedroom farce, some extended innuendo concerning Firth's "major"). More frequently, Hoffman settles for weak slapstick (Firth keeps getting punched, loses his trousers, is attacked by a lion) and fart jokes. Both of which may be readily found in the two Coens movies I’ve mentioned, but it’s all in the execution.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

The President is dead. You got that? Somebody’s had him for dinner.

Escape from New York (1981)
(SPOILERS) There’s a refreshingly simplicity to John Carpenter’s nightmare vision of 1997. Society and government don’t represent a global pyramid; they’re messy and erratic, and can go deeply, deeply wrong without connivance, subterfuge, engineered rebellions or recourse to reset. There’s also a sense of playfulness here, of self-conscious cynicism regarding the survival prospects for the US, as voiced by Kurt Russell’s riff on Clint Eastwood anti-heroics in the decidedly not dead form of Snake Plissken. But in contrast to Carpenter’s later Big Trouble in Little China (where Russell is merciless to the legend of John Wayne), Escape from New York is underpinned by a relentlessly grim, grounded aesthetic, one that lends texture and substance; it remains one of the most convincing and memorable of dystopian visions.

The present will look after itself. But it’s our duty to realise the future with our imagination.

Until the End of the World (1991)
(SPOILERS) With the current order devolving into what looks inevitably like a passively endorsed dystopia, a brave new chipped and tracked vision variously in line with cinema’s warnings (or its predictive programming, depending on where your cynicism lands), I’ve been revisiting a few of these futuristic visions. That I picked the very Euro-pudding Until the End of the World is perhaps entirely antagonistic to such reasoning, seeing as how it is, at heart, a warm and fuzzy, upbeat, humanist musing on where we are all going.