Talking Movies

May 22, 2018

From the Archives: Stop Loss

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives turns up a very under-rated Iraq war film featuring strong supporting turns from Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The Iraq War has become a continuing nightmare for the United States military to set beside Vietnam. Surprisingly it’s also become impossible terrain for American film-makers compared to the cinematic response to Vietnam. It falls to writer/director Kimberly Pierce to make the finest film about the Iraq War to date. This is her first feature since 1999’s acclaimed Boys Don’t Cry and Pierce has waited a long time to provide another absorbing and heartbreaking slice of small town Americana. The film opens with an action set-piece in Iraq that conveys tedium, paranoia, fear, bloodlust and chaos more effectively than the entirety of Brian De Palma’s Redacted. The real focus of this film is the psychological battle on the home-front back in Texas.

There is no place for a warrior in a stable society. This is a melancholy truth that has found expression over and over again in fiction, if you set out to protect your home your violent deeds will unfit you for ever living there again. “I’m going to miss blowing shit up” laments Channing Tatum’s Steve Shriver as he hands over his weapons for discharge from the army having served his required tours of duty. What exactly are these men going to do back in their small town? Jobs are scarce, they’re adrenaline junkies and scarred by the savagery they’ve witnessed and been forced to commit in Iraq. The dilemma is best exemplified by the out of control Pt. Tommy Burgess. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a supporting role as the violent alcoholic Tommy is as superb as his performances in Brick, The Look-Out and Mysterious Skin have led us to expect. Burgess and Shriver desperately need their commanding officer Brandon King to keep them in check. King is leaving the military…until he finds the President has signed an order keeping him in the army against his will.

Ryan Phillipe is impressively mature as the righteously indignant Staff Sergeant Brandon King who thinks he should not be asked to pointlessly lead more men to their deaths. Australian actress Abbie Cornish is a fine foil as Michelle, Shriver’s neglected girlfriend who offers to drive King to Washington. There are echoes of Phillipe’s previous role in Flags of Our Fathers. King is convinced that he can just take the matter up with his local Senator who welcomed him home but he quickly learns the harsh truth. You’re a hero when you’re fighting, but when the war finishes or you’ve gone AWOL from a Stop-Loss, they don’t want to hear about you anymore. The shadow of Vietnam hangs heavy over this film as King suddenly realises his choices are return to Iraq or flee to Canada, start a new life there and never be able to return home again. This is never preachy, always compelling and emotionally taut. An absolute must see.

5/5

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December 4, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

Martin McDonagh suffers from difficult second film syndrome as his unfocused follow-up to In Bruges falls between the stools of straightforward black comedy and meta-meditation.

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Marty (Colin Farrell) is a drunken Irish screenwriter living in Los Angeles and wrestling with his high-concept film about the nature of love and evil, Seven Psychopaths. His long-suffering girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) is reaching the end of her tether putting up with Marty, not helped by constant visits from his deranged friend Billy (Sam Rockwell); an actor with a penchant for blowing auditions by punching people and ‘helping’ Marty with research on psychopaths. Billy also has a sideline of kidnapping purebred dogs and letting his dog-loving friend Hans Kieslowksi (Christopher Walken) look after them and then return them and collect the reward which they split. But when Billy makes the mistake of kidnapping a dog belonging to mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson) all hell breaks loose. Charlie quickly identifies the dognappers, and so Marty, Billy, and Hans run for the hills.

It’s tempting to say that the best scene in this movie is the opening scene, because it’s such pure undiluted McDonagh. Michael Pitt and fellow Boardwalk Empire star Michael Stuhlbarg are jumpy hit-men waiting for their target who get into a furious and dementedly logical argument about the marksmanship that killed Dillinger. Tempting, but there are scenes of that calibre scattered throughout the movie. A Gandhi aphorism is dismantled for being illogical, Billy imitates Marty’s Irish accent with truly atrocious results, Marty freaks out when his drinking is condemned as problematic by a character high on peyote, and there is a sublime moment of paralysis involving the great Zeljko Ivanek (rocking a truly terrible moustache as Charlie’s mob lieutenant) when someone refuses to put up their hands because they don’t want to; leaving Ivanek holding a gun and feeling foolish.

But this is a scattershot movie. Marty’s screenplay keeps the film shooting off on tangents, about Quaker stalkers and homicidal Buddhists, which add little. Tom Waits, as a Dexter of the 1960s adds an amazingly gruesome thread of sadistic violence, even by Dexter standards. Abbie Cornish is pointlessly underused, as are Olga Kurylenko and Gabourey Sidibe; something referenced in criticism of Marty’s inability to write decent female characters. But surely writing a complex heroine, which McDonagh has done in his plays, would be a better tactic? McDonagh as playwright can generate unease like Pinter, comedy like Orton, and heightened language like Synge. But, bar a fraught scene with Charlie in a hospital waiting for Hans, this script fails to generate suspense. The desert finale is visually interesting, but the self-referential scripting can’t escape structural convention.

McDonagh has some interesting ideas, and even self-critique, in this script; but as a movie it wants to have its cake and eat it too, and so it never hits the heights it could.

3/5

January 28, 2011

2011: Hopes

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In Darkest Night

Ryan Reynolds is Green Lantern, Blake Lively is love interest Carol Ferris, and Mark Strong is renegade alien lantern Sinestro in the biggest gamble of the year. Green Lantern’s ring which allows him to physically project anything he can imagine, but which can’t handle the colour yellow because of the evil Parallax, is the most far-out of the major DC characters; but in the right hands (see the recent resurgence of the comics title by Geoff Johns) he can be majestic. If this movie works it opens up the whole DC Universe for cinematic imaginings. If it fails then Nolan’s Batman swansong and Snyder’s Superman will be the end of DC on film for another decade…

A Knife-Edge

Talking of gambles what about Suckerpunch: can Zack Snyder handle an all-female cast and a PG-13 rating after the flop of his animated movie? The answers provided by his Del Toro like escapade set in a 1950s mental hospital where Vanessa Hudgens and Abbie Cornish escape into a fantasy universe to fight a never-ending war will give hints as to how he’ll handle Lois Lane and the challenge of resurrecting Superman’s cinematic fortunes. Breaking Dawn sees Bill Condon, director of Gods & Monsters, take on the final Twilight book in two movies. Given that the book sounds the epitome of unfilmable on the grounds of utter insanity, it’s a gamble to split it in two when it may make New Moon look competent. On the other hand he may take the Slade/Nelson route of Eclipse and simply play the romance as stark nonsense and be as nasty as he can with what little time for horror is left him after he’s shot Jacob shirtless 20 times. Paul should be a lock: it’s a comedy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. However, they’re not working with Edgar Wright, co-writer and director of their other two movies, but with Greg Mottola, writer/director of Adventureland, and this film was meant to be released last year. Kristen Wiig has a supporting role created for her and Seth Rogen voices the titular slobbish alien with whom Pegg & Frost’s archetypal nerds have daft adventures, but will this be a mish-mash of styles?

A Grand Madness

Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? has had immense success on the festival circuit and seems to confirm that Bad Lieutenant was no one-of, he really has got his feature mojo back.  Michael Shannon stars in a very loose version of a true-life murder case which saw reality and fiction tragically become fatally confused for a young actor appearing in a Greek tragedy. The Tempest sees Julie Taymor takes a break from injuring actors on Broadway to helm another Shakespeare movie. Her last film Across the Universe was misfiring but inspired when it worked, expect something of the same from this. Helen Mirren is Prospera, while Russell Brand’s obvious love of language should see him Fassbender his way through his jester role.

In England’s Green and Pleasant Land

February sees the release of two adaptations of acclaimed English novels. Brighton Rock sees Sam Riley, exceptional as Ian Curtis in 2007’s Control, take on the iconic role of the psychotic gangster Pinkie in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel. This remake updates the action to the 1960s and mods v rockers, with Helen Mirren as the avenging Fury pursuing Pinkie for murdering an innocent man, and rising star Andrea Riseborough as Pinkie’s naive girlfriend. Greene and Terence Rattigan co-wrote the script for the superb Boulting Brothers’ 1947 film, so this version has to live up to the high-water mark of British film noir. Meanwhile Never Let Me Go sees one of the most acclaimed novels of the Zeros get a film treatment from the director of Johnny Cash’s Hurt video. Can Mark Romanek find a visual way to render Kazuo Ishiguro’s dreamy first-person narration of the slow realisation by a group of elite public-school pupils of the sinister purpose of their isolated education? The cast; Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, and Carey Mulligan; represents the cream of young English talent, but replicating the impact of the novel will be difficult.

Empire of the Spielberg

Super 8. I gather it’s about aliens, and monsters, in fact probably alien monsters. In fact really it’s probably Cloverfield: Part II but with Abrams writing and directing instead of producing. Spielberg is producing so it’s safe to say this will be exciting. Whatever it’s about. It’s out in August. The War Horse sees Spielberg breaks his silence after Indy 4 with an adaptation of West End hit which follows a young boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse from being used to drag provisions to the front. Meanwhile with Tintin we get an answer to the question does Peter Jackson still have his directorial mojo? His version of the beloved famous Belgian comic-book has a lot to live up to, not least the uber-faithful TV cartoon adaptations. And can the problem of dead eyes in photo realistic motion capture CGI finally be solved?

The House of M: Part I

Kenneth Branagh’s directorial resurgence sees him helm Thor, his first comic-book blockbuster. Branagh will no doubt coax great performances from Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, but does Chris Hemsworth have the charisma as well as the physique to pull off a Norse God banished to Earth just as Loki decides to invade it? This is a pivotal gamble by Marvel’s in-house studio. If this flops, it puts The Avengers and Iron Man 3 in major difficulties, and it is a worry. Captain America had fantastic storylines in acclaimed comics by Mark Millar and Jeph Loeb in the last decade, but Thor really has no great canonical tale that cries out to be told. Not that those Loeb/Millar ideas will get in the way of a (How I Became) Insert Hero Name approach to the Cap’n. Chris Evans, fresh from dazzling comedic turns in Scott Pilgrim and The Losers, takes on the title role in Captain America: The First Avenger. He will be a likeable hero but it’s almost certain that Hugo Weaving will steal proceedings as Nazi villain The Red Skull. Joe Johnston’s Indiana Jones background should probably guarantee amusing hi-jinks in this 1940s set blockbuster.

The House of M: Part II

Other studios, content to build one franchise at a time around Marvel characters, will unleash two very different comic-book blockbusters. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, fresh from his brush with Herzog, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writers/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his bike is an awesome one. Matthew Vaughn meanwhile helms X-Men: First Class starring James McAvoy as the young Professor X and Talking Movies’ hero Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto. This prequel charts the early days of their friendship and the establishment of Xavier’s Academy, before (according to Mark Millar) a disagreement led to Magneto putting Xavier in a wheelchair. The prospect of Fassbender doing his best Ian McKellen impersonation gives one pause for joy.

November 5, 2009

Bright Star

Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish acquit themselves well as Romantic poet John Keats and his fiancé Fanny Brawne, but Jane Campion’s screenplay serves them poorly. So much for her return to period drama being her great comeback…

Brawne, a middle class girl who makes her own fashionable clothes, falls under the spell of Keats when he moves into her old house. When her family moves back into the other half of the rented house a doomed love-affair ensues. Campion’s feminism, laudable in her other work, destroys this film by its relentless focus on Brawne rather than Keats. Being brutal, Brawne wasn’t the Regency’s Coco Chanel, and Campion fails to make her dramatically interesting. While the BBC’s current version of Austen’s Emma features Emma making lists of improving books to read then cheerfully ditching Milton after 2 pages for more mischief Fanny pretends to read Milton and then limply never does because of Mr Brown’s sneering.

Oh dear, Mr Brown… Bright Star is sunk by its reliance on Andrew Motion’s biography. Keats did live with Scottish poet Charles Brown but this film is dragged under by his presence – he is callous, misogynist, boorish and painfully talentless. It’s never explained why kind-hearted Keats endures this oaf, which leaves the audience assuming it’s purely because Brown subsidises the Cockney Romantic. His status as the poorest but ultimately the greatest of the Romantic poets despite snobbish contemporary criticism is thus rendered alienating rather than endearing. Incredibly Shelley and Byron never appear, two scenes with the artist JH Reynolds defending Keats’ poetry – “there are immaturities to be sure, but there are also immensities” – are all we get to create a sense of the artistic community of the era.

This film feels far longer than two hours because it endlessly repeats its precious few ideas: Keats loves Brawne, Keats is too poor to marry Brawne, Keats is inspired to write better poetry by Brawne, Brawne can’t understand poetry but loves Keats, Brawne doesn’t care that he’s poor, Mr Brown is a jerk to Brawne, Keats defends Mr Brown, repeat and fade… Even the failing health of the consumptive Keats, who died aged 26, only ends up running into this endless loop. One of Keats’ most famous lines, “I have been half in love with easeful Death”, runs like a refrain through the film, yet Campion fails to convey any sense of Keats as marked for doom, or, thanks to her narrow focus on the purely domestic, the loss to literature that his early death was – his achievements are recorded in the Norton Anthology of Literature thus: “his poetry, when he stopped writing at the age of twenty-four, exceeds the accomplishment at the same age of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton”.

Ultimately watching people reading letters while those letters are read in voiceover is deeply un-cinematic. The best of these scenes are the closing reading of Bright Star and, over the end credits, Ben Whishaw finally being allowed to recite the full Ode to a Nightingale. Julian Temple’s Pandemonium, a deeply imaginative and visually inventive 2001 biopic of laudanum-addled poet ST Coleridge starring Linus Roache was a model of how to catch the lightning of poetry in a cinematic bottle. Watching it then reading Keats’ poetry would come closer to appreciating his short-lived but dazzling flame.

2/5

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