The best (in my opinionated view) 100 films of all time - in no particular order.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Mr Turner (2014)

Back in the mid-sixties I remember watching an advertisement on our black-and-white tube-driven monster of a TV for a new board game called Mousetrap. It was “a game of zany action on a crazy contraption” the ad loudly declared and it featured kids my age having the time of their lives. It looked so exciting. The ad showed the game in all it’s frenetic and zany action as a lever hit a boot that kicked over a bucket that sent a marble rolling down some rickety stairs which fed into a chute that bounced the marble off a vertical pole (at the top of which was an open hand, which supported a plastic ball, slightly larger than the marble) the movement of which knocked the ball free which then fell through a hole and into a bath where a hole in the bath dropped it onto one end of a seesaw which launched a diver on the other end into a tub which was on the same base as a barbed pole supporting the mouse cage, the movement of which shook the cage free from the top of the pole and allowed it to fall onto a plastic mouse and all the kids cheered and shouted “Mousetrap!” Is that clear to everyone? Well, anyway it looked fantastic and I wanted it! I would be able to invite my friends around and we could all shout “Mousetrap!” and I would be dead cool and everyone would like me. I badgered my parents for it every day during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Every time the ad appeared on TV I’d point it out to them and I’d leave open the Grattan catalogue at the page where Mousetrap was being sold. It was more expensive than it was in the shops because the Grattan catalogue sold items at inflated prices to people on low incomes who could least afford them but nevertheless bought these items on what was known as the never-never.

My parents kept up the pretence of not being able to afford it right up until Christmas morning when I was tearing at the paper of a large rectangular-shaped box. I saw the blue Mousetrap logo underneath and I was over the moon. I was in a state of rapture. I felt as if I was sat next to the Gods on Olympus drinking ambrosia from the horn of a magic buffalo. My feet were dancing of their own accord – I couldn’t stop them, such was my untethered excitement of owning this Holy Grail of board games. 

Christmas was going to brilliant.

Except it didn’t turn out that way. Those of you who were bought Mousetrap at some time in the sixties or early seventies as either a birthday or Christmas present will know what I’m going to say next.

It was rubbish! It was the most boring, pointless, stupidest game I had ever played. What they had showed on the TV ad was the end of the game, and I mean the end. I’m talking about the last three or four seconds here. Before that you had to spend two interminable hours rolling a dice and moving your mouse around the board, whilst building the Heath-Robinson type contraption that would eventually trap (or not trap) your opponent’s mouse. Half the time it didn’t work properly – the marble usually got stuck somewhere or the diver wasn’t positioned at exactly the correct angle for diving into the tub or the mouse wasn’t on the right square and you had to start the whole tedious process again.

It was more boring than Cluedo (another pointless board game I never really understood, mainly owing to the fact that you didn’t really require a board to play it). If I told you that I hated playing Mousetrap I’d be lying. I didn’t just hate it – I fucking loathed it! I wanted to kick it across the room and melt all the stupid plastic pieces with a blow-torch – and I would have done it if my parents had thought to buy me a blow-torch for Christmas that year.

Don’t you just hate it when you’ve believed all the hype and something you think is going to be really special turns out to be rubbish?

I’ve just had that Mousetrap feeling again after watching Mike Leigh’s latest film Mr Turner, a biopic about the great painter JMW Turner. “A masterpiece!” the ‘professional’ critics declared of it, “Brilliant!” “Mike Leigh’s best film so far!” It received unanimous praise from critics everywhere. 

The poster for Mr Turner

Were the professional critics on drugs when they saw this film? Were they pissed? Did they fall asleep with boredom after half-an-hour and upon waking near the end feel obliged out of misplaced embarrassment to give it a gushing review?

The trailer made the film look really good, but as we all know a well-edited trailer can make even the biggest pile of steaming dog shit look like a masterpiece. For example, in the trailer it shows Turner meeting his great rival John Constable (played by James Fleet). It’s about a forty second segment in the trailer. That’s about half as long as the actual segment in the film. Nothing further is made of it, which is a shame because with a good scriptwriter it would have made a fascinating story.

I’ll admit the performances were excellent, particularly from Dorothy Atkinson as the maid Hannah Danby and (it goes without saying) Timothy Spall as Turner. The photography was beautiful, capturing an almost painterly view of landscape. But that’s it.

I read a recent interview with Mike Leigh, who declared that Mr Turner was his twentieth film without a script – and it shows. What you get is merely a series of vignettes that create an impression of Turner’s life. Like Ron Howard’s awful A Beautiful Mind, a film that told you absolutely nothing about the mathematician John Nash, Mr Turner tells you about as much about the life of JMW Turner as you can glean from a thirty second cursory glance at his page on Wikipedia. It is the Emperor’s New Clothes.

The critics who lauded Mr Turner are the same critics who would lambast an action film for having too much action and not enough story or a horror film for being too gory. It appears also, for an empty film to receive high praise it should be merely pretentious and beautiful to look at. But modern audiences are not so easily fooled. I went to see Mr Turner with five Art students and not one of them left the cinema feeling satisfied. At least two people in the audience fell asleep during its two and a half hour length through (I assume) boredom – I didn’t know where they were but I could hear them snoring.

Strangely some of the same critics who praised Mr Turner rubbished The Imitation Game, another (superior) biopic, this time about World War Two code-breaker Alan Turing, with fantastic performances from Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke . This film shared two of the qualities of Mr Turner – it was brilliantly acted and it was beautifully filmed. But it had a third quality that Mr Turner was sadly (and unforgivably) lacking – it had a story.

Don’t get me wrong about Mike Leigh – I’ve been a fan of his films for years – in fact ever since his superb 1977 comedy of manners and social embarrassment, Abigail’s Party – but really, after twenty years and on the merits of Mr Turner, I think he should hire a screenwriter for his next outing.

A few years ago when Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers were beginning to become popular, each book bore a sticker that read something like: Guaranteed Enjoyment or Your Money Back. Perhaps films that have overly enthusiastic quotes from critics declaring them to be masterpieces should have the same stickers attached to them, only this time around they should read: Guaranteed Enjoyment or Your Money Back from the pocket of the critics who overrated this mediocre and boring film.

There – that’s got that out of my system. It will be business as usual for the next entry.