Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

Maybe I’m just a victim of my own self-imposed strictures, but the thin patch this summer seems to be dragging on forever, with the cinemas stuffed with remade regal cats, God-awful life-affirming quasi-musicals, and offerings from middle-aged wunderkind who’ve been pushing the same thing all their career. Seriously, you could have been reading another review looking at Hobbs & Shaw in more detail.

Instead, I found myself making a rare visit to Oxford’s plushest but most expensive cinema in search of something else: which turned out to be Christian Petzold’s Transit, a German film from last year now getting a limited cinema showing in addition to being available as view-on-demand. The film is based on Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel of the same name, which leads to some curious effects, as we shall see.

The protagonist is Georg (Franz Rogowski), a young German man who is in Paris as the film opens – but seriously considering his exit strategy, as the city is occupied and sealed, with many people living in desperate fear of their lives as paramilitary forces round up enemies of the new regime. The disconcerting thing is that we are not in 1940 – this looks very much like the present day, or perhaps the near future.

There is some close order plotting in the early stages of the film: in order to have a chance of escape, Georg agrees to deliver some letters to another refugee, a writer named Weidel. But Weidel has already surrendered to despair and committed suicide, and Georg keeps his personal effects. He seizes on another escape route, travelling in a goods train to Marseilles with an injured man, who dies on the way.

Once in Marseilles, he has to break the sad news to his former companion’s widow and son, and finds himself reluctantly drawn into their struggle for existence. He is also distracted by a mysterious woman (Paula Beer) who keeps approaching him, seeming to know him, only to withdraw. None of it seems to mean much, for there is no way out of the city, and whatever catastrophe is engulfing Europe will reach Marseilles soon as well. It is only when Georg visits the Mexican Consulate to return some of Weidel’s papers that there is a glimmer of hope – the authorities there assume that Georg himself is Weidel, who has already been offered a safe haven in Mexico, assuming he can secure the necessary transit visas from Spain and the USA.

Quite understandably, Georg instantly assumes Weidel’s identity and goes about getting the necessary paperwork to allow him onto the boat. But there is yet another wrinkle. Georg finally gets to know Marie, the mystery woman he keeps seeing, and a tentative sort of romance springs up between them, despite all the various hazards which surround them. She can accompany him on his fake Weidel-visa, but she refuses to contemplate leaving, insisting on waiting for her estranged husband to arrive. Which would be straightforward enough, but then she reveals to Georg her husband’s name…

The most obviously distinctive thing about Transit is that it is a novel about life in Nazi-occupied France which someone has updated to the present day. It’s a little difficult to tell whether Christian Petzold is doing this to make some kind of weighty allegorical point, or simply because the funding wasn’t there to do this as a full-blown costume drama. Certainly, this tale of migrants desperately fleeing Europe does feel uncomfortably topical, and perhaps the idea is to achieve the same kind of effect that Russell T Davies achieved in his TV drama Years and Years recently: compelling the viewer to identify with a refugee and come to understand why they do the desperate things that they do. Nevertheless, the conceit is a qualified success at best – the film has a slightly stylised quality, and awkward questions about why airlines are no longer operating and how Georg is able to pass himself off as an apparently quite famous writer are hand-waved away somewhat.

It’s not as if the film ever really escapes the shadow of its wartime origins – ‘Casablanca as written by Kafka’ is a quote on one of the posters for it, which is a not unreasonable description: there is a lot of fuss about visas and travel papers, riches-to-rags refugees living in fraught desperation, and a strange love triangle at the heart of the story. On the other hand, there are other resonances, too – it’s hard to watch this film and not think of Antonioni’s The Passenger, another tale of a man seeking to obliterate himself by swapping identities with a corpse.

It has to be said that while the film looks quite reserved and conventional, it is shot through with darkness and coloured by the gnawing anxiety felt by the characters as the unarticulated doom that is seemingly overtaking Europe closes in. In a sense, this is a film which is absolutely about the death of the self, whether that be figurative or literal: there is more than one suicide, and it could be argued that all the characters have been torn from their former lives and are existing in a state of limbo, awaiting their eventual fates.

Not the lightest of films, then (indeed, this is the main thing that sets it apart from Casablanca), but it remains a very watchable one, mainly due to a strong set of performances. Transit doesn’t work too hard at putting across a message or allegorical point, which gives some elements of the conclusion a slightly oblique quality – some elements of the story are left up to the viewer to interpret as they see fit. After functioning as a fairly conventional drama, almost a thriller, for most of its length, the ambiguous ending may not be for everyone, but it does suit the film. There is something very thoughtful about this film, and quietly very sad, too. It’s a strange thing to say, but I did find it very engrossing and almost enjoyable to watch, although whether it is a warning from history or a portent of the future is something we will have to find out in the fulness of time.

Read Full Post »

Hindsight is a curious and not always reliable beast. I was at the Stanley Kubrick exhibition in London the other weekend and it only confirms, as though that were needed, his status as one of the most revered film directors in history – one of those handful of people who have been able to combine enormous commercial success with the most exacting artistic standards. After watching a film like 2001 or Barry Lyndon, it’s impossible to conceive of a Kubrick who wasn’t quite certain of his art, or just finding his way behind the camera. You just expect piece after piece of majestic, formal brilliance.

And then Former Next Desk Colleague offered to lend me The Killing, Kubrick’s 1956 movie and the one widely considered to be his mainstream debut. Would you recognise it as a Kubrick movie were his name not in the credits? Probably not, but if you put any two or three of his later movies together and show them to someone not familiar with films, they would be unlikely to instantly recognise them as the work of the same artist.

The film opens with black-and-white, documentary-style footage of a racetrack, over which the credits roll, accompanied by some strident music. It soon becomes clear that we are in a film noir, and one which is being executed with a high degree of formal and technical confidence: the story is told out of chronological order, with some scenes overlapping and being shown from different perspectives. The actual story is simple enough: veteran criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is planning one last big job before he retires (it’s a bit of an old chestnut, but never mind), and to this end he is putting together a team of people to help him rob the racetrack of $2 million (back in 1956, $2 million was probably a lot more than $2 million, too). Amongst those in on the scheme are a corrupt cop (Ted de Corsia), one of the track bartenders (Joe Sawyer), and an unhappily married teller (Elisha Cook Jr).

Naturally, things are never going to go completely to plan in this sort of film and the first problem is that George, the teller, just has to go and tell his wife (Marie Windsor) that he is onto a good thing and will soon have a lot more money. Clay attempts to warn her off, but she persists in telling her lover (Vince Edward), in the hopes that they can somehow help themselves to more than just George’s share of the money. Unaware of all this, Clay continues his preparation for the heist, which include hiring a couple of other men to create diversions for him – a wrestler (Kola Kwariani) and a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey). The plan has multiple stages and relies heavily on precise timing. Given the rather variable quality of the men on his team, can Johnny Clay get away with it?

Well, obviously this is a genre movie – or several different flavours of genre movie, to be precise. Most obviously it’s a heist movie, and sticks relatively close to the formula of introducing the different members of the gang and establishing their special contributions to the undertaking – although Kubrick avoids the scene where the planner runs through exactly what’s supposed to happen in the course of the robbery, preferring to let the viewer find out as it’s going on. It is also unmistakably a kind of film noir – while much of the film takes place in broad daylight, and there isn’t much in the way of visual stylisation, there is certainly a deeply amoral, cynical tone to the story, even perhaps shading over into existential angst as the film nears its conclusion.

Acting honours go Hayden, who is commandingly cool as Johnny Clay, but also to Cook and Windsor as the deeply unhappy couple whose failing relationship turns out to be central to the unravelling plot. I understand that Marie Windsor’s career was apparently impacted by her sheer height, meaning that most Hollywood leads were reluctant to appear with her; well, she is well-cast here with the diminutive Elisha Cook, although you do wonder just how these two got together in the first place.

However, it is the taut and efficient way the story is told which really makes the film distinctive. This is a very good genre movie, but even so you would struggle to recognise that the director would go to be quite as feted as Kubrick eventually was, and there are certainly points which you suspect a more experienced Stanley Kubrick might have handled a little more deftly – the terse voice-over establishing the chronology of the film is a little bit on the nose, and there’s also arguably an issue with Kwariani’s thickly-accented delivery making his lines unintelligible (shades of Tor Johnson in Plan Nine from Outer Space). Still, he makes for an effective heavy (this was Kwariani’s only film – apparently he died, some years later, after single-handedly taking on five much younger men in a street fight).

The film has a slightly slow start, but once the characters are established and the preparations for the heist are under way, it becomes a completely involving thriller, and a deservedly influential one. You can detect elements of The Killing in films as apparently different as Logan Lucky (another tale of a complicated heist at a racetrack), while I’m pretty sure the rubber mask Heath Ledger wears during the opening robbery in The Dark Knight is a homage to the one worn by Sterling Hayden in this film. The most obvious beneficiary, however, is Reservoir Dogs, another cut-up tale of a robbery which goes badly awry amidst mistrust between the thieves, concluding with a significant body-count.

Some would hail Tarantino as a director in Kubrick’s league, although I am not one of them. Once again I find myself obliged to say that while this may be one of Kubrick’s minor works, it is still a film most directors would be extremely proud of. The structure of the script we can certainly credit Kubrick for, even though the dialogue was apparently the work of one Jim Thompson, a crime novelist, and the deftness of the camerawork and cinematography is also clearly down to him. Hindsight is a untrustworthy and deceptive thing, but you would be forgiven for concluding that Kubrick began in the same way he continued: this is a superior, classy movie.

Read Full Post »

A little bit less than a year ago I was approached at work by a former student of mine. It was obvious he had something on his mind and that there was a burning question he was dying to ask me. Although we no longer had a formal relationship of any kind, I am always honoured and happy to help out in this sort of situation, and mentally prepared myself for what would very likely be a perceptive and thoughtful question concerning rarefied details of linguistics, culture and social behaviour. As I suspected, he got straight to the point and asked me the question uppermost in his mind.

‘Why did Dr Strange give Thanos the Time Stone? It’s stupid, it didn’t make any sense.’

Well, we discussed the answer for some time, as you would, but even as we talked I found myself feeling a great sense of pride that my former student still had his priorities straight and that I had placed his feet so firmly on the path of virtue. And so it felt entirely appropriate that we went to the cinema together, this week of all weeks, to enjoy – well, actually, we went to see Neil Jordan’s Greta, as the other film you may be thinking of only opened at midnight and there’s no way I can stay up until 4am on a work night and still function the next day. So it goes.

Still, we had a pretty good time watching Greta, because Neil Jordan is never less than competent as a director – that said, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get from him, as the description ‘eclectic’ barely begins to do justice to his filmography – he’s done fantasy films, thrillers of various stripes, and comedies. His last film, Byzantium, was about pole-dancing vampires, and I still regret not actually going to see it. Hey ho.

Greta is set in New York City and concerns Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young woman working as a waitress in one of the metropolis’ swankier restaurants. She has recently lost her mother and has a somewhat fractious relationship with her pa, both of which are relevant to the plot, as is the fact she is sharing an apartment with her best friend (Maika Monroe). The best friend is brash and somewhat self-interested; Frances is kind and thoughtful. The wisdom of this as a lifestyle choice is thrown into doubt after Frances finds an expensive handbag on the metro one day and resolves to return it to the original owner. This turns out to be Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a pleasant but lonely lady of a certain age. Great’s husband has passed away, her daughter is living abroad, and she doesn’t even have a dog any more. Frances’ sympathies are stirred, to say nothing of the fact she is missing a maternal influence in her life, and the two quickly become close.

And then, of course, because it’s fairly obvious from the start what kind of movie this is and how it’s all going to go, there is the big moment of revelation: while round at Greta’s house, Frances looks in the wrong cupboard and comes across a whole pile of handbags of the same kind she found, each one labelled with the name and phone number of the person who returned it to Greta. But where are these thoughtful people now? What exactly is Greta up to?

I think you would have to be pretty wet behind the ears yourself not to have some idea which way this movie goes, for it is apparent from quite close to the start that this is one of your old-fashioned obsession-themed psycho thrillers, not all that different from the likes of Fatal Attraction, Single White Female or The Resident. Greta doesn’t seem particularly interested in moving the genre on at all; its main innovations are that the traditional bit with a kitchen knife is reimagined to make use of a biscuit cutter, and that it is completely, ravenously, roaringly bonkers. Not particularly in the story, which is standard stuff as I have noted, but in the treatment of it. I was really anticipating something subtle and classy, given Jordan’s involvement, with a long build-up before the onset of the screaming ab-dabs, but the film has other ideas and is really, really keen to get to the proper psycho killer meat of the story. The ominous strings and twitchy smash-cuts are introduced rather abruptly, not to mention quite early on, which means the film has to go further and further out there to maintain its momentum as it continues. I have to say I found the results to be highly entertaining, but the film is preposterous rather than any kind of scary.

Which leads one, of course, to wonder exactly what an actress with the stellar reputation of Isabelle Huppert is doing in this kind of tosh. Huppert is in majestic form and carries off the whole movie effortlessly, bringing a lovely lightness of touch to her role as a frothing maniac: she barely needs to get out of first gear to dominate the film. But still, why is she in it at all? The only explanation is that she feels she needs to raise her Hollywood profile a bit so she can compete for good parts in American films; this is the reason why Nigel Hawthorne made an equally unlikely appearance in Demolition Man, after all. Then again, I suppose there may also be a financial component involved – Laurence Olivier, during that point at the end of his career when he routinely turned up in things like The Boys from Brazil, The Jazz Singer, Dracula, and Clash of the Titans, responded testily to questions as to why he did so many lousy movies with the reply that artistic merit wasn’t the only consideration. Anyway, Huppert is very far from the first class act to slum it in dodgy genre fare, and it’s not as if she’s alone here – Chloe Grace Moretz is also a feted performer (not so much for her recent work, admittedly), and she does good work here too. Also, just to make sure everyone is certain this is a Neil Jordan film, his regular collaborator Stephen Rea turns up in a small role; students of film history will understand what I mean when I say that Rea is in the Martin Balsam part.

As I say, I enjoyed the ridiculous extremity of Greta more than anything else, because there’s little substantially new about this film, and Jordan really only does a workmanlike job as the director – there’s an interesting sequence where the boundaries between reality and fantasy seem to start breaking down, but this doesn’t really go anywhere. But the movie is worth seeing even if it’s just for the sight of classy actors having fun; by that same token, of course, I have to say that if this film had been made with a less distinguished cast, it would almost certainly have gone straight to DVD.

Read Full Post »

Every now and then one comes across something which is a coincidence, or a sign that there are things going on in the world which one would not have expected: to wit, someone in the scheduling department at a high-numbers TV channel having either a fairly black sense of humour or fringe political views. These are the only two possible explanations for the decision to show Franklin J Schaffner’s 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil on April 20th; for this is a movie about Nazism and the date is the most significant one on any observant Nazi’s calendar. I enjoy a dubious gag as much as anyone, and probably more than most, but I find I am still crossing my fingers and hoping this was a coincidence.

Based on one of Ira Levin’s pulpy shockers, The Boys from Brazil is Lew Grade and ITC Entertainment’s answer to The Omen, which came out a couple of years earlier. One should add the important proviso that in this case the answer is close but not quite right, but at least the film-makers’ working-out is fairly obvious: take a somewhat ludicrous conspiracy thriller, prominently featuring ominous children, add Gregory Peck, various other distinguished actors, and a lavish budget, season with a little spectacular gore here and there, and away you go.

Did I say distinguished actors? One of the first well-known faces to make an appearance is that of Steve Guttenberg, who was still a semi-serious actor at this point in time (he was only 20). Guttenberg plays Barry Kohler, a young Jewish Nazi-hunter who as the story starts is monitoring the activities of various war criminals in Paraguay (James Mason and various character actors play the roles of the Nazis; Portugal plays the role of Paraguay). Who should turn up to preside over the get-together but Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck), Auschwitz’s own Angel of Death? (Yeah, yeah, I know; we’re going to talk about this, I promise.) Mengele is here to launch the next stage of a project which has been long in the works, and dispatches a squad of ruthless Nazi killers to assassinate 94 men across Europe and America; all of them are 65-year-old civil servants of different kinds (and, based on the ones we see, most of them are other well-known character actors: there’s Michael Gough, not to mention Richard Marner from Allo Allo! and Alternative 3).

Well, it turns out that Steve Guttenberg is not yet old or famous enough to make it out of the opening section of the film in one piece, and so he passes on his notes to a more distinguished Nazi hunter who provides the necessary investigating and moral outrage for the rest of the film. Yes, it’s Lord Olivier, not exactly underplaying it as relentless sleuth Ezra Lieberman (Larry seems to be practising for his Razzie Award-winning turn in The Jazz Singer), who persuades an old friend in the media (Denholm Elliott, another of those cameos that these ITC movies tend to be stuffed with) to send him details of any 65-year-old men who meet an untimely death in Europe or America. Verily, the mind doth boggle, but I suppose things were like that in the days before search engines. Credulity is stretched to its absolute limit as this actually leads Olivier to the families of three of Peck’s victims, who seem to have little in common beyond their ages, jobs, much younger wives, and freakishly identical adopted teenage sons – hang on just a cotton-picking minute here…!

There’s probably a productive discussion to be had about which is in more dubious taste, The Omen or The Boys from Brazil – I suppose it depends on whether you’re more prone to be offended by theological horror or real-world extremism. Beyond-hope materialist that I am, I’m always inclined to dismiss the various Omen films as knockabout camp of varying quality, whereas this one, for all that I do find it rather enjoyable, is arguably well over the border and into the realms of the deeply questionable. I’ve written in the past about the mini-boom in the mid-to-late 1970s for films and TV episodes concerning some kind of Nazi revival, usually centred on a resuscitated Hitler, and on that level there’s nothing particularly unusual about Boys from Brazil‘s scheme to bring back the Fuhrer. What really topples the film over into the realms of the arguably suspect is the decision to make the antagonist Mengele himself. Mengele, it is worth considering, was a real historical figure, responsible for appalling atrocities carried out in the name of science, and – and here it is only right to switch into italics – he was still alive when this movie was made. He could potentially have seen this film; God knows what he would have made of it. Regardless, turning him into a supervillain for a slightly cartoony thriller is arguably a horrible misstep, regardless of what kind of performance Gregory Peck gives (suffice to say that Peck, like Olivier, appears to have carved himself off a thick slice of ham).

The odd thing is that for an arguably nasty schlock horror-thriller, The Boys from Brazil has got some interesting ideas going on under the surface. Whatever else you want to say about it, this was one of the first mainstream movies to be based on the premise of human cloning, which may be why the sequence explaining what cloning – or ‘mononuclear reproduction’ – is goes into such detail. (It is perhaps slightly ironic that the role of the scientist who has to explain the origin of the film’s legion of cloned Hitlers is given to Bruno Ganz, who later played the dictator in Downfall.) The film even has some interesting notions about the whole nature versus nurture debate: the plot is predicated on the idea that the second-generation Hitlers won’t automatically grow up with the same sparkling personality and interesting political views as their progenitor, and so Mengele is attempting to recreate the circumstances of Hitler’s own life and family background. It makes marginally more sense than your typical SF film about clones, I suppose, as duplicates normally grow up indistinguishable from the original without any intervention whatsoever (that, or they’re irredeemably evil) – but how exactly is this going to work? How is Mengele going to give the Hitler clones the experience of fighting in and losing the First World War when they hit their late twenties? What’s the objective here? Wouldn’t it be easier just to have a dozen or so young Hitlers and have them specially educated – indoctrinated, if you like – in secret, for whatever role Mengele and his associates have in mind? Unless the idea is for a crop of new young extremist demagogues from ordinary backgrounds to appear and revolutionise the politics of the west in the early 21st century? Won’t people notice they all look the same? Especially if any of them decides that a moustache would be a good look…

Of course, this is not the only Levin tale with a plot that doesn’t really stand up to serious scrutiny, and as usual the film keeps it together, mainly thanks to the febrile outrageousness of its ideas, put across with a mostly straight face. This is a preposterous story, not just because of the cloning idea but also the contrivances required to make it function, but Peck and Olivier really go for it. One could regret the fact that the film doesn’t explore some of the more intriguing ideas arising from its premise as much as it could – are the clones really destined to become as monstrously evil as their forebear? To what extent can they be held morally culpable for the original Hitler’s actions? – and there is no genuine doubt that this is a Bad Movie, and a bad movie in really suspect taste, too. But nevertheless, I kind of enjoy it for its sheer demented conviction, the fact it makes so many barely-credible errors of judgement, and – more seriously – the way it does manage to smuggle high-concept SF ideas into an apparently mainstream thriller. This film is surely a guilty pleasure at best, but the pleasure is as genuine as the guilt.

Read Full Post »

Where do I begin with Carol Morley’s Out of Blue? Let’s get that title out of way, to begin with. That is not one of typos to which all flesh is occasionally prey, as a quick glance at poster below will confirm: movie really is called Out of Blue. But why? It is based on a novel by Martin Amis, which was titled Night Train; just why Morley has decided on retitling of it is by no means clear (one of many things about this film which is fuzzy, to say least). What does Out of Blue even mean? I don’t know. Omission of the definite article must be significant on some level: I wouldn’t mind having a bit of significance to blog, which is why this particular piece will be an experiment in not including definite articles too (hopefully we won’t be required to discuss Matt Johnson’s well-known post-punk band, as that could get a bit tricky).

Basic plot of Out of Blue proceeds something like this: Patricia Clarkson is arguably cast somewhat against type as veteran New Orleans PD homicide detective Mike Hoolihan. Early in film she is assigned to a new case: body of a young female astronomer is found, dead from a gunshot wound. Her enquiries initially focus on dead woman’s colleagues, mainly Toby Jones and Aaron Tveit, but eventually move on to her family, a secretive and wealthy bunch led by patriarch James Caan and his wife Jacki Weaver. However, as investigation proceeds, Hoolihan discovers similarities with a series of unsolved killings committed by a serial killer decades earlier. Hoolihan finds herself becoming obsessed with discovering truth of case, even if it means having to grapple with her own personal demons.

When you distill it down like that, plot of Out of Blue sounds like that of fairly straightforward police procedural movie, and I suppose that on some level it operates as such. However, this is a very deep and well-concealed level, because no-one (I would imagine) is coming out of a screening of this film saying ‘Hmmm, that was a fairly straightforward police procedural movie’: critics are using words like incoherent and silly, and likening film to a clown car, while general audiences… I don’t know, but there were only three people at screening I attended, and I had to battle quite hard to stay focused on it; film is that unengaging.

As I say, film is based on Martin Amis’ novel Night Train, which I am not familiar with. Given that we have already discussed hereabouts dismal nature of certain elements of Amis’ career as originator of genre movies, my natural inclination would be to blame him – but on this occasion it seems that master of absurd grotesqueness is off hook, as his novel has been very freely adapted for silver screen. There seem to be some vague similarities of plot and theme, but also some very significant differences on many levels, particularly when it comes to serial killer storyline (wholly new, as far as my very limited research can discern).

So Carol Morley is clearly up to something beyond simply adapting Amis, problem is trying to figure out what this is. Obviously on one level film is trying to work as a piece of genre cinema, adopting familiar form of a very slightly noir-ish police procedural detective story – there are various suspects, and odd twists, and revelations, and  so on. Then again, there are also signs of it attempting to function as a kind of character piece: Clarkson is giving a very intense central performance and she’s in virtually every scene. Finally, there is way film appears to be grasping for some kind of profundity or resonance by exploring deep metaphysical and philosophical themes. There are various allusions to astronomy and astrophysics, and scenes where characters sit around having po-faced discussions about Schroedinger’s cat (at one point they even put a cat in a box as a kind of visual aid for the hard-of-thinking, just in case any of audience couldn’t quite grasp concept).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this in principle – when this sort of idea is executed correctly, it can give heft to an otherwise lightweight genre film and provide big ideas with a way of reaching a mainstream audience. The problem is that Out of Blue fluffs the police procedural aspect so badly that deep thoughts about nature of universe just feel incongruous – and, to be honest, hopelessly pretentious. Or, to put it another way, thriller angle is handled in such a clumsily mannered way that it provides no comforting context for more outre aspects of the movie to embed themselves in. You do almost wonder if there is an element of send-up going on here, so hackneyed is background given to Clarkson’s character – she’s a dedicated, brilliant cop with a history of psychological troubles and a drink problem, and so on, but film is almost totally lacking in humour or warmth. Patricia Clarkson is a fine actress, but she seems all at sea here, the script requiring her to do some fairly ridiculous things before story concludes.

In a way I am almost reminded of Paul Anderson’s Inherent Vice, another peculiar crime thriller with a notably impossible-to-follow storyline. There is a school of thought that actual plot of Inherent Vice is secondary to it giving you experience of what it feels like to be high on drugs: you just sort of drift mellowly from moment to moment as things occur in front of you. In a similar way, I suppose that Out of Blue would make much more sense if it was actually intended to make share experiences of someone undergoing a psychological breakdown – nothing seems to make sense, things seem to occur for no particular motivation, and so on. Alas, I have seen nothing to suggest this is actually case, but film certainly seemed to be giving me sense that I was drifting in and out of consciousness (of course, there is always the possibility that I genuinely was drifting in and out of consciousness – one should never rule this out at a matinee in the middle of a heavy week).

Very seldom does an English-language movie, especially a genre movie, fail to connect with me quite as completely as Out of Blue did, but I do note that Mark Kermode has seen it three times and found something new to enjoy on each occasion, while film’s publicists have managed to find people apparently willing to describe the film as ‘dazzling’, ‘thrilling’, and ‘mesmerising’ – although I note they are picking single words and using them out of context. Only one of those I would even come close to agreeing with is last one, and this is one trance I was very happy to wake up from.

Read Full Post »

There were just under two hours left before we landed at Heathrow, which I reckoned should give me just enough time to enjoy, or not, Peter Berg’s Mile 22, a thriller starring Marky Mark Wahlberg. Berg and Marky Mark have forged a bit of a partnership in recent years, mostly doing based-on-a-real-life-disaster movies like Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, although I have to say I much prefer his earlier, sillier films like The Rundown and Hancock. My main interest in Mile 22 stemmed not from the involvement of Berg, nor indeed Wahlberg (who I find I can really take or leave as a performer), but that of Iko Uwais, a brilliant Indonesian actor and martial artist who starred in the Raid duology (he was also in one of the stellar conflict movies for about three seconds, but let’s not worry about that). Any film where Uwais gets to do his stuff has a claim on my attention, even when that film gets unfriendly (and that’s putting it charitably!) notices from legitimate film critics.

(Checking out Mile 22 on the in-flight information system, I was startled to find the entry on this movie ran something like ‘Critics have said very unkind things about Mile 22, but these are the same people who didn’t like The Greatest Showman – so why not give it a try?’ I’m all for people being encouraged to make their own minds up, but on the other hand it doesn’t necessarily follow that The Greatest Showman is not, by any rational standard, a massive cheesy wotsit. It didn’t put me in the best of moods, anyway.)

Hey ho. Anyway, the film gets underway with some shadowy American coves, led by Marky Mark, undertaking a secret operation against – so far as I have been able to find out – some Russian spies operating on the US mainland. (This is one of those films which attempts to generate verisimilitude by having the characters rattle out their dialogue in a very terse fashion, and it’s probably not the best movie to listen to over headphones on a crowded plane, even in the wee small hours around dawn.) Things do not go as planned, but for quite a long time it is really not clear what this has to do with the rest of the plot.

This takes place in the fictitious Asian nation of Indocarr, where some radioactive terror dust has gone missing, and the American government would quite like to get it back before people start melting in the street (at least this is what it’s suggested will happen). Marky Mark, who is playing a version of that character whose brilliant brain function excuses the fact he is somewhat sociopathic, is on the job, and it is made clear to us at some length what a tough job it is keeping Uncle US of Stateside safe. Hey ho.

Anyway, up pops Iwo Uwais playing Li Noor, a rogue cop who knows where the terror dust McGuffins are to be found, but will only reveal the information if he is whisked off to the airport (35.4 kilometres away) and given political asylum in the States. The US government isn’t technically allowed to do this sort of thing under the usual international conventions, and so they activate Marky Mark and his team of plausibly deniable agents, who will theoretically be private citizens for the duration of the mission. Also on the team is Lauren Cohan, playing an agent with a challenging personal life, and Ronda Rousey, playing an agent who can clearly bench-press a lot (finely-drawn characterisation isn’t really Mile 22‘s strong point). Shouting at everyone over the radio is John Malkovich. Off they go in their SUVs, and before long an awful lot of people are shooting at them. This makes up the plot of most of the rest of the film.

Hey, you know what? The Greatest Showman is still a massive cheesy wotsit and this film isn’t much cop either. (I should point out that they are very different beasts and even if you are one of those people who thought that Hugh Jackman organising a diversity barn dance was a profoundly uplifting emotional experience, you still probably won’t enjoy Mile 22.)

I remember the critic and commentator Mark Lawson making the observation that when it really boils down to it, there are two kinds of entertainment: Escapist, which attempts to help you forget how awful the world fundamentally is, and Reminder, which grinds your face into the dismal grit of reality. One of the worst mistakes you can make as a storyteller, he suggested, is to be at all unclear on this point, or be under the impression that you’re doing one when you’re really doing the other.

This is the problem with Mile 22. It has a nice high-concept premise to it – team of guys must transport other guy they don’t particularly trust through hostile urban territory – and basically has cheesy knockabout thriller written all over it. Two prominent characters are played by performers with a martial-arts background, after all. However, after all those gravitas-laden true-life stories, it seems that Berg and Marky Mark have no real interest in doing cheesy crowd-pleasing stuff: they are Serious Film-makers now, even if they are now making a film in which Iko Uwais beats three armed opponents to death in his pants.

Thus, that high-concept premises vanishes under a slew of dour, improbable plot-twists, downbeat character bits, and general complications that just make the film less fun to watch. We’re quite a long way into Mile 22 before they start going those twenty-two miles, and the stuff before that is not especially interesting.

It has to be said that the actual twenty-two miles themselves are not much better, mainly because Berg seems to be one of those people who thinks that the secret of a great action sequence is to cut between cameras every three seconds. This is good for generating incipient nausea, but not so good when it comes to tension and excitement. Needless to say, it favours the actors over the martial artists and stuntmen – what’s the point of hiring someone like Uwais if you never show what he’s capable of doing? (That said, Iko Uwais does deliver an impressive English-language acting performance, though I’m not sure the film is worth watching just for this.)

In the end it is just a frustrating and depressing experience, not just because of the tone of the story, but because it feels like you’re watching people with genuine talent actively setting out to make a bad movie on purpose. And you just wonder what the point of the exercise is, unless this is all supposed to be setting up a sequel. Even if it is, I can’t imagine many people feeling sufficiently motivated to come along and check it out. This is pretty much a thorough-going dud.

Read Full Post »

Normally nothing makes people in the film industry happier than when there is a buzz around their new movie and everyone is talking breathlessly about it. Occasionally, however, something comes along which really tests that old saw about there being no such thing as bad publicity.

The most startling example of this in recent years was Liam Neeson’s recent performance on the press tour for his new movie Cold Pursuit, directed by Hans Petter Moland. Neeson has enjoyed something of a career resurgence in recent years playing the protagonists of action movies centred on characters who tend to be approaching pensionable age, but who don’t let this stop them going on roaring rampages of revenge. Cold Pursuit is really an addition to this odd subgenre, and (in case you’ve been on a desert island) Neeson decided to share his own experiences of the corrosive effect of the urge for vengeance, cheerfully regaling his interviewer with the story of how, following the rape of a friend by an unidentified black man, he wandered the streets of Belfast hoping to be provoked by someone of that ethnicity so he could justifiably beat them to death.

Unsurprisingly, this was not greeted as the sign of insight and mature self-awareness that Neeson clearly thought it to be, and the poo-storm of disbelieving outrage which ensued has really eclipsed Cold Pursuit‘s merits as a film, whatever they may be. However, this is still by some metric a thriller, and where there is a thriller in the cinema, you will most likely find me and Olinka, sooner or later. Is the film as dodgy as Neeson’s attempts to promote it, or is the unfair victim of its star’s poor judgement?

Neeson plays Nelson Coxman, unassuming snowplough driver in the resort town of Kehoe, Colorado, who as the film starts is a loving father and husband and recipient of the town’s Citizen of the Year award. You just know that when someone starts a film by being dull and civic-minded, they are not going to stay that way, and so it proves. Coxman’s son turns up dead of a heroin overdose and he and his wife (Laura Dern) are knocked sidewise, unable to believe they knew their child so little. Struggling to come to terms, Neeson retires to the garage to blow his own head off.

However, he is stopped by the appearance of a friend of his son who reveals he was murdered on the orders of the local drug baron, Viking (Tom Bateman). This at least gives Neeson a focus for his negative emotions and soon he is carving a swathe through the lower echelons of Viking’s organisation and hoping to get a shot at the top man. Killing drug dealers tends to come with consequences, however, and Viking and his lieutenants jump to the wrong conclusion, assuming that a rival gang of Native American drug dealers are responsible. Soon a bloody turf war is in progress and threatening to spin out of control…

A friend of mine was recently, and somewhat improbably given his image as a thoughtful and humane family man, outed as a bit of a fan of the whole Liam Neeson revenge-thriller genre, and seemed genuinely disappointed when his schedule meant that he couldn’t come to see Cold Pursuit with Olinka and me. I am not entirely sure this film would have been his cup of tea, though: the opening at least is deeply suspect, with an awful, grating uncertainty of tone – in part a dour, uncompromisingly downbeat drama about loss and grief (shades of In the Bedroom) and the couple struggling to deal with the loss of their boy, and partly a gruesome, graphically violent revenge-thriller.

In the end, however, a third style becomes dominant. This is an American remake of a Scandi drama from a few years ago, and you can still discern traces of that in the setting of the film and its humour (I was going to call it a black comedy, but in the circumstances I think it’s best to steer clear of that sort of language). Most of all it resembles a pastiche of the kind of films that the McDonagh brothers have been making in recent years, with a mixture of calculated provocation and clever subversion of genre tropes, spiced up with quirky humour and characters who refuse to be defined by their roles in the story. Thus we get a drug lord who’s obsessed with macrobiotic dieting and who gives his young son a copy of Lord of the Flies, believing it to be a valuable repository of life lessons.

There are some good jokes in Cold Pursuit, but on the whole it often feels quite laboured. Liam Neeson cheerfully sent himself up a few years ago in a sketch where he approached Ricky Gervais insisting that they work on ‘funny monologues… crazy characters… slapstick’, all delivered in that balefully intense manner, but the problem here is that he is really is playing it all much too straight and earnest. This is to some extent ameliorated by the fact that, as the situation spins out of control, he gets less screen-time, but this itself probably qualifies as another problem with the film – the script doesn’t quite hold together and contains some very cheesy bits of plotting. (The ending in particular is very abrupt and peculiar.)

In the end it’s all really very blokey, violent stuff, with a sort of motif – calling it a theme would be overdoing it – about fathers and their relationships with their sons. Most of the female characters are very secondary and don’t get much screen time; the exception being Emmy Rossum’s ambitious young cop. Rossum (who fifteen years ago looked like being on the verge of becoming a major star, but vanished into the netherworld of cable TV) gets some good scenes, but doesn’t really contribute much to the story either.

Neeson does the best he can with a character who doesn’t exactly leap off the screen; the actors playing all the comedy gangsters likewise make the most of their opportunities. But in the end, I don’t know – the film recovers well from a very dubious opening act, but in the end it feels just a bit too laborious in both its plotting and its quest to find unlikely sources of humour. I doubt people going in expectation of a Liam Neeson revenge thriller will find it very satisfactory, but then neither will anyone else: it’s a bit too self-consciously quirky given the subject matter, and it seems to have nothing really to say for itself about any of the themes and topics it touches on. Cold Pursuit is somewhat entertaining while you’re watching it, but if Neeson had kept his mouth shut on the press tour I suspect it would have vanished into obscurity fairly rapidly.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »