Talking Movies

January 14, 2017

Top 10 Films of 2016

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(10) Arrival

Time is not linear,

how we speak is how we think,

says hard sci-fi.

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(9) Maggie’s Plan

A Miller screwball comedy,

Gerwig plays all,

save Slavoj Zizek.

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(8) The Daughter

Ibsen but not Ibsen,

secrets and lies in Oz,

sins of the past bite.

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(7) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Majestical Taika Waititi,

makes smart sight gags,

and smarter lines.

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(6) Look Who’s Back

Borat with Hitler,

painting in Bayreuth,

and a bit with a dog too.

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(5) The Neon Demon

Refn the garish provocateur,

subverts Keanu,

bloodies glitter.

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(4) Queen of Earth

Two women by the lake,

one loses her mind,

the other doesn’t mind.

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(3) Deadpool

Take usual plot,

discuss usual plot in the plot,

a dead shot.

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(2) The Nice Guys

Laurel and Hardy fight crime,

Laurel’s daughter the brains,

but not Waltons.

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(1) High-Rise

Tower block descends into anarchy,

the residents…

kind of like it.

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July 7, 2016

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn returns with another artful garish provocation that elicited boos at Cannes. He must be doing something right.

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Fresh-faced teenager Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in LA with dreams of modelling. She impresses agency head Roberta (Christina Hendricks), even though her photos do not; so much for would-be boyfriend/photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) hitching his wagon to her rising star. Roberta pushes her towards legendary photographer Jack MacArthur (Des Harrington) who is immediately wowed by her innocent looks and shoots her. His instant interest is shared by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces Jesse to her sharp-tongued model friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). But when Alessandro Nivola’s designer is also entranced, leading to successive humiliations for Gigi and Sarah in favour of Jesse, their claws come out. And Jesse, after a trippy catwalk experience, finds herself isolated when events in the worst motel in Pasadena take a sinister turn courtesy of creepy manager Hank (Keanu Reeves).

Refn got a kicking for Only God Forgives that would’ve broken many directors, but, very impressively, The Neon Demon is made with supreme confidence, and with absolutely no apologies – even signed NWR as a statement of artistic singularity. Whereas Only God Forgives gestured towards total abstraction there is a semblance of story here, but, even though he collaborated with playwrights Mary Laws & Polly Stenham on dialogue, it’s in the ha’penny place to the visuals. And the visuals work because Refn knows Cliff Martinez can provide a synthesiser score of wide range that can interpret images: in particular Jesse’s catwalk encounter with a blue pyramid, water, and a red pyramid, which tips its hat to 2001’s Jupiter sequence, and seems to imply that Jesse has communed with the Platonic Ideal of beauty and is thereafter a different and blessed person.

Martinez’s score is quite haunting and beautiful in its ethereal approximation of the timbres of marimba and celeste, but it also embraces great Vangelis Blade Runner washes of synth, as well as juddering techno, contrapuntal melodies, and, for a climactic syncopated cue, almost wah-wah guitar effects. Reeves plays terrifically against type, and his enjoyment is mirrored by Refn mischievously cutting from his introduction to a huge white space where one character initiates another. The Rover cinematographer Natasha Braier observes the scantily-clad models with Kubrickian detachment, complementing a startling scene where Jesse appears faced with sexual assault but is treated as an objet d’art, not human but a personification of beauty. Early on, regarding lipstick names, Jesse is asked “Are you sex or are you food?” Refn seems to imply Jesse as embodiment of beauty can be anything, except a person.

This is more accessible than Only God Forgives, but there will still be walkouts, because this is unapologetically an NWR film: which means mesmeric pacing, semi-abstracted visuals, a foregrounding of music, and outré violence.

4/5

January 18, 2016

2016: Fears

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 8:59 pm
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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

January 29th sees the release of a small (a mere $50 million dollar) personal movie by an auteur, truly un film de Michel Bay. Six military contractors (including The Office’s John Krasinski, 24’s James Badge Dale, and The Unit’s Max Martini) make a desperate last stand when a US consulate in Libya is attacked on the anniversary of 9/11. Chuck Hogan (The Town, The Strain), of all people, writes for Bay to direct; with the resulting Bayhem being memorably characterised by The Intercept as Night of the Living Dead meets The Green Berets.

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February 12th sees the release of the sequel nobody was particularly asking for… It’s been 14 since Zoolander. An eternity in cinematic comedy as the Frat Pack glory days have long since yielded to the School of Apatow; itself fading of late. Seinfeld has refused reunions noting that the concept of his show becomes depressing with aged characters, but Stiller apparently has no such qualms about airhead models Derek (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) being on the catwalk. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kristen Wiig and Penelope Cruz bring new energy, but an air of desperation/cynicism hangs over this project.

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Gods of Egypt

February 26th sees Bek (Brenton Thwaites) forced to align with Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) when the god of darkness Set (Gerard Butler) assumes control of Egypt in a truly stupid blockbuster. But not as stupid as the reception it can look forward to after Deadline’s Ross A. Lincoln wrote “based on the statuary and monuments that have survived, not to mention thousands of years of other cultures commenting on them, they definitely weren’t white people with flowing, curly blond locks, and their gods were definitely not Europeans.” Lincoln’s argument dynamites Idris Elba’s role in Thor, which is not permissible, so logically (sic) it’s now racist to not depict the Egyptian gods as Egyptian, but it’s also racist to depict the Norse gods as Norse. If the gods of Egypt ought to look Egyptian, who, that’s bankable, can play them? Amir Arison, Mozhan Marno, Sarah Shahi, and Cliff Curtis wouldn’t merit a $140 million budget. And casting them because (barring the Maori Curtis) they hail from nearer Egypt than Gerard Butler, but are not actually Egyptian, is itself racist. Does Alex (Dark City) Proyas, who hasn’t directed anything since 2009, really deserve this firestorm for just trying to work?

Hail, Caesar!

The Coens stop writing for money and return to directing on March 4th with a 1950s Hollywood back-lot comedy. A lighter effort than Barton Fink, this follows Josh Brolin’s fixer as he tries to negotiate the return of George Clooney’s kidnapped star from mysterious cabal ‘The Future’ with the help of fellow studio players Channing Tatum, Alden Ehrenreich, and Scarlett Johansson. The relentlessly mean-spirited Inside Llewyn Davis was a surprise aesthetic nadir after True Grit’s ebullience, so we can only hope the return of so many of their repertory players can galvanise the Coens to rediscover some warmth.

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Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

Zack Snyder gave us the neck-snap heard around the world in Man of Steel. On March 25th he continues his visionary misinterpretation of Superman, and can also ruin Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, Alfred Pennyworth, and Doomsday. Ben Affleck and Jeremy Irons entice as Bruce and Alfred, and Affleck has undoubtedly got the script punched up by inserting his Argo scribe Chris Terrio into the mix, but Snyder is still directing. How Snyder ever got the keys to the DC cinematic kingdom is amazing, but when if he blows this he cripples The WB.

The Neon Demon

Keanu Reeves made a comeback in 2015 with John Wick and Knock Knock. But can he impart some of that momentum to Nicolas Winding Refn to help him recover from the unmerciful kicking he got for Only God Forgives? Refn is working on a third of Drive’s budget for this horror tale of Elle Fanning’s wannabe actress who moves to LA, to find her vitality drained by a coven led by Christina Hendricks. Details are very sparse, other than that it’s about ‘vicious beauty,’ but this could be intriguing, blood-spattered, gorgeous, and enigmatic, or a total fiasco…

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The Avengers 3 Captain America: Civil War

Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors who gave you the worst choreographed and edited fight scenes you’d ever seen in Captain America 2, return with …more of the same, because why bother doing it better when you’ll go see it anyway? May 6th sees Mark Millar’s comic-book event become a camouflaged Avengers movie as Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans’ superheroes fall out over the fate of Sebastian Stan’s reformed Bucky. Expect incomprehensible fights, the occasional decent action sequence, wall to wall fake-looking CGI, and more characters than Game of Thrones meets LOST.

Snowden

The master of subtlety returns on May 12th as Oliver Stone continues his quest to make a good movie this century. His latest attempt is a biopic of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose distrust of the American government should be catnip to Stone’s sensibilities. Zachary Quinto is journalist Glenn Greenwald, Shailene Woodley is Snowden’s girlfriend, and supporting players include Timothy Olyphant, Nicolas Cage, and Melissa Leo. Expect a hagiography with stylistic brio, and no qualms about whether the next large building that blows up might be on Snowden for blowing the lid on how terrorists were monitored.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

Oscar Isaac is Apocalypse, the first mutant, worshipped for his godlike powers, who awakes in alt-1980 and turns Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to the dark side as one of his Four Horsemen alongside Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Angel (Ben Hardy). James McAvoy loses his hair from the stress of being upstaged by the powers of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and the ever-increasing star-power of Jennifer Lawrence. Director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-fold in 2014 was a triumph, but rushing this out for May 27th invites disaster; can enough time really have been spent on scripting?

Warcraft

Duncan Jones completes the Christopher Nolan career path by moving from Moon to Source Code to Warcraft. June 10th sees Vikings main-man Travis Fimmel daub on blue face-paint as Anduin Lothar. The battle with the Orcs has an interesting cast including Ben Foster, Toby Kebbell, Paula Patton, Dominic Cooper, and the great character actors Clancy Brown and Callum Keith Rennie. But its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Has there ever been a truly great adaptation of a computer game to a movie? And if Warcraft’s a good movie that’s unfaithful to the game will gamers stay away?

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Finding Dory

June 17th sees another unnecessary unwanted sequel to a beloved early Zeroes film. Why exactly do we need a sequel to Finding Nemo? Besides it being a post-John Carter retreat into an animated safe space for director Andrew Stanton? Marlin (Albert Brooks) sets out to help forgetful Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) find her long-lost parents, who are voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy. Other voices include Ty Burrell as a beluga whale, Kaitlin Olson as Dory’s whale shark adopted sister, and Ed O’Neill as an ill-tempered octopus. Stanton is writing too, but can aquatic lightning really strike twice?

Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek marks its 50th anniversary with this reboot threequel on July 8th, but the recent trailer didn’t whet any appetites. Despite having Furious maestro Justin Lin in charge and Simon Pegg as the final writer on a script with 5 credited scribes the footage was solely notable for (a) Kirk’s bad hair (b) a vaguely Star Trek: Insurrection with gaudier colours vibe (c) forced attempts at humour. Star Trek Into Darkness was a frustrating exercise in creative cowardice, a flipped photocopy of Star Trek II. Let us hope this time originality has been actively sought out.

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Ghostbusters

July 15th sees… another reboot. Paul Feig couldn’t stow his ego and just direct Dan Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters 3 script, so… “REBOOT!”. Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig are great, but Feig wrote this with Katie Dippold (who penned his execrable ‘comedy’ The Heat) so it won’t be. Feig’s drivel about gender-swapping hides an obvious truth. The Ghostbusters were all male because Akyroyd and Ramis wrote for themselves, SNL pal Murray, and Eddie Murphy; when Murphy dropped out, Zeddmore’s part shrank as his jokes were redistributed. Feig’s Ghostbusters are all female to cynically reposition attacks on his creative bankruptcy as sexism.

Doctor Strange

November 4th sees Benedict Cumberbatch swoosh his cape as Stephen Strange, (That’s Dr. Strange to you!), an arrogant surgeon taught magick by Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. Director Scott Derrickson is perhaps hoping to mash his resume of Sinister and The Day The Earth Stood Still, especially as Sinister co-writer C Robert Cargill has polished this. Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Rachel McAdams co-star, but before we get excited, this is Marvel. Marvel took the outré world of comic-books and cinematically rendered it as predictable, conservative, self-aggrandising, boring tosh. How off the leash do you bet Derrickson will get?

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The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

Kit Harington is the titular movie star who is undone when Jessica Chastain’s gossip columnist reveals his correspondence with a young girl, and an unreasoning witch-hunt begins. And it’s the first movie written and directed by Xavier Dolan in English! So, why Fears not Hopes, you ask? Because Dolan in a BBC Radio 4 interview expressed nervousness that he didn’t instinctively understand English’s nuances the way he did with French, and because with big names (Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Michael Gambon) comes pressure to tone down material and make a commercial breakthrough.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Didn’t you always desperately want to know the back story of that throwaway line about how brave rebels died to smuggle out the plans for the Death Star? … Whaddya mean ‘No’?!! Do you have any idea how much money Disney has on the line here?? You damn well better develop an interest by December 16th when Oppenheimer of the Empire Mads Mikkelsen has a crisis of conscience and enlists the help of his smuggler daughter Felicity Jones. Disney paid 4 billion for the rights to Star Wars, they retrospectively own your childhood now.

April 17, 2015

The Salvation

Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen faces off against Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a Western that might well have been pitched as Seraphim Falls meets Valhalla Rising. Here’s a teaser of my review for HeadStuff.org.

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Jon (Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) were soldiers in the 1864 Dano-Prussian War, and, following Denmark’s catastrophic defeat, they fled to a life of farming in the Wild West. After seven years Jon’s wife Marie (Nanna Oland Fabricius) and son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke) finally arrive to reunite the family. But they have the misfortune to share a stagecoach with thugs Paul (Michael Raymond-James) and Lester (Sean Cameron Michael). Jon and Peter decide to head further West after this incident, but have not reckoned on the cowardice of their local sheriff/pastor Mallick (Douglas Henshall) and mayor Keane (Jonathan Pryce). They are eager to hand the brothers over to placate the enraged Col. Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), leader of a gang that includes the Corsican (Eric Cantona) and the mute Madelaine (Eva Green). But Delarue finds himself at war…

Click here to read the full review on HeadStuff.org with Thomas Hobbes, Hannah Arendt, and Nicolas Winding Refn in the mix.

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.

November 13, 2014

The Drop

Bullhead director Michael R Roskam makes his Hollywood debut with a slow-burning crime thriller featuring James Gandolfini’s final film performance.

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Bob (Tom Hardy) is a slow-moving soft-spoken Brooklyn lug who works as a bartender for Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), who is, to people’s permanent surprise, actually Bob’s cousin. But while the sign over the door says ‘Cousin Marv’s’ really the cousins work for the scary Chechen mob brothers Chovka (Michael Aronov) and Andre (Morgan Spector), who use it as a drop for cash from their other operations. When someone is crazy enough to rip off the drop-box Bob and Marv find themselves under pressure from Chovka to recover the stolen money. Complicating matters further for Bob is his finding of an abandoned abused dog, which leads to a tentative romance with Nadia (Noomi Rapace). It also leads to harassment from neighbourhood psycho Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), the suspected killer in a cold case that has Det. Torres (John Ortiz) circling…

Having provided the source material for Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island, novelist Dennis Lehane finally pens his first feature screenplay (after writing episodes of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) expanding his own short story ‘Animal Rescue’. This film has Lehane DNA: a palpable sense of blue-collar community, characters with lives beyond the plot-points; especially Marv’s tetchy house-sharing with his long-suffering sister Dottie (Ann Dowd); a doom-laden sense of horrors to come. But, somewhat inexplicably, it also has large amounts of Dead Man Down and Drive in its make-up. Noomi Rapace once again appears bearing scars of past traumas and manipulates a taciturn anti-hero. Shocking violence in a good cause is subverted in the best Winding Refn manner, and then sort of subverted back… There’s even a regrettable Equilibrium flashback in the instantly humanising effect of a puppy.

Roskam directs all this with some aplomb, with an emphasis on facial close-ups and gritty exteriors. Ortiz and Schoenaerts shine in support as the good and evil stalking around the central trio, with Schoenaerts in particular conveying tremendous menace and instability. An early scene where the Chechens unveil some grisly handiwork as a visual pep-talk serves up the steak that allows the film to largely unnerve on sizzle till its finale, to appropriate Stephen King’s analysis of Psycho, and Roskam lets the tension build slowly as Bob and Marv try and chase up some money only to find that events are spiralling out of control. Lehane holds back mightily on letting us inside Bob’s head, or letting us know what Det. Romsey (Elizabeth Rodriguze) is up to, as if he’s addicted to Shutter Island’s method of revelations through outrageous misdirection.

James Gandolfini’s last performance mixes resignation and frustration, and the film that houses it is a curious mixture of overly familiar elements and escalating suspense anchored by Hardy’s lumbering, kindly, but enigmatically unknowable presence.

3/5

April 10, 2014

Calvary

John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson follow up The Guard with an episodic metaphysical drama punctuated by blackly comic diversions.

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Fr James (Brendan Gleeson) hears the confession of a parishioner who was sexually abused as a child by a priest. Except this isn’t a confession – the unseen parishioner informs James that he will kill him on their beach in one week: ‘Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.’ James knows the identity of the parishioner, but, despite the flawless logic of his Bishop (David McSavage) that if no confession was made the seal of the confessional lapses, he will not reveal the identity of his designated assassin. Instead he goes about his pastoral duties, attempting to spiritually salve wife-beating butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), cynical atheist doctor Frank (Aidan Gillen), ailing American novelist Gerald (M Emmet Walsh), and jaded ex-financier Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran); none of whom want his counsel. One person who badly needs him though is his visiting suicidal London-Irish daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). James became a priest after his wife’s death, leaving Fiona feeling abandoned…

Calvary is fantastically well acted by a truly impressive Irish ensemble, but is far removed from The Guard. There are dementedly funny scenes, like misfit Milo (Killian Scott) trying to convince James that wanting to kill people really badly would be a plus for being accepted into the army – ‘like an engineering degree’. But there are many more scenes addressing knotty theological concepts of fate, free will, evil, and forgiveness: a prime example being James’ fraught encounter with jailed cannibal serial killer Freddie (Domhnall Gleeson). I haven’t seen so many ideas thrown at the screen since I Heart Huckabees, but I’m unsure what McDonagh’s larger purpose is. Fr James, like Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory whiskey priest, is being shepherded towards his own squalid Calvary. But Greene’s imitation of Christ drew attention to the potential for holiness in a flawed man; James is marked for death because of his virtue – a good man expiating the sins of many.

But… this reading is undermined by a jaw-dropping scene where an irate stranger tars James with the general brush of ‘molesting cleric’, shocking the audience who’ve seen his deep compassion. The assassin’s wish to punish a good priest for the misdeeds of bad priests will be utterly lost, because outside their community everyone will assume James was a bad priest. But this may be deliberate. James seems at times to be an argument for married clergy, witness his comforting of newly-widowed Frenchwoman Teresa (Marie-Josee Croze), but then his daughter insists he put God above family. Refn’s DP Larry Smith captures the Sligo landscape to amazing effect, especially Ben Bulben – almost creating an Eden. But this is Eden where Sin has been banished as a concept. Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) provokes James with her public promiscuity, her lover Simon (Isaach De Bankole) distinguishes between believing in God and acting morally, and James himself tells Fiona too much stress has been laid on sin. James thinks forgiveness need emphasising, but publican Brendan (Pat Shortt), who now espouses Buddhism, beats the bebuddha out of people with a baseball bat – with no guilt; sin is passé, and forgiveness requires sin.

Calvary might deserve four stars. I don’t know. It’s more ambitious than nearly any other Irish film, but it outsmarted me; I feel I need to do extensive reading in Jean Amery and Fyodor Dostoevsky to apprehend McDonagh’s quicksilver.

3.5/5

February 14, 2014

Bastards

French provocateur Claire Denis returns with a moody slice of elliptical noir as a rich businessman is suspected of unspeakable sexual crimes against a family dependent on his financial generosity.

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Broody supertanker captain Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon) abandons his ship when his sister Sandra (Julie Bataille) calls. Her husband Jacques (Lauren Grevill), who was also Marco’s best friend, has committed suicide. Debts are about to envelop the family business, and Sandra’s daughter Justine (Lola Creton) is in hospital and deeply traumatised by a sexual assault. Marco is informed by Justine’s carer Dr Bethanie (Alex Descas) that she will need corrective surgery so savage was her raping. In the background to the Silvestri family drama is the figure of famous ageing tycoon Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor). Marco takes it upon himself to raise enough money to move into the apartment building where Laporte keeps his mistress Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), and insinuates himself into her life by fixing her son’s bicycle and giving her cigarettes, to begin an elaborate revenge against Laporte…

Claire Denis co-wrote this with her regular writing partner Jean-Pol Fargeau, and it’s impressively cagey and enigmatic for a long portion of its running time of 94 minutes. However, towards the end, you start to feel a sense of terminal drift; that Denis has no real interest in wrapping up what she’s laid out. Echoes of Chinatown and Chandler, in a savage beating of Marco in a hallway from two mysterious assailants, show up Denis’ deliberate vagueness rather than complement it. We are given answers to some questions, at the very death, but they come after events have taken a distinctly Cormac McCarthy turn, which makes the film feel overlong. In some respects Bastards is reminiscent of Only God Forgives, as being easier to admire than to like; and in being in thrall to hypnotic scenes (notably rainfall and cars).

Denis uses silence and sound to great effect, making the pulsing score of Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples startling when it erupts, most notably for a hallucinatory sequence of dangerous driving. Lindon is a fantastically weather-beaten hero, taking no nonsense as he conducts his own vendetta against an untouchable man, by stealing away his mistress. The affair, however, lacks a certain sense of reality as we never understand why Raphaelle would endanger her dependent relationship with Laporte for the doubtful charms of Marco. Subor nicely layers an imperious viciousness with some notes of concern for his son and a greater understanding of the morally muddled situation than the taciturn Bogart of the piece. Creton (so great as a lead in Goodbye First Love) is sadly over-exposed but under-used as the abused Justine, and the laconic understated script never truly plumbs her character.

Denis’ film, especially in its explicit scenes of abuse, but will not be everyone’s taste, but it’s definitely an intriguing take on a neo-noir.

2.75/5

July 11, 2012

Magic Mike

Steven Sodebergh surely claims the crown of hardest working man in Hollywood by directing an odd and moody movie about male strippers, his third film in 10 months…

Channing Tatum’s Mike styles himself an entrepreneur because of his auto detailing and custom furniture businesses. He encounters Adam (Alex Pettyfer) at yet another job, construction, where he has to teach the young slacker how to tile rooves, before running into him again at a nightclub. He uses Adam as a wingman as he entices girls back to Xquisite where, as ‘Magic Mike’, he actually makes his living as lead stripper. When one of the strippers passes out, from taking too much of the refined GHB they use to maintain their energy, Adam is quickly pressed into action and impresses both Mike and his boss Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) is less than impressed that her younger brother, who blew a football scholarship, is now stripping as ‘The Kid’ and Mike starts a charm campaign to win her over even as he mentors Adam in the business.

Tatum is a fine actor when called on, witness Stop Loss, and indeed one of his Stop Loss producers Reid Carolin scripted this version of Tatum’s own chequered past for Nicolas Winding Refn to direct. Tatum’s charismatic as Mike and delivers a tremendous put-down to a banker who refuses him a loan despite all the cash he earns from ‘event management’: “I read the papers. The only ones who are in distress are y’all.” McConaughey is wonderfully sleazy as a riff on Cabaret’s MC, and at one point puts Mike in his place under some harsh lighting which makes you think – as he gets older the menace of that Texan drawl will surely see him create an iconic villain this decade. Sadly Pettfyer fails to make you remotely care about Adam’s fate, suggesting that loathsome villains like his In Time turn are a far better use of his talents than flawed heroes. Cody Horn is far more engaging, her unimpressed visage continually and wordlessly disapproving of Adam and Mike’s antics.

There are odd moments when actors stumble over lines and performances start to fray at the edges towards the end of long takes, which might be attributable to Soderbergh’s new ‘3 takes’ rule, but this film is undone by the writing not the directing. There are some nicely choreographed sequences like the first “It’s Raining Men” dance, but this is an oddly coy film about male stripping, indeed there’s arguably more female nudity, so is this about the degradation of stripping? Brooke hates Adam stripping, but understands the adulation Mike receives is a powerful drug, while still disapproving of his job. Mike is involved with a psychologist (a typically abrasive Olivia Munn) studying the strippers who, especially Matt Bomer (White Collar) and Adam Rodriguez (CSI: Miami), are terrifyingly uncharacterised – a gesture to implicate the cinema audience as only interested in their physique, like the Xquisite audience? At times this feels like a male version of Showgirls or All About Eve. Mostly Showgirls. But mostly this feels like a blank record of excess. Its drug-addled decadence in yellow-filter Tampa rehashes scenes and arcs seen far too often before and is ultimately pointless.

Tatum is very likeable, and the relationship between Mike and Brooke convinces, but once the sense of drift sets in after the entertaining opening it becomes a riptide that strands Magic Mike drowning in inconsequence.

2.5/5

June 27, 2012

Killer Joe

1970s legend William Friedkin teams up with controversial Tony-winning playwright Tracy Letts for a disturbing slice of what might be usefully dubbed Kentucky Fried Noir.

Small-time drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in debt after his estranged mother plunders his cocaine stash. He suggests to his father Anselm (Thomas Haden Church) that they murder her for the insurance money which will be paid to Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple), a plan supported by his father’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon). Bent Dallas cop Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) doubles as a hit-man, but with no money for a deposit he agrees to an unusual retainer – Dottie. But as Joe and Dottie grow close the murderous insurance scam unravels nastily and unpredictably…

It’s no exaggeration to dub this McConaughey’s Drive. From the exaggerated sound of his clicking lighter (not unlike Ryan Goslin’s creaking driving gloves), to his toothpick, to his insistence on rules and calm demeanour while making and executing threats of extreme violence, to his growing attachment to a girl softening his cold exterior, to the superhero outfit (here a fetishised hat, gun and badge), Joe has eerie similarities to Driver and McConaughey gives a revelatory performance. Friedkin may borrow from Refn’s bag of tricks but this is not equally virtuoso film-making. If you’ve read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls you won’t lament Friedkin’s precipitous decline after The French Connection and The Exorcist. His episodes of CSI: LV have probably been viewed by more people than most of his movies since 1973, with the possible exception of the tedious Rules of Engagement.

Killer Joe is all over the shop tonally. There is a piece of visual comedy involving a suit which is hilarious, which, like Joe replying “I like Digger” to the question why he doesn’t arrest the gangster Digger, and Chris being beaten up by Digger’s goons who then inform him “He really likes you”, belongs in another film. You don’t care for a second what happens to Hirsch which makes you realise how Joe’s query of Anselm; “Were you aware of this?” “I’m never aware”; exemplifies the unnerving stupidity of the characters. Friedkin also does for unnecessary female nudity here what he did for unnecessary male nudity in To Live and Die in LA. Temple bares all several times for no very clear reason, and Gershon flashes repeatedly, but the fact that Dottie is clearly not the full shilling makes a scene where Joe makes her strip naked incredibly disturbing. And that’s before we get to the unbelievable use of a “K fry C” chicken wing as part of the intensely theatrical climax in which persistent interrogation cuts thru lies – a bravura sequence that almost redeems previous queasy scenes.

This is a tough watch, and it’s debatable whether it’s really worth the struggle, but McConaughey’s performance erases all his disastrous rom-coms. He’s that good.

2/5

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