Sunday 30 November 2014

The Homesman by Tommy Lee Jones

The Homesman is a novel by Glendon Swarthout, a fascinating and prolific American writer who also wrote The Shootist, another western which was adapted into a Don Siegel film starring John Wayne (and a recent BBC Radio 4 drama by Nick Perry). Now The Homesman has been made into a film by Tommy Lee Jones, who has directed it, stars in it and co-wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver. 

The title refers to a homesteader or pioneer dirt farmer in the bleak frontier of the 19th century. The film tells the story of a spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (played by Hilary Swank) who ends up taking three broken women back east because they can't endure life on the prairie. The women have all gone insane. In fact, the life of the settlers as depicted is so bleak it's a wonder that anyone hasn't gone insane out there.

Transporting three mad women across the wilderness on a odyssey that will last months is a hellish task, and Cuddy is lucky enough to enlist the help of a lovable rogue called George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones). As they spar and argue and surmount hardships together, the roughneck and the old maid, we seem to be in for a classic budding romance and comedy adventure in the mould of The African Queen.

Boy, does this movie not go there. It develops in a completely unforeseen way — it's harrowing, bleak and profoundly shocking. In fact it ends with a dark, existential flourish worthy of Monte Hellman or John Huston at his most grim and anti-commercial (Fat City, say).

The ad campaign for The Homesman trumpets that it's the best western since Unforgiven. Maybe so. But that's a misleading comparison. For all its revisionist brilliance, David Peoples' script for Unforgiven followed the conventional contours of the western action movie. The Homesman is anything but that.

Well worth seeing, though.

(Image credits: The poster with the two faces close together is from Wikipedia. The rest are from Ace Show Biz as usual.)

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.)