Talking Movies

November 16, 2011

Justice

Nicolas Cage gets involved in vigilantism masterminded by an increasingly sinister Guy Pearce but director Roger Donaldson doesn’t tighten the Hitchcockian screws.

Nicolas Cage plays ye typically inspirational English teacher at ye typically deprived inner city high school in New Orleans. He’s married to January Jones’ cellist and plays chess with his principal and good friend Harold Perrineau. And then a rapist brutally attacks Jones, and at the hospital a shaven-headed Guy Pearce approaches Cage with an offer of true justice – in return for owing a small favour at an unspecified date in the future to Pearce’s shadowy organisation. Cage of course soon discovers such favours include not just surveillance or logistics but a murder in return, and, as the net tightens, finds himself running from the police over a murder he didn’t commit, estranged from his wife who’s convinced he’s keeping something from her, and subject to wonderfully justified paranoia as Pearce’s organisation seems to pervade every strata of New Orleans.

Pearce’s introduction recalls Steed offering a hospital surgeon help in avenging his wife’s murder in The Avengers pilot, and Mr Chapel in Vengeance Unlimited offering victims a chance to get even at the cost of a million dollars or a favour, while there’s also a touch of the Twilight Zone in that the person you just killed may not actually have been guilty of anything – but now you sure are. Cage reins in his craziness for the most part but effectively channels his eccentricities into portraying the increasing nerviness of a peaceful man forced into violent confrontation after violent confrontation. This time the bad lieutenant is the always great Xander Berkeley who may be utterly corrupt or perversely honourable somehow. Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter is criminally underused as Jones’ best friend, but Harold Perrineau fares better in another studiedly ambiguous turn.

Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, 13 Days) is a good director experienced in paranoia, but raw material that Hitchcock would have relished exploiting for suspense and black comedy is perfunctorily rushed through. The escalation of Pearce’s machinations invokes Strangers on a Train’s trading of murders to elude detection, and the fact that no one can be trusted, that whistle-blowing journalists, trustworthy cops, anyone at all could suddenly mutter the Edmund Burke derived shibboleth “The hungry rabbit jumps” and reveal themselves to be part of the organisation is prime Hitch. The best wasted set-up is Cage breaking into a newspaper office, and then having to walk through the distribution bay where his face is on every front page… Donaldson instead prioritises shoot-outs, chases and unlikely action-man heroics.

This is solidly entertaining, but feels far longer than its running time. The great high concept so obviously buried in here but failed by the execution honestly just frustrates me too much to give it the 3 stars it probably deserves for about scraping being good.

2/5

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January 28, 2011

2011: Hopes

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In Darkest Night

Ryan Reynolds is Green Lantern, Blake Lively is love interest Carol Ferris, and Mark Strong is renegade alien lantern Sinestro in the biggest gamble of the year. Green Lantern’s ring which allows him to physically project anything he can imagine, but which can’t handle the colour yellow because of the evil Parallax, is the most far-out of the major DC characters; but in the right hands (see the recent resurgence of the comics title by Geoff Johns) he can be majestic. If this movie works it opens up the whole DC Universe for cinematic imaginings. If it fails then Nolan’s Batman swansong and Snyder’s Superman will be the end of DC on film for another decade…

A Knife-Edge

Talking of gambles what about Suckerpunch: can Zack Snyder handle an all-female cast and a PG-13 rating after the flop of his animated movie? The answers provided by his Del Toro like escapade set in a 1950s mental hospital where Vanessa Hudgens and Abbie Cornish escape into a fantasy universe to fight a never-ending war will give hints as to how he’ll handle Lois Lane and the challenge of resurrecting Superman’s cinematic fortunes. Breaking Dawn sees Bill Condon, director of Gods & Monsters, take on the final Twilight book in two movies. Given that the book sounds the epitome of unfilmable on the grounds of utter insanity, it’s a gamble to split it in two when it may make New Moon look competent. On the other hand he may take the Slade/Nelson route of Eclipse and simply play the romance as stark nonsense and be as nasty as he can with what little time for horror is left him after he’s shot Jacob shirtless 20 times. Paul should be a lock: it’s a comedy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. However, they’re not working with Edgar Wright, co-writer and director of their other two movies, but with Greg Mottola, writer/director of Adventureland, and this film was meant to be released last year. Kristen Wiig has a supporting role created for her and Seth Rogen voices the titular slobbish alien with whom Pegg & Frost’s archetypal nerds have daft adventures, but will this be a mish-mash of styles?

A Grand Madness

Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? has had immense success on the festival circuit and seems to confirm that Bad Lieutenant was no one-of, he really has got his feature mojo back.  Michael Shannon stars in a very loose version of a true-life murder case which saw reality and fiction tragically become fatally confused for a young actor appearing in a Greek tragedy. The Tempest sees Julie Taymor takes a break from injuring actors on Broadway to helm another Shakespeare movie. Her last film Across the Universe was misfiring but inspired when it worked, expect something of the same from this. Helen Mirren is Prospera, while Russell Brand’s obvious love of language should see him Fassbender his way through his jester role.

In England’s Green and Pleasant Land

February sees the release of two adaptations of acclaimed English novels. Brighton Rock sees Sam Riley, exceptional as Ian Curtis in 2007’s Control, take on the iconic role of the psychotic gangster Pinkie in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel. This remake updates the action to the 1960s and mods v rockers, with Helen Mirren as the avenging Fury pursuing Pinkie for murdering an innocent man, and rising star Andrea Riseborough as Pinkie’s naive girlfriend. Greene and Terence Rattigan co-wrote the script for the superb Boulting Brothers’ 1947 film, so this version has to live up to the high-water mark of British film noir. Meanwhile Never Let Me Go sees one of the most acclaimed novels of the Zeros get a film treatment from the director of Johnny Cash’s Hurt video. Can Mark Romanek find a visual way to render Kazuo Ishiguro’s dreamy first-person narration of the slow realisation by a group of elite public-school pupils of the sinister purpose of their isolated education? The cast; Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, and Carey Mulligan; represents the cream of young English talent, but replicating the impact of the novel will be difficult.

Empire of the Spielberg

Super 8. I gather it’s about aliens, and monsters, in fact probably alien monsters. In fact really it’s probably Cloverfield: Part II but with Abrams writing and directing instead of producing. Spielberg is producing so it’s safe to say this will be exciting. Whatever it’s about. It’s out in August. The War Horse sees Spielberg breaks his silence after Indy 4 with an adaptation of West End hit which follows a young boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse from being used to drag provisions to the front. Meanwhile with Tintin we get an answer to the question does Peter Jackson still have his directorial mojo? His version of the beloved famous Belgian comic-book has a lot to live up to, not least the uber-faithful TV cartoon adaptations. And can the problem of dead eyes in photo realistic motion capture CGI finally be solved?

The House of M: Part I

Kenneth Branagh’s directorial resurgence sees him helm Thor, his first comic-book blockbuster. Branagh will no doubt coax great performances from Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, but does Chris Hemsworth have the charisma as well as the physique to pull off a Norse God banished to Earth just as Loki decides to invade it? This is a pivotal gamble by Marvel’s in-house studio. If this flops, it puts The Avengers and Iron Man 3 in major difficulties, and it is a worry. Captain America had fantastic storylines in acclaimed comics by Mark Millar and Jeph Loeb in the last decade, but Thor really has no great canonical tale that cries out to be told. Not that those Loeb/Millar ideas will get in the way of a (How I Became) Insert Hero Name approach to the Cap’n. Chris Evans, fresh from dazzling comedic turns in Scott Pilgrim and The Losers, takes on the title role in Captain America: The First Avenger. He will be a likeable hero but it’s almost certain that Hugo Weaving will steal proceedings as Nazi villain The Red Skull. Joe Johnston’s Indiana Jones background should probably guarantee amusing hi-jinks in this 1940s set blockbuster.

The House of M: Part II

Other studios, content to build one franchise at a time around Marvel characters, will unleash two very different comic-book blockbusters. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, fresh from his brush with Herzog, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writers/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his bike is an awesome one. Matthew Vaughn meanwhile helms X-Men: First Class starring James McAvoy as the young Professor X and Talking Movies’ hero Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto. This prequel charts the early days of their friendship and the establishment of Xavier’s Academy, before (according to Mark Millar) a disagreement led to Magneto putting Xavier in a wheelchair. The prospect of Fassbender doing his best Ian McKellen impersonation gives one pause for joy.

Top 10 Films of 2010

(10) Whip It!
Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Ellen Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother’s ideal of beauty pageants by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Filled with sparkling turns from a female comedic ensemble, and some well-choreographed and bone-crunching stunts, the creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, but the third act is pleasingly subversive on two counts.
(9) Avatar
This is closer to the Cameron of Aliens than we could have hoped for. The script appears to have been generated by the same computers as the impressive bespoke special effects but, Worthington aside, the actors sell it well, aided by the fact that Cameron remains a master of emotionally manipulative action sequences; with the 9/11 style destruction of Hometree genuinely upsetting while the final half-hour is pulse-poundingly emotive and well orchestrated.
(8) Kick-Ass
A little gem of ultraviolent comic-book capers from the imagination of Mark Millar this faithfully follows the origin myth template but without PG-13 imposed morality; Batman would be feared by criminals because he acted like Big Daddy, gangsters would react like Mark Strong’s exasperated Don. Matthew Vaughn’s script improves on its source material in mining an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos in the Big Daddy /Hit-Girl relationship.
(7) Let Me In
Matt Reeves follows Cloverfield with an incredible stylistic switch but retains his stark vision. This intimate horror features a number of nail-biting suspense sequences and improves on the Swedish version by making Abby scarier and more manipulative, with Owen more complicit, and by re-instating moral horror into this coming-of-age story. Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more affecting.
(6) Iron Man 2
A fine and very fun film with excellent cleverly counterpointed performances from Downey, Cheadle, Rourke and Rockwell as a consulting villain and a real villain, and a responsible hero and a drunken hero. The first act moves at an insane pace verbally and is full of wonderful comedic touches. So what if Nick Fury solves the plot for Tony Stark, my gripe is with the inconsistent relationship between Pepper and the poorly used Black Widow and the déjà-vu action finale.


(5) Scott Pilgrim Vs the World
The comedy of the year is deliriously nonsensical, filled with joyous touches, played perfectly by the youthful ensemble (aided by insane cameos), and is chockfull of superb visual gags. It is, like Wright’s Hot Fuzz, a bit too long but this is as crazy and original as big studio films get and, like (500) Days of Summer , characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re as fickle as Ramona with men or as shallow/cruel as Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her.
(3) The Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog’s ecstatic madness finally returns to his dramatic features in an examination of the bliss of evil. He drags a barnstorming performance worthy of Klaus Kinksi out of Nicolas Cage and plasters the insanity of his recent documentaries onto what is structurally a solid police procedural, before you add iguanas and drugs, and nonsense, lots of nonsense. This black comedy towers above Ferrara’s portentous original aided by a surprisingly reflective ending.
(3) A Single Man
Colin Firth’s stunning performance is only one of many dazzling elements in a heart-breaking film punctuated by outstanding moments of black comedy and shot with an amazing eye for style, sartorial and visual. Director and co-writer Ford has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships and the crushing nature of bereavement and grief which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines.
(2) The Social Network
The founding of Facebook was played out with amazing scenes, lines, and ideas and gripped like a vice with a constant unnerving tension surrounding the actions of central villain Mark. There were echoes of Fincher past in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ rumbling beats, especially underneath Sean’s first meeting with Mark and Eduardo, and Sean was in a way the Tyler of this tale, whose rejection leaves no happy ending. Sorkin’s script has witty repartee but its emotionally raw opening scene sets the movie’s tone. Favouring Fincher’s pessimism over Sorkin’s optimism makes this an uneasy masterpiece.


(1) Inception
Nolan wins not just for the tremendous redemptive emotional kick the whole movie builds to, when you read the film on its most superficial level where it’s too neat structurally for its own good, but because once you look deeper you realise that this is a puzzle piece worthy of a UCL English graduate; it supports many contradictory readings, none of them definitive. See a loose thread and pull and the garment does not unravel, it changes pattern and remains coherent. ‘Ellen Page’s character is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with DiCaprio’s character is because she’s a therapist hired by the rest of the team to exorcise Mal from his memory… This is a blockbuster rubik’s cube of a caper movie combined with sci-fi thriller, which exploits the ability give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, in order to dazzle both eyes and mind with spectacle, ideas, and meaty drama.

June 2, 2010

Icon: Werner Herzog

Herzog’s dementedly brilliant The Bad Lieutenant is currently in cinemas and another feature My Son What Have Ye Done? is winning acclaim at film festivals, so it’s time for a brief spot of hero-worship of the insane German auteur.

Werner Herzog was born in 1942 and worked in a steel factory to fund his film education. When he was thirteen his family had shared an apartment in Munich with an eccentric actor called Klaus Kinski. Kinski had a small role in For a Few Dollars More but was widely considered impossible to work with. Herzog (who said of Kinski, “I had to domesticate the wild beast”) was thus uniquely positioned to extract performances of grandeur from the actor in the five films they made together. Herzog spent the mid-60s trying to get his award winning feature script Signs of Life off the ground. He had written it in 1964 and in 1967 finally managed to make it with only $20,000 and a stolen 35 mm movie camera. It was released to acclaim in 1968 and his debut established his directorial style. Languidly paced with long takes and dreamy landscape shots it followed the descent into madness of an injured soldier while working as caretaker of a military fortress with his wife on a Greek island. Herzog followed it up with a National Geographic documentary The Flying Doctors of East Africa establishing a pattern of alternating features with documentaries that persists to this day.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) established Herzog as a truly visionary director with an extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography and a talent for exploring states of deep psychological madness in its epic narrative of a Conquistador’s search for El Dorado. Herzog revisited this theme with Fitzcarraldo (1982) which was another story of insanity in the South American rainforests and during which he remarked, “I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum”. Both films benefited from extraordinary performances by Klaus Kinski of whom he said:  “People think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder”. It is alleged that Herzog threatened Kinski with a gun during takes on Fitzcarraldo

Documentaries became Herzog’s mainstay following Kinski’s death in 1990. Herzog’s reputation in that field is immense. He was responsible for forcing Errol Morris, director of 2004’s The Fog of War, to stop talking about it and finally make his documentary debut, the off-beat 1978 pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, with a challenge that Herzog made good on in the 1979 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe… Herzog’s most notable documentaries include 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly and 2005’s Grizzly Man. He also starred in 2004’s Incident at Loch Ness, an uproariously funny mockumentary about Herzog making a film about the phenomenon of Nessie, co-written and directed with X-2 scribe Zak Penn.

While being interviewed about Grizzly Man by Mark Kermode for BBC 2’s Culture Show Herzog was shot live on camera by an air-rifle. Herzog, Kermode and the crew dived for cover and scurried from the Beverly Hills to Herzog’s house to finish the interview. Herzog was remarkably unperturbed, merely muttering “I have been shot at before, but this is the first time I have been shot at in those hills”. Kermode was aghast to discover that Herzog was bleeding having been shot in the stomach by the sniper. Herzog steadfastly refused to go to hospital maintaining, “It is an insignificant wound”, and finished the interview. The morning after the interview was broadcast Joaquin Phoneix revealed Herzog had rescued him from a car wreck. Phoenix overturned his car on a canyon road above Sunset Boulevard after his brakes failed. Phoenix said “I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, ‘Just relax’…I’m saying, ‘I’m fine. I am relaxed’…this head pops inside. And he said, ‘No, you’re not’. And suddenly I said to myself, ‘That’s Werner Herzog’ There’s something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog’s voice. I felt completely fine and safe. I climbed out. I got out of the car and I said, ‘Thank you’, and he was gone”. After such a truly Batman like escapade it was only suitable that Herzog’s next film was with Christian Bale. Rescue Dawn dramatised the true story of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, an account of USAF pilot Dieter Dengler’s attempts to escape from a Vietcong POW camp.

Herzog followed up his highest-profile feature in many years with Encounters at the End of the World, an inspired portrayal of Antarctica’s wildlife and landscape and the oddballs who live there, which was Talking Movies’ pick of 2009. Herzog may well win it and place this year…

May 19, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans

Werner Herzog’s incredibly loose remake of Abel Ferrara’s portentous piece of provocation becomes his first dramatic feature in years to equal the heyday of his collaborations with Klaus Kinski.

Stepping into the shoes of Kinski is the unlikely figure of Knowing star Nicolas Cage, who remembers that he too used to do ‘wild and crazy’ authentically once, and so rediscovers his inner Kinski… The dangerous rescue of a man during Hurricane Katrina leads Terence McDonagh, our ‘hero’ cop, to the titular promotion but also chronic back-pain. The hunch this causes makes him increasingly resemble Kinski’s Aguirre as the film proceeds but McDonagh goes mad on drugs not power, as (like House MD) he soon finds his anaemic painkillers insufficient but instead of trading up to vicodin he trades up to cocaine, heroin and, well, whatever else he can lift from the evidence lock-up room.

There’s actually a surprisingly logical police procedural underpinning all Herzog’s madness. The investigation into a Senegalese family of five murdered by the local drug-lord (Xzibit) is complicated though by McDonagh trying to sort out the escalating problems of his hooker girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), which involves the greatest cameo involving nonsense repetition of one word you will ever see by any actor. McDonagh is also persecuted by Internal Affairs for, um, torturing a frail woman in a nursing home for witness-tampering, the witness being her devoted nurse’s grandson. Cage’s entrance in that scene is startling, shaving while he waves a gun wild-eyed, and the whole scene is jaw-droppingly outrageous but utterly hilarious – as if Sacha Baron Cohen was re-writing a thriller.

Cage’s matter of fact delivery of “I snorted some cocaine but it turned out to be heroin and I have to be in work in an hour” is almost the starting point for the film to go enjoyably and totally off the rails. Herzog lingers on the soul of an alligator observing a traffic accident, plays out an entire scene with iguanas sitting on a coffee table, and shows unnecessary violence being authorised to stop non-corporeal jiving. McDonagh tries to get incriminating evidence on Xzibit’s drug-lord by working for him, and the deadpanning of all concerned as Xzibit’s Big Fate explains his plan for going straight by building condos three years before it’s fashionable, while a dead body is disposed of in the background, is priceless. To gripe, Val Kilmer is under-used as McDonagh’s partner, but the ensemble, including Vondie Curtis Hall’s Captain and Brad Dourif’s long-suffering bookie, are uniformly solid and wisely under-stated opposite Cage’s rampaging.

Cage gives notice that he should be taken seriously again with his best performance in many years, while the ecstatic madness of Werner Herzog which has found full rein in his recent documentaries The White Diamond and Encounters at the End of the World finally returns to his dramatic movies. Essential viewing.

4/5

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