Talking Movies

July 18, 2013

The Frozen Ground

Nicolas Cage’s Alaskan state trooper hunts down John Cusack’s sadistic serial killer in a dramatisation of the real-life Robert Hansen case in early 1980s Alaska.

IMG_2828.CR2Teenage prostitute Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) is found by police officers in an Alaskan motel room; handcuffed, badly beaten, and distraught. She claims she was raped by pillar of the community Robert Hansen (John Cusack), so the brass instantly dismiss her accusations. However, after the discovery of a dead girl in the Alaskan wilds, state trooper Sgt. Jack Halcome (Nicolas Cage) reopens Cindy’s case as he suspects that there is a serial killer targeting young prostitutes like her, and that she is the one that got away… But keeping Cindy safe while he builds a case against Hansen without enraging the local PD is complicated for Halcome both by Cindy’s distrust and her pimp (50 Cent) forcing her to work the streets; because Hansen is prowling those sidewalks eager to find the loose end that could unravel his secret life.

This is the second film in as many months about a family man who secretly mass murdered his way thru the 1970s and 1980s, but this is not The Iceman. Hansen dominates his religious wife Fran (Katherine LaNasa) but keeps his true darkness hidden, and we never get any real sense of his inner life. By focusing on the procedural element of Halcome’s investigation Antipodean writer/director Scott Walker produces a cold detachment which feels oddly like Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal TV show. Patrick Murguia’s murky handheld camerawork is of course radically different, but at times you can feel you’re watching a basic cable version of Criminal Minds; a feeling reinforced when overly cautious DA (Kurt Fuller) rubbishes the report by one of the FBI’s new ‘profilers’. And that’s before noticing the supporting TV faces: Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), Michael McGrady (Hawaii Five-O), Brad William Henke (LOST).

At some point Hudgens will stop trying to shock us to shed her Disney image, and we’ll finally be able to judge if she can actually act. But that point is still in the future. Her (flagged as ‘all-the-way’) drugged-up striptease here is mightily uncomfortable, as is the amount of offhand female nudity given that the film ends with a montage of the victims to whom the film is dedicated; mostly sex-workers, which renders such gratuitousness earlier tacky at best. Indeed it’s quite shocking how McGrady’s vice detective tolerates public prostitution, even down to negotiating with the Mob over questioning their hookers who work off-street, so long as things are kept reasonably under control. Differently shocking is Radha Mitchell’s thankless role as Mrs Halcome, who explicitly prioritises keeping one distressed hooker out of her house over catching a prolific murderer. Such considerations only come to mind because the sadism of Hansen is presented to us in vignettes played merely for tension rather than character analysis.

Walker stages a tense chase finale, and a nice tactical gambit from Halcome’s boss (Kevin Dunn), but his film while satisfying lacks true insight.

3/5

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September 21, 2011

Drive

Ryan Gosling is an enigmatic part-time getaway driver who falls foul of LA gangsters in this misfiring existential thriller.

Drive is a film of two parts, the first part is rather good, and the second part is quite troubling. We’re introduced to Gosling’s unnamed driver in a great, great opening. Rumbling beats (that Fincher’s probably already bought the rights to) underscore a getaway of sublime skill and suavity. Those beats give way to a synthtastic 1980s homage soundtrack as the film slows to an enigmatic and brilliant crawl as it fleshes out Gosling’s life. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston is Gosling’s mentor, a mechanic and film stunt co-ordinator crippled by men close to Ron Perlman’s savage Jewish mobster Nino, who now dreams of getting his protege to put his driving skills to more public use in stock-car. Albert Brooks is the ‘nice’ mobster who’ll fund their team. This move to normality is mirrored by Gosling’s growing friendship with neighbour Carey Mulligan, as he becomes a surrogate father to her young son.

This humanising of the taciturn Gosling is beautifully photographed and reminiscent of Fish Tank in its finding of pastoral in an urban landscape. Mulligan is an empathetic presence while Brooks excels at using his nice-guy persona to complicate our attitudes to his mobster. The introduction of the plot, rather than turning this film into 1978’s sublime The Driver, merely scuppers things. The Obstacle Carey’s husband returns from jail owing protection money so our hero decides to help him and a cameoing Christina Hendricks out on a low-risk heist, which goes disastrously wrong. Brooks’ in-camera mission statement, “I used to produce movies in the 80s. Action, arty stuff. The critics liked them, called them European. I thought they were shit”, then kicks in. Director Nicolas Winding Refn uses music, a car-crash, and surf rolling into a deserted beach at night to incredibly foreboding effect in staging one murder, but mostly his use of violence is both unnecessary and excessive.

Do you want to see a woman’s head get blown apart by a shotgun blast in slow motion, a man have his hand smashed repeatedly with a hammer, a man have a fork thrust in his eyeball to distract him while his assailant searches for a cleaver to plunge repeatedly into his neck and chest, a man have his arm slit open by a cut-throat razor, or a man have his head kicked in until he’s quite dead and then kicked some more until bone-dust rises up into the camera? Well if you don’t then you should leave half-way thru Drive. Gosling is charismatic in his Eastwoodian role, and you can see why he personally chose Refn as director, but this is less an existentialist thriller and more just humourless grindhouse masquerading as arthouse.

If you loved The Driver, you might like half of Drive

2/5

August 18, 2011

Medium’s Realism

Allison DuBois sees dead people. And yet despite the show’s high concept being supernatural in the extreme Medium has been one of the most realistic shows on TV…

When I trumpeted Medium in the University Observer in 2005 I noted that it derived its emotional impact from the way creator Glenn Gordon Caron and ace Dark Angel writer/producers Moira Kirland, Rene Echevarria, and later Robert Doherty, were able to weave together domestic dramas and bizarre visions in an utterly plausible fashion. The initial hook of the show was second-guessing how Patricia Arquette’s cryptic visions would help the police solve baffling crimes. But the real hook for long-term viewing was the emotional meat of the show. I dubbed it, despite my love of the Cohens in The OC, the only portrayal worth a damn on US TV of a normal married couple raising children, with the little triumphs and little pitfalls that go with the territory. When the two strands combined, as in the episode where the ghost of a serial killer from the 1880s stalked eldest daughter Ariel, the results were truly heart-stopping, not least because that episode played out in flashbacks that implied Allison had failed to prevent her murder – a point to be returned to later. Medium’s realistic family dynamic only became more impressive an achievement over time as the strain on Joe of handling his wife and daughter’s abilities began to show, and the daughters not only became more rebellious as they aged but also more susceptible to the Roland family gift/curse for picking up psychic flashes.

It may seem odd to characterise long-takes, a favourite trick of showy directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Alfonso Cuaron, as being realistic, but Medium has always used handheld cameras that, without descending into the shaky-cam madness of JJ Abrams or Paul Greengrass, add an air of rough immediacy to proceedings, and when these cameras, so often deployed by the last-named auteurs for rapidly edited shots, suddenly do long-takes it affords an almost theatrical intimacy; especially as these long-takes are quite often gruesome confessions by killers, plot revelations achieved by a simple shift of the frame to one side to reveal an obscured detail, or horrendous crimes being unnervingly observed with an unblinking eye.

Medium was also depicting money worries in a middle-class family in the American Southwest years before the acclaimed Breaking Bad ‘broke new ground’ by doing so. The 7 seasons of Medium can almost be characterised by Joe’s fluctuating fortunes in the job market as much as by Allison’s murder cases. From happily employed to then working under stress at large corporation Aerodytech, to helplessly unemployed, to starting his own company, to working on his own invention for another corporation, to working again as a drone for yet another corporation under an inspired maniac, to replacing said maniac, Joe’s career has been a rollercoaster reflecting the sheer uncertainty of the modern economy which valorises flexibility while ignoring what that actually means. The sheer terror of being bankrupted by frivolous or half-plausible but unjust lawsuits, because you have very little savings left after the business of living has attacked your paycheque, has been dramatised repeatedly in Medium. It’s never been a given that Joe and Allison will escape financial armageddon because, unlike Breaking Bad’s excessively all-pervasive bleakness, there’s always been an unnerving lack of guaranteed happy endings in Medium. It has repeatedly demonstrated that for all her paranormal powers Allison can’t always get her man. In some cases she has egregiously failed to catch the killer and never got a second bite at the cherry. Against the backdrop that things don’t always end well, Medium has created a good deal of dread from bad familial and financial situations.

Finally there’s the realism factor engendered by the remarkable fact that they don’t do supernatural crimes on Medium, despite the occult premise of the show. Indeed one scene, during an investigation of a priest’s death, which suggested that a demon had actually possessed a possessed girl was absolutely terrifying because it broke with two seasons’ worth of assurances that the supernatural solved crimes but had no part in committing them. Sure there have been moments that get close to supernatural crimes, such as David Arquette as Allison’s ne’er-do-well brother letting John Glover take control of his body, but what Glover does then isn’t particularly supernatural as a crime; he merely uses his charisma as a motivational speaker to tempt people to succumb to an addiction they’ve been fighting, such as cigarettes or alcohol. Similarly while Allison has variously gone deaf, lost control of her hand, or lost her ability to recognise English, none of these conditions has been anything but ‘hysterical blindness’ writ large; as Rena Sofer’s doctor dubbed it in the final season: a psychological reaction to an emotional trauma. Medium as a show has dealt in realistic crimes, but these have been frequently been at the extremely chilling end of the spectrum of psychosis, as it’s been very concerned with violence against women and children. Despite being driven by a strong female lead character it’s never shrunk from depicting women as extremely vulnerable physically to the predations of disturbed men. Serial killers aplenty have committed crimes against women in Allison’s Phoenix stronghold, Eric Stoltz’s killer a terrifying example, and there’s been incredibly disturbing attacks on children too, including a horrendous crime that Det. Lee Scanlon unwittingly failed to prevent when he was a beat cop.

Medium lost some great writers along the way but it kept its standard high to the very end, and its controversial finale proved it was never afraid to be realistic to a fault.

Medium continues its swansong seventh season on Living, Fridays at 9pm.

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