Talking Movies

September 5, 2012

Lawless

Director John Hillcoat reunites with his The Proposition screenwriter Nick Cave for another brutally violent piece of period film-making about savage brothers.

Virginia in 1931 finds the real-life Bondurrant brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Jack (Shia LaBeouf), and Howard (Jason Clarke) thriving in the wettest county in Prohibition America. Boardwalk Empire’s bootlegging looks understated by comparison with the Christmas tree appearance at night of this locale as illicit stills fire up to make liquor with the full conniving permission of the local law. A tough federal agent Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives to stamp out bootlegging, or rather restrict it to those who pay off the new and viciously corrupt DA. Local legend Forrest is unwilling to do so, and, being reckoned indestructible, doesn’t think Rakes can force his hand. But when Rakes declares war Maggie (Jessica Chastain), the new waitress at the Bondurrant diner, and Jack’s polio-stricken friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan), as well as Jack’s girlfriend Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) are more vulnerable targets…

John McGahern said that fiction operated under the burden of having to be plausible, when life could be as implausible as it liked because it was real. Despite being based on a true story it is implausibility that sinks this film. What appears to be a huge shock killing, in a scene worthy of The Godfather, transpires to be a truly bizarre refusal to shock. The finale is then marred by the equally unlikely survival of another patently fatal injury. Cave inserts some delightful touches in the soundtrack, listen for the bluegrass version of The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ sound-tracking a bootlegging montage, and his interesting collapsing of time with the new preacher’s flock, who could as easily be a flock from the 1860s, is reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. This film’s problems, however, largely stem from his screenplay.

Lawless is inhabited by ciphers rather than characters. Jason Clarke’s Howard is totally undeveloped, while an oddly-made-up Guy Pearce is underused as a psychotic dandy. Gary Oldman’s gangster Floyd Banner really only has three scenes, as if his sole purpose was to remind us, with a machine-gunning scene and a good rant, that Oldman used to be the crazy villain of choice once. Hardy’s character is given to grunting rather than talking, and, while Hardy actually makes this expressive, it leads to a ridiculously gratuitous scene with Jessica Chastain which feels like a dramatic jump-start for a romance Cave couldn’t be bothered to write. And that’s before the film loses interest in Forrest in favour of young Jack’s attempts to both romance the preacher’s daughter Bertha and outdo Forrest in the bootlegging stakes with the help of his friend Cricket who has an unexpected talent for souping up car engines…

Lawless prioritises unrelenting violence over character development and leaves very good actors trying to flesh out characters the script has left un-nuanced.

2.5/5

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July 25, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Franchise

Shia LaBeouf is done. Michael Bay is done. Transformers as a franchise is not done. But maybe it ought to be…

Whispers (by which I mean the usual incessant briefings by publicists) abound that Jason Statham is about to assume the lead role in the Transformers franchise and take it in ‘a darker direction’. While it’s always nice to see ‘The State’ in action movies, the last thing this franchise needs is to go any darker. It’s positively screaming out for a reboot to the sunnier climes of its original vision. And yes, I am aware that talking of something needing a reboot to capture the halcyon era of four years ago is a new level of preposterousness, but it’s justified. The third act of Transformers 3 is so dark as to resemble Independence Day by way of the back-stabbing betrayals by humans collaborating with exploiting aliens of Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD rather than the fun of 2007’s Transformers. This is amplified by very questionable touch of District 9 in the Deception guns that vaporise flesh so that piles of bones fall to the ground after they shoot people.

Ehren Kruger has written a script that, like his Scream 3 which also featured Patrick Dempsey, is structurally very sound and has any number of nice touches, but which fundamentally strays from the existing tone of the franchise.  Kruger’s rewriting of the space race as a cover story for a covert mission to retrieve an alien artefact, and the meltdown at Chernobyl being a disastrous attempt to utilise that alien technology, works as well as X-Men: First Class’ similar slyness. Patrick Dempsey impresses as two kinds of villain, the romantic rival who has more money and power to impress the girl, and the Quisling of smooth collaboration and self-justificatory villainy. The comedy with Ken Jeong maniacally harassing Sam, John Malkovich chewing scenery as Sam’s eccentric colour-coded boss, and Alan Tudyk freaking out as John Turturro’s unhinged PA is all very funny….but it’s insane; you’re laughing nervously because this doesn’t fit in with the rest of film almost as much as you’re laughing because it’s funny.

Kruger’s comedy is a style of humour which is entirely different from the comedy of the first film which organically grew from the characters around who an action story suddenly took place. This lack of organicism is a problem unwisely highlighted in-camera when Frances McDormand’s spook tells Sam he really has no function in this story, and sure enough Sam later inserts himself into the storyline by sheer perseverance rather than any interior logic. A greater problem is the discordant note struck by Kruger’s approach against Kurtzman and Orci’s template. It’s always embarrassing to remember just how juvenile a director the middle-aged Michael Bay is, but the ogling of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (all low-angle shots and short skirts) is different than that of Megan Fox, because it lacks the nod and wink self-awareness of Kurtzman and Orci’s script. It’s as if Kruger has no interest in semi-apologising for this nonsense. Bay’s lingering introductory shot of Huntington-Whiteley is, fittingly, of her arse, which is what her performance is a load of, to paraphrase Shirley Manson. But this can be forgiven as just Bay being Bay…

What is unforgivable, after the disastrous introduction of so many non-characterised or racially caricatured robots in the last film, is that Kruger doesn’t retrench and try to fully utilise the original Transformers, but instead retains racially caricatured characters and then (like a LOST scripwriter) continues to hoover up yet more new characters. I’ve complained about this before but Kruger here reaches the apotheosis of this franchise’s incomprehension of the riches available in the Transformers comics. Sentinel Prime may be from the comics but so is Shockwave, and he’s outrageously wasted in the film when in the comics he has the most distinctive style of delivery of any Transformer bar Grimlock and is a wonderfully nuanced villain. Kruger’s shocks are effective but the killing of Ironhide is incredibly gimmicky and the weak exits of Starscream and Megatron from the franchise are disgracefully disrespectful to their characters’ status in both the comics and the previous films, and, in Megatron’s case, as tonally wrong as Burton’s Batman dispatching the Joker. But then how Optimus finally deals with Sentinel plainly belongs in a macho action movie for adults, not a sunny blockbuster for children. Characters gushing blood oil, having limbs parts torn off, and their spines CPUs torn out is too much. The darkness makes this film feel loooong…

Transformers was a cartoon series designed to sell toys by creating archetypal characters who had entertaining adventures. The comics injected cod-Shakespearean parallels and ended in traumatic apocalypse but they were also great fun. Surely the film-makers could remember their true target audience and lighten up a bit…

October 6, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

‘Is Greed Good?’ is the new more reflective mantra of Michael Douglas’ corporate monster Gordon Gekko who returns after 23 years for a sequel dissecting the Great Recession.

I’ve previously dubbed Wall Street the film that summed up the 1980s. Its sequel aspires to sum up what the hell just happened to the global economy and largely achieves it. The film opens with an amusing prologue in which Gekko is released from prison in 2001 before fast-forwarding to Wall Street during the early summer of 2008. A flashy dizzying climb up the skyscrapers of NYC after young trader Jacob (Shia LaBeouf) parks his motorbike is reminiscent of David Fincher at his most expansive and signals that Oliver Stone has got his directorial mojo working again. The early scenes of this film, especially a Federal Reserve emergency meeting, are wonderfully crisp and while it doesn’t fulfil that early promise this is undoubtedly Stone’s best film since Nixon. The sense that he’s rejuvenated by revisiting one of his greatest achievements is heightened by his use of David Byrne & Brian Eno, down to reprising at the end Wall Street‘s closing credits song ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)’ by Byrne’s band Talking Heads. Nostalgia also delivers an unexpected and great cameo, although on reflection it seems to reverse the message of Wall Street.

Jacob is our new Bud Fox. He receives an unexpected bonus-cheque from his mentor, Frank Langella in a wonderfully desperate performance, but fails to see the writing on the wall – Langella knows that his venerable investment bank is about to go under as a result of exposure to risky financial instruments that he didn’t really understand. This Lehman Brothers style collapse is connived at by his banking nemesis Bretton James, a wonderfully callous Josh Brolin, and leaves Jacob out for revenge. He is aided in his quest to hold Bretton accountable for the damage caused by his financial manoeuvrings by his prospective father-in-law Gekko. Gekko has returned to the limelight with his book ‘Is Greed Good?’ and has a history with Bretton. He would only have got a year for the insider trading Bud Fox implicated him in but Bretton sold him out on securities fraud and so he got sent down for eight years. This strand of the story is the film’s strong point with Gekko as prophet of doom, delivering a barnstorming lecture dissecting the credit crunch before it happens that is a devastating critique of modern high finance.

The emotional arc of Jacob becoming corrupted as he starts to work for Bretton even as he tries to get his fiancé Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan) to reconcile with her father, who she maintains cannot be trusted, is weaker. This is not the fault of Mulligan, who has one crackling scene of recriminations with Douglas over the death of her brother, but the over-extended screenplay. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is far too long and too cluttered compared to the straightforward morality play of the original. Stone maintains the importance of working at a real job producing tangible results, espoused by Martin Sheen in the original and here applied to Susan Sarandon as Jacob’s deluded mother – stung by the implosion of a real-estate bubble in Florida. Things all work out a bit too neatly here, but if a real job is defined by producing tangible results then Stone has produced an interesting companion piece that is well worth seeing.

3/5

May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Talk about your lucky timing! Indiana Jones 4 is released during Anti-Ageism week, thereby precluding anyone with a sense of decency from making catty remarks about Harrison Ford being too old at 65 to play the role again. As I’m not burdened with a sense of decency it’s just lucky for him that it’s really not an issue in this film. The other great doubt that plagued this movie was that George Lucas was going to destroy our fond memories of the original trilogy just like he did with Star Wars by producing a totally unnecessary, badly written sequel. Well, Spielberg hasn’t let him, by bringing in his own favoured scribe David Koepp to polish Lucas’ story. The film zips along at a breathless pace for 2 gleeful hours before falling apart in a misconceived and distinctly underwhelming finale which fails to do justice to what has gone before, especially the great new villain Col Spalko.

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The first half-hour is utterly superb, setting up the 1957 setting with wit and imagination while paying its respects to the original trilogy. This heady amalgam of ‘pop’ 1950s history from ‘I Like Ike’ to nuclear tensions, rock and roll, McCarthy witch-hunts, Red scares, Roswell conspiracies and teen gangs is impressive stuff and superbly introduces our replacement for the boo hiss Nazis of the 1980s. Meet some comic-book bad guy Soviets led by Cate Blanchett’s distractingly sexy villain Colonel Dr Irina Spalko, sporting a raven black bob hairdo and wielding a very sharp sword.  While many elements feel comfortably familiar there is an odd lack of the trademark squirm-in-your-seat gory moments, and the use of CGI is just painful in places (CGI gophers?!), especially the finale which it completely destroys as one of the joys of Indy’s derring-do was that it always looked somewhat real.

Indiana is dragged to South America by Mutt Williams to search for the missing Professor Oxley (played by an under-used John Hurt) who has reportedly discovered both the titular crystal skull and a mythical lost city which hides an awesome paranormal power sought by psychic weapons researcher Col Spalko. Shia LaBeouf verily astounds as taciturn tough 1950s ‘greaser’ Mutt, a world removed from his usual neurotic persona, while Karen Allen proves a good foil for Indy as his Raiders of the Lost Ark flame Marion Ravenwood – especially in a hilarious scene that combines slapstick with revelations.

The highlight of the film is a lengthy action sequence in the Amazon which is as well orchestrated as any Spielberg has choreographed and features, among other pleasures, a superb swordfight between duellists in separate cars. Crystal Skull can be very silly indeed (there is an unbelievably ludicrous use of a fridge as well as a cringe-worthy CGI heavy Tarzan homage) but it’s all done with such a wild sense of infectious fun that you forgive it all its flaws, such as the completely inconsistent character Ray Winstone is saddled with, until the last 20 minutes….which reveals Lucas’ beloved Maguffin plot device which is as woeful as was feared. This is fun but it never manages to justify resurrecting the franchise after 19 years. Not the disaster you feared then, but not an Indy story so awesome it just had to be told either…

3/5

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