Thursday, 25 October 2012
Truth, as they say, is often stranger than fiction. And in Argo, Ben Affleck's third and most confident outing as a director, the truth – that of the clandestine CIA goings-on behind the American-Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1980 – is also far more entertaining than it has any right to be.
Argo is also gripping as it plays fast (and only slightly loose) with events which unfolded following the Iranian revolution where Iran's leader, the Shah, was replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini. The Shah fled to the U.S. and in protest, Iranians (mostly students) vented their anger on the American Embassy, storming the premises and setting the hostage crisis in motion which would continue for 444 days.
But not before six Embassy employees (character actors Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall and Scoot McNairy among them) managed to 'slip out the back' and seek refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).
Affleck captures these events so perfectly it's almost as though he and his cinematographer (Rodrigo Prieto) were there, making it difficult to discern what is actual footage from the time and what has been recreated. In fact, the period detail of the film – the clothes, the cars, and the hair, so much hair – is excellent; enough to effectively transport us back to 1979 but not so as to draw attention to itself.
The CIA's initial plan to get the six Americans out of Tehran? Bicycles. They'll deliver them to the Canadian Embassy and the six will simply pedal across the Turkish border to freedom.
But CIA exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez (Affleck, impressively sporting long '70s locks and beard), has another idea, the better bad idea if you will: he'll fly into Tehran posing as a Canadian film producer with plans to shoot a science fiction film in the country's sandy surrounds; the six fugitives will be issued with Canadian passports and fly out with Mendez as members of his film crew.
To successfully pull-off this subterfuge, Mendez heads to Hollywood and enlists the help of one-time ace producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin in fine, cantankerous form), and Oscar-winning make-up artist, John Chambers (John Goodman); the trio settling on the screenplay for Argo, a Star Wars clone which would seem perfectly suited to being filmed in the Middle East.
These Hollywood sequences provide Argo with a great deal of humour, and perhaps lulling us into a false sense of security, for once Mendez touches down in Tehran and the operation is set in motion, Affleck ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels: the third act of the film makes for some of the most gripping cinema of 2012.
The ending may never be in doubt (even if you don't know all that much about the Iranian hostage crisis - or this aspect of it which was revealed when CIA documents were declassified in 1997 - you can bet Hollywood doesn't make self-congratulatory films about the deaths of six Americans), but as they also say, it's the journey that matters, and Argo is a ripping yarn, gripping (and amusing) in the telling.
Tuesday, 23 October 2012
Icon Film Distribution
When the trailer for Gareth Evans' high-energy actioner, The Raid, was launched online late 2011-early 2012, all those involved with Pete Travis' Dredd must have let out a collective 'oh, shit!' For The Raid and Dredd share a similar premise – good guys fighting bad guys in a tower block in lock down – and while that similarity is more coincidence than by design, the latter film suffers as a result.
Well, if you've seen The Raid, that is (and if you haven't, you should: it's available on DVD now). Not only does Evans' film benefit from being the first released, but its handling of the concept is far superior to Dredd in every way (except visually).
Dredd is set in the future where society has collapsed, America is now a police state, and justice is meted out by the Judges: judge, jury and (often) executioners rolled into one who patrol the cities on suped-up motorcycles and come fully-equipped with an arsenal of weapons.
And Judge Dredd (Karl Urban, presumably: we only ever see his mouth and chin for he never removes his helmet) is the best of them. Inscrutable, incorruptible and personality-free, Dredd takes his work seriously. He's none-too-pleased, however, when he's assigned to babysit a rookie, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby, unrecognizable from her role in Juno); an underachieving cadet from the Academy but promoted to potential Judge-dom due to her mind-reading abilities.
And those abilities will come in handy when the pair are trapped inside a tower block (the misleadingly named Peach Trees) and targeted for termination by the city's reigning queen of crime, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, a.k.a Evil Keira Knightley, and here looks like Keira's Domino character fallen on seriously hard times).
Ma-Ma issues a fatwa on the Judges to prevent them leaving Peach Trees with one of her minions in custody. He'll inevitably talk if taken back to police headquarters for interrogation so Ma-Ma declares it open season. Cue The Block, in reverse and with high-powered weapons as the tools of trade.
Based on the comic books – which were given a less than spectacular cinema-outing in the 1995 Judge Dredd, where it was Sylvester Stallone donning the helmet and badge – I'm led to believe that Dredd is a dark and bloody satire on the current state of the world. And Travis' version (penned by Alex Garland, based on characters created by Carlos Ezquerra) is definitely bloody.
But if it is satire than I missed the point. I certainly didn't discern any wit flying amid the bullets and the bodies. And Urban's one-liners fall as flat as some of Ma-Ma's victims (seriously, anyone could have played Dredd so robotic is the performance).
As you can no doubt guess, I wasn't a fan of Dredd. There is a drug in this dystopic future known as Slo-Mo, designed to create for its users the illusion of time moving slowly, and deployed specifically by the filmmakers for visual effect (which is one of the film's few redeeming features; I'll admit there are moments that are visually arresting). But I was hoping at some point they'd introduce another drug – Fa-Fo, or Fast Forward – so I could hurry up and get the hell out of there.
Wednesday, 17 October 2012
Ever since the publication of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (in 1895), we humans have been fascinated with the idea of time travel. Not so much the technical aspects of its possibility but where one might go and do were we indeed able to travel through time: into the past to walk with the dinosaurs or into the future to witness mankind colonising Mars? To meet historical figures in their prime, or behold empires at their peak?
So when an advert appears in a small town newspaper calling for potential time travel companions - bring your own weapons, safety not guaranteed - it's completely understandable that it should pique the interest of Seattle magazine writer, Jeff (Jake Johnson).
But given Jeff is also a cynic and, well, a jerk, the advert also tickles his funny bone. He's intrigued to know what kind of nut job would post such an advert and if they are for real, and enlists two interns - "the Indian and the lesbian" - to accompany him on a road trip to suss it out.
The "Indian" is Arnau (Karan Soni), a softly-spoken engineering major who is only interning at a magazine because a diversity of interests looks good on job applications.
And the "Lesbian" isn't a lesbian at all (not that there's anything wrong with that). Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is a droll young woman who is at odds with the world. Believing herself to be smarter than most people (certainly Jeff), her detachment owes as much to her mother's death when Darius was just a teen as it does with the world's general sucky-ness.
But it is Darius who becomes the lynch pin in Jeff's investigation. After the writer makes a first bad impression on Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the poster of the advert, Darius believes she has a better chance of winning the trust of the supermarket employee; questioning the oddly appealing man with the oddly coloured ear about his calibrations.
In no time at all, Kenneth has Darius doing practise drills, with and without a hand gun, even breaking into a local medical facility, and divulging all manner of techno-babble about time travel and what is required for the mission but never what the actual mission is. Just as it is with Darius, you sense there is pain and loss at the core of Kenneth's plight.
And Plaza and Duplass make for a winning combination; his wide-eyed optimism slowly wearing her resistance down and winning over her over.
Meanwhile, Jeff is keen to drop in on a former adolescent flame with whom he enjoyed a summer romance, dismayed to find that time hasn't been kind to the blonde 16-year-old who has resided in his memory for some 15-odd years.
Jeff also encourages Arnau to take advantage of his youth, making it his mission to get the virgin laid: you're only 22 once and you never get the same opportunities again.
Safety Not Guaranteed isn't a film about time travel so much as a film about time: regretting it, hoping against hope to correct it, and more importantly, embracing it.
Director Colin Trevorrow, and screenwriter, Derek Connolly (who based his story on an actual advert, placed as a filler by a magazine employee), know that regret stings and we'd all like to go back in time, have a shot at a do-over, to makes things different if not necessarily right.
That notion, along with the performances of Plaza and Duplass, add poignancy to this small but big-hearted comedy. Make the time to see it.
Sunday, 14 October 2012
Following the success of Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen continues his working vacation in Europe, moving from the City of Lights to the Eternal City, and trading nostalgia for farce in To Rome With Love, with mixed though enjoyable results.
Woody also makes his first on-camera appearance since 2006’s Scoop, as the protagonist in one of four vignettes which all unfold in the city Rome if not in the same time frame or, for that matter, the same universe.
In his story, Woody is Jerry, who with his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis), has come to Rome to meet the fiance of his daughter, Hayley (Alison Pill), and uncovers a potential opera star in her future father-in-law. The only problem is that Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) can only sing when in the shower (and you can guess what that leads to).
The other vignettes involve an American architect student (Jesse Eisenberg) who falls for the visiting actress friend (Ellen Page) of his girlfriend (an under-served Greta Gerwig); a middle class Italian man (Roberto Benigni) who awakens one day to discover he is suddenly a famous celebrity whom the media and Roman public can’t get enough of; and a young newly-wed Italian couple who have come from the country to Rome to work for his uncle.
In Eisenberg’s tale, he is accompanied by another architect (Alec Baldwin), who is either the student’s future self, a figment of his disapproving imagination, or the ghost of all foolish American men past who allow the romance of a foreign capital to fire their libido and cloud their judgement.
In Benigni’s segment, we witness the various stages of fame – sudden, exhilarating, all-consuming, intrusive, resentful – and the pang of regret when that 15 minutes is up and one has to return to their every day life.
While no doubt a nod to the paparazzi of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, one could also view this as a take on Benigni’s own situation: feted by Hollywood following the Oscar love for his feature La Vita E Bella (Life Is Beautiful), which he wrote, directed and won a Best Actor Oscar for, the Italian star has been all but forgotten; chewed up and spat out like yesterday’s pasta.
The fourth vignette is highlighted by the appearance of Penelope Cruz. When Antonio's (Alessandro Tiberi) wife, Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), becomes lost, a local prostitute, Anna (Cruz), who shows up in their hotel room by mistake, plays the part of his partner to impress his potential employers.
Of course, the joke is that these men of Italian high society all know Anna in a professional capacity. Unlike the other vignettes, which seem to unfold over days and weeks, this one takes place over the course of one afternoon.
Each of these segments have their highs and lows, their fits and starts. It’s not a straight narrative like Midnight In Paris, nor a high concept with pointed message – the gilded perils of living in the past – but bathed in golden sunshine, Rome looks picture postcard perfect, good enough to lure viewers in with the promise of good times.
And there are, just not as many nor any as memorable as those in Midnight In Paris. In that respect, Woody's last two films are (mid)night and day, with only intermittent fun to be had in the Italian sun.
Monday, 8 October 2012
Adapted from a 1970s novel (Cogan's Trade) by prosecuting attorney-cum-crime novelist, George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly is Andrew Dominik's first film since The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007), and just the second since the New Zealand-born director's 2000 debut, Chopper.
Seemingly working only when he's found a project he likes, Dominik's interests would obviously seem to lie in the realm of crime and the men who inhabit this milieu. And Killing Them Softly, updated to modern day New Orleans – post-Hurricane Katrina, in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign, and the on-set of the global financial crisis – continues that trend.
When two low-level, low-life crims, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), agree to pull-off a robbery of a local Mob-operated gambling den, it sends the organised crime economy of New Orleans into free fall.
In order to stabilise the economy, the powers-that-be, represented by a middle management type known only as Driver (Richard Jenkins), call on a hired gun to right the ship by finding and making an example of those responsible. That hired gun is Cogan (Brad Pitt), who in turn brings in another hired gun (James Gandolfini) to take-out the perpetrators once he's ascertained who they are.
Killing Them Softly is as cynical as it is cool. "America is a business", one character informs another during many of the film's sharply written tete-a-tetes which probably owe as much to Higgins' original text as they do to Dominik's own wit and sense of humour (not to mention a nod to the vernacular flair of the Coen brothers and Tarantino).
But as enjoyable as some of these back-and-forths are, Killing Them Softly is essentially -- and at times laboriously -- organised crime as metaphor for, and parable about the US economy. And given my disinterest in all things economics, it probably explains most of my ambivalence towards the film. While solidly directed, written (also by Dominik) and acted, Dominik's film did very little for me.
That said, the film will find a great many admirers (a high percentage of my colleagues are crushing on it), and given its pushed back release date in the U.S., the distributors are no doubt hoping for awards potential.
I'd suggest that potential is limited to Adapted Screenplay (at best), and will not include any accolades for Pitt who, admittedly, is at his best when he plays ugly, literally or figuratively – and who obviously shines under the direction of Dominik – but who, for mine, does nothing remarkable here, certainly not Oscar-worthy.
More impressive for me were Gandolfini's hit man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, and dulling the pain with liquor and ladies of the night, and Mendelsohn's crack-riddled low-level crim, so sweaty you can practically smell the desperation seeping out of his pores.
The film's title refers to Cogan's preferred method of killing: from a distance, impersonal and unemotional. And that pretty much sums up how I viewed Killing Them Softly. For all its visceral, pulpy violence and cynicism-laced humour, I felt at a remove from it all.
Thursday, 4 October 2012
The Sound of Music may be a running motif in P.J. Hogan’s homecoming feature, Mental, but it is very much a twisted take on another Julie Andrews heroine, Mary Poppins, which has inspired his somewhat autobiographical tale of girls - and minds - gone wild in the Australian suburbs.
That would be the suburbs of the Gold Coast town of Dolphin’s Head, where the matriarch of the Moochmore family, Shirley (a surprisingly affecting Rebecca Gibney), retreats into the world of the Von Trapps when the day-to-day realities of the real world become too much. Those realities include five unruly daughters, roughly aged between 10 and 16, and a husband, Barry (Anthony Lapaglia), who, as the mayor of this coastal enclave, prefers to spend his nights doing a little one-on-one with his female constituents.
When Shirley finally snaps, she’s sent to “Wollongong for a holiday”, and Barry randomly plucks a stranger from the streets to be his live-in nanny-of-sorts. That would be Shaz (Toni Collette), who, equipped with a hunting knife and cattle dog, is by no means a magically endowed au pair or musically-inclined nun-to-be.
What she is is a renegade, a provocateur. Shaz shirks conformity and laughs in the face of society's disapproval, and she's come to show the Moochmore girls that it's perfectly normal to not be normal. Like Seal once sang, we’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy, and Shaz, no stranger to the insides of the proverbial padded cell, knows that “normal” is a façade; that we’re all crazy, it’s just a matter of degrees.
And in P.J. Hogan’s opinion, the worst form of mental illness is conformity: the desire to fit in, to be accepted; to not be different and to not challenge the status quo. And Collette’s Shaz is Hogan’s big ‘fuck you’ to that way of thinking.
Unfortunately, his film is as bipolar as his anti-heroine, swinging wildly between comedy and an attempt at a deeper seriousness (not surprisingly, there are more than a few skeletons in Shaz's closet).
Collette, teaming with Hogan since both had their careers launched by 1994's Muriel's Wedding, is solid as Shaz. She's had plenty of practise playing crazy on TV's United States of Tara and she manages to pitch her performance just this side of caricature.
The same can't be said of Deborah Mailman, as Shaz's hyperactive gal pal, but she's fun nonetheless, while Liev Schrieber (with an impressive Aussie accent) resides in the film's darker spots as shark hunter, Trevor Blundell, one of said skeletons.
Good, too, are all of the young actresses who comprise the Moochmore menagerie, notably Lily Sullivan whose Coral, the eldest daughter, is struggling with her hormones as much as her family life (though I could have done without her troubadouring lifeguard paramour, Trout (Sam Clark), who seems to know just the one, horrible song).
Mental is not a sequel to P.J. Hogan's Muriel’s Wedding, despite the reunion between director and star, and Hogan’s desire to mine similar territory – suburban discontent, the façade of happy lives – but it will inevitably draw comparisons. And it will ultimately come off second best. Mental is a much more audacious, unruly beast than the director’s 1994 breakout hit which, despite its dark undercurrents, was an ABBA-flavoured rom-com-ing of age story.
With Mental, Hogan takes risks which don't always pay off, and which an audience may not necessarily go along with. And while there may be a method to the director’s madness, it’s just a shame there isn’t enough discipline – like so much Prozac – to balance it out.
Monday, 1 October 2012
Lightning rarely strikes in the same place twice, and capturing it in a bottle is even harder to do. Yet Hollywood producers insist on attempting to replicate the success of an unlikely hit by rolling out a sequel, one which so often overlooks – or simply forgets – what it was that made the original a surprise hit in the first instance.
Taken 2 is a perfect case in point. In 2008 (and later in the U.S.), Taken, about a former CIA operative who goes on a killing spree across Paris in pursuit of his teenage daughter and the Albanian sex traffickers who kidnapped her, became an unsuspecting hit.
The success of Taken owed a great deal to Liam Neeson (as said enraged father, Bryan Mills) going Charles Bronson on the bad guys' asses. “I will find you, and I will kill you”, he promises his daughter's captors, and boy, did he keep that promise. Sure it was ultra violent and xenophobic, but Taken was also a guilty pleasure par excellence.
Not so Taken 2. Despite the presence of Neeson, the same creative team (co-writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen), and a budget more than triple that of the first film, Taken 2 is an uninspired and exhilaration-free re-tread of a slightly similar premise.
Trading Paris for Istanbul, Taken 2 sees Mills (Neeson) (along with his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen)) kidnapped by the father (Rada Serbedzija) of one of the slain men responsible for the abduction of Mills' daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace).
And it is Kim, under clandestine instructions from daddy dearest, who is the hero for the first half of the film; lobbing hand grenades with scant regard for public safety (tell me again why middle easterners don't like Americans?) and helping Mills escape. Mills then dusts off his fists of fury and single-handedly sets about reducing Instanbul's Albanian community.
Of course subtlety and nuance are not what one expects from a sequel to a film like Taken, nor from a director with the surname Megaton (Olivier, M. replacing Pierre Morel). But would a modicum of wit have been too much to ask? And no, blatantly stealing music from the soundtrack of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (2011) – a far superior man-on-a-mission-to-protect-loved-ones-at-all-costs film – does not count.
You would think that a filmmaker such as Besson, with a bigger budget and almost four years to work on the screenplay, could have provided more bang for the 80 million bucks, but even the punches are literally pulled in Taken 2; the fight scenes are highly-edited and the blood-letting is concealed, no doubt to reduce the censor's rating and improve box office returns.
Messrs Besson, Kamen and Neeson will have to promise to do better to ensure audiences return for a third Taken -- which is probably already in the planning stages (every film has to be a trilogy nowadays) and intended (predictably) to be released in 3D -- and they could start by returning to what made the first film so sinfully good and eschewing what made this outing so forgettably bad.