Talking Movies

July 20, 2018

From the Archives: The Dark Knight

On this day ten years ago I saw The Dark Knight on the biggest IMAX screen in the world. Yeah…

“Where do we begin?” The Dark Knight is a sequel that expands upon and darkens an existing cinematic universe so successfully and unsettlingly that it ranks far above what one would think of as the obvious reference point The Empire Strikes Back and instead starts advancing menacingly towards The Godfather: Part II…

Director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan are very clever, as evidenced by their last collaboration The Prestige, and see greatness where others do not, as evidenced by reading the original novel of The Prestige. In The Dark Knight they have constructed a story that takes the mythology of the DC comic books and turns it into both high tragedy and violent mayhem.

Christian Bale is superb as Bruce Wayne who is quickly becoming a physical and emotional wreck after one year of being the Batman. What was intended as a short-term project to clean up corruption looks to be nearing its end with a final audacious swoop on the mob’s money-men. Bruce’s only chance of a normal life is slipping away though as his sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal at her most winning), tired of waiting for Bruce, is dating the idealistic new District Attorney Harvey Dent (a wonderfully charismatic Aaron Eckhart who also communicates an underlying instability that could lead Harvey to places of great moral darkness). Bruce can only compete against Dent for Rachel if he can trust Dent enough to retire Batman and leave the crime-fighting to the legitimate forces of Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his Major Crimes Unit. However such plans are wrecked when the mob in their desperation at Batman’s success decide to fight back by hiring, in the Don Sal Maroni’s own words, “a two bit whack-job in a cheap purple suit and make up”…The Joker.

Heath Ledger’s Joker, physical and unhinged – licking his lips like a snake sensing its prey, blows away the inert Jack Nicholson performance and retires the role for a generation if not all time. Oscars don’t go to films like this but Ledger’s performance here is worthy of consideration. His Joker is blackly hilarious and utterly terrifying, usually at the same time, and even his musical theme is chilling. The Nolan brothers cross many lines in depicting his psychopathic unpredictability. One of the taglines for this film was “Welcome to a world without rules”. Batman cannot understand Joker.  Carmine Falcone wanted power, Scarecrow wanted money, Ras Al’Ghul wanted order, The Joker? –  “I’m an agent of chaos”… His escalating mind games in the film move from straight crime with a superbly staged opening heist against a Mob bank, to terrorist attacks, to sick mass murder and beyond…

The Dark Knight is fiercely intelligent, ingeniously structured (to reveal plot details would be a sin) and gives memorable lines and moments to each member of a large ensemble, while the twisted bond between Batman and Joker that exists in the comics finally receives a cinematic depiction. This is all incredibly realistic looking with 60% of the film shot on location and if seen on an Imax screen, as Christopher Nolan indeed shot it especially for, Gotham becomes a character in its own right with its cityscape lovingly captured in vertiginous shots. Written, played and directed with supreme assuredness this is one of the most gut-wrenchingly suspenseful films of the year that looks to 1970s crime thrillers like Serpico rather than superhero films for its modus operandi with its theme of police corruption. Indeed this is unlike any previous Bat-sequel, as can be seen by the difference between the grisly Two-Face in this film compared to previous camp interpretations, and is even tonally different in many ways to Batman Begins. Wanted may be the most fun blockbuster this summer but the Bat has captured the classy end of the spectrum with a film that combines meaty drama with explosive action.

You need to see The Dark Knight. Repeatedly…

5/5

October 7, 2015

Sicario

Emily Blunt is an FBI agent in over her head in the crusade against cartels in director Denis Villeneuve’s gripping thriller of a dirty war.

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Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a ‘thumper’. She kicks in doors to rescue hostages. Or, as in the startling opening sequence, her armoured car kicks in an entire wall before unleashing her gun-toting squad. But all her rescues don’t really make a dent in the war on drugs, so when prosecutor Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) offers her the chance to join a taskforce led by Graver (Josh Brolin) she volunteers. But the taskforce soon starts to trouble her. It’s bad enough being surrounded by Graver’s crew, trigger-happy jocks like Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), but their stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is troublingly mysterious, and their mission soon creeps over the border from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) urges her to quit after that mission erupts into quasi-legal slaughter, but Kate needs the truth.

Sicario is a triumph. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson’s extraordinary score makes you anxious even before the first image, with its insistent sinister rhythm. At times he almost mischievously quotes Brad Fiedel’s Terminator 2 T-1000 cue, as if to relieve tension, but his melding of digital beats with brass and strings consistently unnerves. Sicario is always riveting, and even when the script (by Sons of Anarchy actor Taylor Sheridan) appears to be losing its tension it’s merely misdirection to increase paranoia. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is jaw-dropping: aerial photography gives a drone’s eye view of the warzone, while a pan across the border-crossing makes Juarez seem incredibly alien, and a climactic sequence with thermal imaging surpasses Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve equals Michael Mann in his staging of a prisoner transfer in cartel-run Juarez and a gun battle in a stalled motorway jam.

The opening titles tell us originally ‘sicario’ were Jews murdering occupying Romans. Like Villeneuve’s Incendies, this is a contemporary film with mythic echoes of savagery past. Kate in her conflict with Alejandro is Creon to his Antigone: devotion to upholding the law is the right thing for Kate, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing. Meanwhile Graver’s cynical “If you can’t stop 20% of Americans putting stuff up their noses and in their arms, let’s have some order at least” is not only as grimly realistic as the similar dirty war tactics depicted in ’71 but also oddly reminiscent of the simultaneously historically inspiring and dubiously propagandistic message of Zhang Yimou’s Hero. A major achievement for Villeneuve is that, despite Deakins and Brolin’s involvement with No Country for Old Men, Sicario is its own universe.

Sicario, powered by Blunt’s assured lead performance as a heroine too dogged for her own good, grips from its thunderous opening to its soft-spoken and extremely resonant last lines.

5/5

October 2, 2015

9 Days of 90s Horror

Hallowe’en comes to the Lighthouse with 9 days of 90s horror films from 23rd to 31st October culminating in a Scream-themed party before a screening of the late Wes Craven’s third reinvention of horror cinema.

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While the IFI’s Horrorthon unleashes a slew of new genre entries, the Lighthouse will hark back to the 1990s; the origin of the ‘ironic slasher’ sub-genre which was murdered by torture porn, and found-footage, which, like many a horror bogeyman, just won’t die. In association with the Bram Stoker Festival the 90s Vampire strand brings Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Stoker’s text back to the big screen, placing it beside other 90s vampire movies Blade, From Dusk Till Dawn, and the original iteration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The most important film being screened, however, is Scream. Wes Craven redirected the current of horror cinema three times: Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. Teamed with razor-sharp screenwriter Kevin Williamson he delivered a totemic movie well worthy of a Scream-themed Hallowe’en night costume party.

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FROM DUSK ‘TILL DAWN

Friday 23rd October 10:30pm

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s first blood-soaked collaboration is presented in a digital restoration; that won’t make QT happy… A grimy, violent B-movie about a seedy Mexican bar that happens to be crawling with vampires this had its origins in VFX guys wanting a showcase script for their handiwork. So, after some quintessentially Tarantinoesque build-up, with fugitives George Clooney and Tarantino trading taunts and riffs with their hostages Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis, Rodriguez’s aesthetic takes over: Salma Hayek and energetic mayhem.

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BLADE I & II – (Double Bill)

Saturday 24th October 9:00pm

Never let a high concept get in the way of a good double bill! Guillermo Del Toro’s 2002 sequel sees humans and vampires form an uneasy alliance to defeat the mutated vampires known as ‘Reapers’, who threaten to infect and/or eat everyone. But first we have to see Wesley Snipes’ vampire superhero take down Stephen Dorff, with some help from Kris Kristofferson, in the 1998 debut of the ‘Daywalker’. All together now: “Some motherf****** are always trying to ice-skate uphill.”

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BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

Sunday 25th October 10:30pm

Nothing bad is ever Joss Whedon’s fault. That trope began here. His script for this 1992 teen comedy was apparently neutered in production, leading Whedon to dream it all up again for TV; where, even as show-runner, season 4 was also somehow not his fault. Buffy’s cinematic origin story isn’t a patch on the TV development, and, while Donald Sutherland’s Watcher and Rutger Hauer’s Master Vampire add class to proceedings, this is more interesting as a time capsule (Look! It’s Luke Perry!).

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BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA

Monday 26th October 3:30pm

Director Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay differs wildly from Stoker’s book. Coppola fixated on a ‘true love never dies’ doppelganger love story between Gary Oldman’s Count and Winona Ryder’s Mina Murray, that shaped Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ recent steam-punk TV adaptation. Cast adrift amidst outré sets that bellow their obvious artifice, Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing and Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker try to ground things, but the best verdict remains Winona Ryder’s acidic “I deserved an Oscar for the job I did promoting that movie…”

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SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – (Cinema Book Club)

Tuesday 27th October 8.00pm

The Halloween edition of the Lighthouse’s Cinema Book Club is Jonathan Demme’s film of Thomas Harris’ best-selling chiller. Harris’ universe has been thoroughly mined, most recently in Bryan Fuller’s hallucinatory series Hannibal, but this 1991 Oscar-winner was the breakthrough adaptation. Jodie Foster’s FBI rookie Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins’ imprisoned cannibal Hannibal Lecter are indelible performances. It’s become fashionable to disparage this in favour of Manhunter, but there’s a reason few people ever saw Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter…

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THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

Wednesday 28th October 8.30pm

The greatest horror producer of the 21st century Jason Blum passed on this at Sundance, and has been kicking himself ever since. Some people at early screenings in 1999 thought that this was real; giving its unnerving ending enough power to create a buzz that made it a sensation. It wasn’t real. It was, however, the moment where found-footage horror stomped into the multiplex and declared it would never leave, all because of an unsettling walk in the woods in Burkettsville, Maryland.

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WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE

Thursday 29th October 8.30pm

Wes Craven wrote and directed this late meta-instalment in the franchise he had kicked off with his original vision of Freddy Kreuger. Heather Langenkamp, Nancy in 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street, plays herself; plagued by dreams of a Freddy Kreuger far darker than the one portrayed by her good friend Robert Englund. Featuring cameos from several of the original cast and crew Craven produces a postmodern musing on what happens when artists create fictions that take on a life of their own.

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CANDYMAN

Friday 30th October 8.30pm

Bernard Rose’s cult classic, an adaptation of genre legend Clive Barker’s The Forbidden, follows a thesis student who is researching urban legends. Unfortunately for him he discovers the terrifying world of ‘Candyman’, the ghost of a murdered artist who is summoned by anyone foolish to say his name out loud into a mirror five times. Masterfully made, still absolutely terrifying, and the reason we all cheer whenever Tony Todd makes a cameo ever since, this also features the unlikely bonus of a Philip Glass score.

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HOCUS POCUS, Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, 1993

HOCUS POCUS

Saturday 31st October 3.00pm

A token film for the kids is 1992’s Hocus Pocus. Why the misfiring hi-jinks of Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy’s trio of Salem witches is perennially on TV is a mystery, but to present it as the essential kids’ Hallowe’en film is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. Especially when Nicolas Roeg’s film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, starring a scary Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, dates from 1990…

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SCREAM I & II – (Double Bill & Party)

Saturday 31st October 9.30pm.

Neve Campbell confidently carries this 1996 classic, a blackly hilarious self-aware dissection of slasher clichés which is also a brilliant slasher filled with tense sequences. Williamson’s delicious dialogue (“Movies don’t create psychos, they just make psychos more creative…”) is brought to memorable life by an ensemble on truly top form, with star-making turns from Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, Rose McGowan, and Skeet Ulrich. 1997’s sequel isn’t quite as good, but Kevin Williamson’s dialogue remains a joy, there are some nail-biting moments, it’s as subversively self-aware as 22 Jump Street of its sequel status, and uses Timothy Olyphant, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jerry O’Connell, and David Warner to great effect.

‘9 Days of 90s horror’ ends with a Scream-themed Hallowe’en party preceding the Scream double bill, beginning at 8pm. Dress as your favourite 90s horror icon and enjoy the ironically-named cocktails, soundtrack of 90s hits, and general japery all related to Wes Craven’s classic slasher.

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TICKETS FOR 90S VAMPIRE FILMS:

http://www.lighthousecinema.ie/newsarticle.php?sec=NEWS&_aid=8323

 

TICKETS FOR 90S HORROR FILMS:

http://www.lighthousecinema.ie/newsarticle.php?sec=NEWS&_aid=8455

February 3, 2015

2015: Fears

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 11:20 pm
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Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis return, oh joy, in 3-D, more joy, with a tale of a young woman (Mila Kunis) who discovers that she shares the same DNA as the Queen of the Universe, and goes on the run with a genetically engineered former soldier (Channing Tatum), oh, and he’s part wolf… The unloveable Eddie Redmayne is the villain, but the extremely loveable Tuppence Middleton is also in the cast, and, oddly, there’s a cameo from Terry Gilliam, whose work is said to be an influence on the movie. Alongside Star Wars, Greek mythology, and the comic-book Saga it seems…

 

Fifty Shades of Grey

Jamie Dornan is Christian Grey, Dakota Johnson is Bella Swan Anastasia Steele, Universal are terrible gamblers. Take one novel: which is 100pp of hilariously obvious Twilight homage leading to pornography for hundreds more and an unsatisfactory ending; a sensation because of the ability to secretly read it. Now hire art-house director Sam Taylor-Johnson to make an R-rated film focused on the romance, after 5 Twilight movies of said romance shtick; and force people to say out loud what film they’re seeing, or at least be seen going to it. Sit back, and watch this gamble fail.

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Blackhat

Michael Mann returns with his first film since 2009’s uninspired Public Enemies. Chris Hemsworth, now officially a god in Iceland again, plays a hacker who gets a free pass from jail to help Viola Davis’ FBI agent liaise with her Chinese counterpart (pop star Wang Leehom) following a devastating cyber-attack in China which led to a nuclear incident. Hemsworth is distracted in his mission by Lust, Caution’s Chen Lien, and, if you’ve read the vituperative reviews, an appalling script. Mann’s been on a losing streak for a while, and his hi-def video camera infatuation only doubles down on that.

 

In the Heart of the Sea

March sees director Ron Howard take on Moby Dick. Or rather, tell the true story that inspired Moby Dick, rather than try and out-do John Huston. Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson are among the hapless crew of the whaling ship Essex out of New England that runs afoul of a curiously vindictive sperm whale in 1820. Martin Sheen starred in a rather good BBC version of this disaster its grisly aftermath at Christmas 2013. Who knows if Howard will match that, but he’ll definitely throw more CGI at the screen.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

Joss Whedon takes off the Zak Penn training wheels and scripts this sequel to 2012’s hit solo. James Spader voices the titular evil AI, unleashed by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man when fiddling about in Samuel L Jackson’s Pandora’s Box of Shield secrets. The great Elizabeth Olsen is Scarlet Witch, and Aaron Johnson is Quicksilver, but I find it hard to work up any enthusiasm for another ticked box on the Marvel business plan. Why? CGI and Marvel empire-building fatigue, a lack of interest in most of the characters, and great weariness with Whedon’s predictable subversion.

 

Lost River

What is the difference between a homage and le rip-off? The French should know and they loudly booed Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut as little more than Nicolas Winding Refn and David Lynch meeting up for a whimsical night out. Gosling also wrote this tale of a boy who finds a town under the sea down a river, and has to be rescued by his mother. Matt Smith, Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Eva Mendes, and Ben Mendelsohn are the actors roped in by Gosling to flesh out his magical realist vision of a hidden beauty lurking underneath decrepit Detroit.

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Far From the Madding Crowd
Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan), a wilful, flirtatious young woman unexpectedly inherits a large farm and becomes romantically involved with three widely divergent men: rich landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), dashing Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge), and poor farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Hardy’s classic novel is a formidable predecessor for this May release. This version from director Thomas Vinterberg (Festen, The Hunt), was co-scripted with David Nicholls of One Day fame; another man whose tendencies are not exactly of a sunny disposition. Can the promising young cast overcome Vinterberg’s most miserabilist tendencies?

 

Tomorrowland

Well this is a curio… Brad Bird directs George Clooney and Secret Circle star Britt Robertson in a script he co-wrote with Damon LOST Lindelof about a genius inventor and a parallel universe, or something. Nobody really seems to know what it’s about. But then given Lindelof’s resume even after we’ve watched it we probably won’t know what it’s about. Bird proved extremely capable with live-action in Mission: Impossible 4, but explicitly viewed the talky scenes as mere connective tissue between well-executed set-pieces; pairing him with ‘all questions, no answers’ man seems like a recipe for more puzzled head-scratching.

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Ant-Man

Ant-Man was in 2015: Hopes until director and co-writer Edgar Wright walked because Marvel shafted him after years of development. I was highly interested in seeing Paul Rudd’s burglar become a miniature super-hero who’s simpatico with ants after encountering mad scientist Michael Douglas and his hot daughter Evangeline Lilly; when it was from the madman who made Scott Pilgrim Vs the World. When this deservedly nonsensical take on a preposterous property is being helmed by Peyton Reed; whose only four features are Bring It On, Down With Love, The Break-Up, and Yes Man; my interest levels drop to zero.

 

Terminator: Genisys

Quietly brushing 2009’s Terminator: Salvation into the dustbin of history in July is this script by Laeta Kalogridis (Pathfinder, Night Watch) and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry). Game of Thrones’ Alan Taylor directs, which presumably explains Emilia Clarke’s baffling casting as Jason Clarke’s mother. That’s going to take some quality Sarah Connor/John Connor timeline shuffling. And this is all about timelines. Arnie returns! Byung-Hun Lee is a T-1000! Courtney B Vance is Miles Dyson! YAY!!!!! Jai Courtney is Kyle Reese … BOOOOOO!!!!!!! Did we learn nothing from McG’s fiasco? We do not need another muscle-bound actor with zip charisma.

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Fantastic Four

August sees Josh Trank shoulder the unenviable task of rebooting the Fantastic Four after two amiable but forgettable movies. Trank impressed mightily with the disturbing found-footage super-yarn Chronicle, and scripted this effort with X-scribe Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect). The cast is interesting; Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Kate Mara as Sue Storm, Michael B Jordan as Johnny Storm, Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, and Toby Kebbel as Dr Doom; but this has had a troubled production, and carries an albatross around its neck as it must bore us senseless with another bloody origin story.

 

The Man from UNCLE

August sees CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB man Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) on a mission to infiltrate a mysterious criminal organization during the height of the cold war. Steven Soderbergh nearly made this with George Clooney from a Scott Z Burns script. Instead we get Guy Ritchie and Sherlock Holmes scribe Lionel Wigram. Sigh. Hugh Grant plays Waverley, while the very talented female leads Alicia (Omnipresent) Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki will highlight the lack of suavity and comic timing of the male leads; particularly troublesome given the show was dry tongue-in-cheek super-spy nonsense.

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Black Mass

Poor old Johnny Depp is having something of an existential crisis at the moment. People moan and complain when he does his quirky thing (Mortdecai). But when he doesn’t do his quirky thing people moan and complain that he’s dull (Transcendence). September sees him team up with Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton for Scott Cooper’s 1980s period thriller about the FBI’s real-life alliance with Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger, exploring how  the bureau’s original good intention of running an informant was derailed by Bulger’s clever connivance, ending up as a sort of state-sanctioned take-over of the criminal underworld.

 

The Martian

Ridley Scott just can’t stop making movies lately, but he’s having a considerably harder time making good movies. November sees the release of The Martian starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars after being presumed dead in a ferocious storm. The supporting cast includes Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Sebastian Shaw, Kate Mara, and the regrettably inevitable Jessica Chastain. Damon must try to send an SOS forcing NASA to figure out how on earth to go back and rescue him. Drew Goddard wrote the script. There’s the reason this might work.

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The Hateful Eight

November sees the return of Quentin Tarantino. The writer/director who never grew up follows his rambling gore-fest Django Unchained with another Western. But this one is shot in Ultra Panavision 70, despite being set indoors, and has more existential aspirations. Yeah… Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, and Zoe Bell return to the fold for this tale of bounty hunters holed up during a blizzard, while newcomers to Quentinland include Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Nobody’s told Tarantino to stop indulging himself in years so expect endless speechifying and outrageous violence.

September 12, 2012

The Sweeney

The beloved 1970s British TV cop show gets an appropriately tough makeover with Ray Winstone and Ben Drew (aka Plan B) stepping into John Thaw and Denis Waterman’s iconic roles.

Jack Regan (Winstone) is the chief of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad, the slightly unhinged individuals who respond to armed robberies. These are police officers who, explicitly in the case of Regan’s right-hand man George Carter (Ben Drew), joined the force for the thrill of the chase that the Flying Squad provides – if there’s no Sweeney, then there’s no Detective Carter. Regan and Carter’s heavy-handed tactics, including the use of baseball bats, raise the hackles of Internal Affairs chief Lewis (Steven Mackintosh), who has a grudge as his wife (and Sweeney member) Nancy (Hayley Atwell) is sleeping with Regan. Regan’s hands-off boss Haskins (Damian Lewis) defends the Sweeney, until Regan becomes obsessed with pinning a senseless murder committed during a diamond robbery on old criminal nemesis Allen (Paul Anderson). Can Regan and Carter unravel the mystery linking a bank heist, a diamond robbery, and an execution before they’re thrown to wolves?

This is not a warm nostalgia trip infused with energy because Nick (The Football Factory) Love is directing. This is a quite brutal thriller with tons of energy. There is an edge of the seat high-speed chase along a narrow country road that conveys the insane drive of these officers to catch criminals. The action highlight of the movie is a truly spectacular gun battle in Trafalgar Square. The geography of the shootout is impeccably set up from an earlier reconnaissance trip, and the choreography of the fight spilling towards the Tube before being diverted into the National Portrait Gallery is equalled by the suspense generated by the cat and mouse chase within the Gallery. Love’s use of aerial night-shots of London is also astounding because by focusing on the skyscrapers of the City he makes this feel like a glossy Michael Mann crime movie.

Love is a better director than a writer though as the dialogue displays a bit of a cloth ear despite the best efforts of his co-writer; Trainspotting scribe John Hodge who recently won an Olivier for his play Collaborators. There are some very funny lines, and a hilarious sequence of ordering delicious food as mental torture, and there’s also a wonderful cockney geezer in Regan’s informant Harry (Alan Ford), as well as delightful usages of the “You’re Nicked” catchphrase. But too many characters are left totally undeveloped like Allen Leech’s Irish Sweeney member Simon Ellis, while the critique of 1970s style brutal police tactics being out of date in the modern world but also sometimes necessary feels a bit heavy-handed.

Overall this is an enjoyable and visually impressive British film which deserves plaudits for eschewing the glib irony that infects TV adaptations for a realistic and nicely savage updating.

3/5

December 22, 2009

(Public) Enemies Foreign and Domestic

Well, it’s not every year Hollywood and France go head to head – in this case with big brassily confident biopics of real-life criminals adulated by the media who specialised in audacious bank-heists – only for everyone to conclude that Hollywood’s version lacked the infectious sense of fun that marked the French take…

Michael Mann isn’t noted for his sense of humour but humour isn’t necessary if you’re presenting compelling drama, however if people are bored they’ll always astringently note, ‘this is a humourless bore’. Mesrine is far funnier than Public Enemies and crucially Mesrine obviously enjoys robbing banks, there is an utter fecklessness to the Quebec double hold-up when, having gone to great lengths to establish that they have 30 seconds before they get shot dead by the police, his Quebecois partner suggests hitting the bank across the street and Mesrine agrees. By contrast Dillinger’s bank-raids are presented as an efficient piece of craftwork…

This sense of efficiency bedevils Mann’s film – everything you expect from a gangster film is present and correct but there is little attempt to delve beneath the surface. Public Enemies lacks context. The great unaddressed topic of the film is the FBI, the scene with Hoover being grilled in a Senate hearing promised much as an intriguing sub-plot about the legal and political machinations involved in the rise of the Bureau but that storyline is never developed beyond the fascinating reaction of the Mob to the implications of the federal legal response to Dillinger’s cross-state crime-sprees for their own continental business. Mann’s epic drops us into Dillinger’s career just months from its end whereas two films take us through Mesrine’s entire life giving us clear motivation where Mann only half-suggests that, like the anti-heroes in Breach or Jesse James, Dillinger yearns to be punished. The concluding text suggests a Ford/James bond between Melvin Purvis and Dillinger but Christian Bale is not given the screen-time necessary to register this and in any case Bale and Depp are both woefully blank for the majority of their performances, only occasionally emoting ‘driven’ and ‘roguish’ respectively.

Public Enemies also suffers from a deeply cavalier approach to fleshing out supporting characters. If you knew who David Wenham was for certain in less than an hour then you’re a better man than me Gunga Din. Mesrine is of course more sexual than Public Enemies but that shouldn’t necessarily be so given that Dillinger’s moll is French star Marion Cotillard, however, she is rendered as anaemic as a long line of French actresses have been by Hollywood. It’s at this point that you note that Mesrine has its cake and eats it with its introduction of Cecile de France’s Jeanne Schneider as the Bonnie to Mesrine’s Clyde being reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and superbly subversive of the type of hyper-sexual introduction we expect, which Ludivine Sagnier’s moll Sylvie then receives…

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is dizzying geographically as it takes us from France to Quebec via Algeria and Spain in a series of acutely observed vignettes. This is mirrored in Mesrine’s interior journey from reluctant soldier encouraged to torture and kill by his superiors in the battle against Algeria’s independence movement, to demobbed man who dabbles in crime, before we see him morph convincingly and touchingly to family man who gets an honest job and obviously enjoys his work before being laid off and so turning inexorably to a life of crime. It is this sense that Mesrine was forced by circumstance, including government sanctioned brutality, to criminality that makes him a much more empathetic character than Dillinger. The lack of true motivation for Dillinger is a problem made worse by Depp’s mixture of boredom and insouciance in the heists which defeats the intended reading that Dillinger robs for kicks. Crime becomes a dangerous drug for Mesrine as it feeds his ego and his recklessness which become more monstrous until he simply burns through criminal partners and women who tire of his machismo. Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 does very well what only a few scenes in Public Enemies hint at – the growing distance between Robin Hood and bank-robber, even as their need to justify their crimes as revolutionary anti-capitalism or the common man striking back becomes more obsessive.

Mann’s new digital shooting style deglamorises by removing the sheen we expect from film. Mesrine by contrast opts for a very filmic sheen and, as well as 1970s split-screens, a number of dazzlingly ornate camera movements such as the spinning away sequence in solitary confinement in Quebec and the extravagant car-mounted camera for the spectacular car-crash shot in Paris. Mann’s down and dirty digital style renders the savage gun-battles with thundering immediacy, and impressively makes them feel totally different to his own previous personal best Heat’s epic shoot-out on the streets of LA, but ‘authenticity’ is not always desirable – too often it feels like it was shot in Mann’s back-yard with a camcorder while Mesrine was shot on soundstages and locations with heinously expensive equipment.

Mesrine is almost a Hollywood production filtered through a French sensibility, full of bravura film-making. Public Enemies in its more suspenseful sequences of surveillance and engagement matches it, but Mann’s emphasis on gritty 1930s visuals rather than his characters or his history mean that while both films are flawed Mesrine’s melding of influences is more interesting and successful, and in the end it is just more fun…and that was unexpected.

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