June 2011 June 30, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, progress reports, 2011 , add a comment
What’s that? We’re halfway through the year, you say?
No, you’re having me on.
Anyway — It’s no news that being halfway through the calendar year sees me more than halfway through my annual goal (because that happened last month), but it’s always a good time to stop and take stock.
As you’ll see shortly, this point finds me at 67 films. A bit of easy maths suggests this route would lead me to 134 films by years’ end, which would be a new record. Experience tells me it looks this way every year — last year, for instance, numbers suggested I’d make 128 by December 31st, but I actually reached 122. I’m sure the other years tell the same story: for whatever reason, the back six months don’t see as much film-watching activity on my part as the first six. Partly because once I pass 100 I’m not quite as motivated (it becomes a good time to catch up on TV, or films I’ve already seen and would like to re-watch).
Still, whether I do make it to 134 or not, I’m well on track to make it past 100. And that’s the aim after all.
#59 Jonah Hex (2010)
#60 X-Men: First Class (2011)
#61 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (3D) (2011)
#62 Ip Man (2008)
#63 Law Abiding Citizen: Director’s Cut (2009)
#64 Valley of Fear (1983)
#65 Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance., aka Evangerion shin gekijôban: Ha (2009/2010)
#66 A Study in Terror (1965)
#67 Saw 3D (2D) (2010)
In my look ahead to ‘vengeance week’, I mentioned having a review of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World posted for tonight. Obviously, that hasn’t happened and isn’t happening. Maybe soon; maybe in a few years — who knows! (I didn’t get round to watching it either, y’see.)
And I’m not even going to mention Once Upon a Time in America.
Making promises is getting me nowhere. So, next month, I will probably watch some films, and I may review some of them, and in 31 days I’ll tell you how I got on. That last point I can guarantee.
Unless I have an unfortunate accident or something. Dammit.Action, Thriller, Crime, 2000s, 3 stars, alternate & director's cuts, 2011 , add a comment
Law Abiding Citizen is a revenge movie with a (slight) difference: wronged man Gerard Butler isn’t just going after the two criminals who invaded his home and murdered his wife and daughter — he’s going after the legal system that let one of the men walk free.
As I say, the film begins in the home of Butler’s character, an apparently quiet family man of unclear occupation (you won’t notice this first time round — why would they clarify his occupation? what would it matter? — but it does become significant later) with a wife and a young daughter. Two men break in to rob them. One is uncertain, wants to be done and gone; the other is more aggressive — he ties them up, he attempts to rape the wife, and, ultimately (and off screen) murders the wife and daughter and leaves Butler for dead.
Months later, attorney Jamie Foxx strikes a deal: one of the attackers will get a reduced sentence for informing on the other, guaranteeing him the death penalty. Butler objects but Foxx is having none of it — the deal will be done. And then we learn that it’s the objector who’ll be getting the death penalty, while the actual murderer gets the reduced sentence. Foxx goes home, to his pregnant wife, fairly sure he did the right thing.
Ten years later… Foxx’s kid is now a similar age to Butler’s when she died. He still does the same job, by the same rules. He attends the execution of the aforementioned criminal, but something goes wrong — instead of going to sleep with a lethal injection, the attacker suffers an agonising and horrific death. Someone must have swapped the chemicals. The prosecutors’ thoughts leap to the other criminal, but I’m sure we’ve all guessed who’s really behind this. And so Butler’s sprawling revenge mission begins…
Normally I don’t spend three paragraphs outlining the plot of a movie — heck, normally I don’t grant it one (plot descriptions are easy to come by these days) — but I think the setup for Law Abiding Citizen is what makes it more interesting than your regular revenge movie. Despite it looking like a simplistic action movie, we’re actually presented with a situation where there are no clear-cut heroes and villains. Butler is wronged, he wants the killers of his family to suffer — normally, this vigilante is the hero. But did the accomplice deserve such agony? And what of the legal system he sets his sights on next, murdering lawyers and judges and the like. He’s a terrorist, normally the villain. Similar goes for Foxx — he’s the attorney, the good guy, he locks up criminals… but he’s part of a corrupt system that let a guilty man go more or less free with no thought for the truth or just punishment. So he’s not exactly a clean-cut hero either.
On the issue of who the film thinks is good and who it thinks is bad, Empire’s review asserts that “Death Wish vigilantism goes too far when you no longer grasp who you are supposed to be rooting for.” But isn’t that part of the point? Oh, wait, she’s headed me off on this one: “One might argue for the defence that this is meant to be provocatively subversive, with the ‘good guys’ becoming indistinguishable from the bad. The jury doesn’t buy it.” Well, I buy it. Both the lead characters are supposedly the good guys, but both do bad things to one degree or another. The film challenges us about who to side with. Sure, some viewers will come down hard one way… but some viewers will come down hard the other. Plenty of the rest will be left somewhere in between, sympathising with the wronged man but abhorring the extremes to which he goes. And what of Foxx at the end, who on the one hand has learnt his lesson (or says he has), but on the other resorts to the same kind of violent tactics employed by his opponent. Is he in the right now? Well, I suppose he did approve of the death penalty all along. Tsk, Americans.
There is action and violence in the film, and I’m sure that appeals to some viewers, but it’s not wholly central and not distracting from the other offerings: both the debatable morals mentioned above, and the mystery of how Butler is affecting his campaign of vengeance from within a maximum-security prison. This is where his previously-unmentioned prior occupation becomes relevant, but I won’t go that deep into the plot here. Some find the final act, where this is ultimately revealed and explained, to be a ludicrous step too far. It is a little far-fetched, granted, but it’s not so outside the rules the film sets up for itself that I find it unacceptable.
As for the violence, it can be a little extreme, but mostly it isn’t. One sequence threatens to be the definition of torture porn, but other than a verbal description we’re spared the majority of the gory details. The Director’s Cut runs about 10 minutes longer than the theatrical, and yes includes a smidgen more gore (though a graphic shot of a disembodied, mutilated head might be considered more than a smidgen), but seems to be largely made up of short character scenes and insignificant extensions to a variety of sequences. The film was cut to get an R in the US after being awarded an NC-17; this is officially released unrated, but I think we know what that means. (Both are 18 in the UK.)
Law Abiding Citizen seems to be far more popular with audiences than critics: on Rotten Tomatoes the critic score is a measly 25%, but the reader score is 77%; on IMDb it ranks 7.2; and on LOVEFiLM it has a solid four stars (and they allow half-stars). I must be more of a viewer than a critic, then, because I liked it. It is distasteful in a way, but, like its lead character, it has a point to make in a bold and attention-grabbing manner. Sure, you could make a more intelligent movie debating these points in a reasonable fashion, but you’re not going to interest the same audience — again, the same strategy employed by Butler’s character.
As an action-thriller that actually has something to think about wrapped up in it, I considered being a bit lenient in my score (much as I was to The Condemned). It’s let down by a few things though — its own far-fetchedness, especially toward the end, plus being generally overblown — so I’ve eventually gone on the lower end. Maybe I should start using half-stars after all…
#36: High Plains Drifter (1973) June 29, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Western, 4 stars, 1970s, 2011 , 2 comments
That this is the first Western directed by perennial Western star Clint Eastwood is enough to make it worthy of note. To be honest, I’m far from immersed enough in the history of Westerns to know if anything else makes it worthy of note either; but I did like it.
The film doesn’t begin how one might expect. Clint rides into town — OK, that bit you would — has a beer and a bottle of whiskey — OK, that bit too — kills three men for no good reason and rapes the only woman in sight. Hm. It’s a fine introduction to our ‘hero’. But instead of setting the sheriff on him, the townsfolk bend over backwards to help him (more or less). Why? Are they as uncaring as he? Or do they need something from this capable man? Turns out, a bit of both.
As the story progresses we get a gradual unveiling of a mystery in the town’s past, hinted at in flashbacks and dreams; who was responsible for it, what the others did about it — or didn’t do. It’s all revealed nicely across the course of the film, leading to a finely staged conclusion in a vision of Hell. Eastwood’s real motivations for taking the job of protecting the town become clearer… that is, clearer while still remaining mysterious. There may not be definite answers to all the questions, but some people here need punishing and Eastwood’s come to punish them.
That said, tonally it’s quite odd. There’s a lot of violence and horrid behaviour, but it contrasts with a lot of dismissive humour. The raped woman attempts to kill Eastwood in revenge while he’s in the bath — not a tense stand-off, but a chance for a joke. Similar things occur when he abuses the privileges given to him by, say, tearing down the barn. Shades of grey are all well and good, but this juxtaposition of light and dark is a little too high-contrast.
Clearly Eastwood has a taste for the mystically-tinged Western, as here he’s even less coy about the story’s supernatural possibilities than he would be 12 years later in Pale Rider. Not by much, perhaps, but it’s nonetheless clear that he’s some kind of angel/devil/ghost/natural force: he emerges from the heat haze like a mirage, and disappears back into it too; he dreams of past events before he’s told about them; and he has no name, of course — this is an Eastwood Western, after all. That’s not to mention the ton of mentions of the devil, Hell, the dead not resting…
Eastwood’s first Western in the director’s chair is obviously influenced by those he’s worked with when on the other side of the camera, but by making sure the mix is a bit dark, somewhat ambiguous, but also gratifying in turns, he crafted a supernaturally-tinged revenge tale that packs a few satisfying punches.
#59: Jonah Hex (2010) June 28, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Fantasy, Sci-fi, Western, adaptations, 2 stars, superhero films, 2010s, 2011 , 4 comments
Jonah Hex is not a good film. Let’s just establish that, before I start being nice about it.
In fact, you don’t need me to be nasty about it — there are plenty of reviews that do that already. Those I’ve read are largely accurate. Despite that, I kind of liked the film, and not because I wanted to. I’ve read a few of the recent comics and enjoyed them, but this version isn’t really like those — they’re straight Westerns, whereas this iteration returns to a supernaturally-tinged version of the comics from some time in the past.
It’s difficult to know where to begin trying to praise Hex because, as I’ve implied, there isn’t much to praise. Unless you’re a 12-year-old boy, that is. Horses with Gatling guns! Giant cannons firing explosive balls! Corpses coming to life! Megan Fox’s corset-boosted cleavage! The undemanding pre-/early-teen is well catered for here. Possibly the undemanding child-minded adult too. I don’t think that’s why I enjoyed it though.
The movie is unrelentingly comic book, if one can use “comic book” as an adjective. Look at that last paragraph again: horses with Gatling guns? The physics of that boggles. But it has a certain Cool. The same for the ridiculously huge cannon that fires some kind of magic exploding cannonball. It doesn’t make historical sense, or even modern-science sense, but it is… well, it’s a Big Gun that makes things Blow Up. Awesome! Much of the film rattles on in this way. And rattle it does: 73 minutes before credits. As blockbuster running times spiral out of control, such brevity is almost welcome. It doesn’t feel exceptionally short, mind, except for when the plot occasionally jumps forward.
As the lead, Josh Brolin growls along marvellously. He deserves a better film. The character does too, actually. The President wants him to save America; he doesn’t care, except for that the person who needs stopping murdered Hex’s wife and child. Handy coincidence, that. There’s surely some drama to be wrung from that situation — grief, vengeance, all sorts — though no one involved seems to know how to go about it properly. The closest we get is a weird dreamy hallucinogenic fistfight. You’re right, that’s no substitute, but I did say closest.
John Malkovich does what he does as said villain. He’s been worse. Michael Fassbender is completely wasted as a henchman. I hope he was well paid. Megan Fox isn’t in it much. Her prostitute character, Hex’s new lover, is woefully underwritten and underused, turning up now and then to further the plot — usually improbably — or generally be a female. By “female” I mean “cleavage delivery device”. Considering her acting ability, her lack of presence is no real shame.
Jonah Hex isn’t good enough to be a guilty pleasure (like, say, The Transporter), nor bad enough to qualify as so-bad-it’s-good (like, say, Flesh for Frankenstein). Yet, while being fully aware it’s rubbish, I enjoyed myself. Not a massive amount, but a bit. Maybe it is one of those after all, then. It has a certain kind of B-movie charm, which is then intriguingly undercut by the A-list budget/promotion and awards-worthy cast. If it had been shot in Italy in the ’60s, a certain kind of person might just love it. Shot in America in the ’00s, however, its appeal probably lies with 12-year-old boys and… well, me, clearly.
A week of vengeance June 27, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, 2011 , add a comment
You may have noticed that I’ve been thoroughly backed-up with reviews to post this year. This week I’ve decided to tackle that situation with a vengeance.
Or you could say “with vengeance”, because I noticed that a few of the films on my stack of unreviewed titles have vengeance as a central theme. Better than just posting a review a day is to post a review a day with a linking theme, I thought, so each day this week I’ll be posting a new review of a film about vengeance. That doesn’t mean I’ve particularly drawn out this link in the reviews, but there you go.
The films I’ve picked out (from this list, of course) are British thriller Harry Brown (already posted), flop comic book Western Jonah Hex, classic ’70s Western High Plains Drifter, and violent action-thriller Law Abiding Citizen. And on Friday, hopefully, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which I don’t think is about revenge (not watched it yet, hence “hopefully”) but is on telly from Friday night.
That’s not the extent of the vengeance-themed films on my “to do” list, even — there’s also True Grit, but I’m saving that for when I get round to the Coens’ remake. Is this number of revenge films a coincidence, or do I like a dose of revenge, or is it just a common film theme generally? Such questions beg more thought than I’m going to give them this week. Sorry.
Anyway, I just wanted to draw attention to this thread as it gets underway. Sometimes my madness does have a plan y’know.Drama, Thriller, Crime, 5 stars, 2000s, British films, 2011 , add a comment
Michael Caine killing hoodies. How great does that sound? As a film premise, that’s awesome. If it doesn’t get you excited about seeing this movie, then what kind of film fan are you, eh?
A mentally mature one, probably. But hush, don’t spoil our fun — those of us who may occasionally hanker for a morally simple form of voyeuristic vigilante justice want to see Sir Michael shooting yobs who definitely Have It Coming. Harry Brown delivers this wonderfully.
Politically and morally, in a real-world sense, Harry’s actions are as questionable as those in any vigilante movie. And yet, for that, it’s hard to avoid the sense that he’s bloody well right. Even as someone against capital punishment, against unnecessarily arming the police, and so on, there’s still satisfaction in witnessing Harry carry out his revenge; justice. When police raids kick off a violent riot at the climax, there’s the thought that Harry was dealing with this more effectively; that cutting the yobs down in a swathe of machine-gun fire might be the best solution for the future of humanity. Which in some ways is quite a chilling way to feel. I’ll be buying the Daily Mail and watching Sky News next.
Barber’s film tries to dress itself up as plausible social drama, mind. Of course it’s more revenge fantasy wish-fulfilment, but perhaps the veneer of believability makes what happens even more satisfying. The bright side of that is the film manages to be a bit more than just a celebration of violence. It takes the moral question head on… sort of. “Where does it stop?” asks one character, once Harry’s dispatched with all but one of the main bastards who need dispatching. There’s a twist, which is neatly built up and I didn’t see coming so I won’t spoil, and it does make you briefly question, “where does it stop?” And that’s why vigilantism, or revenge in any way, is an ineffective solution in the real world. But this is a film and there comes a solution, so that’s OK. As with the rest, it is deserved, and it’s difficult not to think, “well, Harry was right, actually”.
Caine gives a stunning performance as the titular pensioner. The film bothers to invest you in the character: a man shattered by the death of his wife, the murder of his only friend, the past loss of a daughter, and buried experiences serving as a Marine in Northern Ireland. The evolution from quiet, downtrodden everyman to skilled vigilante is plausibly created — or, at least, plausibly enough. It’s to the credit of screenwriter Gary Young that he doesn’t dive to the vengeance action as soon as possible; to the credit of Barber that he’s not afraid to let the early scenes play out slowly, often with lots of silence, conveying the reality of the lonely pensioner. Whatever you may think of the revenge thriller it turns into, I think it’s hard to deny these early scenes have a realism and power. It is, of course, to the credit of Caine that he performs all this flawlessly. Oh yes, he’s (to quote another review) “the king of cool” when blowing away the scum that surround him, but before that he’s an affecting old gent, abandoned by the world.
Comparisons with Death Wish should probably be made, because yes, they do have much in common. Harry Brown is more skilled, though: Caine out-acts Charles Bronson at every turn, and Barber clearly is a director of not inconsiderable talent, something Michael Winner patently is not. The structure is the same, really — motivation from a brutal attack on the closest person to our lead character; spurred by his general feeling of useless ineffectiveness in the face of the modern, violent world; a long, steady slide downhill before our hero turns to vigilantism; his struggle to pull off the attacks — he’s no superman, they don’t go perfectly. But Harry Brown feels superior. Perhaps because it’s more vital to our times — this is a situation occurring in our country right now, not a somewhat abstract rape and murder. Not that those aren’t foul crimes, but Harry Brown has more of a relevant social conscious. The counter to that would be that a murder spree may be viscerally satisfying but isn’t a real-world solution, so this is just as useless at relevancy as Death Wish.
One might also argue that Harry Brown loses Death Wish’s strongest aspect: Bronson never gets the men who attacked his family, only able to exact vengeance on criminals he happens across; Caine, on the other hand, gets to attack those responsible… and a couple of others who are peripherally connected and at least as deserving of his bullets. It’s more narratively satisfying to get revenge on the actual perpetrators, but not always as realistic. While that is a strength in Death Wish, it doesn’t make Harry Brown a lesser film for not following the same path. This is a different story, despite the similarities — it’s set in a more confined area, with more specific problems, and the murder is the catalyst for Caine’s character to take action against the people who are perpetrating all the crime, not just the particular one that galvanises him.
This is the kind of movie that can polarise an audience. For one thing there’s lurid and extreme language and violence, and lots of it — this well earns its 18 — but it is, largely, justified by the context. Beyond that, there are a lot of political and moral implications raised by the film’s realist tone. Some will think it tackles these, others that it’s just a facile revenge movie; some will think it’s cool, others despicable; some will think it plausible, others anything but. Or maybe, rather like me, you’ll think it’s all of those things, however mutually exclusive they may seem.
Harry Brown is satisfying when you know it probably shouldn’t be, and because of that it’s also thought-provoking, and because of those things it’s five stars from me.
#53: Salt: Director’s Cut (2010) June 24, 2011Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Thriller, 4 stars, alternate & director's cuts, 2010s, 2011 , 2 comments
Angelina Jolie takes on a role originally earmarked for Tom Cruise in this Bourne-ish spy thriller from screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (Law Abiding Citizen, the Total Recall remake; writer/director of Equilibrium, Ultraviolet) and director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Saint, The Bone Collector).
I list all of those previous projects because it might give you some idea of the calibre involved here — i.e. solid, but perhaps not exceptional. That’s more or less what Salt represents. It offers a handful of moderately exciting action sequences — a multi-vehicle highway escape is the best — and a plot with an engaging mystery eked out through good twists and developments.
Said plot sees Jolie as Evelyn Salt, a US spy accused of being a Russian sleeper who will assassinate a high-profile Russian at a high-profile US funeral in a few days. (In truth, I forget who the Russian is and who the funeral is for. I think they’re the President and Vice-President, respectively. Really, such things are immaterial.) Naturally, she goes on the run… to prove her name, presumably, or is it because she is indeed out to complete said mission?
This is Salt’s mystery, and this is one of its strong points. The plot developments are well-paced throughout, developing and shifting our expectations rather than stretching it all for a glut of final act reveals. In this regard it goes places you might not expect from a mainstream Hollywood thriller. For starters, you expect the funeral-set assassination to eventually be the film’s climax, no doubt revealing our heroine isn’t a Russian spy as she unmasks the real killer. But that occurs at the halfway point, spinning the film off in new directions. To say more would spoil one of the film’s strongest elements: that, as I said, it has twists and follows storylines you wouldn’t expect in a Hollywood summer blockbuster.
But now I am going to digress into spoiler territory, because on Blu-ray Salt comes in a choice of three cuts. Excessive? Yes. One version is basically a glorified way of showcasing a deleted scene. But, actually, these are more interesting than most extended cuts — not merely slight extensions, there are genuine impactful changes to be found here. And that’s what I’m going to natter about now, complete with spoilers. Just so you know. (The final paragraph, incidentally, is spoiler-free.)
The three cuts, then, are: Theatrical (100 minutes — this was trimmed for the UK to make 12A, but is apparently uncut on disc); Director’s Cut (the one I viewed, this is 4 minutes 5 seconds longer); and an Extended Cut (1 minute 5 seconds longer than the Theatrical). The latter is based on the Director’s Cut and I’ll come to it in a minute. The differences between the Theatrical and Director’s cuts are numerous, but mainly amount to some extra character beats (including more flashbacks to Salt’s childhood) and violence — more blood; seeing people get hit rather than just seeing Salt firing; the President is killed rather than just knocked out; plus a very different death for Salt’s husband (again, more on this in a moment). Plus there’s a voiceover ending too, which in my opinion sets up the sequel even more than the Theatrical version does, with a blatant cliffhanger and suggested plot direction. My regular comparison site Movie-Censorship.com disagrees, but… they’re wrong. So there.
As I mentioned above, the Extended Cut seems to have started with the Director’s Cut, then stripped out all references to the death of Orlov (Salt’s spymaster villain, killed around halfway through in both the Theatrical and Director’s versions) in order to include an alternate ending in which Salt travels to Russia to kill him. Additionally, the President doesn’t die in the Extended Cut, presumably to help provide a more conclusive ending — the Extended Cut is the only one that doesn’t suggest a sequel.
One of the key differences — tonally, at least — is the murder of Salt’s husband, which occurs in a very different way in the alternate cuts. In the theatrical version, she walks around a corner and he’s instantly shot. She has to control her emotions so as not to give herself away. In the other versions, however, she’s presented with him in a chamber and given a choice to save him — except trying to save him would give her away, so she’s forced to watch, blank-faced, as he slowly drowns. Salt sacrifices him for the greater good; he dies seeing her cold emotionless face. Ouch. By comparison, the theatrical cut’s blunt gunshot is much softer.
The extended version plays on this nicely with its alternate ending: Salt grieves for her husband during her post-climax interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s investigator, even though he reassures her she did it for the greater good (just in case you didn’t understand that when it happened). Then she escapes and toddles off to Russia to kill Orlov. Fundamentally I’m not a fan of this alternate ending — I like that she takes her revenge on the boat-load of people when she does — but it does have one fairly major plus point, I think: she kills Orlov by tying him to a stone and pushing him into the river; she watches him drown, just as he made her watch her husband drown — Noyce’s choice of camera angles emphasises this comparison — but whereas before tears formed, now she is genuinely stony faced. It’s a fitting form of revenge; more fitting, really, than just stabbing him with a broken bottle, as she does in the two other cuts. And this is the real advantage of the DVD era: if the filmmakers considered another option, now we can see it, and in cases like this choose our preference. Though it seems clear, by its inclusion in both the theatrical and director’s cuts, that Noyce preferred the instant-revenge option.
In conclusion, Salt isn’t really the kind of film that massively deserves multiple versions — it’s a divertingly fun action-thriller, not much more, but for that I think it merits a watch by fans of the genre. Of all the versions my preference is for the Director’s Cut — it packs a better punch than the tamed-down Theatrical, and while it loses the nice revenge parallel of the Extended’s alternate ending, I think it’s overall the most coherent experience.
Salt begins on Sky Movies Premiere tonight at 8pm, and continues daily until Thursday 7th July. I expect it’ll be the theatrical cut though.
If you’re interested in a full catalogue of differences between the versions, Movie-Censorship.com have three (unusually imperfect, sadly) comparisons to offer: between the Theatrical and Extended, Theatrical and Director’s Cut, and Extended and Director’s Cut.