A Week In Film #450: Hunting

Hard Target title screenHard Target
John Woo directs Jean Claude Van Damme as a down-on-his-luck seaman hired to help a young woman (Yancy Butler) find her indigent father (Chuck Pfarrer), who has been recruited by a company providing rich clients with human prey to hunt on safari. Energetic iteration of the Richard Connell story The Most Dangerous Game, with a bubbly cast that includes Lance Henriksen, Arnold Vosloos, Wilford Brimley and Sven-Ole Thorsen.

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A Week In Film #449: Zones

American Gangster title screen
American Gangster
Ridley Scott pissing on his legacy yet more, with a derivative, overblown inspired by biopic about 70s Harlem drug trafficker Frank Lucas. Denzel Washington tries to play the crook with nobility, there’s obviously a foil – a driven cop (Russell Crowe) – plus plenty of familiar faces in supporting roles (Chiwetel Ejiofor, RZA, Ted Levine, Common, Armand Assante, Josh Brolin). Ultimately doesn’t add up to anything of substance.

War Machine title screen
War Machine
Satire about US military policy in Afghanistan, with a barely disguised (and barely polite) pen portrait of incoming Pentagon whizkid Stanley McChrystal (Brad Pitt as Glen McMahon), sent to win the war. Great ensemble – Anthony Hayes, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, Daniel Bets, Emory Cohen, John Magaro and Aymen Hamdouchi as McMahon’s entourage, Scoot McNair as the reporter granted access, and Meg Tilly as the General’s wife. Directed by David Michôd, based on a book by Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings. Nice touch in the epilogue, reprising the prologue, only with Russell Crowe in a cameo as a fictionalised version of David Petraeus.

A Week In Film #447: Funny, funny, SLASH

[Bad Moms title screen]
Bad Moms
Mindless but half-enjoyable semi-feminist-ish sorpack(?) silliness (written and directed by a pair of dudes!), with Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn as a trio of perfectly normal mothers doing not that unreasonably at the old parenting thing, or something.

Blue Streak title screen
Blue Streak
Master cat burglar Martin Lawrence pretends to be a cop to retrieve a jewel stashed years ago in the building site that later became a precinct house. By numbers, nothing fancy, sort of watchable. Nice turns from Dave Chapelle, Luke Wilson, Peter Greene and William Forsythe.

Seven Samurai title screen
Shinchinin No Samurai AKA Seven Samurai
Come on, no introduction etc.

A Week In Film #446: Catching up

[In The Line Of Duty: Street War title screen]In The Line Of Duty: Street War
Another of director Dick Lowry’s ITLOD series of torn-from-the-headlines crime dramas, this time about a housing cop caught up in a dangerous drugs gang turf war in Brooklyn. Mario Van Peebles (Heartbreak Ridge), Michael Boatman (Spin City), Courtney B Vance (Law & Order), Morris Chestnut (Boyz N The Hood), Ray Sharkey (Wiseguy) and Peter Boyle (Taxi Driver) star.

Surviving The Game title screen
Surviving The Game
Pretty effective genre piece from longtime Spike Lee DP Ernest Dickerson, based on Richard Collier’s oft-shot short story ‘The Most Dangerous Game’. Homeless Seattle mechanic Ice T is recruited by local do-gooder Charles Dutton to a well-paid job as a safari guide – only to discover that not all is as it seems. Rutger Hauer is creepy as hell as Dutton’s business partner, whilst Gary Busey goes full lunatic as an ex-CIA psychologist client of the pair, with recently bereaved oil tycoon John C McGinley, Wall Street executive F Murray Abraham, and his wide-eyed son William McNamara rounding out the hunting party.

Imaginatively shot, with some great long takes holding onto the actors’ faces during dialogue heavy scenes, and zesty use of Dutch angles once the action starts moving along. Hardly groundbreaking, but definitely watchable nonsense, sort of a Hollywood class war companion piece to The People Under The Stairs.

The Hill title screen
The Hill
Peerless work from Sidney Lumet, which feels at times like an adaptation of a weighty stage play but which was an original screen story written by Ray Rigby, about a military stockade in North Africa for recalcitrant British soldiers during the Second World War.

Cast-wise you have Sean Connery as a busted-down-to-the-ranks former Sergeant Major Joe Roberts, Ossie Davis as Jacko King, a Commonwealth soldier caught nicking booze from an officers’ mess, rowdy brawler McGrath (Jack Watson), recidivist spiv Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), and sensitive rear echelon clerk Stevens (Alfred Lynch), whose crime was to go AWOL in a doomed attempt to get back to his pregnant wife. Then there’s Norman Bird as the camp commandant, and Michael Redgrave as the medical officer: the pair are nominally in charge of the stockade, but in reality they have ceded all authority to their RSM Bert Wilson (Harry Andrews), who has a very unforgiving and straightforward philosphy of break-‘em-down-then-build-‘em-up. He in turn controls the Staff Sergeants, who manage the camp from day to day, from reveille to lights-out, taking in copious amounts of PT and parades, and most of all gruelling trips up and down ‘the hill’, a man-made mound of stone and sand, over which squaddies under punishment must run, in full pack and under the hot sun.

Authority and power – that’s the key territory here – authority and power and the struggle for it. Wilson sees himself as firm but fair, but beneath him he has constructed a corrupt regime of favours and brutality, while above him he neutralises his superiors through blandishments and blackmail. Into this febrile atmosphere enters new Staff Williams (Ian Hendry), a career prison officer back home – a man of cruelty and pride and sadism. Whilst Wilson sees it as his mission to break Roberts, a man of equivalent status and similar values (both are career soldiers) for what he sees as his betrayal – Roberts is in for ‘cowardice’ after striking his officer and refusing to take his men into action on a suicidal mission – so Williams latches on to weak link Stevens. Meanwhile there is a more sympathetic Staff, Harris (Ian Bannen), who in his own creepy way tries to protect Stevens and the others, but whose methods of doing so only show him to be as complicit in his own way, until…

Bad shit happens. Then worse shit. Then… Well, its one of the most powerful English language war films of the 1960s, and it’s not really about war. It’s about life, and masculinity, and class, and the tension between the individual and the group, and the human need for socialised activities and comfort and mutual support, yet also about the temptations of preying on the weak, of isolating and punishing them for little reason more than it can be done.

Stunningly filmed. It’s in black and white, yet the screen bare drips with sweat it feels so hot. The first quarter or so of the film is entirely played out in real time. There’s a supremely confident crane shot that opens the film, showing us the whole camp, establishing the terrain and the environment, and then the principal characters, and most of all, placing the hill itself into context. I’m surprised it’s so little remarked upon, as it is definitely up there with A Touch Of Evil or the nightclub long take in Goodfellas – so much going on, so many extras choreographed together, movement, scope, depth… Then there’s the editing – much faster cutting, back and forth, back and forth, than most films of the era. The framing, stupendous, as is the blocking, and the changing use of lenses to develop the visual palette as the narrative progresses. And finally, the use of a very mobile camera, pre-steadicam, adding tension to scenes and maintaining momentum, keeping the audience in there in the middle of the action, letting the actors do their work. Talking of actors, Andrews gives an immense performance.

The Second Civil War title screen
The Second Civil War
Rather lame Joe Dante TVM for HBO which actually has a pretty interesting starting point: a near future America governed by narcissists and demagogues and idiots and propagandists, and reflected upon by scoop-hungry rolling news networks. Phil Hartman is an idiot US President getting into a spat with Idaho Governor Beau Bridges over immigration issues. With Elizabeth Peña, Dan Hedaya, James Coburn, Ron Perlman, Denis Leary, James Earl Jones, Kevin Dunn and others. Obligatory Dick Miller moment: he’s a jaded veteran cameraman.

The Rocketeer title screen
The Rocketeer
So-so adaptation of Dave Stevens’ 30s/40s serial-influenced comic strip about a barnstorming pilot (Bill Campbell) who comes into possession of a prototype rocket pack developed by Howard Hughes which is sought by dastardly Nazi spies on the cusp of World War Two. Jennifer Connelly is his sweetheart, Timothy Dalton an Errol Flynn-like movie actor, and a bunch of other people are all equally proficient if hardly exciting. Directed by Joe Johnston.

A Week In Film #445: Fullers

City Hall title screenCity Hall
An old faithful, with Harold Becker directing John Cusack, Al Pacino, Danny Aiello and Bridget Fonda against a backdrop of New York politicking and corruption. Never quite hits a proper climax, but enjoyable nonetheless, with a great score from Jerry Goldsmith, and strong writing from a bunch of New Yorkers (former Deputy Mayor Kenneth Lipper, mob-friendly journalist Nicholas Pileggi, Taxi Driver’s Paul Schrader, and Broadway playwright Bo Goldman).

Kuffs title screen
Kuffs
Silly stuff with Christian Slater doing his Jack Nicholson impersonation/mugging to camera thing as a slacker who visits San Francisco to see his brother Bruce Boxleitner, a private cop (under a peculiar Gold Rush-era ordinance), only for murder and shenanigans to occur. Milla Jovovich plays his girlfriend. Entirely disposable with nothing distinguishing about it.

Reasonable Doubt title screenReasonable Doubt
Up until a certain point, a quite enjoyable if inconsequential thriller, about a golden boy prosecutor (Dominic Cooper) who finds himself trying a man (Samuel L Jackson) accused of a crime he himself committed. That point will be obvious to you when you get there; it’s worth noting that Jackson is black, and Cooper white – this makes it all the more distasteful. Directed by Peter Howitt (yes, Joey from Bread, then the SAS officer in Some Mother’s Son, and after that the writer/director of Sliding Doors).

Alien: Covenant title screen
Alien: Covenant
It’s not an Alien(s) film, it’s a Prometheus sequel. Now, that film was not great, but it had visceral moments. This is just Ridley Scott shitting on his own legacy, rinsing audiences with callbacks to the xenomorph movies that he treats with such contempt. Michael Fassbender as synthetic human David, and now also Walter, is fine; and the crew of the terraforming ship Covenant does at least gel together more convincingly that that of its predecessor; but it’s like a Top Of the Pops LP, all reconstituted hits (Egg! Facehugger! Chestburster! Tunnel chase! Dropship through storm! Trying to set up comms! Powerloader fight! etc). Frankly, boring. I paid nearly £25 for two tix too!

White House Down title screenWhite House Down
Enjoyable Die Hard-style romp, with Channing Tatum as a recently-divorced blue collar shlub trying to repair his relationship with his daughter (Joey King) whilst trying his best to get a job in the Secret Service, who gets caught up in a terrorist attack on Washington. Roland Emmerich directs with a sense of humour and fun, and in all areas it’s a superior effort to the similarly themed Olympus Has Fallen.Nice turns from Jason Clarke, James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Rankin.

Hot Fuzz title screenHot Fuzz
Edgar Wright directs his old Spaced pals Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the second of the ‘Three Cornettos’ trilogy – here with a metropolitan super-cop (Pegg) sent to sleepy Cotswold town Sandford, where he soon encounters rum happenings. Great cast of older British character actors (Edward Woodward, Billie Whitelaw, Jim Broadbent, Paul Freeman, Timothy Dalton, Kenneth Cranham, Stuart Wilson, Anne Reid), plus younger upstarts (Paddy Considine, Rafe Spall, Olivia Colman, Rory McCann) and Wright stalwarts like Julia Deakin, Bill Bailey and Bill Nighy. Silly, slightly overlong, but fun.

Yojimbo title screen用心棒 AKA Yojimbo
Kurosawa’s tale of a ronin-with-no-name (Toshiro Mifune) arriving in a town beset by two feuding gangs who sees an angle. Great samurai action interspersed with comedy and tragedy.

Jack Reacher title screenJack Reacher
So-so noir-flecked action adventure, with Tom Cruise as a mysterious ex-Military Policeman digging around into a spree killing in Pennsylvania apparently carried out by a soldier he had previously investigated for similar sniper murders in Iraq. Hardly ground-breaking, but with plenty going on. Director Chris McQuarrie throws in some signature long dialogue scenes, an argument outside a bar and a grumpy old man (here Robert Duvall). With Rosamund Pike, David Oyelowo, Richard Jenkins and Werner Herzog.

Enemy At The Gates title screenEnemy At The Gates
Visually impressive, this is basically just a love triangle (Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Joseph Fiennes) played against the backdrop of the Battle of Stalingrad, with Bob Hoskins in fake bad teeth as uncouth Party apparatchik Khruschev. Looks pretty, but Jean-Jacques Annaud doesn’t seem to have much to say about anything.

Brooklyn’s Finest title screen
Brooklyn’s Finest
Antoine Fuqua attempts a Robert Altman/Thomas Anderson-style intercut lives affair, with Ethan Hawke, Don Cheadle and Richard Were a trio of differently burned-out NYPD cops who are heading for a collision on Brooklyn’s most dangerous streets. Watchable if not memorable.

A Week In Film #444: Docs, y’all

In The Line Of Duty: Ambush In Waco title screenIn The Line Of Duty: Ambush In Waco
Quickie TVM in the occasional film series celebrating law enforcement officers, with Dan Lauria (the dad in The Wonder Years) as ATF manager ‘Bob Blanchard’ (a composite character), charged with investigating a compound of religious crazies keen on their guns. Tim Daly is electrifying as cult leader David Koresh, there’s familiar faces such as Clu Gulager, Neal McDonough and Gordon Clapp, and it’s certainly paced, but it is rather leaning towards untramelled propaganda rather than a considered, well-thought out drama. Your helmsman is Dick Lowry, whose sole theatrical feature since the 1970s was the third Smokey And The Bandit movie; though on the upside he was responsible for the best in the ITLOD series, The FBI Murders.

Shepherds And Butchers title screenShepherds And Butchers
So-so courtroom drama based on a novel by Chris Marnewick, about an anti-capital punishment barrister John Weber (Steve Coogan) charged with defending a white prison officer who is on trial for the seemingly senseless murder of seven black men in Apartheid South Africa. Garion Dowds is impressive as the defendant, Andrea Riseborough plays the prosecutor. Highlight is Robert Hobbs as Weber’s brother-in-law, a special forces soldier how offers tantalising insights into what killing does to a man. Oliver Schmitz directs confidently, but this is very much a minor work.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution title screen
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Excellent primer from Stanley Nelson Jr, covering the birth, growth and decline of the BPPSD, with contributions from many street level and mid-ranking ex-Panthers, as well as some of the surviving top cadres. If you don’t come out feeling angry, you weren’t paying attention.

Jim: The James Foley Story title screen
Jim: The James Foley Story
Powerful documentary by Brian Oakes about an American freelance war correspondent from a privileged New England background who was first captured then released by regime forces in Libya, and then captured and executed by ISIS in Syria. Features interviews with many of Foley’s colleagues, all of whom speak fondly of him, and with many of his large family.

Sand Castle title screen
Sand Castle
Unflashy, unsentimental war-s-hell business from Fernando Coimbra, with Nicholas Hoult (him from the original cast of Skins) as a young American soldier who really doesn’t want to be in Iraq – he joined up for the college money, only for war to break out – but who starts to see a purpose in helping with a water project. Naturally shit goes down, bad things happen, and there is A Message in there.

Logan Marshall-Green (the Tom Hardy/Jon Bernthal lookielikie from Cold Comes The Night) is the NCO trying to tease his young charge out of his self-imposed shell, Henry Cavill the special ops guy whom he feels he needs to impress. Not earth-shattering, but strong in its own way.

Star Wars: Rogue One title screen
Star Wars: Rogue One
Finally got to see the A New Hope sidequel, and whilst it wasn’t as polished as it could have been, it was admirably grimy and morally ambivalent. Another strong female character in Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), and Diego Luna as Rebel Alliance wet job specialist Cassian Andor was excellent. Even Forest Whitaker seemed to fit in. Top work from director Gareth Edwards.