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Monthly Archives: November 2012

End of Watch

End of Watch

Two thirds of a great cop movie. Two great actors with great chemistry (Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña) are living their lives as cops. Just like that, nothing special: car chases, shootings, terrible parents, gangsters… They have chosen a strange life of permanent conflict and often danger, and they know it. Their code of ethics works, when they get into a fistfight with a big-mouthed gangster, the rings come off, and the badge comes off. Then it’s just mano a mano, and the job continues afterwards.

We are interested, actually thrilled by following them, because just like them, we are startled by the variety of things life throws at them. Only when things get Hollywood (with a plot against them, with them getting into the centre of attention in a way that makes them so special they are not as interesting anymore), my attention floundered. I wanted to be in a car again with them, listening to their family stories and their philosophies (if that’s what you want to call it) about life, marriage and Mexican girls in the morning. Those dialogues are so well written and performed that they reminded me of what was once called Tarantino-style, but more flowing, less pretentious.

In the end, the film seems to understand that it was compromising too much, that it tried too hard to entertain the wrong audience. That wrong audience would long have lost interest when  the film gets to its action bits, and the right audience is distracted. The end is comforting again, it brings us back into the car with two guys chatting about, as if this was just another day in a cop’s life.

Part of my prep programme for Daniel Day-Lewis’ “Lincoln” performance (I don’t care for biopics, so I have to motivate me otherwise…). People have been snotty about “Gangs”, I always loved the epic approach, the tribal battles, the gritty production design, the fabulous costumes, the nonchalant whoring, and Daniel Day-Lewis as its center of gravitation. Of course he is playing over-the-top, because Bill the Butcher is an over-the-top character, not bigger  than life, but bigger than most lives. The way he takes the stage with cramped facial muscles, with his skeleton-like stature in dirty longjohns, how is cannot but take his fights as choreographed dances around his victims… it takes courage and skill to play such a character straightforwardly and take him seriously, and Day-Lewis pulls this off.

But I need to give Scorsese credit for what he did, painting this (initially stealth) battle between two mortal enemies onto a mural that is called New York, which never looked more authentic and tangible in its grime and filth,  despite the sometimes slightly too obvious matte paintings. This depiction of Five Points is alive, and this microcosm of a battleground between “native” (who is native in the US anyway…) and immigrant crowds stays clear and transparent  despite all the chaos that ensues, the racial hatred, the drafting riots. Scorsese is trained well enough through his mafia stories to know that he must let the audience lose track of what’s going on, even if everything is going on at the same time, as in the final standoff, where the petty jealousy between some Irish in the one side and other Irish on the other side is among the lesser of New York’s problems.

Splendid, cinematic cinema!

It is a bit dated and has quite a lot of local patina on it, but the film shows social muscle. A boy put into a juvenile reeducation home (or something like it, an old castle with high walls, in any case) for petty theft and being rebellious, finds his inner calm in running. He runs and thinks and feels the spirit of freedom, while he is actually the toy of the institution’s bosses, the playball of the very class struggle that put him in there in the first place. Class struggle in England’s 1960s was serious, and cruel, but you need to remind yourself of that when watching the film, as it does not feel completely when watching it today (even though you can still feel it when talking with Brits about their family history, there is a class-consciousness like in few other places I have encountered).

When you are young, there are only two ways of dealing with it: be on the rich side and enjoy it, or be on the poor side and hate it. This hate and the ensuing actions to project the hate on the despicable others led to a torn society, one where every action is only measured in terms of compliance of rebellion. That boy has time to think about this during his runs, and despite the film being usually very calm and undramatic, we can feel an escalation coming. In an unexpected way, but one that is consistent with what he is: a boy of a family that is used to running.

I keep wanting to write “Professor McGonnagall”, but Matthew McConaughey (I had to copy that from Wikipedia) could not be further apart from that mix-up. Even though he takes center stage rather late in William Friedkin’s effort to proof old men can still be mean-spirited and without mercy, he owns the film immediately. Again, I wanted to write “he is eating the scene”, but I don’t know whether that’s proper English, and I feel hesitant to associate anything frugal with a film that circles around the cruel abuse of an already deep-fried chicken leg.

Matthew McConaughey (pasted again) is a cop with a side job, which is to kill people. He is very professional about both his professions, almost admirable for the seriousness with which he lays down his rules and conditions. He is also very Southern about it, making his character a grotesque mixture of (Wild at Heart) Frank, (No Country…) Anton Chiguihr (couldn’t be bothered looking that one up) and (generic) Yanky Doodle Dandy – we can call such mixes a “Joe Cooper” performance henceforth, if there will ever be anyone trying something similar.

The fun stops when his employers fail to comply with one of his rules, and another part comes into the mix, a Yanky-Doodle-Dandy-Chighuir-Frank-King-Lear. Only that the fun does not stop there, at least not for an audience with a sense of humour. He is a very scary character doing very scary things, and always kept me on the brink right-out laughter. Matthew McConaughey (still in the clipboard… good) can pull this off, because he has the face and the body to play an eerily handsome disgusting abomination playing his sadistic games. You can’t really blame him for his paybacks, as the rules were laid out clearly, weren’t they?

I would not call “Killer Joe” a return to form by a director made cranky and cynical by his career ups and downs. He is not returning  anywhere, he has found a spot where he has never been before (with the slight exception of the very disturbing “Bug”): a chamber play with thoroughly unpleasant characters throughout, and with a path of fate that only points downward. Had I seen it without knowing who the director was, I would not have been surprised to learn that an angry young film maker has just been kicked out of the Academy and put all his and his family money into making this expression of loath. But as it is, I am quite happy to see that the old man also still has some grim energy left.

The better ones of the new generation of German filmmakers are those who are unsentimental. Andreas Dresen might be the best of them, and when it comes to territory crying for sentimentality, he steps into it and plays it straight like few others could. He did that in “Wolke 9 / Cloud 9” where he depicted the love and sex life of old people, and where he managed to be as serious, straightforward, funny and sometimes cruel as life requires it with a love story between people over 80. Now in “Stopped on Track” he does it again, and the story is now even closer to death: it is about dying. In the first minutes of the film, Frank learns that he will probably die of a brain tumor. The film shows how that happens. You don’t need to give a spoiler alert to say that in a serious film by a serious film-maker, there will be no miracle cure, there will be no bucket list of great things to be done, there will not be the insight into the meaning of life just before it all ends. Instead, the family is confronted with a degenerating husband and father, being increasingly an burden on their lives through his tumor-induced change of character. These are very real people in very real situations, and very rarely does reality bring about salvation the easy way. The way they act and react, how they are trying to create a comfortable environment for Frank, while sometimes admitting that his death would be so much of a relief. There is no spectacle in this, other than the realisation that this, exactly this, may happen to any of us at any time, and the film raises the question whether we are prepared for either role, the patient or the family. In its sobriety, its succumbing to the facts of life and death, I find this a very pleasant film to watch. We see that nobody is perfectly prepared, but everybody is able to make an effort and to remain (or become) a good person when faced with dying and death. Quite a message, actually, for a film that wants nothing less than being a “message film”.

A show about “a machine” is at the heart of this show, developed to analyse all kinds if information coming in through public surveillance cameras, phone conversations and internet traffic, some form of Uber-Echelon designed to prevent terror attacks. Its inventor (played by Lost’s Benjamin Linus Michael Emerson) decides that there are other causes it can be useful for, and hires a former special forces guy (Jesus Jim Caviezel) to help him save individual lives from ill fate.

Jim Caviezel is awfully handsome and watchable and Michael Emerson is eerie as every. They should get better things to do, though, than a tame network tv show without edge. That’s the problem with superhero movies (and tv shows): once you understood they are not vulnerable, and the franchise needs to go on, the tension implodes. A couple of episodes in, “Person of Interest” is merely interesting in terms of whether the person of interest is a victim or a villain. That our heroes are in no real dangers is very clear. A couple of episodes later, even this handsome thrill is gone, as it gets repetitive. Of course there are nice moments, such as the episode with Finch/Emerson spending half a show on “e”. After half of the 23-episode first season, however, I was exhausted by the harmlessness and predictability. Will not become a show or interest, if the pun is allowed.

This could be taken from a generic Stephen King short story: couple of guys messing with the wrong weed (as in plant, not as in chemical stimulant). Or maybe it’s not weed but some animal life from, what it is in any case is hostile to people who cross its path, and this is learned to full painful effect by the people who end up (some as kidnappers, some as kidnapped) at an abandoned gas station. What is actually attacking them once they are there is a bit zombie-esque, and is equipped with quite fancy stop-motion-like mobility and elasticity. How you fight it and whether you survive follows genre conventions, however, making the audience feel right at home from the beginning. I wonder whether they will make it out of there? Not all of them they don’t… Average but solid.

After some 40 minutes, the film really got me by surprise… it was building up to become a movie about a girl that was on a revenge mission, while being chased by somebody or something that was even more dangerous than herself. That notion changed abruptly, and it turned into something… I was about to say less interesting. Not even true, there is a moment where I was wondering whether the film will, after all, be very conventional, but then a wider picture is provided, we learn about reasons and motivations for what we see. Even though I am not perfectly convinvced by that framework story, it’s still kind of acceptable, and better as if it was merely a film about a girl locked into a room and not being treated kindly.

So it is a film about a girl or two locked into a room, but towards the end it becomes a film about horror turning into euphoria, with a little help of pretty ruthless use of fists and metal instruments. If this is for you, then this is for you.

So there are dark spots hidden in the hilly wastelands between France and the Netherlands, places of secrets and violence, without rules and hope? Ok, I can take this as a premise for a horror film, even though it seems a bit of a stretch for what I know as a rather dull and not very big stretch of land. It also allows for credible placement of German (or Germanic) villains, ruthless as ever and strangely confused about their family language (they speak French mostly, but father with thick accent, and his French accent in German is even thicker… wouldn’t it be easier if they all spoke German in the first place, mission to remap the concept of Arian race and all…??). Anyway: “Frontiers” goes to some lengths to bring a sufficient number of young French troublemakers and this slightly unconventional family together, with the aim of having a maximum of one survive in the end (that’s not a spoiler, that’s genre convention). The way this is done is actually quite effective at times, despite the more than convoluted twists and turns. That is mostly thanks to the well-chosen “family” actors: father and a bunch of kids, with my personal favourite Hans The Butcher, a hulk of a man who certainly can only ever play butchers  in his career. Karl the Heir to the Throne, and the nice girls who are happy to get involved with anyone who enters their inn are fun to watch.

There are no surprises in this film, but some nice segments involving pigs and barbecue grills. Also, the person who turns out to be the hero has been going through an impressive marathon of make-up or at least standing under a bucket of blood.

Hah! At last a “different” movie, not caring about what categories and boxes and drawers there are to fit films in. Firstly: this film defies all categories. It is what some call a “surprise”. It shouldn’t have been, actually. If a film becomes the favourite of all the critics who have a chance to see it at the festivals, and if it becomes the Sundance favourite (if I remember correctly), then it should not surprise that it is “special”, “unconventional”, and sometimes even “hypnotic”. Although… sometimes what is the critics’ favourite turns out to be a rather mainstream version of harmless arthouse produce, made to lure the more mature girlfriends’ groups into the theatre for a latte macchiato, a prosecco and a screening. I am writing this because “Beasts of the Southern Wild” had a little bit of this, but then again it didn’t… it confuses me. It confused and enthused me so much that once I had seen it, I felt I need to see at least the second half again, which I did right away. I was not less confused after that, but even more thrilled.

The film features a 6-year old girl called “Hushpuppy”, living in the surreal world of I guess the US south, not too far from New Orleans. It can be read anywhere, but it should still be noted: Quvenzhané Wallis, playing Hushpuppy, is the most awesome child actor you will have seen in … don’t know, a century? It is a decrepit place, almost post-Apocalyptic, but no Apocalypse has happened, only the Levees have cut off this part of the world called the “Bath Tub”. It took me a while to understand that this is a real place in a real location, because it is set in scene as an almost dreamlike allegory of lost worlds, forgotten by civilization, thrown back to self-reliance and primal needs. They all live in a parallel world, supplied with food and education by boats, holding on to the few possessions they have.

You will probably find a story in the movie, something like: the people, led by the unlikely hero Hushpuppy, decide to free themselves from the slavery of the levee, but that would do the film no justice. The important part is Hushpuppy’s voice-over, her observations on life, people, parents, prehistoric creatures. Now thinking about it, the narrator in Schloendorff’s film version of Grass’ “Tin Drum” must be one of the spiritual fathers of this structure. She is vigorous, clever, vulnerable, and absolutely fearless when it comes to meeting her adversaries (hospital staff, hurricanes, beasts). She listens to chickens’ bellies because she believes their heartbeat have a story to tell. And they do, Hushpuppy can tell you all about it if you let her  …

I do not go with great expectations to see James Bond movies. It’s something like a habit that survived childhood. Enthusiasm flared up again when “Casino Royal” decided to do away with the gadgets and goofiness, when they decided to make proper blockbuster films, joining the parade of Bourne and Mission Impossible franchises as state-of-the-art action cinema. These film rely on convincing leading men, and on competent directors able to raise the bar on what’s possible in terms of spectacle. Even though “Quantum of Solace” led its actors around the plot blindfoldedly, and had audiences left not caring anymore about 20 minutes in, the revamping has managed to establish faith again. Daniel Craig is responsible for this, and I think he is the only factor responsible. As a credible and physical actor, he holds things together.

And now, in “Skyfall”, an intelligent director and some sly authors discover that things might work even a bit better if you removed a bit of this pressure from James Bond’s shoulders. There are quite a few other interesting characters around, and they decide to use them. It is now “M” that slowly moves into centre focus, and with Judie Dench playing M, how could that not be a splendid idea?

I have to admit, I was very pleasantly surprised how well these new ideas were merged with the old cliches. Actually, had the film finished after the opening titles, I would not have regretted spending the money on the ticket. That was a terrific pre-title sequence if there ever was one, and it made even a chase-hater like myself savour the beauty of people running and driving around exotic locations.

Without needing to go into the details of what was good about the film (doing away with gadgets, getting Bond into a bad place of booze and boredom), there are two aspects I am not sure about (really not sure, maybe the choices were great, maybe not):

Javier Bardem as a villain playing basically a gay version of Anton Chighuir. Maybe this was overdone, maybe he should have been more contained as a character. Not just in the way he plays it, but also in the way the character is written as an all-foreseeing super-villain who has prepared for any given alternative. At the end of the day, he is supposed to be an alternate Bond – a Bond that could have been had he taken other choices at critical junctures. Playing this parallel would have been more interesting than elevating him into a mixture of Blofeld and Hannibal Lecter.

The final act: While I (now that I have written it down) am pretty sure that I am not perfectly happy with Bardem’s part, I am undecided with the down-scaling of the last stand to a low-tech, rural battle (somebody mentioned it has some “Kevin – Home Alone” features, and it has). I very much like the setting, and the possibilities it provides. I am again not too sure about how it has been executed. Was Bond dropped in the perfect place to rediscover his roots, and learn again maybe why it was that he did not make the same choices as his Bardem-counterpart? Yes. Did they know what to do with him there once he was dropped in his own history? Maybe not so much, it seems a bit that the very idea of bringing the characters there was met with so much enthusiasm in the writers’ room that nobody cared too much anymore about whether this allows for the perfect follow-up.

Hence: a very entertaining film, way above the level of Quantum of Solace, maybe at the end of the day too ambitious for its own good. It leaves plenty of room for criticism, but the points of criticism I have are of the kind that are directed towards a film I appreciate and take serious.


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