Sometimes we watch stuff that we want to talk just a little bit about, not a full review worth. These are those films. If any of the films reviewed are available on Netflix Instant Watch (US or Canada) or HuluPlus (US only), we’ll note that by putting a direct link below the capsule.
2005 Australia. Director: John Hillcoat. Starring: Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, John Hurt, Emily Watson.
Without venturing into the realm of gushing hyperbole, I am uncertain that I would be capable of providing my thoughts on The Proposition. At its very core, it is a story of utilizing the ends to justify the means – kill a monster (your elder brother, purveyor of atrocities), save a saint (your younger brother, tragically along for the ride), so to speak. In this version of the tale, however, nothing is black and white, with dulcet tones of gray (a)morality seeping through every frame – the viewer is fully capable of empathy for the protagonist, but there is no semblance of a cliché ‘rooting interest.’ The acting, particularly from Winstone, Pearce, Watson, and the always impressive Hurt, is top-notch, and painfully believable. The score and cinematography are brilliant, drawing you into the well-crafted environs without hesitation. And yes, I am painting with broad strokes, with the hope that those who have not yet seen The Proposition will do so immediately, and experience the film without bias or stilted expectations … beyond my own admiration.
Mission to Mars
2000 USA. Director: Brian DePalma. Starring: Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen.
Made a deal with Andrew that if I rewatched Mission to Mars he would rewatch Red Planet. Clearly, I got the short end of the stick. I have grown to like a handful of DePalma’s films, and know all too well how inconsistent he is with the quality he puts out. I remember loathing this film when I saw it in the cinema; now, over a decade later, I am merely seething. The film does a decent job of depicting Mars, more so than Red Planet, and it pleasures in the afterglow of Kubrick’s 2001 with all of the play inside the spaceship. The script, however, is insufferable, eye-rolling on repeat insufferable. The difference between this and Red Planet is Red Planet never forgets it is a b-movie, and while some of its dialogue is equally bad it is contained within a film that is shorter and lighter, it feels like a dumb escapist movie whereas Mission to Mars feels like it is trying to teach you something about humanity. The final revelation of what is on Mars and what it means is all celestial and self-important and misses the mark so entirely it is laughable. Also, I will take Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss over Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins (and Jerry O’Connell!) any day. Don Cheadle, what the fuck are you doing in this movie?! It hurts to watch him try his hardest to make the dialogue work, if there was ever proof of his talents it is how hard he tries to make something out of nothing in this script.
2011 USA. Director: Tarsem. Starring: Mickey Rourke, Kellan Lutz, Isabel Lucas, Henry Cavill, Luke Evans, John Hurt, Freida Pinto, Stephen Dorff.
The hate this film receives seems a little odd to me. It’s not terrible by any stretch. The visuals alone make it better than most sword and sandals flicks Hollywood spits out. The acting isn’t nearly as bad as I was led to believe. The hero of the story – who I’ve never seen before – seemed much more capable and competent than most of the meat heads brought out for this sort of ilk. That said, it ain’t great either. The story is pretty boring and some of the dialogue is a little corny. The pacing is very much in fits and starts and the action sequences are not quite as amazing as they should be (until the end). The costumes are all over the map. From flat out amazing (Jun Horde anyone?) to fairly cheap looking. All in all I was pretty bored by the whole affair. But if more movies would come even close to the amazing visuals on display here, box office numbers would go way up. To reiterate, I was glued to the screen and more than happy to watching this film for the artistry and creativity shown. Beautiful. Oh, and Pinto gets really naked.
The Squid and the Whale
2005 USA. Director: Noah Baumbach. Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, Anna Paquin.
Lesser Baumbach, not the “fillet” he later makes with Greenberg. With each viewing I tend to get more and more accepting of this film, and yes I tend to rank Baumbach films in reverse of what consensus deems right. It is a great film, and the dialogue is mighty impressive the way it has a confessional quality to it but also captures some verite rhythm (Laura Linney’s character bursting into laughter several lines of dialogue after the fact, giggling on the word “burgers”). My issue is that I feel, more so than any of Baumbach’s films, the writer is bullying the characters and posing a relentlessly unflattering light without any opportunity for them to rise above. It is like he has excised any of the good of these people and left only that which is embarrassing, the more embarrassing the better, and yes, that is adolescence and probably that is how it would be with competing intellectual egos in the throes of divorce, but just give a little light, just a little, some spark of not hope but dignity or kindness. Baumbach is always harsh on his characters, he lets them struggle without a net, but there tends to be in every other film some pressure release, in Greenberg notably it is Gerwig’s Florence who recognizes her worth in flashes and overcomes Roger’s failings to calm him. Despite this perceived flaw, the film is still a wonder to behold. I especially like the very last shot and how neatly it wraps everything up, cutting sharply to title. Master class.
2012 Norway. Director: Morten Tyldum. Starring: Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund, Julie Ølgaard.
A hugely engrossing and twist-laden plot make this the most fun I’ve had at the cinema so far this year. It gets pretty brutal, but mixes this with dark comedy and enough drama and character development to keep you on the side of its initially unlikeable lead character. Highly enjoyable stuff.
Swordsmen (aka Wu Xia)
2011 China. Director: Peter Chan. Starring: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang, Xiao Ran Li, Yu Wang.
Gorgeous, meticulous and very, very wise in the ways of story-telling, one could might be tempted to write this off as Chinese remake of A History of Violence, but the way it adapts that narrative framework and refracts it through the prism of Chinese cultural-fantasy norms is astounding. At its core, the story is reflection of manhood and and family and responsibility and acceptance, but in form it is delicate and nuanced. It also features the best single ‘acting’ performance from Donnie Yen in his entire career.
2011 UK. Director: Lone Scherfig. Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Patricia Clarkson, Romola Garai.
Not quite the follow-up to An Education that I hoped it would be. This is pretty much standard Hollywood fluff… English style. That said, it’s an enjoyable enough watch mostly for the cinematography and the two leads (especially Hathaway) are completely watchable; engaging even. The concept isn’t exactly what I had thought it would be. And frankly, I’m glad that it played out the way it did. Sure it’s corny at turns and it drives me nuts that Sturgess says, “Look…” before every utterance, but other than that, it was… nice.
1947 USA. Director: Reginald Le Borg. Starring: Leo Penn, Robert Armstrong, Teala Loring, Elisha Cook Jr.
If you want to talk about low-budget noir films, Fall Guy is your ticket. Made on a poverty row budget with almost no well-known actors (calling them “actors” is a bit of a stretch at times, if I’m being catty, outside of the always enjoyable Elisha Cook Jr.), minimal sets, and a very short running time, Fall Guy remained interesting to me largely because of its very intriguing narrative device, which can be credited to the Cornell Woolrich story on which it’s based. The police find a man collapsed in the street with a bloody knife, and assume he killed someone. When he comes around, he has vague memories of waking up in a room and finding a dead body, but can’t remember who or where or if he killed her. He escapes the police and goes searching for the body himself. In short, we have a murderer without a murder, which is a great twist on a standard crime story. There’s also a lot of “drugs screwed me up!” undertones, some very stiff acting, as I mentioned, and a very cursory script. It’s not a great or even very good film by any stretch of the imagination, but for fans of crime noir, it’s about as lean and direct an example as you could want. I’m very glad the TCM Festival brought out stuff like this as well as the more sure-thing classic favorites.
2010 India. Director: Jennifer Chambers Lynch. Starring: Mallika Sherawat, Irrfan Khan, Jeff Doucette, Divya Dutta.
The India/US co-production directed by Jennifer (daughter of David) Lynch, that was snatched from her control before editing or post-production is indeed the flat out disaster that it is rumoured to be. Only Irrfan Kahn comes away from this unscathed, and then, only barely. Mallika Sherawat doing Arnold Schwarzenegger era Terminator Hijinks is so laughably bad, but much of this is due to the incompetent editing (I mean reaaaaaaaally incompetent) and bargain-basement CGI work. Robert Kurtzman (formerly the K in K.N.B effects) does some excellent practical effects, but it’s all to waste in this piece of boring, silly trash. Hisss is neither intelligent, sensual, nor fun and ends up merely soul-crushing. Keep an eye out, though, for Despite the Gods, a documentary about the making of the film – HotDocs review here.
Our Dancing Daughters
1928 USA. Director: Harry Beaumont. Starring: Joan Crawford, Johnny Mack Brown, Nils Asther, Dorothy Sebastian, Anita Page.
This film is often credited with making a major star out of Joan Crawford, who puts her Charleston champion skills to good use as a quintessential Jazz Baby. She’s party girl Diana, who falls in love with Ben, a new guy in town who happens to be a millionaire – a fact which has every other girl chasing him, too, especially her sort-of friend Ann (Anita Page), who masquerades as a goody-two-shoes to convince Ben that she’s more appropriate marriage material than Diana. The film is intriguing on a conniving-women level, as Ann is the consummate golddigger, and is encouraged to be so by her mother, who tells her not to hang out with Diana – why? Because Diana’s partying ways will corrupt Ann’s gentle spirit? No…because Diana’s partying ways make her less desirable to rich young men to marry. Kind of a quaint idea now, and the film is considerably dated in terms of gender and social mores (not to mention that these girls, despite seeking rich husbands, apparently have enough money to have outrageous parties every night). There are still some fun scenes, for sure – Crawford getting dressed without ever breaking her Charleston stride, Page threatening to steal the show as she enjoys playing the bad girl, the quieter turn of third friend Dorothy Sebastian – but it’s mostly of interest as a curiosity.