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JAPANORAMA - Gang of 3 BANNER JAPAN-O-RAMA.jpgShield Straw Takao Osawa, Nanako Matsushima, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Goro Kishitani, Masatoh Ibu, Kento Nagayama, Kimiko Yo, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Takashi MiikeShield of Straw (Wara No Tate): the ever-prolific Takashi Miike’s latest movie – a tycoon offers a 1bn Yen open ransom to anybody that kills the fugitive who murdered his grand-daughter. This simple setup leads to a nice, tight film: with a couple of decent action scenes and loads of tense moments. It also has a lot of moral ground to cover, as it follows the security detail assigned to keep the prisoner safe, and whether or not they should turn a blind eye, or do him in themselves. The acting’s generally good, although there’s some fairly shoddy over-acting and screaming by Fujiwara (the main kid in Battle Royale). Towards the end, it does get a little formulaic – we’re safe / we’re not safe / repeat – but the pace and questions raised by the film are enough to distract you from the fact. What you end up with is a pretty mainstream Miike film that’s quite the enjoyable popcorn thriller/drama.

Score: 7/10

The Hunted: the FBI turn to a master survivalist/tracker to hunt down one of his former star pupils, who has since become a rogue special forces operative. Tommy Lee Jones is guilty of a little overacting, although he does spend most of the runtime poking, touching and staring at his surroundings for clues – so I guess he’s making up for that. Del Toro does his tried and tested stone cold killer routine, but with such dialogue-light characters neither feels properly developed. The underlying issue being that you should really be giving guys of this caliber deeper, more rounded characters to play with. The film’s cut well for the action scenes, with a few standout heavy-handed, bloody fights – however there are a few moments where Del Toro feels more like a bogeyman than a human. The film’s full of good locations, good story, good leads – but it somehow fails to fully engage or grip you. Biggest flaw is the lack of mood music, when it appears it’s very low volume, and makes the film feel flat, and vacuous. Director William Friedkin could have got away with spending less on big stars for empty roles, and more for big music over flat scenes. The Hunted starts off with a bang, but loses focus and audience by about the half-way mark, relying on big, macho action to keep interest up.

Score: 5/10

End of Watch: two of LAPD’s finest end up with a bounty on their heads after accidentally disrupting the activities of a brutal cartel. From the opening car chase this feels very realistic, shot primarily on dashboard / surveillance / handheld cameras etc. This style not only lends itself to authenticity – glamour is played down throughout – but heightens the drama and urgency of action sequences. Both leads (Gyllenhaal and Peña) are superb, the naturalistic script makes them genuinely feel like friends, and their performances make you believe that they are regular guys – the fire scene in particular shows us that they are real heroes. What sets this aside from most cop films is that the antagonists are painted as being so ruthless and violent that there’s a genuine sense of danger that simmers throughout the film, hitting boiling point at the climax. My only major issue is that because the overall style is ‘handheld’/’genuine’ footage, characters in the middle of drive-by shootings / full-blown firefights / intimate moments are always carrying a camera/phone etc; even when there’s plenty shots in the film that aren’t handheld, so it seems a bit stupid. Also, if the penultimate scene had been cut, the ending would have also been so much more powerful. Niggles aside, End of Watch is a stunning cop film, with a strong ‘buddy’ vibe, real threat and two great performances at its heart. This is easily the best cop film in years, and arguably ever.

Score: 9/10

Killer Joe: a young redneck with bad debts finds out that his mother has a $50,000 life insurance policy, so he contacts the world’s dodgiest cop – Killer Joe. While this is pitched as a thriller, it’s more like a deep-south trailer-trash crime-caper, which was a nice surprise. More surprising, is the absolutely wicked streak of very, very black humour that holds the movie together, providing an unexpectedly high number of laughs. Better still is the perfectly selected cast, all of whom portray brilliant – memorable – characters, but it’d be wrong not to single out Juno Temple (for her no-holds barred performance) and McConaughey, for his portrayal of a scary, twisted, stickler-for-manners-and-the-rules dirty cop – he’s unbelievably good. A few scenes (the dinner date in particular) feel overlong and lifted directly from a play – because this is based on a play, doh! There’s tons of nudity, a jarring/uneasy synth soundtrack and a totally subversive ending that you couldn’t begin to predict. Not unlike The Killer Inside Me, this is a difficult one to recommend: it’s unbelievably dark and uncomfortable to watch in large parts yet it works so well as a piece of entertainment, with some great laughs: above all else, this is a stunning performance piece from all actor involved… including Emile Hirsch!!! (And Gina Gershon, and Thomas Haden Church…)

Score: 7.5/10