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Posts Tagged ‘Val Kilmer’

We’re in the middle of one of those funny, slightly unpredictable times of year, when you’re as likely to come across a tiny oddball sleeper release as something which has been produced and marketed as an aspiring blockbuster. As I say, it’s a product of the time of year: it’s too late for full-blown blockbuster season, but similarly too early for the genuine awards contenders to start making their appearance. So you do tend to get a lot of mid-budgeted genre movies of different kinds, and doing the rounds at the moment is the new Jo Nesbo (final O with a line through it) movie. Long-term readers (may God have mercy on you) may recall I was rather impressed by a couple of Nesbo adaptations which came out about five years ago, Headhunters and Jackpot. Those were both foreign language movies given a subtitled release over here, but the new movie is Anglophone. Directed by Tomas Alfredsen, it’s a grisly, hard-edged crime thriller, definitely not for children or the squeamish, entitled The Snowman.

(Hmmm. Something not quite right here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Never mind, it’ll come to me.)

Oh well. Things get underway with a prologue of unremitting grimness, set in the wilds of Norway, setting the tone for the rest of the movie rather economically. Brightening this up a little is an English-language cameo from Sofia Helin, most famous outside of Scandinavia for her role as the detective with ASD from the TV show The Bridge: sadly, she is not in the rest of the movie.

We are then introduced to top Norwegian homicide detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), who is – all together now – brilliant at his job but lousy at holding his personal life together. As the movie opens he is forever waking up in the park after a heavy night on the booze, which is not something to be done lightly in Oslo in the winter. ‘I need a case, I need to work!’ cries Harry when taken to task by his do-everything-by-the-book superior. ‘I can’t help it if the murder rate is so low,’ snaps his boss. Luckily, plenty of murders are just about to happen, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Yes, someone is going about kidnapping and then murdering women in a quite horrific fashion, and leaving snowmen as his calling card. (It’s never made completely clear whether the snowman-building happens before or after all the dismemberment takes place; it strikes me as a rather cumbersome M.O. for a modern serial killer, but what do I know about these things.) Harry isn’t initially assigned to what’s at first believed to be a routine missing persons case, but he is friends with the officer who is (Rebecca Ferguson), and together they figure out what’s going on. But can they locate the killer before yet more women (yes, it is mostly women) meet a sticky end?

(Oh, hang on. I’ve figured it out.)

(That’s more like it.)

As I said, I was properly impressed and entertained by both the previous Nesbo (O with a line through it) movies that I saw, primarily by the cleverness of the plotting and the black humour running through both stories. Then again, it does seem that our Scandi cousins have a knack for this sort of thing – I’m not a big fan of the label ‘Scandi noir’ (or ‘Nordic noir’), but detective shows from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have become something of a fixture on at least one UK TV network, and it seems to me that The Snowman is trying to tell the same kind of story in the same kind of way.

All the elements are there, I suppose – troubled family backgrounds, people keeping secrets from their loved ones, corruption in high places, gore – but the actual story just isn’t quite up to scratch. The Magic Wand of Improbable Coincidence gets waved over the plot fairly frequently, to say nothing of the way that the story digresses away from the serial killer plot and gets mixed up in shady goings on involving a prominent businessman (J.K. Simmons) and a bid for the ‘World Winter Sports Cup’ (I guess the Winter Olympics people took one look at the script and said ‘No way are you using our name in this!’).

The story gets lost in other ways too: there’s a bit of a cold case element to the plot (the killer has been at it for ages), and the film chooses to incorporate this by having a few flashbacks. I’m not sure these were strictly necessary, but even if they were, I think it was probably a mistake to centre them around a character played by Val Kilmer. Kilmer is not, to put it delicately, ageing gracefully, nor has his acting range improved – the fact that I’d got the impression from somewhere or other that he had actually died is neither here nor there. His appearance is, in short, rather a distraction.

Also problematic is the way that the film-makers don’t really seem to be content with making a good solid detective thriller – every now and then a scene comes along suggesting this movie wants to be a serious drama about the personal lives of Harry and those people around him. Well, Fassbender and his fellow actors are capable enough, but again the result is a film which lacks focus and often feels laborious on a thematic level – it’s clear from very early on that it’s largely about what it means to be a good (or bad) parent, but the script keeps grinding on about this, rather unsubtly.

I’m not sure there is a way to subtly depict various people having their heads literally blown off or body parts removed with power tools (the killer has a special gadget just for this purpose, I wonder if you can get one on Amazon), but if there is, The Snowman does not hit upon it. I would say this is a very strong 15, certificate-wise: there’s some proper gore and grue in the course of the movie. Personally, I am mostly desensitised to this sort of thing, but I am aware a lot of people aren’t – and there are horror-movie levels of splatter at times during The Snowman.

This is really a case of a movie which has all the right ingredients – good cast, interesting premise, strong set of genre conventions – but which fumbles putting them together. It’s watchable, but the story is too often unclear, and arguably not really strong enough to justify the various excesses of the film’s violence.

Then again, I suppose we should talk about the whole emphasis of a film like The Snowman. The treatment of women, especially attractive young actresses, is a talking point as I write, with an industry culture that seems to accept their exploitation and objectification increasingly coming under scrutiny. There is not, to my knowledge, any suggestion that the makers of The Snowman have been accused of any wrongdoing or suspect behaviour. But even so, this is a movie in which male-on-female violence is both graphic and endemic. Every major female character is a victim at some point or other; the only significant nudity in the film is that of a young, female actor, and it’s gratuitous. Which would be worse, I wonder, to be a serial abuser of women who makes films that are classy and morally unimpeachable, or a decent human being who nevertheless makes films which shows women primarily as sexual objects to be used and abused? It’s an artificial distinction, I know, but it seems to me that if you got rid of every grasping studio executive, along with all the others who exploit their position of power, you would still be left with a lot of misogynistic exploitation in the actual movies themselves. If the movies seem to have a problem with their treatment of women, it’s arguably because the fact we still buy tickets sends the message that this is what we really want.

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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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