At The Movies

Thursday 23 April 2015, with Simon Morris

At The Movies: Of Mice and Men, The Gunman, The Age Of Adaline

The Age of Adeline screenshot
The Age of Adaline.

On stage in Of Mice and Men, James Franco is rather different from his lightweight film comedies,
Sean Penn decides he needs a hit – a hit with a title like The Gunman…
And The Age of Adaline – thereby hangs an old-fashioned tale…

The big picture with Simon Morris

Every year – in fact, sometimes it feels like every week – a new buzz-word or phrase pops up, offering not just a new name for something familiar but, it seems, a whole new thing.  

How did we wrestle with the concepts of ‘paradigm shifts’, ‘memes’, ‘tropes’ and ‘meta-data’ when there were no such words?

In the movie-commentary world, one word appears more often than most, and that’s ‘meta’. Not meta-anything, just ‘meta’ on its own. It means, often, that the most interesting thing about the film is stuff surrounding it and where it fits in the culture, not the movie itself.

Case in point – the Oscar-winning Birdman.  Most of the write-ups stressed the way it was filmed – as if it was one, reality-TV shot. Very meta. Or the fact that the star, like the lead character, had been part of a superhero franchise, and had quit. Or that co-star Ed Norton, like his character, had a reputation of being hard to work with. 

Films about films, of course, are nothing new. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin made them back in the silent era. But it’s the know-all, smirky quality about modern, self-referential movies that clearly needed a pseudo-Greek catch-phrase. And much of today’s movie reviewing assumes we’re all as smart-Aleck as the writer.

This year, any action movie starring someone older than, say, Daniel Craig is described as part of a movement – generally referred to as the “post-Taken movement”.  And when one fails - like the new Sean Penn film The Gunman - the meta-argument goes that audiences have reached the end of that particular meme, trope or paradigm shift.

For some reason fantasy films are mostly discussed today in terms of two previous films. Is it a Lord of the Rings-type fantasy film – swords and sorcery – or is it a comic-book hero fantasy film – super-powers and alien invasions?

A quiet little film like The Age of Adaline goes back to an earlier definition – the tales of Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde and television’s Twilight Zone. I’m not sure what the meta-argument of The Age of Adaline would deal with – the fascination with staying young forever, or the trendy phrase “an old soul” carried to excess?

And what about the reaction against special effects-driven movies, as audiences flock to see coverage of live theatre? The latest example is the hit Broadway production of John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 play, Of Mice and Men.

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Of Mice and Men - film review

Simon Morris reviews Of Mice and Men - live performance at the National Theatre, New York, starring James Franco and Chris O'Dowd

This hit Broadway production of John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 play, Of Mice and Men stars James Franco and Chris O’Dowd as smart George and dumb Lenny. It’s very theatrical, which is easy to get into the swing of, and very much of its time, which is slightly harder.

Of Mice and Men is – like many American classics – about the American Dream – George and Lenny’s search for the ideal happy ending for two bums with nothing to trade but their hard work.

Back in the Thirties Great Depression, Steinbeck’s American Dream had nothing to do with today’s X factor fantasies of fortune and fame. For George and Lenny, the dream was simply a tiny slice of America’s plenty – a little farm of their own, one where they could work when they wanted to, not when they were told to.  

It was socialism, if you like, but a very American idea of socialism. And the point was that Steinbeck, and his audience – then and now – were well aware that this modest goal was beyond the hopes of the Depression-era masses. But countering this Big Lie was something more real. Ironically, it’s the thing that drives today’s social media – simple friendship. When things go wrong for George and Lenny, as they inevitably do, they still have one thing they can rely on – each other.

And you start to realise the Depression wasn’t simply a financial failure.   It was a social one too, driving just about everyone apart.

The fact that the 2015 theatre-going public of New York – and here – flocked to see a play about an America so apparently divorced from what’s happening now is strangely touching.  It’s the equivalent of Britain’s memories of the Blitz, maybe, or our own Anzac spirit. 

I have to say that seeing the stars of so many, rather less improving, movie comedies capturing that era so powerfully in two hours on stage is uplifting in more ways than one. 

It’s good to see that new media and ever-shorter attention-spans haven’t killed off one of the oldest and most direct forms of story-telling there is.  Not yet.

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The Gunman - film review

Simon Morris reviews The Gunman - starring Sean Penn, Ray Winstone, Javier Bardem and Mark Rylance. Directed by Pierre Morel.

In purely industry terms, The Gunman got its green light off the back of Liam Neeson’s Taken films – middle-aged action-man is called back to duty.

The Gunman opens with Jimmy – Sean Penn – and his Italian girlfriend in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  She’s a hard-working, good-doing nurse. He’s got a shifty, unspecified job that involves working nights, armed to the teeth.

It turns out he’s a gunman – one of a group hired by a shady mining company. And the job he’s off to is to be part of an assassination squad to hit a local politician. Jimmy draws the short straw. He has to do the deed, then leave Nurse Anne behind.

Jimmy manages to put his past behind him for a few years, and changes careers – from gunman to social worker in Africa. Social worker and social surfer, in this case. 

I’m assuming the surfing bit was an attempt to add layers to a character that could use a few. It also gives Sean Penn a chance to take his top off. Considering Sean’s maturity, he’s in remarkably good shape. I know this because that top comes off regularly throughout The Gunman. 

Like all the Taken films, The Gunman - once it gets going - is an extended chase movie, with our hero out to save his girlfriend and unmask the bad guys. 

Unlike most of the Taken films it takes forever for the plot to unravel enough to get on with the chasing. 

It’s a mess – one of those films where every single one of the producers managed to get his or her idea into the script, whether it fit or not. 

Interestingly, the meta-argument about The Gunman is that it proves that audiences are tiring of middle-aged, male, action films. No they’re not. They’re tired of films that aren’t any good, but then they always were.

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The Age of Adaline - film review

Simon Morris reviews The Age of Adaline - starring Blake Lively, Ellen Burstyn, Harrison Ford and Michiel Huisman, Directed by Lee Toland Krieger

The story of The Age of Adaline, like the character’s name, is oddly old-fashioned.

It’s not modern sci-fi, or fashionable magic fantasy.  It’s more a trad Tale of Mystery and Imagination, the way Edgar Allen Poe, Somerset Maugham and Dean Spanley’s Lord Dunsaney used to tell them. With an engaging narrator.

We see Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) get married, have a baby girl, and then lose her husband. Shortly afterwards she’s driving along a Californian highway, and encounters that rare West Coast phenomenon, a snow-storm.

Adaline plunges into icy water, then gets struck by lightning. You’d think her life would be over, but no. Quite the contrary, as it turns out.

So, the film asks, what would happen if all the promises made by make-up manufacturers, vitamin salesmen and keep-fit promoters actually came true?  

Adaline passes through the Twentieth Century looking exactly how she looked in 1935. She’s a freak, and is terrified someone will discover her secret.

The only person who knows the exact Age of Adaline is her daughter – a spritely 80 when we meet her, played by Ellen Burstyn.  

Adaline meets the incredibly good-looking, rich and yet unspoiled Ellis, played by Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman. Lowering her guard she agrees to visit Ellis’s family, and discovers another golden oldie in the shape of Ellis’s Dad. It’s Harrison Ford – coincidentally a very old boyfriend of Adaline’s - and she’s got some fast talking to explain that away.

Finally, we get to the point of the story – that Adaline’s permanent youth is really a curse. She can’t stay anywhere long, she’s got no friends, she can never fall in love. 

I found myself warming to The age of Adaline rather more than I thought I was going to. Its old-fashioned story-telling is a refreshing change from all these more modern fantasy films that are all so numbingly similar.

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