Monthly Archives: November 2012

A Week In Film #211: Cold

The Tournament title screen

The Tournament
Soulless retread of the ‘contest of killers’ trope, by ambitious debutante director Scott Mann, who somehow roped together a cast including Robert Carlyle, Ving Rhames, Liam Cunningham and Sébastien Foucan.

Every seven years a cabal of rich dudes organise a last man standing competition for professional killers. This time round the action is in, err, Middlesbrough – though it was largely filmed in Bulgaria. This means we get to see familiar provincial English sights such as massive rail yards in the city centre, titty bars and truck stops, and commuter buses on the motorway.

A nice idea but just not very proficiently executed, with long stretches where a bunch of contestants we’ve not seen before, don’t know about and care less are killed in quick succession by the odds-on favourites, like Kelly Hu and Ian Somerhalder (who was excellent as the differently sociopathic Paul Denton in Rules Of Attraction). Carlyle’s whisky priest was a strand that could have been much better embroidered into the fabric of the story; as it is, nothing much comes together. Cunningham’s American accent is awful.

TITLEnextdayair

Next Day Air
Silly stoner/gangbanger flick, with a lazy delivery man (Donald Faison) causing grief for Mexican drugs kingpin Emilio Rivera and Puerto Rican small fry Cisco Reyes and Yasmin Deliz, but a golden opportunity for knuckle headed stand over men Wood Harris and Mike Epps, with more successful yayo-mongers Omari Hardwick and Darius McCrary also getting in on the action.

By turns flashy and pedestrian direction from video man Benny Boom is not enough to raise a cliched script out of the crowd, though the performances are enjoyable enough.

Nick Of Time title screen

Nick Of Time
Not great but functional real-time conspiracy thriller with Johnny Depp the father blackmailed into assassinating a politician by psycho killer Christopher Walken and his associate Roma Maffia.

Fairly perfunctory stuff, though director John Badham throws in some nice flourishes to break up the monotony of a film in a single location, an upscale LA hotel. Charles S Dutton has a memorable turn as a reluctant shoe shiner dragged into the affair, whilst GD Spradlin swims in similar waters as his crooked senator from The Godfather Part II as a shady lobbyist. Would make an interesting double bill with the similar Vantage Point.

Holy Rollers title screen

Holy Rollers
Modest little picture about a glum young New York Hasidic Jew, Sam (Jesse Eisenberg), who feels increasingly alienated, and ends up in a novel drug smuggling operation. Justin Bartha as Yosef, the wayward older brother of his friend Leon, is compelling. Kevin Asch directs everything to satisfaction, and doesn’t undermine things with a Hollywood happy ending.

Texas Killing Fields title screen

Texas Killing Fields
Dark, depressing, downbeat, unpleasant, yet excellent crime thriller, with Sam Worthington and Jeffrey Dean Morgan two cops looking for a killer of young women in the bayous of Texas’ Gulf coast. Ami Canaan Mann directs without sentimentality. Jessica Chastain as a cop from a neighbouring county gives strong support. Chloë Grace Moretz is astonishingly good as a vulnerable young girl with deep reserves of inner strength.

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A Week In Film #210: Bidet time

The Bonfire Of The Vanities
Brian De Palma’s misfiring adaptation of the Tom Wolfe novel on Wall Street excess, racial division and other big stuff.

Drunken hack Bruce Willis accidentally happens upon a big story involving a yuppie (Tom Hanks). Stuff happens. There’s some long single take bits. Morgan Freeman does a big speech whilst looking disapproving at everyone. The end.

Wild Bill
Actually rather a pleasant surprise from debut feature director Dexter Fletcher, about a bloke (Charlie Creed Miles) who comes out of prison and tries to stay out of trouble. Just a nicely put-together picture, with excellent performances, that exceeded my expectations. No, it’s not a ground-breaking plot – but so what? It’s exquisitely executed.

Harry Brown
Astonishingly reactionary vigilante pulp (of a similar ilk to Nick Love’s Outlaw) pitting celebrity Tory and lifelong anti-communist Michael Caine against various estate-dwelling ratboys, including Plan B from before he was big.

What could have been a decently paced and enjoyable exploitation genre movie instead becomes a cynical anti-working class rant. A shame, because there are some great performances, if you take them discretely: Caine’s own, but also Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed Miles as cops who are (respectively) assiduous and lazy; Sean Harris and Joseph Gilgun as a pair of local scrotes; and Ben Drew as the main youth-gone-wild.

Together, though, it’s exasperating, not least because the film seems to think it is Making A Point – and a point which it wholeheartedly endorses. Daniel Barber directs. Did Arthur Ranson ever sue over the Button Man design-teefing posters?

Pusher (2012)
Somewhat pointless remake of Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 original Danish crime flick of the same name, this time helmed by Luis Prieto. The premise is the same: mid-level drug dealer Frank (played here by Richard Coyle, finally shedding the baggage of his oddball character Jeff from sitcom Coupling) has several precarious jobs on the go at the same time, which all go tits up, leaving him up shit creek without the proverbial.

Unlike the original, it all feels rather fake, with over-stylised scenes, unrealistically glitzy nightclubs, poor phone security and a ridiculously inept wingman in Tony (Bronson Webb). Okay, so the original Tonny was a bit crap too, but not this flashing-light-on-the-head “I’m a twat” calibre of crap.

Plus it’s all supposed to be set in Stoke Newington, except it looks pretty much generic international location manager ‘urban London’. The subplot about Frank’s relationship with his escort/stripper girlfriend Flo (Agyness Deyn) is particularly tedious, which is a shame, given how integral to the plot it ultimately is.

Essential Killing
Curiously depoliticised film about extraordinary rendition, from Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski.

A man (Vincent Gallo) kills an American soldier and a couple of private military contractors in what seems to be Afghanistan or possibly Iraq; he is captured, tortured, interrogated, then transferred by plane with there detainees to some kind of military airport in Europe. On arrival one cold, dark, snowy night, they are then transferred into armoured vehicles and driven out in convoy, presumably to a secret detention facility – only an accident on the road facilitates the Gallo character’s escape.

We now have Gallo on the run in Poland, chased by helicopters and ground troops through harsh terrain with no way of knowing where he is or where to go. He does whatever it takes to keep on running.

A raw tale of survival, which offers no explanation of anything, no back story, no context – a refreshing way of telling a tale. Gallo does well, despite having zero lines of dialogue.

Doomsday Gun
Canadian gun designer Gerald Bull (Frank Langella), pissed off at doing gaol time due to breaching an arms embargo to Apartheid South Africa having been cut loose by the CIA, goes to work for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. His ‘Project Babylon’ supergun threatens not only Iran but also Israel and America’s Middle East strategy. Lots of spooks of varying colour try to dissuade him. They fail. He’s assassinated. The end.

Not one of HBO’s finest television movies, full of excruciating exposition and spy film clichés. Some embarrassingly bad accents – I’m looking at you, Clive Owen and Francesca Annis in particular. Kevin Spacey and Alan Arkin at least pretend it’s not just about paying the mortgage.

The Debt
Somewhat overwrought, plodding and thrillless thriller. A Mossad action team is tasked with kidnapping a Nazi war criminal from mid-60s East Berlin, which leads to its members – Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain – being feted as heroes on their return.

Cut to thirty years into the future, and we discover that the mission did not go quite as well as was thought, and each agent (Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds and Helen Mirren) is forced to deal with the consequences.

Kick-Ass script team Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman adapt from an original Israeli movie, and Shakespeare In Love‘s John Madden directs.

An Innocent Man
Great melodramatic little crime thriller from Peter Yates, worth honest joe Tom Selleck fitted up by a pair of bent cops (David Rasche and Richard Young). Forced to come to terms with his situation in gaol, the Moustachioed One finds an ally in old lag F Murray Abraham, we waltz through some big house tropes, and then get down to the business of payback on the outside.

Okay, so the final reel is a bit hurried and lacks imagination, but taken as a whole, it’s enjoyable if undemanding stuff. Laila Robins does good stuff with the underwritten part of the wife; there’s also character actors like MC Gainey, Todd Graff and Dennis Burkley to beef things up. Bruce A Young is an appropriately scary prison top dog, Badja Djola an IAD cop.

A Week In Film #209: Fireworks n ting

The Baker
Okay, so it’s not terrible – it’s just not very good. Like a throwback to those inconsequential, underdeveloped little Britflicks from the mid-90s, funded in the wake of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.

Here we have a big name star – Damian Lewis – as Milo, a hitman-for-hire who has tired of the assassination game, and so starts to put in play the exit strategy conceived by his mentor, Leo (Michael Gambon). That lands him in a small Welsh town where he must pose as the new baker. Some of the locals get wind of his previous occupation, and come to believe that it’s just a cover for him to carry on whacking people. A former rival spends the bulk of the film trying to track him down.

So a mildly diverting if hardly original set-up, and with some fairly diverting turns from the like of Kate Ashfield and Brian Hibbard. But it’s under baked. Did I mention that it was written and directed by Gareth Lewis, brother of previously noted big name star?

Margin Call
Pretty damn excellent drama encapsulating the global financial meltdown within a taut office-bound thriller. A round of lay-offs at a Wall Street investment banking firm sets in motion a chain of events which exposes first just how precarious capitalism is, and then how venal individual companies – or even just individuals – can be in the danse macabre, when it becomes clear in short order just how tits-up the company is.

Writer/director JC Chandor totally nails it – big picture stuff, handling the talent, pace, emotion, dialogue – in what is an impressive debut feature. A top ensemble cast (Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Penn Badgley, Aasif Mandvi) proves impeccable in illustrating a spectrum of different shades of self-interest and greed.

The Guard
Irish writer-director John Michael McDonagh gives us an exquisite lesson in the quirky, punch-above-its-weight minor indy hit.

Brendan Gleeson is a country copper in a sleepy Irish town who loves to wind people up. By guile, instinct and eye-rollingly weary smarts he tees up ready to foil a gang of homicidal drug smugglers, along the way teaming up with Ivy League FBI guy Don Cheadle. It’s a nod towards the buddy cop tropes in what otherwise is a jazzed-up modern day Western, but either ways it’s all just a smokescreen for some Gleeson genius.

Our colourful gang of bad guys – boss Liam Cunningham, irritable Englishman Mark Strong and psycho David Wilmot – are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a cast of memorable bit parts: the odd kid, the overenthusiastic new Garda, the IRA guy, the hookers from Dublin, the dying mum, the bent Inspector, the concerned wife… Basically it’s a damn fine film. Even the character-introducing prologue (all of a couple of minutes) is better than most movies in their entirety.

Down Terrace
Ben Wheatley I came to via Michael Smiley tweeting about working with him. That persuaded me to watch Kill List, which impressed me, took my breath away, properly got the cogs whirring. So I figured I should check out his first feature – which he co-wrote with long-time collaborator Robin Hill.

On paper, it sounds terrible – at least if you’re getting the ill thought out marketing version: ‘Mike Leigh does The Sopranos!’ and ‘British gangsters in Brighton!’ were two of the crappy pitches I read, though thankfully only after watching the film.

The set-up: a father and son (Hill and his real-life dad, Robert) leave court after charges are dropped on some non-specific drugs-related case or other. The patriarch, Bill, is determined to find out who ratted them out in the first place. Mum Maggie (Julia Deakin) is on hand to lend some menacing encouragement in between cooking fish fingers and making tea. The son, Karl, is more preoccupied on his apparent impending fatherhood. And, erm, that’s it, really.

Set mostly in a crowded terrace house in an unremarkable part of Brighton, it’s a very talky film, but with sudden bursts of energy, the occasional scene beyond the four walls. The cast is bulked out with memorable characters like the aforementioned Smiley as freelance muscle with babysitting issues, David Schaal as jovial, paunchy, untrustworthy Uncle Eric, and Tony Way as affable fat slob Garvey.

It’s really not perfect, but it is much better than the tag lines would let you believe, and far superior to most movies with ten- or a hundred-times the budget.

The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1968)
Tony Richardson’s sort of anti-war take on the “five hundred” in the Crimean War. Some nice touches – the animated sequences, the ghastly officers all squabbling – can’t mask a confused picture that takes two hours to tell us war is hell, lions led by donkeys, etc.

Waterloo
Sergei Bondarchuk, on the other hand, has a fair crack at similar territory with his own version of the Bonaparte-breaking battle in the centre of the Belgian lands. Rod Steiger ramps up the eye-popping as the kingly commoner himself, Christopher Plummer goes for loveable rogue as Wellington, and several thousand Soviet soldiers do the military reenactment thing in mud and rain. More enjoyable a film to watch than The Charge Of The Light Brigade, but that’s not really saying much.

Unthinkable
Samuel L Jackson as an interrogator given the green light to take off the gloves with suspect Michael Sheen, who threatens to set off three nuclear bombs. Carrie Anne Moss is the FBI Agent playing good cop to his bad. Race against time! War on terror! End justifies the means! Doesn’t this make us as bad as them? And so forth – less a thought-provoking film and more a badly shuffled deck of flash cards bearing fatuous aphorisms. Director Gregor Jordan did better with Buffalo Soldiers and The Informers.

A Week In Film #208: Chilly

Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Now, I watched Shekhar Kapur’s previous Bess movie in the palace of dreams when first it came out in 1998. In fact, I saw it on my birthday. I enjoyed it. Cate Blanchett fair nailed it, and you also had Geoffrey Rush as man-of-the-shadows Walsingham, plus Daniel Craig as relentless Jesuit assassin John Ballard, Kathy Burke as thwarted Catholic queen Mary, Joseph Fiennes as Elizabeth’s crush Dudley, Dickie Attenborough as elder statesman Cecil, Chris Eccleston as moody courtier Howard, plus Emily Mortimer, Kelly Macdonald, James Frain, and odd turns by the likes of Vincent Cassel, Angus Deayton and Eric Cantona.

Fast-forward a decade, and we have Blanchett nine years older but playing a woman-prince nigh thirty years on from the events of the first film. We also have Geoffrey Rush as man-of-the-shadows Walsingham, plus Rhys Ifans as relentless Jesuit assassin Robert Reston, Samantha Morton as thwarted Catholic queen Mary, Clive Owen as Elizabeth’s crush Walter Raleigh, John Shrapnel as elder statesman Howard, plus Susan Lynch, Abbie Cornish, Tom Hollander, and an odd turn by David Threlfall as an astrologer.

Basically it’s a jumble of bad history, pointless retreads and bare-remembered history lesson tropes (I bring potatoes, baccy and Injuns from the New World! Here, let me cover that puddle with my cloak! Oh my – it’s a Spanish Armada!) – and worst of all, it’s just not much fun. Oh Well.

Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (2009)
Pretty crappy remake of a hokey sub-noir thriller from the fifties, about a reporter who comes to suspect that a popular DA with a high conviction rate has been manufacturing evidence. Obviously the best way for the reporter to expose this is by fitting himself up for a murder and then revealing how he left a trail of fabricated clues.

Michael Douglas as the lizard-eyed prosecutor is – and it pains one to say this – the best thing about the whole film. Jesse Metcalfe is way out of his depth as the tabloid TV hack. Definitely from the ‘In Decline’ years of director Peter Hyams.

Suspect title screen

Suspect
This, on the other hand, is how you should handle a courtroom melodrama-slash-thriller: Peter Yates has a strong cast (Cher as a tired, at times jaded public defender, Dennis Quaid as a smart Capitol Hill lobbyist who masks his intelligence with professional cynicism and hokey charm, Liam Neeson as an indigent war vet in the frame for murder) and the energy to turn a run-of-the-mill plot into something that zips along.

The Grey
More Liam Neeson (is it wrong to notice that since ‘that bad thing’ he’s been a lot more in demand?), this time as a depressed oil worker in Alaska. After a plane crash, he steps up to try and get a small group of survivors to safety, all whilst a rather fearsome pack of wolves tracks their every mood. After a bumpy start it really grabbed my attention. Joe Carnahan showed that he’s more than just flashy action.