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Posts Tagged ‘Don Cheadle’

Christmas is coming on apace (drop me a line via the comments if you would like my gift wish-list) and I am aware that some people are harder to buy presents for than others. What do you get, as the saying goes, for the person who has everything?

Well, here’s an idea (i.e. a cheap gag is en route) – get them a piece of card with ‘YOU ARE HERE’ written on it, and when they ask you what it is, tell them it is a fabulously rare and precious gift – nothing less than a life-size map of the world!

Oh well, it’s a bit Zen, perhaps, but I like it. I was reminded of this dubious old gag while watching Traffic, a 2000 movie from the peak period of the Steven Soderbergh collective. This was the year in which the Soderberghs managed to get Oscar-nominated twice in the same category (which I would interpret as meaning that at least one loss was guaranteed to be on the cards, but then again I’m not known for looking on the bright side). This is one of the Soderberghs’ most sophisticated and complex movies, as befits its topic – this is a film attempting to deal seriously with the realities of America’s so-called War on Drugs.

Traffic-2001-movie-poster

It’s impossible to deal with a topic this broad and complicated using only a single viewpoint, and the movie doesn’t even try – instead, it has three parallel plotlines, which are only loosely linked, and together they offer a slightly more rounded perspective.

The movie opens with the realities of drug enforcement in Mexico, as careworn cop Benicio del Toro finds himself sucked into the darker side of the struggle with the cartels. Recruited by a high-ranking army officer for some, er, off-the-books work, he finds himself forced to confront the realities of torture and corruption, and the dawning realisation that one of the most active and vicious areas of the entire drugs conflict is the struggle between the various cartels themselves.

Taking place in a more familiar milieu is the story of affluent housewife Catherine Zeta Jones, who doesn’t look too hard at where her husband’s money is coming from. This changes when DEA agent Don Cheadle arrests Miguel Ferrer’s dealer. Ferrer gives up his boss in exchange for immunity, said boss being Zeta Jones’ man. She rapidly find herself not only having to accept her husband’s career choice, but actively involve herself in the business if she’s going to preserve anything of her family and its lifestyle.

Finally, the political angle is considered in a story concerning Michael Douglas’ judge, recruited by the President to head up the War on Drugs. He is, as you’d expect, full of high principles and strong rhetoric, but entirely unprepared for the revelation that his daughter (Erika Christensen) has a serious drugs problem of her own, and her descent into addiction and eventual prostitution compels him to reassess all of his assumptions.

Well, let’s not be under any illusions here: this is a movie featuring numerous mob executions, personal degradation of an intimate kind, torture (both psychological and physical), and very nearly industrial levels of hard drug use. This is not a movie to watch if you’re looking for a relaxing or escapist two and a half hours, as it is a gruelling and fairly demanding watch.

Now, the Soderberghs do their best to make the proceedings accessible – one of their touches is to, effectively, colour-code the three different storylines so you know (broadly speaking) which one you’re watching at any given moment – most of the scenes in the Douglas plotline are tinted a muted blue, while the one set in Mexico is primarily a hellish yellow-orange. This is reasonably helpful, but doesn’t really make any difference to the fact that this is a film attempting to cover an immensely big and complicated topic.

The individual storylines of the main characters are compelling and engaging enough, which is the film’s great strength, but it is also notable for the way in which it refuses to be just a character-based drama or thriller – it insists on addressing the wider issues of the topic. The internecine conflicts of the drugs cartels are just one, as equally under consideration are the effects of drug-related stereotyping on ethnic minorities, the essential futility of everything the DEA, as embodied by Cheadle’s character, are trying to do, and many other issues.

The result is not quite intellectual and sensory overload, but neither is it very far from it. The War on Drugs is a highly complex and potentially controversial topic, surrounded by questions to which there are no easy answers, and by dealing with it so honestly and fully Soderbergh has come up with a film which is highly complex and potentially controversial, full of questions to which there are no easy answers. In this respect it sort of resembles the life-sized map of the world I mentioned earlier.

This should not detract from the impressiveness of Soderbergh’s narrative achievement in making such a sprawling project cohere so well as a piece of storytelling, nor from the strength of the various performances. However, this isn’t a film you would watch for pleasure, nor really for information or a particular perspective on the problem. I think, to be honest, it’s a film you’d watch simply in order to be able to say you’d watched it, and thus capable of discussing it in an informed manner. As sophisticated talking-point movies go, though, it has a lot going for it.

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Ah, it’s the first Marvel movie of the year, summer must be almost upon us. Actually, it looks like being another relatively light season for the company, with only one film on release (although the sequel to Thor is dipping its mighty toe into the hitherto-untested waters of the pre-Christmas blockbuster season). This is, obviously, Iron Man 3 (actually, Iron Man Three if you judge by the title card), written and directed by Shane Black and starring Robert Downey Jr (what are the chances?).

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Now, as always, with any Marvel movie there is one burning question to be answered, and in Iron Man 3‘s case the answer is: yes, it’s worth staying all the way to the end of the credits, provided you’re the kind of person who follows Marvel’s unique franchise-of-franchises. This is their first movie since last summer’s The Avengers, which did rather well for itself both commercially and creatively.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Iron Man 3 has basically been slipped the hospital pass by The Avengers – it can’t have been easy to contemplate following such a huge, colourful, massively popular film. After seeing half a dozen Marvel superheroes ripping up the screen, how can a movie only starring one of them not feel a little disappointing? Hasn’t The Avengers lifted the bar too high for comfort?

Well, Shane Black is obviously a clever man, and the script of this movie suggests he’s aware of this potential problem. As it opens, playboy-billionaire-genius-adventurer Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is struggling to come to terms with his experiences taking on the alien invasion in New York (yes, there are flashbacks, just really short ones) – this is destroying his ability to… well, do whatever he would otherwise be doing, the film is a little vague as to how he actually spends his time when not either wearing the suit or working on it.

However, his attention is grabbed by a reign of terror, responsibility for which is claimed by an enigmatic terrorist warlord known only as the Mandarin (His Imperial Eminence Professor Field-Marshal Sir Ben Kingsley BSC MFI GCHQ). Detonations across the world are causing carnage, but, strangely, no sign of actual explosives has been found at any of the locations. When one of the presumed bombings strikes close to Stark’s home, he issues a public challenge to the Mandarin in person: but it appears his ego may once again have got the better of him, as his adversary’s first response is a full-scale rocket attack which topples Stark’s house into the Pacific Ocean with him inside…

This is just the first act of a very solid bish-bash-bosh action movie structure, which Black deploys with great assuredness: take everything away from the hero so he can show his mettle (thanks, I’m here all week) by building himself back up again in order to sort out the miscreants in an everything-explodes-deafeningly climax. And all this is present and correct, as you’d expect: Marvel are careful to assemble their movies so they at least work on a basic narrative level (and to be fair, none of their films has been an outright stinker so far).

Having said that – well, look, I have an odd issue when it comes to the Iron Man movies, probably because the first time I saw the original film I was living in Puglia and it was dubbed into Italian. I thought it looked pretty good, but the subtleties of the script and performances were really lost on me. When I saw it again in English, my expectations were that much higher, but, coupled to the fact I’d already seen it…

(On the other hand, I feel I should point out that nearly all the films I originally saw in a foreign language felt disappointing when I later caught them in an intelligible form: Iron Man, Quantum of Solace, Star Trek, Watchmen, Crank: High Voltage, and Wolverine. You may with some justification respond that most of those are pretty bad films in any language – but even so…)

Then, Iron Man 2 felt to me like the work of a bunch of people who’d unexpectedly made a massive smash hit and weren’t quite sure what to do next. So I turned up to this one without very great expectations. But, I have to say that I enjoyed Iron Man 3 rather more than either of its predecessors, and as much as the best of the individual Marvel movies. Then again, this is a movie which seems to be dividing audiences – most of the respectable critics seem to have been broadly favourable, while the comics-loving fanbase has in places been venomously hostile towards it: one memorable review I dug up cited its ‘rancid somnolence’, which is a nicely-turned expression even if I don’t see how it applies here.

However, my enjoyment of it is very much based on the fact that it’s not just a standard superhero movie. All the requisite elements are included, with the usual bunch of familiar characters, mostly well-played (Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, and so on), a crash-bang-wallop finale, immaculate CGI, and so on. But on top of this, Black has managed to come up with a storyline which allows Robert Downey Jr to wander through the movie being an unfeasibly witty smart-ass, rattling off inspired one-liners and contending with a bevy of diverse stooges (a small boy who keeps trying to ask him questions about the Avengers, a rather creepy uberfan, and so on). Stark obviously remains a rather more competent protagonist than Harry Lockhart in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but there were still faint echoes to my mind – the movie even opens with Stark as a not-entirely-reliable narrator (who’s he actually narrating to…? Ah…). For me, the success of Iron Man 3 is that it works as a comedy as well as it does as a superhero action film.

Then again, this may be part of the problem for some people. Ben Kingsley’s performance is brilliant, rip-roaring stuff, and indicates to me that he’s a much better sport than his image suggests, but the fact remains that the film’s treatment of the Mandarin is radically different from the way in which most classic comics characters are handled. To say any more would be to spoil a very bold plot twist, but I can imagine how long-term fans of the character might feel a little aggrieved by the way he’s treated – this is probably a key reason why Iron Man 3 is drawing fanboy flak.

Well, I don’t care, I enjoyed it enormously. The timing of the film feels odd – I’m not referring to the fact that a summer movie is set at Christmas (it’s a Shane Black script, that’s practically his trademark), but to the fact that – in some ways – this film would have seemed unexpectedly topical and satirical, had it only been released a mere eight or nine years ago. And the climax suggests a series running out of space in which it can feasibly operate – Iron Man’s capabilities are now so sophisticated and powerful that it’s hard to think of a situation which can seriously threaten him for long.

But these are issues which will have to be addressed by whoever takes up the reins on this particular area of Marveldom – it seems unlikely there’ll be another Iron Man movie this side of Avengers 2, anyway. If so, then at least the character will be heading into his second team outing on a high, because this is a very strong example of the kind of thing Marvel do best.

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Ahh, the cinema is filled with intelligent and thoughtful dramas, clearly aimed at an audience of mature adults – it must be February. I’m not great fan of the Oscars on most levels, but at least the very fact of their existence forces the major studios to invest in this kind of film, if only so they have a chance of making a good showing on gong night itself.

There is a certain protocol involved in getting your film onto the shortlist, with a few options available to you. One of the most popular is to secure the services of one of those performers who appears to be catnip to the Academy: in short, someone who only needs to turn up in front of the camera in order to secure an Oscar nomination. We speak here of the likes of Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks, and so forth. And to this list we can probably add Denzel Washington, who recently picked up his fifth Oscar nomination, for Robert Zemeckis’ Flight.

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Flight is one of those intelligent and thoughtful dramas, sure enough, though something different is perhaps promised by the opening scene, in which a hungover and drugged-up Washington engages in a foul-mouthed squabble with his ex-wife over the phone while Nadine Velazquez wanders back and forth past the camera in the buff. The nudity has been singled out for comment in most of the other reviews of this film that I’ve read, which can’t solely be down to the easiness of Velazquez on the eye: it does smack somewhat of gratuitousness, certainly, and if it’s trying to establish that this is a film for grown-ups there are surely better ways they could have done this.

Anyway, it turns out that Washington is playing someone called Whip Whitaker, who is clearly a functioning alcoholic and substance abuser on a considerable scale. This, I would argue, would be his own business – and possibly that of the people immediately around him – were it not for the fact that he is an airline pilot flying passengers around the USA every day. The film does good work in making the extent of Whitaker’s on-the-job debility quite clear without laying it on with a trowel.

However, on this particular day Whitaker’s physical state is to prove of great significance: the jet he’s piloting experiences serious mechanical failure and, as malfunctioning planes are wont to do, starts heading earthward at an uncomfortable rate. It’s up to Whitaker to try and save the plane and everyone on board. (I don’t think I’m spoiling the film when I reveal that he succeeds.)

There’s a sense in which Flight is being marketed on the strength of the plane-crash sequence, which is fair enough as it is brilliantly executed, visually striking and extremely tense. But it’s all over and done with quite early in what’s a long film, and from that point on this is a much more serious and – sorry – grounded movie.

In fact, it’s not completely unreasonable to suggest that the whole plane crash angle and the legal fallout from it is really just Hollywood sugar sprinkled onto a story to attract a mainstream audience to what might otherwise be a rather heavy and uncommercial addiction drama. The rest of the plot really revolves around Whitaker’s attempts to come to terms with his drinking, in particular. The fact he’s being investigated for his part in the crash (and may be looking at prison time if he’s found to have been drunk in charge of an airliner) raises the stakes on this, certainly, but it’s not the sole or even the largest element of the story.

Nevertheless, this is still an engrossing and intelligent drama, much darker in places than you might expect, and filled with good performances – Washington is superb, fully deserving of his nomination, willing to appear unsympathetic for most of the film, and very capable of acting drunk without being hammy. Don Cheadle plays his lawyer, Bruce Greenwood his union representative, and Kelly Reilly is another addict, this one recovering, with whom Whitaker begins a tentative relationship. All of them are very good indeed, as are most of the supporting cast.

In its closing stages the film perhaps begins to skirt cliché much more frequently than it has previously done, and the inclusion of what’s practically a theological angle feels rather uncertain – the crash is declared an Act of God, the plane clipping a church on the way down is clearly meant to be significant, and there’s a faintly (and presumably intentionally) uncomfortable sequence where Whitaker meets another survivor of the crash who is a devout Christian and insists on praying with him. There’s a touch of melodrama towards the end, with the crash-investigation plot allowing for the easy drama of what’s essentially a courtroom setting, which suits the climax. Possibly I’m just a bit thick, but I didn’t at any point find myself thinking ‘Okay, so this is how it will play out…’ – I was too wrapped up in the story and characters to step back and think about that in too much detail, which has to be a tribute to the quality of the film.

Flight is a seriously-intentioned film and, for the most part, a satisfying one, with enough subtlety and moral ambiguity in its story to engage the viewer. The acting is very strong across the board as well. Probably not ideal as a piece of in-flight entertainment, but very good for any other venue.

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Maybe it’s the time of year, but here at NCJG it feels like a very long time since there’s been a real belter of a new movie to write about. Not that everything recently has been wholly worthless – far from it – but there hasn’t been the kind of film from which you emerge exhilarated, with your belief in the possibilities of cinema rewarded.

Thankfully this has been rectified with the arrival in Oxford (finally) of John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, which is following up a smash-hit release in Ireland with a shamefully limited British run. This is a crime movie centred on a tremendous performance by Brendan Gleeson, an actor perhaps best known for playing supporting parts in much bigger movies like Troy and Gangs of New York.

Gleeson seizes with enormous relish on the role of Gerry Boyle, a sergeant in the Garda of west Ireland. Boyle initially appears to be not much more than a simple country copper, unreconstructed, often crass, bigoted (‘I’m Irish, being racist is part of my culture,’ he explains, when someone objects to this), and laid-back to the point of actual moral degeneracy.

However, when a murdered corpse turns up on his patch, Boyle finds himself involved in the hunt for a group of drug traffickers (led by Liam Cunningham and the increasingly ubiquitous Mark Strong). As a result he is somewhat reluctantly partnered with slick and etiquette-conscious FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). As it becomes increasingly apparent that other Garda members take their corruption rather more seriously than Gerry, the two find themselves increasingly isolated as they close in on their quarry.

It sounds like a fairly routine odd-couple crime thriller, and on one level The Guard delivers this in a very efficient and taut way, albeit with some novelty value due to the Galway setting. However, what turns it into something very special is its tone, which is totally at odds with this: despite being a film about drug smuggling which hinges around a considerable number of deaths, most of them violent, The Guard is more consistently and genuinely funny than most comedies.

Normally I have no time for the lazy reviewer habit of amalgam algebra – you know, describing a film as ‘It’s Groundhog Day meets Murder on the Oriental Express!’ or something ludicrous like that. However, the best description of The Guard I’ve read is something just like this – it’s Father Ted meets Bad Lieutenant. Tight and effective though the story is, the dialogue keeps meandering off in odd directions as characters discuss Russian literature or existential philosophy. Both Boyle himself and the movie ruthlessly undercut and mock any sign of Hollywood posturing from the story or characters. Galway is depicted as a rusticated hinterland populated entirely by oddballs and much of the humour comes from the reactions of unsuspecting outsiders who’ve wandered into this realm and can’t quite believe what they’re seeing and hearing.

Mark Strong is customarily good as a bad-tempered drug baron who resents the poor class of person he meets in the course of his career, but the main foil is Don Cheadle’s character. Cheadle finds an impressive number of different ways of looking gobsmacked at the various pearls of wisdom Gleeson passes on to him, and there’s more than a hint of In the Heat of the Night in the relationship between the two characters. In the end though, he’s very much the straight man and second banana to Brendan Gleeson.

Gleeson turns Boyle into one of the great movie characters of recent years, a fully rounded and believeable – not to mention hugely likeable – figure, despite his various outrageous excesses. The script shows us all sides of the man: his usual cynicism and world-weariness, the integrity buried somewhere deep within, his intelligence (usually masked behind a boorish facade), and his emotions. This latter element is mainly explored through a subplot involving his relationship with his ailing mother, which still manages to be deeply funny as well as moving. (His mother is played by Fionnula Flanagan, who seems to specialise in playing a) mothers and b) people who are either dying or actually dead.) That said, this isn’t a movie which treats human behaviour in a simplistic or mechanical way – we’re left to draw our own conclusions as to why Boyle makes some of the choices he does as the film goes on.

McDonagh’s script effortlessly juggles characters, plot, dialogue, and even genre: at times this film plays like a western, an impression which is helped by Calexico’s twangy score. In the end, though, the sheer quality of the piece transcends this sort of consideration: no matter how you approach it, The Guard is a terrific, hugely impressive movie, stuffed with good performances and pricelessly funny lines and moments, all in the cause of a very solid story. One of the very best films of the year so far.

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