24 Lies A Second

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The Not-Very-Fantastic Four

Hello again everyone. I know how appalled and bereft you must have felt when 24LAS didn't appear in last week's Post. What can I say except that it was down to technical problems beyond my control, and the defective hard drive responsible has been suitably excruciated. Hopefully this week's bumper installment will make amends as I take a gander at 24 Hour Party People, The One, Queen of the Damned and Bend It Like Beckham. Off we go, then...

Factory Flaw

Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People is the vaguely true story of 15 years in the strange double life of Anthony Wilson, by day a local TV news reporter, by night a self-declared visionary pop impressario and music business mastermind, a man who played a crucial role in the rise of club culture (and drug culture), a man fundamental to the regeneration of Manchester, the man who gave the world Factory Records, the Hacienda nightclub, New Order, and the Happy Mondays.

In the film Wilson is portrayed by the comedian Steve Coogan, a shrewd choice as Wilson's image - a pretentious, middle-class faux-intellectual prat surrounded by working-class pop warriors - isn't too far removed from that of Coogan's most famous creation, Alan Partridge. Coogan plays the image, and neither he nor the script try particularly hard to uncover the real man. The film openly admits to being more interested in legend than truth - at one point Wilson discovers his wife (Shirley Henderson) in flagrante with Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks, at which point the real Devoto pops up and makes it absolutely clear he doesn't remember this actually happening. It's a neat post-post-modern moment, but this kind of deliberate, ironic distancing means that serious events such as the suicide of singer Ian Curtis (played by Sean Harris) lack any real emotional impact.

It's played mostly for laughs anyway, by Coogan and other TV comics like John Thomson, Peter Kaye, and Keith Allen. Obviously some impersonation of quite famous people is required, with variable results: John Simm is spookily convincing as Barney Sumner, but the guys playing the Happy Mondays have only a fraction of the charisma of the real Shaun and Bez, and Ralph Little is simply too young-looking and un-hairy to play Peter Hook. There are cameos from survivors of the scene, too: the real Tony Wilson, Horse from the Mondays, Mani from the Stone Roses, Clint Boone from the Inspiral Carpets, and many more.

It's all shot on digital video (which if nothing else allows archive concert footage to be edited in less incongruously) and Winterbottom's direction is suitably sardonic and arch. But there are no real insights into the 80s Manchester scene, and probably not much to attract those who aren't already into this kind of music. It's really not bad at all, but for a film with this kind of raw material to work with, the fact that in the end 24 Hour Party People is only not bad and quite amusing is in its own way a significant criticism. Fantastic soundtrack, though.

There Can Be Only...

Why can't American studios find a decent movie for the magnificent Jet Li to appear in? His work in Asian cinema is legend, and last year's French-produced Kiss of the Dragon was pretty good too. But James Wong's The One is the third American picture (after Lethal Weapon 4 and Romeo Must Die) that's featured Li and not been terribly good.

This is a science fiction action movie based around the idea of multiple universes running in near-parallel lines. The conveniently-named Lawless (Jet Li) has been popping around them all and bumping off 120-odd of his duplicate selves, as this means their life-force is redistributed amongst the remaining versions. Now there's only nasty Lawless and nice Gabe (unsurprisingly, also Jet Li) left, and the last Li standing could gain god-like powers...

Well, don't think too hard about the plot (Wong and his co-writer Glen Morgan, X-files alumni both, certainly haven't), because it's complete tosh, lacking in the wit and imagination of - for example - the TV show Sliders, existing only to move the various different Lis from one set-piece ruck to another. The overall impression that this is a kung-fu rip-off of Highlander isn't helped by dialogue like 'After this, there will be only one!', either.

It's normally a bad idea for martial arts stars to attempt to play more than one role in the same movie, mainly because most of them have trouble playing more than one role in their whole career. Li isn't too bad, to be fair, but he's helped by the fact that everyone else (with the exception of Delroy Lindo - another Romeo Must Die veteran, here playing one of Li's pursuers) is worse. Most of the time Li is fighting himself, which inevitably entails large amounts of special effects wizardry and moves The One from being a straight chopsocky thriller into the same digitally-enhanced arena as The Matrix. To be blunt, modern special effects and choreographers could make Woody Allen look like a black belt and Li's own remarkable physicality is largely under-utilised.

There's the odd good moment - the closing shot in particular hints at what Li is truly capable of - but on the whole this is a huge waste of the talents involved on both sides of the camera. It's more disappointing than bad (but it is that too). I suspect the producers of The One will be spared the thorny problem of what to call the sequel.

Queen of the Damned Stupid

The One may not be terribly good, but it looks like Citizen Kane compared to Michael Rymer's Queen of the Damned. This is loosely based on two books in Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, the first of which was filmed in 1995's Interview with the Vampire. None of the same creative personnel are involved in this very loose sequel, and I'll bet they're counting their blessings.

Undead poseur Lestat (Ronnie O'Sullivan lookalike Stuart Townsend, who seems famous these days mainly for not being in Lord of the Rings) is roused from a century's kip by the sound of an unsigned nu-metal band tuning up. Rather than instantly gaining the audience's sympathy by murdering the lot of them, he decides to join the band and starts writing songs revealing untold vampire lore (as you would, obviously). All this is handled in a rushed and perfunctory pre-credits sequence, after which what I laughingly refer to as the plot goes all over the place for a bit. But eventually the bloody awful racket of Lestat's band wakes the ancient vampire queen Akasha (yet another Romeo Must Die veteran, in the form of the late Aaliyah), who - God knows why - takes a fancy to the leather-trewed prat. Blade's never about when you need him...

I find it hard to believe such a comprehensively bad film could be made by accident. Probably due to the fact it's an amalgam of the plots of two separate novels, the script varies between the silly and the utterly incoherent. We're into a rolling expanse of silly accents, paper-thin characterisation, and rampantly illogical plot developments. For instance: the other vampires take exception to Lestat revealing their existence via his songs, so they decide to silence him - by mounting a full-on supernatural onslaught against him while he's performing live on stage in front of a million fans. The film contains only tired old cliches about vampires and their society: the usual melodramatic goth posturings. Poor old Paul McGann wanders around in the midst of it all playing a totally superfluous character who's a spectacularly blatant knock-off of Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The film has the odd visual flourish to its credit, and there's one quite impressive set-piece when Akasha first rises. But in the end Queen of the Damned has no focus, nothing to involve the viewer and ultimately nothing new to say. For connoisseurs of the execrable only.

Sikh And You Shall Find...

After two disappointing films and one absolute stinker, salvation finally arrives in the shape of Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham. (In light of recent events, perhaps Break It Like Beckham would be a better title.)

Jesminder (Parminder Nagra) is young British Asian girl whose main interest is football (soccer, if you're a former-colonial), something which does not sit well with her traditionally-minded Sikh family. She befriends the like-minded Jules (Keira Knightley), who persuades her to try out for the local women's side, coached by Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). But Jess' family are firmly against her doing anything so outlandish and unladylike - will she submit to their wishes, or will she be able to pursue her dream of playing professionally?

Well, of course she will. I'm giving nothing away here as the plot of Bend It Like Beckham contains absolutely no surprises: you just know her parents won't want her to play, but you're also sure she'll sneak off to play behind their backs... and so on, and so on. And so on, and so on, actually, because to be fair it's about a quarter hour too long in reaching the requisite happy ending, especially given the lack of narrative invention. But the three young leads are refreshing and engaging up front, while Juliet Stevenson is a midfield powerhouse, getting most of the big laughs as Jules' equally conservative (small c, small c) mother. Anupam Kher is also good as Jesminder's father, and Shaznay Lewis out of All Saints has chosen a rather better film than her bandmates to make her (admitted very low-key) feature debut in.

Claims that this is a Great British Comedy are perhaps a touch exaggerated, but it's warm, feelgood, well-observed and deeply affectionate about its characters. I smiled all the way through and there are some very funny moments. Also impressive is the way it avoids the pitfall of coming across as a niche, ghetto picture (either as a women's football movie or an Asian culture one). It's simply a positive, un-preachy comedy-drama. It's not going to outgross Attack of the Clones at the US box-office, but it's still hugely likeable, for all that it's cliched. A touching and upbeat portrait of modern Britain, this deserves to be a winner.

Coming soon - you grunt, I'll groan, as the man-mountain known as the Rock stars in Mummy spin-off The Scorpion King. Don't fail to miss next week's review (fingers crossed...).


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