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Berlin 2011 Review: THE MORTICIAN

rating: 0.5

You can debate about what constitutes "national cinema" for years and still be no closer to an answer everyone will agree on. Is it a case of where the film is funded? Or is it the nationality of the film's director, or cast for that matter? Is it about where the film is set or where the story originates from? I'm not certain of the answer. However, what I am certain of is that The Mortician, starring US hip-hop artist Method Man, is about as "British" as it is good. As in "not very". Directed by the English Gareth Maxwell Roberts, The Mortician is one long and insufferably earnest cliché about life in "the ghetto" set somewhere in a fictionalised part of the USA. The financial crisis is frequently mentioned so as to give the piece some kind of relevance, but it's superfluous to the story and, one feels, if the film had been made a few years earlier it would have been invoking Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 as its go to American tragedy. In any case: people are poor and the government doesn't care. The streets are controlled by gangs and all women work as prostitutes. In the middle of all the urban decay and lawlessness is the titular mortician himself, as played by Method Man, who sees fresh victims of gang crime brought in every day. The mortician is a meek and silent figure who walks around in a brown suit, also wearing a bowler hat and glasses. He is not a gang criminal or a rapper and so Method Man plays him in the manner of Richard Pryor's parodic portryals of 'white people'. He delivers his dialogue in a purposefully stilted manner and shuffles around, affecting a stoop. Method Man is found wanting as a dramatic actor and he can't register any genuine emotion on his face (insert joke about method acting here). Though he isn't exactly helped by Roberts' overly literal writing and direction. One typical scene shows him take a roll of dollar bills and stash it in a small safe box. We then see a map with a place called "Almaville" encircled on it. Any audience should already understand the significance of this moment: Method wants out of his shitty town and is saving to visit Almaville. Yet not sufficiently confident with either his audience or his own storytelling, Roberts then cuts Method again looking at something. We then get a shot of a bus timetable leaflet that says Almaville on the front. This is followed by the best shot in the sequence, as Method shakes his head and sighs to himself loudly (the direction presumably being: "ok Method. You're upset you can't afford the bus yet."). It's just one heavy-handed moment in a film made up entirely of them. Also, in the interests of pedantry, he has quite a lot of money saved in his box, so how damn expensive is this bus? I'd just walk, to be honest. The dialogue is straight up awful too. Near the end Method sees someone onto a bus and says "go find yourself a piece of paradise". Just as interminable is the scene where a child wants to come into Method's morgue. "Let me in". Method replies blankly "no". They repeat this exchange for a while without change - as though it's a hilarious Chuckle Brothers routine - until Roberts ups his game and brings out the good stuff. "Let me in", says the child again. "It's not permitted" says Method's awkwardly verbose protagonist. "But I want to come in", pleads the child. "No" he says before finally asking the obvious question: "Why do you want to come in anyway?" The film's ridiculous, two dimensional villain (Dash Mihok) at one point menaces this same child by saying "daddy's gonna get ya!" Yet maybe the worst piece of writing of all is reserved for an 'emotional' scene between Method and the child. "What was your mother like?" he asks. "She was pretty" is the all too predictable response. But the kid doesn't stop with that overused line. Instead he uses every answer to that question ever given in the movies. "She used to smile all the time even when she was sad. She used to dance even when there was no music. She used to sing me songs to send me to sleep." And so on. When not talking this kind of rubbish, people are just swearing at each other or engaging in MTV Cribs style posturing, saying things like "you feel me dog?" It's worth noting this film is written by a British white guy and it's more than a little patronising. But why write about what you know when you can just as easily write about stuff you've grown up watching on television? It's the sort of film that gives you the confidence to write a movie, in full knowledge that you could do much better - or at least no worse. The Mortician is at the very bottom of the barrel. This is not least because it thinks it's an incredibly sensitive, mould-breaking piece of drama, utterly humourless and devoid of any colour. The imagery and bank crisis references are beyond trite, yet Roberts has made this film is such a way that you can feel a great weight of pretension behind every moment. Why it's in 3D is also beyond me. Its use is neither artistic or exciting. There isn't a lot of "action" on screen at all, so I suspect a few junior hoodlums are going to be very disappointed when "that 3D film starring Method Man" turns out to be such an introspective yawn-festival. The Mortician received precisely zero claps from a full theatre here in Berlin. Even the miserable Odem drew some fans, so the silence was very telling. The sense of frustration was palpable as the film drew to a close as there was more than one ending and it just seemed to keep going. For the last twenty minutes it went from "bad" to "funny bad", and people openly laughed at some of the final dramatic moments - notably the scene in which Method reforms a prostitute by taking her to a fancy restaurant. I just feel really sorry for Edward Furlong, who has a tiny part, as well as The Wire actor Wendell Pierce (AKA Bunk) who also has a thankless role as a vindictive cop. Are things that bad guys? The Mortician (3D) is apparently a British movie, despite the fact it says less than nothing about the British experience - other than perhaps that our filmmakers look across the Atlantic for inspiration too often. But the question of its nationality and cultural authenticity would not be so important were it actually any good.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.