Thursday, 26 August 2010

Assault on Precinct 13



Assault on Precinct 13

A remake of John  Carpenter’s 1976 original, itself inspired by Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, Jean-Fran├žois Richet’s 2005 version retains the bare bones but it a different kettle of fish.
Ethan Hawke plays Sergeant Jake Roenick, an undercover cop for three years who is move to desk duty after a bust gone bad results in his two partners being killed and he himself injured, he runs an isolated station in Detroit which is in the process of being closed down. A notorious gangster, Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) is caught by the police after killing an undercover officer in a church, and a sequence of events sees his prison transport taking a detour to Roenick’s station in Precinct 13 during a heavy snowstorm. Bishop is put in the cells along with three other crims (including John Leguizamo’s annoying junkie Beck), and Roenick, Brian Dennehy’s old school cop, Maria Bello’s stranded police psychologist, Drea de Matteo’s admin clerk,  and the prison bus officers commence a bit of New Year’s celebrations. The party is cut short after the station is invaded and shots are fired, and thus begins a night under siege as heavily armed assailants try and kill everyone in the building.

The Carpenter original wore its influence on its sleeve, the criminal gang assaulting the station made otherworldly in their portrayal as relentlessly fixated on destroying those in the station, their lack of dialogue dehumanising them and making them an unstoppable force more akin to zombies than people. The remake gives everything a context with police corruption and betrayal at the heart of the plot, the attackers (headed by Gabriel Byrne) given a voice and motivation, along with military tactics and therefore placing this version on a level with any number of action B pictures rather than the ethereal menace cultivated in the 1976 version.
The soundtrack is another area lacking, Carpenter’s sparse synths creating  brooding menace in the original, here an orchestral score by numbers which no doubts adds to the tension but not in a way better than most other higher-budget action thrillers.
The action scenes themselves are good though, despite mainly limited to people shooting at/out of a building, and there are a number of bloodthirsty in-camera effect shots which are pretty brutal if not quite at the child-killing level of the first.

There is an attempt to give the characters a little more depth, Roenick is now resorting to drink and drugs and his psychologist accuses him of avoiding responsibility since his old team were shot, meaning events force him into a situation where he has to take charge. Muddying this is the presence of Fishburne, his character Bishop coming with a fearsome gangland reputation as an unhesitant murderer and possessed of a unique poise; Fishburne manages to inject a wealth of menace into Bishop with very little violence in terms of action or delivery, his quiet smiles are warm rather than leering but point to an utter confidence that he is in control, unnerving any fixed with his gaze. Having lost so much of the original’s atmosphere it is mainly Hawke and Fishburne’s performances that help prevent this becoming just another men with guns flick, and their character development in context of what is a fairly standard action setting shows some of the origins of how Richet would later go about bringing the Jacques Mesrine two-parter to the screen.
In its own right the Assault on Precinct 13 remake is half decent, but not a patch on the original.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Heartbreaker



Heartbreaker

Romantic comedy hardly wants for tales of men and boys wooing a lady for money or a dare or similar, only to find that they like the lady in question, only for her to find that he’s a lying cheat and be upset and or/angry, only for them to find that their love is true .
The main quirk about Heartbreaker is that this type of tale is usually found in US teen films rather than French cinema, though this is a lot closer in tone to those films than the standard French tales of mature, bourgeois longing. A knockabout comedy, the story is just as lame as any of those found in the likes of She’s All That, but as with Ten Things I Hate About You some winning performances can really beef up the movie into something worth watching. In this case Romain Duris plays Alex Lippi who, along with his sister and her husband, breaks up unhappy couples, specialising in women “unknowingly unhappy” and through elaborate set-ups becoming their dream man before dashing off into the sunset before anything more than a kiss is exchanged, leaving the women to re-evaluate their lives which usually involves ditching their man.
This time around he is asked to split up Vanessa Paradis (Juliette) and Andrew Lincoln (Jonathan) before they wed, although after a bit of research it seems that they are the perfect couple. Usually the team would walk at this point, but after menaces from a debt collector to whom Alex owes rather too many Euros he has to accept the job.
From there on it’s predictable business as usual with only the quirks in the journey to the inevitable happy ending acting as points of difference. The comedy is pretty broad, with Alex’s sister taken on a number roles in the hotel where Juliette is staying, Alex singing along to Wham and learning Dirty Dancing moves in an effort to conicidentally have things in common with his mark, Juliette’s druggy nympho ex-best friend arriving on the scene and any number of skewed pratfalls, but importantly it’s mostly funny.

Tellingly, director Pascal Chaumeil worked as second unit director on Leon, Fifth Element and Joan of Arc, and there is a shared sensibility with Besson here of convincingly taking on the Americans at their own game.
Heartbreaker has nothing more to offer than the better of the American teen rom-coms and arguably the world is hardly crying out for another entry in the genre, but thankfully it’s fun.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

I Am Love



I Am Love

A fair portion of Western European cinema fits the stereotype of focusing on the interplay within middle class nuclear or moneyed extended families. Whilst the argument could be made that cinema of this type is an exercise in escapism, as with the mainly well-to-do leads in the majority or Hollywood studio pictures of the 30s and 40s that didn’t form part of the war or western genres, on the other hand it can be seen as a leveling device, a setting free of instigatory happenstance. The characters do not need to struggle to survive, so with more time to reflect we are able to bear witness to the relationships which occur within families and with those people that family members introduce from without.
I Am Love follows Emma, a Russian woman now married to the son of a wealthy businessman in Italy. Whilst hardly the staunch matriarch underpinning the whole family, the film doesn’t tread familiar territory by setting Emma apart from her family, using her birthplace to make her an outsider, though there are many hints of her being “other” throughout.
Much of the film busies itself with incidental detail with the world around the characters taking center stage, most affecting being a love scene outdoors where a tumult of insects and plants enjoys more screen time than the lovers’ bodies. A number of occasions feature exceptional use of sound, one scene with Emma caught in rapture when tasting her lover’s meal where all noise is drowned out bar the sound of her eating, allowing us to drink in the pleasure she experiences, whilst many other scenes opt to follow two characters as they meet and begin a conversation only for the camera to hold back and observe in silence, encouraging the audience to study body language and attitude rather than any content.
At the start of the film I thought that director Luca Guadagnino might be using some of the Dogme rules of natural lighting, sets and sound, but later on there are certain uses of artificial light and non-present music with the climactic scene in particular benefiting from the score, the music injecting much of the drama into a situation that could easily result in the audience turning against our heroine, Tilda Swinton on excellent form as Emma discovering love for perhaps the first time.
Many films that deal with infidelity, whether for love or lust, understandably draw much of their drama from confrontation, but here the affair is barely spoken of with everything instead played out before our eyes, one standout being when son Eduardo drops the penny.

I Am Love manages to be fresh and vital within a genre that so often rests on its laurels, allowing strong performances to make up for lacklustre plotting or direction, but here everything comes together in a sublime example of cinema. It will be interesting to see what Guadagnino does with a possible remake of giallo legend Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Centurion



Centurion

Neil Marshall‘s Dog Soldiers was a decent debut, a werewolf movie that focused on the prey rather than the monsters and the tale of squaddies up against spindly-legged lycanthropes shares a lot with Marshall’s latest film, though not the humour.
Both films pit a group of soldiers against a feral enemy in the Scottish wilderness, but in the case of Centurion it’s Roman soldiers trying to escape the ruthless Picts that hunt them. There is an attempt to inject a familiar brand of ‘laddish’ humour between the soldiers, echoing the camaraderie found in Dog Soldiers, but it works less well here as the situation facing them is more realistic and somehow the move from supernatural horror to action/thriller also dampens the impact of comic relief. The main problem with the film is the lack of spark that would set it apart from a myriad group of similar action films and prevent it from feeling like an accomplished straight-to-DVD B picture, with echoes of everything from Ravenous to the 13th Warrior and Pathfinder to Gladiator.

The cast is fine with Michael Fassbender yet to tarnish a great run of performances and Dominic West particularly enjoyable in what would be an easily fudged role of the meathead captain down with the grunts, repairing a lot of damage done by his odd turn in 300. Liam Cunningham, David Morrisey and Riz Ahmed also shine, though Olga Kurylenko is presumably there as a pretty face and bankable name as a Bond Girl and I wonder whether the character’s muteness featured in the script before she came on board. Imogen Poots (the daughter in 28 Weeks Later) as Arian, the suspected witch outcast, feels a little out of step with the movie, both a refuge from the otherwise relentless pace of the hunt and also out of time, perhaps a bit too modern for the setting. As an action feature I would expect the female roles to be more one-dimensional or not to ring true, but with the Descent as a writing as well as directing credit it’s surprising that Marshall has not made more of his female leads here.

The location work deserves some mention as countless scenes of Scotland millennia past are framed in their stark beauty as the dwindling squad battle the elements as well as their pursuers, with the cinematography washed of colour in order to highlight the cold and unforgiving clime. Action scenes are relatively few as the film concentrates on the run, with one large-scale battle a victim of quick cuts in editing, but outside these the film struggles to shape the largely stock characters, Fassbender’s hero remarkable chiefly for his endurance and ability to speak the native tongue, whilst Cunningham is cursed with the genre trope of being speared only to pull his attacker in for a bit of macho brutality.

I can’t decide whether Centurion is disappointing or just underwhelming, either way it’s sad that the film doesn’t seem to equal the sum of it’s parts. it’s by no means a bad film but it just doesn’t elevate itself up above other genre entries enough to be more than a solid entry, rather than a benchmark. Fairly decent in isolation but lacking the freshness Marshall brought to his first two features.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Descent



The Descent

“This is just a poxy cave,  and there’s nothing left to be afraid of”.
The Descent is absolutely terrifying.
Horror genre conventions of darkness are often inelegantly rammed into plots - the psycho killer or a storm cuts the electricity supply or scared characters wander into dark rooms without considering switching on the lights first, and a few use geographical anomalies to fuel fear, Pitch Black benefited from a sci-fi setting in order to produce a long-lasting total eclipse, and 30 Days of Night was set in the Arctic circle just as the long winter began. The Descent benefits hugely from its setting, six young women exploring a cave results in understandable, pervasive darkness and the kind of sets that are enough to create new claustrophobes of the audience, the film fermenting unbearable tension for half its running time without needing to bring any creatures into the mix.
Main character Sarah benefits from a back story, her husband and child killed in a car accident near the beginning of the film (which actually starts with her and friends enjoying some white water rapids and so setting the extreme sport basis for a spelunking jaunt), and in general the young female characters are treated with realism with no cheap caricatures or unrealistically skimpy clothing. Shauna MacDonald in particular is brilliant as Sarah, quiet and vulnerable earlier on, once she is put through horrific situations an inner strength rises to the surface, and there is time enough to settle the score of an infidelity sub-plot before the credits roll.
Whilst the Descent is not above using traditional jump-scares the unrelenting build up of tension serves to make them harrowing rather than predictable, I found myself shouting out loud a number of times due to sheer shock.
The creatures themselves are well-designed, close enough to humans to make people in costumes and make-up seem menacing and seemingly dispensing the need for any CGI, they are not unbeatable killers that you often find in other horror films and a few scenes have one or two of the girls putting up an impressive fight, but the fact that the women are trapped in the predators territory tips the balance in the monsters favour.
After the jokey, blokey first feature Dog Soldiers, director Neil Marshall’s ability to create a taut and terrifying movie with a strong cast of solely female characters and no reliance on humour to keep the audience on board is very impressive, this has to be one of the best British horror films of the last decade.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans



Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

The very existence of the film invites wide-eyed incredulity, almost an April Fool come to life.
Werner Herzog, slightly unhinged German director of famously crazy projects, particularly those starring the late Klaus Kinski, re-imagines Abel Ferrera’s unhinged cop in purgatory movie in which Harvey Keitel hoovers up drugs, repeatedly abuses his authority and stands naked, arms outstretched and squealing like a wounded elephant pig whilst searching for those responsible for the rape and murder of a nun. This would be enough to provoke a sensible response along the lines of “What, really?” but that’s before discovering who is on board as the titular cop off the rails - Nicolas Cage.
The Oscar winner had been critical poison for years with a string of stinkers behind him and only a supporting role in Kick Ass serving as a reminder of why the man became a bankable lead. Anyone familiar with the Cage of Vampire’s Kiss, Raising Arizona, Con Air, The Rock and Face Off  will know how playful he can be, how willing to push himself to extremes for a performance. The role of Lieutenant Terence McDonagh offers an abundance of gurning opportunity.

Just after Katrina hits New Orleans, McDonagh and his partner Stevie Pruit (a good turn from Val Kilmer) joke about a prisoner left in the basement cells of a police station abandoned as the waters rise, only for McDonagh to relent and jump from a walkway to rescue him, resulting in an spinal injury and a dependence on strong pain killers. He swiftly resorts to less legal means of pain control, hustling from civilians, appropriating from the precinct property room and acquired through drug busts, his hunched shoulders and shorn sideburns culminating in an image of a Frankenstein’s monster; angular and bony, this is a far cry from the ripped Cage of Con Air. Manic cackling, hallucinations and a comically oversized .44 Magnum thrust into his waistband complete the picture of a maniac kept bubbling just beneath the surface by social conventions.
Having said that he is a more rounded character than at first glance. He is in the middle of a relationship with Eva Mendez’s high class prostitute Frankie (Their shared drug use suggests McDonagh’s back condition wasn’t the beginning of his descent); he still tries to care for his dad, a washed up ex cop living from one AA meeting to the next,, saddled with a boozy wife in a tumbledown, rotting plantation-style swamp house.
As is expected, things start to go wrong, McDonagh getting deeper and deeper into trouble during the investigation of the execution of a whole family of Senegalese immigrants, but in a remarkable departure for films of this type things do start working out as the film progresses. Perhaps Herzog is best placed to make a film about redemption after excess. The absence of Catholic guilt from the original is also a welcome change, the moral core coming from McDonagh himself, veering wildly as he does in his efforts to solve the case and his conduct in general. Early on he admonishes Pruit for threats against a suspect under interrogation; later he threatens to kill two old ladies in a nursing home for information about one of their missing grandsons.
The supporting cast sometimes begs the question of where people went. While Mendez is great as Frankie and Brad Dourif wonderful as McDonagh’s exasperated bookie, both are rarely short on parts, Val Kilmer is seldom seen on the big screen these days but is excellent in the small role of Pruit and Faruza Balk makes an appearance - where has she been? Perhaps doomed to be typecast as a shady character, in her small role here as a state trooper  it feels like she never went away, Shea Whigham as a client of Frankie’s, Justin “Woah”, does a nice line in lunatic Lynchian characters, ridiculous in most context but just about gelling with the world created here.

Herzog’s direction has a special part to play. From the very first scene of a snake weaving its way across the water, pulling back to reveal the cell in which prisoner Chavez is trapped with water rising, Herzog’s stamp crops up again and again. This opening scene itself seems lifted from a cheesy 80s thriller, so unassuming and yet immediately cinematic, but later scenes of extreme iguana close-ups and alligator POV at a car crash out near the bayou are greater evidence of Herzog’s unique take on McDonagh’s psychological meltdown.
Could this be the rebirth of Cage’s career? Herzog has not suffered similar problems with his choices, but recent films have been critically acclaimed documentaries so it’s heartening that he has lost none of his edge, and is in fact able to inject this into the Hollywood mainstream.