Talking Movies

January 30, 2013

Bullet to the Head

bullet_to_the_head

I am not a Walter Hill fan… I venerate The Driver, but was nonplussed by The Warriors, and a recent viewing of the execrable Streets of Fire left me too enraged to review this film reasonably so my sometime co-scriptwriter John Healy, a man who actually likes The Warriors, writes:

Walter Hill fans can rejoice at a return to form, while Stallone fans continue to enjoy the veteran action star’s Indian summer, in this entertaining variation on the buddy-cop formula.

Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) is a hitman whose latest employer considers him a loose end and tries to have him killed. Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang, Fast Five) plays a New York cop after the man who had his corrupt former partner executed. Thrown together, they tear around New Orleans, chasing down powerful criminals (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and the evergreen Christian Slater) who are protected by a team of elite mercenaries headed up by the apparently unstoppable Keegan (Jason Momoa, Game of Thrones). They agree on the target, but not on the tactics.

Fans of Hill’s work will recognise all the old familiar pieces: the unconventional pairing of cop and criminal (48 Hours), the cop in an unfamiliar city (Red Heat), the exploding cabin in the bayou (Southern Comfort), the standoff with unconventional weapons (Streets of Fire), and the man with an unconventional moral code (pretty much everything he’s ever made). Yes, he’s repeating himself, but Hill is at his best working on variations of his favourite themes, and this is no exception. The references don’t stop there either – anyone who’s seen Once Upon a Time in the West can’t help but see something familiar in the relationship between Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s crippled, money-obsessed kingpin and Momoa’s muscle who cares more about honour. The familiarity is forgiven, however, as the plot ticks along nicely from each well-choreographed action set piece to the next. I’ve never seen New Orleans look better on film. Lloyd Ahern, Hill’s cinematographer of choice for the past 20 years, delivers a crisp, slick look – this is a modern action movie, not a relic of the 1980s. Stallone is comfortable in a role that wouldn’t fit a younger man, and the supporting cast are uniformly good; particularly Momoa, who shows some variation from the near-mute brutes he has made his name playing.

We move then to the negatives. Perhaps the film suffers from one villain too many; as good as Slater is, I’m not sure his character was necessary. Sarah Shahi’s role as Bobo’s daughter is transparently there for three things: romance with Kwan leading to tension between him and Bobo, a late kidnapping to up the stakes, and eye candy for the audience. Each element is executed well, but I resented being introduced to a character whose entire role was so predictable. The violence is a little excessive; not quite to the degree that Tarantino indulges himself, but certainly enough to be distracting at times. To say the dialogue can be expository is to downplay the fact that Kwan’s phone is literally used as an expository device. And, while we’re on dialogue, Bobo’s racist banter with Kwan never comes off quite as well as the same trick did in 48 Hours. I’m not sure if it’s used more, or the delivery just isn’t as good, but it feels a little off at times.

On the whole this is a perfectly good dumb action movie, a notch above most of the dreck dumped in the post-Oscar slots, which can be recommended as a solid 90 minutes’ entertainment. Three stars, with bonus half stars for fans of action movies, Stallone and Hill.

3/5

January 24, 2013

Lincoln

Daniel-Day-Lewis-in-Lincoln-2012-Movie-Image-3-600x397

Spielberg’s long-gestating biopic depicts Daniel Day-Lewis’ Honest Abe trying  to force thru the lame-duck House of Representatives a constitutional amendment  outlawing slavery.

Lincoln insists the outgoing House pass it by the month’s end as these  unseated Democrats have nothing to lose, and because, thanks to facilitation by  Lincoln’s Republican Party elder Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), the Confederacy  (represented by Jackie Earle Haley’s VP) are ready to negotiate an end to the  Civil War. Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) values such a peace  above Lincoln’s amendment but agrees to fund three political fixers (James  Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) in their attempt to secure the necessary  Democrat votes, even as Secretary of War Stanton (Bruce McGill) bludgeons the  South with a vicious naval assault on Wilmington to hasten the end of the war.  Meanwhile Lincoln has to contend with his estranged son Robert (Joseph  Gordon-Levitt) and long-suffering wife Mary (Sally Field) as much as radical  abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones).

Spielberg’s Lincoln is an incessant raconteur so it’s fitting that Lincoln made me think of Groucho Marx’s  anecdote of the lousy film producer nobody could bring themselves to fire  because he so reminded them of Lincoln. Lincoln is awash with familiar faces; Abe  can’t send a telegram without falling over a Girls star, Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan pop up  just to recite his Gettysburg Address to him. And a great dignity falls over  all, from those who signed up for trivial parts because it was a film about the  Great Liberator, to Steven Spielberg directing with reverent anonymity, to DP  Janusz Kaminski reining himself in to the occasional lens flare and a muted  lighting scheme. Day-Lewis’ affected gait and high-pitched voice attempts to  humanise the legend but inevitably and unfortunately recalls Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place.

Tony Kushner’s desperately unfocused script clamours for a Sorkin rewrite.  Despite establishing a ticking clock there is no sense of urgency until, with 4 days left to  the vote, Lincoln descends from Olympus to cajole Democrats. There are great  scenes: Lincoln explaining to his Cabinet with characteristic intricacy the  legal dubiousness of his Emancipation Proclamation, arguing with Stevens over  the necessity for compromise, and discoursing on Euclid and thus changing his  own mind about negotiating a peace. But, while the under-used fixers amuse, we  flail in uninteresting Congressional debates or Lincoln’s wonted quoting of  Shakespeare. JGL is wasted in a storyline which stunningly never addresses how  much affection Lincoln showers on his private secretary, Johnny. Johnny being  John Hay, who was Secretary of State to Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Such  was the valuable mentoring that Lincoln denied his own son…

And there’s Sally Field’s Mary  Todd Lincoln by way of Brothers &  Sisters… She nicely upbraids Stevens, but, her hysterical grief is so  histrionic in a scene with Abe, Day-Lewis’ gestures so theatrical, and  Spielberg’s shot-selection so disconcertingly low-angle, that you half-expect  the camera to edge back an inch and reveal a proscenium arch. Such theatricality  gives us Lincoln’s ridiculous final line, leaving Seward to stomp off for his  fatal engagement at Ford’s Theatre – “I suppose I should be going, but I would  rather stay”. Like every Spielberg flick this century this film misses a good  ending and needlessly keeps going and going, and even bafflingly resurrects  Lincoln to deliver the Second Inaugural. John  Adams is the gold standard that Lincoln had to equal to prove cinema could best TV for intelligent historical  drama of ideas. Lincoln falls  short…

This is a handsomely mounted tilt  at a worthy, important subject; assuming, as the Oscars do, that important  subjects rather than great scripts generate epochal films. To give Lincoln the  verdict, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing  they like.”

2.5/5

January 17, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012

21-Jump-Street-Movie-Poster

(10) Sinister

Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson displays great flair with this tense horror in which Ethan Hawke’s true crime writer moves into a crime scene and stumbles over old home movies of a serial killer. Derrickson builds dread with a number of wonderful scares as evidence of a serial killer who’s been slaughtering families and abducting one child since the late 1960s unravels Hawke’s sanity. But then ghoulishness inexorably leads to a suspenseful, traumatic finale…

(9) 21 Jump Street

I hate ironic remakes of good television, and crude Apatow-riffing R comedies, so this hysterically funny combination of both surprised me. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum hated each other at high school, bonded at police academy, but then go back to daggers drawn as they’re sent undercover to a high school. Tatum becomes a science nerd, Hill pursues Brie Larson, and their narcotics investigation goes nowhere as Hill’s eye for the absurd inserts nonsense aplenty.

(8) Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor’s warm and very funny comedy sees his disappointed thirtysomething rejuvenated by effervescent correspondence with the witty 19 year old Elizabeth Olsen, a student at his alma mater. But this version of Manhattan boasts a wiser Mariel Hemingway and an ethical Woody Allen, and, amidst hilarious sequences of fighting over trashy vampire novels and the effects of listening to opera, a fantastically cold turn by Allison Janney; teaching Jesse some hard lessons.

monsieur_lazhar_still_3

(7) The Hunter

This immensely assured Australian art-house thriller follows Willem Dafoe’s loner as he silently stalks the breathtakingly photographed Tasmanian wilds in search of the possibly not extinct native tiger with orders to kill it after capturing its unique DNA for a sinister corporation. But at his lodgings, as he starts to stand in for Frances O’Connor’s missing husband, he slowly begins to doubt his mission and to suspect Sam Neill’s family ‘friend’, leading to a very moving ending.

(6) Monsieur Lazhar

Mohamed Said Fellag’s Algerian immigrant offers his services to a well-to-do and very PC Montreal school when a teacher commits suicide in the classroom. This strict but loving teacher instinctively knows how to help, and, driven by his own loss, he does so despite orders not to encroach on the ineffectual female counsellor’s turf. This film achieves two minor miracles: it avoids crassness and sentimentality, and its child actors are superb, especially Sophie Nelisse.

(5) Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman’s first film since 1998 was a deliriously enjoyable slice of New England liberal arts college-skewering nonsense where ingénue Analeigh Tipton is adopted by Greta Gerwig and Megalyn Echikunwoke. Gerwig’s desire to improve the global psyche with her international dance craze the Sambola seems slightly less daft after Gangam Style. But this is a ramshackle film of impeccably urbane daftness, from illiterate Zorros to a frat boy trying to learn the primary colours. No one talks like Stillman characters, but you feel F Scott’s old sports would like them.

mmm_2011_a_l

(4) The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Director Stephen Chbosky invites comparisons with Adventureland as socially isolated Logan Lerman starts high school and is adopted by flamboyant seniors Ezra Miller (an exuberant joy) and Emma Watson (luminous). Lerman blooms under their tutelage in scenes of great wit and charm, but “We accept the love we think we deserve” is a piercing insight into the damaged relationships pursued by the central trio, and it’s the emotional depth with which Lerman’s trauma is revealed that allows this film to stand comparison with Michael Chabon’s Pittsburgh novels.

(3) The Woman in Black

A classical 1920s haunted house story sees Daniel Radcliffe’s struggling London lawyer sent to the incredibly eerie Eel Marsh House to sort out its paperwork. Ciaran Hinds’ local toff is contemptuous of the villagers’ superstitions but they’re right to fear the Woman being sighted… Classy horror concentrates on dread to create terror rather than on gore to elicit horror; this is a dazzling technical achievement because a maestro is conducting. When Radcliffe informs Hinds of his intention to work thru the night to finish his work the terror becomes nigh unbearable…

(2) Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olsen gives a star-making performance in this intriguingly elliptical tale of a young woman emerging from a dangerous cult. She is both naive victim and malicious rebel as she spars with her guilt-ridden older sister Sarah Paulson; who tries to deal with Olsen’s sexually aberrant behaviour without knowing what happened in the Catskills with charismatic cult leader John Hawkes. This shares Take Shelter’s measured pacing, intensity, and even a tautly ambiguous ending leaving the viewer sick with dread – unsure if we’re sharing Olsen’s paranoia.

Shame-Fassbender-scarf-pea-coat

(1) Shame

Imagine Bret Easton Ellis and Pinter co-wrote a movie about a businessman in NYC who’s constructed his entire life around his secret addiction. This would be it. Director Steve McQueen avoids salaciousness in tackling sex addiction by making the sex scenes as wincing to observe as an alcoholic friend falling off the wagon. This is about addiction – the hopelessness of an overpowering, derailing compulsion – explored with striking intensity and visual alchemy; exemplified by a vicious argument between siblings Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan being shot in one fixed-position long take, and Fassbender’s frustrated midnight jog becoming a transcendent sequence as an unbroken tracking shot across whole city blocks. McQueen never explains but he forces us into serious empathy with a condition usually mocked.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.