To Live and Die in LA: when his partner is murdered by a counterfeiter a rabid secret serviceman will do anything to avenge him. All the classic cop tropes are in here: the three days left on the job veteran, mismatched and reluctant partners, etc etc. However, instead of the one-dimensional ‘good cop bad cop’, we get two complex and grey characters going through a moral minefield. For relatively unknown actors (at the time), the performances across the board are rock solid, particularly young Willem Dafoe’s slimy and menacing ultra-villain. The star for me is Friedkin; his direction here is outstanding and the opening 15 minutes or so has some bold editing, imagery, and musical choices – almost giving the film a bona fide arthouse vibe, and really putting the viewer on the back foot. Everything from an intense crazy car chase (wrong way through traffic) through to nail-biting tension (a split screen break-in) is handled superbly. The plot is the only thing that lets the film down a bit; it’s a simple revenge story that becomes unnecessarily convoluted through lots of tertiary characters and tangents. That being said, the film is always interesting and memorable – with the anti-hero cops on the edge, and characters on the fringes of society in out-of-the-ordinary situations (jail, strip club, dance troupe…) Depending on your tolerance, this film may be ‘too 1980s’ to handle: the fashion, dominating synths, neon title cards, and homo-eroticism that didn’t quite make it to the 90s. I feel sorry for William Friedkin: after two major successes (The Excorcist and French Connection) critics have been queuing up to stick the boot in to everything he’s done since. For my money he’s one of the most rock-solid film-makers, and one of the few that uses the medium to really get in your head – his framing, soundscape, editing, imagery, and commitment to shocks and disruption are awe-inspiring. To Live and Die in LA is an 80s cop film that stands the test of time because of the talent involved – not for the faint-hearted though.
The Grand Budapest Hotel: a girl reads a book’s prologue, which the author personally sets up; his younger self meeting a hotel owner, who tells him how he came to own a hotel, after he helped a concierge that was once framed for murder. Only that last part is necessary, but hey, this is a Wes Anderson film so suck up the whimsical details you boringly normal douchebag! The ensemble cast is phenomenal – if a little male-centric – to the point where it becomes distracting, but to be fair, the less time you spend thinking about the story the better. Fiennes makes this way funnier than it should have been with his dashing, sweary, and thoroughly entertaining concierge role – an outstanding a piece of comedy-driven anti-casting, in fact, most actors appear to enjoy playing their exaggerated slapstick characters – and on the whole, they’re all fun to watch. There are plenty of great cinematic techniques resurrected here; with models, scale, depth and focus all being used to powerful effect. The cinematography is also meticulous – composition, shapes, balance, symmetry… it’s the epitome of mise-en-scène (any screenshot could be a painting) making Anderson one of the few directors around that give Park Chan–Wook a run for his money. Substance-wise however is where the film falls over, as it feels very light – the story is all shine and no significance beyond the homage to old-timey farces. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a very unique movie, and Anderson’s most entertaining & accessible film to date. Like one of Mendl’s pastries it’s beautiful and admirable, but very light and fluffy.
Out of the Furnace: when his kid brother disappears after getting involved in redneck bare-knuckle boxing, his stoic brother takes the law into his own hands. The acting is nothing short of stupendous; everyone is in full on beast mode; although Casey Affleck does his trademark mumbling incoherency shtick – which is becoming pretty tiresome / irksome. Despite the array of colossal performances topped by Bale and Harrelson, the film is completely marred by a time-bendingly-slow pace, which makes it seem like a 4-hour affair. It’d be like watching Aryton Senna do a Formula 1 circuit in on a mobility scooter. When you’re filling an already lengthy movie with unnecessarily long aerial takes of a car driving through woods, and a time-consuming barely relevant sub-plots (like drink driving) – your editor needs to take a running jump. As the buildup to the finale is so agonisingly drawn out, the end – although satisfying – is ultimately underwhelming. Despite being a more grim version of the boxing sub-plot from Snatch, this it’s a gritty portrayal of a broken American steeltown community in decline. A very Eastwoodian sleeper, but only because it makes you want to sleep…
John Wick: after his wife dies thugs steal his car and kill his dog, which forces former assassin and ‘bogeyman’ John Wick to go on a rampage of Archer proportions. No need to worry about the Bechdel Test with this film – as the only two women with dialogue appear as a video recording, and a sassy female hit-woman. No need to worry about the plot either, as it’s based around a hotel where assassins live and party with each other – and gold coins are the preferred payment method. Whilst Keanu isn’t the most watchable of frontmen he handles is action scenes with style, and Nyqvist, McShane, Dafoe fill in any gaps with fun roles. Reminiscent of 90s European / Asian action movies like Taxi, District 13, Hard Boiled etc – this is all about the guns, cars, pounding techo music and hyper styalised violence, of which there is shitloads. The action scenes are second to none: graphic and wild gunplay (most villains get ‘double-tapped’ – chest then head), there’s excellent combat which incorporates wrestling holds and slams, and a couple of nifty car chases. One of the directors is a stunt man, which shows as the action scenes are a cut above your standard affair. John Wick is a rarity these days – a no-brainer, balls out, gritty revenge / action film, that sticks to its R-rating and doesn’t claim – or try – to be anything more. It’s the kind of film that Taken 3 wishes it was.
John Carter of Mars: an American civil war-vet accidentally teleports to Mars in the middle of a war. At over an hour long the setup drags on, and the whole film never really shakes off the ‘teeing up a franchise’ vibe as things are cintinually explained – including all of the confusingly named species, planets, and cities – feels like Bill Cosby suggested a couple. The script isn’t the best, although there’s a few comedy gems poking out between clunky, formulaic dialogue and sections of explanation – that would have been better to get over with in one big voiceover. There’s some half-decent actors making a quick buck here Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Willem Dafoe – who are all good, but nobody has much scope with flat, stock characters, the most entertaining and likable of which is a non-speaking dog-like alien. Some other undertones felt out-of-place, like the environmental agenda segments (including literal green warriors!) Some positives of note: graphics are awesome considering most of it is CGI/Green Screen, several gratuitous big action set-pieces, the score is top drawer and is reminiscent of Indy films, skimpy outfits on the Princess are awesome, a smart ending, and there are parts that feel like a solid old-fashioned action adventure. Unfortunately, despite the source being an ‘original’ space story (almost 100 years old) it’s been copied and ripped off so often over the decades, leaving a major air of déjà vu. Finally, I know we’re supposed to suspend disbelief, but given advances and general knowledge in astronomy / physics / space and science… a lot of the unknowns from 100 years ago now feel like massive, tardy unexplained plotholes – but that’s a minor gripe. John Carter is undoubtedly an impressive story; but it’s just not presented as best it could be (down to the framing device – it’s necessary, but could have been done better), and because of this, it never got me going once, which is disappointing for a film this big.
Antichrist: since studying Europa / Zentropa in Uni I’ve made it my business to see all of Lars Von Trier’s films, most of which push the envelope of style and content. This film sees none of his characteristic rules or obstructions in the film-making process, perhaps why there’s not much content and only a couple of memorable scenes. It’s it’s essentially a film too far, and with loads of needless violence, sex and symbolism – it feels like a slow burning ‘Hostel’ or ‘Saw’ flick. Technically it seemed a waste of the mighty Red One cameras used and things like the GCI animals / talking fox are plain absurd. Eden’s cabin and cheap atmospheric music seemed to nod at the Evil Dead series. The acting’s the only redeeming part of this flick, but I suspect this film will be a stain on both their careers. You can tell Von Trier’s depression was severe when he wrote this; uncharacteristically crap!