Thursday, 28 April 2011

Cyrus

*** 
Jonah Hill is surprisingly scary as the above-named problem son. It’s a really strong performance and good to see him branching out in terms of range. Where you might expect the film to be akin to the Judd Apatow projects for which Hill is probably mostly famously known, it’s not. Bit of a stealth attack this one - being more Cassavetes than Apatow.

John (John C Reilly) is a lovable mensch who falls for equally adorable Molly (Marisa Tomei). But he also gets her son thrown into the bargain who does all he can to drive a wedge between them. What may, in the wrong hands, have ended up as a duff high-concept comedy this is a lot more thoughtful. While the route it takes is somewhat dark and disturbing, Cyrus is not short on tenderness. Indie darlings Jay and Mark Duplass share both writing and directing duties. The jerky camera work and crash zooms are a little annoying. It seems they went a bit nuts with the Red camera it was shot on and this distracts from what is happening in the frame. It also cheapens the work, making it look like TV (although it’s a great show, style-wise think Arrested Development). Although, that’s a minor quibble. They draw excellent performances from all: Reilly puts his “well-used teddy bear” of a face to excellent use, gaining some lovely chemistry with Tomei (who’s just on a roll making a lot of good choices these days). Catherine Keener has a smaller role, further cementing the film’s indie credentials. While ultimately the story is a tad slight, it’s a very funny script.

A nice surprise in the credits was to see Ridley and Tony Scott taking Executive Producer roles. Good to see them investing in something so erm, explosionless (Is that a word? It is now.) 

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Verdict

****
As a modest tribute to the recently deceased Sidney Lumet, here’s a look at one of his films. Although Lumet started out in TV, his features career is bookended by Twelve Angry Men (1957) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). The former is a stone cold classic and the latter is startling for both its power and the fact that it was directed by an octogenarian. The Verdict sits precisely in the middle of that prolific career - 1982 (oh yeah, that year again). Although made just into the eighties, it’s fair to say the film has a seventies sensibility. To describe the tone, the adjectives that spring to mind are “sombre” and “bleak”. A protagonist who is an ageing, washed-up, ambulance-chasing lawyer is not an obvious hero for mainstream eighties cinema. Oh, and he’s also a bona fide alcoholic. The breakfast of this champion is a beer with an egg cracked into it. No wait come back, it is entertaining. If you enjoy the psychological warfare of a cross-examination, a desk-slapping speech and “OBJECTION YER HONOUR” bellowed across a courtroom then you are likely to enjoy this.

Paul Newman is exceptional as Frank Galvin, the reprobate described above. He is given something of a last chance - a medical malpractice case. What he does initially for the big possible earner he eventually does to redeem himself. The setting is a cold and wintry Boston and the legal halls therein. Charlotte Rampling is as icy as the locations and James Mason plays defence lawyer, Ed Concannon, an adversary to be feared and described as “The Prince of Fucking Darkness”. This brings me to the screenwriter, who might be referred to as “David Fucking Mamet”. The screenplay is unsurprisingly clever, poetically un-pc and he was rightly nominated for an oscar. (FYI, he lost out to Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart’s for their “worthy” opponent, Missing.)

As with much of Lumet’s work The Verdict is solid Hollywood product but with an edge. In comparison to his other work I believe it’s a bit underrated. Understandable, considering it sits next to the likes of Dog Day Afternoon and Network but highly recommended nonetheless. 


Thursday, 21 April 2011

Source Code

****
With all its twist and turnage, I have to admit there were a couple of things about Source Code I didn't fully comprehend. Embarrassing, yes. I just hope, dear reader, that you’ll still trust me. That doesn't mean it wasn't an enjoyable watch. It was. In fact, it was superb. Ben Ripley's smart script provides spills and thrills and brain aches. At least for this dunce. OK, here comes the science bit...

Helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on a different kind of reconnaissance mission. He must glean intelligence as to the whereabouts of a bomb (and bomber) on a commuter train heading into Chicago. He is repeatedly transplanted into another person's body for the last eight minutes of their life - a man who died on said train. This is not time travel, this is an alternate reality. 

It's at turns funny and freaky. Gyllenhaal is adept at the comedy and convinces as freaked out. Duncan Jones’ follow up to instant cult classic, Moon is impressive. Especially bearing in mind it's only his second feature. It's definitely in the bigger leagues. The great thing is that it doesn't get too big. While the gravitas of the situation is large, the film microscopes in on a moment in time, with the action mostly confined to the train. It’s so much better to see something done smaller but tighter (as opposed to big and well, baggy). And tight this most definitely is. Hollywood take note.

On a few message boards, there have been some fun comparisons made with Groundhog Day. The most obvious relation for me, however, is Quantum Leap and in game acknowledgement of this, Scott Bakula cameos. Albeit very discreetly. Notable mention must also go to Vera Farmiga (probably best known for Up in the Air) who plays Stevens' savvy contact at base. 

Source Code shocks, surprises, and keeps you on your toes. And I need to see it again.


Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Limitless

***
Bradley Cooper is well cast as Eddie Morra who transforms himself from near-hobo status with the help of a magic pill. His metamorphosis from hopeless wannabe writer to Alpha Extraordinaire is a superlative fantasy for ahem, hopeless wannabe writers. Moving on swiftly... As I say, the casting is perfect. Cooper gives good ‘useless’ but also makes a pretty convincing Master of the Universe. (And that's in the Tom Wolfe sense. Not like y'know, He-Man.) This slobby loser runs into his ex-brother in law who gives him one of said pills. It gives him a fierce intelligence and superhuman awareness. Unsurprisingly, things improve for him on a stratospheric curve. It’s bombastic, ludicrous and extremely enjoyable.

With the central theme being a fictional drug, technically this is science fiction. However, it’s very much grounded in the present day and all of its brutal realities. (It has more than a few nasty surprises.) Drug sequences are so often cringey but director Neil Burger does a fine job. The visuals are exhilarating and seem to capture Eddie's state of mind. We are guided through the action with narration from Bradley Cooper. Voice-over is so often used as a lazy storytelling device but then again what would Apocalypse Now or Goodfellas be without it? We certainly wouldn’t have believed that that fat guy was a crack green beret and no one could ever have guessed the name of Jimmy Two Times. (OK, maybe one or two might have.) While nowhere near the heady heights of those two films, narration lends itself well to the non-stop-thrill-ride nature of Limitless.

Not only is it original, it’s smarter than your average popcorn flick. While the characters are a little superficial, the good performances help you to erm, not really mind. It also has a risqué lack of preachy messaging in regards to drug use.


Sunday, 10 April 2011

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

****
It was an odd thing to do: re-make/ re-imagine/ re-franchise (?) something leftfield as Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. The whole notion still twists my melon but as soon as the action began none of that mattered.

Seeing Nicholas Cage in something so juicy reminded me just how good he is. The ‘interesting’ work on his filmography has recently been far outweighed by the, to put it kindly, ‘not so interesting’. He is brilliantly bonkers in the role of titular Lieutenant, Terence McDonagh. Due to an injury early on, he spends most of the film with a rolling gait that’s part John Wayne, part Richard III. On top of that he has Dirty Harry’s gun. (Said Magnum .44 is stuck, aesthetically-pleasingly, in the front of his pants.) He is a gambler, habitual drug user and worse than the deadly sea snakes swimming around the flooded wastes of post-Katrina New Orleans. He’s the dangerous predator you need to worry about. It’s twisted and unpleasant but, if you like the seamier side of cinema, it’s an awful lot of fun. (Mostly down to Cage’s boisterous demeanour.)

The rest of the cast is one of quality and an eclectic mix. Eva Mendes, Brad Dourif, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Jennifer Coolidge, Fairuza Balk seem to relish their chance to be involved in the project. And who can blame them? Val Kilmer lends restrained support and nice guy of hip-hop, Xzibit turns nasty to surprisingly good effect. 

Writer William Finkelstein, veteran of many a US cop show fits together a well-crafted police procedural. Albeit, with a big dollop of insanity on top. Which last (and by no means least) brings me to legendary, mad scientist of film lore, Werner Herzog. The director has made a slick film without sacrificing any of the potency of its subject matter. While admirable for their Herculean efforts, his earlier work such as Aguirre and Fitcarraldo were little more than documenting Klaus Kinski et al being put through a bunch of unimaginable shit. Style was never high on the agenda. Whereas this is a good-looking flick. And an entertaining one to boot. But let’s not get carried away, Herzog hasn’t turned into Brett Ratner. It’s a film with balls that clang. The switch in tone at certain moments is so jarring you can't help but admire Herzog's gall. This one shoots first and asks questions later.

Monday, 4 April 2011

44 Inch Chest

*** 
We don’t really know who Colin Diamond is. However, he’s played by Ray Winstone and it doesn’t take a genius to work out he’s a bit of a wrong ‘un. The same applies to the rest of the cast. Ian McShane as silky smooth psycho Meredith, basically reprises his role from Sexy Beast. Old Man Peanut is an unapologetically vile creation brought to blood-curdling life by John Hurt. Stephen Dillane and Tom Wilkinson – always great baddies - make up the rest of this un-holiest of pentangles. These are men whose scruples and loyalties are a mess of contradictions. Here they seek retribution for a friend who’s been wronged. Colin’s wife, Liz (Joanne Whalley) has found someone else, in the shape of a dishy French waiter. The boys not only want their pound of flesh, they’re all quite looking forward to it.

Long time commercials veteran, Malcolm Venville directs with unflashy precision and elicits killer performances from the experienced cast. The film is penned by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, they of Sexy Beast fame. The script is something of a rare steak – it’s rich in flavour, juicy, tender, and a bit bloody. The dialogue doesn’t disappoint. It’s scary, funny and, at times, really beautiful. It is a simple tale told on a small scale (and at a refreshingly slender 95 minutes). I accept it is not the most thrilling of stories. The action - mostly set in one location - is limited, to the point where one could easily see it transposed to the stage. But it’s unfair to criticise for these reasons alone. Twelve Angry Man was set entirely in one room as was Rope and these have always been highly regarded. Nevertheless, if the action is contained thus you really need to pull all the stops out and unfortunately it lacks that necessary chutzpah. Saying that, 44 Inch Chest is a thoughtful film and poses some interesting moral questions: such as one’s ability to choose, after having already decided on a certain path.


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