Talking Movies

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.

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February 12, 2015

Ennio Morricone: My Life in Music

Film composer Ennio Morricone belied his 86 years for a sprightly concert conducting some of his most beloved scores in a sold-out Point last Saturday.

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Morricone was conducting the full Czech National Symphony Orchestra, some 86 musicians, backed by the 76 singers of the Kodaly Choir of Debrecen in Hungary. He began with the piano-led title theme from The Untouchables with its unusual wailing brass, before segueing into a suite of rich string-led themes from his last collaboration with director Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in America, and then his lengthy theme for frequent collaborator Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900, which combined lush orchestration with surprising diversions into cabaret and blues to musically recreate the feel of years going by on a cruise ship. Morricone’s fondness for bundling so many themes into one set caused more than a few disruptive moments where the audience determinedly applauded, drowning out the start of the next tune, leading my sometime co-writer John Healy to suspect rhythmic holding patterns in later segues…

Morricone has scored an unreasonable amount of films and TV miniseries, most of them Italian, so he showcased his less familiar work with a selection from the late 60s and early 70s, including H2S and Metti, una sera a cena. Two themes from Love Circle had an unfortunate tendency to lapse into 70s romance pastiche, but Maddalena and The Sicilian Clan were unfamiliar works which stood out; utilising electric guitar and drums gave a rockier feel akin to Lalo Schifrin’s Dirty Harry score, and Sicilian Clan in particular managed to combine romance and menace simultaneously. Morricone’s final pre-interval set showcased his career-defining work with Leone with the slowly building choral and orchestral splendour and jagged guitars of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dynamite, and ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’.

After the interval Morricone unveiled three more sets of themes. Collaborations with directors Tornatore, Brian De Palma, and Gillo Pontecorvo were highlighted in the choice of themes from Cinema Paradiso, Malena, Casualties of War, The Battle of Algiers, and Burn! all. While those scores for Tornatore and De Palma are all about tugging at the heart-strings thru lush strings, the edgier music for Pontecorvo is all about percussion – indeed the ironically joyous ‘Abolisson’ from Burn! was performed with no fewer than five percussionists. Morricone also conducted more scores from obscure Italian films, with the jokey percussion instrumentation and mock-suspense melody of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and the distorted keyboard and jaunty melody of La classes operaia va in paradise particularly noteworthy. Morricone’s final set was inevitably The Mission: ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, ‘Falls’, ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’.

The maestro spoke only thru his music, but his three encores; ‘Here’s to You’, ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’, ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’; said it all. Morricone is one of that select band of composers whose music has escaped the films they were meant to complement to take on a life of their own. Whether it’s the inimitable whistling of Leone’s Wild West or the quasi-sacramental effect of his famous oboe solo Morricone has transcended the medium.

4/5

January 30, 2013

Bullet to the Head

I am not a Walter Hill fan… I venerate The Driver, but was nonplussed by The Warriors, and a recent viewing of the execrable Streets of Fire left me too enraged to review this film reasonably so my sometime co-scriptwriter John Healy, a man who actually likes The Warriors, writes:

Walter Hill fans can rejoice at a return to form, while Stallone fans continue to enjoy the veteran action star’s Indian summer, in this entertaining variation on the buddy-cop formula.

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Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) is a hitman whose latest employer considers him a loose end and tries to have him killed. Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang, Fast Five) plays a New York cop after the man who had his corrupt former partner executed. Thrown together, they tear around New Orleans, chasing down powerful criminals (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and the evergreen Christian Slater) who are protected by a team of elite mercenaries headed up by the apparently unstoppable Keegan (Jason Momoa, Game of Thrones). They agree on the target, but not on the tactics.

Fans of Hill’s work will recognise all the old familiar pieces: the unconventional pairing of cop and criminal (48 Hours), the cop in an unfamiliar city (Red Heat), the exploding cabin in the bayou (Southern Comfort), the standoff with unconventional weapons (Streets of Fire), and the man with an unconventional moral code (pretty much everything he’s ever made). Yes, he’s repeating himself, but Hill is at his best working on variations of his favourite themes, and this is no exception. The references don’t stop there either – anyone who’s seen Once Upon a Time in the West can’t help but see something familiar in the relationship between Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s crippled, money-obsessed kingpin and Momoa’s muscle who cares more about honour. The familiarity is forgiven, however, as the plot ticks along nicely from each well-choreographed action set piece to the next. I’ve never seen New Orleans look better on film. Lloyd Ahern, Hill’s cinematographer of choice for the past 20 years, delivers a crisp, slick look – this is a modern action movie, not a relic of the 1980s. Stallone is comfortable in a role that wouldn’t fit a younger man, and the supporting cast are uniformly good; particularly Momoa, who shows some variation from the near-mute brutes he has made his name playing.

We move then to the negatives. Perhaps the film suffers from one villain too many; as good as Slater is, I’m not sure his character was necessary. Sarah Shahi’s role as Bobo’s daughter is transparently there for three things: romance with Kwan leading to tension between him and Bobo, a late kidnapping to up the stakes, and eye candy for the audience. Each element is executed well, but I resented being introduced to a character whose entire role was so predictable. The violence is a little excessive; not quite to the degree that Tarantino indulges himself, but certainly enough to be distracting at times. To say the dialogue can be expository is to downplay the fact that Kwan’s phone is literally used as an expository device. And, while we’re on dialogue, Bobo’s racist banter with Kwan never comes off quite as well as the same trick did in 48 Hours. I’m not sure if it’s used more, or the delivery just isn’t as good, but it feels a little off at times.

On the whole this is a perfectly good dumb action movie, a notch above most of the dreck dumped in the post-Oscar slots, which can be recommended as a solid 90 minutes’ entertainment. Three stars, with bonus half stars for fans of action movies, Stallone and Hill.

3/5

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