Talking Movies

November 30, 2019

From the Archives: Rescue Dawn

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down on his first mission over Vietnam. Captured by the Vietcong he plots to escape and find his way home.

Christian Bale adds another impressive characterisation to his resume playing real life Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler. Rescue Dawn is inspired by events in Dengler’s life previously documented by the legendary (by which I mean famously bat-crazy) German director Werner Herzog in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Bale expertly plays a German who has become an American citizen and whose accent is American, but not quite genuine, and whose mental state could best be described as…peculiar. Herzog, the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo is quite at home in this cinematic territory of insane heroes in the jungle and produces his best fictional feature in years. Werner Herzog is after all the man who dragged a boat over a mountain for the making of Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century rubber baron in Brazil who wanted to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon.

Herzog brilliantly uses minimal dialogue for the first half hour to tell the story of Dengler’s capture and torture at the hands of the Vietcong thru the medium of pure cinema. He wordlessly conveys the utter terror of the Vietcong whenever an American airplane screams overhead. Herzog achieves a sense of location few Vietnam films have, even Apocalypse Now’s intense feeling for its locale is eclipsed by his extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography which makes the lush jungle almost another character. Bale’s time in the POW camp moves out of this art-house territory towards more mainstream fare, and the film slows down and becomes less distinctive. The men sit and bitch about being prisoners of war, plot escape plans (as all prisoners of war seem to spend most of their time doing, to the detriment of their guards’ nerves) and try to raise morale by fantasising over their favourite meals. Herzog inserts some excellent gags here but never lets you forget that Dengler is a very odd hero figure for these men to rally round.

The relationship between Bale and Steve Zahn as a fellow American prisoner in the small Vietcong camp is highly convincing but Jeremy Davies is endlessly irritating as the only other American POW. Davies has been using the same mannered tics since 1994 and has blighted films from The Million Dollar Hotel to Solaris. His popularity with casting directors continues to mystify. Steve Zahn, by contrast, grasps with both hands the chance to do something more substantial than his usual comedic sidekick roles and delivers a touching portrayal of man worn down by despair and malnutrition. Herzog’s languid pacing in this film, particularly in the second act, may irritate people raised on MTV editing but the majesty of the landscape and the emotional depth he achieves is more than adequate recompense, Rescue Dawn is an offbeat take on a familiar genre, welcome to the extreme as a matter of course.

3/5

July 22, 2015

The Legend of Barney Thomson

Robert Carlyle makes his directorial debut as a boring Scottish barber who a couple of unfortunate accidents render prime suspect in a serial killer manhunt.

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Barney Thomson (Robert Carlyle) is, by his own narration, a boring man. So boring in fact that he’s about to be fired by Wullie (Stephen McCole) because nobody wants to get their hair cut by a man without any chat. Barney’s appeal to Wally’s father James (James Cosmo) hits the same brick wall – Barney’s personality, or lack thereof; “Standing over the customers like a haunted tree…” And then Barney has an unfortunate workplace accident, or two. Which happen to coincide with DI Holdall (Ray Winstone) and his sidekick MacPherson (Kevin Guthrie) getting increasingly desperate to find a serial killer before their Chief McManaman (Tom Courtenay) hands the case over to strident Robertson (Ashley Jensen). And when Barney’s formidable mother Cemolina (Emma Thompson) helpfully steps in, in her own demented manner, Barney finds himself being liked for a dismembering homicidal maniac.

The Legend of Barney Thomson begins promisingly. There are choice insults. A panicked Winstone flourishes a new lead to the press, then retreats to the toilets where MacPherson finds him slumped on the floor – “I lied. That’s why I’m in the shape of a frog.” But the insults don’t match those in Armando Iannucci’s VEEP; a show aware that verbal cruelty is enjoyable for about 25 minutes, but then becomes exhausting. The shrill shouting matches between Jensen and Winston are deeply unfunny, never seem particularly motivated, and, even for a black comedy, just bespeak superficial characterisation. Brian Pettifer’s extremely creepy turn as Barney’s ‘friend’ Charlie is equally bedevilled by totally random character beats, while Emma Thompson’s one-note turn as a hard-living 70-something Glaswegian is a piece of stunt casting amusing for as long as you find her aging-up inherently funny.

It feels like there’s a different, better comedy within this movie attempting to escape; the desperation of DI Holdall to escape the “vomit-lashed sh**hole” that his Scottish wife has connivingly dragged him to, a despair which informs his phone-call to a bookie: “Can you say that again, in English? Because I didn’t get a word you just said. Yes, I know you’re Scottish. Yes, I’m aware that I am up here.” Instead the focus is on Barney, played by Carlyle, via Jeremy Davies, with lots of nervous twitches. The cast gamely play the machinations of Barney, Cemolina, and Holdall, and there are amusing moments but it’s hard to care about such half-written characters. “This is f****** ridiculous” says Holdall when the plot reaches its final ridiculous twist, and his character, tiring of the film, is verbalising what the audience has already felt for some time.

The Legend of Barney Thomson is only 95 minutes long, and yet rarely can a film have worn out its welcome quite so fast.

2/5

April 16, 2012

Lockout

Writer/producer Luc Besson’s one-man studio continues with an entertaining sci-fi actioner starring Guy Pearce attempting to rescue Maggie Grace from 500 scumbags.

Pearce is Snow, an ex-CIA agent in 2079. Snow is arrested by Secret Service supremo Langral (a wonderfully ambiguous Peter Stormare) when Snow’s mentor is killed after requesting him as back-up on an undercover operation. Snow is unable to retrieve vital exculpating evidence in a briefcase he passed to his partner Mace (Tim Plester) just before his arrest. Meanwhile First Daughter Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) is visiting new maximum security prison space station MS1 to ensure humane treatment of the sedated convicts. Some joyfully dumb coincidences see her taken hostage along with the crew by the newly awakened prisoners, headed by Scottish brothers Alex (Vincent Regan) and Hydell (Joseph Gilgun); who have different ideas about how to bargain their way home. Snow’s CIA friend Shaw (Lennie James) persuades Langral to send Snow to MS1 as an implausible one-man army to rescue Emilie, and only Emilie…

Lockout wastes absolutely no time in setting up its plot. Indeed it features one of the most arresting openings this year as a handcuffed to a chair Pearce is repeatedly punched out of frame to allow the credits to pop up, before he sits back up to deliver another witticism and get punched out of frame again. He even delivers a wonderful gag about why punch-lines are so titled. It’s odd to see Pearce rather than Statham in a role like this, but, following sparkling supporting turns in Animal Kingdom, The King’s Speech and Justice, it’s great to see him headlining. Pearce swaggers his way thru this film with sardonic wisecracking gusto. Grace improves once she starts to act opposite him, especially with short, dark hair; which she gets courtesy of the application by Snow of scissors and a mix of engine grease and coffee.

This is a knowing genre piece. The basic concept is a riff on Escape from New York, the friction between Snow and Emilie the girl he wished he hadn’t rescued pure Han Solo and Leia, and the sympathetic Shaw talking Snow thru the operation on MS1 obviously Die Hard. This is silly action with a wink. The ‘spectacular’ CGI motorbike chase at the start is hilariously poor, as Pearce runs from the Secret Service on what is the Bat-pod, even down to lifting the crashing thru a shopping mall shot from The Dark Knight. Such entertaining hokum is derailed by Mancunian Gilgun’s quickly irritating turn as Hydell. A cross between twitchy-twitchy Jeremy Davies as Trainspotting’s Begbie and Andy Serkis as Gollum at his most self-pitying it’s just too much for a cipher; the violent loose cannon ruining Alex’s negotiating plans.

Irish directors and co-writers Stephen Saint-Leger and James Mather got Besson’s attention with their short film Prey Alone. Lockout should get Hollywood’s.

2.5/5

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