The American – A Review

Anton Corbijn’s The America is a bizarre beast. Part clichéd melodrama, part existential-crisis thriller and part genre-throwback, the film never really settles despite creating a haunting, romantic atmosphere.

Corbijn, in conspiracy with cinematographer Martin Ruhe, shoots the village of Castel del Monte impeccably, giving every scene its own unique feel. While this may contribute to the overall lack of cohesion in the film, it gives the viewer something spectacular to look at, and while the film may lack in certain areas, there is always something beautiful to look at, whether it be one of the many establishing shots of the town, the paradiso of a riverside clearing or the scarlet-lit interior of prostitute Clara’s bedroom.

The plot centres on George Clooney’s eponymous Jack, an assassin sent to rural Italy to await his next assignment. Paranoid and mistrusting, he feels uneasy in this unknown environment and resorts to keeping company with a priest hiding a secret and a hooker who quickly falls in love with Jack.

Clara could be seen as the centre of the film. As one of the two characters that Jack connects with, she plays a key role in bringing him to resolution, giving him a purpose and a reason to leave what he does behind. Her honourable intentions make her a rare figure in The American; where most characters have dark motives for their actions, Clara wants to leave Castel del Monte and to start her life again, with Jack.

While the film is stunning to observe, it is sadly lacking in the storytelling department. To condense a 400-page novel into 105 minutes of film takes skill, and between Corbijn and screenwriter Rowan Joffe, it falls despairingly short. The relationship between Clara and Jack feels forced and rushed, with no time given to developing them from hooker and client to prospective life-partners, and Paolo Bonacelli’s Father Benedetto is given no closure, a character left suspended while the film progresses to its climax.

Perhaps these are intentional, highlighting the spontaneity of life and the lack of endings that many characters in our lives get, but it does not feel right to leave a character as important as Benedetto behind, or to allow Jack to change his life in such a short period of time.

For a film that purports to be so intelligent, The American is incredibly clichéd. We have seen basic symbolism – look out for the butterflies – so many times that it now feels hackneyed and stale; dull rather than deep. The ending is telegraphed as soon as the final act begins, leaving the viewer waiting for what they know is going to happen. While it doesn’t ruin the film, it leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Clooney once again gives a fantastic performance. Quiet and isolated, but powerfully dangerous, he comes across as the bastard child of an odd three-way between Jason Bourne, Harry Caul and Clooney’s own Ryan Bingham from Up In The Air. Clooney no longer gives outstanding performances, as each matches the great heights of the last, but this is among the best he has ever done. At 49, he is finally cementing his place as not just the biggest movie star on the planet, but one of its very best actors.

Although the film fails to deliver a truly convincing emotional climax, as a piece of visual art it is second to none. Clooney’s performance makes it stand out, but Joffe’s screenplay is lack in several key areas. The film has received some harsh criticism, but this can be put down to the disastrous mismarketing of this as an “action-thriller”; the action if minimal and the slow pace renders this film anything but thrilling. A rushed climax does damage The American, as the contemplative build-up deserves more, but ultimately it is a satisfactory watch. It won’t challenge intellectually, but it will entertain visually.

7/10

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High Plains Drifter

I watched High Plains Drifter – Clint Eastwood’s second directorial feature – two nights ago, and I enjoyed it a fair amount. This isn’t a review, I just want to share my thoughts on it.

Now, my first thought when the credits began to roll was “Why was this rated 18?” Sure, there’s a rape scene, and a fair few people get killed, but it’s all pretty tame my today’s standards; there is barely a drop of blood, the only nudity we get is Clint Eastwood topless as he undresses for a bath, and the overall tone of the film is nowhere near as dark as a film like A Fistful of Dollars, which is rated 15 over here.

I would have no qualms about showing this movie to even a 15-year-old; if they can walk into HMV and pick up a copy of Hot Fuzz, which has numerable uses of “cunt” and “fuck”, as well as lot more explicit violence and gore, I don’t see why they are not allowed to buy this. It is also a valuable tool in film education, as it is yet another reason to fall in love with Clint Eastwood, possibly the greatest person ever to have lived.

To quickly summarise the plot, Clint plays, unsurprisingly, a high plains drifter, who drifts into a small town called Lago, which is steeling itself for the return of three notorious outlaw types, who are due to be released from prison in the next couple of days. Clint’s first action is to kill Lago’s three self-styled protectors, obviously, because he is awesome. It is just after this that he commits what is possibly the tamest rape I have seen on screen. Despite its tameness, it was a bit creepy given that Mordecai, the town midget, is watching them.

I really don’t understand how the certification of this film works at all, and the BBFC website has no information, so I guess I stay stuck in this state of confusion and bewilderment.

The other thing I wanted to talk about is a spoiler, so don’t read on after this if you don’t want High Plains Drifter spoiled for you. To be fair, if you don’t figure it out in the first 20 minutes, if not the first five, there is something wrong with you.

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So Clint is a ghost, or something. He is Marshall Jim Duncan, once of Lago. He was killed by the three dickheads that are coming back to town and was buried in an unmarked grave. Early in the film, one of the female characters says something along the lines of “If you’re buried in an unmarked grave, you’re destined to wander the earth forever, looking for something.” Or something like that. This is an obvious clue, along with Clint’s flashbacks to being savagely attacked in the middle of the town, with no-one helping him.

I get why maybe they thought this was a good idea, but it just seems a little weird to me. To be fair, if he had just been a nice guy who came in and helped, I would probably be writing something like “I don’t get why Clint would help out this little town for no reason, blah blah blah…”, so maybe this plot element is warranted.

However, due to my sanity, I don’t believe in ghosts, and generally when one watches a movie about ghosts, the whole notion is very stylised or fantastical in a way that makes it acceptable to show me ghosts. When I watch a western, it’s all about real badasses doing real badass things, and the idea that ghosts could be a part of this bothered me quite deeply. I did enjoy the film, but a lot of the time I was thinking “Well, why would a ghost do that?” Why didn’t he just go and murder the criminals in their cells? Why did he make Mordecai the sheriff and the mayor? Why did he paint the town red?…That was really weird. It has to be said that sometimes I read films slightly naively, but this time, the red thing really went over my head. I understand that he ripped off the townspeople because they let him die, but certain elements seemed very odd.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on High Plains Drifter – a very good film, but not my favourite Clint movie or my favourite western. Very accomplished, and very entertaining, but the supernatural stuff did irritate me slightly. It’s a solid movie, and if you like westerns, you’ll like this. If you don’t like westerns, a) you probably won’t like this and b) what is wrong with you?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 – A Review

I feel as if I should get this out of the way: before Friday I was not much of  a Potter fan. I had read books 1-6 and seen films 1-3, as well as half of the last movie a few weeks ago. I had some fondness for the series as it was a part of my childhood, but ultimately, I didn’t care any more. I went along on Friday morning because I thought I should probably see this. And I’m glad I did.

What is most apparent about this latest installment is that it is not a movie for kids. Looking back on the old films, they very much are. As good as they are, they are for children. The Death Hallows is dark, it’s violent and it’s very grown up. And so are the actors – having not really seen them since they were about 14, in The Prisoner of Azkaban, it was a shock to suddenly realise that these are real people, and more importantly, they are very good actors. Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint are more than accomplished in roles that they have clearly grown comfortable with. Their performances seem effortless and cool. Whereas before, they seemed more concerned with remembering their lines than performing them convincingly, now they simply are Hermione, Harry and Ron.

The opening scenes of The Deathly Hallows tell us immediately that we aren’t in for an easy ride. We are privy to a Death Eaters meeting, complete with torture, murder and wand-breaking. The unfortunate recipient of which is Jason Isaacs’ (Hello!) Lucius Malfoy, father of the douchey Draco.

After this, we lose two of the most memorable characters from the series (who, I won’t reveal, but one is particularly heartbreaking), and the realisation that this is a dangerous, deadly world in which the characters exist.  There are clear parallels to the Nazis’ persecution of impure races and people; a real-life scenario that the makers have done well to mirror in this most fantastical of universes, as it adds vital emotional resonance and pathos to the story we are told.

As opposed to previous Potter stories, this is told far from the comfort of Hogwarts, as we follow our heroic triumvirate as they seek to destroy the horcruxes that hold the power to defeating, once and for all, Lord Voldemort, while avoiding the attention of bounty hunters, snakes disguised as friends, and general bad luck. The chemistry between the three leads is what keeps the story going; lesser performances from any of them would really damage the movie, as they really are the sole focus of the events we see.

It is important to note that this film only tells half a story, and the divide is chosen at an opportune moment – one that leaves the viewer wanting to see the rest of the story, while feeling satisfied with the story they have already been told.

Some critics have offered the opinion that there isn’t enough action on show, and that the majority of the film is boring. However, I would argue that the lack of action adds to the already-palpable tension, and only serves to make the impeccable moments of action all the more relieving and exciting.

The Deathly Hallows is, simply put, an excellent film. As someone who hasn’t followed the story for some five years, I picked up the story fairly comfortably and enjoyed what I was given. We have action, humour, romance, suspense, and the all important magic, and each element of the story is told as well as the next. If you haven’t watched a Potter film in years because they were too childish, this is the film you need to see. Compelling, dark and it ends on a cliffhanger. What more could you want?

9/10

RED – A Review

Robert Schwentke’s RED is an odd film. Some parts of the movie do a successful job of sending up the action genre, while some reinforce the genre’s ridiculousness without the merest hint of irony or humour. It starts off poorly with an awful joke about how the Bruce Willis’ character Frank Moses doesn’t realise that Christmas time is upon him. It gathered a few laughs in from the people around me, but I didn’t see how it was funny. Once again, it seems to be an example of telling an audience that they are watching a comedy, and they will laugh at anything.

The central relationship of Moses and Mary-Louise Parker’s Sarah is so ludicrous that I couldn’t get used to it. She is his contact at the pension offices and he likes her voice, so he tears up all his cheques so he can call back and speak to her. Based on this, they form a friendship and eventually a relationship, despite the fact that their relationship is given absolutely no time to evolve during the 111 minutes.

By far the stand-out performance in this film is John Malkovich doing his Malkovich thing as an LSD-fried former CIA operative. He portrays a naivety and childishness that reminded me of John Noble’s performance as Walter Bishop in Fringe. It’s pretty funny.

However, there are far too many flaws with the film. One character reveals early on that he has advanced liver cancer…I wonder what might happen to him? Another character is shown to have a young family who he loves but doesn’t spend enough time with…what’s going to happen there?

The soundtrack is also terrible. This is the second time in a week that I have been offended by a soundtrack, but this is even worse than Michael Giacchino’s Let Me In score. It mostly comprises of the bouncy, bass-driven “this is comedy” music, but with the odd reference thrown in, such as the plinky-plonky “this is a scene of domestication – remember American Beauty? That’s what this is supposed to sound like” moment, and an awful rising-strings, revealing of true feelings scene. It hurt.

The film isn’t awful, but it’s incredibly patchy. I counted perhaps three or four real laughs in the movie, all of which came from Malkovich. I wouldn’t recommend spending £7 to go and see it, but if can go on an Orange Wednesday, or wait for DVD, it’s not a terrible watch. If it was 20-25 minutes shorter, it would be a much better film.

**

Let Me In

Let Me In is an alternate adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Lat Den Ratte Komma In. Alternate in that it isn’t Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the same name. At least, that’s the party line. What it really is is a bad imitation of Alfredson’s awesome original. Where Alfredson’s movie was gripping, thrilling and moving, this is just dull. It seems as though Matt Reeves knew this and so instructed Michael Giacchino to write the most intrusive, blatant score possible. It feels like he is ramming his conductor’s baton down your throat. It is extremely painful to sit through.

You know how when you go to a party with lots of people you don’t know, there’s always one guy who is drunk and tries to tell you funny stories, but can’t get them quite right? This is as if Matt Reeves got hammered and started telling people about how great Lat Den Ratte Komma In is.  LikeLat Den Ratte Komma In, this is a genuinely heartbreaking movie, but for an entirely different reason. This is heartbreaking because you can tell that the people involved love what they are doing, and they think they are doing a good job. To be fair, they aren’t doing an awful job. The actors, particularly Chloe Moretz and Elias Koteas are great; the direction is perfectly competent, if not spectacular and the story is obviously good. It’s the little things that are wrong. For example, the film starts off with a scene that should come about halfway through, and for the simple reason that it is a relatively active set-piece. The vampire scenes contain some awful CGI and turn the character of Abby, formerly Eli, into a monster rather than a girl who is a vampire. Worst of all is the score though. It is truly dreadful. I can feel this turning into a rant, so I will sign off. All I will say is that if you are tempted to see this, don’t. Go and watch Lat Den Ratte Komma In, whether you’ve seen it already or not. It’s a much better telling of the story. This is bad.

**

 

Dry River Road (October 27th 2009)

Leo Whitlock, the main character of Rory Haines’ short Dry River Road, is clearly a very troubled man.

He is living out of his car, shaving in the bathroom at a highway petrol station, and lying to his estranged wife about his (un)employment status. The reason for this, we don’t know. He is a veteran of the Iraq war, this much we do know, but after that it all becomes a bit muddy.

Is he a violent man? His constant badgering of Akeem for a job at said petrol station is pushy enough that it borders on the “one more rejection and he might just lamp you” side of things, but his absolute horror at what later happens might equally suggest otherwise.

He certainly isn’t the smartest man around; stealing money from a dead man, smearing blood on himself and tucking the murder weapon into his jeans doesn’t suggest that all his bulbs are burning at their brightest, but maybe he is really just that desperate.

Perhaps Leo has been dishonourably discharged from the US Army. This could explain his apparent lack of self-discipline (and vice-versa). It would also go some way to explaining why he is having such a hard time finding a job.

A dishonourable discharge may even account for the lack of contact with his wife and son, and why his wife has no interest in entertaining him at all.

Of course, what it all comes down to is whether or not Leo could ever make anything of himself. There is absolutely nothing here to suggest that he is comfortable with meeting the standards that society expects of him.

The case in point: his attire. He has gone to Akeem to ask for a job, but has completely neglected to spruce himself up in any effort to impress his prospective employer.

His absolute lack of respect for Akeem is symptomatic of something altogether more sinister. While we aren’t told of Akeem’s heritage, it is safe to assume that he is of Middle Eastern origin, and the underlying menace of the interaction between the two comes from Leo’s instinct to play with a small American flag while talking to Akeem.

Leo may not consider himself a racist, but his actions in the scene convey a sense of racial tension that could explain everything about Leo and his character.

The thirteen minutes that we see here are the thirteen minutes that change the life of Leo. The lack of any sort of “crash bang wallop” force-feeding of dramatic impact is one of the film’s major strengths.

Through both the way it is shot – conventional, trendy handheld style – and the lack of dictatorial music, the film manages to achieve both a subtlety and a harrowing bleakness that takes it to a higher level, particularly impressive given it is a first time effort from Haines, as well as a first time effort for writer Sohrab Noshirvani.

***½

Hancock (July 9th 2009)

In amongst a spate of “serious” and “dark” superhero movies of late – The Dark Knight and Watchmen come to mind as primary examples – Hancock must have seemed like a breath of fresh air when the original trailers began showing; a comedy, not a spoof, about a pissed-off superhero who doesn’t care about the public he protects. However, after the initial 40 minutes of comedy antics and stunning set-pieces, the film takes a sharp left-turn that can only be described as inexplicable.

I’m sure that I’m not the only person who was enjoying the entertaining, if simple, plot of Jason Bateman’s PR guru Ray trying to turn Will Smith’s Travis-Bickle-with-superpowers into your friendly neighbourhood superhero. While it wasn’t groundbreaking, the premise certainly had 90 minutes of entertaining material in it, and would have kept the laughs coming, which, let’s face it, is the reason why people went to see this film.

The turn it takes for the final act – introducing another superhero, and thereby completing ruining the original premise of the film – could have worked if this other superhero was a villain, but unfortunately between the three of them, Vincent Ngo, Vince Gilligan, and Peter Berg could not decide whether Charlize Theron was a supervillain or a superhero, and left her to rot as a cutaway character during the final “battle”. Not that it was much of a battle – a few guys with guns against a man who has pretty much every power in the superhero book is only going to go one way.

As much as the conclusion of this film was a disappointment, the preceding minutes were full of promise. The story was somewhat illogical (why did Hancock bother to be a superhero if he cared as little as he clearly did?), but entertaining nonetheless. The opening set-piece, involving Hancock flying around with a car in his hand, and, later, a bank robbery that Hancock foils in the midst of a hail of gunfire, were both stunningly put together by a director who certainly knows how to shoot action sequences, even if his dedication to anything much more meaningful is less than lacklustre, as anyone who has seen The Kingdom will attest to, I’m sure.

As well as these triumphs of CGI, the interplay and chemistry between Bateman and Smith is almost perfect. These are two of the finest comic actors working today – throw Paul Rudd into the mix and this film would instantly boast the greatest comedy line-up of any recent film – and their interactions are certainly no let-down. Smith on his own delivers some excellent one-liners (“I’ll break my foot off in your ass, woman” to a gawping woman in a bar and “Okay. Well, you should sue McDonald’s, ’cause they fucked you up.” To an overweight naysayer are my personal favourites), but it is when the two of them come together that they really shine. There isn’t much point listing them for two reasons. One, there are too many to list. And two, it is all about reactions and timing, something which doesn’t easily translate to a written medium.

Not only does Smith handle the comedy well, he also does well with the serious stuff. Although it is somewhat ham-fistedly written, Smith’s ability to control and display emotion brings out the best in some fairly poor dialogue later on in the film, such as the not-quite-classic “I gotta wonder what a kind of a bastard I must have been, that nobody was there to claim me. I mean, I am not the most charming guy in the world, so I’ve been told, but… nobody?” We knew from his performances in Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness, and the equally film-of-two-halves I Am Legend that he was capable of busting some serious acting chops, but I always find it surprising to see the Fresh Prince breaking out the emotion.

Unfortunately, this film should not have been about emotion. Instead, it should have been about a pissed-off superhero being a pissed-off superhero and pissing off everyone else. If the script had stuck to its initial promise and delivered the redemption story that I, and I assume many others, was hoping for, this could have been a very good film. Instead it is a mediocre film, and will always be remembered, if at all, for how much of a letdown it was after the buzz that originally surrounded it. A massive disappointment, but still, somehow, a decent movie. Short enough to hold the attention of the youngest or oldest viewer, but long enough that you aren’t left wanting more (quite a feat at 88 minutes), this is worth a watch, but don’t get your hopes up too much.

6/10