Monday, 18 November 2013

Closed Circuit

**
No one could accuse Closed Circuit of not being current. It captures key fears in this day and age: international terrorism and its connected shady government dealings. It is a great pity that the film is so lifeless.

A bomb goes off in London, annihilating Borough Market and killing a large number of people. A suspect, Farroukh Erdogan (Dennis Moschitto) is apprehended and preparations are made for the high-profile trial. Erdogan’s lawyer dies suddenly and a new defence attorney, Martin Rose (Eric Bana) takes his place. Due to classified material required as evidence, the government appoints an additional defence lawyer - a Special Advocate, Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall). Rose and Simmons-Howe once had an affair and are forced to keep it secret so as not to jeopardise the case. As the trial progresses, the pair uncover increasingly-sinister information. It is not long before a government conspiracy is discovered.

The film starts quite well. The initial explosion is directed in a unique and different way – seen from multiple closed circuit cameras, splitting the screen. The every-day banality of the victims’ behaviour in the build-up to the event makes for a chilling watch. There are some nice surveillance touches which certainly feel authentic. The underhandedness of the intelligence agencies, to get a result by any means, is decidedly creepy.

The central conceit, on which the film rests – Rose and Simmons-Howe’s romantic history threatening to disrupt the case – is a dismal and unexciting plot device. The eternally peeved-off pair regret the affair simply because it’s affecting their work. Not the sexiest set-up to re-ignite the flames of passion. Of course, those flames are re-ignited, but to little cinematic effect. Both the leads are hugely unlikeable. The only redeeming feature in each of them is a commitment to their work. Hall is unpleasantly frosty throughout and the Australian Bana is a horrible toff (with a questionable plummy accent).

The film is held back by expositional dialogue. There is so much information, leadenly conveyed, that the human story is engulfed by it. It impedes the characterisation too. While these facts and figures may push the action forward it does little to flesh out the characters. Most lines sound like recitations from a law book.

There is a top notch cast but an astounding number of performances miss the mark. The talented likes of Ciarán Hinds, Julia Stiles, Anne-Marie Duff and, most notably, Eric Bana all fail to deliver. The director even manages to elicit a bad performance from Jim Broadbent. Kenneth Cranham (as the judge) is an exception, as is Riz Ahmed who plays a sinister agent. That, sadly, is not enough to save the film. It is flatly directed by John Crowley. As well as the performances lacking pizzazz so does the courtroom jousting and any action involved. It all descends into an underwhelming climax. There is no visible attempt at a cinematic style. The result feels less like a film, more like any generic TV drama.




Thursday, 24 October 2013

Enough Said

**** 
In this her fifth feature, writer and director Nicole Holofcener brings us a good-humoured and extremely likeable tale of a couple and their surrounding relationships. This is not to say it’s a rose-tinted view. The darker and more unpleasant aspects of love are also explored but its general mood is one of tenderness and warmth.

Eva (Julia-Louis-Dreyfuss) is a single parent who is dreading the imminent departure of her teenage daughter, when she starts college. Eva works as a masseuse on the Westside of Los Angeles. At a party, she meets two people separately – poet Marianne (Catherine Keener) and Albert (James Gandolfini) whose daughter, similarly, is soon leaving for college. Eva takes Marianne on as a client and they quickly become friends. Eva starts dating Albert and that look promising. She then soon discovers that Marianne and Albert were previously married.

Enough Said explores a number of scenarios in modern family life – at least some of which will undoubtedly be familiar to audiences. It's deals with them sweetly but without being syrupy. It brilliantly captures the nuance of relationship interactions, good and bad. Moments of intimacy are played with an easy naturalism by a first-rate cast making it simultaneously funny and realistic. There are some big laughs to be had and all in a very smart vein. The combination of writing, direction and delivery of lines result in a perfect storm of comedy.

The performances are impeccable. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss displays comic chops that we all knew she had. Further than that, she breathes dramatic life into her character, making Eva a lot more than just a conduit for jokes. This is James Gandolfini’s penultimate screen appearance. While Tony Soprano had a soft side (brilliantly displayed by the late actor) he always remained the sociopath. Here, Gandolfini plays a straightforwardly nice guy (not without faults, mind) and it’s a lovely performance. The two leads share a nice chemistry. Solid support is given by Toni Collette, Ben Falcone and all the younger cast members, notably newcomer (and internet fashion guru) Tavi Gevinson. The surrounding ties make for a fascinating watch. Eva’s close relationship with her daughter’s best friend Chloe (Gevinson) is a quirky side story.

The good and bad in people is put under scrutiny here. The imperfection of humans, and the messiness of their relationships, certainly makes entertaining viewing and is almost celebrated. The film has a gentle charm. It also has a lot of heart. Enough Said feels like bona fide auteurism. Nicole Holofcener clearly possesses a supreme knowledge of the characters/scenarios and her script-to-screen execution is beautifully realised.





Escape Plan

**
Sly’s been there before (in Lock Up and in Tango and Cash) and now he’s back doing hard time. But on this occasion, he’s there on purpose. Heading an only-in-the-movies security firm used by the US government to test its toughest federal prisons, Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) is a master escape artist. If there are any cracks in the system he’s the guy who can find them. With a false identity and criminal backstory, Breslin poses as Spanish terrorist Portos. He allows himself to be captured and then sequestered in a unique hi-tech, and supposedly inescapable, prison nicknamed ‘The Tomb’. (Formerly known as The Tomb, this was re-titled thus condescending audiences with a name that can mean nothing other than, THIS FILM IS ABOUT A PRISON BREAK. The poster image of Sly and Arnie sat in adjacent cells was clearly not enough of a clue for audiences.) Once inside, Breslin befriends Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and they join forces to break free.

The film starts well with an inventive prison break displaying Breslin’s talent and setting things up nicely for the big one. Unfortunately, ‘The Tomb’ itself is spectacularly underwhelming. The glass cells look interesting enough but much of the production design is woeful. Anyone who’s watched Oz knows that a modern prison relies on bare minimalism. In Escape Plan there are swathes of extraneous hardware everywhere, all screaming out to be appropriated as weaponry or escape implements. It also looks rather cheap. The action itself is ho-hum. I don’t think we can blame director Mikael Håfström. He’s not without talent. He displayed imagination and resourcefulness with 1408. Escape Plan’s key problem is a duff script, lacking in so much invention that make prison breaks compelling. It’s so unoriginal that a key reveal is lifted from Face/Off.

Sadly, the dream pairing of the two action icons is not exploited sufficiently. The only thing going for the film is the nostalgia element. But alas, the mere sight of Arnie and Sly sharing screen time is far less than thrilling. It’s the movie equivalent of a Rolling Stones album post-1981. For both stars, the physicality was a huge part of their screen personas. Here however, the muscles are kept discreetly from view. With both Arnie and Sly rapidly approaching 70 this is probably a good thing that the shirts stay on throughout. Instead, they are required to rely more on their acting ability. (Of which neither were ever particularly renowned.) So between the bursts of action what we have is simply a couple of big lumps mangling dialogue. It results in something tired and a little bit depressing. There just seems very little point in any of it.

The two stars are supported by some decent acting talent - Amy Ryan and Vincent D’Onofrio are on Breslin’s team, Jim Caviezel chews scenery as the evil warden and Sam Neill really slums it in a tiny role as the prison doctor. They are also supported by some less-than-decent talent. Vinnie Jones makes little impact as a sadistic guard and charisma vacuum, Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson is out-acted by the furniture.

There’s nothing wrong with action veterans staying in the genre. Clint Eastwood has proved time and again that it’s possible, but he always plays his age. Escape Plan makes little acknowledgement of Arnie and Sly’s antediluvian status. If you inserted say, Jason Statham and The Rock into the respective leads you wouldn’t need to change a single word in the script. (And the movie would probably have been a lot more fun.) It doesn’t bring to mind the two stars’ heyday, more the straight-to-video cannon of Jean-Claude Van Damme or even Dolph Lundgren. If you enjoyed The Expendables or The Last Stand you’ll probably get a kick out of this. But really, you’d have a lot more fun re-watching Tango and Cash.



Monday, 19 August 2013

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

****
At long last Steve Coogan brings his comic creation to the big screen and succeeds in hilarious fashion. Though the central conceit – a siege at North Norfolk Digital – upgrades Alan’s story to an intentionally-more cinematic outing, the action stays firmly in Norfolk. It’s an outlandish storyline but hey, this is comedy and it’s certainly not an incongruous gimmick like a holiday abroad for the entire cast. The Partridge Universe is thus expanded while staying close and very true to its roots.

North Norfolk Digital has been taken over by a large conglomerate and been rebranded as the more youth-aimed ‘Shape’. A victim of its restructuring, disgruntled DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) comes back to the station armed and takes everyone hostage. Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) is recruited by the police to assist in the negotiations.

The simplicity of the story is key to its success. The action surrounds one main location - the radio station – and its sheer lack of glamour is used to splendid comic effect. Nakatomi Plaza this is not. The mores of the siege genre are followed to the T (negotiation through bullhorns, media circus etc) but in a quirky and exquisitely Partridge manner.

Alan Partridge’s shortcomings are legion: he’s bigoted, shallow, egotistical and selfish, to name just a few. The film fleshes out that persona, but revealing (even more so) that he’s only human. His awkwardness is intrinsically English and his behaviour, while not entirely forgivable, is understandable. Well, sort of. Coogan is wonderful in the role. You feel sorry for Alan but accept who he is and you’ll always end up rooting for him.

Declan Lowney has a long and impressive CV (Father Ted is just one of the great TV comedies he’s directed) and he’s worked with Coogan before on the little-seen-but-rather-lovely Cruise of the Gods. He draws great performances from all and exacts devastating comic timing. The always-superb Colm Meaney brings bona fide Hollywood heft to the table and is alternately funny and scary. Solid support comes from Partridge regulars Lynn Benfield, Simon Key, Simon Greenall, Nigel Lindsay and Phil Cornwell, along with an effective host of new blood. Writing duo, twins Neil and Rob Gibbons reinvigorated Partridge with Mid Morning Matters which established the film’s foundation and, I imagine, helped bring this to fruition. Here they supply a fine, economically-scripted and stupendously funny cinematic outing.

It’s peculiar sharing the normally-confined-to-your-home experience of Alan Partridge with an audience who will, undoubtedly, be laughing their heads off so I cannot recommend this enough. NB: While not as earth-shaking as some of Marvel’s recent output, it’s worth staying a while as the credits roll.






Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Lone Ranger

**
While only just released in the UK and still yet to open in a number of other territories The Lone Ranger is looking to lose Disney - by its own admission - $190 million. The film-makers have been quoted as blaming the critics. If I may be included in that critical fraternity, it’s flattering that they think we wield such power. There have been more than a few critically-lambasted stinkers that have made pots of cash. Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Titanic were not noted for kind appraisals yet they still made over a billion dollars, as did two execrable Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. Of the latter, that same team - star Johnny Depp, director Gore Gorbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer - reunite here to produce a work of inconceivably-less effect. It’s not the critics who are to blame for its failure, it’s the sheer flat-footedness of the film.

Lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a deputised Texas Ranger who unwillingly teams up with Native American Tonto (Johnny Depp). They step outside the law to avenge his brother who died at the hands of stone killer Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner).

The Lone Ranger himself is a figure of fun – inept and silly – whereas the put upon Tonto is the brains of the duo. That’s a lovely dynamic, seen to exceedingly-greater effect with, for example, the far-smarter Gromit ever propping up the hapless Wallace. The Tonto part does work but the film tries to offer John Reid pathos and dignity when he’s nothing more than a clown. In this respect, it’s very uneven in tone. His story swings clumsily from a serious man out for revenge, winning back his true love to a fool, hopelessly out of his depth and incapable of change.

Armie Hammer is not bad in the role, it’s just badly written and due to the writing (not the actor) he’s an unlikeable hero. He does his best with the material and I hope this doesn’t put a kibosh on his career because the man has talent – he has comic chops and dramatic presence. Depp is really quite brilliant, though. The level of commitment in his performance makes me very sad because he simply deserved a better film. His Tonto offers some glittering nuggets of humour amidst this big pile of dirt. It doesn’t help that he’s the sidekick, playing second fiddle to someone we care two hoots about. But when he’s on screen he is rather wonderful, giving a consistently-comical performance as the put upon Comanche in a white man’s world. And, ingeniously, he pulls it off without being in the least bit patronising.

At two and a half hours I immediately assumed it to be overlong for a family film. However, Mary Poppins runs just ten minutes shorter and, like Mary herself, that film is “practically perfect in every way”. It’s the lack of fun in The Lone Ranger that makes it so bloated. For all its big action set-pieces there is much tiresome, humourless plodding. So its length will certainly exceed the attention span (and popcorn consumption) of younger viewers.




Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Only God Forgives

**
You'd be forgiven for expecting Drive 2: Bangkok Boogaloo. However, this is a very different beast from Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling's previous collaboration.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a drug smuggler in Bangkok operating behind the veneer of a Thai boxing gym. As a result of his vile behaviour, scumbag brother Billy (Tom Burke) meets a grisly end. Julian accepts the consequences of his actions but their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) seeks vengeance on corrupt cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

Sounds exciting, right? Alas, the film is painfully dull. It's all very attractive, mind. The beautifully-lit Thai locations are richly bathed in colour. Crisp neon hangs against endless deep reds. There's also great camera work involving some very sexy tracking shots. The entire piece is an exercise in stylish flourish but it’s seriously lacking in substance. The absence of a solid script makes the rudderless direction acutely self-conscious. This provides plenty of unintentional laughs. The supposedly profound comes across as plain silly.

An otherworldly atmosphere is achieved by the director but that spell is often broken by cringe-inducing lines of dialogue. For a film without a great deal of talking, much of the dialogue is fantastically klunky. In terms of writing, the director has gained more success through collaboration. (And Drive was scripted entirely by Hossein Amini, adapting from James Sallis’ book.) Here, Winding Refn takes a sole screenplay credit which, I believe, speaks volumes. The timing has a lot to be desired too and I don't think you can blame the editor. It actually feels like a first-time director finding their feet. As a result, I found the whole thing extremely daft and incredibly boring.

One of the few things the film shares in common with Drive is the bursts of eye-watering violence. Winding Refn executes these moments with proficiency and great relish. On more than one occasion this softy reviewer was struggling to keep his eyes on screen.

Kristin Scott Thomas does have a few good lines and, as a result, steals the show. It's an impressive performance as a very different kind of ice queen. A key issue is the Gosling role. I don't mind characters not having an arc but the problem with this protagonist is that you are offered scant reason for everything he does. As a result, the film’s message is very confused. 

In an industry of endless derivation I admire the director’s intention to create a different commodity. In that respect he has succeeded. Only God Forgives is unique in its peculiarity but it’s deeply flawed.


Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Behind the Candelabra

****
Shame on all you studios for passing and congratulations to smarter backers HBO, who picked this up. As if we didn’t need further evidence that we’re in a golden age of television, this lends even more dazzle to that credo. Here in the UK - where it has been granted a cinema release - Behind the Candelabra has been doing very respectable business. Possessing a lot of elements that Oscar so loves, it could also have basked in some awards glory. Like Tarantino, biopics are probably this reviewer’s least favourite genre but this particular one is a real riot. One thing it isn’t, as more than one Hollywood exec remarked, is “too gay”. You might equally argue that this look at Liberace is not gay enough.

Rather than attempting to show his entire life, or even career, the story focuses on the relationship with young lover, Hollywood animal trainer Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). It starts in 1977 and Liberace (Michael Douglas) is in the middle of a residency at Vegas. He twice-nightly wows straight crowds with his glittering showmanship. In his performance we see a supremely-honed talent giving the audience a lot more than just bright, shiny things (and there are a lot of bright, shiny things in this film). Following one of his shows Scott rapidly becomes his lover, is hired as an assistant and then moves in. He finds himself increasingly stifled and his trophy status becomes painfully clear when Liberace insists he undergo plastic surgery to resemble his younger self. All done under the careful tutelage of Dr Jack Startz (a hilariously-nipped-and-tucked Rob Lowe). So far so creepy. Other indulgences send Scott on a further downward spiral.

It shines a big, bright light on all of Liberace’s excesses and does so cleverly. It pokes gentle fun but never in a mean-spirited way. Even Liberace recognised the absurdity of his lifestyle (“Too much of a good thing…. is wonderful!”) and the film evokes that same attitude.

Douglas is incredible in the role. The performance could have descended into cliché in lesser hands but, drenched in high camp, he makes Liberace human and very real. Matt Damon delivers a performance so un-flashy it would be easy to start taking the man’s talent for granted. Neglecting to rely on any thespy tricks, he’s just brilliantly and quite simply thereSoderbergh’s direction is appropriately workmanlike. With so much gaudiness on screen there’s little need for directorial flare. Richard LaGravenese’s script (adapted from Scott Thorson’s book) is straightforwardly-plotted. Skipping through an entire life would have denied so much depth. The decision to focus on a specific era allows time and energy to be devoted to detail. It’s an effective and healthy trend and one that really works. This approach shows conventional ‘birth-to-death’ biopics up to be unrealistic in their ambition. It also avoids the need for multiple actors in roles and/or too much prosthetic make-up. Not only do we get a deeper experience it’s all the more realistic.

If you can still catch it on the big screen, I highly recommend it. Seeing it with an audience is a hoot and it’s the way Liberace would have wanted it.








Sunday, 24 March 2013

Welcome to the Punch

***
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

Animals

***
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

Song For Marion

****
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

Killer Joe

****
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

Django Unchained

*****
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

**
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.

Disappointing.
  
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