Originally published at X-Media Online
Helen Mirren leads an all star cast in The Debt, a traditional thriller that manages to be a little more than just solidly entertaining, but ultimately concludes unsatisfactorily.
The story is an amalgamation of historical and cinematic influences, that jumps backwards and forwards in time. The villain, Dieter Vogel, is a cross between famous Nazis Adolf Eichmann, caught and tried in the 1960s, and Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”, who evaded capture for his sick experiments on thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Vogel is plausibly, powerfully and repulsively played by Jesper Christensen, already well versed on portraying baddies after his decent turns as Mr White in the last two James Bond films.
The action starts in Tel Aviv in 1997 at a book launch, before slipping back into 1960s East Berlin for most of the runtime. Despite the calibre of Tom Wilkinson, Helen Mirren and Ciaran Hinds, the modern day sections pale in comparison to the drama playing out at the symbolic epicentre of the Cold War. Largely this is down to the plot. Three young Mossad agents attempting to snatch a Nazi and smuggle him over the border is far more exciting than three golden oldies, even recognisable ones, bickering and looking over their shoulders for unveiled secrets.
However the younger performers must also take some credit for giving their narrative greater energy. Sam Worthington gives perhaps his best performance to date as David, a man robbed of his entire family by the war and who draws the short straw in the film’s love triangle. Marton Csokas is a convincing leader of the secret trio, oozing arrogance and then panic as their plans unravel. Best of all is the beautiful Jessica Chastain, who outshines Mirren as her older self. She gets the meatier scenes, physically in brutal fights and emotionally in the romantic subplot.
The Debt borrows heavily from countless Cold War espionage flicks as the Mossad operatives plan their kidnap. Whilst reasonably engrossing it’s after the scheme inevitably goes wrong that things step up a notch in quality. Determined to be better human beings than their prisoner the Jewish agents are forced to keep him alive at their safe house, providing him food and living alongside a monster that murdered and disfigured family members and friends. The most chilling aspect of Christensen’s performance is his familiarity; he has been living quite easily as an ordinary doctor.
Tensions escalate and obviously boil over, so that the spies return to Israel as heroes, but carrying a heavy burden of a secret. The Debt carries some considerable intellectual and emotive force by asking interesting questions about living a lie and the nature of justice in extreme circumstances. But the plot’s multiple strands fail to come together, perhaps because of a very unconvincing ending.
My rating: 3 stars out of 5
Here’s how I expected Jackass 3D to play out:
Annoying American Moron 1: You ready for this man?
Annoying American Moron 2: Yeah dude, ready as I’ll ever be.
Annoying American Moron 1: Ok man brace yourself.
Annoying American Moron 2: Oh Christ dude wait up…
Annoying American Moron 1: 1, 2…here it comes man…3
(Some form of speeding projectile crashes into Moron 2’s private parts)
Annoying American Moron 2: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!
Annoying American Moron 1: Bulls-eye man!
Dimwit Onlookers: Hahahahahahahaha awesome!
(Close-up of throbbing impact area, rendered an unappealing, dangling reality by the magic of 3D)
Repeat scene to fill film.
This still isn’t a million miles from several scenes in Jackass 3D. Needless to say their painful, sickening stunts are more inventive and impressive than my example, but imagine my surprise when I didn’t find the American morons annoying. Imagine my even greater surprise when I left the cinema thinking of Jackass 3D as the finest example of 3D technology I am yet to see and a film that gets back to the exciting core of the genuine movie experience. My previous experience of the Jackass franchise had me fearing a series of painful experiments on the man vegetables, but this turned out to be so much more than that.
Firstly then the use of 3D. Jackass 3D’s title sequence is nothing less than a visual spectacular that leaves other films I have seen through the Elton John style magic shades in the dust. Avatar resembled a video game most of the time for all the ranting and raving about the uniqueness of the experience, and for me there was miniscule wow factor in watching a poorly conceived game I couldn’t even play. Similarly Alice in Wonderland was an arty, surreal cartoon and Toy Story 3, despite its brilliance in other areas, an animation. There’s still a feel of artificial computer generation to the wonderfully distinctive action sequences.
In Jackass however there’s no sense of fakery or techno tweaking to the visuals; just silly, outlandish, dangerous, exciting stunts, performed by real life humans, in exquisite, vivid detail in front of you. The title sequence is full of colourful and crazy costumes and sets. Best of all it’s a slow motion compilation of a series of outrageous set pieces that brilliantly use 3D. A ceiling fan is decimated, smashed to smithereens by the head of a flying moron. Paint balls fly out of the screen at you. It’s all obviously purely performed and crafted to justify the 3D of the title, but a film like Jackass, with no conventional requirements like plot, gets away with it. And the reason it all looks so spectacular is because someone could afford to just play with 3D for once, rather than make an ordinary film and chuck a few gimmicky effects in somewhere.
Whilst the rest of the film comes nowhere near to the 3D wizardry of the opening, apart from an explosive, debris strewn end, it has its own charms. And when 3D effects do occasionally pop up throughout, they are all the more impressive and appropriate for being shots of real things: plumes of water leaping from the screen, a party popper inflated by on-demand fart reaching out of the screen towards you. When the 3D effects aren’t deployed though this is still an enjoyable film, finishing just as you start to become mildly bored by it all. Well perhaps enjoyable is a poorly chosen word. Certainly watching a room full of men puking after drinking the “sweat suit cocktail” and a man propelled skywards in a porta-loo full of shit, is far from enjoyable. These scenes have the whole room collectively groaning and looking away, chuckling with embarrassment and suppressing the gag reflex.
Other scenes are genuinely enjoyable and funny, such as the opening “high-five” gag in which various members of the Jackass team are floored by a giant hand, and the “electric avenue” tazer gauntlet challenge. Again the entire cinema gasps and giggles at the pain. And much of the humour here comes from the irresistible on-screen camaraderie of a group of idiotic, thrill seeking guys having a good laugh. They’re rarely as irritating as I feared; you’re sucked in by their games and the sight of full grown adults clinging to the joys of childhood.
Frankly it seems stupid to dwell on what Jackass 3D isn’t. It obviously lacks the conventions of an ordinary movie. It won’t be for everyone. But by being different it gets back to the core of what movies are about. Going to the cinema should be a group experience in which rows and rows of people are provoked into a reaction; an ooh, an aah, a chortle or a scream. Good cinema sparks conversation afterwards. Jackass 3D shocks the audience. It ticks all the boxes and by properly exploring 3D technology, finds itself at the cutting edge of filmmaking. Most of all though, it’s damn good fun.
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Avatar; the highest grossing film of all time and the future of cinema. Yesterday I finally saw it in all its three dimensional glory. For me the film’s success rested entirely on whether or not the technical wizardry was simply a gimmick or a groundbreaking revolution in film making. Of course I had heard all about the clunky dialogue and transparent plotting but nevertheless people were telling me you had to see the eye popping visuals of Avatar to believe them, so along I went with others seduced by the hype.
Firstly was all that talk of a lifeless script, seemingly rattled off in a couple of summer afternoons by an idealistic hippy , actually true? Yes it’s all true. The script was heavily laden with painful voice over segments that are usually indicative of excruciating cinema experiences and certainly did not surprise the audience with any unexpected plot twists. The worst aspect of the story was its lack of subtlety and originality. It was as if James Cameron came up with the general idea of a 3D spectacular with an environmental message and then sketched out the narrative in five minutes, with the natives of Pandora residing in a giant tree called “Hometree” and refusing to budge as the nasty corporations move in with the bulldozers. After all, his name as director and the unique 3D element already ensured the project’s blockbuster credentials. The society of the blue skinned aliens is also an amalgamation of influences rather than a new creation, with much talk of a “flow of energy” connecting all things that sounded distinctly Buddhist. Even the creatures, hailed by champions of the film as imaginative, were merely colourful copies of animals like horses, dogs and perhaps a triceratops. All this mixing and matching of influences still might have been redeemed by some convincing acting performances, but sadly all of the lead characters were crudely drawn and never really make you care. In fairness to the actors the 3D elements involved in shooting must have made natural performances difficult, despite the cast’s praise of Cameron’s handling of the directing in recent documentaries. Add to this the atrocious dialogue they were working with (Unobtanium for God’s sake!) and it’s no wonder Sam Worthington’s voice over sounds so plodding.
It’s also difficult to connect with the blue aliens who basically look like savage, tribal cartoon characters; big nasty smurfs. This brings me to the big question of whether or not the 3D tech works. Well the giant Elton John style sunglasses certainly produced 3D visuals and for the first half an hour you are glued to the experience, which partly makes up for some of the worst sections of the film where the context is established and the deforestation to mine UNOBTANIUM is less than delicately explained. The opening scene in which Jake Sully emerges from a coma in a zero gravity hospital environment is quite jaw dropping; actors float in front of your eyes, steel surfaces glimmer and there is an incredible sense of scale and perspective. However after the initial wow factor fades, although there is now and again the odd fascinating visual flourish, you want more from the story. I think Cameron may have been like a kid in a sandbox with his 3D toys, so much so that he forgot the basic rules of storytelling. Avatar has an annoying habit of telling not showing the audience things and this seems even more inexcusable when you have 3D visuals to show off. The director also produced a dizzying number of similar action sequences so that when the film climaxes the final battle is a concoction of various elements already shown to us earlier in the film. The first chase sequence is quite impressive (although in my view too fast) but this is followed with lots of almost identical jungle running with replica slow motion shots of arrow shooting that scream CHEESY! Another problem is that all the money shots of floating mountains and hordes of blue aliens on flying creatures do not look nearly as amazing in 3D as a room of humans watching a speech. This meant that during the sequences intending to be riveting, edge of your seat stuff I found myself thinking this was all rather like the trailer for a disappointing video game.
Far more enjoyable as a cinematic experience was Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes. Avatar takes itself too seriously but with Robert Downey Jr in the lead role and a general light hearted tone this update has no such problems. All the actions sequences were great fun to watch and they rarely became repetitive as in Avatar. The running time was also pleasant rather than bladder busting. Jude Law, a surprising choice as Watson, works well in partnership with Downey Jr and some excellent elements are retained from the original stories. The script is also more skilfully crafted than Avatar’s in that it leads the audience to believe Holmes cannot explain the supernatural occurrences of the plot, only for the detective to unmask all the unexplained events as works of villainy at the end, to the great relief of myself as it would certainly have been against the empirical spirit of the original tales to have Holmes taking on groups with genuine spiritual powers. The setting of Victorian London is brilliantly evoked and I found it personally more engaging, despite money shots of Tower Bridge under construction, than the CGI jungles of Pandora. The score too was playful and matched the film’s tone and pace, in contrast to Avatar’s epic soundtrack with regular echoes of Leona’s I See You ballad which was difficult to sustain.
Personally then give me a Victorian gutter and an entertaining performance over a fibre optic forest any day. It’s a shame Cameron will probably scoop best director and best film at the Oscars for a film carried by its 3D technology.