Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Flick of The Day: Rampart

In late 1990's Los Angeles, a scandal engulfed the Rampart division of the LAPD and it's anti gang unit. Widespread allegations of corruption and police brutality and serious crime led to the implication of more than 70 officers in one of the largest corruption scandal ever. The fall out from this event is the setting for director Oren Moverman's Rampart, which is today's flick of the day.
Woody Harrelson gives a grandstanding performance as LAPD officer David Brown, a man whose mere being pulses with rage. A veteran of the force, he is a deeply corrupt and compromised man who has committed many unknown crimes in the name of the law. By day he patrols the crime infested streets of Los Angeles populated by a melting pot of ethnicities while by night he carouses bars before returning home to his strange home life where he lives with his two daughters and two ex-wives who are both sisters. As the Rampart investigation reaches its height, David is caught on camera brutally beating a motorist who crashed into him. It appears that David is going to finally pay a penance for his career despite his own best efforts to wriggle out of the net. As his legal bills mount and his home life unravels, David goes to extremes to try and keep the job he loves.
Rampart is written by American crime writer James Ellroy, a man with a seeming fascination with hard bitten police officers and the underbelly of Los Angeles. Perhaps best known for his sprawling epic novel L.A Confidential  which was adapted by Curtis Hanson, his fingerprints are all over this film. For a writer of such dense plotting, the plot such as it is does not form a major part of Rampart. This is really a character study of one man and his actions. As such, Woody Harrelson inhabits the role completely giving a performance that has to be seen to be believed. Every muscle and sinew seems to pulse with menace and as a viewer you are left waiting for the explosion to occur with each new interaction.
While Harrelson's David is the sole focus for much of the film, there is a fine supporting cast in Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright and Steve Buscemi. It is a shame then that they are given so little to do. What exactly Robin Wright's character is in the script for is a mystery to me, she is another one of the numerous women who bed David through the course of the film but beyond that brings nothing and is a waste of a fine actress. This lack of development detract from the film and give it an uneven tone. You may wonder why you are bothering to follow dense conversations about the banalities of David's life and its unfortunate because Harrelson's performance deserves a better film. 
At times guilty of deplorable actions, at others terrifically verbose and with a remarkable ability to game the system, David Brown is an uncompromising creation that manages to avoid the clichés of the cop who bends the rules to catch the bad guy. David is a dark and bitter man who despite his obvious intelligence is unable to see he is his own worst enemy.

Dave Brown: I don't cheat on my taxes... you can't cheat on something you never committed to.

So then while this is a flawed movie, there is enough here to justify a viewing for Harrelson's performance alone. It could have been so much more but ends up as just a study of one man and really tails off at the end. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Flick of The Day: Slumdog Millionaire

Given the Academy Awards take place in Los Angeles on Sunday, it is interesting to look at how many Best Picture winners have stood the test of time, whether they are still as lauded today as they were upon release. Largely they are but there are many examples down through the years of losing films ultimately being regarded as finer works of art than the supposed best picture of the year.Is Apocalypse Now not a better and more important achievement than Kramer Vs Kramer in 1979? Is The Killing Fields  not more worthy than Amadeus in 1984? Perhaps the most egregious example is Shakespeare in Love, a byword for awfulness, beating Saving Private Ryan in 1998. Today's flick of the day, Slumdog Millionaire, beat out stiff competition to claim the accolade in 2008 and today's viewing is an attempt to see whether it is still as good as I thought at the time.
Jamal Malik is an 18 year old orphan from the slums of Mumbai who has managed to snatch a place on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?". Much to the chagrin of host Anil Kapoor, Jamal knows the answers to each question and as the prizes mount up, his suspicion grows. We meet Jamal as he is being interrogated by the Mumbai police for supposedly cheating the show. As Jamal tells the police of the elements from his life story which enabled him to answer the questions, we learn of the hard road he has travelled in search of his first love Latika, played by Freida Pinto
From the opening shots of Danny Boyle's film it is apparent that this is a visual triumph. The fast paced chase through the slums set to the frenetic music of M.I.A which opens the film will surely in future years be as well regarded as Scorsese's march through the back entrance of a restaurant in Goodfellas or Altman's opening for  The Player. This is just the beginning of a visual feast of colour and zest which takes the audience on a journey to the dark side of India from the internecine warfare between religions to the hardship of street life for children and the people who prey on them before bringing us out the other side. The film is almost structured like a fairy tale. The children follow the breadcrumb trail into the woods and as the world strikes out at them, we the audience hope for their safety. 

"Money and women. The reasons for make most mistakes in life. Looks like you've mixed up both."

The real strength of the film is that it is not just a harrowing look at the dark side of Mumbai life, it is also an underdog story as Jamal works his way out of trouble and there are elements of a love story in his pursuit of Latika and the bitter relationship he has with his brother. In short, there is much to keep your attention.
Boyle's direction is almost flawless throughout while told in a non-linear fashion, the story never becomes distracting or difficult to follow perhaps because of the classic elements noted above. Unlike so many western films made in Asia, this doesn't feel like a Hollywood film, it feels like it is of India. This is best represented by the excellent score from A.R Rahman, a Bollywood veteran, which surges and falls with the rhythm of the film and the gorgeously colourful  cinematography.
In conclusion then, this is just as startling a film as it was upon release. A mainly local cast give perfectly pitched performances and while at times very dark, ultimately this is a tale of love and redemption in modern India. It is charged with life throughout and will surely be seen as a classic in the years to come.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Flick of The Day: A Dangerous Method

Canadian director David Cronenberg has long been a filmmaker who has challenged his audience with a body of work that spans the bizarre (The Fly), the violent (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) and the controversial (Crash). Adapting a play which details the relationship between the father and son of psychoanalysis then would seem long an odd choice for him. However continuing his fruitful relationship with Viggo Mortensen proves to be a wise move. Today's flick of the day is A Dangerous Method.
Michael Fassbender stars as the brilliant but deeply self involved Carl Jung and gives another quality performance  in a year full of them. The film opens in 1904 as Jung is developing the theories of his colleague Sigmund Freud into a new method for treating patients by practising on the damaged and obsessive Sabina, a career best performance from Keira Knightley. As he begins to cure Sabina of her psychosis, their relationship deepens to the detriment of his friendship with his mentor Freud played by the always excellent Viggo Mortensen. Crossing the line between close care and taking advantage of his patient, Jung loses focus on what he is supposed to be doing for his own ends. Into this maelstrom of emotion steps the equally troubled Otto Gross played by Vincent Cassel in a measure performance..
As noted at first glance this does not seem an obvious project for Cronenberg's talents however once viewed it becomes apparent it is a perfect match. Concentrating on the dawn of sexual dysfunction diagnosis, he is on familiar territory as he documents its effect on the relationships of those involved. All of the leads giver excellent performances with Knightley and Fassbender a particular highlight. Fassbender manages to make an engaging character out of Jung who initially appears too self absorbed to be interesting.

Carl Jung: Sometimes you have to do something unforgivable... just to be able to go on living.

Knightley shows hitherto unknown depth as Sabina, engaging her whole body in a performance which is terrifyingly good and captures the bizarre sexual impulses perfectly. The sex scenes are not filmed for gratuity but are rather dark joyless affairs which tell more about the characters then you might imagine.
Cronenberg has actually created quite a beautiful movie, the sun dappled shots of Vienna and Geneva are a joy to behold while the turn of the century style and architecture are captured with aplomb. This allegiance to the details of what was a very interesting period in time help to keep the viewer interested while this cast of inward looking characters play out their neuroses. It becomes apparent that Jung and Freud have as many hangups as their patients.
This is period drama of the highest order combined with an interesting examination of sexual dysfunction and a n another fine film from Cronenberg. An entertaining script is given full voice by a superb cast. All in all a fine literate drama worthy of your interest.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Flick of The Day: Attack the Block

For all the money invested in Hollywood action pictures, there are far more turkeys produced on these massive budgets than works of entertaining cinema. A cursory glance at the work of Michael Bay would surely validate this point of view. Over the last few years there have been a number of highly regarded box office success stories produced on budgets that Mr Bay would surely use up in a single flashy but pointless stunt. Films that put all the money on the screen and produced big budget action on a small scale. A couple of obvious examples would be Gareth Edward's Monsters, District 9 and Shaun of the Dead. Today's flick of the day, Attack the Block is another such film. The début feature from English director Joe Cornish, it successfully tells the story of aliens invading a South London council estate with more wit and charm than many big budget flops.
A group of inner city teens from South London led by Moses, played by newcomer John Boyega, are wandering the streets generally acting in a thuggish manner. While they are in the middle of robbing white person in the ghetto Sam played by Jodie Whitaker, a ball of fire appears in the sky and destroys a nearby car. As Sam flees, the boys investigate and discover a life form not of this world. The gang quickly slay the creature and take this corpse to the top floor of their tower block, home of the local drug dealer. However it soon becomes apparent that the creature is not alone as more of them begin to appear in the night sky, the light unnoticed in a sky filled with fireworks for Guy Fawkes night. These new creatures are much more vicious, black shapeless beasts with razor teeth. As panic grips the streets, Sam crosses paths with her muggers and together they vow to battle for their tower block in a fight to the death to save the human race.
While this is by no means a classic, it manages to be far more fun than so many of its more po-faced bigger budget brethren. The main criticism's of it is that is neither scary enough to stand as a thriller, nor funny enough to be a comedy and is merely a weak combination of the two. That said, it is an entertaining ride that doesn't hang around long enough to be irritating. 

Sam: We should call the police. 
Pest: You'd be better off calling the Ghostbusters love.

Cornish shows himself to be a director of no little talent. He has a keen eye for a shot, the opening tracking shot sets the scene and the surroundings perfectly. He handles the rest of the film competently and with a better script could have produced something special.
The young cast are well chosen and inhabit the roles of hooded menaces quite well. John Boyega stands out as the groups leader Moses giving a strong performance though it is a big ask to expect us to adopt him as our hero given we have previously seen him rob a woman at knife point. Perhaps if Cornish had been more adventurous in his script rather then attempting to soften the edges of his street thugs as the film goes on, it might have made for a better film but it is an enjoyable romp all the same.

Ron: Even if it is an alien invasion, they're four foot high, blind and got kicked to death by a bunch of kids. We got nothing to worry about.

Simon Pegg's other half Nick Frost puts in an entertaining turn as perma-stoned comic relief Ron and giving an other wise largely unknown cast a spot of gravitas.
All in all then a strong enough debut feature from Joe Cornish with plenty of promise. While not a great film, there is enough here to entertain and enjoy. Some fine action set pieces are held together by god forbid character development. Worth a look.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Flick of The Day: The Crying Game

I'm a big fan of Neil Jordan, he is one of the best directing talents to come from these shores with a back catalogue full of interesting and intelligent cinema like the previously reviewed The Good Thief and Angel without even mentioning two of his best works Mona Lisa and today's flick of the day The Crying Game. If you are the kind of individual that likes to categorise things then Jordan's career can be split into distinct periods starting off with smaller dramas like Angel before Mona Lisa propelled him to Hollywood. This led to some questionable career choices like 1988's Steve Guttenberg starring High Spirits and 1994's Interview with The Vampire before returning to smaller pictures such as 2009's Ondine. However along the way he produced today's flick of the day which confirmed his talent as storyteller.

Stephen Rea, a Jordan regular, is Fergus a reluctant IRA gunman who becomes part of a plot to kidnap a British soldier in an attempt to force the British to release one of their own men. The soldier, Jody played by Forest Whitaker, is a cricket playing West Indian from Tottenham who has no knowledge of why these people hate him so much. Lured to his captors by the callous IRA operative Jude, a cold Miranda Richardson, he soon finds himself hooded and tied in a remote rural safe house. Fergus is given the task of looking after Jody and taking pity on him befriends the young soldier. This leads to a grudging mutual respect. They share stories of their lives outside the conflict. Ultimately the IRA ploy fails and they decide to execute the hapless Jody but not before he asks Fergus to look in on his girlfriend in London. Fergus is unable to shoot him but as fate would have it Jody is knocked over by a British Army vehicle while escaping as the security forces raid the safe house. Making a narrow escape, Fergus heads for London to seek out Jody's girl. This builds into a psychological drama with a shocking conclusion as Fergus past catches up with him.
This film has undoubtedly been overshadowed by the twist in the tale, something which made headlines on release and undoubtedly helped to make the film a financial success but to focus on it is to overlook a decent film. Stephen Rea is excellent as the man with split loyalties between doing his job as a terrorist and being a human being. His performance exudes empathy throughout and really carries the audience through the second half of the film.

Fergus: What the fuck, do you know about my people? 
Jody: Only that you're all tough, undeluded motherfuckers... And it's not in your nature, to let me go! 
Fergus: Shut the fuck up, will ya?

Equally important to the plot is Jaye Davidson as Dil, Jody's girlfriend. It is Dil's interactions with Fergus which create the psychological element in the second half of the film which keeps the audience involved. We are left to wonder what Fergus motivations are for doing what he does. Is it guilt or voyeurism? He seems almost obsessed with finding out about Dil's life with Jody. 
While Jordan has crafted a strong thriller here, it is as much a character study of people with damaged lives and a past they can't easily forget or escape. It is this study of relationships and human nature which elevate the film to another level. It is a testament to this storytelling that the big twist when it comes is still a surprise yet somehow seems a natural event given the little hints earlier in the film.

Fergus: As a man said, it's in my nature. 
Dil: What's that supposed to mean? 
Fergus: Well... there's this scorpion, you see, and he wants to go across a river. Well, he can't swim so he goes to this frog, who naturally enough can swim. And he says, 
[imitating the scorpion's voice] 
Fergus: "Excuse me, Mr. Froggy. I want to go across the river." 
[continues narrating] 
Fergus: So the frog accepts the idea. The scorpion hops on the frog's back. Suddenly, the frog: "Aah!" He feels this sting! "You stung me! Why did you go and do that?" The scorpion looks at him and says, "I can't help it, it's in my nature"

All in all then a film that you really should see. Surely one of the best films of the 1990's and a definite touchstone in any retrospective of Jordan's varied career. Jordan would go on to make a number of succesful films but perhaps none is as complete as this. The Good Thief is enjoyable and Michael Collins is a must for any Irish person though perhaps not as accessible to outsiders while the less said about Jodie Foster starring The Brave One the better. Still, he remains a major talent now devoting his energies to the television epic The Borgias. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Flick of The Day: Martha Marcy May Marlene

The Sundance Film Festival has over the years acted as the big break for a generation of young American filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh. While it has in many ways abandoned its Indie roots for more mainstream fare, it is still a respected venue to launch a career.  Today's flick of the day is a winner of the Grand Jury Prize at last year's festival and the directing award for first time director Sean Durkin.
Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the world conquering Olsen twins, stars as the Martha of the title, a young woman who as the films opens is attempting to escape from the cult where she has lived for the past two years isolated from her family. She makes contact with her well to do sister and architect husband and soon finds herself ensconced in their lakeside summer house. However all is not well, Martha is haunted by her experiences while under the roof of malevolent leader Patrick, played by a superb John Hawkes surpassing his breakout performance in 2010's Winter's Bone. As her behaviour becomes more erratic, she pushes her hosts to breaking point and we learn in every more horrifying flashbacks the nature of her captivity and sexual servitude. All the while the tension mounts and Martha's paranoia about being dragged back to her old life becomes all too real.
Shot in a superb naturalistic style, this is a psychological thriller of the highest order. Durkin's choice of soft lighting and close shots give the film a dreamlike quality. This reinforces the haunting nature of the story and specifically the flashback scenes to Martha's time in the cult. Elizabeth Olsen has justly been lauded for her performance which manages to capture both the difficulty of adapting to life on the outside and the unsettling fear that everything is about to come crashing down around her. This sense of dread pervades the entire film and creates a tension that is never fully resolved.
If it is Olsen's performance which carries the film then it is John Hawkes which moves it to another level. He has created a character that echoes real life self styled messiahs like Charles Manson and David Koresh. Every scene he enters is corrupted by his oily charm which only later reveals itself to be hiding a murderous rage. Perhaps the most chilling scene is the gang's attempted home invasion which is surely influenced by the actions of Manson's Family. The eerie calm before the storm is deeply unsettling and it is a bravura performance. Saying that I do not want to take away from Elizabeth Olsen. She is a natural talent that is surely on the way to bigger things.
An excellent debut from Sean Durkin, this is one of the best films I have seen so far this year. All in all, a definite must see, this is an excellent thriller which makes the most of two fine performances from the leads.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Flick of The Day: The Descendants

Alexander Payne is a past master when it comes to literate semi-comic drama with a body of work that includes such soon to be classics like About Schmidt, Election and the recently reviewed Sideways. He is on familiar ground then when it comes to his latest film, a tale of mid-life crisis in suburban Hawaii starring the ever reliable George Clooney. Today's flick of the day is The Descendants.
An adaptation of a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants is the story of Matt King, played by Clooney, a Hawaiian lawyer who controls a trust which owns hundreds of millions of dollars worth of his families land. Matt is in the grips of a crisis when we meet him. His wife has recently been involved in a boating accident leaving her in a coma from which she may never wake. This leaves Matt to look after the full time job that is his two daughters, the difficult teen Alexandra and the quirky child Scottie. Added to this is the shock that his wife had been unfaithful. As if this were not enough to deal with it comes during the week in which he has to decide whether to sell his families land, the last unspoilt bit of nature on the islands. So to deal with all of this, Matt sets off with his two daughters and Alexandra's comic relief boyfriend Sid to find the man who had an affair with his wife.
Ultimately this is a sad tale of family loss and regret but it is leavened throughout by elements of comedy that really hit the mark. Payne's mordant sense of humour shone through in his previous films giving the dramatic events an endearing quality and it is the same here. Clooney excels as the man on the edge of reason, as an actor he only gets better with age. The lines on his forehead are made for the terminally puzzled Matt who seems to stumble from one event to the next while trying to do the best for his daughters. 

Matt King: You little fuck! Do you get hit a lot? 
Sid: I don't know, I've had my share. 
Matt King: [to Alex] Your friend is retarded, you know that? 
Sid: Hey I've got a brother who's retarded! You don't have to get all derogatory.

While it is a tale of loss, Payne never revels in it and asks some pertinent questions about modern Hawaii and attitudes towards it. Matt makes the point at the beginning that people from the mainland assume that because they live in paradise that the problems people face aren't as mountainous as everyone else. As Matt puts it:

Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself.

Alexander Payne's real talent is a satirist and so often the humour in his previous films has been bitingly satiric and at the expense of his characters. The Descendants is a much less cutting affair with an emphasis on the heart and while this makes is less memorable than works like Sideways, it is no less polished.
A fine film then with much to enjoy. The scenery is epic and beautifully shot, leaving you in no doubt that this is paradise or something like it. The whole cast give strong performances not just Clooney though he does stand out. Payne delivers his usual strong script and the actors make the best of it. Modern drama of the highest order.

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