The Da Vinci Code

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Surely, given the parlance of our times, the ‘The’ in ‘The Da Vinci’ code is unnecessary? Using ‘Da Vinci Code’ would give a welcome and achingly trendy gloss of gangsta-ism to the piece, and to be honest, might have made things a little more interesting. Alternatively, ‘Dada Vinci Code’ could have been a masterwork of surrealist beauty, although true to the art movement’s spirit this film has wound up more like a boot stamping on cinema’s face, forever.

For those amongst us who have been living in a cave on the moon for the past few years, Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code became a modern publishing phenomenon whose popularity and sales figures were bettered only by the Harry Potter Hegemony. In common with the boy wizard, it’s a bloody awful, clumsily worded mess with excruciatingly silly and convoluted plot developments that, somehow, manages to keep your attention over it’s needlessly drawn-out narrative when there’s any number of more worthy novels competing for your dollarpound. That this would be picked up for a movie version was inevitable. That this would be hyped to the rafters was inevitable. That the Psycho-Christians would be up in arms about it (more so now, because it’s a movie now and therefore more true. Or something) was inevitable. Sadly, given the fairly faithful adaptation Akiva Goldman has presented Ron Howard to direct, the fact that it would be a ill-conceived, drawn out waste of time was also inevitable.

For our moon-dwelling troglodytes, The Da Vinci Code speaks of a murder in the Louvre, the curator found dead with a bullet in his gut and a strange number of ritualistic mutilations and a message scrawled in his own blood seemingly implicating a Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), American religious symbology expert. Invited to the scene of the crime by Captain Fache (Jean Reno) to ‘help’, in this case meaning ‘wheedle confession out of’, Langdon is whisked away from the scene by a young cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), who realises the true intent of the message and remains remarkably calm about the whole affair given that the victim in this case is her grandfather.

This true message leads to a treasure hunt of clues around Paris and eventually London revolving around secret societies, the Knights Templar (it’s always the bloody Knights Templar. They seem to have the monopoly on conspiracy theories. Hmm. It’s a conspiracy!), Church sponsored cover-ups and murders, ‘Council of Shadows’, hyper-strict religious orders and the vast secret of the Holy Grail and what it really means, all of which you’re more than likely aware of given the media Blitzkrieg that accompanies this release, but let’s leave the convoluted surprise for those that have somehow managed to avoid hearing it, eh?

What this means for us is Langdon and Neveu being chased around by Fache’s forces as well as a self-flagellating albino killer from the Opus Dei order, Silas (Paul Bettany), charged by a mysterious Teacher to bury this Grail story once and for all, while our dynamic duo pick up help from crippled Grail folklore expert Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian Magneto. Sorry, McKellen). Well, if it had any sense in the adaptation it would have been Langdon and Neveu being breathlessly chased around Paris and London etc, etc.

Instead, it’s a lot of people sitting around talking for an hour, an incredibly brief and ludicrously awful car chase, people sitting around talking for two hours, another thrill-free flight and then people standing around talking for another four hours. Does that sound like the makings of a genre-defining thriller to you? Okay, okay, the film’s only two and a quarter hours or so long, but in relative terms it feels a helluva lot longer. Truly, the bulk of The Da Vinci Code is spent relating reams of Grail history and elucidating various crackpot conspiracy theories, which if you’re going for the full-fat, by-the-book adaptation method is unavoidable. It’s not advisable, however, and as a direct result this movie just drags its heels along a quagmire of exposition that sucks it down, making the film itself suck. There’s at least three-quarters of an hour of narrative fat that needs liposuction, the sort which can be excused in a novel as it’s naturally a far less visual medium. There’s nothing wrong with vast reams of dialogue in principle but it has to be intriguing and has to fit in with building momentum towards a climax, whereas all too often The Da Vinci Code grinds to a stuttering halt. Even in the final reels when the SHOCKING PLOT TWISTS OF EXTREME SHOCKINGNESS are being pebble-dashed against the screen by the minute, there’s no real interest generated by them and only the vaguest sense of climax, which turns out to be pre-mature as it trundles along for another half-hour of interminable denouement and epilogue.

In all honesty, you couldn’t make a truly great film out of The Da Vinci Code even if it was handled perfectly, simply because the source material isn’t strong enough. In fact, it’s a poorly conceived bunkum, but on reading it I could imagine a relatively diverting thriller dropping out of it if the screenwriter had the sense to cut out swathes of the sillier, lengthier waffle. Then again, this is the writer of Batman & Robin we’re talking about. Perhaps it’s actually a masterstroke on Howard’s part – anyone wishing to protest about the thematic content of this film will be so stultified by the end of having seen it they’ll be too numbed to care much about it. Shame it takes it out on the rest of the audience as well. Something’s not right with this film. The only real action that you can get away with in near enough the first half of the book is the car chase in Paris, and why it’s so anaemic and botched is just baffling. It’s not as if there weren’t enough templates to crib from by this point in time.

Negative as I’m being, The Da Vinci Code isn’t a completely terrible film. There’s been enough money and talent thrown at it that some of it sticks. Some of Howard’s work on blending vistas of present and past locations turns out to be rather effective, particularly the entrance to Temple Church in London. Quite why other flashbacks to people’s memories have to be done in bleach bypass super-grain-o-vision like some eighth generation VHS copy is another thing, however. No-one’s really bad in any of their roles, albeit many miles away from troubling the Oscar judges. Bettany manages a menace to his, frankly, silly character with a fine physical performance that we wouldn’t have expected of him but McKellen in particular is the real star. The film really only shows any signs of life when he’s on the screen, with a fine, good-humoured, scenery-chewing performance that’s the best thing in the film by far. Audrey Tautou is extraordinarily pretty and likable as ever, with Hanks largely on autopilot. Oh, and Jean Reno knocks the stuffing out of a French air traffic controller, which is always a bonus in any film. All of the above drag The Da Vinci Code kicking and screaming up from being a terrible film to merely being a very, very dull one.

For all of the hue and cry, there’s nothing controversial about this hodge-podge of half-baked, quarter-baked and completely uncooked conspiracies, suppositions and leaps of faith. Despite what the opening chapter of Dan Brown’s book claims, everything here is not a fact by the greatest stretch of the imagination. Honestly, if anything in here shakes your faith then I hate to break it to ya, buster, but you didn’t believe in the first place. There’s nothing outrageous in here, unless you count the bits that are outrageously dreary. Honestly, you’d be better off playing Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars instead.

White Heat

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Right then. An eight and a half hour flight to China probably isn’t many folks’ idea of fun, especially when stuck in cattle class. Imagine the nexus of pure joy that formed in my heart on finding out that the 1980’s era monitor that should have been distracting me with sweet, sweet entertainment was instead mocking me with the dark void of nothingness. Heeding Nietzsche’s warning about staring into that sort of thing I put it from my mind. Besides, a quick flick through the audio channels reveals that at least one of the films was Cheaper by the Dozen 2, so in many ways it was something of a result.

Besides, you don’t get to be this much of a gangsta hustlin, straight pimping collosus of the modern age without having foreseen and prepared for such eventualities. KLM will not break me. No-one will break me!

Ahem. What I’m trying to say, apparently by completely ignoring the point, is to say that I watched James Cagney classic White Heat instead, which was the sort of intensely wise idea you have no doubt come to expect from me. We get to call it a classic because, quite aside from its 1949 release date making it over twice as old as I am, it’s really damn good.

You may already have some inkling as to what this ‘gangsta’ flick, from back in the days when it was still spelt properly, entails, but if not here goes. Arthur ‘Cody’ Jarrett (Cagney) is a marked man after a particularly daring train heist sees his gang promoted rather rapidly to the top of the Fed’s Most Wanted List. However, you don’t get to the top of the criminal food chain without a backup plan, in this case confessing to a lesser heist in a state far enough away to give him an airtight alibi for his actual misdemeanour. Cunning, no?

This, as you may imagine, amuses the coppers no end. A counter-cunning plan is hatched, parachuting ace undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) in to pose as common crook Vic Pardo in the hopes of worming into his gang and getting the skinny on where the loot has been stashed. The rest of Cody’s gang hasn’t been too keen on the idea of cooling their heels until Cody gets out, with ‘Big’ Ed Somers (Steve Cochran) angling to take over both the gang and Cody’s wife Verna (Virginia Mayo). Thing of it is, Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wyncherly) has a petty good handle on what’s going on and is becoming something of a liability in Ed’s eyes. The thing of that is that like every good gangster Cody loves his Ma to the point of idolatry, and might have to do something drastic, like busting out of prison, in response if Ed decides to do something drastic, like murdering Ma.

Yeah, the noise you’re hearing is the result of a fan / faecal matter interface scenario. While White Heat doesn’t shirk from the intriguing interplay, delicious duplicity and awesome alliteration that comes from such a cop vs robber vs robber vs robber’s wife standoff, the overarching reason why this film works so damn well has little to do with the quality of the script (which is good) or the supporting actors (who are great) and very much to do with Cagney, who is every bit as awesome as I claim my alliteration to be.

The biggest crime on display in White Heat isn’t any of the Jarrett gang’s nefarious deeds, it’s the way Cagney steals every scene he’s in while managing (just) to avoid completely overpowering everything else. When you start talking about screen presence, as one indubitably does whilst reclining on a sumptuous leather armchair mulling over a fine brandy and pipe of the finest tabbacan, there’s few who can match Cagney’s odious anti-hero intensity. If there’s an actor who can pull off this role more believably and completely I haven’t heard about him. It’s an utterly compelling turn and rightly deserving of the plaudits heaped on it.

Director Raoul Walsh had been at this game since 1912 so it’s perhaps not much of a surprise to see that everything’s bang on form. Tense, taut and tightly paced, this harks back to an era when they really knew how to get you on the edge of your seat. With a screenplay and performance that means you can never be entirely sure what Cody’s thinking or about to attempt next, this manages the difficult feat of making you feel at home with the characters and action without knowing precisely how they’re going to wind up.

The film hails from a time when studios had their own orchestras and weren’t afraid to use them, and in this case they rarely seem to wind down for more than twenty seconds before the string section starts up again. If there’s one aspect that dates the film to modern viewers (apart from the black and white photography, naturally) it’s this sonic onslaught which sometimes overpowers the emotions of a scene rather than accentuate them. Still, the past is a foreign country and that’s just how things were done there.

White Heat also typifies an art that’s been, well, not lost, exactly, by Hollywood of late but perhaps obscured; storytelling. Behold – a comparatively straightforward, understandable story that still manages to throw a couple of twists in the plot development whilst not coming from an unbelievably leftfield position or retroactively forcing a retelling of the entire story (yes, Basic, I am looking at you) or allowing a narrative technique to completely obfusticate and overpower the narrative (Hullo, 21 Grams! What’s that? How much does a soul weigh? Take a seat, you pretentious little bounder!). White Heat simply works as a great slab of entertainment that qualifies for the adjective of ‘rip-roaring’ as well as a grandstanding showreel for Cagney. If there’s really anything else you feel you need from cinema to enjoy yourself prepare for a lifetime of disappointment, but for the huge bulk of the planet this is as good a film as you’re likely to meet. Like the man says, top of the world.

The Aristocrats

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

What do you say about a film that’s entirely about an obscure dirty joke comedians like to tell amongst themselves? Well, niche as it may be, it’s still a film. So let’s break it down like MC Hammer. I’ll go fetch me baggy gold lame trousers.


Hammer Time!

On reflection, breaking this down like MC Hammer isn’t going to work very well. Instead, let’s make a few poor references to early 90s hip hop laughing stocks to distract people from the fact that this review will be vanishingly slender. I’ll go fetch me baggy gold lame trousers.

I suppose I could write this review in some intriguing style without repeating the joke that this film explores, but seeing as that would just send you off to Google there’s little point. Okay. A talent scout walks into a theatre bookers office, telling him about this interesting act. “What do they do?”, the booker asks. “Well, they [THIS IS DUMMY TEXT. INSERT YOUR OWN LIST OF DEPRAVED, DISGUSTING, ILLEGAL IN FORTY NINE STATES ACTIVITIES HERE]”, says the agent. “Hmm. Interesting. What do they call themselves?”, enquired Mr. Booker. “The Aristocrats!”, exclaims the agent. “STOP!”, said MC Hammer, later adding “Hammer Time!”. A diagrammatic representation of the amusement factors of this joke can be found here.

Practically every comedian in the world weighs in at some point during The Aristocrats; Drew Carey, Hank Azaria, Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard, Gilbert Gottfried, Jon Stewart, George Carlin, Emo Phillips, even, erm, Carrot Top. Their insights into this joke range from the inconsequential to the ignorable, but the one concept that comes out of this is that often, it’s the singer and not the song that decides the worth and laugh factors of a joke. The point, as much as I can gather, is that this joke turns into a sort of elaborate pissing contest to see who can improvise filth best, although this may be misreading it. Perhaps it’s to say a good comedian can make a bad joke funny. In fact, I’m not really sure what the point of this exercise is, bar glorifying a poor joke.

There was some suggestion, I think primarily because Penn Jillette, who we hope is not the best a man can get, was partly behind this film in executive producer mode, that The Aristocrats joke is a hoax, and never told before this film. This handily explains why the joke is so pitifully non-funny, but can be discounted on the basis that were this true it would hold a Guinness World Record for Most Pointless Hoax Ever, which our roving Norris McWhirter correspondent confirms has not been issued. Quadbike Erat Demonstrandum. I mention this only to make a weak advertising pun and name drop Norris McWhirter. Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.

At the end of the day there’s no escaping the fact that this is a bunch of comedians dancing around a dirty joke, with little real relevance to styles of the comedians generally – it’s really too specific, the frameworks too rigid. It’s entertaining enough, but having seen it once I’ve no inclination to ever watch it again and could quite happily have lived out the remainder of my days having never known a jot about The Aristocrats joke.

So it’s a documentary about something that doesn’t really require to be documented. Bit of a downer, but there’s enough laughs from the dizzying array of comedians on hand to at least make it diverting. It’s not trying to be a comedy though, so despite the few moments of hilarity we can’t recommend it as a comedy either. It’s a niche film about a dirty joke. If that sounds like the sort of thing you’ll have an interest in then away, lad, fill your boots. If that seems like to thin a concept to be worth a padded out ninety minutes of your time (this could probably be done in half that time, and it does often feel like it’s repeating itself) then proceed to avoid touching it with someone else’s bargepole. Join us later for more fence-sitting.

So Close

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Corey Yeun has been the mind behind many of the most memorable chop sockey sequences in motion picture history, either as fight choreographer or second unit director for Hollywood flicks like X-Men or The One or his own directorial efforts such as the two superb Legend of Fong Sai Yuk movies. Directly before decamping to Hollywood to churn out the pulp actioner The Transporter (shortly to receive a barely necessary sequel) he was responsible for Chik yeung tin sai or So Close, the latest in a ‘girls with guns’ sub-genre that stretches back past Naked Killer and Black Angel and was the probably inspiration for exhuming Charlies’ Angels. This Carpenters-centric slant on the action genre provides a suitable amount of style but an uneven spread of adrenaline, resulting in an enjoyable but utterly unmemorable experience.

Lynn (the inestimable Qi Shu) and Sue (Zhao Wei, who you may recall from Shaolin Soccer) two happy go lucky, fun loving sisters that happen to be top assassins. Well, Lynn is at least, Sue staying back in the home office environment driving a desk chock full of Future Technology Four. A parting gift from their murdered parents, they can tap into any CCTV camera, security system, computer system or teasmaid. Useful when you want to penetrate the tight security of a firm of ‘legitimate businessman’ in their skyscraper built on a foundation of drug money and distilled evil. This point is bludgeoned over the viewer’s head early doors to facilitate having killers as heroes.

Still, this line of work will attract attention from the Feds, in this case ace forensics officer Hong Yat Hong (Karen Mok) and her assistant Ma Siu Ma (Michael Wai). It seems that they might not have much of an opportunity to track them down, with Lynn soppily deciding to pursue a course of true love with Yen (Seung-heon Song) instead. Seeing as this limits the scope for gunplay and car chases, it comes as something of a relief to find out that Sue decides to accept and execute another job against the same firm. While successful, two disparate spanners appear in the works as Hong gets close enough in her investigation to have a high kicking showdown and Sue’s employers decide to tidy up some loose ends by eliminating Lynn and Sue’s operations

Mix in the aforementioned criminals deciding that Hong is far too competent to be sniffing around and fitting her up for the patented crime she did not commit and we’ve got the common or garden cop ‘n’ robber unlikely teaming scenario to take on a shared and significantly more evil foe. A tried and tested formula more or less since the invention of stories in 1949 by Dr. Kevin Story. This variant in particular screams out John Woo.

Yes, yes, it’s a disgusting shorthand to start comparing any action flick, Asian ones in particular to the Woo-meister’s early output but in this case it’s disgustingly valid, missing only the Overly Symbolic Birds™ to write this off as The Killer with chicks. That said, it doesn’t match the 1989 classic’s levels of adrenaline, excitement and bodies rent asunder in hailstorms of lead salad but at points it does approach it. Just not at quite enough points.

Yuen gives us a stylish opening quarter of an hour odds, with a suitable number of ‘pacifications’ of goons and a few mildly innovative wirework stunts and kung fu to hook most of the audience I’d imagine, even if there is an intentionally but no less bizarrely incongruous Carpenters soundtrack moment. Perhaps one thing Yuen should have stole from The Matrix, gunfights in a lobby to the Propellerhead’s Spybreak – acceptable; to Close to you (That song about suddenly appearing birds) – less so.

Sadly it all goes a bit Pete Tong for the next, oooh, hourish as everything switches onto autopilot. The brief spurt of action is followed by a long, drawn out expanse where little quantifiable happens. Characters fail to develop in any meaningful way, which I’m not particularly bothered about in mindless action movies, but in terms of pacing it ruins the movie. The odd minor chase between Sue and Hong and the attendant lesbian subplot (which if it wasn’t so barely present as to barely warrant mentioning would probably be exploitative) there’s typically nothing much worth reporting on until the all out action finale that for once can’t be described as balls to the wall, given the participants

The closing scenes are really rather enjoyable indeed, a masterful blend of kung-fu, shooty shooty bang bangs and even a sword-wielding finale, not to be confused with a more conceptually disappointing sword-welding finale. In a technical sense it’s all very polished and accomplished, as well practised as you might expect from someone with Yuen’s pedigree. There’s a few slightly pony virtual sets sneaked in and a questionable CG shattering glass effect that someone’s clearly fond of, showing up numerous times with minimal subtlety but we can excuse that. After all, despite being one of the more meatily budgeted Asian outings of recent times it’s still produced on the kind of cash that wouldn’t cover the catering budget on the likes of Troy.

Wether you care much about their eventual, inevitable victory (oh come now, it was never in any doubt) is another matter entirely, and more than likely you won’t. The bad guys in this flick are the largely faceless Chow Nunn (Siu-Lun Wan) and his slightly more distinctive lieutenant, but the very fact that the movie can be adequately summed up without even mentioning their names speaks volumes. You won’t care much when these chaps buy the farm, because you really don’t know any more about them than you do their legions of goons.

No, the point of this film and the main focus of this film is the headlining female triumvirate, which meets with more success. Qi Shu’s confidence and grace during the action scenes is a joy to watch, although the unfolding family tension with Zhao Wei is hampered by a script that’s not far from Sunset Beach quality. Karen Mok gets to have a little fun with her quirky outsider cop routine before focusing on ass kicking, but no one’s going to be watching this with the dramatic elements in mind.

Like all action movies it lives and dies by its excitement levels and despite the blistering pace of the last half hour leaving a good last impression, in the harsh light of day the pacing is too patchy to truly recommend it. Perhaps a little harsh, given that five years or so ago we’d have lapped this up and even on it’s 2002 release it wasn’t too far off the pace, but time marches on and the bar has been raised since So Close took its shot. I’ve marked this film a little more favourably as I’ve a weakness for pretty women diving around with handguns. Anyone less shallow than I should adjust accordingly.