Spooky Tooth

Having dipped his toe with punchy cameos in the likes of For Your Consideration and Night At The Museum, television’s favourite creep Ricky Gervais makes his Hollywood debut as a lead in the spiky but safely pasteurised studio comedy Ghost Town.

Gervais plays the delightfully named Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic, uptight dentist (is there any other kind in movies?) who suffers through life desperate to avoid any human contact. Bertram’s knotted bowels bring him to hospital for an operation, where, in a very funny scene, his doctor (Kristen Wiig) explains he died on the operating table for seven minutes. Now, it seems, he can see and speak to ghosts, stuck in the middle of this world and the next.

The most desperate spirit he meets is Frank (Greg Kinnear), a rich Manhattan executive who recently died in an accident. Frank was having an affair with his yoga instructor, but now deeply regrets it and wants to communicate this remorse to his widow, Egyptologist Gwen (Tea Leoni). Gervais doesn’t want to help Frank, or anyone else, he just wants to go back to his beloved drills. But predictably, lonely Bertram contrives to fall in love with gentle Gwen, their relationship sparking over a desiccated mummy with gingivitis in the depths of the city museum.

Although the film could hardly have taken any other direction, once the romance starts any ruffles in Ghost Town are firmly ironed down. Gervais is supposed to be crass, he’s meant to be unsure of himself, twitchy, sweaty and inappropriate. But we are asked to grow to like him, root for him even, so eventually he just stops being nasty and mean and starts being funny and charming. I liked it better when he was horrible because Gervais is better at that. This crucial conversion happens in a rush of broad, neutered set-ups and ordinary jokes. So much time is spent establishing Pincus as a grumpy sad case, that we never spend enough time with him as a fully realised character.

In his trudge through the plot, the pressing demands of New York’s legion of unsettled ghosts are more or less forgotten while Kinnear’s even cuter problem takes precedence. The various resolutions, when they arrive, come in a flood of twinkling lights and wistful smiles, heavily laden with corn syrup.

Gervais plays Bertram as another extension of himself, the same tics and reflexes as David Brent and the same stammering confusion as Andy Millman in Extras: a semi-comprehensible flood of faux pas and panicked smiles. Cast to type, I would prefer to have seen him play the duplicitous yuppie millionaire and the dashing Kinnear take on an isolated loner, lost in sadness. Leoni, as the tightly-wound smart girl, is the thread that binds the two leads and plays a natural, self-dependent woman made all the more attractive by her smarts and determination.

Despite its odd tone and flagging pace, Ghost Town tries to channel the essence of the Golden Age screwball comedies but the potential for something beyond the safe and pre-tested fades early and never recovers.

Great Flames From Little Sparks

The Coen Brothers were always going to struggle to match the Oscar-winning glories of No Country For Old Men, but taken for what it is, a pitch black political comedy, Burn After Reading is a fine achievement, made all the more engaging by a series of clipped, breakneck performances from their ensemble cast of familiar faces. It’s not an essential film, but it is far superior to their other recent quick fire comedies, the lacklustre Ladykillers remake and the terminally dim Intolerable Cruelty.

Set in a bleached-out, industrially austere Washington DC, Burn After Reading (the title comes from a command stamped on a CIA folder), opens with short, tight-knit scenes that establish the main players. At CIA headquarters in Langley, obnoxious and perpetually disgruntled middle-manager Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, forever pursed), quits his job before he can be demoted for his secret drinking. He arrives home to tell his doctor wife Katie (an icy Tilda Swinton), that he plans to retire and write his memoirs.

Katie has a secret of her own; she’s been having an affair with the smirking lothario Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married cop with an inability to remain silent for two minutes. Meanwhile, Osbourne has mislaid the computer disc containing the first draft of his not-so-sensational book and, more pressingly for Katie and her divorce lawyer, the details of their financial affairs. It turns up in the locker room of Hardbodies Gym and, through various machinations, into the hands of personal trainers Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Linda is lonely, forever searching dating websites for Mr Right Now and dreaming of expensive cosmetic surgery, which she thinks can save her from eternal spinsterhood. But a body overhaul doesn’t come cheap, so she and man-child Chad hatch a plan to blackmail Osbourne for $50,000, threatening to go to the Russians if he doesn’t comply.

From that point on, everyone is fair game, and the Coens take some considerable relish in making them squirm before dropping the axe. As we have come to expect from these most technically exacting filmmakers, Burn After Reading is set to a dizzying blueprint of character intersection, story revelations and surprises. The trademark rapid-fire Coen dialogue zips from the screen, to an accompanying progression of o-faced reaction shots, slapstick tumbles, winks and widened eyes.

This is a bureaucratic, uncomfortable place where nobody listens to a word anyone is saying, everyone betrays everyone else and interpersonal relationships are difficult to form and impossible to maintain. These people are enthusiastic adulterers and fast-learning blackmailers but don’t appear to find any pleasure in their transgressions beyond a perfunctory ego-massage or a quick-fix moment of criminal thrill. They aren't nice people, but that hasn't stopped the Coens before. They aren't as smart as they think they are, but the Coens are smarter than all of them put together. The problem is that they can't combine smart, dumb, crafty and naive to become wholly interesting characters.

The sustained theme is that things are never what they seem to be on the surface. Nothing, not a marriage, a memoir, a classified secret or an internet dating site, is what it really is, and none of it is worth the effort the protagonists put into maintaining the façade. The Coens maintain a distance by opening the story with a Gods-eye view of the American continent before zooming in on Washington, where these little people scrabble around in a mess of their own creation. The ending is the same shot, reversed.

If that sounds cold, it is supposed to be; Burn After Reading drips with misanthropy and cynicism. It is an American film of its time. As each of the various strands bundle together, the directors drop in a running commentary from a pair of pernickety CIA spooks (David Raschke and J.K. Simmons), who have all the information they need on the major players but are waiting “for it all to make sense”. The fact that it never does is the sourest joke of all.

Gomorrah People

There’s a remarkable scene in Matteo Garrone’s Italian mafia film Gomorrah, where a smooth-talking, ostensibly respectable businessman is overseeing the dumping of thousands of barrels of toxic waste in an abandoned quarry. When an accident causes his drivers to mutiny, Mr Franco (Toni Servillo) and his assistant drive into town and return, not with a doctor, but a gang of homeless kids who climb into the lorries, sit on cushions, and continue to deliver the endless barrels of poison to the pit. Covered in a thin layer of sand, the barrels will seep into the ground water, destroying the land. Later, Franco will take a basket of gnarled peaches from an elderly grandmother with a smile, then stop his car and throw them in a ditch to rot, overcome by their tainted stench.

These scenes, one arm of an astounding, multi-layered epic, reveal the intense cynicism of the Naples mafia, known as the Camorra, who illicitly dispose of northern Italy’s industrial waste in the rural south, becoming phenomenally rich in the process. But Garrone also wants to show us the limitless amount of cheap, undocumented labour available to the criminals, a deep pool of illegal immigrants and poor natives who will do anything for money and who, in some cases, see the Camorra as the only way to escape grinding poverty and social isolation.

Gomorrah isn't one of those crime operas with a cast of romantically lit, gentlemanly Don Corleones to follow. Much of the action takes place in a vast, crumbling housing estate on the outskirts of the city, a warren of apartments and catwalks where every move is watched by drug dealer’s sentries. Without explanation, we are thrown into the middle of five interconnected stories. Mr Franco is busy destroying the landscape around the city. Two Scarface-addled teenagers (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) decide to wage war against the local Camorra boss, a fat, ignorant boor who rules his kingdom from a tiny, steamy flat. One of his underlings is a likeable, ambitious youngster (the brilliant Salvatore Abruzzese) who delivers groceries for his mother’s shop but wants to become a proper mobster and will do anything to achieve that. At the same time, an impoverished tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo) in an illegal workshop is busy making cheap copies of designer frocks, a skill that has caught the attention of a new gang, the Chinese, who lure him away with the promise of a fortune. Finally, there’s an elderly foot-soldier (Gianfelice Imparato), a bag-man who delivers cash to mob-affiliated families, small payments rewarding loyalty or silence, but who gets caught up in a turf war between rival gangs.

Whereas Antonioni, for instance, might have spun these sprawling elements into a downtempo meditation on the parasitic effect of crime, Garrone is not interested in grand gestures or proclamations, preferring to allow the facts to speak for themselves and in the process, draft a catalogue of how all-pervasive and corrosive the Mafia influence has become. This is a chilling, brutal mosaic of cross-generational corruption, violence, greed and power, spiked with beautifully presented and astonishingly powerful set-pieces that throb with incisive anger. Shot like news reports from a war zone and hewing closely to journalist Roberto Saviano’s best-selling non fiction book, Garrone simply and efficiently details how to many Neapolitans, the underworld has become the real world.

Gomorrah, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year, is the finest film to arrive on our screens since January’s double whammy of No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, as dark and nihilistic as either of those masterpieces but firmly grounded in the reality of its origins. A must see.

Square Pegg

Nobody has a good word to say about Toby Young, including Toby Young. In his memoir of a failed career as a New York society writer, How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, he boasts of his “negative charisma”, the same bad vibrations that reportedly drove Robert Weide to remove him from the set of this film adaptation when he began to offer the director notes on the actors performances. Since his book was published in 2002, Young has made his name as a writer by chronicling his own inadequacies. By his own admission he has no shortage of material to work with but the same is not true of the film, which starts in a muddle and quickly exhausts itself.

We first meet Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) as he struggles to publish another issue of his London based satirical magazine. His desperate attempts to make a success of his hip but penniless London magazine have somehow come to the attention of Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), the floppy haired editor of New York’s prestigious Sharp’s magazine (all the names have been changed to protect the guilty, but Bridges is essentially a lawyer-friendly clone of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter).

Badly dressed and bathed in a panicked sweat, Sidney is quickly brought up to speed on life in the Big Apple. Only a chosen few will rise above the herd so if Sidney wants into what Harding calls “the seventh room”, he’d better learn to pucker up. His only friend on the magazine is the clued-in Allison (a disappointingly remote Kirsten Dunst) who claims she hates him and is only marking time before finishing her novel. Sidney is too infatuated with beautiful but dim actress Sophie Maes (Megan Fox, playing herself essentially) to notice.

A fish out of water, Sidney duly flops about on deck in a series of dim-witted set-ups spiked with celebrity cameos and media-friendly references. The story proper starts when Sidney learns the secret to success is access so cosies up to all-powerful publicist Eleanor Johnson (Gillian Anderson). A photo by-line, a Park Avenue apartment, an open invitation to celebrity parties and a swanky watch all arrive in quick succession. You don’t need to have seen The Apartment, The Sweet Smell Of Success or it’s imitators like The Devil Wears Prada, to know that Sidney will eventually come to realise that his toadying has cost him his integrity.

Struggling writers have been the jumping off point for countless comedies, from Adaptation to Barton Fink, but HTWFAAP simply isn’t smart enough to tackle the theme, taking instead the easy route of lengthy montage, eye-rolling slapstick and some derivative nonsense with a Chihuahua. It is all tinged with a snide sense of injustice and a curious reverse snobbery, some of which manages to be faintly amusing, but the remainder decidedly less so.

Pegg has proven himself to be a nimble comic presence, using his mobile, expressive face to fill the frame with gurning despair or wrinkle-nosed self-loathing. Underneath the buffoonery, there is a performance but Sydney is so obnoxious, even in the scenes where we are supposed to like him that Pegg fails to win us over. This inability to connect with our odious anti-hero, or to feel anything for his inevitable conversion, is the film’s most significant flaw but it is not the only one.

Director Robert Waide, whose resume includes episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, has form when it comes to unlikeable, spiky characters but his treatment of the material here is anonymous and lumpy. He pushes the one-directional story along at a fair clip but Peter Straughan’s script gets too distracted along the way. Allison’s covert romance with the pompous sub-editor Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston) is hastily established and even more quickly resolved. Neither actor can do anything with it. Sideshows from Miriam Margolyes as the elaborately moustachioed Eastern European landlady and Bill Patterson as Sidney’s estranged intellectual father are abandoned once they deposit their narrative burdens. The greatest waste is Bridges, presented with a few illuminating moments as the taciturn mentor but inelegantly squashed into the remainder of the story.

Read my interview with Pegg and compadre Nick Frost for Hot Fuzz here

Harry Shearer & For Your Consideration

To mark the release of Harry Shearer's new album, Songs Of The Bushmen, I'm posting an interview I did with him around the release of For Your Consideration, in 2006, where he talks about the process of being funny, the state of America and the future of celebrity.

“Ho-ho and bejabbers” says Harry Shearer in a terrible Oirish accent as his PR minder smoothly introduces me. Surely that’s not your best effort I reply, in a neutral tone, as the man of a thousand voices explains the double reference in his greeting: he’s doing Steve Coogan doing Alan Partridge doing Irish, “in that scene with the visiting TV producers in the restaurant, remember? I love Alan Partridge, he’s so…clueless.”

When not momentarily confusing visiting journalists, regardless of nationality, Harry Shearer wears a lot of hats, mostly in disguise. As an actor, he is probably best known for his long collaboration with Christopher Guest on the series of hilarious mockumentaries that started with Rob Reiner’s Spinal Tap back in the 1980s and continued with famously improvised comedies like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. If you don’t know him from there, for more than a decade he has voiced an ensemble of the best loved characters on The Simpsons; Monty Burns, Principal Skinner and Ned Flanders among them and had finished work on the upcoming Simpsons Movie the week before. Last December he published his third comic novel, ‘Not Enough Indians’ while keeping busy by releasing albums of satirical songs, doing a weekly radio show and exhaustingly, spending most of last year on the road in a run of one-man ‘evenings with…’, including a sell-out month at the Edinburgh Fringe. Despite the workload, he looks chipper enough today, painstakingly neat like all American actors bar the teenagers, resplendent in a vivid purple shirt and black dress pants with razorblade seams.

For a certain constituency of moviegoer, the opening of a new film from writer/director Guest and his collective of comic performers, is cause to dust down their happy faces and bulwark their sides against an imminent splitting. They arrive every four years or so and feature, for the most part, identical casts but they never seem to repeat themselves. So how does it come about? “Well, Chris will initiate something discreetly so once we all get wind of that, we sit by the phone waiting for the call to say “you’re in!”. I’m friendly with Chris outside of the work and he’d been saying after Mighty Wind that he didn’t want to do any more of that specific type of movie. So that was that, we thought, and we all went away to do our own thing. That lasted about three months, then I get the call - I have an idea - then six months - well I’m kind of still looking at it – and then it’s like – what are you doing in February?”

The movie’s title, For Your Consideration is taken from the strap line of the attention-hustling print advertisements for the Academy Award nominees that clog the US trade magazines around this time of the year. It is something of a departure from Guest’s trademark mockumentary format, being at least partially scripted. “About half of it was all there beforehand.” In it, Shearer plays Victor Allen Miller, a middle-aged actor best known for portraying a six-foot hot-dog in a series of adverts on the telly. In the film-within-a-film a grateful Victor is playing the concerned father in a low-budget production, a preposterous Jewish melodrama set in the Deep South in the 1940s called Home for Purim. Opposite Victor is the similarly faded Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara), playing Ester, the ailing wife and mother to Callie (Parker Posey) who has returned home for the titular Jewish holiday after a long estrangement. What we see of the film is a procession of hilarious Oy-Vey! yiddisher clichés, directed by Guest himself as a wire-haired buffoon. The real story is happening off set where thanks to some buzz on a movie website, the rumour starts that the three ‘stars’ might be in the running for an Oscar nomination. The three suddenly star-struck nobodies are surrounded by a typically deranged army of Guest’s usual performers, familiar faces that, endearingly and almost uniquely, are a genuine pleasure to see together again. Fred Willard and Jane Lynch play a duo of Hollywood gossip show hosts. Bob Balaban and Michael McKean play Purim’s railroaded writers. John Michael Higgins plays an exciteable publicist while the blank-faced Jennifer Coolidge plays a dense producer. The most notable newcomer to the ensemble is Ricky Gervias, playing and interfering studio executive, as keen as the cast are to ride the coattails of the Oscar possibilities.

Although comics will tell you that being funny is the hardest thing in the world to do, the impression from the outside is that the cast reunite, put on the togs and start cracking jokes, while later Guest trims it down to into a manageable movie. “No, it’s not like that at all”, says Shearer. “We don’t crack jokes. We’re really not cracking jokes. As a group, we’re not deadpan serious, obviously, but the first job is to tell the story that Chris has outlined in his notes and be that character. So if it’s a scene with Victor and his agent (Eugene Levy, co-writer and constant presence), I think the scene is pathetic enough without having to lard it up.” I ask him if, in the ensemble, there’s ever any argument when it comes to deciding who plays who? “No, no, we’re very civilized. Anyway, both Chris and Gene have a clear idea at the outset of who is going to play who. The fighting comes over deciding the look of your character. I get to the makeup room on the first day of shooting and might be thinking about something in a moustache, say and they’re like, no, sorry, McKean has a moustache. What about a beard? Funny teeth? So, literally, that is what we fight over. We’re the kind of actors who work on our characters from the outside in – we need to know what they’re going to look like from the outset.” Is that the secret, goofy teeth? “Well, it helps if we make each other laugh, right? Chris is operating with the luxury of time and in the assumption of trust; that if you get these people together funny stuff will happen and he will be able to find it. But the job description is really just an acting job. Yes, we’re all trying to make our characters into funny characters, but just to play that guy or girl as much as you can and try to get into their skin, and add to it the little you know about yourself or other people.”

Everything we know as being bad about Hollywood and the business of stardom gets a skewering in Consideration. Shearer, who was a child actor, has been around the place for a long time so I ask him what the dumbest thing anyone ever said to him within the precincts of LA. He thinks about his answer for a moment and grimaces slightly as he leans forward. “I was in a movie called The Truman Show and in the lead up to the release this American magazine asked me to do a diary about working on the picture. So, I did that, carefully writing up my thoughts, and the first line was ‘Even though this movie stars Jim Carrey, I never laid eyes on him during filming. So this diary is not about Jim Carrey’. Now, that was simply stating a fact, because we didn’t have any scenes together but the magazine chose to title the piece The Trouble With Carrey.” He spreads out his arms to marquee the headline, emphasising it word by word and sighs. “The day it came out, I get a call from the producer, who shall remain nameless, to say that I was disinvited – is that a word - to the premiere. I was persona non grata on the whole publicity tour. So I said that I didn’t write the headline personally, or edit the piece, but if he was to actually go and read beyond the first paragraph, it was very complimentary and very positive about the movie and so on. He hangs up. The next day, word comes back. ‘If you show up at the premiere, the entire event will be cancelled on the spot’.” He pauses for effect. “I stood there, phone in hand, for a full five minutes thinking “I’m going to do it! Where’s my tux?” But I like Peter Weir and the rest of the cast, and I had a great time making the movie, so why would I want to ruin their evening? But that, the ravings of a five-year-old, temper-throwing moron who just happens to be a very powerful person in the motion picture business, is about the dumbest and weirdest thing that’s ever been said to me.”

Victor, a dummy adrift in a sea of idiots, goes to some weird and infantile places over the course of his momentary fame, pulling on a tight, shiny t-shirt, spiking his hair and bleaching his teeth and acquiring a startling oxo-cube tan. He even dances on MTV’s TRL, bumping and grinding with two teenage girls. Shearer insists that although he knew Victor would “get a dose of the same disease, the madness that grips Marilyn”, he didn’t realise it would involve completely reinventing himself into what he calls ‘Victor II’. “You see, this is one of the ironies of this situation, that at the very moment they get the attention they believe they deserve, they want to be a new, improved version of themselves. It speaks to that big hole in the centre here, the actor’s idea that they really deserve this recognition but they’re simply not good enough at the same time. Victor feels the need to be prettier, younger, nicer, thinner, hipper, and all of the above and more.”

Has he thought about the part that the interview process, the same publicity machine that they nail in the movie and part of which involves somebody like me being hustled into a hotel room to ask a few barely probing questions? “Well, first of all, it’s not somebody like you, it’s the actual you. I think the cast were all thinking about that, the kind of mirror game we’re playing here. It started for me when we were in Toronto at the Film Festival and I was walking out of the hotel to get a cup of coffee and I met these two guys, just regular festival goers not industry people. They offered to buy me a cup of coffee and one of them says, completely straight-faced, ‘so Harry, what’s the buzz on your movie?’ I said to myself, isn’t that what Consideration is about. It’s a hall of mirrors.” Shearer admits that while making the film, the cast talked about how they were going to face the press and the publicity with a straight face. “First of all, there is this cacophonous media environment where companies spend zillions of dollars to bludgeon you with news of their new product. We’re trying to get just the tiniest scrap of the public attention and say, this movie might interest you. You might have a good time watching this. What we’re doing here, it’s all about that and you know, what we’re making fun of in the movie more than anything else is that note of desperation that can creep in. Please notice me, love me!”

In the movie, there’s the sense for the actors that finally, after this long process of humiliation there might come a moment of esteem? “Well it’s that or just relief from the humiliation.” He laughs. “Which would be just as good, believe me.” “It’s not about flattery, though”, he continues, “with the cast of Home for Purim, these people always been third-tier talents and when you’re anywhere but at the absolute top in this business, humiliation is a constant. You’re either experiencing it, or you’re just over it or it’s coming around the corner. It’s the actor’s constant fear. So any salve you can apply to that is the Holy Grail.” The ultimate salve, the most soothing ego-balm for any actor, is the Oscars. I ask Shearer if he's a member of the academy. “Nope”, he says. Has he ever been asked to join? “Er, well, Ed Begley said you need two people to nominate you for your body of work, which is a curious phrase, and something happened over the years that turned into nothing, but I don’t really care. My wife (singer Judith Owen) is in the BAFTA, so we get the screener DVDs and isn’t that the only real benefit?”

After admitting that he’s recently been busy enough to justify employing a publicist for the first time, I ask Shearer what he thinks about awards show season, which now runs from December to the Oscars in March. “There are way, way too many of them, no question about it. But there are too many awards generally. I’ve been making a little collection of awards shows from outside of the entertainment industry, the strangest little corners of American commerce and effort. Really, I get sent videos. I have ones from ‘The Oscars of Funeral Directors’ or ‘The Oscars of People who make PR Videos about Funeral Directors’.” I laugh at his joke, partly because he delivers it in pure Kent Brockman, before he stops me. “No, really, it goes on and on and on. They’ve all watched the real Oscars, and have learned about walking to the podium and doing their acceptance speech and not talking too long in case the music drowns you out. Doesn’t anybody just do a job anymore? Is there a back left unpatted in America? The great American humourist Jean Shepherd once said ‘Eventually, Everything Will Become Showbusiness’. At the time, it seemed like a daffy thing to say but now it’s absolutely true.”

Redbelt & Taken

Twinned curiosities this week, with David Mamet, American cinema’s snarling id, bringing us his jiu-jitsu Rocky and Liam Neeson laying waste to all around him in a politically whiffy French kidnap drama? What next – Anthony Hopkins pointing a glowing finger in E.T. II: Elliot’s Revenge? Cameron Diaz outing vile spots in Judd Apatow’s Macbeth?

Redbelt, titled after the highest grade of expertise in the sport, a cross between judo and wrestling, is essentially a chopsocky drama. This description that might seem like a departure for the heavyweight writer and director, but Mamet always twisted genre archetypes to suit his own ends. Different tales told in a distinctive voice, his films share the same blank tone, unmistakable staccato dialogue, deftly pleated storylines and an uncommon throb of excess testosterone.

Redbelt is a Mamet from the opening frames, an experiment in channelling the zen of Bruce Lee through the conduit of Jean Luc Godard’s infamous dictum that “all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun”. The girl is Laura (Emily Mortimer), the gun belongs to LA policeman Joe (played by Max Martini), who leaves it lying on a bench in a failing martial arts studio run by Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor). High-flying lawyer Laura is jonesing for her anti-anxiety medication and in an excited moment grabs the pistol. It goes off, setting in a motion a series of unlikely events that will change Mike’s life dramatically and test the patience of even the most serene viewer.

Mike isn't just a teacher, he's a guru, an aesthetic monk who follows a strict code of honour in life and in combat. Even though he is broke, a fact wife Sondra (Alice Braga) reminds him of daily, Mike refuses to enter fighting competitions, believing they corrupt and demean his sport. In a rush of developments, Mike saves movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) from a beating in a bar and is invited to dinner by way of thanks. There he meets Chet’s sleazy manager (Joe Mantegna) who brings him on board the film and gifts him an expensive watch. Life, for once, looks good for Mike and Sondra, who makes an important business connection with Chet’s wife (played by Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon).

Mike the warrior philosopher is the typical Mamet hero, a throwback to a time of honour and values. In the developing scam, Mike is the patsy, the mark, and like the best of his kind, he is oblivious to his status. He makes the mistake in thinking that everybody is like him, honest and sincere. The story, based in part on Mamet’s own experiences as a jiu-jitsu student, soon becomes needlessly, wilfully complicated but Ejiofor has reserves of stoic serenity to play with, a calm charisma that maintains our interest in the early part of the story. It doesn’t hold, partly because Mike remains a character without a story of his own, a collection of ideas and surface indicators. It’s to Ejiofor’s credit that he remains as watchable as he does for as long as he does.

Redbelt might appear tough but Mamet pulls too many of his punches, unable to communicate Mike’s impotent rage with the same verve he brings to the spitfire dialogue and bewildering disclosures. These elements are what make the film uniquely Mamet, but are also what suffocate it in familiarity. His intellectual machismo has become cliché, his determination to befuddle a narrative tic, even the secondary cast is assembled from the writer and director’s stock company of actors. These familiar faces spout beautifully poised epithets across Mamet’s recognisable spaces, affecting an unruffled, world-weary disdain as they punctuate their emphatic line readings with oddly spaced pauses.

So focused is Mamet on pulling the wool over our eyes he reduces his emotional material - a suicide in disgrace, an emotional betrayal - to throwaway lines of dialogue that bounce off Mike’s broad chest without effecting so much as a flinch. Instead we get an increasingly preposterous story about maintaining the Corinthian spirit in sport, spliced into a green ink essay on the machinations of unscrupulous movie producers.

Mamet loves these characters for their smart mouths and their balls but doesn’t seem at all interested in their souls. He revels in poking around in the background of their lives but Redbelt remains a tentative snoop around dimly lit corners, ignoring the potential in darker basements and distracted by the inexorable crawl towards the climactic fight. The problem is not the density of the drama or the preponderance of narrative blind alleys; it’s that the plot lacks all coherence and consistency. The trap Mamet springs is dependent on hastily explained (if we’re lucky) off-screen interventions and a long series of plausibility-sapping coincidences. Even after another character carefully explains the ending to him, Ejiofor looks none the wiser.

Taken, the new film from District 13 director Pierre Morel, has Liam Neeson playing a kind of middle-aged Jason Bourne, a retired CIA agent who is forced into action when his teenage daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers in Paris. All towering menace, Neeson plays single-dad Bryan Mills, who is on the phone with his 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), when she and her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) are taken from their holiday apartment by Albanian gangsters who steal unaccompanied women and sell them into slavery. Having already established the schism between Bryan and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), Neeson’s highly-trained killer boards her new husband’s private jet and touches down in Paris to start the search for his daughter.

Armed with little more than a briefcase full of high-tech gizmos and his own hungry fists, the infinitely resourceful Bryan races around the city, extracting vital information from the scantiest of leads while dishing out cold-blooded retribution. Having established Byran as a superman, Neeson is allowed to do some pretty extraordinary things – in effect, he can do what he likes – striding into the gang’s hideout, shooting dozens of swarthy assailants, evading the French police and the piqued Albanians while gradually getting closer to the truth of what has happened to Kim.

Director Pierre Morel has a great eye for action and an ability to maintain tension through even the most unlikely developments. Taking his cue from producer Luc Besson’s commitment to narrative momentum and Paul Greengrass’s livewire photography, Morel delivers a series of beautifully choreographed, high-octane action sequences and bruising fight scenes, in contrast to the overly expedient script, which sees scores of ‘foreigners’ fall victim to Bryan’s righteous vengeance, shot where they stand for getting in his way.

Neeson is 56 now but he remains an effective, efficient action man – he was a Jedi Knight, remember - a credible threat right from the opening scenes. Taken is trimmed back to the bone, and moves at such a blistering pace, that the Ballymena actor is only required to express wrinkle-eyed concern and flared-nostril wrath, but he does both extremely well. Around him however, the secondary cast flounder. Janssen’s role amounts to almost nothing, acting as a foil for scene-setting resentments and then dissolving into a voice on the phone. Grace, a 25 year old playing 17, is overly excited in the set-up, innocently giggling and skipping on her way to her doom before her character is reduced to a focal point for Bryan’s revenge.

Redbelt and Taken are odd, jumpy stories about absurdly driven men in dangerous surroundings fighting to retain the only thing that remains dear to them. They share a gritty sense of realism but are stiff with genre formalities and hobbled with implausibilities. In the end, the difference between the two films – why one bears the ugly brand of two-star disdain and the other gets a tentative recommendation – is a question of intent.

Taken takes action seriously, casually administering regular jolts of adrenaline that compels the viewer through the story. Redbelt has just as many opportunities to deliver thrills, but is too preoccupied with higher thoughts to properly address matters of the gut. Taken moves in an unswerving straight line at tremendous speed, Redbelt meanders distractedly before rushing its conclusions in a fumble. Redbelt thinks it is Greek Tragedy, Taken knows it is a fantasy. One aspires to have meaning, the other couldn't care less.

This post is a so-far unique two-for-one deal. A recessionary move.
I was struck by how similar and how different both films are, even though they come from completely different places.