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Posts Tagged ‘Michelle Monaghan’

More fun and games courtesy of the DVD rental people – actually, the timing of this isn’t quite as suspect as it possibly looks, partly because a) someone was bound to get sent Shane Black’s 2005 Robert Downey Jr-led movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang the same weekend that Shane Black’s 2013 Robert Downey Jr-led movie went on release and  b) it wasn’t actually me that it got sent to this weekend anyway, they originally sent it a fortnight ago, but the disc was chipped, and so… do you really want or need to hear this stuff? I think no. I think no with a great deal of confidence.

Hmmm. Black, whom you will of course know as the slightly dorky radio operator guy who gets eviscerated in the second act of the original Predator, mainly has a career writing films in which highly-paid movie stars dangle from wires while stuff explodes in the background: the first Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Last Action Hero, and so on. It’s easy to sneer at this kind of movie, but anyone looking a little closer – at Black’s scripts, at least – should easily discern that there is a distinct level of intelligence and wit at work here that makes all the pyrotechnics and to-a-degree-formulaic structuring much more palatable.

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang feels like a film in which Black feels much less constrained by mainstream tropes: not quite a vanity project, but certainly something in a different key. It’s also notable for being a bit of a career milestone for Robert Downey Jr: all-conquering, much-feted superstar presence he may be (and his recent movies have made Marvel Studios in particular a ton of money), but it’s not that long ago that he couldn’t get arrested in Hollyw… well, hang on, famously he could, but that was about all. Landing parts in episodes of Ally McBeal and Elton John videos was about as far as he could be trusted, or so the received wisdom had it.  This was arguably his first real leading role in a long time.

Anyway, Downey Jr plays Harry Lockhart, a small-time crook and all-purpose idiot who has lucked into an audition for a major Hollywood movie through an outrageous twist of fate. As part of the process of being groomed by the movie studio, he is being given ‘private detective lessons’ by established LA investigator Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer, in the closest thing to an acting performance he’s ever been responsible for), also known as Gay Perry because… well, it’s sort of self-explanatory now I consider it.

As well as all of this, Harry also bumps into an old flame (Michelle Monaghan) who buys into his claims of being a PI whole-heartedly, and when her sister is found dead in mysterious circumstances retains him to investigate. This would be less of a problem for Harry and Gay Perry were it not for the fact that a routine surveillance job has led to them witnessing a murder, for which the real killers are enthusiastically attempting to frame them…

The LA setting and convoluted plot instantly recall the hard-boiled pulp fiction of Raymond Chandler, something the film is quite open about: its various acts are subtitled with the names of Chandler novels. The plot is furiously complex and by the mid-section of the film I really had to dig in in order to keep track of who was doing what to whom and why, but in the end it all resolves itself relatively neatly. However, this is not just an exercise in accomplished pastiche – the film works as well as it does by alternating between being a classic LA detective thriller and a tongue-in-cheek parody of the traditions of the genre.

This is a tough trick to pull off, but Black gets away with it with style. For a film to start poking fun at its own shortcomings is usually fairly risky – when Seven Psychopaths, a film not a million miles away from this one in some ways, started making self-conscious jokes about how underwritten its female roles were, the response of many sensible reviewers was to say ‘good gag, but it doesn’t excuse how underwritten the female roles are’. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang manages it, probably because it’s poking fun at its own genre as a whole – and underpinning the gags and commentary is a clever mystery, shot through with moments of real thought and emotion.

It’s still a very funny film, full of bitchy jokes about other movies and actors. In the middle of it is a very sure-footed comic performance from Downey Jr as possibly the most incompetent protagonist in thriller history. He is frequently beaten up and has his testicles electrified; small but vital body parts get severed and eaten by toy dogs; he accidentally urinates on a corpse even in the process of discovering it. Not just that, but he’s equally dire at narrating the movie in which he appears, forgetting to include key scenes and forgetting to narrate vital information (possibly a tip of the hat to The Big Lebowski, another off-the-wall Chandler pastiche). Of course, he comes good and redeems himself in the end, but even the obligatory final shootout is so wry and over-the-top it’s hard to take it completely seriously.

But then the same applies to most of the movie. I enjoyed this a lot, and it has pretty much the complete package as movies go – good performances from the principles, an involving story, a terrific bunch of jokes, and well-executed mise en scene from a confident director. I’m somewhat surprised this film isn’t better known and liked than it is: it’s arguably in the same league as Lebowski and Psychopaths, two cult favourites. Now what, I wonder, would a reteaming of Downey Jr and Black, working with a much bigger budget, look like…?

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‘A cross between Groundhog Day and Murder on the Orient Express.’
 
Oh, good grief. It’s enough to make you swear off CNN (the source of that particular critical gem) for life. Okay, folks, in the wake of all this ‘It’s Bourne meets Inception’ and Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day’ nonsense, that was the final straw. Henceforth if you ever catch me describing a film in such a lazy, mechanical and – honestly – inaccurate way, shout at me, because I’ve had enough.
 
Normally I try and steer clear of other peoples’ opinions when choosing what to see in my weekly trip to the cinema – I mean, if you have any ambition to write film reviews with something like integrity (don’t start) you have to leave your preconceptions and prejudices at the door (not that I’m actually aware of anyone who’s completely successful at this).
 
Here’s the deal. I was put off going to see Duncan Jones’ Source Code by the trailer, which doesn’t do the film any favours. I thought it came across looking like another high-concept middle-budget Phil Dick pastiche, with hefty dollops of stuff derived from other bits of TV and movie SF. And I’ve seen enough of those, ta. This week I was going to see… er… a certain other movie, which had the virtues of at least looking original, and being directed by someone whose previous movies I’ve all really enjoyed (well, I didn’t bother seeing the one about the owls, but…). However. The certain other movie has received unanimously toxic reviews, while everyone’s raving about Source Code. It was time for a change of plan.  

 

In the movie Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a US serviceman who wakes up to find himself on a train in Illinois. But on the train Stevens is not Stevens: his wallet is that of a man named Fentress, and on looking in the mirror he sees a face he doesn’t recognise. It’s as if he’s been teleported into another man’s life without anyone noticing, not even Fentress’s closest friend on the train, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Before he can even make sense of all this, a bomb blows the train apart and kills them both –

– and Stevens finds himself suspended in a dark, but oddly familiar space. A woman in military uniform (Vera Farmiga), under the command of a spiky boffin (Jeffrey Wright), is giving orders to him via a computer screen. Suddenly he find himself waking up on the train again, the events leading up to the bombing replaying inexorably…

And the film continues from there, filling in information about both the train bombing and Stevens’ own predicament as it goes (the latter turns out to be at least as grim as the former). One really shouldn’t say too much about the plot, for fear of spoiling the journey into understanding which is at the heart of this film.

As a piece of proper SF, Source Code’s credentials are dubious at best: as the main scientist on display, Wright’s character is clearly an expert in bafflegab and gobbledegook. The reason it’s called Source Code at all is an aesthetic one – in the context of the story it’s a punchy, slightly mysterious name for a ludicrous piece of pseudo-scientific invention. Retro-Cognitive Psycho-Projectron would probably be a more logical and honest title, but the studio wouldn’t allow them to put that on a poster.

However, as a thriller with a big fantastical high-concept at its heart, Source Code is exemplary. Jones’ control of time and space is excellent: it’s not until after the film that you realise most of the story occurs in only three or four locations, none of them particularly sizeable, and the repeated visits to the train in the minutes before the blast never actually seem repetitive. Were he still around, I think Hitchcock would have relished the challenge of operating within such strictures: and I think he would approve of Jones’ work here.

There are inevitably shades of Groundhog Day here, but only very faint ones. I was put rather more in mind of Jonathan Heap’s 1990 short film 12:01PM (the makers of this film decided not to sue the makers of the more famous movie for plagiarism, so I’m certainly not going to say Groundhog Day ripped it off), in which a man finds himself trapped in a short-period time-loop with no means of escape, and the tone is much harder and darker. Source Code has something of the same quality of an endlessly recurring nightmare, particularly in its middle section.

On the other hand, there are numerous clues in Source Code – some of them obvious, some quite deeply buried – which indicate that the makers consider themselves mainly in debt to the late-80s-early-90s-liberal-angst-a-thon TV series Quantum Leap, although this story is much darker than anything that show ever made.

Source Code’s sources are basically immaterial, anyway, as this film manages to transcend them and become something quite new and original. Comparisons with the likes of Inception strike me as overgenerous – this film isn’t quite so technically dazzling, and it’s not intended to be a puzzle or particularly ambiguous in its ending, and any debates on that subject will almost certainly be the result of people not properly paying attention to the climax.
 
In the end, I’m very happy to have seen Source Code, although it didn’t quite live up to the expectations all those glowing testimonials had given. Had I gone to see it cold, I expect I might be even more impressed than I am. As it is, I think it’s a brilliant exercise in storytelling, well-played and actually quite moving throughout. And I suspect it’s at least twice as smart as most of the films that’ll be released to cinemas this year. Recommended. 

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