Friday, 28 September 2012
(Rian Johnson, 2012) With his third film, writer-director Johnson goes up a gear or two. Looper is a tremendously assured science fiction thriller; original, clever and brilliantly made, it surpasses most of this years crop of Hollywood genre cinema, and most of any years, to be honest. The first act is a zippy half hour, dense with incident and wittily slipping in tons of exposition without too much pain. In voiceover, Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) explains that, in this near future world, he is a "Looper", an assassin who kills people sent back from the future by the mob. He goes alone to a field, armed with a blunderbuss, at the appointed time, and he waits. A figure suddenly appears, hooded, and Joe shoots them dead, takes the silver bars strapped to their back as payment, and disposes of the body. Time travel has not been invented yet, but it is already influencing the course of his life. That worsens when he is confronted with an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) who has come back specifically to find the younger version of a future crimelord - the legendary Rainmaker - to kill him as a child. Future Joe's presence in the past/present sends both Joes on the run from Abe (Jeff Daniels) each trying to survive and guarantee their own future as they see it. That first half hour establishes this future world as a gritty, degraded version of our own. Vagrants fill the streets, cars run on battered solar panels stuck to their bonnets and roofs, and law and order seems largely negligible. This is all subtly portrayed with detail and texture, and the action kicks in with a jolt of pace. Johnson skilfully does all this without ever sacrificing his characters - there are few cyphers here, with even Paul Dano as Joe's doomed friend Seth and Piper Perabo as his favoured prostitute given telling little grace notes in their scenes. Jeff Daniels, meanwhile, reunited with Gordon Levitt after their excellent work together in the underrated The Lookout, is quietly scary but almost likeable as Abe, a mobster from the future who prefers words to violence. The film changes gear thereafter, settling in at an isolated farmhouse where a young woman (Emily Blunt, nicely combining strength with fragility) is determined to protect her young son and Joe awaits his final showdown with his older self. Their storyline provides a contrasting emotional strand to that of Willis, clinging to his memories of a dead wife while young Joe's actions mess with his mind. Johnson keeps the potentially complex time travel paradox plotting clear though never less than fascinating, and concentrates on his characters and the issues of choice and free will they face, without ever stinting on spectacle. His plotting is nifty and intelligent in its consistent ability to deliver surprises that seem, in retrospect, to be the only way things could have gone, and his direction is stylish but filled with strong, clean storytelling. There is also a quite appealing strain of nastiness working its way through this story. The sort of gee-whiz ideas common in time travel stories are given a bloodthirsty spin. A Looper returned from the future is captured through his younger self when mobsters begin to amputate body parts and he finds himself suddenly lacking fingers, a nose, legs. The fact that ten percent of the population has some low-level telekinesis means that when we encounter a character with a high-level version of the power, more or less the first thing Johnson has him do is explode somebody. The brutality with which everybodytreats vagrants feels convincingly frank and only adds to the coarse, damaged texture of this world. Perhaps most impressive is the use of Willis here. For the first time in years, a film has made interesting use of his onscreen persona - he was always one action hero with a little more to him - and specific appeal, and he responds with a fine performance. He and Gordon Levitt - who is equally good - have a single, brilliant scene where they talk things over in a diner, the tensions and strain between them bubbling over in some sharply scripted dialogue. Not quite the transcendent masterpiece some have claimed, then, but Looper is still great, utterly satisfying genre filmmaking which marks the newfound maturity of a young American auteur.
Wednesday, 26 September 2012
(Woody Allen, 2012) Woody Allen still makes "good" films. To Rome With Love, for instance, is consistently engaging, thematically interesting, occasionally hilarious, nicely acted, and shot by Darius Khondji with a fine feel for the beauty of the Eternal City in the waning evenings of a late summer. The problem is that Woody Allen once made unequivocally great films. Films that fairly throbbed with inspiration and ideas, films that were formally adventurous but always accessible, films that were moving and intriguing yet generally brilliantly funny. And, much though I realise it is poor form to criticise a film for what it is not rather than what it actually is, this is an unavoidable consideration whenever one addresses this particular writer-director's latest work. To Rome With Love is another in Allen's recent European series. Here he takes Rome as his setting, shuffling between a number of different stories: Allen himself and Judy Davis visiting their daughter, engaged to a handsome Roman lawyer, whose father is a gifted Opera singer, but only in the shower; Alec Baldwin, reminiscing about a summer in his youth when he (incarnated in the form of Jesse Eisenberg) falls for his girlfriend's pretentious friend (Ellen Page). There are also two Italian-language strands: a young couple honeymooning in the city become accidentally separated and embark on their own sexual journeys, and Roberto Benigni plays a clerk who becomes hugely famous overnight for no reason. That synopsis suggests the difference between the Woody Allen of today and the Woody Allen of the 1970s and 80s - a couple of the big comic ideas in To Rome With Love would have been tossed off in his older films, but here they are given far too much time and space for their slightness to sustain, and they seem thin and annoyingly shrill as a result. As ever with Allen, performances make up for that to some extent, and here Benigni and Penelope Cruz (as a typically caricatured/idealised Allen version of a prostitute) are entertainingly broad, while the Baldwin/Eisenberg strand holds perhaps the best mix of comedy and drama of any in the film, and is charmingly played by all involved. But mix is a problem here - these stories don't hold together well, and indeed, they don't play off one another at all, throwing off few unexpected resonances or contrasts, instead feeling somewhat randomly shuffled. The humour lurches from extraordinarily heavy satire - especially in the Benigni section - to some sparkling one liners, via a bit of decent character comedy, and even some broad farce which plays like much popular Italian tv, but its never light enough or quite snappy enough to work the way it could, for all the reliable qualities that Allen ensures in his cinema.
Saturday, 22 September 2012
(Andrew Dominik, 2012) If the last couple of decades have brought about a proliferation of dramas and black comedies all set within the lower to middle management ranks of the mob - everything from Goodfellas and The Sopranos to Analyze This - then George V Higgins can be considered very much ahead of his time. He was writing novels like this from 1970 onwards, and Peter Yates' terrific adaptation of The Friends of Eddie Coyle captures the world of those books with grit and precision both. Andrew Dominik's film adapts Higgins' book Cogans Trade, and aside from needlessly changing the title, alters little. The structure, characters and plot are generally identical, and much of the - quite brilliant - dialogue comes from Higgins verbatim. What is different is the setting. Higgins book was set in the grim mid-70s, but Dominick sets his film in 2008, the election year in which Barack Obama and John McCain battled to become US President while the American Economy virtually collapsed. He underlines this - a touch heavy-handedly - with recurrent cutaways to politicians discussing the economy on tv, and portions of scenes are soundtracked to similar speeches. This works mainly because Higgins was so interested in the workings of crime as a business. Here, Richard Jenkins is a harassed corporate stooge and middleman, needing committee approval to release funds, insisting that out of town hit men travel in economy. Everybody is on the make, everybody is out for himself, everybody is desperate to make money, and in a final scene (not quite in the book), Brad Pitt's Jackie Cogan, a fixer-cum-assassin, makes that clear. This films last line is "Pay me my money". The story is told in tangents and filled with extended riffs and monologues by newly introduced characters, but the central plot focuses on two inept, ragged young ex-cons (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, both outstanding) who hold up a mob card game, and the fallout from this act. The mobster who runs the game, Markie (Ray Liotta) has to pay for past indiscretions, the two young cons have to pay, and their backer has to pay. So Cogan is brought in and he in turn brings in New York Jimmy (James Gandolfini, essaying another fine portrait of decaying masculinity) and Kenny (Slaine), while throughout cons and hitmen swap anecdotes about jail time sodomy, dogshit, prostitutes, and preferred murder methodology. Eventually, however, the violence must begin. And you just know that in the universe created by Higgins and Dominik, that violence will be coruscating. All of this might sound quite Tarantino-esque, and indeed it might be if not for the fact that Higgins influenced Tarantino but retains an essential, unique quality to his storytelling ably imitated here, and for Dominik's distinctively muscular sense of cinema. Here is a Director with a Capital D, composing scenes with dazzling assurance, from the opening sound-clash walk through rubbish in the wind to the heroin high scored (familiarly but satisfyingly) by the Velvet Underground to the bravura scenes of shocking violence. This world also sets itself apart from those of Tarantino's work by its grit; Dominik textures it so that it feels like the world we live in, rain-slicked and shabby as it is, its junkies looking like they stink, its cars and clothes and beer bottles all quotidian and weighted. Pitt has rarely been better (though he chews on his lips as usual), age giving him a bearing and depth his youthful beauty never allowed, and his scenes with a mordant, droll Jenkins are a delight. All this in a film with no real hero, no fixed character to root for; which may be Dominik's point; in a world as torn by economic trauma as todays, there is no space for honour, loyalty, no room for anybody to be a good guy. Instead there is only the struggle for money, the battle for survival, which gives the violence in Killing Them Sofly so much sting. Cogan says it in his slightly didactic last speech: "In America, you're on your own." Dominik is a major filmmaker, and his ambition is to be applauded, even if it only partially comes off in this instance. Still, Killing Them Softly is big, bold, beautiful American filmmaking with wit and flash, that would not have looked out of place in the 1970s, and that is very high praise indeed.
Saturday, 15 September 2012
(David Koepp, 2012) As a screenwriter for hire, David Koepp works on big films. Blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible and Spider-Man. As a writer-director he has preferred to work in a much smaller, quieter register; usually basing his films around a clever, high-concept conceit like the blackout that kicks off the action in The Trigger Effect or the heroes sudden ability to talk to the dead in Ghost Town. Premium Rush is no different. It's a chase thriller set in the world of the bicycle courier, a slight tweak in setting, certainly, but one that works due to the wit of the telling. Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the bike messenger as ninja, zipping down Manhattan's concrete canyons between cabs and buses at ridiculous speed on a bike with no breaks and no gears. Koepp does a good job of illustrating Wilee's understanding of the city as a three-dimensional system of movement with some freeze-frame and slow motion work; Wilee weighs up trajectories and possible routes through jams and across moving traffic in micro-seconds then executes his choice with style and suicidal bravery. In the course of ninety pacy minutes, Wilee takes possession of a delivery wanted by the entertainly cartoonish cop Detective Monday (Michael Shannon) who needs to pay off debts to both Chinese and Russian mobsters, and the chase is on. Koepp necessarily complicates the plot to include Willee's relationship with his messenger girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), her Chinese roommate Nima (Jamie Cheung), who has entrusted the delivery to him in the first place, and his rivalry with "roided-out freak" messenger Manny (Wolé Parks). He also sets another cop - a bike-riding officer with no idea what is going on - on Wilee's trail, to mostly comic effect. The majority of scenes take place with the main characters moving at high speed through New York City, meaning that Koepp has to be clever and concise with his dialogue and characterisation. This gives an appealing sense of action as character - we understand Wilee perfectly from our first glimpses of him cutting between cars with an air of smugness (Levitt is fine here but much smugger than usual), and the film only slows down for a couple of second-act flashbacks sketching in some backstory. It's biggest problem is the way it stops and then switches back about an hour in - that and the fact that the bike chases get a little samey the fifth or sixth time around - but it is commendably lacking in any fat or bloat, contains a few genuinely gripping sequences (Wilee evading Monday in a police station in particular), and makes brilliant use of New York City in Summer, depicting the city in all its thrilling, teeming immensity and colour.
Thursday, 13 September 2012
(John Hillcoat, 2012) Lawless - the unfortunately generic title given to this adaption of Matt Bondurant's novel "The Wettest County" - bears more than a few similarities with The Proposition, Hillcoat's brutal, beautiful 2005 outback Western. Both films deal with legendary bands of Outlaw brothers, both feature scenes of horrific violence, both have a nicely authentic sense of dirt under the fingernails in their evocations of time and place, and both were written by Nick Cave. But where The Proposition is almost demented in its determination to plunge into the heart of darkness it glimpses in the founding of Australia, Lawless is a far more pedestrian and conventional movie experience. Its story could have come from a hundred more contemporary urban gangster sagas; detailing as it does the efforts of the youngest and least formidable brother to break into the family business, and the price he must pay in the blood of those he loves. He is Jack Bondurant (Shia Lebouef) and he is somewhat in awe of his older brothers; the violent veteran of WWI, Howard (Jason Clarke, as good as he always is) and the leader of their clan, the famously invulnerable Forrest (Tom Hardy, working his particular brand of monosyllabic menace so well that even his signature cardigans are terrifying). They are bootleggers in the woods of Lincoln County during Prohibition but the arrival of a new D.A and his pet enforcer, the dandyish and psychotic Chicagoan Deputy Rakes (Guy Pearce, an absolute hoot throughout) isolates them as the only family who do not bow down and pay up protection money. The violence this unleashes coincides with Jack's successful connection with a big city gangster (an underused Gary Oldman) and unprecedented wealth, which only raises the stakes in the Bondurant's conflict with the law. For much of the time Lawless feels like quite a classy period drama. Featuring lovely production design and costumes, it is beautifully shot by Benoît Delhomme, and the cast is deep with talent, from Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska as love interests for Forrest and Jack to Noah Taylor as Oldman's stooge. And then every so often it explodes with violence and is revealed as something like a 1970s exploitation picture, filled as it is with fist fights, gun battles, car chases and hideous instances of torture. Hillcoat is good with violence and even better with the brooding instant before it erupts, and Hardy and Pearce both get a couple of great sequences where the screen itself seems to cringe in anticipation of the imminent brutality. But these two films - the serious, quality drama and the gritty pulp epic - never quite coalesce. An over-familiar story doesn't help, and neither does Lebouef's slightly watery performance as Jack. He compares poorly to the boldness and charisma of the actors playing his brothers, and all the satisfying genre beats and fine soundtrack cuts evident elsewhere cannot compensate for that.
Sunday, 9 September 2012
(Phil Joanou, 1987) Aping the "one day" approach which had proven so successful twice over in the hands of John Hughes (on Ferris Buellers Day Off and The Breakfast Club), Phil Joanou's debut feature Three O'Clock High adds a twist of the premise from a classic Western. The title acknowledges as much without suggesting quite how strange a mix of tones and influences this film is. Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) is a somewhat anonymous, nice guy High School student who manages to offend the legendarily tough new boy at school, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson). Revell announces that he and Jerry will fight at 3:00, after school, in the parking lot. From then on, an increasingly desperate Jerry struggles to prevent the fight, trying to buy protection, get himself put in detention, flee the school, and have Buddy expelled, all in vain. Amidst all of this, his new age friend Anne (Franny Perrins) wants them to "connect", the police are investigating the theft of the float (by Jerry) from the school shop, his best friend Vincent (Jonathan Wise) makes things worse when he tries to help, various school authorities loom, and the beautiful Karen (Liza Morrow) seems to have taken a newfound interest in him. There is much here familiar from many other '80s teen movies; the high school itself is so generic it functions almost as THE American High School, densely populated by mainly White kids from a broadly middle class background, thronging in its palatial stairwells, locker-lined corridors, and its football field. These kids are often given peculiarly eccentric characterisation, their quirks and tics as fully-developed and assured as those of any adult, from Buddy's psychotic blankness to Jonathan's 1940s newsman schtick. Then there are the nicely-drawn parallels between the school and a prison, underlined here by the sinister authority figures Jerry encounters (Joanou emphasises all this with an overuse of low angle shots) and a few plot developments: intimidation in the toilets, hushed blood money payments to tough guys in the yard. For all that, it's oddly unfunny, Joanou proving far more comfortable with drama than he is with comedy. His approach to the comic material is scattershot; there is slapstick here, a little satire, some comedy of embarrassment. But hanging over it all is the big clock of the plot and it's countdown to Jerry's showdown with Buddy. Siemaszko is fine throughout and Joanou and Tyson succeed in making Buddy quite terrifying, immovable in his stubborn desire for combat, his use of violence shot for impact, emphasising his brutality and lethal forcefulness. That showdown, when it comes, is heightened to an almost operatic level, and terrifically satisfying. Joanou favours a few too many showy angles and ostentatious directed moments, but he's a solid storyteller too, and the Tangerine Dream score works better than one might imagine in such material. Overall, its an unusual, distinctive take on the teen movie, and one that just about works, a few minor flaws aside. It suggested that Joanou had massive potential as a director, potential that he never really fulfilled.
Friday, 7 September 2012
(Pete Travis, 2012) Judge Dredd, the classic British sci-fi comic character, is tricky to adapt to other formats. Dredd himself is a fabulously simple creation; a bad-ass fascist lawman who never ever compromises, never removes his helmet, rarely displays or admits to any human emotion, and imposes the law, often against impossible odds, through sheer force of will and incredible violence. It is the contrast between that character and the vivid world he inhabits that makes the comics so compelling and such fun. Dredd lives in Mega City One, an immense megapolis covering most of the Eastern American Seaboard, walled off from the nuclear waste of the "Cursed Earth" and populated by an endless series of freaks, psychotics and eccentrics. Many of these citizens reside in colossal blocks hundreds of stories tall, housing hundreds of thousands. Crime is rife, life cheap, the whole thing appearing to teeter on the brink of collapse at all times. It's very much the product of Britain in the 1970s, both grim and satirical, angry and hilarious. The previous film adaptation - Danny Cannon's 1995 blockbuster Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone - managed to mangle both character and setting, allowing Dredd to turn into just another, slightly angrier-than-usual Stallone hero, while Mega City One became an anonymously glossy future city familiar from a dozen other films. Travis' new version, written by Alex Garland, has a much smaller budget and seemingly much greater determination to capture what it is that makes the character special. Shooting in Urban South Africa with only a few cgi alterations works; Mega City One here feels like a real, gritty, troubled city, teeming and crumbling, its judges dwarfed by the crime they are tasked with preventing and punishing. Anthony Dod Mantle's terrific cinematography certainly doesn't hurt; there is a lived-in, organic feel to the spaces he captures, always sensitive to the play of shadow, absent from too much science fiction. But the achievement is more obviously Garlands; his decision to locate Dredd in a nasty, simple genre story is one that works beautifully. That story finds Dredd (Karl Urban) and the psychic rookie Judge he is evaluating, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) investigating a homicide in the immense Peach Trees Block, ruled violently by Druglord Ma Ma (a scowling Lena Heady). When Ma Ma feels threatened, she shuts down the entire block, trapping the Judges, and sets her army on them, forcing Dredd and Anderson to fight their way to survival. That's a basic action set-up that has been done before (most recently in The Raid) but Garland and Travis do it so well; with wit, style and consistently great pacing. They get the characters right, too; Urban portrays Dredd as constantly biting down on his own rage, but possessed of a dark sense of humour; the role requires a lot of his mouth, chin and voice, and Urban responds. He and Garland also ensure that, crucially, Dredd is a complete super-warrior thoughout; never scared, always aggressive, virtually impossible to defeat. Thirlby's Anderson is softer, more human, but her journey to Dredd's respect and a harder countenance is nicely shaded by script and actress, and Garland makes nice use of her psychic abilities. This sort of b-movie material needs to handle its action well, and Travis puts together some outstanding sequences. Making good use of 3D, a couple of the action scenes here capture the effects of the drug "slo-mo", as Dredd's bullets mutilate flesh in agonising, beautiful slow motion. But for the most part, Travis keeps the violence nasty, brutal and utterly thunderous, while Garland ensures it generally advances the plot. But then most scenes here do; this is a satisfyingly tight film, its characterisation and satirical impulses contained beautifully within the detail of what we see as part of the story. It plays almost like a superior episode in a long-running film franchise, and impressively does that while building a convincing, fascinating sci-fi world onscreen and introducing a distinctive, memorable main character. None of these feats are easy, and to combine all three is particularly praiseworthy.
Tuesday, 4 September 2012
(Simon West, 2012) For something so terribly cynical, theres something heartfelt and almost naive about The Expendables films. The plot points and cliches of characterisation they use are so lame and old-fashioned that - in the age of Michael Bay and "chaos cinema" - they feel strangely authentic in their attempt to reconnect with the spirit of the action movie as it was imagined in the 1980s. This film is sleeker, slicker and far less baggy than the original, stuffing in more action scenes, more old school action stars (adding Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme and new DTV hero Scott Adkins to the original roster) but containing them within a mostly-coherent plot involving Barney (Sylvester Stallone) and his team losing a mission objective and a teammate to Van Damme's villain (actually, hilariously called Vilain) and resolving to "Track 'em, find 'em, kill 'em." somewhere in an Eastern Europe where the women wear shawls and scarves and the men model flat caps. Along the way, other mercenaries randomly pop up, having happened to be in the area (Norris' Booker gets Morricone's The Good the Bad and the Ugly as his theme) and trade groan-inducing, self-referencing one -liners (one exchange between Schwarzenegger and Willis involves both "I'll be back" and "Yippee-ki-yay") while blasting mercenary bad guys with semi-automatic weaponry, often without bothering to take cover. One cliche of '80s action cinema this film lovingly embraces is the hero standing in the open, spraying bullets at bad guys. Director West composes his shots nicely and his sequences are clear, efficient, and often exciting, if never quite inspired, and the story gives all of the heroes something to do; Jason Statham gets a church-set takedown of a team of bad guys, complete with awful one-liner and a somewhat disappointing climactic one-on-one with Adkins, while Stallone and Van Damme have their own final bout, and Lundgren, Couture and Crews mostly get the comedic material. Jet Li pops up briefly in the prologue but gets one nice action scene involving frying pans. None of them are particularly good, but then they have little to do beyond posing and cracking jokes. As such, Van Damme, Crews and Lundgren perhaps fare best, suggesting some life beyond what we see onscreen. That they are all playing action figures is largely taken for granted; this films attempts at drama are perfunctory and brief, always rushing off to the next bad gag or massive explosion. On that basis, it is sometimes fun, but also a little too generic emptily slick, and unmemorable.
(Stuart Cooper, 1975) Overlord is about the Second World War, about a common soldier's experience of that War from training to battlefield, and about so much more besides, but it contains no scenes of combat, which is notable in a War film. In that sense and a few others, it's a quite unique piece of cinema. Part of its uniqueness stems from the circumstances of its production. It was produced by the Imperial War Museum, who have been heavily involved in the production of plenty of documentary films and television series - most famously with the superb "The World At War" - but had never before (or since, to my knowledge) produced an actual Feature Film. Expatriate American director Stuart Cooper, whose last film Little Malcolm had just won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, was attached, and he wrote a screenplay with Christopher Hudson which manages to tell the intimate story of one young conscript's journey through the months leading up to D-Day while also showcasing the Museum's unmatched collection of archive footage from that period. Cinematographer John Alcott, who was Stanley Kubrick's regular collaborator throughout the 1970s, was hired to shoot the film, and using vintage German lenses he managed to achieve a seamless blend between the archive footage and the material shot specially for the film. It is a visually lovely film, with Alcott's crisp photography and the perfectly-judged editing establishing a strange dreamlike mood I've never seen in any other film about War. As Tom, Brian Stirner is a sensitive lead, allowing his character some very human flaws in his prissiness and strange distance. The film is mainly concerned with his training and preparation for the Normandy landings, and Cooper makes much of the military as a dehumanising machine into which men simply vanish. Tom makes this explicit in a letter he writes but never sends to his parents: "The war machine keeps growing, and I am getting smaller and smaller". He drifts off into occasional reveries and daydreams throughout the film, many of them seemingly premonitions of his own death, which he sees as certain. These scenes are poetically assembled by Cooper, who uses repetetive, startling compositions for associative effect. Tom's final kiss with a girl he meets just prior to the invasion is depicted taking place upon a landing craft heading for a French beach. The film itself has its own reveries and tangents. It periodically drifts away from Tom and his friends to reveal the panorama of the War itself, always being fought somewhere, claiming and changing lives at every moment. All of the archive footage is breathtaking and some of it shocking. We witness London firemen fighting a firestorm which rages through streets, toppling buildings onto pavements. We see footage from the nose camera of a fighter plane, tracer rounds describing the arcs of bullets into planes, locomotives and buildings as tiny figures run for cover and eject into empty sky. We are shown bombs dropping slowly, terribly towards towns and villages, then watch shockwaves and explosions hammer the landscape as they find targets below. We watch the preparations for D-Day, men thrown about like dolls by the waves of the British coastline, huge War Machines designed to cut barbed wire and forge through minefields rolling on the beaches of England. German cities burn in the night, miles and miles of streets and factories on fire. Children boarding trains to escape London in the blitz, American soldiers flirting with an Englishwoman waving their train off, Tommys playing cards and boxing and idling as they wait for the invasion to begin. All of it fascinating and beautifully interwoven with Tom's story, which ends on the Red Beach at Normandy in a sequence with echoes of the photography of Robert Capa. There are also echoes of the work of Peter Watkins and Kevin Brownlow here, and even Gillo Pontecorvo, in the combination of stark beauty, poetic realism and honesty. It has a peculiarly distinctive and very British tone; sombre and almost quizzical, not remotely angrily anti-War, as was the fashion of many American War films during the Vietnam era. But it is a singular and brilliant film, and Cooper's relative obscurity since its release is puzzling.
Sunday, 2 September 2012
(Peter Strickland, 2012) A tweedy, buttoned-down Englishman (immaculately underplayed throughout by Toby Jones) arrives in Rome in the 1970s to work as the Sound Engineer on a Giallo horror film. He finds his Italian employers unhelpful, unpleasant and even somewhat sinister, but despite his initial reluctance, eventually embraces his role creating the gruesome soundscape of the film. But reality itself begins to shift, and, homesick and dislocated, he starts to lose his grip on his own sanity. Very much a love letter to the Giallo genre, Strickland's film is beautifully directed. It sustains a sense of mounting dread through bold cutting, powerful imagery and a brilliant soundtrack, but it is never quite itself a horror film. Rather it is an opaque, disturbing character study of a character assaulted by his environment. Jones' Gilderoy is a particular type of Brit abroad, clinging to his politeness and boffinry, reading letters from his mother, while the passionate, volatile Italians rage around him. Rome is unseen here; instead all we see is the studio, a corridor and Gilderoy's room, all lit by electric lights, emphasising the unnatural enclosure of this man, even as he recalls the natural life of his home. He even crunches twigs underfoot in the studio, as it reminds him of home. For all that, it is quite a chilly experience, easier to admire than it is to like. Strickland's brilliance is undeniably impressive yet also slightly academic, his films register precise but awfully narrow. The best moment is the most purely pastiched (and the only glimpse we are given of the film within a film, "The Equestian Complex", which we mostly see bathing the characters faces in red as they watch it's scenes of rape, witchcraft and an "aroused goblin"), a dazzling, blood-red credit sequence, soundtracked to sound like Goblin's work for Dario Argento, its wit and perfectly-calibrated tone highlight what's best about the film.
Saturday, 1 September 2012
(Len Wiseman, 2012) This remake of Paul Verhoeven's 1990 adaptation of Philip K Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" takes little from either piece of source material. The barest bones of the plot are used, as are a few character names, and director Wiseman throws in a couple of sly references to Verhoeven's film - there is a three-breasted prostitute, and a limb is lost in an elevator. But this is a very different film; darker, grittier and tighter. It is perhaps the closest thing to a genuine b-movie among this summers crop of blockbusters; at its heart a man-on-the-run thriller, driven along by a relentless succession of huge cgi action sequences of varying inventiveness and interest. Its world-building is adept enough; the story takes place in a future where War has rendered all of Earth uninhabitable except for Great Britain and Australia, and workers travel from the latter to the former via an immense tunnel through the earths core known as "The Fall". The two different territories steal from different dystopian visions; Britain is a towering, gleaming megacity, all flying cars and synthetic policemen, while "the colony" is an Aisan-inspired floating shantytown, filled with food karts, neon and rain-slick street markets. That reflects another big difference between this and the 1990 version; here is a film influenced by the current economic situation, where the world depicted is defined by the conflict between the rich and the poor, rather than Verhoeven's use of mutants on Mars. Onto this there is laid an espionage plot; Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a construction worker plagued by a recurring dream of another life. He visits Rekall, a company who implant memories of a more glamorous, exciting life into your mind, but his visit is interrupted by the arrival of a team of policemen. Displaying combat acumen he didnt know existed, Quaid kills them, discovers that his wife (Kate Beckinsale) is not really his wife, and now wants to kill him, and finds himself on the run with Malena (Jessica Biel), a beautiful Resistance "terrorist" who knows him as Hauser, a former Government spy turned terrorist leader. After all this, one notable scene aside, the film barely flirts with the idea of whether or not these events are real or implanted. But then it has little time for any ideas; Wiseman is too busy driving from one video game-influenced pursuit to another. A parkour-esque chase over Colony rooftops, balconies and through alleyways, a high-rise car chase over and under freeways above what was once London, a game of cat-and-mouse through elevators that go sideways as well as up and down through tunnels and vertiginous shafts, and a zero-gravity gunfight. There are scenes and beats shamelessly stolen from The Bourne Identity and Minority Report, but the world is sumptuously mounted and convincing, Farrell is a winning lead, Biel and Beckinsale are as good at the action as they are at the little drama required of them, and Bill Nighy and Bryan Cranston provide classy if underused support. It is always watchable, occasionally thrilling, and ultimately forgettable.