Tag Archives: Die Hard

2013 in review – What’s up? Docs!

Where did 2013 go? It seems just yesterday we were gearing up for Spielberg to walk away with all the Oscars; and like that, it was gone.

2013 was a mixed bag of tricks. The young masters of world cinema and the heroes of the American indie scene did not disappoint their fans, but Hollywood choked on a phlegm of sequelitis and rebootulosis and dumped the worst serving of misguided blockbusters and bland comedies we’ve seen for years. You can’t have your cake and film it.

But you ignore the lows, because you forget about them; your Star Trek Into Darknesses and your final acts of Man of Steel. You remember that this is the year the Coens brought out Inside Llewyn Davis, that Woody Allen made Blue Jasmine, that Martin Scorsese released his best film since Goodfellas.

Gravity showed us that there is still spectacle in cinema, and things we have never seen or experienced are out there to enthrall us. Elsewhere, Oblivion proved that sometimes it’s nice to see all the things you’ve already seen but rearranged in different orders.

More than any in recent memory, 2013 was the year of the documentary. Largely due to Netlfix Instant and HBO Go, docs have become common viewing for a much wider range of audiences, and in many ways the form is developing away from the cheap manipulative techniques that reality TV has coveted and coopted. From The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell, to simpler but affecting films such as Blackfish, the documentary has proven itself the genre (is it a genre? Is it a medium unto itself?) of 2013.

Television changed also. Netflix reinvented the boxset by releasing whole seasons of brand new shows at a time, starting with House of Cards, before bringing out Hemlock Grove, Orange Is the New Black and the lazarused Arrested Development. Thankfully the big players kept up, with the year’s biggest show, Breaking Bad, drawing itself to an all-too-tidy but utterly satisfying conclusion. As rumours flit that Steven Spielberg is to turn the unrealised screenplay of Napoleon begun by Stanley Kubrick into a TV miniseries, the question of how quality television and cinema separate themselves may become the key one of the next few years. Although compare Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD to Iron Man 3 and you can see we’re still not quite there yet…

Twice this year I found myself aboard an airplane bound for dramatic new adventures in cinephilia. The first came in May, when I attended the Cannes Film Festival on behalf of Film Ireland (full reenactments of that event can be found here). There I forged some new friendships (and solidified formerly Twitter-based ones) and bathed myself in film and espresso. If that was a life-defining trip, my next was a life-changing one. Packing my bags once again for America, I returned to New York City where I enrolled (and according to my grades remain) in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation programme at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I have committed myself now to my passion for film and its history, and the maintenance of its cultural and historical relevance. And here I stay. On the side I kept up my work for Film Ireland while expanding my writing by scribbling for NextProjection.com. I also increased my podcasting presence with several more recordings for The Film Show. OK, so maybe the Cannes thing was the highlight…

In terms of my non-contemporary film viewing, 2013 was not my most successful year. Certainly I finally watched some greats, including Kwaidan, Los Olvidados, Sansho the Bailiff and Short Cuts, while finally finishing off the Dekalog and binging on the entirety of the Fast & Furious franchise, which had utterly escaped me until this year. On the big screen I caught The Age of Innocence, Les Amants, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and The Great White Silence, as well as a joyous screening of Miami Connection. I discovered a heretofore-unknown passion for seeing films in cinema theatres with names related to the film – catching Julie Taymor’s Titus in MoMA’s Titus 1, and Creature from the Black Lagoon in Film Society’s Gilman Theater. On Ozu’s 110th birthday (and the 50th anniversary of his death), I ripped some time out of a bloated schedule to see Equinox Flower on the big screen. It’s the little things, really.

Making my top 20 was difficult this year. As in previous years, my splitting my time between two sides of the Atlantic complicated matters in terms of release schedules. Cannes also complicated matters given the number of often excellent films I saw there, although I have chosen not to include any of these films that did not see release in either Ireland or New York before December 31st. Big films I missed include Fruitvale Station, Her, The Grandmaster, and Museum Hours.

As an aside, whereas the last three years I have awarded 5 out of 5 to a strict average of four films, this year six made that list, making my top six very easy to iron out. The rest was complicated. Near misses include Reality, Wreck-It Ralph, Prisoners, McCullin, Nebraska, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Beyond the Hills. Special note should be given to a number of formally impressive or experimental films that impressed hugely but let themselves down too greatly in terms of acting, dialogue or coherence, particularly Spring Breakers, Stoker, Escape from Tomorrow and Upstream Color.

Now, on with the show.

20. Caesar Must Die

The grand old brothers of Italian cinema, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, have produced one of the most troubling docudramas in recent years with Caesar Must Die. Blending fly-on-the-wall documentary techniques with reenactments of rehearsals and performance of Shaespeare’s Julius Caesar, but within a maximum security prison and by the inmates, Caesar Must Die looked at life imitating art and the healing powers of performance and creativity. Lines blurred between reality and fiction, and natural angers and sadnesses leaked from these terrible men in a manner you could hardly expect to witness elsewhere.

19. I Wish

Not the last film on this list by Hirokazu Koreeda, perhaps the most talented filmmaker working today, I Wish looked at the world through the eyes of two young boys, played by real-life junior comedian brothers Koki and Oshiro Maeda, who each choose a different parent to live with when their mother and father separate. Simple, but utterly to the point, it revelled in the joys of childish dreaming.

Full review

18. Drug War

A truly unexpected gem of a movie, in the style of classic Michael Mann, Johnnie To’s Drug War teamed a do-anything-to-survive meth manufacturer with an impossibly resourceful top cop to take down a drug empire. The resulting stings and double-crosses, combined with shoot-outs that were so oddly choreographed they felt chaotically believable, made for a tight, twisty and utterly entertaining thriller.

17. Iron Man 3

The only summer blockbuster on this list, Iron Man 3 finally got the right balance for the character of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr.). This time we found him in the aftermath of the superb The Avengers, suffering PTSD from his near-death experience in its finale while also falling victim to an enormous ego-crushing at realising all his science smarts were nothing in a universe of gods and aliens. The villain was relatively typical, although in Ben Kingsley’s the Mandarin writer/director Shane Black found a hugely inventive number 2, the girl got to wear the super suit for a change, and Stark had to deal with being just an ordinary (brilliant) man in the second act with some superbly judged comedy and drama. The final action sequence was messy, but the ideas were all in the right place.

Full review

16. Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen, working of late in critical peaks and troughs, hit the highs again with this crafty reworking of A Streetcar Named Desire for the post-psychiatry age. Cate Blanchett dominates the screen as the tragic Jasmine, whose bipolar personality echoes the two poles of her life, as she falls from Manhattan socialite Bay Area unemployable when her unfaithful husband (Alec Baldwin) is revealed to be just as big a financial cheat. Allen’s script was loaded with delicious ironies delivered by Blanchett, while also creating a host of juicy supporting roles for solid character actors such as Sally Hawkins, Louis CK, Bobby Cannavale and Michael Stuhlbarg.

15. Gravity

A pulse-pounding disaster movie like none other, Gravity took inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey and recent first-person video games to create an out-of-world experience that was truly thrilling and suitably dizzying. With a remarkable sound design and (mostly) unobtrusive score, Alfonso Cuarón’s film used the most astonishing special effects (and 3D effects) ever seen on screen before to invoke the terror of a storm of metal ripping through orbiting space stations. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney gave fine performances as the unfortunate space travellers, but it was the script – its clumsy dialogue and infantile religious metaphors – that denied this incredible production the title of modern classic. A near masterpiece, but a remarkable film nevertheless.

Full review

14. Le Passé (The Past)

Following on from his sublime A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s Le Passé looks at the drama that arises in the years following a similar divorce and emigration case. Here an Iranian man returns to France to finalise proceedings with his soon-to-be ex-wife, where he becomes embroiled in her relationship with a new man while reconnecting with her children, his one-time step kids. It’s an untraditional tale of familial secrets and lies, told with remarkable restraint and with a knock-out ending. In the lead roles, Ali Mosaffa, Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim all elevate the material to greater heights.

13. To the Wonder

Lesser Malick is still better than most. The Texan philosopher brought his lens from the overcast steps of Mont St. Michel to the sunlit fields of Oklahoma, taking in suitably stunning imagery in airy, sweeping movements. Drawing an excellent performance from Olga Kurylenko as a woman torn apart by love, the film failed to reach the heights of Malick’s earlier works. While it neither bore the dramatic punch, nor laid out the same emotional depth of say The Tree of Life, it remains a startling and beautiful work to behold. It made spinning look as wondrous as Gravity made it look terrifying.

Full review

12. Cutie and the Boxer

Some times documentary filmmakers get lucky with their subjects as events shift the focus of the story, but this can hardly count against the filmmaker. Zachary Heinzerling got very lucky with this film about New York-based Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara and his underappreciated wife and unknowing muse Noriko. Being able to tell the story of their tragicomic relationship through Noriko’s art, which is newly reemerging just as Ushio enters his autumn years. A retrospective of his work allows for introspection of their selves and their relationship, as Noriko is given a coinciding exhibit of her own. Astonishingly personal and poignant filmmaking, featuring perhaps the greatest scene played over by the closing credits ever.

11. Before Midnight

Richard Linklater’s romantic odyssey continued the tale of Jesse and Céline another nine years after we last saw them probably turning their lives upside down to be with one another. Now together, with two children, and with his success overshadowing hers (recommended double-bill with Cutie and the Boxer), the couple has a make-it or break-it day during a holiday in Greece. The writing is as natural as it was in Before Sunset, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy once more giving superb, believable performances. It doesn’t hit with quite the same punch as Sunset, largely due to an inconsistent visual aesthetic, but it’s a wonderful and powerful follow-up that shows that romance doesn’t die as couples get older, but it becomes much, much harder to fight for.

Full review

10. Inside Llewyn Davis

One of my worst experiences of 2013 was waiting in a press queue at Cannes to see the Coens’ latest, only for us to be denied access to the over-subscribed show. The heat and sweat and crushing were unbearable, but worse was the thought of not getting to see the film. OK, in fairness I saw it two days later and the U.S. didn’t get it for another five months, but anyhow. A melancholy mixture of many Coen themes shot in haunting, dispiriting winter greys, Inside Llewyn Davis is somewhat of another masterstroke by the brothers. Oscar Isaac gives a remarkable lead performance, backed by a fine assemblage of Coen oddballs, and the character’s introspection is carried beautifully, accompanied by music perfect for capturing that spirit of early ’60s Greenwich Village. Only the semi-successful literary flourishes stand against it, and even then only barely. A bleak but powerful drama.

Full review

9. The Wind Rises

“The wind is rising, we must try to live.” Hayao Miyazaki’s supposedly (and undeniably suitable) final film is an ode to the reasons the artist creates, in the mold of Andrei Rublev. The film animates the real life story of Jiro Horikoshi, a flight-obsessed young man whose weak eyes would never let him fly, so he turned to plane design, ultimately creating the Zero fighter, the pride of the Japanese airforce during World War II. A film as much about love and loss as it is about art and war, The Wind Rises is a gentle, gorgeously drawn film that never patronises its audience or its characters. It overstays its welcome in the closing 20 minutes, but it remains a tremendous feat by the greatest living master of animation. In addition to the visuals, the sound design is astonishing – when an earthquake tears through Tokyo the soundtrack is of a guttural chant, as if the earth itself was groaning an assault on the people of the city. A remarkable work.

8. Frozen

Teaming Tangled’s director Chris Buck with Wreck-It Ralph’s writer Jennifer Lee proved a glorious victory for Disney, who have suddenly snatched back the animation crown from their underlings at Pixar. Retelling Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen with remarkable flair, superbly composed (and lyricised) songs, rich humour and a female-dominant storyline, Frozen was one of 2013’s biggest (and most successful) surprises. The animation was not always flawless, but when it looked its best (during the unsurpassable showstopper ‘Let it Go’, for example) it was beautiful to behold, and the film’s energy was electrifying. It also managed to make an animate snowman not only work dramatically and comically, but actually warm the heart too. Some movies are worth melting for.

7. The Wolf of Wall Street

Hitting harder than Ushio Shinohara at a canvas, Terence Winter’s screenplay, based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, is an hysterical and terrifying ride through the corridors of financial scheming and market manipulation. At times fuelled as if by the drugs its antiheroes consume, this Martin Scorsese picture may lack the visual flourish we expect of the director, but he has rarely handled a cast this efficiently, and never been so assured in his use of Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives the performance of his career thus far. At times unbearably nasty and perhaps a little enamoured of its subject’s gusto (if not his actions), it has a hell of a lot to say about American greed and the cruelty of the capitalist system at its very worst.

6. A Field in England

One of the most exciting and consistently surprising filmmakers around today, Ben Wheatley brought out his most challenging work to date in 2013, an English Civil War drama that went right through the looking glass. A demonic Irishman forces a motley crew of Englanders to dig for unspecified and uncertain treasure, only for reality and minds to split to asunder. Startling monochrome cinematography, viciously black comedy, and utterly game performances made for a psychedelic whirlwind of a picture. Screenwriter Amy Jump created a ferocious villain in O’Neill, and in the character of Friend, one of the greatest idiot savants in modern fiction.

Full review

5. The Gatekeepers

“In the War on Terror, forget about morality.” This is the defeatist mantra by which the former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s counter-terrorism unit, barely excuse themselves. This incredible documentary probed the founding of the Shin Bet and its execution of some incredible assaults on terrorist cells (including some monumental failures). Interviews with six former heads of the agency, each clearly affected by their time with the finger on the button, gave unprecedented insight into the difficulties faced by these men, and assertively questions the decisions they have made. Accompanying footage of atrocities, riots and counter-terrorism methods in action are more troubling than anything Hollywood has yet produced on the subject.

Full review

4. 12 Years a Slave

The story of Solomon Northup, an educated black man in the 1840s kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South, was brought to life with the extraordinary visual assuredness of Steve McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. The period detail falls secondary to the extraordinary camerawork, gently filming the lakes and cotton fields that surround the plantation, or making a steamboat’s paddlewheel appear more threatening than any imaginable horror. An unending hanging is shot from a restrained distance, and life is seen to carry on as normal behind it; an astonishing comment on the system that existed in the South. Eschewing explosive Hollywood drama in favour of natural terror and human cruelty, 12 Years feels as painfully real as it looks beautiful. In the lead role, Chiwetel Ejiofor proves himself a remarkable talent, but it is McQueen’s judgement of each scene that truly propels this film towards greatness.

3. Like Father, Like Son

Hirokazu Koreeda’s most recent inspection of a family in crisis is perhaps his most melodramatic, with a plotline that could be taken from a made-for-TV movie. Two families, one upper-middle class, the other working class, discover their six-year-old sons were switched at birth; spurned on by traditional Japanese values they agree to swap boys on a trial basis. The film views the whole gentle tragedy from the point of the middle-class dad (Masaharu Fukuyama), torn between biological assumptions and shame at the breakup of his family. Koreeda judges every scene to perfection, revelling in the spontaneous performances of his child actors (Keita Ninomiya and Shôgen Hwang), gently tracking his camera alongside the painful human drama. As touching as any film could hope to be.

Full review

2. The Act of Killing

Perhaps the most formally inventive documentary ever shot, director Joshua Oppenheimer dared to challenge the perpetrators of war crimes during conflicts in Indonesia in ’65-’66 to make short films based on their experiences. These hero gangsters, icons to many contemporary Indonesians, are exposed to be deeply haunted by their acts 50 years ago, no matter how steely their dispositions. Blending camp fantasy with gory reenactments, the film is never better than when it films Anwar Congo, sitting with his grandson in the comfort of his own home, watching a film of himself playing one of his own torture victims, and revealing the collapse of an ideal in the lines of his face and the tremors of his voice. What it says about the conflict, the victims and killers, is unfathomable. But what it says about cinema and its ability to heal and bruise and cleanse is somehow even deeper still.

1. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2)

Nothing hit harder this year than the life of young Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whose doe-eyed and trepidatious questioning of her sexuality in her teens leads her into a long-term relationship with confident lesbian artist Emma (Léa Seydoux). Through Abdellatif Kechiche’s astonishingly sensitive direction, we see the blossoming and embittering of this young woman, her pains and simple dreams lightly drawn on her barely-an-adult face. Exarchopoulos excels beyond any lead performance one could hope for, while the camerawork and pacing create an epic of simple humanity, first love and sexual awakening. Kechiche understands that the moments when life seems to slow down are when the camera should hang in the air, only watching, incapable of intervening. No coming-of-age tale in a generation has been this exceptionally well-measured, this powerful or this gorgeous to behold.

Full review

Vive l'Adèlevolution!
Vive l’Adèle-volution!

—————————

OK, and now what you’ve really been waiting for, my five worst films of 2013. I missed many supposedly awful films this year, such as Movie 43, Getaway or A Haunted House. But I certainly saw my share of poor movies. There were many I disliked or even hated, such as Django Unchained, Star Trek Into Darkness and Only God Forgives, that despite the ire they raised in me were far too competently made to be numbered amongst these bottom of the barrel films. Which are…

5. The World’s End

No film in 2013 was as appallingly misjudged as this struggling comedy from Edgar Wright. Closing a trilogy comprised also of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, The World’s End failed to do anything new with the sophisticated humour and cutting of those films, rehashing visuals and delivering predictable gags that felt like they were coming off a conveyer belt. Irredeemably nihilistic (it revels in the exploits of humanity’s most disgraceful member) and haplessly genre-meshing, it failed to be any of the many things it wanted to be. It can only be applauded for its ambition.

Full review

4. 21 & Over

The writers of The Hangover team up to direct a campus comedy full of racism, disregard for mental health issues and accidental circumcision. Enjoy!

Full review

3. A Good Day to Die Hard

The fifth installment in the once-unmatchable saga of John McClane became a muddied mess of James Bond cliches and anti-Russian propaganda. A dire villain, nonsense dialogue and absent chemistry between unstoppable dad and superspy son made this humourless entry in the series an agony to watch.

2. After Earth

Will Smith pimps his charisma-struggling son in a shockingly bland action movie that features killer monkeys, instantaneous plummets in temperature and giant eagles that comprehend human sacrifice. It may often look good, but the dialogue and drama are so haphazard and clumsy that not even a spear that can be reassembled into different shapes with the push of a button can save it. Perhaps M. Night Shyamalan’s worst film.

Full review

1. Hyde Park on Hudson

After being masturbated by his cousin, President Roosevelt proceeds to solve a political storm in a teacup with the use of a hotdog. Features perhaps cinema’s most insipid narration. This film is exploitative dirt.

Full review

Until next year…

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Film

Zero Dark Thirty – To see the terror of your ways

A one-woman Team America: Jessica Chastain

As the lights go down for Zero Dark Thirty, nothing comes up on the big screen. Over a blacked-out image, we hear police calls and radio chatter from 9/11. It’s an effective, if not exactly original tactic for bringing us back into that world of terror and vengeance for the innocents killed on that day.

At the first of several classified locations over the years that follow, we are introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative assisting in the torture of Al-Qaeda associates in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Her goal is solely to track down Osama Bin Laden, primarily targeting the paper trail from 9/11 which leads back to Abu Ahmed, Bin Laden’s personal courier.

Playing out over nearly a decade, Zero Dark Thirty charts Maya’s investigation, its successes, pitfalls and red herrings – as well as Al-Qaeda’s subsequent attacks – right up to the discovery of Bin Laden’s hideout, and the SEAL Team Six assault on it in May 2011.

Paced like a police procedural drama, but with the soul and redemption of the United States on the line, Zero Dark Thirty maintains attention and interest throughout. It is, however, due to the mass media reporting of the events within it, utterly predictable from start to finish. Because of this, director Kathryn Bigelow, whose previous film The Hurt Locker was one of the most nail-bitingly tense cinematic experiences of the past 50 years, is never able to raise that kind tension from her latest project. Even one scene not widely reported in media, where an Al-Qaeda defector is brought to a CIA stronghold, fails to up the tension due to dialogue cues telegraphing the trajectory of the scene.

But while these elements work against Zero Dark Thirty, it is undeniably a finely crafted film. Tightly shot and edited, with a great score by Alexandre Desplat that always suits the locations and atmosphere, Bigelow’s film rolls steadily along thanks to Mark Boal’s deeply technical and well-researched script that balances tradecraft talk with flippant everyday language. “This is what defeat looks like, bro,” torture expert Dan (Jason Clarke) tells his victim to break him down. “Your jihad is over.”

The film never shies away from the dark realities of the manhunt, including some deeply unpleasant waterboarding sequences. But the realities of this torture seem hard to dispute and while the techniques are effective, Boal’s script never seems in favour of what is happening. Horror is met with further horror, and everyone suffers, even the surprisingly fragile torturers.

Chastain reveals herself once more to be one of the finest performers in American cinema today, capturing a character full of determination and loneliness. Her face displays her distaste for torture when she first witnesses it, but her voice is insistent when she says she won’t wait outside. Maya’s descent into hell for the love of her job is the cornerstone of the film, and Chastain carries this flawlessly as her obsession with her work drives her closer to both despair and her goal.

The supporting players are mostly strong, with Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Ehle all carrying their scenes appropriately. Only a brief cameo by James Gandolfini seems out of place, and somewhat unsuitable to the seriousness of the material. A temporary lull in the film’s midsection is interrupted gloriously by Mark Strong’s sudden bursting into the movie with a scenery-inhaling performance as a top-tier CIA honcho with a zero tolerance for bullshit.

Zero Dark Thirty never releases you from its grip, but the hold certainly loosens in the final act as the Navy SEALs make their play on the Bin Laden compound. An early set-back that seems overtly fictional is followed by the infiltration of the main building by a team of soldiers vastly outmanning and outgunning the terrorists within. It’s a superb reconstruction, but it is hardly a thrilling action sequence – more high-class documentary than Die Hard. Afterwards, the film’s final shot, a suitable catharsis, is one that has become a cliché of the modern spy movie genre, used repeatedly before in TV series such as 24 and Homeland. It’s hard not to feel that the reality was simply never as exciting as the fiction.

Still, Zero Dark Thirty is an excellent record of the secret takedown of a real-life supervillain, and the pacing and direction are overshadowed only by the film’s central performance. It is a worthy and timely piece of historical re-enactment, with plenty to say about the post-9/11 world and America’s role in it.

3/5

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

Total Recall – An unmemorable remake

Colin Farrell as Doug ‘Dougie’ Quaid, aka Carl Hauser (aka Dougie Hauser?)

It’s hard to stifle a giggle as the lights go down for Total Recall when the name of the film’s production studio, Original Film, comes up on screen. Coming 22 years after the Paul Verhoeven-directed version, it’s hard to find much “original” about this Len Wiseman production, at least on the surface. It doesn’t help the filmmakers’ arguments that they insist the film is more closely based on the source material, Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’; but really swathes of Total Recall 2012’s content comes from the 1990 film.

Wiseman, that packer of action who brought us the highly entertaining Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0) and the remarkably successful Underworld series, has here steered into cinemas an action movie that builds on its predecessor only in terms of gloss, not in terms of depth or content.

Colin Farrell, on autopilot, stars as Doug Quaid, a worker at a robot factory in a futuristic Britain, which has become the world’s sole superpower after a chemical holocaust made most of the planet uninhabitable. This ever-so-slightly despotic Britain rules over a colony, called the Colony, in what was once Australia, and its supposedly oppressed workforce are imported every day via a colossal elevator, the Fall, which connects the territories via the Earth’s core.

But Quaid is not who he thinks he is. Bored with his dull life and his outrageously beautiful wife (how?!), he attempts to have false memories of a more exciting reality inserted in his brain through a system called Rekall, only to cause a major system crash when it turns out he already has those memories, for real, and everything else has been inserted. Learning he is actually Carl Hauser, a military big wig turned pro-Colony freedom fighter, he goes on the run from the cops (both human and robot) and his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), who is also an imposter and the top agent assigned to keep him under lock and key.

Soon Quaid/Hauser teams up with his real love interest Melina (Jessica Biel), and following clues left by himself before the memory implant embarks on a quest to save the Colony from all-out enslavement by the Big Brotherish Britain.

No-road rage: Kate Beckinsale in her magnetic hover car

Production-wise Total Recall has more money than it knows what to do with. Inspired by, amongst others, Blade Runner and Minority Report, it adequately shows a fusion of cultures (Asian and South American) in the Colony, and the soaring metropolis that has built up around London in the United Federation of Britain. And yet, there’s nothing particularly dystopic about this world. Its class system seems unfair, but not much worse than what we have at present, and the horror that the villains wish to unleash is never actually seen. Unlike the drab and lifeless world of Verhoeven’s Total Recall, this doesn’t look at all like the worst of possible futures.

Yet there are plenty of fine touches in the production; the gravity reversing elevator of the Fall feels fresh to sci-fi, while electric web guns, magnetic hover cars and a device that shoots hundreds of tiny cameras show signs of creativity and inspiration lacking in much of the script. Quaid finds himself tracked not by a bug in his brain as in the original film, but by a mobile phone built into his hand – a technology that feels not impossibly far off now.

Where Wiseman excels is in the lengthy action scenes, which include some barnstorming set pieces, all of which slightly overstay their welcome but never exhaust. Upon being surrounded by elite cops, Quaid proceeds to take them out in a frenetic, sweeping digitally altered single take, shortly before being confronted by his vicious, flexible fake wife, who proceeds to teach him a move or two. Beckinsale is given the majority of the best stunts to do, and performs them with plenty of panache – her knees-first slides are some of the most memorable moments in the film. A major central action piece, involving a series of elevators that can travel sideways as well as upwards, feels a little too much like a Mario Bros. game, with the characters leaping from platform to platform and avoiding getting crushed in corridors. Indeed, the entire film has quite a computer gamey feel to it. The epilepsy-inducing scrolling lens flares don’t help.

Jessica Biel and Colin Farrell in some sort of threatening situation or other

The screenplay by Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, Salt) and Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4) is as lacking in urgency as it is in one liners (comparatively, the 1990 film was written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who wrote Alien). Worse still it fails to build in any way on the original story, which given 22 years has passed is almost inexcusable. In the interim audiences have been exposed to The Matrix, eXistenZ and Inception, so questions of reality and identity are no longer new, or even pressing. The one scene in the original Total Recall that truly questioned Quaid’s reality (he is confronted by a scientist who claims he is dreaming) is reproduced here in an exhaustingly extended form, where Quaid is confronted by a close friend rather than an expert. The conclusion to the scene is slightly different, but not enough to justify a Total Recall post-Matrix.

Even the always brilliant Bryan Cranston as the villain Cohaagen can’t elevate this film beyond a passing entertainment. Bill Nighy and John Cho show up in brief cameos, but they could be anyone. While Beckinsale looks as though she is always having plenty of fun (her husband directing may have given her free rein), Farrell only really pushes his limits during the action sequences, and slumps when he’s not on the run. A highlight of the film sees him come face to face with an interactive recording of his former self – the two Farrells are played by his very different guises, the clean-shaven, slick-haired, baby-faced Farrell of In Bruges and Phone Booth, and the goateed, dangerous Farrell of Daredevil and Intermission. It’s a cute touch. Meanwhile, Jessica Biel, usually a limited actress, is deadwood in a criminally underwritten role.

For all its gloss and bang, this is a fun but forgettable sci-fi action movie, that crucially fails to justify itself as a remake at this time. There’s plenty of talent evident, let’s just hope it can be used more substantially in future.

2/5

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

An interview with Len Wiseman

Len Wiseman on set

I recently interviewed Hollywood action movie director Len Wiseman for Film Ireland magazine while he was in town to promote Total Recall (2012). We discussed his new film, how to structure an action sequence, the unfortunate censorship of Live Free or Die Hard/Die Hard 4.0 and the big question of the day: which was the better action movie, The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises?

It took making a movie with Colin Farrell to get Len Wiseman to Ireland. The Californian director of Total Recall was on his star’s home turf for the European premiere of the movie, when I spoke with him at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel. Busy with press and the premiere that day, he assured me that Farrell had promised to show him the town before he left.

Wiseman, a director of high-octane video game-influenced action blockbusters was a strong choice to put in charge of this sci-fi remake, originally made by the Dutch master Paul Verhoeven in 1990. That film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid, a blue collar worker who discovers all his memories have been implanted, and he is actually a spy. Big shoes had to be filled, especially when remaking a film that was so commercially successful while also wooing critics. Wiseman launched his name through the Underworld movies, vampires versus werewolves romps, which he created and now produces – the series has now taken nearly $500,000,000 worldwide. His Total Recall, following The Dark Knight Rises into cinemas, has not had as warm a reception thus far. So what drew him to the project?

“It kind of came to me out of left field,” he admitted. “I’d been focused on prepping a different movie at the time that didn’t go through. They sent me a script, I actually read it with quite a bit of scepticism about what it would be. I’m a fan of the original, so I was more reading it trying to convince myself why not to do it. I was just hooked by the direction that it went in, it was a very different take, and it felt like such a different experience than the Verhoeven film.”

Wiseman is a fan of the original film, but confessed when he saw it first, aged 17, he was “just going to see the next Arnold action movie!” Years later, in college, he read the short story it was based on, ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, by sci-fi soothsayer Philip K. Dick, unaware of the connection. “I remember reading and thinking: ‘Hey this is that movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger!’ When I read the story it did have a very different kind of Quaid to me, and it was a different experience. So that’s what made me feel both more comfortable and [with the script]; it reminded me more of the short story.”

Total Recall (1990) and Total Recall (2012): How times have (sort of) changed

Verhoeven’s Total Recall can still surprise now, given that it touches on concepts such as “what is reality?” nearly 10 years before The Matrix and eXistenZ. So what message can Total Recall carry now, another 12 years later? Wiseman said the idea of implanting happier memories than the ones we have, through the sci-fi product ‘Rekall’, is more pertinent now than ever. “If the technology actually gets to the point where we can experience something like Rekall, is it the right thing to do?” he suggested. “Is it safe? To me it’s amazing that Philip K. Dick’s work, not just in this story, is so relevant. Some people just have a window into our future and where we’re going. I mean even Facebook, look at what we have today, we’re ordering up, putting up the pictures that we want, saying this is who I am, how I’m describing myself. I’ll leave out all the bad stuff. This is my alter ego of me, who I want to be. Rekall is an extension of that science. An extension of our technology of being actually able to say ‘this is who I want to be’.”

This Total Recall has a particularly glossy look, with its story shifting between a futuristic London and its enslaved colony in Australia. Influenced by the likes of Blade Runner and Minority Report and Wiseman’s ever-growing collection of sci-fi artwork (he refers to his home as a “big geek fest”), the director explained that his team also borrowed the look of Rio de Janeiro’s slums and Asian fishing villages to create a “hodge podge” of interlocking cultures. The decision to bathe the film in light was taken on his own distaste for underlit action movies. “I love to see what is going on,” he said, “both in my camera movements, in the way that things are choreographed. [Cinematographer] Paul Cameron did an amazing job. We talked about it a lot; that’s why there’s so much practical light within those sets, so we can have a reason to splash light all over the place. I think you can have a very dark image – Total Recall is very dark – but you can still see everything because the contrast level is able to be really dark when it’s black, but as long as you’re putting spots on everything that you need to see it works.”

And what about those extended, frenetic action scenes? “I think it’s very important for an action sequence to be its own story, and have a first act, second act, third act within the action. Otherwise it’s just relentless action – it doesn’t make any sense. There is a difference between just an action scene and an action sequence, and what it means to me is that in an action sequence you can remember the sequence, it should tell some story and ratch it up and tell its conclusion rather than just be noise and shaky cameras.”

Wiseman directs Jessica Biel

Perhaps the film’s finest moment is a sequence where Farrell’s Quaid rediscovers his talents as a spy and surprises himself by taking out a dozen SWAT team members in what appears to be a single, swooping take. “It appears to be!” Wiseman laughed, like a magician who delights in revealing his tricks. “That was something that was very difficult. It’s funny because when there’s something that people don’t quite grasp they go *snap fingers* “CG”, because we’re in a day and age where that’s commonplace. But it was 100% practical – it was put together with what are called super slider rigs, that they shoot football games with. They’re these remote cameras that move at about 35mph so you can’t man them. It was a lot of R&D on our end, but we put seven of those tracks together and what would happen is one of these cameras would go along at 35mph and when it crossed another one the computer would pick up and this one would take off from where the other left off. And we stitched all of those together. It took two days to shoot. Colin and the guys had to do the fight 22 times!”

Wiseman was clearly impressed with his leading man. “I had the funnest time with Colin. He’s a complete pleasure, and such a professional as well. And immensely funny, that’s one thing really struck me. He’s very talented, he has a hold body of work that’s wildly intelligent, but I was not aware of just how quick witted and funny he is. It really makes a difference on set to have somebody who’s devoted but also keeps it fun.”

Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale: Not-so-happily married

It’s less easy to ask Wiseman about working with his leading lady, Kate Beckinsale, without feeling as though your probing like a tabloid mag; the pair are married, having met on the set of the first Underworld film. She plays Lori, a spy pretending to be Quaid’s wife, keeping him under her thumb before having to hunt him down when he discovers who he is. I asked Wiseman if it’s coincidence he gave her character all the best lines. “A lot of those lines are her!” he replied. “Part of what I wanted from Kate and why I thought she’d be great for this movie is that people don’t realise through the Underworld movies or through the serious dramas and indies that she’s done is that she has such a sharp and fun and cunning sense of humour. And I knew that she would be able to bring a lot of that to the film. I wanted Laurie to have a taunting quality to Colin, and I knew that she would know how to bring that. So a lot of the one-liners are hers.”

Very much in demand these days, Bryan Cranston was cast as the totalitarian Chancellor Cohaagen, his first villainous role in a movie since his character Walter White shifted from hero to villain in his TV series Breaking Bad. The choice was an obvious one for Wiseman. “He was my first choice. I was watching Breaking Bad at the time and I was like ‘I’ve gotta work with this guy’. The thing that surprised me about him is that I had no idea about his other show (the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, which ran for six years in the early ‘00s), so I didn’t see that side of him. I only know him as Walter White. So he shows up and I thought ‘You know what, this guy has such a menacing quality about him that he may be difficult to work with’. I was setting myself up for who knows. He could not be a sweeter guy! And I kept waiting for that [mean] side of him to come out … because he’s so great in that role as Walter White. He’s a dear guy but just has a great presence in the film.”

Colin Farrell regrets trying to steal meth from Bryan Cranston

Wiseman went on to tell me about his pre-Underworld days, when he worked as a props master on Independence Day director Roland Emmerich’s biggest films of the 1990s. He described the experience as “a bit of film school for me in terms of problem solving, technique and using a budget”, before sharing an anecdote in which Emmerich, despite having a $75,000,000 for Independence Day, was ordering sets to be built at the last minute from leftover pieces of other film’s sets. “We literally built this little set in an hour of a hallway that was needed, just on the fly, and then walk them through and done. That was really helpful.”

With a fifth film in the Die Hard series due next year, was Wiseman ever in the run for to direct it, following his successful fourth instalment Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0) back in 2007? “It was, it was. Bruce [Willis] kind of went out there publicly and said so, but I was already working. I would love to jump in the ring again, but I was already well into the mix.”

Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard (4.0)

The director also admitted his disappointment at how the studio censored that film. “I shot a rated R movie,” he insisted, and referenced the ‘Harder’ cut available on DVD. “I had no idea it was going to be PG-13; that came in halfway through the process. And I gotta tell you as a fan I felt like “I’m gonna walk.” If they it PG-13! You know Bruce was really up in arms about it and everything. But in the end it was the most expensive Die Hard. It was also my first studio film, so I lost that battle over the rating. I’m not big on doing the cartoon gore. But McClane is McClane, so that’s really why I was glad to get that (the extended cut) out.”

The question all action movie fans need to be asked this summer is The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises? Wiseman seemed very torn up about having to choose. “I actually thought beforehand ‘Dark Knight Rises is gonna hit it out of the park, but Avengers, that’s gonna be interesting, how are you gonna pull that one off?’ And I mean I was just watching [Avengers] thinking ‘I’m really liking this. It’s servicing the characters very well, it’s tying in very well, it’s really fun’, and I completely got into. I gotta say, the end of Dark Knight, how it all wrapped up and tied up I really liked. But Avengers was just… you walk out of that movie saying ‘That was so much fun.’ The difference is: Avengers I’ve seen twice.”

Kate Wiseman in Underworld: Evolution

So when the media circuit, or “circus” as Wiseman corrected me, for Total Recall is done, what will he do next? More Underworld? “I actually don’t know about Underworld!” he admitted, somewhat sheepishly. “I should be the right guy to ask, but I actually said there wasn’t going to be a fourth one! So I’m not sure about that. I’m producing a movie called Darkness, which is based off the Top Cow comic books. Then I’ve got two scripts that I’m working on – I’d love to get back to my own creations again.

“That’s how I started my career. Sequels and remakes are a thing of the past for me, I’d love to go back to getting my scripts off the ground.”

Total Recall is out in cinemas in Ireland and the UK now.

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

The Raid – Review

You would be forgiven for thinking that the sound designer working on The Raid had made some odd artistic choices; what’s with are all that manly grunting and hooting and the sound of sweaty palms slapping against one another on the soundtrack? You will in fact find that those noises are coming from the audience. The Raid is that kind of action movie that causes men (and women, though less verbosely so) to revert to a primitive, almost bestial state, resulting in cheers, roars and copious high-fivery.

Delivering every 10 minutes the sort of cheer-inducing ‘awesome’ moment that most blockbusters nowadays strain themselves to provide one of (think Legolas flipping onto the horse in The Two Towers, or the Batpod’s wall reversal in The Dark Knight), The Raid manages to entertain its audience without ever becoming too stupid or too experimental to alienate.

The story of how Welsh film fan Gareth Evans found himself at the helm of a modest budget Indonesian action film is quickly becoming the stuff of legend, and has been suitably embellished as all good legends are. The Raid is in fact Evans’s second film, after 2009’s Merantau, which introduced action star Iko Uwais and the extreme martial art pencak silat to the world. But if The Raid is not his cinematic debut, it is definitely the film that has made his name been heard the world over.

The story is all too simple: a squad of elite cops storm a tower slum to take out a drugs kingpin. But the boss turns the tables by setting his machete and machine gun-laden junkie goons on the cops. Soon the good guys run low on both ammunition and other good guys, and it’s up to the survivors to kung fu fight their ways to the top of the tower. (yes, I know it’s pencak silat, but I can’t say “they pencak silat” their ways” now can I?) There are a few minor plot twists along the way, but really this is all about intense action sequences, heightened by a pumping soundtrack.

Action! Action! Action!

Blood splatters, bones shatter, fridges explode. The fighting is frenetic and balletic; choreography for the hand-to-hand combat is honed to perfection, while clunky machetes are wielded with the grace and elegance of the Green Destiny in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

And indeed, this is a film all about references to classic action movies – but always references that show reverence, and not theft. The villain wields a hammer like Oldboy, his henchman shares the name “Mad Dog” with the henchman from Hard Boiled, the plot itself reads like The Warriors mated with Assault on Precinct 13. Obvious too are references to computer games; the film features action and stealth sequences, and the tower is literally played through level by level with “boss fights” along the way. One scene in which two of the acrobatic cops and their burly sergeant raid a meth lab full of goons is overwhelming similar to the classic arcade beat ’em up Final Fight.

Mini-boss fight #1

The film shows signs of clumsiness along the way. The geography of the tower is somewhat ill-defined, and it’s rarely clear where everyone is. Worse still is the editing of scenes together. In one sequence a goon walks to the end of a corridor, pauses to think, we cut to a separate scene and then back to the goon who has not progressed in any way in five minutes; this is the sort of continuity mistake silent cinema gave up on before 1910. Later, a character gets into an elevator and is in it for at least 15 minutes, simply because of the way lengthy scenes are cut around his (assumedly) brief descent. But with action this awesome these minor problems fall by the wayside.

We enjoy the violence because it is so stylised and, oddly, beautiful; there is a certain poetry to the way a man is knocked out by having his head shatter tiles along a wall. Iko Uwais shows off his formidable skills but also shows off an intensity in his acting that escapes many of his American action counterparts. It no doubt limits him to this sort of movie, but he is never anything less than sincere in his performance. In fact the realistic performances, combined with the film’s gritty, almost filthy look, are what make The Raid so memorable and impressive. It’s hectic madness, with men flipping over the backs of one another, yet somehow it all looks, well, sort of possible.

What it lacks in the one-liners of Die Hard and Commando it makes up for with Mortal Kombat-style finishing moves. A remarkable breakthrough for director and star, The Raid will become a staple in the collections of action movie buffs, and keep men (and women) roaring with delight until the day that impaling a guy on a doorframe is no longer considered entertainment.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

1 Comment

Filed under Film

Jeremy Irons asked me out

Like many of my generation I have a very large soft spot in my heart for Jeremy Irons, no doubt borne from years of suckling at the teat of The Lion King, plus a Jesuit education that meant an annual diet of The Mission could not be avoided. And it’s true that there are few of his generation, Alan Rickman (his would-be-on-screen brother in the Die Hard series) being a possible exception, who could match him for sheer charm and Englishness.

So when I heard that he was to be giving a talk at my alma mater last week, there was no question of my missing it. And what a charming little evening it was. A polite eccentric in contrast to the stern and narrow-eyed characters he has tended to portray in the past he seems more Charles Ryder than any of the others. When the topic came up of the new version of Brideshead Revisited (already out in the States, due here shortly), Irons said: “We had the luxury of 13 hours to tell the story, they’re trying to do it in 2.” A fair point.

He then added: “There’s some things you can’t do quickly… well.”

Quite. Trust such a droll man to sum it up quite so simply. Other questions flew back and forth from the audience, revealing, amongst other things, that he has come to terms with being best known for The Lion King, was never approached for Die Hard 4, and was certain that he was going to win his Oscar, largely because the odds all seemed in his favour (one could a joke about fortunes reversing but that would be unforgivable). Perhaps most interestingly he admitted that the work he is most proud of is, of all things, playing Humbert Humbert in Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, one of his more controversial films, although a performance I for one found incredibly powerful.

Eventually the question asking came to me, and I elected, as I do, to ask a rambling question with a touch of wit and a fistful of flattery. “While I was watching Kingdom of Heaven,” I began, “it was all going really well, the film had a good trajectory, and then your character announces for no particular reason that he’s going to Cyprus (this is utterly true mind, Tiberias does just up and leave as soon as the going gets tough), and you leave and suddenly the film becomes utterly unwatchable (an exaggeration, I confess, but it certainly becomes a hell of a lot more stupid). So there’s this direct correlation between your screen presence and films being good.”

The audience got a giggle out of this, but Jeremy Irons, perhaps just flattered though I suspect more bemused, smiled and asked, “Are you free for dinner after?”

Sigh. I was. For him I was. But of course the niceties of such events meant the request was all in good humour. But still, Jeremy, if you’re reading this, I am free, any time, night or day, here or there, anywhere.

Yes, there’s nothing like a good dose of starstruckness to get you back at your keyboard and blogging again. Right where I should be.

3 Comments

Filed under Film