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Posts Tagged ‘Josh Brolin’

Wood floats, death gets you in the end, the total entropy of a closed system can never decrease, and if a movie makes nearly $800 million off a $60 million budget, it’s a rock-solid certainty that there’s going to be a sequel to it. So it proves, with the arrival of Deadpool 2, directed by David Leitch this time around. Why would you sack Tim Miller, the director of the first one (which, as I believe I mentioned, turned a tidy profit)? Well, creative differences, not to put too fine a point on it: especially when those differences were with Ryan Reynolds, who in addition to playing the title role, on this occasion also co-produces and co-writes the movie. Now, Reynolds is another one of those amiable screen presences whom I seldom have a problem with, but it is possible to turn a movie into too much of a star vehicle, and the question is whether that’s happened with this film. (There’s also the question of whether we need yet another Marvel-originated superhero extravaganza featuring a stony-faced Josh Brolin on the rampage, given it’s only about three weeks since the last one demolished all sorts of records, but first things first.)

Various things happen at the start of Deadpool 2 which would probably constitute spoilers if I went into details about them, but let’s just say they leave disfigured mercenary and general super-powered pain in the neck Deadpool (Reynolds) in a bad place, wondering what his role in the world is. Needless to say his old pal Colossus, a nine-foot-tall Russian made of organic steel, has an idea about this: Deadpool should join the X-Men and do his bit to put his powers to responsible use.

Of course, because Deadpool is a violent sociopath who won’t shut up, this plan does not really work out, and Wilson finds himself packed off to mutant prison with a troubled young man who has flamey-zapping powers (I still maintain the single stroke of genius at the heart of the X-Men franchise – or is it just a convenient plot device? – is the fact that ‘mutant genes’ mean you can give just about anyone any conceivable ability without having to justify or rationalise it in any way) and looks up to Deadpool in a way he finds difficult to deal with. There’s also the problem that with his regenerative powers suppressed by the technology of the prison, he’s quite rapidly going to die of terminal cancer. Bummer!

However, things get even worse with the appearance on the scene of Cable (Brolin), a time-travelling cyborg warrior (the comics version of this character is a mutant, but that’s not really made clear here). Cable is here to avert dark events which will afflict the future world from which he hails, which puts Deadpool’s young associate squarely in his sights. Can Deadpool find it in him to become a heroic protector, even if only for a little while?

Well, much like the first one, this is essentially another entry in the X-Men franchise, taking place off in its own peculiar little corner of that universe, with a fairly standard superhero movie storyline made distinctive by a strong element of self-aware comedy. Or, to put it another way, while some parts of this film are genuinely accomplished effects-driven action sequences – there’s a clash between two classic characters that would not be out of place in one of the main sequence X-movies – much of the film is crass, puerile, potentially offensive, and absurd.

This is not necessarily a problem, of course, but the problem is that it is very much like the first one. Encountering a movie doing this kind of knowing and irreverent joke was a genuine novelty when the first Deadpool came out, but the essence of comedy is surprise and the unexpected, and doing the same kind of thing all over again is inevitably going to be a little problematic. Some of the best jokes were even in the trailer – they’re funny the first time you see them, but in the actual movie you’re not surprised by them, you’re waiting for them, so they inevitably have less impact. And you can also really predict the kind of jokes they’re going to do – going in, I was thinking ‘Hmmm, they’re bound to do something at the expense of Logan,’ and so it proves, in practically the very first moments of the film. Elsewhere they do repeat gags from the first film, to notably less effect, and at times the movie does seem to be scrabbling around for ideas – if this is supposed to be a semi-spoof of superheroes, why is the credits sequence a Bond parody?

That’s not to say Deadpool 2 is bereft of laughs – it isn’t, with some of the more comedy-sketch-like scenes proving very funny indeed. Quite wisely, several of the best jokes are held back for the credits sequence. I have to say, though, that for anyone connected with Marvel to be doing jokes at the expense of DC’s frankly wobbly film series just feels like bullying at the moment, even if the jokes are often pretty good ones.

Of course, Deadpool 2 has the same problem as the first one, which is that once you start to get all knowing and self-referential and ironic, it kind of sets the tone for your whole movie – and so it proves here. There are various elements of Deadpool 2‘s plot which deal with grief, and loss, and other ostensibly serious emotions, but they really, really struggle to give these things any real heft or traction, simply because Ryan Reynolds is always winking at the camera and undercutting the whole thing by making jokes about how the budget is so much bigger this time around. Guys, if you’re not going to take this movie seriously – and not taking it seriously is kind of the point of the Deadpool character –  then you can’t really expect the audience to, either.

The film’s big innovation is bringing in Brolin as Cable, another very popular comics character with a quite bafflingly complex back-story. Here he is basically just a slightly more sympathetic version of the Terminator, which doesn’t give Brolin a great deal to work with (the actor has said he found the experience less satisfying than playing Thanos in Infinity War, which doesn’t surprise me). As is the way of things these days, Brolin is under contract to reprise the part in forthcoming movies in this franchise, and it will be interesting to see if he gets more to do then (quite how all this will mesh with Marvel’s masterplan to consolidate their assets and fold the X-Men characters into the Marvel Studios films remains to be seen: a Thanos Vs Cable movie would really give Brolin a chance to shine).

I don’t know, I quite like the X-Men movies even though the formula is starting to show its age a bit. The Deadpool films are a really odd mix of material with wildly different tones and styles, some of which works much, much better than others. This second one already seems to flailing about in search of ways of staying original and funny – it succeeds, but by no means consistently. Much like its protagonist, Deadpool 2 is fun and engaging on a certain level, but it’s also a kind of a scrappy mess. But as long as these films keep making money…

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Is there really any doubt remaining? In ten years, Marvel Studios have risen from nowhere to become the world’s dominant makers of blockbuster entertainment. Once-mighty rival franchises have stuttered, wobbled, and stalled: the Marvel project forges on implacably. Most film series have to operate at full stretch if they produce a movie every year – Marvel are now at the point where they seem comfortably able to release three: having already come up with the year’s most successful film so far (Black Panther, still showing in some cinemas), they now look set to surpass themselves once more, in the form of the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War.

Marvel have opted to release this movie under their Avengers marque, but it is really quite a different kind of film from most they have done before. Josh Brolin (an actor due to spend a hefty chunk of the year kicking super-powered butt, one suspects) plays Thanos, a benevolent cosmic titan who is not afraid to take those difficult decisions and make himself unpopular in the service of the greater good. His current idea is to solve most of the universe’s problems by the simple expedient of removing fifty percent of its population, entirely fairly and completely at random.

To do so he needs to lay his mighty purple hands on the six Infinity Stones, the embodiment of fundamental cosmic forces, and as the film opens he has acquired one from the planet Xandar and is in the process of retrieving another from the refugees late of the destroyed world Asgard, administering an admonitory smack or four to the Asgardian king Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the process.

From here it’s off to Earth, a unique world in that it currently hosts two of the Stones, one being in the amulet of master sorcerer Dr Strange (Cumbersome Bandersnatch) and the other lodged in the head of android superhero Vision (Paul Bettany). The silly little super-people of Earth are currently in disarray, following the falling-out between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Captain America (Chris Evans) a couple of years ago, but the appearance of Thanos and his followers serves to focus their minds rather wonderfully, and there are various skirmishes in New York and Edinburgh.

While this is going on, Thor has hitched a ride with space-going ne’er-do-wells the Guardians of the Galaxy and is intent on exacting vengeance on our hero. Meanwhile, the defenders of the Earth are gathering to make their final stand in the enigmatic African nation of Wakanda, where Captain America’s old friend Bucky has had his old codename of Winter Soldier retired (which makes sense, as there’s no winter in Africa) and taken the new one White Wolf (which doesn’t make sense, as there are no wolves in Africa, either. At least not white ones). Can Thanos get the rest of the stones and save the universe, or will these insect-like pests conspire to drag him down?

(Well, it’s kind of true. One of the startling things about Infinity War is that you can view the film in this way and it still makes a lot of sense; it does seem to be a deliberate choice.)

As I say, this is billed as an Avengers movie but really works as a summation of everything they have been doing for the last ten years and in the previous eighteen movies (well, almost: there are a couple of characters, one of them fairly prominent, who they simply couldn’t squeeze in, even to a movie as big as this). So, as you may have surmised, there are lengthy sequences based around characters from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, while Iron Man spends most of the movie engaged in a snark-off with Dr Strange and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Even by Marvel’s standards, this is a blockbuster on an immense scale, bringing together dozens of characters and half a dozen separate storylines.

So the question is, how can they possibly make it work? At least one of the previous really big Marvel films, Age of Ultron, felt like it was in danger of buckling under its own momentousness. Well, I’m not quite sure how they’ve pulled the trick, but Infinity War really does work – provided you’ve been following along, at least. I can think of no surer way of creating total bafflement than to stick someone uninitiated in front of this film. For the true believer, however, this is a kind of pop opera, spectacular entertainment on an unprecedented scale.

One of the smarter moves of the script is to establish right from the start, in the most emphatic manner imaginable, not just the power of Thanos, but also the movie’s willingness to take a scythe to the ranks of the established characters from these films. It really does seem like no-one is completely safe, no-one has script immunity, and Thanos is a potentially deadly menace to virtually everyone else. (The Avengers and their allies spend most of the movie frantically trying to come up with a way to foil Thanos without having to confront him directly.) This results in a genuinely tense experience: there were various gasps, wails, and cries of ‘Oh no!’ in the screening I attended when one character took a sword to the gut near the end. It’s a scene that makes it clear this movie starts with its intensity and scale already cranked up to 10, and it stays there for most of the following two-and-a-half hours.

The danger, of course, is that audiences will not find themselves swept along by a thrilling adventure, but battered into submission by sheer bombast instead. They manage to avoid this by making a film which is surprisingly light-footed as it shifts between its various plotlines; it also does an exceedingly fine job of capturing that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby alchemy – almost without fail, an absurdly grandiose moment of cosmic spectacle will be neatly followed by a knowing one-liner, somehow offsetting it without undermining it.

Still, you may be thinking, with so many continuing characters, surely someone has to lose out in terms of simple screen time? Well, yes, up to a point this is true – but no-one feels especially ill-served (except for the people who don’t appear at all, anyway), and everyone gets at least one moment to shine. That said, the only character to get much in the way of genuine development is Thanos himself, most of this coming by way of his relationship with his adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). One of the themes of the film is the question of what sacrifices people are prepared to make for the greater good, and Thanos is not exempt from this.

Is this the best movie that Marvel Studios has made to date? Much as I enjoyed Infinity War, I think not: it’s a tremendous ride, not quite like anything I’ve seen before, but the sheer scale of the thing robs it of some of the humanity and emotion that characterise the best films in this series. Perhaps it’s trying to go just a bit too big – there’s at least one unexpected cameo from a returning character which just feels odd rather than a pleasant surprise. The knowledge that there’s another Avengers film out in twelve months will inevitably colour people’s response to the climax of this one, too, well-handled though it is.

It’s difficult to see quite where Marvel can go from here, but the fact that they will be recovering the rights to many other of their most popular characters in the not-too-distant future suggests they will not be short of possibilities. It seems unlikely they can top Infinity War, but then ten years ago even the idea of a film like this one would most likely have been dismissed as absurd. And yet here it is, and it is supremely entertaining stuff. When it comes to this studio, all bets have been off for some time now.

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I am well aware that in respectable film-watching circles it is absolutely unacceptable not to like the Coen brothers. And I can see why: their films are unfailingly soundly made, well-performed, and interesting – often interestingly off-beat, of course. One of the films which impressed me most at the back end of last year, Bridge of Spies, was based on a Coen script. And yet I honestly can’t call myself a fan – there’s something just a bit too arch and mannered, too cerebral, about most of their films, as if they’re little formal exercises in film-making rather than genuine attempts at art or entertainment.

But hey ho. Their films look good and are generally well-liked and promoted, and currently drawing the usual happy critical notices is Hail, Caesar!, a film about (I suppose) the Hollywood studio system in the early 1950s. The central figure is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a very heavily fictionalised version of a real-life studio fixer whose job basically involves managing the complicated and colourful personal lives of movie stars so nothing embarrassing or compromising gets into the papers.

hail-caesar-poster

As the movie opens Mannix is contemplating a move to a lucrative and less-weird job in the aviation industry, but he doesn’t have much time to think about that. In the space of one day, the filming of a major Biblical epic is jeopardised when its star (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Communists, hissy fits ensue when a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) is forcibly inserted into the cast of a serious society drama, a solution must be found for a pregnant-out-of-wedlock swimming-spectacular star (Scarlett Johansson), and so on. Will any or all of these things be resolved to the studio chiefs’ satisfaction?

I suppose this qualifies as another behind-the-scenes-in-classic-Hollywood movie, although all the actors involved are fictional, and the Coens have fun inserting pastiches of various genres which were popular in the 50s into the movie – there’s the titular Hail, Caesar!, which appears to be riffing off movies like The Robe and Quo Vadis, a comedy western, a black-and-white drama, a couple of musicals, and so on. These all seem to be very affectionate, and the attention to detail is (as you’d expect) highly impressive.

And there are also some very funny moments in the movie: one of the best appears (at some length) in one of the trailers, when Ralph Fiennes’ film director tries to coach Ehrenreich’s heroically dim cowboy in one of his line readings, while another concerns a meeting where Mannix has assembled a group of religious experts to ensure his latest Biblical epic will not prove theologically offensive.

A lot of other stuff in this film, however, is more baffling than actually funny – Tilda Swinton appears in a dual role as a pair of identical twin gossip columnists, but quite how this serves the story is never clear. The idea is odd more than anything else. The film is stuffed with little nuggets like this, most of which remain resolutely undeveloped, just as most of the storylines never really seem to go anywhere or connect with each other. The Coens have certainly assembled a great cast, but despite their prominence in the advertising, many of them only appear in one or two scenes each – I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention that this in addition to the people I’ve already mentioned, performers like Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Michael Gambon are also prominent in this film – while making very unexpected cameos are people from (shall we say) different film-making traditions, for example Christopher Lambert and Dolph Lundgren (although Lundgren’s scenes appear to have been very heavily cut down).

The sheer profusion of characters and storylines, together with the period setting, rather put me in mind of Spielberg’s 1941, a far from perfect movie but still one I’m rather fond of. Hail, Caesar! doesn’t have the same kind of irresistible energy or gleeful sense of excess. The appearance of scenes where characters discuss theology and political theory (the movie deals with some of the same ideas as Trumbo, albeit in a totally different style) might lead one to assume that there’s actually some sort of serious theme going on beneath all the sketch-like comic scenes and dance routines, but if so I’ve no idea what it is. The movie ambles along amiably enough for nearly two hours and then it comes to a gentle stop.

This film is unlikely to offend anyone and as a tribute to old-fashioned Hollywood film-making it is amusing and quite charming. But it seems to me that there is very little of substance here, not just thematically but in terms of things as basic as characters and plot. Most importantly, it just isn’t funny enough: you sit there for long stretches thinking ‘hmm, this is a theoretically amusing concept’ but without actually feeling the urge to laugh out loud. Lots of talent – and I mean lots – has gone into making Hail, Caesar!, but there’s a real question mark over whether it actually provides more in the way of entertainment value than any of the corny old films it so cheerfully spoofs. I think there is less to this film than meets the eye.

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In the early Autumn of 2008, a bunch of friends and I decided to spend our day hiking up to the Al-Archa glacier, at the top end of a valley in a national park just outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The hike itself took several hours, through forests, across rock fields, and up hillsides. Pretty soon we were starting to feel the effects of the altitude and later on fatigue became an issue, too. Eventually we reached the bottom of the last slope before the ascent to the glacier itself. And I said no, I’d wait for the others here: maybe I could’ve made it up there, dignity intact, but getting back down? A different matter. I knew I was on the edge of my limitations, and sometimes wisdom is just knowing when to turn back, or at least stay where you are.

This is probably why a film has never been made of my life (something for which I suspect we should all be very grateful), especially not one like Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest, which teaches us… well, a number of things, I suppose. That the tops of mountains are not places for idle mucking about, that once you make a plan you really ought to stick to it, and that it’s all very well trying to be a nice guy, but…

everest

Based on the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster (I don’t think that constitutes a spoiler), the film focuses on an expedition led by Kiwi mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), an experienced climber famous for getting paying clients up to the summit of the world’s highest mountain and bringing them back down safely – a hand holder, in the slightly dismissive estimation of his friend and business rival Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has a more pragmatic view of the trade. Also on the expedition are various characters with their own reasons for wanting to make this most perilous climb, including tough Texan Beck (Josh Brolin).

The most climbing I usually do is walking up the stairs to the balcony seats at the cinema, so simply learning about what it takes to get up Everest would be an engrossing and enlightening experience for me, and to begin with that’s what Everest the movie is. Clarke gives a slightly ominous speech near the start, reminding everyone that the top of Everest is called the death zone for a reason, but for the most part there are only the slightest hints of what is to come: there may be quite a few competing teams looking to reach the summit at the same time, and the weather reports might look slightly iffy, but there’s nothing really to suggest the horrors that follow.

Everest is being advertised as an adventure film, while my landlady suggested it was a disaster film. I don’t really agree with either of those descriptions: for me this is a horror movie, plain and simple, with the mountain itself in the role of the monster, just as capable of killing and horribly mutilating unsuspecting victims as any less-abstract creation. Or suspecting victims, for that matter: the film takes pains to point out the wealth of experience the people on the mountain take with them, only to find themselves utterly at a loss as the blizzard closes in on them. Apart from the weather, the film suggests that a number of factors were to blame for the tragedy, most of them seemingly innocuous taken in isolation. But what emerges most powerfully is that, on Everest, the most basic human foibles – professional rivalry, administrative cock-ups, poor eyesight, one bad judgement call, even basic compassion and sympathy – these are things that can get you killed.

Climbing calamities are good material for movies, especially the real-life kind, and Everest is up there with the best of the genre – for me the gold standard in this sort of thing is still Touching the Void, and initially I thought that Everest, though interestingly and very competently made, was not to the same standard. But the film executes a slow burn, creeping up on you as it introduces its large cast of characters, until things start going horribly wrong and you find yourself gripped and appalled and yet unable to look away.

Kormakur’s handling of a complex, multi-stranded narrative is the really outstanding thing here, but the visual effects are, needless to say, impeccable, and the director is well-served by what’s pretty much an all-star cast: as well as the people I’ve already mentioned, there is solid work by Emily Watson, Sam Worthington, and several other less-well-known names. Keira Knightley plays Rob Hall’s pregnant wife, back home in New Zealand, which to be honest is a fairly thankless role, but even so she makes a decent job of it. And the film also contains a number of moments and sequences that I think I’ll remember for a long time – there’s a moment where the moment, late on, when the Nepalese air force attempt to send a helicopter up to one of the higher camps on Everest in order to evacuate an injured climber, which initially fails simply because the climbers are higher than the vehicle is physically able to fly. Like nothing else, this brings home the sheer scale of the altitudes and dangers involved.

As well as Touching the Void, Everest is already starting to pick up comparisons with Gravity, another film about struggling to survive in an almost definitively hostile environment. To be honest, I’m not sure they have that much in common, and I don’t think Everest is quite up to the standard of that extraordinary film – but it is brilliantly made and assembled. Entertainment is probably not quite the word for it, but it’s still extremely worthwhile viewing.

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Have you ever had that experience when someone or something gives you such a moment of concentrated rapture that it puts you in their power forever after? It doesn’t matter how frustratingly non-rapturous subsequent encounters with said subject is, you are always inclined to cut them some slack simply because, well, you can’t escape that one moment when everything was utterly, obliteratingly perfect.

I’m really starting to feel that way about Paul Thomas Anderson. My big shiny moment with this guy came fifteen years ago, with the release of the extraordinary Magnolia, a film which instantly rocketed onto my list of all-time favourites. (Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve watched it in over a decade: perhaps I’ve just been afraid to discover time has not been kind to it.) That film was enough to make me turn up to practically every Anderson movie since – Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, I’ve been there for all of them, and found myself having to contend with my own bemusement: for all of these films are clearly the work of a master, but a master who seems to be deliberately underperforming.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep coming as long as he keeps filming, because none of these films have actually been anything less than striking and memorable. So it was that I turned up to his latest offering, Inherent Vice, an adaptation of a novel by reclusive American novelist Thomas Pynchon.

inherent vice

Set in Los Angeles in 1970, the story is that of hippy private detective Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (nicknamed thus presumably because he meets clients in the back of a doctor’s surgery), who is played by Joaquin Phoenix. The film opens with him taking on a number of apparently disparate cases: his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) believes her new beau may be in danger of kidnap by his own wife and her lover, a Black Panther hires him to track down a Nazi skinhead who owes him money, and a young widow (Jena Malone) wants him to help confirm her belief that her husband (Owen Wilson) may not be as dead as has been widely advertised. Despite being medicated to the point of semi-consciousness much of the time, Doc sets to work, and discovers strange connections between all three enquiries: namely, a secretive organisation known as the Golden Fang. Between the perils of the cases and the hostility of the local detective (Josh Brolin), will Doc be able to uncover the truth?

Well, normally spoilers would dictate me giving away the ending, but in this case I’m not entirely sure what the ending is. You know how most people don’t remember anything about their lives prior to the age of four or five? I’ve always thought this is because when you’re really young, you’re not aware of what anything around you actually means, so you can’t store it in your memory – in the same way it’s much easier to remember a sentence in English than one in a language which is completely alien to you. Well, in the same way, sort of, my memory of much of the latter stages of Inherent Vice is deeply confuzzled, because past a certain point I had absolutely no clue what was going on. The basic connections of the plot just weren’t there, and I was left with a sequence of scenes in which various characters appeared and had conversations which I almost understood, but which had only tenuous links with the scenes preceding and following them.

A wise friend observed to me that this narrative incoherence is all part of Anderson’s intention for the film, which is to recreate the experience of being deeply stoned without the actual need for pharmaceutical ingestion. I’m not so sure, but it is true that Inherent Vice remains a crazy, distinctive trip. Anderson has assembled his usual excellent cast, including people like Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, and (cameoing) an on-form Eric Roberts, and it’s never actually boring to watch. Phoenix gives another charismatic, hugely likeable performance as Doc, and it’s just a shame that the actual narrative doesn’t live up to those of some other films in the LA private detective genre.

I’m thinking of things like Chinatown and even The Rockford Files (which features an equally amiable anti-hero), but the stoner-on-a-mission plot most recalls The Big Lebowski. This type of story has a noble history, going all the way back to Raymond Chandler, of using the detective genre to say things about the nature of wider society. Much of Inherent Vice is so bizarre and disjointed that it’s hard to tell if it’s attempting to make such a comment: but I suspect the title may be significant. It refers to the extent to which many things are fragile and perishable by their very nature: nearly everything turns to rubbish in the end. It’s a downbeat message for a film which is about characters who mainly seem to be trying to live in the moment. I suppose a further theme is that Doc and his stoner friends, who are despised by ‘respectable’ society, actually have more decency and integrity than the police, businessmen, dentists, and so on. But I am hesitant to claim too many insights, for obvious reasons.

It’s never actually dull to watch, and Anderson displays his usual technical mastery: here he shows a great fondness for the occasional very long take, usually in a two-handed scene. The film is full of wit and incident, and in its early stages is frequently very funny, though it darkens considerably as it goes on, and the ending, to the extent that I understood it at all, seemed rather ambiguous.

Inherent Vice has had some glowing reviews from respectable critics, which means one of three things: a) the press pack contains a detailed synopsis allowing them to follow the plot while watching the film, b) their refined sensibilities allow them to enjoy the cinematography, direction, and so on, without having to worry too much about the story making sense, or c) proper critics are just really, really clever. My money’s on b), to be honest. In any case, I’m reluctant to dismiss this movie out of hand: it has that aura of class about it, for all that the actual narrative is maddeningly obscure, to the point of virtually seeming incoherent. But then again, I’m inherently biased where Paul Thomas Anderson is concerned.

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This early in the New Year, most cinemas are knee-deep either in highbrow Christmas blockbusters still hanging in there, or earnest, serious-minded Oscar contenders trying to build up some momentum ahead of the coming gong season. However, on the principle some people won’t be interested in either of those things, a few unrepentantly basic genre movies have snuck out, as usual. Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad certainly qualifies as one of them, despite the fact that the size of the budget and the calibre of the cast might indicate otherwise.

gangster-squad

This is one of those movies with no discernible ambition to do anything new; its success or failure has nothing to do with innovation and everything to do with the polished assembly of parts you have probably seen before (many times before, in some cases). It’s 1949 and the rising power in the L.A. underworld is a ruthless ex-boxer turned gang boss, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). He has the town in his pocket, thinks he owns enough judges and policemen to make him untouchable, deals ruthlessly with his rivals, and so on.

However, the chief of the LAPD (Nick Nolte) is not about to roll over to this guy and assigns stone-faced veteran cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin doing his Tommy Lee Jones impression again) to bring him down – using whatever tactics the job may require, none of that due process foolishness involved. In a slightly surprising development, O’Mara lets his heavily pregnant wife choose the other members of the team, which may explain why one of them appears to be a wild west gunslinger who’s wandered into the wrong film. O’Mara’s second in command is high-living maverick Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who has a special connection to the case, mainly because he’s knocking off Cohen’s girlfriend (Emma Stone).

And you can probably write the rest for yourself: the Gangster Squad gets off to a shaky start, but soon gets the mob’s attention, things go back and forth for a while, the Squad member who’s basically been walking around with a bullseye on his face all film gets killed in a stakes-raising development, and so on. It is, to be blunt, very formulaic and highly derivative, most obviously from The Untouchables.

Having said that, just because something is formulaic that doesn’t mean it’s incompetent, and the reason cliches exist is because they actually work. Gangster Squad is a professionally assembled film, it looks polished, the characters have something of the coolness they’re clearly supposed to (they all wear fedoras – except the cowboy, who wears a stetson – and smoke like chimneys), and with a cast like this the performances are obviously going to be decent. The action scenes, which are frequent, are well-choreographed, and the plot does grip to some extent even though you nearly always know roughly what’s going to happen.

On the other hand, it would be nice for a film in this kind of hard-boiled genre to go beyond the basic requirements of the form – for instance, it’s such a relentlessly blokey film. There are two proper female characters, O’Mara’s wife and Wooters’ girlfriend. The wife spends most of the film in either the kitchen or the bathroom, tearfully asking her husband not to go off to fight (obviously he doesn’t listen to her, or there’d be no movie). Emma Stone as the girlfriend doesn’t spend the whole movie in bed, but her role is largely decorative and a real waste of her talents. Both roles are secondary to those of the men, and we never really get a sense of them as people in their own right.

Then again, it is 1949, and this is a movie aimed full-bloodedly at a male demographic. Gangster Squad has had its release date shoved back by four months to allow a major sequence to be reshot – the original featured a gunfight in a cinema, which for obvious reasons you can’t really put in an entertainment-minded movie these days. From watching this film, I can deduce that it is considered inappropriate to show people firing guns in a moviehouse, but perfectly okay to depict dozens of people being blown away by submachine guns in any other urban environment. What a curious and somewhat counterintuitive world it is we live in.

This is still a savagely violent film in places – someone gets literally ripped in half very early on – but the director seems, rather slyly, to have front-loaded it to some extent: a lot of the really intensely nasty stuff happens very early on, giving you an instant impression that this is an extremely violent movie, an impression which lingers even after the film calms down a bit. It’s not quite as graphic as it seemed at the time, now I consider it, but this is still a really strong 15 and definitely not for the squeamish.

This isn’t actually a bad film, and perhaps the fact I’ve never really been a particular fan of gangster movies is a factor in my indifference to it. It’s solid enough genre stuff, but the best thing about it is probably the late-40s art direction and costuming. But from the talent involved, you’d be forgiven for expecting something rather more striking.

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Topping up my rental list a while back, I decided to add the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men – not because I’m a particular fan of the Coens, though I’ve never found one of their movies less than diverting, but because this one seemed to have a bit of a reputation about it. (Due to my international jetsetting lifestyle, I missed it on its initial release and indeed for quite a long time kept getting it mixed up with There Will Be Blood, which came out at about the same time.) It also appears to be the film that launched Javier Bardem’s career in Anglophone cinema – and with my ticket for Skyfall already bought, he’s an actor currently on my radar.

The thing with the Coens is that you never know quite what you’re going to get – they’ve done comedies, thrillers, and westerns of all stripes and tones, although a certain offness of beat is usually to be expected. This movie, however, is written and played rather straighter than most of their output, presumably due to its greater fidelity to Cormac McCarthy’s source novel (when asked about the process of adaptation, the Coens revealed that one of them held the book open while the other typed the contents into the script).

Josh Brolin plays Llewellyn Moss, a laconic retired welder living in the southern USA in 1980. By chance he stumbles upon the aftermath of an unsuccessful drug deal: one of the distinguishing features of the drug business is that failed deals tend to involve more spent ammunition and corpses than other areas of industry. Moss discovers a bag with $2 million in it and, perhaps understandably, decides he would quite like to keep it.

However, the owner of the money would also quite like it back and to this end dispatches laconic psychopathic weirdo Anton Chigurh (Bardem, in a deeply unflattering hairstyle somewhat reminiscent of Sonny Bono) to get it back. Chigurh’s chosen implements include a pneumatic bolt-gun and a shotgun with a silencer on it (no, I didn’t know you could do that either); as someone observes, he is not well blessed with a sense of humour, and the sort of hitch-hiker who gives the pursuit a bad name.

Aware of what’s going on is mild-mannered and laconic sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – but Moss is intent on handling matters himself, placing himself in severe peril as Chigurh, another laconic bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) and some peeved Mexican drug-dealers close in on him…

On one level this is unrepentantly a genre movie, though it’s a little unclear quite what the genre in question is. The Coens cheerfully mash together tropes of both the classic western and the contemporary crime thriller, and the results are virtually seamless. The result is a tough, one might almost say macho movie, bloodily violent in places, and mostly populated by hard, laconic men, used to lives of violence. (That said, Kelly Macdonald is rather good – and, to my eyes, almost unrecognisable – as Moss’ wife.) This is a great-looking film with its own rather spartan style: there are long stretches with virtually no dialogue, and the only music in it is diegetic (hey, look at it this way: I’ve given you the opportunity to either feel a sense of smug kinship or learn a new word).

For the majority of its running time this is a taut, engrossing movie, well-directed, with very strong performances from everyone involved. And then… well, I would hate to spoil the ending, even though I found it more baffling than satisfying. There’s – well, it’s not quite a plot twist, but it’s an event that would cause most writing coaches to faint with horror if you were to suggest it. And following this, the remainder of the film becomes much less obviously a thriller or a western, but more a thoughtful and rather oblique meditation on… I’m really not sure. Fate. Responsibility. The nature of justice. The thriller plotline seems to get forgotten about, and so, for that matter, does a conventional ending.

I have to say I was disappointed by the way this film wrapped up, largely because I’d been so impressed with it in its earlier stages: the shift in tone and focus is just a bit too sudden and jarring. I suppose by making what looks like a genre movie you’re putting yourself in thrall to genre conventions, and having done so it’s very difficult to extricate yourself with a great deal of elegance, or indeed in a satisfying way.

Then again, it may be that it’s this very peculiar denouement which is responsible for the tremendous critical acclaim No Country For Old Men received: certainly it’s one of the most garlanded movies of recent years. Certainly, it’s beautifully written, filmed, directed and performed – Bardem is brilliant as a genuinely creepy psycho, and I don’t recall Harrelson ever being better, either – and if I was watching it for the first time on TV and the set blew up around the 90 minute mark I would be incensed, certain I was missing the end of a classic movie. As it is, I don’t know; maybe I will have to watch it again and try to assimilate that final half hour or so properly. I hesitate to call this movie deeply flawed, because that ending is obviously intended to mean something: I just have no idea what it is.

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