Sunday, 23 November 2014

Fury by David Ayer

David Ayer is a writer and director who is responsible for an outstanding string of cop films, including a couple of collaborations with James Ellroy (Dark Blue and Street Kings) as well as Harsh Times, Training Day and two recent superb examples, End of Watch and Sabotage. 

Now he has delivered a superlative war movie. Indeed, Fury is the finest war picture since Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron. 

Brad Pitt as the tank commander War Daddy has never been better in this tale of the final days of World War 2, as Germany crumbles and the Nazis fight a vicious last ditch defence of the Fatherland. Unfortunately for War Daddy and his crew, the German Tiger tanks still make the American Shermans look like badly made tin toys.

War Daddy is a charismatic figure with his groovy leather jacket and boots and pin-up girls on the grips of his service revolver, which he wears in a fashionable shoulder holster. The story of Fury begins with War Daddy's assistant gunner dead in his tank (the eponymous 'Fury') and follows the arbitrary recruitment of an untrained clerk Norman (sensitively played by Logan Lerman) to take the dead man's place in the hot seat. 

The rest of the tank team consists of Ayer regular Michael Peña as Gordo ('Fatso' in Spanish), Shia LaBeouf as Bible and the memorably grungy Jon Bernthal as Coon-Ass. They are a crack team, and it's a cracking cast.

What follows is a stunning depiction of the brutal combat as the US Army rolls towards Berlin. Ayer has done his research and the script is first rate. He also does a breathtakingly good job of directing. He's particularly good at inserting moments of stillness and repose between the apocalyptic battle scenes.

There is a stunning set piece in which, after bloodily taking a German town, War Daddy drags Norman into a flat where two frightened young German women (Alicia von Rittberg and Anamaria Marinca) are living. There then ensues a remarkable film-within-a-film which explores an impressive range of emotions before the American troops roll out again to — as War Daddy says — take the next town. And the next.

Ayer's supported in fashioning this masterpiece by a formidable team of artists. His cinematographer is Roman Vasyanov who made such ravishing use of colour in Charlie Countryman (which also starred Shia LaBeouf). Here he has restricted himself to a much more grim and monochromatic palette  — grey steel, brown mud, khaki uniforms — but his polychromatic genius blazes into life for an unforgettable nighttime battle sequence.

Steven Price who composed a masterful score for Gravity provides the music here, which features brooding vocals from a chorus and appears to incorporate the ringing sound of spent cartridge cases spilling onto the metal floor of the tank during a desperate battle.

A dark, bloody, violent film full of carnage. And also a classic. If you don't think you'll find it too upsetting, you must see it. I've seen it three times and now, writing about it, I find myself wanting to see it again.
 
And, whatever you do, don't miss the marvellous end credits. The brilliant, graphically-striking use of newsreel footage once again calls to mind Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, which had a similarly splendid title sequence.

With the savage, bloody and memorable Sabotage (which was reminiscent of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), David Ayer seemed to be aspiring to the crown of Sam Peckinpah. 

With Fury he is beginning to seem worthy of it.

(Image credits: Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Horns by Keith Bunin

This film is strangely similar to The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, which I wrote about last week. Both movies are love stories combined with thrillers, and have a supernatural aspect. But whereas in Charlie Countryman the supernatural was a dispensable add-on, here in Horns it is absolutely central.

Horns (directed by Alexandre Aja and scripted by Keith Bunin) also resembles another recent favourite of mine, Gone Girl, in that it features a likable protagonist (with the crazy name of Ig Perrish, played by Daniel Radcliffe) who is accused of murdering his girlfriend — and we are made to guess initially whether he did it or not.

But Horns develops in a somewhat different way. To put it mildly. I shall now try to summarise the story. (Please don't send people after me with a strait-jacket. This actually is the plot of the movie.) As our hero wanders around, trying to piece together the fate of his girlfriend, and work out whether he killed her or not, he start to grow horns on his forehead. That's right, devil horns.

And people react strangely to these horns  — and not in the way you think. They begin to confess their deepest desires to our hero, and ask his permission to indulge them. If that sounds weird, well it is.

Horns, as well as being a murder mystery, love story, and tale of the supernatural, is also a comedy. And therein in lies the problem. These elements aren't successfully blended into a satisfying whole. Rather they're an unholy (no pun intended) mess. What is worse, the magical effects of Ig's horns keeps varying to suit the short term purposes of the script. 
Sometimes he has the power to get people to tell the truth, sometimes he brings out their hidden desires (not quite the same thing), sometimes he simply seems to exert the ability to control their behaviour. 

Oh yes, and sometimes a bunch of supernatural snakes start slithering around. And Ig has the ability to unleash them on people he doesn't like. Except when he really needs to, in the big showdown at the end. Then he can't.

This is a fatal shortcoming. If you are going to tell a fantasy story you must be absolutely clear about the fantasy element and how it operates. You have to lay down ground rules (vampires can't be exposed to sunlight, werewolves are vulnerable to silver bullets...) and resolutely stick to them. Otherwise your whole narrative unravels. Which is what happens in Horns.

What actually works best in the movie is the murder mystery aspect. The supernatural side of the story is a blithering mess. I sat there wondering how the hell (no pun intended) such an oddball movie could ever have got made. I mean, I couldn't imagine someone picking this up as an original script and saying , "Yes, we must green light this movie!" I decided it must be based on some source material...

And sure enough, when the credits rolled at the end, it turned out to be an adaptation of a novel by Joe Hill. Now, Joe Hill is a very interesting writer. He's actually the son of Stephen King, but has very honourably refused to cash in on the name of his mega-famous dad and has carved out a career on his own terms, and his own merits.

Horns the movie was a dog's breakfast, but I suspect that Horns the novel might well work. All the disparate elements which failed to gel as a film could be much more harmoniously blended in prose. I shall check out Hill's book. In fact, I'm looking forward to it.

(Image credits: all the posters are  from Ace Show Biz).

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Charlie Countryman by Matt Drake

The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman is one of the best films of the year. Under this unnecessarily unwieldy title lies a small but perfect cinematic gem — a minor masterpiece. Shia LaBeouf stars as the eponymous Charlie, and he has never been better. With his soulful, hangdog face he instantly commands the audience's sympathy.

Charlie Countryman is essentially the story of an emotionally confused young American tourist who visits Bucharest (the capital of Romania, and a fantastically photogenic city) where he becomes embroiled in an adventure of love, murder and mayhem.

But on top of that, the movie has a supernatural spin. It turns out that Charlie can see the spirits of the recently deceased. Indeed, he's gone to Bucharest because the shade of his mother has suggested it's just thing he needs to do.

I was ambivalent about this fantasy element to the film. It almost seemed expendable. Yet it also provided crucial turning points in the plot — and some of the best gags in the picture. Because Charlie Countryman is one very funny movie, utterly madcap. 

Almost as soon as he lands in Bucharest, Charlie falls in love with Gabi, a ravishing cellist. But Gabi has a dark side. Her ex (in fact, she's still married to him) is a homicidal drug dealer called Nigel, and he isn't pleased to have Charlie on the scene...

This is a lustrous, sumptuous film magnificently photographed by Roman Vasyanov (a Russian cinematographer who recently did the Brad Pitt war movie Fury).

The director is Fredrik Bond who is making his stunning feature debut here. He previously worked on a film about the musician Moby (who gets a thank you in the closing credits).

And the outstandingly fresh, engaging and wacky script was written by Matt Drake whose most recent screenwriting credit was on Project X, a memorable little picture about a teenage party which explodes into catastrophe when word of it goes viral on social media. I see hundreds of movies every year, but Project X stuck in my memory and now I wonder if that was because of Drake's contribution. He's clearly a writer to be reckoned with.

As Charlie's love interest, Evan Rachel Wood is gorgeous — positively radiant. And deeply convincing — I thought she must be Romanian until I checked her name in the credits. It's an odd, backhanded compliment to say her accent was so authentic that I found it confusing. (I thought she was saying "leave" when she was saying "live". Or was it the other way around?) Wood is a stunner. I last sighted her in a pivotal role in The Ides of March and I'm about to see her as the poisonous daughter Veda in the HBO mini series of James M. Cain's novel Mildred Pierce. I'm looking forward to it.

The heavy of the piece — and Gabi's husband — is Mads Mikkelsen, a Danish actor who was so great in A Royal Affair and The Hunt. He also played the bad guy in Casino Royale. Here he is being bad again. He's magnificent; savagely menacing even when he's wearing a shirt printed with a pattern of cartoon dachshunds. (The inventive costume design is by Jennifer Johnson who worked on Hard Candy.)
 
And Rupert Grint (best known as Harry Potter's sidekick) and James Buckley (hugely famed in England for his comedy The Inbetweeners) also appear as a couple of delightfully drug-addled young British tourists who share a hostel with Charlie and drag him along to a strip club, where things go horribly awry...

Catch Charlie Countryman on the big screen while you can. It won't be around for long. It's opening weekend's box office in America was $8,000 — compared to $34,000,000 (!) for the inept and laughable Equalizer. Charlie Countryman is an underdog blockbuster, an indie smash, a great little movie. Utterly screwball, but utterly spellbinding. 

(Image credits: The bulk of the pictures are from Ace Show Biz, as usual. The purple heart image ("pretty f***ing cool") is from Indie Wire. The neon heart image is from Cineworld, where I saw the movie. This diversity of posters seems to indicate that the suits were uncertain — baffled, actually — as to how they should market this splendidly strange film. The shot of Mads in his dachshunds shirt is from the Mads Mikkelsen site.)

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Pick Up the Gun! — '71 by Gregory Burke

Wow. This is an outstanding movie and something of a classic. It's also a frustrating piece of work. There are three things wrong with it, and they militate against it being a stone-cold masterpiece which otherwise, without question, it would be.

First, the good news. This is a fast moving and utterly gripping thriller. It is set in 1971 — of course — and it tells the story of a young squaddie (a British foot soldier) who is sent to Belfast. At this time Northern Ireland was the hellish scene of sectarian violence and terrorism with the Catholics and Protestants at each other's throats and the IRA at war with Britain.

Our hero is Hook, played by Jack O'Connell, who was so great in Starred Up. O'Connell is a gifted actor with a likable quality and a highly expressive face (great smile). He's obviously going to be a big star. That's Hollywood calling, Jack. 

And O'Connell is lucky enough to be in a movie superbly directed by Yann Demange who has a background in TV drama and music videos. '71 is magnificently shot, and made to look like it was filmed on 1971 film stock. The terrific gritty script, which exudes authenticity is by Gregory Burke, a Scottish playwright, famed for his stage drama Black Watch. It always helps when the writer obviously knows his stuff. The movie also has one of the finest music scores of the year, by David Holmes.

'71 follows the harrowing experiences of Hook when he is separated from his regiment during a riot and is trapped behind enemy lines, fleeing for his life and hiding from IRA gunmen. The characters are beautifully drawn, the dialogue is great (and often hilarious — in the midst of this hellish action).

The script is also particularly strong on the internecine conflicts which divide the IRA, and the IRA's strangely symbiotic relationship with the unscrupulous British intelligence service, supposedly their deadly enemy.

So, why isn't the movie an unqualified masterpiece? Ah, those three things... First, when Hook is on the run, chased by assassins, he has an opportunity to pick up a handgun dropped by one of his pursuers. He doesn't do it. This was so ludicrous it jolted me out of the movie for several minutes afterwards. No trained soldier, indeed no sentient human being, would have acted like this. Such behaviour may serve the needs of the narrative, but it spoils the film — and would have been easy to fix.

Similarly, Hook needs to cover his army uniform shirt so hostiles won't instantly spot that he's a soldier. And he resourcefully steals a sweater from a clothesline to do just this. But later in the film the sweater gets removed and he fails to put it back on, even though he apparently could easily have done so. Again, a distracting lack of realism.

And the last flaw? Well, despite only being 100 minutes long, this movie has more endings than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I understand the desire of the film makers to give the characters and situation the resolution they deserve, but this is still self indulgent. Personally I would have ended on the shot of the guy walking down the corridor...

With utter unfairness I've decided to blame all these deficiencies on the director, rather than the writer. Sorry, Yann.

None of this is to suggest that you shouldn't see '71 — you should see it immediately. It's just that what is one of the best films of the year could easily have been one of the best films of the decade.

(Image credits: the large (white) movie poster is from Imp Awards. The smaller poster is from Flickering Myths. The stills are from a Guardian review.)

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Krazy Kat by George Herriman

I have seldom blogged about comics, but they've been an important part of my life and I still have a lot of love for them, although I seldom read them these days. (On the other hand I do write them.) And Krazy Kat was one of the greatest comic strips of all time.

I've been inspired to blog about it now because of an excellent radio documentary which is available here. You can listen to it for approximately the next month, so don't delay.

Created by the bizarre and fertile imagination of George Herriman back before the First World War, Krazy Kat remains startlingly modern — indeed avant-garde — even today. It tells the droll tale of an eternal romantic triangle. A cat (all right, a "Kat") called Krazy is in love with a mouse called Ignatz. The mouse wants nothing to do with her and rather cruelly hurls a brick at her every chance he gets.

Meanwhile a dog — a police dog! — called Offissa Pupp — is hopelessly in love with Krazy, who won't give him the time of day. He has it in for Ignatz, of course, and is always trying to put the mouse in jail for brick-hurling.

That's basically the whole situation. But the comic ran, with unfailing invention, for thirty years, right up until Herriman died. (A true professional, he left a week's worth of strips on his drawing board when he keeled over.)

Krazy Kat is sustained by wondrous visuals — magical surrealist landscapes inspired by the Painted Desert of Arizona and the indigenous Navajo art. The backgrounds change with each panel, even when the setting hasn't shifted. And a crescent moon might be depicted as a slice of cantaloupe rind. 

Picasso read Krazy Kat — and was influenced by the art! So was Miro — see the image of Dog Barking at the Moon, reproduced here. Herriman's art is utterly gorgeous, especially when he was given the chance to do weekly Sunday pages in colour.

Herriman was also an inspired writer who made great use of language. His punning wordplay is positively Joycean. 

Krazy Kat is hard to describe. You should just check it out. It's definitely oddball stuff, and an acquired taste. But I think it's a taste well worth acquiring.

A couple of interesting footnotes about Krazy Kat...

The strip appeared in newspapers run by William Randolph Hearst, generally regarded as one of the evil robber-baron villains of American history and the real life model for Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. No doubt Hearst was a monster, but I have developed a fondness for him for two reasons.

Firstly, his mistress Marion Davies nicknamed him "Droopy Drawers." Secondly, and more importantly, when various newspaper editors tried to drop Krazy Kat (which wasn't always a huge commercial success), Hearst refused to let them. He championed the strip and allowed it to flourish.

The other footnote concerns the gender of Krazy. Because although she is generally referred to as "she", sometimes he's a "he". Much has been made about this gender confusion, with theories about gay subtexts (or texts!) and the plasticity of sexual identity, etc. etc.

I think it's way simpler than that. Anyone who's ever owned a cat (and George Herriman owned numerous cats) knows that people who aren't intimately acquainted with your pet will randomly refer to it as "him" or "her" — since they just don't know. Herriman was simply making comedy out of this traditional confusion, and adding another surreal dimension to his madcap, krazy, universe.

If you would like to buy collections of Krazy Kat strips, the best place is the wonderful Fantagraphic Books. I recommend the colour volumes.

(Image credits: The Sunday pages are from the useful George Herriman Dot Com. The brick hurling panel is from iDownloads. The book cover, which has nostalgic value for me, because it was the first (of many) Krazy Kat books I bought, is from Chanoyu Records. Don't ask me why. The Miro picture is from Arts Desk.)

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Equalizer

How is it possible to go wrong with a movie like The Equalizer? Based on a successful 1980s TV series (a vehicle for the great British actor Edward Woodward) this new film stars Denzel Washington as an everyman action hero who takes on the Russian mob and wins. He's a vigilante who defends the poor and helpless — against vicious gangsters. It's a perfect, emotive pulp adventure setup and Denzel is ideal for the part.

So, what's not to like? Well, unfortunately, the movie is a mess. It goes hopelessly off the rails in the very first major action scene. Denzel confronts an evil Russian pimp, and offers to buy out the contract of a teenage hooker whom Denzel has befriended (he and the girl frequent the same late night Edward Hopper style diner, in the best scenes of the film). 

Of course, the evil Russian says no and Denzel slays him and all his minions. (Denzel is an average Joe who works in a deadend job at a Walmart clone, but naturally he turns out to be a black ops intelligence super-soldier.) Now, there is nothing wrong with Denzel despatching all these Ruskies. It's the raison d'être of such a film. What is wrong is how he does it.

The first evil Russian minion he kills has a gun, and the unarmed Denzel takes it away from him, using his martial arts skills. Does Denzel then use the gun to kill the others? Nope. He discards the gun and picks up a corkscrew. Because that's way more interesting. And similar insanity pervades the rest of the film, with him killing bad guys using a microwave oven, an electric drill, a Gutenberg bible, the Large Hadron Collider... Okay, I lied about the last two, but you get the picture.

And Denzel is supposed to be a professional, with military training. This is deeply nonsensical stuff, and it helps to sink this deeply silly film. The Equalizer may be a big hit, but it's total junk.

If you want to see this sort of thing done right, watch the magnificent TV series Person of Interest.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Ace Show Biz. And don't be fooled by the gun Denzel is holding, in the movie he uses a drill.) 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Dracula Untold by Sazama & Sharpless

Dracula has always had certain leading man tendencies, at least as depicted in the many dramatisations of Bram Stoker's novel. 

For an undead bloodsucker, he has generally been allowed a tall dark and handsome cadaver or, in the case of Bela Lugosi, at least had some natty evening wear.

But in recent decades the world's most popular vampire has been recast as a full blown romantic hero, lovelorn and deserving of our sympathy when he isn't busy slaughtering the innocents (see also Hannibal Lecter). 

This has been the standard template for Dracula ever since Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version of the movie, entitled Bram Stoker's Dracula (though it was a considerable overhaul of Stoker's concept) and, crucially, featuring the tag line 'Love Never Dies.'

But this new and more sympathetic version of the Count doesn't actually originate with Coppola, or his screenwriter James V. Hart. Hart had come up with a script which showed the human side of Dracula — so to speak. The Transylvanian prince had lost his beloved bride and was doomed to spend eternity looking for her.

This concept won the script a green light, but Hart — a talented writer who recently did a fine job on Epic — wasn't the first one to us it. That credit goes to the great Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Duel), one of America's finest screenwriters, an excellent novelist and short story writer, and a master of the horror genre.

Almost twenty years before the Hart/Coppla picture, in 1973, Matheson wrote an outstanding script for a TV movie of Dracula featuring Jack Palance as the Count. Confusingly — but appropriately — it shares a title with the Hart/Coppola version and is also known as Bram Stoker's Dracula. It was produced and directed by Dan Curtis, who had created the cult gothic-horror soap opera Dark Shadows.

Crucially, the Matheson script incorporated concepts from Dark Shadows. Most importantly, the idea of the vampire (Barnabas Collins in the TV series) as a doomed Romantic hero with a great lost love.

As I said, this set the template for the brooding and Byronic, rather sympathetic, user friendly fang-meister who is today's cliche, and features most recently in Dracula Untold, playing in multiplexes now. I really enjoyed this movie — in fact, I have to confess I've seen it twice. 

Dracula Untold is directed by Gary Shore, who has a background directing commercials. This is his first feature, which is pretty darn impressive. It is written by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless. This is also their feature film debut, and again it's an impressive one. The script is imaginative, effective and fresh — they have actually done some historical research and rooted it in some intriguing factual background. Although in fairness I also have to mention some real silliness in the script — like the blindfolded army

 The cast is excellent. Luke Evans (from The Hobbit) plays Dracula, the Canadian actress Sarah Gadon is ravishing as his beloved (and doomed, naturally) wife Mirena, Dominic Cooper is brilliant as the Turkish Sultan bad guy Mehmed and Charles Dance makes a seriously impressive big daddy vampire.

Charles Dance is also the big daddy villain in Game of Thrones. And indeed this Dracula flick is a very post-Game of Thrones version. In fact the notable soundtrack music is by Ramin Djawadi, who also scores Game of Thrones.

The classy cinematography is by John Schwartzman, striking production design by Francois Audouy, lovely costumes by Ngila Dickson (who did The Lord of the Rings) and a special shout-out must go to Joe Hopker for some very groovy hair styles!

Dracula Untold, is a surprisingly good film and well worth a look if you're into horror movies at all.

(Image credits: the posters are all from Ace Show Biz. The shot of Sarah Gadon is from Start News.)