Monday, August 29, 2011


In the days between Boadicea's revolt and the building of Hadrian's Wall, the expanding Roman empire and the natives of Great Britain were at a stalemate.  The expansion had effectively stopped, but the two sides would frequently skirmish.  Sometime in the 110s or 120s, the Roman Ninth Legion, who were assigned to the Roman-Briton frontier, disappeared from Roman records, which is strange, since they were fairly meticulous with their official paperwork.  Were they simply disbanded, with the men being assigned to other military groups?  Perhaps they fought and died in Germania?  Both are fairly reasonable possibilities, but since the last known location of the Ninth is in York, some believe that they met their fate in Northern England or Scotland.  Why the history lesson?  Centurion is one of two recent films to speculate on the fate of the Ninth Legion (the other being the Channing Tatum vehicle, The Eagle).  While this film does not claim to be factual, a little context helps put things in perspective.
Sexual fetish or prisoner of war?  Context makes a difference.

The Picts, a Scottish clan, have been using guerrilla warfare against the invading Romans for a while.  One night, they launch an attack on a Roman garrison, killing all but Quintus (Michael Fassbender), and only because he cursed them in their own language.  Why that matters when so many Picts in this movie speak English, I don't know, but Quintus is deemed "important" and is captured instead of being killed.  Meanwhile, the Ninth Legion is dispatched to kill some Picts for the glory of Rome; they are given a mute Pict tracker, Etain (Olga Kurylenko), to hunt down the rebellious Picts.  You may be wondering why a Pict would hunt her own people, and that's a good question.  The answer given is because she is loyal to Rome.  Obviously.  Quintus manages to escape his captors and accidentally runs into the Ninth.
He had them right where he wanted them
They kill the Picts chasing him, and Quintus agrees to accompany the Ninth to the Pict base.  Remember when you asked why the Romans trust a Pict guide?  Well, it turns out that the provided answer was not the correct one; she was guiding them into a trap.  The Ninth is massacred, with only a handful of soldiers surviving through luck or cowardice; the Picts also captured the general of the Legion, Titus (Dominic West) and brought him to their base camp.  As the ranking officer, Quintus is now in charge of the group.  What should they do?  They are depressingly far behind enemy lines, and Etain has shown a mad-on for hunting down Romans in general and this group of Romans in particular.  Can this centurion lead his men home to safety?
Not if Etain has nothing to say about it.  You know, because she's mute.

This is the second film I have seen and reviewed from director Neil Marshall, and I think I'm beginning to identify his strengths.  Centurion is a bloody and gory movie, which is exactly what any film about a Roman rebellion should be; if dozens of characters are supposed to be dying by sword and hatchet wounds, there damn well better be some severed body parts and blood.  The action scenes are good, and some of the death scenes were totally awesome.  My favorite example of the awesomeness comes from a character who has been speared, but then pushes the spear through his body to stab and kill his enemy.  It's probably harder than it looks.  Aside from the totally respectable violence, Marshall captured the natural beauty of Scotland in long-shot after long-shot of the group running for their lives.

Marshall doesn't do much with the characters, though.  The performances are all fine.  Michael Fassbender is suitably heroic and he is only marginally less of a tough guy than he was in 300.  Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko was convincing in her action scenes and...well, she was mute, so she didn't talk much.  The rest of the cast was capable with their parts; Dominic West was almost likable as the general, JJ Feild was kind of scummy, Liam Cunningham was decent as an old soldier, and Imogen Poots was okay as the curiously clean local witch.  Nobody gave a bad performance, but there was no depth to these characters.  I could care less about who lived and who died.  Thanks to this lack of likable characters, the adventure in the film lost any sense of urgency it might have had. 
"Not likable?  Perhaps you missed my smoldering stare...?"

The key to a good movie about soldiers is to make the audience give a crap about them as people.  Centurion doesn't even try to do this.  The film looks gorgeous at times and the action is fun to watch, which is especially impressive given the low budget, but the story never takes off because you never care what happens next. 
Death scene or sex scene?  You won't care which.
On the one hand, Centurion encourages me to watch another Neil Marshall movie because this one was a visual treat.  On the other hand, I can't imagine that Doomsday has a better story than this.  After the brutality of the initial battle, I had high hopes.  Centurion just doesn't live up to them.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Billion Dollar Brain

I'm a pretty huge James Bond fan.  It all stems from an overnight hospital stay I had as a teenager that happened to coincide with a James Bond marathon on TV; since then, I have seen every Bond at least four times.  This love of James Bond has transferred into a love for the spy genre, both in books and on film.  John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum (in my mind) provide the same level of enjoyment as Derek Flint and Peter Joshua (AKA Alexander Dyle, AKA Adam Canfield, AKA Brian Cruikshank).  Let's just say that I can appreciate spy movies that are serious, campy, or just plain fun.  With that in mind, you might understand my shock when I learned that Michael Caine --- a man who will act in almost anything you ask him to --- starred in a pentalogy (!) of spy movies that I had never heard of.  Even more surprising to me was that most of these films were contemporary to the Sean Connery Bond movies.  Am I just culturally ignorant?  Possibly.  Or is the Harry Palmer spy trilogy just not good enough to have a legacy?
Answer me, you cocky Cockney bastard!

Billion Dollar Brain begins with Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) working as a private detective instead of On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  That doesn't last long, though.  Harry receives a mysterious job from a robotic-sounding voice over the phone; he is to take a package to a certain person in Helsinki, Finland.  Coincidentally, my wife (Wifey Vs. Movies, as her family refers to her) once spent a year in Helsinki, but somehow missed Michael Caine.  Anyway, Palmer takes the job, but it's not just a simple delivery.  No, in Helsinki, he meets a beautiful and cryptic Russian babe (Francoise Dorleac) who guides him to his next destination.
Such are the perils of espionage

Along the way, MI5 show up and tell Harry that he needs to pretend to be a double agent to foil the plans of whoever he was hired by.  It turns out that Palmer's contact is an old American spy friend, Leo (Karl Malden).  Like Harry, Leo has quit the employ of his country and is enjoying free enterprise.  The big difference between them is that Leo takes his orders from a super-smart computer, which tells him who to hire for what job, who lives and who dies.
Yeah, I'd take my glasses off, too, in the company of naked Karl Malden
It also turns out that Harry's delivery package is a box of eggs, which carry a ridiculously deadly disease inside them.  Why eggs?  Why not?  But why is Leo taking orders from a machine?  Well, it seems that Leo is working for a crazy Texas billionaire (Ed Begley) who wants to fight Communism.  Billionaires are the most likely people to build billion-dollar computers, so there's you answer.  Can Harry prevent World War III?  Maybe, but the story gets much more convoluted than you might expect.

As far as the acting goes, Billion Dollar Brain is decent.  I was surprised at how charmless the Harry Palmer character was; well, he had a British accent (which goes a long way in America), but the character was fairly blank in this film.  I don't blame Michael Caine for this, because I believe he did a good job given his role, but the script just didn't make Harry very likable.  Karl Malden did a solid job as the conniving, yet workmanlike Leo.  Toward the end, his character got kind of silly, but I blame the script more than Malden here.  Ed Begley was hilariously over the top as the crazy Texan.  If there was a couch in a scene, you can assume he chewed it apart.  While his character was utterly ridiculous, he provided a much-needed jolt in the arm for the film and helped make the final third of the movie silly, but enjoyable.  As for Francoise Dorleac, she's reeeel purrty.  Aside from that...well, she's purrty.
"Ridiculous?!?  I'll 'ridiculous' you...!"

So, how about the direction?  Well, this is definitely better than the last Ken Russell film I watched.  To be fair, though, almost anything is better than the film adaptation of Tommy.  Honestly, I wasn't very impressed with Russell's work here.  He did a decent enough job with the actors, but the story is pretty thin and his editing doesn't make it any easier to understand.  This is a story of double- and triple-crosses, but Russell never really goes very deep into the tension that would normally accompany deep-cover operations.  Instead, he plays up the silliness of Ed Begley.  He does that very well, but it's at odds with the tone of the rest of the film.  Billion Dollar Brain is simply an example of an under-directed film.
"Okay, Michael...your motivation's cold.  Action!"

Is there anything as sad as a spy movie that doesn't have a coherent plot?  Well, yes, if you want to get all "big picture" on me, but in terms of spy movies, the answer is "no."  Harry Palmer doesn't know exactly what he's supposed to be doing for a decent portion of this film, which makes it awfully difficult for the audience to follow his logic.  Harry's working as a double agent for somebody who is double-crossing a madman, while there is another double-agent involved...and several supporting characters die for little or no reason.  I might accept the random plot holes and ridiculousness if the main character's charisma was enough to help this movie coast to the finish, but Harry Palmer is not very impressive in this film.  Aside from Caine's Cockney accent, Palmer doesn't have much personality.  While this may be the third movie in the series, the inherent coolness of Harry Palmer must be established early and often to forgive story weaknesses of this magnitude.  Billion Dollar Brain does not do that.

That is not to say that Billion Dollar Brain is worthless.  Even a script-hampered Michael Caine can be entertaining, and he goes through enough of the motions to make this film seem like more of an adventure than it really is.  In fact, the final third of the film almost serves as a template for the silliness that the Roger Moore Bonds would become infamous for.  This isn't a good spy movie, or even a good regular movie.  It is mildly entertaining, though, and probably better than the third installment of most film series. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Le Cercle Rouge

I've long held a fascination with film noir, but I've never really delved into the genre too deeply.  I blame my eccentric and erratic tastes; it's hard for me to watch too much of one type of film without wanting to mix things up a bit.  I guess that explains many of my viewing choices.  The chance to participate in the Noir-a-Thon has given me a bit more direction when I am in the mood for seriously classic cinema.  More importantly, it has given me a reason to finally get around to some movies that have been kicking around in my Instant Queue for a while.

Le Cercle Rouge, which can be translated from French as (I'm sure you can guess) "The Red Circle" references an anecdote from the Buddha, where the inevitability of fate is explained.  No matter what happens to a person or group along the way, if they are destined to meet at a particular time and place (a red circle, perhaps?), then they will meet then and there.  I tried to Google the exact quotation to see where it came from; apparently, the director made it up.  Maybe some people can make their own fate, then?
Can "fate" explain gaudy wallpaper?

Corey (Alain Delon) is about to be released early from prison, but the night before is approached by a prison guard.  The guard has a job for Corey, if he's interested.  Corey manages not to spit in the guard's face, but that's about the limit of his politeness.  He plans to get out of jail and stay out of jail.  Things aren't that easy for Corey, though, thanks to some chance circumstances (in part) and his own personal tendencies (mostly). Within a few hours of regaining his freedom, Corey has robbed and insulted a mob boss, killed a man, and helped a wanted criminal evade the police.  With problems that serious piling up, Corey has no choice but to take the prison guard up on his offer; one last heist to put him in the clear.  Of course, nothing is that simple; the company he keeps might just attract the attention of the best policeman on the French force.
"This is a tough case.  Get me Clouseau."

Not that the film actually explains much of that plot.  Le Cercle Rouge is perhaps the most minimalist screenplay I have ever seen come to life.  There is precious little dialogue and very little music.  This is a quiet movie, and it doesn't bother explaining things to the audience.  Why was Corey in jail?  That's not important.  Does he know or care where his lover/mistress is now?  I'm not certain.  What's he thinking?  Aside from "I think I'll have a cigarette," I have no idea.
There are a LOT of scenes just like this one
The sparseness of the script would normally irritate me --- I do like knowing what is going on, after all --- but writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville does a fantastic job telling this story.  Most filmmakers would naturally focus on the heist job that the guard lined up for Corey as the focus of the film.  Melville treats the heist almost as a second thought.  Don't misunderstand me --- it's an impressive heist (about twenty-five minutes without a line of dialogue), but Melville has made the characters involved seem so ridiculously smart and competent by this point that the success of the theft is a natural conclusion to their confidence. 
"We are here to chew bubble gum and perpetrate an impossible crime.  And we're all out of bubble gum."

With very little dialogue and an unconventional story structure, the acting becomes all the more important.  Alain Delon was very impressive as the actions-speak-louder-than-words main character.  If noir heroes weren't expected to make clever quips all the time, his would be the prototypical performance for a noir lead.  He's unemotional on the surface, honorable (in his own way, of course), and a bad ass.  Gian Maria Volonte nearly matches Delon's excellence as Vogel, an escaped convict.  He's not the master planner that Corey is, but he's impressive as a man of action.  Rounding out the criminal crew, Yves Montand plays a washed-up drunk with a particular talent.  I thought he was fine, and he fit the rest of the cast well, but his character has one of the most comically fast recoveries from alcoholism in the history of cinema; I was surprised to learn than Montand was a popular French singer as well as an actor, because this part isn't the normal fluff you find actor/musicians taking.  Speaking of actors that sing, the crack police detective, played by Bourvil (just the one name, like Cher), was one of the most likable policemen I have seen in a film that primarily focuses on the lawbreakers.
Maybe Corey should clean out his trunk more often

It's difficult for me to explain just how impressed I was by Melville's direction in Le Cercle Rouge.  He handled the actors perfectly.  There is not one bad performance in this entire cast, even the bit parts.  I loved how much he left for the audience to figure out on their own; if you can't figure it out, then it's not important to the story at hand.  And what, exactly, is this story, if it is not all about the heist?  Well, it's the voyage these characters take on their way to the red circle, of course.  The inevitability of the final meeting leads to a surprisingly swift ending, but it all makes sense within the plot.
French crooks don't talk.  The smoke and groom their mustaches.
I was fascinated by how little is revealed about any of these characters.  Their motivations are, to some degree, a secret to the audience.  There is no back story provided to make us identify with any of the criminals, and we see them at their most professional only.  There is no moment where Corey reminisces over his lost love, or how he got himself into this mess.  Nobody asks why Vogel is on the run from the police; it is even implied later in the film that he was never even arrested, and yet there is a manhunt for him.  And, somehow, none of this is a problem for the viewer.  Well, it wasn't for me, anyway.

Le Cercle Rouge might not be for everyone.  If you watch the original theatrical cutting (not the American one), you are getting maybe forty minutes of dialogue in a film over two hours long.  You've got to pay attention to the little things here, but you are definitely rewarded for your diligence.  This is also much slower than most crime capers, and devoid of one-liners.  While humor-free and relatively action-free, I absolutely loved the tone of the film, the way it was shot, and the acting.  I wish the ending was more satisfying --- it is quite jarring --- but I liked the rest of the film enough to make up for that one (fairly serious) complaint.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Season of the Witch

I was going to pass over Season of the Witch --- mostly because it looked horrid --- but I saw Chris Gore's quick review of it and my interest was piqued by the words "zombie monks."  Admittedly, that is not a phrase that is often accompanied by "the Academy Award-winning performance of," but Nicolas Cage fighting zombie monks should have been hilarious.  Not hilarious enough, as it turns out.

When, exactly, is Witching Season?  Right after duck season?  Actually, the Season of the Witch takes place during the Crusades of the mid-1300s.  Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) are bad-ass knights that love to slaughter heretics.  We know this because the two basically tell the camera in so many words.  You'll have to take their word for it, since the large action sequences aren't very convincing.
I find it hard to believe that anyone reached age 60 in the Crusades, much less a knight
After killing in the name of (DA-DA!  DUM!) God for many years, Behmen and Felson decided to quit the team after they invaded a castle and found themselves slaughtering defenseless women and children.  The resident war-priest guy argued that there's no crying in baseball the Crusades, but nobody kept the pair from walking slowly off into the sunset.  The end.  Ha!  If only!  Behmen and Felson walk back to Behmen's hometown in Germany, only to find the area stricken with dead and bloated plague bodies.
Co-starring Christopher Lee's plague corpse!
Knowing that Crusades-quitters are outlaws, the pair enter the nearest city with the intent of buying horses to take them to Felson's hometown; ever-careful to not be identified, Behmen wears a mask over his face (which doesn't attract attention at all) and Felson wears a hood (except when he doesn't).  Despite these precautions, the men are identified as Crusades-quitters when Behmen allows a clumsy child to handle the only thing in his possession that would identify him as a Crusades-quitter. 
"Okay, maybe I should have thought that one through."
The pair get locked up in a dungeon and await their inevitable hanging for treason.  Or is it inevitable?  The town has captured a young girl that they claim is a witch.  Obviously, a witch being in the same place the plague is means that the witch cursed the land.  Just as obviously, the witch needs to be immediately killed taken to a remote colony of monks, who will put her on trial for witchcraft.  The town is a little short on brave men that can travel across the dangerous German landscape unscathed, so Behmen and Felson get a chance to clear their names.  Of course, it's not that simple.  Witchcrafted wolves and dangerous bridges stand in their way, but Behmen, Felson, the supposed witch, and a few others are off to monkland!
"I've reason to believe we both will be received in Monkland"

Sounds like an acting tour de force, eh?  Yeah, well...this was never going to be a great film, so I went into this with low expectations.  Ron Perlman was decently likable.  Robert Sheehan was kind of annoying as the d'Artagnon of the witch-escorting-party, but he's not so bad that you'll remember his performance the next day.  Claire Foy had a terrible character to play, but she still wasn't very good.  On the plus side, she is about the only person in the cast who looked dirty enough to be in the 14th century.
Surprisingly clean hair, though
Stephen Graham was mediocre in a small supporting role and Stephen Campell Moore was similarly bland as the witch-escort's resident priest.  I was kind of disappointed by their performances, because I have enjoyed them in bit parts in the past; I guess I was hoping that some British charm would help make this movie more entertaining. 
Stephen Campbell Moore witnessing Nicolas Cage overacting for the first time
But that was not to be.  This movie stars Nicolas Cage, and far from his best work.  I have seen Cage do good work in the past, and I have seen him be flamboyantly (and entertainingly) silly.  This is the other Nicolas Cage, the one who thinks he's in a serious movie.  It's not that he's terrible.  I thought he matched the tone of the film just fine; that's only a problem when the movie's tone is shitty.  I've seen him act worse, but Season of the Witch really could have used a less subdued and more ridiculously overacting Nic Cage.
"You want me to overact more?"  I know, I know.

The fact of the matter is that Season of the Witch is about as fun to watch as watching plague blister pus dry.  Why is that?  Director Dominic Sena is no stranger to stupid movies, but at least he usually has the sense to be completely goofy or have Halle Berry take her top off to distract audiences.  This movie is just dull.  The battle scenes in the beginning were tepid, the horror angle never really pays off, and there is no suspense.  This isn't the most incompetent directing job I have ever seen, but it is an impressive blend of disappointing special effects, a lousy script, cheesy acting and boring plot.

...And then there are the frequent story and visual parallels between Season of the Witch and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal.  If absolutely nothing else, I will say that Sena was bold to invite comparison between this mess and a classic film.  "Bold" isn't always a smart choice, though.  Witch takes a lot of cosmetic similarities --- two men return from the Crudades (disillusioned) to a plague-ridden homeland, the men form a traveling group in the woods, there is a potentially wrongly accused witch being transported through the woods in a wooden cage, etc. --- and tries to twist its premise into an action/fantasy film.  It could have worked (somewhat) with a better script or better special effects, but the constant reminders of a better film just make Season of the Witch seem that much worse.  On the other hand, it was pretty freaking hilarious to see just how heavy-handed the parallels were.

There is something worth noting about this film, but I have to warn you...SPOILER ALERT: Season of the Witch has no witches in it.  Ha!  HA!  That's almost funny enough to make up for the rest of the film.  That's right, the supposed witch is really a demon.  What a twist!  And that's worse, it's the first time demons are mentioned in the story, so...I'm not sure.  The witchy-demon does animate monk corpses to fight our heroes, which is awesome in theory.  In practice, the special effects and lack of suspense or horror ruined that seemingly foolproof plot element.  Oh, well.  While that is remarkably stupid, it's not enough to make up for the rest of the movie.  It is good enough for one star, though, and I did enjoy one of the death scenes and I laughed whenever it compared itself to The Seventh Seal.  It's not much, but you take what you can get from witches.

Here's a live recording from Liars, from their witch-themed album, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

I have always found it strange when a writer or director returns to something they have published previously.  I understand the argument for going back to older material that might seem underdeveloped or raw, but the rough edges are often what makes art charming.  George Lucas and Stephen King may be the most notorious (and richest) examples of revising their own history, but it's always been around, from Walt Whitman to the current Hollywood reboot craze.  I was surprised when I learned that legendary director Alfred Hitchcock remade one of his movies, The Man Who Knew Too Much; I was even more surprised when I realized that the original film wasn't silent.  Why would a director with such good instincts want to revise his own film?  Well, there's one way to find out, right?

Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife, Jill (Edna Best) are vacationing with their daughter, Betty, in what appears to be the Swiss Alps.  Why only "appears"?  Well, watch this opening scene and tell me how much of it you believe:
That sure is ski accident, Hitch.  And by "convincing," I of course mean "insultingly idiotic."  How old is that girl supposed to be?  I think you learn at a pretty young age to not put your life and the lives of others in danger and then laugh about it.  I am not one to advocate child abuse, but if there is an argument for it, Betty could be it.

Anyway, that scene shows the Lawrences laughing it up with Mr. Can't Ski, AKA Louis (Pierre Fresnay) and sharing a few laughs with the sinister (not in this scene, though) Abbott (Peter Lorre).  Not long after the skiing accident, Jill and Louis are sharing a dance when he is assassinated by a sniper's bullet.  With his dying words, he urges Jill to find an important secret in his room, and pass it on to the British consulate.  Naturally, since Jill is a delicate woman (who is a champion skeet shooter...?), Bob takes over.  In Louis' bedroom, he finds a shaving brush, and inside that brush --- apparently he had the Rambo survival knife of brushes --- there is a note.
Of course!  This
Bob returns to Jill, where she is being comforted/questioned by the police.  As he prepares to share the message with everyone, the Lawrences receive a phone call; if they want to see stupid little Betty again, they had better not talk to the cops! 
"We'll consider it.  Don't call us, we'll call you.  Maybe."
Since they opt to try and keep their daughter alive, the Lawrences are left without many attractive options.  They know something bad is going to happen, and it is implied that this bad thing could be as significant to world politics as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  What can this married couple do?  Well, Bill can go out and try to single-handedly try to save his daughter.  Jill...well, she can sit out most of this one.

Hitchcock movies are not particularly famous for having great acting parts; he's a master director, and the plot usually supersedes the actors involved.  Such is the case with The Man Who Knew Too Much.  I found Edna Best to be fairly vapid in the lead female role.  Hitchcock generally had pretty strong female parts in his films, but Best appeared genuinely helpless, even when she was taking action.
Her lines are written on her palm
Leslie Banks seemed ill-suited for his role, too.  I have never seen either actor in anything else, but I was not impressed by their dramatic chops here.  Banks, in particular, seemed better suited for a romantic comedy than a thriller.  Peter Lorre, though, is quite memorable here as the evil mastermind, Abbott.  Lorre is usually good, but he is what lifts this picture up; sure, he's an evil mastermind, but he also has a sense of humor --- and that makes his character far more rounded than most of the cast.
"Well...I'm only mostly evil."

In all fairness, the cast wasn't working with much.  The script is not very clever and many parts of it are just stupid (like the ski jump scene or the chair-throwing battle).  Alfred Hitchcock's direction --- which I assumed would be great --- is shockingly poor.  It's not awful, just mediocre, which is "shockingly poor" for a master.  I thought the story was edited together (and written) poorly; this is a bit of a mess from a plot standpoint.  I'm still not entirely sure what was going on here --- I think the Lawrence child was kidnapped to prevent the Lawrence parents from showing the police a note that would lead them to...a dentist?  That can't be right.  Hitchcock does show flashes of his future brilliance, with many of Lorre's scenes being filmed impeccably and some of the transitions between scenes were inspired, but there is just too much mediocrity in this film --- acting, script, plot, and occasional stupidity --- to give him a pass.  I was very surprised when I realized that I didn't like this movie.  Normally, I can enjoy a Hitchcock film because the story is entertaining.  In this instance, I'm still not sure when Bob becomes a Man Who Knows Too Much; for most of the film, he appears to be half-cocked and mostly clueless.  I also thought some of the story elements were handled clumsily; was there really a doubt how the film would end when Jill's skeet-shooting nemesis turns out to be a bad guy?  My biggest complaint is that this is a suspense/thriller movie with neither suspense nor thrills.  The story is too incoherent to effectively build tension, despite nearly non-stop action.  Is this Alfred Hitchcock's dumb action movie?  I think it is.  No wonder he wanted a second crack at this one.

Writing this review made me want to look up photos of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but I instead stumbled across music videos for the band Franz Ferdinand instead.  I had no idea that a Scottish band inadvertently started World War I.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Harry Brown

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for stories about bad-asses that have given up their violent ways, only to have circumstances back them into a corner where they have to murder defeat a hell of a lot of people.  That's the basic plot to almost every good martial arts film, let alone the Rambo series and countless other action movies.  But what how long can a bad-ass retire from bad-assery and still have what it takes to get the job done?

Harry Brown (Michael Caine) lives in a bad neighborhood in South London; he lives in a housing estate, which is the British version of a low-income housing development.  There is a lot of graffiti, youth gangs openly deal drugs and regularly assault people without provocation.  It's a generally scummy place.  Harry visits his comatose wife in the hospital daily, and then goes to the pub to have a few pints with his best friend, Leonard (David Bradley), over some chess.  Even there, though, social decay can be seen; the pub's owner, Sid (Liam Cunningham), gets kickbacks from drug dealers/stolen merchandise vendors.  To be honest, it's not a particularly sunny look on old age.
If time flies when you're having fun, I bet the clock hasn't moved in years.
A pair of unrelated tragedies shake Harry up.  First, Harry receives a phone call from the hospital, urging him to rush over for his wife's final moments; he leaves the house, but opts not to take the gang member-filled underpass that would save him time (assuming he doesn't get robbed, beaten, or killed) and winds up just missing her death.  Almost immediately after, Leonard tells Harry that he can't handle living in constant fear any more, and he has taken to carrying an old bayonet tip for protection.  The very next day, Detective Inspector Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Detective Sergeant Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) arrive at Harry's door with the news of Leonard's death.  Local gang members are suspected, but no charges are made.  With nothing left to lose, Harry (consciously or subconsciously at first) prepares to take out his frustrations on the scumbags that caused them.
You can't to the "That's not a knife..." bit if the other guy is senile
As luck would have it, Harry Brown used to be a Royal Marine who had fought in the urban areas of Northern Ireland forty years ago.  What can an elderly marine do against a youth culture that is starting to resemble the ultra-violence of A Clockwork Orange?  If nothing else, he can prove that an out-of-practice bad-ass almost always has the edge over hot-headed idiots. 
He may look grandfatherly, but he's not here to tuck you in

While I wouldn't say that the acting in Harry Brown is fantastic, there were no bad performances in the bunch.  Michael Caine can be awfully hit-and-miss due to his mercenary attitude toward taking roles, but he's good here.  His portrayal of Harry is a depressing one, and he is fueled less by rage and revenge (as is common in this type of film) and more by despair.  His gang member counterpart is played by Ben Drew, AKA British musician Plan B.  I thought he was pretty good as a thuggish nogoodnik, although his character wasn't particularly complex.  Emily Mortimer was fine as the only cop that actually figures out what is happening in the film, and she has more than her share of good small moments.  Her character's motivations seemed to be more than just doing her job, but no insight was ever really given to her character; I think that was a missed opportunity. This was the first time I had ever seen David Bradley outside of a Harry Potter film, and he was okay in his small part.  The only other actor that stood out to me was Iain Glen as an insincere and mildly incompetent superior police officer.  There were a number of small character roles for street thugs, but none of them were terribly developed.
Kids, don't do drugs

Harry Brown is Daniel Barber's first feature film, although it is worth noting that he received an Oscar nomination for his only other credit, a short film.  Barber did a good job with the cast, getting realistic performances out of a story that could have occasionally been over the top.  I liked the action in the film --- it looked good and painful, and none of the characters appeared to be accomplishing anything unrealistic.  I was surprised that my biggest take-away from the film did not involve Michael Caine's performance.  Instead, I was impressed by how frightening the youth gang members were.  The opening scenes, featuring a gang initiation and some random violence set the tone for the movie.

The only real problem I have with Harry Brown is that it is retreading familiar ground.  The obvious comparison is to Death Wish (the first one, not the ridiculous sequels), where a good man takes steps to fix what the law cannot (or will not) fix.  Harry Brown isn't as focused on its action sequences or the brutality of the hero (as in Man on Fire, Taken, Law Abiding Citizen, or Edge of Darkness).  Instead it focuses on the despair of the main character, kind of like Death Sentence.  Of course, this movie also features an elderly man killing a number of younger men on his path to vengeance, which is awfully similar to The Limey.
I've seen this scene before.  I bet the sleazy arms-n-drug dealer lives.
I'm totally okay with Harry Brown being just another revenge movie.  What I didn't like was the conscious effort to make this movie sad.  Harry's situation is hopeless and there is no real happy ending for an old man who is alone in the world, since he's unlikely to start over somewhere new.  Seriously, this feels less like a revenge movie and more like suicide-by-gang-member.  This isn't a movie that glamorizes or glorifies violence, either.  It's a fairly realistic look at the probable effects of vigilantism in a crime-heavy area.  While this makes Harry Brown unique, it also makes it one of the more depressing revenge movies out there.  It was well-made, but is kind of a downer.

When I discovered that the main thug in the movie was a British pop star, I checked his credits and found a music video from the Harry Brown soundtrack.  This is Chase & Status ft. Plan B - End Credits.  It's not my cup of tea, but it is very British.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Strange Days

Science fiction movies often walk a dangerously thin line.  On the one hand, they need to be different enough from the modern day to make things interesting, but if you make things too different, you risk alienating your audience (unless you have a huge budget for cool special effects).  One solution that often works well is to set your film in the near future, so you can make some improvements, but not have to change the entire world; it's economical and takes a whole lot less pre-production to imagine a not-too-future world.  When I say that this method "works well," I mean that it succeeds upon the film's immediate release.  Movies like this can seem awfully quaint after the modern day passes what was once the near future.  Case in point: Strange Days.

In the last few days of 1999, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) has gotten himself into a lot of trouble.  For starters, he is a former Los Angeles police officer who has become a sleazy dealer of illegal technology.  You see, in 1999 Los Angeles, there are Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices (SQUIDs), which are cyberpunk tools for recording a person's point of view --- through their eyes, with their emotions and physical sensations --- and Lenny sells the recordings.  Of course, this was over a decade ago, so you probably remember all this.  SQUIDs are stylish, too, often taking on the appearance of obvious wigs.
Either a SQUID or somebody scalped a robot
It's not make explicitly clear why the practice is illegal, but I suppose a demand for "high-risk" memories of criminal acts could be a bad thing.  Anyway, Lenny is a fast-talking sleazebag with a heart of gold.  He spends his non-dealing time pining for his lost love, Faith (Juliette Lewis), and reliving his own SQUID-recorded memories of her.  Not surprisingly, his highlights usually include her in tight clothing or clothing-optional moments.  When I say that Faith is "lost," I don't mean dead; she just left him for the evil and gravelly-voiced record producer, Philo (Michael Wincott).  Philo is a rich jerk with psychotic tendencies and a habit for being over-possessive.  Faith wants to be a rock star, with all the egocentric behavior that implies.
"What a catch."  Apply the statement to either or both.
Man, science fiction movies require a lot of exposition.  Anyway, Lenny winds up at the center of a storm of evil-doing.  Someone is giving him SQUID tapes showing the anonymous user raping, murdering, and --- most disturbing to Lenny --- breaking into Lenny's apartment while he slept.  For one reason or another, Lenny concludes that this killer is going to go after Faith soon.  But who could the killer be?  Could it possibly be the two LAPD officers that are trying to kill Lenny?  Or are they a symptom of a deeper conspiracy?  Dum-da-DUUUUMMMMM?!?

For being a weird sci-fi movie, there sure are a lot of quality actors in Strange Days.  Ralph Fiennes turns in an interesting lead performance; he plays Lenny as a broken man, only a shadow of what he had been.  And yet, he is still capable enough to unravel a few mysteries and avoid getting killed on several occasions.  The cool thing about Fiennes is that his performance would have made Lenny's failure just as believable as his success would --- Lenny is not your typical movie hero, because he actually needs his friends.  Those friends turn in surprising performances, too.  Angela Bassett gets to play a tough, no-nonsense cabbie that also happens to be pining away for Lenny while he bitches and moans about Faith.  I don't know if we needed the romantic angle, but it was more depth than I expected from her buddy role.  The other buddy is Tom Sizemore as a sleazy private detective; while I normally enjoy mid-90s Sizemore, his ridiculous hairpiece was too distracting for me.
...or maybe I got lost in his dreamy eyes.
Vincent D'Onofrio and William Fichtner played corrupt cops (In Los Angeles?  In the 90s?  Suspend that disbelief!), but they weren't great at it.  Fichtner was fine, but D'Onofrio overacted in this one-dimensional role, somehow equating shouting and sweating with complexity.
And from this seed, Law & Order: Criminal Intent would sprout.
Glenn Plummer's character was a blend of Chuck D and Malcom X, so it should be no surprise that he didn't aim for quiet complexity in his limited screen time.  Career character actor Richard Edson (the parking garage valet in Ferris Bueller) had a bit part, too, and was only marginally more casual.  Michael Wincott once again played an evil character with an evil voice, and he is a pretty solid villain.  Juliette Lewis spent most of the film flaunting her body with either limited or tight-fitting clothing; that's fine I guess, but I've always been kind of weirded out by her.  This is in that time period when she somehow got every "crazy chick" role Hollywood had to offer, and she's as rude and obnoxious as ever.  My biggest problem with her part in this movie is that Lenny can't get over their break-up.
Who could ever get over this?

While I wouldn't say that any of the acting is all that good, I think the cast played up to the storyline pretty well and fit the general tone of the movie.  I had some major problems with the direction, though.  This was Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to the successful and ridiculous bromance that was Point Break, and Strange Days definitely exhibits more confidence as a director than that film.  Unfortunately, I believe that confidence was largely misplaced.  Bigelow has trouble with the point-of-view camera work necessary to convey the experience of a SQUID recording; the sex scenes, in particular, felt like the cameraman was under strict orders to not follow a natural line of sight.  The pacing of the film is erratic, and the tone suffers from a number of action scenes that have no falling action; that's fine in a tightly-wound and taught thriller, but those words do not describe this film, if only because it takes a while to progress anywhere with this story.  And it is a long while, clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours.  I understand that James Cameron co-wrote the movie, but he is certainly no genius when it comes to the written word; some more editing would have been nice.

There are also a few stupid ideas in this fabricated future.  That's to be expected from a lot of futuristic sci-fi movies, but these weren't errors in judging how we use technology, they are just poor choices.  I liked that most of the characters in Strange Days dressed more or less like normal people (it was set only five years in the future, after all), but the exceptions to that rule looked idiotic.  For instance, I don't care how eccentric the bad guy is, he's not going to hire a dread-locked albino woman wearing a bondage-themed outfit as a bodyguard, especially as a bodyguard who is sometimes called upon to assault and/or kill someone.  Flashy bodyguards with a license to kill tend to stick out in people's memories.  And why do only people in the future dress that stupidly?
Wasn't she in the Matrix sequel?
It also bothered me that this film deals with cyberpunk ideas, including having bionic parts put in your noggin, but we never see anything too bio-technical.  We get the stupid SQUID hair nets --- which are suspiciously bulky, considering they are recording and reading brain waves that include vision, emotion, and physical sensation --- but we never get to see a bionic eye?  Lame.

I would also like to ask what the deal is with characters who presume that their enemy has drowned.  I don't know how many times I have seen a movie where a car goes into the water --- the bad guys may shoot at the underwater car, or they might not --- and the villains wait to confirm that the good guys are dead...but give up a few moments before the hero resurfaces.  What is the big hurry?  Are these bad guys late for an evil henchmen dinner party?  If there's "no way anyone could have survived that," then why not wait a few more minutes until a body floats up?  That happens pretty frequently in action scenes, but I thought Vincent D'Onofrio's impatience in this movie was especially bad.

Despite its shortcomings, Strange Days is a decently effective science fiction adventure.  The story might have a few too many twists and turns to be truly effective, and the "future" is kind of quaint now, but it is a pretty well-realized future, and that deserves some respect.  I thought the relationships between the various characters was pleasantly atypical; while the plot may have been almost stock for suspense/thrillers at times, the characters didn't ever comfortably fit into that mold.  I would give this movie a higher rating, if not for one glaring flaw: there is absolutely no mention of Prince in this film.  That's right, a movie that climaxes on New Year's Eve, 1999, and was released in 1995 (the height of Prince's "The Artist Former Known As" fame) did not have anyone partying to Prince's "1999."  Talk about science fiction.
"I've got a lion in my pocket, and baby he's ready to roar!"