Writer/director Eran Creevy takes a huge leap - from the grungy, micro-budgeted Shifty - to this slick, attractive action flick.
Detective Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) remains hot on the heels of the elusive Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) and is given a second chance to take down the master criminal when he is forced to return to London.
There's a strong Brit cast: Andrea Riseborough, Daniel Mays, David Morrisey, Peter Mullan and Johnny Harris all lend excellent support. The ubiquitous Mark Strong once again proves he can do no wrong. Sadly, the weak link is lead James McAvoy. His dubious, irksome cockney accent doesn't help. Why on earth couldn't he have just been Scottish? (NB: There are a lot of Scottish coppers in the Met and the accent lends itself well to being a) authoritative and b) tough.) And I hate to be short-ist but his diminutive frame (of 5' 7", to be exact) does not make him much of a physical presence amid the requisite macho posturing. He's also offered scant decent lines.
Which brings me to the script. Creevy has a knack for dialogue and it's displayed brilliantly, as in Shifty, when dealing with the minutiae of a situation. Unfortunately, the director seems to have got too bogged down in plot. The only sparky moments (and there are a few of them) occur when he's not forced to push the action forward. Subsequently, the whole thing descends into cliché. Instead of aping Hollywood action mores I wish Creevy had embraced the Britishness a little more. British cinema often fails when it is consciously aiming for appeal across borders. The success of say, Sexy Beast and The Long Good Friday can be put down to their intrinsic Britishness. Due to budgetary constraints British action cinema is relatively rare. What such films lack in spectacle can be compensated for by characterisation and dialogue. And this would have benefited by more focus on both. McAvoy's character is painfully two-dimensional and for an obvious lover of action cinema Creevy needs to give the words a lot more well, punch.
This is not, by any means, a bad film. As stated above, there are elements to savour. There are a few good laughs too. There's also an inspired set-piece which takes place in a twee grandmother's living room. (One of the rare occasions that Creevy embraces the film's parochial nature.)
The director does achieve some great-looking visuals. London has rarely looked as sexy and he makes the city itself feel like an international player. Working with a pretty modest budget for the genre - £5.5 million - Creevy's achieved impressive production value and you can't help but admire his ambition. So I wish the film well and he's certainly a director to keep an eye on.
Sunday, 17 March 2013
My first-time foray into the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival starts with this peculiar flight of fantasy from writer/director Marçal Forés.
Pol (Oriol Pla) is a disaffected 17-year-old living with older, police officer brother, Llorenç (Javiér Beltran). Regularly withdrawing from the world, Pol has a (possibly) imaginary friend to keep him company: a walking, talking teddy bear called Deerhoof. Conflicted by desires he begins romances with his friend Laia (Roser Tapias) and also new classmate Ikari (Augustus Prew) who is prone to self-harming. A local girl goes missing and this creates a sinister mood in and around the school.
It’s a bizarre film, often as ‘funny ha-ha’ as ‘funny peculiar’ but without any uncomfortable tonal shifts. It seamlessly switches from the silly to the downright nasty and the director displays a talent for both. The film is set against a beautiful backdrop of Barcelona’s rural surroundings, and beautifully shot by Eduard Grau (Buried, A Single Man) who raises the game of this modestly-budgeted feature.
Deerhoof speaks in English. (And that’s fine - he’s a talking teddy bear. If he spoke Urdu it wouldn’t exactly affect the realism.) The majority of the cast speak Catalan but there are a handful of British actors (including Martin Freeman) and when they are in a scene everyone speaks in English. Very odd and incredibly jarring. Sadly, as soon as this occurred it brought me out of the film.
It’s a little ragged in terms of narrative. The script could have done with some polish. There are times when, logistically, the action is a little confused. So this debut does feel like a first film. But hey, you have to start somewhere and what it lacks in script it makes up for in visuals and mood. Forés has conjured a very haunting atmosphere and shown real imaginative flair. The central conceit of Deerhoof is a big, bold idea and am a little surprised he managed to get funding. The director really embraces the magical realism and makes these scenes work. He also displays an anarchic streak, which is fun to watch. In the Q&A that followed, the director proved to be very charming and self-effacing, and I look forward to seeing him grow as a film-maker.
Sunday, 10 March 2013
Writer/director Paul Andrew Williams first grabbed my attention with the excellent, and blisteringly nasty, London to Brighton (2006). It’s almost inconceivable that he’s made something as sweet as this. But the director is notable for the contrasting genres he embraces.
Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) is terminally ill and nursed by her loyal but curmudgeonly husband Arthur (Terence Stamp). Marion refuses to stop attending the pensioner’s choir at her local community centre led by Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton) - much to Arthur’s chagrin. The choir, dubbed “The OAP’Z” enter a singing competition performing hits as unlikely as Motorhead’s Ace of Spades. Arthur is drawn unwillingly into the proceedings, and inspired to heal the relationship with his estranged son, James (Christopher Eccleston).
It would take a cold heart to go unmoved by this. It’s as much weepie as it is feelgood – this softy reviewer shed more than a few manly tears - but amidst the pathos it has plenty of big belly laughs. Surely it’s impossible not to be amused by a bunch of pensioners performing Salt-n-Pepa’s Let’s Talk About Sex. (I should add the arrangements of all these tunes are really quite inspired.) I laughed along with them all in a joyously life-affirming fashion.
In terms of cinema receipts, this will certainly help the ever-strengthening grey pound but it’s certainly not just a film for oldies. I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. It has a gentle charm with an ever-present realism. The assured direction and savvy script make it satisfyingly engaging and the leads are eminently watchable. Vanessa Redgrave is wonderful in the role – twinkling and, ironically, so alive – as this woman facing death. Terence Stamp reveals a tenderness I’m unfamiliar with (and he sings too). The two actors make a believable, and very touching, couple of many years. And former Bond Girl Arterton is [in the understatement of the year] rather easy on the eye.
It was the perfect film to see with my mum on this Mothering Weekend. (Happy Mothering Sunday, Mum.) Go and see it. It’ll make your heart sing.
Saturday, 16 February 2013
This doesn’t feel like the work of a septuagenarian director, some four decades on from their Hollywood heyday. More like that of a debuting young buck creating as much sound and fury as they possibly can. William Friedkin, you certainly grabbed my attention and it’s nice to see you refusing to grow old gracefully.
The story surrounds a trailer trash family so dysfunctional that what most would consider horrors they see as commonplace. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) hatch a plot to bump off their respective mother/ex-wife in order to receive a life insurance pay out. They hire a hitman to do the deed, the eponymous Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey). When things don’t go to plan, Ansel’s 12-year-old daughter (Juno Temple) is drawn into the twisted web. The entire family then becomes compromised as they fall helplessly indebted to Joe.
Killer Joe is about as downright nasty as cinema gets. Some unspeakable acts are played out. For all its unrelenting vileness, it has some peculiar tonal shifts. Some of which I can only describe as fun. Its finale left me on a weird, slightly hysterical high.
Writer Tracy Letts adapted the screenplay from his own 1993 play. His wonderfully twisted imagination sees nothing as taboo and believably paints the abhorrent as day-to-day. It brings to mind the work of John Dahl, a director fond of hurling his characters (with few redeeming features) into increasingly hot water.
It’s a stellar cast. Emile Hirsch, as a young man so tortured that he yells his way through the entire film, is fantastically intense. Thomas Haden Church’s Ansel is so wonderfully moronic, if I hadn’t seen the likes of Sideways I’d assume he really was that dumb hick. Gina Gershon (although perhaps a little too good-looking for such a low-rent role) lends solid support as his none-too-supportive wife. Juno Temple does a fantastic job playing no less than eleven years her junior, thus proving herself a worthy recipient of this year’s BAFTA Rising Star Award. Matthew McConaughey is, in his own words, experiencing something of a “McConaissance” and its great to see him back. His portrayal of this stone killer took a bit of getting used to. Initially, I even considered the performance a bit duff but it’s appropriately otherworldly as a sociopath certainly should be.
This was never going to be an easy sell so hats off to William Friedkin for going in all guns blazing with no sign of caving in to studio meddling. Although it’s filmmaking on a smaller scale than the likes of say, The French Connection here the director delivers a similar uncompromising vision.
Tuesday, 22 January 2013
Just when I was tiring of Tarantino he puts a bullet through my heart, a hammer through my skull, and then blows me away with dynamite for good measure. Django Unchained is a film we’ve never seen the likes of before. It has everything: thrills, spills, highs, lows, horror, romance, spectacle, melodrama, and tenderness. (And of course - this being Tarantino - plenty of outrageous violence.) It also provides some big (unexpected) belly laughs I’d not experienced in the director’s ouevre since Marvin got his head blown off in the car.
It is 1858 and Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave. A fortuitous turn of events “somewhere in Texas” brings him to Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter. They form a lucrative partnership killing “white folks for money”. Schultz agrees to help Django locate and rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from whom he was forcibly separated. Their search takes them to a Mississippi plantation, owned by the despicable Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
This is a spaghetti western steeped in the mores of the genre. It is bombastic, overtly-stylised, and a little bit trashy. The kicker being that it is set against a very realistic backdrop of ugly and brutal slave trading in the South. I never expected to be so moved by this. Obviously, QT is to thank for such bravura film-making but slavery is a subject I am relatively unfamiliar with on-screen. This sudden and intense exposure had a very profound effect. The horrors of slavery, as they should be, make for a deeply uncomfortable watch. This genre flick hits home the truths far more effectively than any 'message film' could.
For me, personally, Inglourious Basterds didn’t hang together sufficiently. Almost every scene of that film can be judged on its own merits as ingenious. But it lacked continuity. With a similar hip-hop sensibility - mixing a plethora of contrasting elements to create an original commodity – here, the director creates something sublime. Tarantino's soundtrack decisions have helped. Shirking his normal insistence on using only previously-commissioned material he mixes the new (like a stunning John Legend track and a blistering James Brown/Tupac mash-up) with the old to spectacular effect. Unlike some, the length didn’t bother me. The only critic I really trust on these matters is my bony behind. When it starts to ache that’s an unmistakable sign that a film is too long. But there were no complaints for the 2hr 45 min duration.
Jamie Foxx’s nuanced performance marks a beautiful transition from proud slave to iceberg-cool badass. Waltz is a joy to watch and, perhaps more notably, to hear – with his enunciated patter – navigating a path through a sea of unintelligible hicks. Foxx and Waltz are a comedic double act and an awe-inspiring team of gun-slingers. Their relationship is also very touching. QT displays a tenderness I’d never experienced in any of his films previously. In this, his first role as a villain, Leonardo DiCaprio is staggeringly vile. While each performance from this distinguished cast is impeccable the real star of the show is Tarantino himself.
Don't miss it on the big screen.
Sunday, 13 January 2013
Gangster Squad is a sad waste of talent. With its red-hot cast and gifted director (not to mention the money spent on it) one would expect something better that this.
The year is 1949 and Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) terrorises Los Angeles. Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) heads a covert police operation to take him down by any means necessary. He recruits a crack team with a diverse skill set; that’s Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick. Together they play dirty as the gangsters in order to get Cohen.
Heading the cast Brolin does his best. (As do most of this ensemble.) Brolin looks tough enough and believably post-war but the hokey script is limiting. Some people, however, just shouldn’t be cast in period films. Ryan Gosling is an unquestionable talent but he is, without doubt, a man from the third millennium. He affects another weedy voice (not dissimilar to his nasal whine in Drive). It’s totally inappropriate for his drinking, gambling, war veteran now doing battle in “the new Wild West” that is LA. As a result he comes across as a bit of a drip. Emma Stone phones it in. Sean Penn is so caked in makeup he would look more at home in Warren Beatty’s prosthetics-heavy Dick Tracy. To be seen underneath all of this he overcompensates by over-acting. The resulting performance is plain ridiculous – he’s like a confused patient, zonked-out on some incorrectly prescribed medication.
The film has little authentic sense of period. The cartoonish gore doesn’t help and neither does the way it’s bathed in CGI. It’s not just explosions etc that are computer-generated, the so-called ‘invisible’ effects are not so invisible and they are rife. Word of advice to the director: don’t try to computer-generate magic hour. (There’s a reason it’s called magic hour.) Unable to shake his modern sensibilities director Ruben Fleischer was the wrong guy for the job. Any of his attempts at visual flourish bring us crashing back into the present day.
Hugely derivative, there is not a lot of originality here. The obvious sources from which the filmmakers draw are LA Confidential and The Untouchables but they achieve nowhere near the quality of either. It gallops along with scenes given no room to breathe. The choppiness makes it all very two-dimensional. The underwritten characterisation adds to this, and there are some really bad lines. There were a few unintentional laughs at these from the audience I saw it with.
Sunday, 18 November 2012
If someone made this up you probably wouldn’t buy it. Director Ben Affleck brings this stranger-than-fiction tale into vivid and very exciting life.
The year is 1979, the setting Iran. Amidst turmoil and revolution, the US embassy in Tehran is invaded. Hostages are taken but some of the diplomats manage to flee. Six such escapees find shelter in the Canadian embassy and the CIA hatches a plot to get them out. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) create a smokescreen. This comes in the shape of a fictitious Canadian film production: a science fiction fantasy called 'Argo'. With the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin) they take a genuine script and develop LA media buzz – all to get the trapped Americans, posing as a make-believe crew scouting for locations, out of Iran.
The film is quite conventional in its form but Affleck’s workmanlike execution creates a fabulous piece of entertainment. The rip-roaring, wild and outrageous story makes for very compelling viewing. It kept this reviewer right on the edge of his seat. From the intense storming of the US embassy to its thrilling conclusion I barely found time to breathe.
It’s a fascinating story. The sheer bizarreness makes for an interesting watch but the film is not without its problems. The six diplomat characters are written so paper thinly you have little idea who they really are. On top of that they’re a bit pathetic and not very likeable. This is a problem because you need to be rooting for these guys. Ultimately, the only person I wanted to see safely out of Iran was Tony Mendez, the man sent in to rescue them. I wish more time had been devoted to fleshing out their parts, especially considering the large numbers we focus on in the CIA headquarters and the White House, many of whom seem rather superfluous.
The film is bathed in delicious seventies detail - much of it subtle which actually delivers more impact. From the off, the era-appropriate seventies Warner Brothers “W” logo sets the tone. As an aside, I never tire of this device. Other examples, FYI, include Fincher using a seventies Paramount logo to start Zodiac and Eastwood using a twenties Universal logo to begin Changeling – each lending an immediate authenticity to the film to come. (And you gotta love the studios for letting them do it.)
I’m a little bemused by some of the near-perfect reviews this is getting, as the script, at times, is a little weak. A lot of the humour falls flat and occasionally it feels a bit TV movie. However, the adrenalin thrills more than make up for it, making Argo a superior piece of work. (Hence four solid stars.)