Hello again everyone, and welcome back to the movie review column that's popular with people who never actually watch films. This column marks a bit of a landmark for 24LAS, but more on that later. Let's kick off with a look at the latest vehicle for a little-seen and softly-spoken young thesp, who can't have appeared in more than five or six other films this year...
Ambivalent though I invariably am when it comes to the Richard Curtis opus (Four Weddings, Notting Hill, et al), I do feel that he gets a bit of a raw deal sometimes. His films are regularly denounced for giving an entirely romanticised and unrealistic impression of what life in southern England is actually like - as if every other piece of cinematic entertainment could be entered for the documentary section of the Academy Awards without anyone rumbling to the fact.
This is not the case. Take, for example, the depiction of Los Angeles (and, more specifically, its law enforcement personnel) that we regularly get over here in the UK. I've never been to LA and don't (as far as I know) know anyone who has. I know fairly little about real-world-LA. But I know an awful lot about movie-LA and the guys who police it. They are mostly dedicated and fiery mavericks who live for the job and will do whatever it takes to get their man. The only exceptions to this are those occasional dirty cops who sully the work of all the rest and are generally slimy individuals, and anyone in a position of authority. For some reason, the only people who get promoted are very-nearly-as-slimy politicians and career-minded apparatchiks unworthy of their positions. The heroic mavericks regularly get hauled into the captains' office to be chewed out simply for doing their jobs. We naturally feel for the mavericks in this situation even though, were our neighbourhood coppers to behave the same way (blowing quite so much up), we would quickly denounce them as dangerous maniacs. Everyone is terribly loyal to each other and spends their spare time either hosting or attending barbeques with their workmates. It is best to stay single and childless as parents or people in long-term relationships are that little bit more likely to get shot in the third act.
It's an all-too-familiar milieu and one in which Clark Johnson's S.W.A.T exclusively takes place. This is a karaoke medley of a film - a collection of familiar scenes and characters you've seen done better somewhere else, assembled with no thought or imagination. Johnson must thank his lucky stars for being given a cast charismatic enough to make the result slightly less leaden than it could have been: Colin Farrell plays Jim Street, one of those fiery mavericks I was mentioning, who gets kicked out of the LA S.W.A.T (Special Weapons And Tactics1) team for being just too loyal to his nutjob partner, Samuel L Jackson plays Sergeant Hondo, the bad-ass veteran who offers him a second chance on the team (either this role was written specifically for Jackson, or he's just not bothering to act these days - it's a moot point either way), LL Cool J plays a cop who's married, and - be still my racing heart - the divine Michelle Rodriguez plays a cop who's a single parent (uh oh).
And it's watchable, just not especially involving. I wholeheartedly agree with everyone else who's said this is basically just a TV series pilot with a $80 million budget. The setting-up-the-team bit of the story takes forever, leaving the actual plot, which revolves around transferring evil snail-munching jackanapes Alex Montel (played by Olivier Martinez, who apparently in real life does le jiggy-jiggy with Kylie Minogue) from one prison to another, underdeveloped in the extreme. The actors do their best, but they have very little to work with, and Rodriguez doesn't get enough screen time (but she could be in every scene and I'd probably still say that).
The only mildly interesting thing about S.W.A.T is the way that it sometimes seems to be a heavily camouflaged war movie: the characters wear stormtrooper helmets and body armour and are forever abseiling out of helicopters. The 'lions led by donkeys' cliché I mentioned earlier ties into this as well. The villain is French, for Pierre's sake. Like many a war movie, it's essentially an action fantasy of blue-collar regular guy male bonding - one potential recruit is dismissed by Jackson for being a) too polite and b) a vegetarian (Michelle is allowed in as she is a sort of honorary guy, as in most of her films, despite all appearances to the contrary). And this seems to have done the film no harm at the US box office - but it really is utterly formulaic and undemanding stuff.
As you may have rumbled, this is the hundredth edition of 24 Lies A Second, and I would just like to take a few moments to reflect on just how dedicated and industrious this must make me look. But seriously folks, I would just like to thank Shazz and Greebo for their support and encouragement when the going got tough, particularly in the early days. Big up to those who've helped along the way, principally Swiv, Spook, and my mum, for their guest reviewing, and Dr MO for our lovely logo. And last, but absolutely not least, I'm enormously indebted to all my regular correspondents for their input and occasionally peculiar opinions. You know who you are.
One idea I'm seeking to reintroduce into the weft of the column is the occasional look back at films of quality and distinction from years gone by2, and I am thoroughly open to suggestions or guest reviews along these lines. While we're on this subject I must just thank the person who recommended I seek out the film I'm about to talk about: I owe you big time3.
Spirit in the Sky
It's all too easy to get elitist and precious about cinema from the far east, or western films which seek to ape it (a sentiment I think I shall return to at least twice in the next two or three months). But when faced with a masterpiece like Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, it's quite tempting to lay aside any attempt at objectivity and simply pile on the superlatives.
Hmm. Kinda laid my cards on the table there, haven't I, folks? But to even attempt any other response to this magical, beautiful piece of animation would be intellectually dishonest. It's that good. It's the kind of film that makes one want to be a child again, simply so one could submit to it more easily, unencumbered by worries about job or rent or relationships.
This is the story of a young girl named Chihiro, whose parents are in the process of moving house (somewhat to her chagrin). En route to their new residence, her father takes a wrong turn and they find themselves in what seems to be a disused amusement park. Ignoring Chihiro's vague sense of unease, her parents tuck into some of the delicious food that's seemingly been left unattended. But as the sun sets the park reveals its secret: Chihiro and her family have strayed into an odd netherworld which is basically an entertainment complex for the myriad gods and spirits of Japanese mythology, ruled by the grotesque sorceress Yubaba, and any one of several horrible fates could await any human who stays here too long...
To say more would be to spoil the richness and wonder of the magical world Miyazaki and his animators have created. It's quite extraordinarily detailed, endlessly inventive, and populated by an array of characters who are as bizarre as they are memorable. The story is rooted in Japanese folklore, true - but it's still hugely accessible and owes an equally large debt to Greek mythology and the Brothers Grimm (I'm sure I detected a dash of that old Prisoner vibe in a couple of places too).
But the ideas are equalled, and perhaps excelled, by the quality of the animation. I can't think of another animated film, certainly not since the 1940s, that's so evidently had such love and talent lavished over every single from. From simple effects like grass rippling in the wind, to fantastical set-pieces like the visit of a Stink God, the pictures are gob-smackingly lovely, even when the subject matter is either icky or frightening.
Because Spirited Away is basically an old-fashioned fairy tale, as funny and moving and scary and enthralling as any you've heard before, and thankfully it eschews any didactic preachy eco-cobblers message in favour of simply making it clear that it's much, much better to be brave and kind and generous than it is to be selfish and cruel and cowardly. And surely no-one can argue with that. It's really just a crime against cinema, not to mention our own younger generation, that a film of this stature is tucked away unnoticed in an art-house slot while Disney's latest formula vehicle for selling fast food is playing on two screens. Do your kids a favour. Do yourself a favour. Seek it out. Seek it out.