WARRIOR

Cineworld Glasgow, 05.10.11

Warrior, from director Gavin O’Connor, is essentially an amalgamation of Rocky films, and any number of other boxing movies, but transported into the modern world of Mixed Marshall Art cage fighting.  Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy), is an ex-military soldier returning to the US, who turns to his father, Paddy (Nick Nolte) for help to train for the ultimate M.M.A. tournament to be held in Atlantic City.  Meanwhile, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Tommy’s estranged brother, is a high school teacher struggling to support his wife and children, who turns back to cage fighting in order to try to make ends meet. Ultimately, Tommy and Brendan end up both entering the competition in Atlantic City, and it’s not giving too much away to say that, inevitably, they both progress passed all opponents to set up a fight between the brothers with $5 million at stake.

The first half of the film is very much like the first Rocky film, or more realistic sport films, such as last year’s Oscar-winning boxing based The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010). Social conditions force both brothers into the ring in order to earn money, but also to reaffirm their masculinity – Tommy after going AWOL from the military after he was the only survivor from his unit, and looking to support his dead comrades widow and child, while Brendan, as well as needing the money, it’s a about getting away from the domesticity and work as a teacher that has feminised him. It’s no coincidence that we are introduced to Brendan for the first time he is wearing a wig and having his face painted by his daughter. 

It is, of course, all fairly clichéd and familiar from sport and fighting films, but it’s nicely handled by O’Connor, aided by a good cast. Joel Edgerton is decent as Brendan, but the more interesting strand involves Tommy and his relationship with his father, Paddy. Tom Hardy has already shown he can be charismatic, with roles such as his first starring performance in Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008), but here he manages to ooze charisma and power while hardly uttering a word of dialogue. It’s all impressive brooding, a hulking presence that threatens to unleash itself at any moment, and does so spectacularly in the cage. Taken together with his contrasting role in the recent quiet understated Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011) and Hardy definitely has a long career ahead of him.  Opposite him, as Paddy, Nick Nolte can do grizzled world-weariness without much effort, but here it’s good to see him given something to get his teeth into.  Their half of the story opens up issues of father and son relations, alcoholism, domestic abuse, ageing and forgiveness.  It’s a shame that these issues get swept aside towards the end of the film, as the last third of the movie becomes a whirlwind of cage fighting, and many of these issues are left unresolved.

Ironically, as the cage fighting takes centre stage, the film starts to flounder, and it’s the finale that let’s the film down.  Some elements of the final tournament in Atlantic City are just badly misjudged, like the irritating commentators that constantly utter inane nonsense to accompany every fight, or the introduction of an unrealistic scary Russian fighter (Dolph Lundgren from Rocky IV anyone?), who can defeat every other fighter violently and quickly, until of course, he comes up against the underdog Brendan, who remarkably is able to withstand the pummeling where no-one else could.  Worse than those is the misdirected step of cutting back to Kevin Dunn, as Brendan’s head teacher boss. Dunn’s comedy schtick was tired around about the time of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), and here feels completely out of place.

Those not familiar with M.M.A. cage fighting might find it a bit perplexing at times – it’s a mixture of violent punching and kicking, interspersed with some strange wrestling, wriggling about on the floor.  It’s a sign of the fractured state of modern boxing that new fighting sports are being used in a film such as this, which would be ideally suited to the boxing world.  The corruption in boxing, the loss of true characters or heroes from its heyday, mean the sort of Rocky Balboa figure can no longer exist realistically in the boxing world anymore, but from the evidence here, it seems clear that the showbiz style of cage fighting will only send it the same way as boxing. Here we have a tournament prize of $5 million, and all the fighters are the toys of one man – a Don King-style figure, although much less flamboyant – who has organised the entire event , including who should compete.  Money ultimately corrupts all sport, and it is more and more unlikely that this sort of film will be continued to be made believable in any arena, nevermind boxing.

At 140 minutes Warrior is far too long and could easily benefit from trimming half an hour. The string of fights at the end reel on endlessly, but thankfully the much-anticipated battle between the brothers is worth the wait. Crucially, Nolte’s Paddy disappears for much of the end as the fighting takes over, and the film is weaker for marginalising it’s most interesting character and actor.  A final freeze frame ending leaves a lot of questions unanswered, while at the same time providing a typically neat Hollywood ending by avoiding any aftermath.

Overall, it’s a reasonable story told reasonably well, and it’s lifted above straight to video clichéd sport film by the efforts of Hardy and Nolte particularly. Worth a look, but last year’s The Fighter ultimately beats it to the punch.

Film Rating: 3 out of 5.

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RED STATE

Cineworld Glasgow, 05.10.11

Those of us of the right age to have been a teenager in the 1990’s hold a certain soft spot for Kevin Smith.  With the grainy, self-funded, low-budget Clerks (1994), Smith found a unique brand of humour that connected with a generation of film-goers crying out for smart, well written comedy that spoke about the world that they lived in. He followed that with Mallrats (1995) and Chasing Amy (1997), and this trilogy shows all the Smith hallmarks that have followed him through his career – crisp, smart, self-referential dialogue, crafted round simple, convenient plots.  Critics would point to over-wordiness and the flat, plain look of these films, a lack of directional style or ambition, but these indie films were speaking to the young generation, and particularly found a devoted audience in the home video market.  They could even be so devoted to forgive Smith for casting Alanis Morrisette as God in the more ambitious but flawed Dogma (1999).

In the new millennium, perhaps in reaction to the critical reception for Dogma, Smith seemed to run out of anything new or incisive to say, and reverted to less ambitious fare with the disappointing Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back (2001).  That was nothing compared to the backlash that met Jersey Girl (2004), a determined effort by Smith to make a mainstream romantic comedy that only served to highlight his limited range of writing and directing, and worse, alienated his loyal indie fan base, leading to deserved accusations of Smith selling out and abandoning his indie roots.  Clerks II  (2006) was a lazy sequel, but at least showed signs of past glories, the same can be said for Zack And Miri Make A Porno (2008), which promised a return to his edgier early comedy, but despite its plot, felt more like a Hollywood teen comedy than any of his previous work.  Then in 2010, Smith, for reasons unknown, made Cop Out, an action comedy buddy movie with an uninterested Bruce Willis and deeply irritating Tracy Morgan. Smith, for the first time working with someone else’s script, in a genre that severely showed his weakness in direction, again suffered deserved accusations of selling out, but that could have been forgiven if he had made a success of it.  It was such a poor film that his fall from grace was inevitable.

Unfortunately, Smith’s reaction to the critical mauling his film received was not to humbly admit faults but to rebel against critics and fans alike.  Always known for being outspoken, Smith seemed determined to defend the indefensible, and showing little signs of self-awareness, seemed unable to admit he had sold out in a way that other American indie film-makers of his generation had so far not done. His reaction against the film critics that rightly trounced Cop Out spoke of a director blinded by his own early success and dangerously starting to believe his own hype. Red State then, though Smith might not be aware of it, or willing to accept it, is something of a vital film for Smith’s reputation.  Some initial signs boded well, principally a return to working form his own script and a lower budget indie style approach.  Others, like the awful use in the trailer of the line ‘From @ThatKevinSmith’, worryingly suggested Smith hadn’t learned his lesson. Should a film trailer be used as an opportunity to self publicise one’s self on Twitter?  It smacks of an inflated ego, the preservation of which is more important than the films he continues to make.

So to the film itself. In truth, like many of Smith’s recent films it’s a mixed bag. Again, he seems determined to move away from the smart mouth slacker comedies where he is most comfortable, and again that move away has only served to highlight some of his weaknesses.  Most disappointingly, working form his own script, Smith seems to have either lost, or has decided to avoid, his usual self-referential comedy which he writes so well.  An opening scene set in a school classroom, discussing the local religious cult should have served as an opportunity for some classic Smith dialogue, but instead feels forced and falls flat.  Throughout Smith seems less comfortable writing in the American South vernacular as opposed to his normal native New Jersey voice. 

In this opening scene we are introduced to our three nominal leads, Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) and Jarod (Kyle Gallner). They are presented as typical high school teenagers, which makes it quite unlikely that they would go about meeting a prostitute in the middle of nowhere in the hope of having group sex together, but somehow, they all seem quite comfortable doing just that. They are in fact quite unsympathetic characters, and this is another shortfall of the film. Throughout, there is no one for the audience to feel sorry for, or to identify with.  When the ‘prostitute’ (a wasted Melissa Leo) turns out to be a member of the local religious cult, led by Abin Cooper (an excellent and creepy Michael Parks), the three boys are drugged and awake in the cult’s church, about to be sacrificed to God. The idea that a religious cult would actively hunt, trap and corrupt men on the internet, by setting up a member as a prostitute, is of course, contrived nonsense, and it is never fully explained by Smith why the cult have acted in this way, while at the same time, for example, ignoring the town Sheriff, who they know to have committed homosexual acts, but seem willing to ignore.

Smith devouts his longest scene, and his best writing, to the sermons of Cooper, which presents the question of what exactly he is trying to say with this film. There are interesting questions to be asked about religious cults, and the role religion has to play in American life, but Cooper is quite obviously presented as a deluded control freak, determined to hold power over his small flock. Yet he is given ample screen time to explain his distorted beliefs. His sermons are the only time the film pauses before rushing on.  Parks is also the only actor to really shine in the film, mixing charisma with an unswerving nastiness. 

As the three boys await their fate, the film seems set to become a typical American horror film, but then suddenly veers onto a completely different tack by introducing John Goodman’s ATF agent Joseph Keenan. It’s part of the films messy feel that it jumps from slacker sex comedy to horror to violent action as the ATF attempt to raid the cult’s church and are met by heavy machine gunfire. As an example of the films random feel, when we meet Keenan he is awoken in his bed and up flashes a full screen title reading ‘4:47AM’.  But this is the only time we are placed in any time within the film, so why is it there?  We know it’s morning as the sun is dawning outside and Keenan has just been woken.  There are no further times given, so it does not serve to start a procedural scale for the ATF’s actions. It’s just a random, pointless interjection. 

Rather than present a government agent we can cheer on, the ATF team turn out to be ruthless killers, determined to eliminate all of the cult members once violence has broken out, in order to cover up their own incompetence.  Keenan agrees meekly to go along with this command and so a violent half hour ensues.  There are plenty of unexpected and shocking deaths, but they are shot, and mount up, in such a way that its unclear if Smith is intending to shock the audience or is playing it for laughs as it becomes more and more ridiculous and violent.  Again, Smith’s inability to direct action sequences is shown. His solution to create a frightening chase sequence seems to rely solely on strapping a camera to someones chest and exposing the audience to disorientating shaky running shots, with no attempt to show any scene geography.  Goodman gets some good lines and moments, especially a brief epilogue scene were he is debriefed by his younger ATF bosses, but his character is as unlikable as any of the cult members we have been introduced to.

An abrupt and random ending feels very unsatisfying and again leaves one wondering what the point of the whole exercise is.  As a simple entertainment it doesn’t deliver, veering as it does from genre to genre but not succeeding as any and lacking basic plot logic, while as an entry into a debate on religion and religious cults, and the role of government in policing them, it offers very little rational thought.  Louis Theroux’s enthralling documentaries on the subject (The Most Hated Family in America (2007) and The Most Hated Family in America in Crisis (2011)) are much more valuable and illuminating than anything Smith has to say here.  There is no attempt to examine or debate the culture of the cult or the law enforcement.

Having said all that, Red State is at least a hundred times better than Cop Out, and is a step back towards his indie roots and away from his dabbling with Hollywood formula.  In amongst his loudmouth, outspoken rants, he may yet still have something more worthwhile left to say.

Film Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

THE DEBT

Cineworld Glasgow, 30.09.11

There’s something determinedly old-fashioned about The Debt, the new film from director John Madden, not only the style with which Madden handles his drama and action sequences and the grainy, grey sheen given to the scenes set in East Berlin during the Cold War, but in the very story itself.

In the present day Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephen (Tom Wilkinson) attend the press launch of their daughter’s new book, which retells the tale of their capture and killing of Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), known as the ‘Buthcher of Berkenhow’ for atrocities committed against Jews in the concentration camps. Through flashback we see the young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and Stephen (Marton Csokas), together with David (Sam Worthington), working for the Israeli government and gradually learn the true events of what happened on their mission, leading to a shocking revelation and, back in the present day, one last mission for Rachel in order to put things right.

By setting much of the film during the height of the Cold War in East Berlin, and centering the story around the capture of a Nazi criminal, The Debt manages to, of course, cut a very clear path between who is good and who is bad.  No matter that Christensen brings so much charisma and creepiness to his role – he is a Nazi and is clearly marked as ‘bad’.  The decisions made by the young Israelis are  therefore made less ambiguous. Even in the modern-day settings, the issues surrounding Palestine and the Middle-East are ignored completely.  The Debt conforms to uniting its audience in a common enemy, in the same way that many Hollywood films have Nazis or aliens as the bad guys when they want to keep things simple.  There is at least an attempt at some complexity amongst the three main characters, with their decision to keep quiet about what really occurred in East Berlin.  Are they acting for the good of Israeli people, as they seem to tell themselves, or is it a more selfish act?  They can’t be seen to have failed in their mission for the sake of the Israeli people, but equally, by lying about their own actions, they are preserving their own reputations and avoiding inevitable shame and disgrace once they have returned to Israel.

Helen Mirren seems to be able to turn up in anything these days and only receive critical adulation, even inexplicable choices like appearing alongside Russell Brand in the hideous Arthur (2011, Jason Winer) remake can’t seem to dim critics view of her.  It’s good to see her in something more substantial here, and alongside the ever reliable Wilkinson they form a solid base for the film.  Ciaràn Hinds appears all to briefly once more, as in the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson) and countless other films, it would be nice to see him given a meatier role in a big film.  He does however, get a tremendous and shocking moment that is fantastically filmed.

The star of the film, though is Jessica Chastain as the young Rachel, at once vulnerable and strong, determined yet naive.  Chastain manages to embody all these in her central role and it is her portrayal that gives The Debt its real heart. Along with her roles in the upcoming The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011) and the critical success of The Tree Of Life  (Terence Malick, 2011) she is clearly one to watch.  Csokas as the young version of  is equally good, which just leaves poor Sam Worthington to stand out as the weak link in the ensemble cast.  The level of emotion and turmoil he needs to portray in the young, conflicted David is too much for Worthington’s limited range, and, while an adequate actor, in amongst some illustrious company his frailties are revealed.  After a string of critically poorly received performances in the likes of Terminator Salvation (McQ, 2009) and Clash Of The Titans (Louis Leterrier, 2010), one wonders how long he can maintain his position in the Hollywood A-list.  It’s surely no coincidence that his most successful film (though by no means his best), Avatar (2009, James Cameron),  is one in which his face and body have been digitally replaced and animated as a big blue Smurf.

The three young protagonists make up a very inadequate hit squad behind the Wall, who seem incapable of carrying out their orders without messing up, but the plot does provide a number of decent twists, and manages to keep the audience intrigued and engrossed without becoming too predictable.  It unravels slightly towards the end, once the episode in Cold War Berlin has finished, and we are launched into a modern-day mission for the retired Rachel.  It becomes slightly unbelievable that she would agree to take part in such a mission all these years later, in much the same way that it is unbelievable that their secret could have remained unknown for so long.  However, it serves as a reminder that evil still exists in the world and cannot simply be ignored,

Madden (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001), and Shakespeare in Love (1998))makes a good fist of directing in a genre that he is not renowned for, but it is intriguing to see the screenwriters credited – Matthew Vaughn, director and writer of Kick-Ass (2010) and Stardust (2007), and his regular collaborator Jane Goldman.  Like Madden, this is a new departure from their normal work, and it would have been intriguing to see what Vaughn would have made of working on a Cold War thriller.  Still, Madden has produced a solid, if not outstanding, thriller that is well worth a look in a year of too many mindless action films full of bombast but little thought.

Film Rating: 3 out of 5.

MELANCHOLIA

Cineworld Glasgow, 04.10.11

Lars Von Trier certainly divides opinion. Love his films, or hate them, there is no middle ground. After his infamous Cannes press conference, where he was supposed to be discussing his latest major film, Melancholia, but instead got caught discussing Nazism and sympathising with Hitler (it was all a misunderstood joke), the same can be said for the man himself – you either love him or hate him.  Courting controversy seems to be Von Trier’s way, as he repeatedly says of his work – he sets out to provoke. His past films certainly provoke a reaction, and he is a darling amongst the art house audiences and critics, especially in Europe.  Personally, I have a problem with Von Trier films because he may set out to provoke a response, but my usual response to Von Trier is one of boredom.

Maybe that’s slightly unfair.  I have a soft spot for Breaking The Waves (1996), the story of a woman trapped in a marriage with a crippled husband but seeking sexual satisfaction, mainly as it is set in northern Scotland, making Von Trier one of the few big name directors to choose to set a film in my home country. The Idiots (1998) certainly courted controversy, portraying a group of able-bodied friends who decide to act as retards in order to provoke, it marked Von Trier’s founding of the Dogme 95 movement, along with fellow Danish director Tomas Vinterberg, which was a manifesto of film-making that was based on realism, acting and story and excluded the use of cinematic lighting or special effects.  Von Trier abandoned this dogma fairly quickly. Dancer In The Dark (2000) stuck to many of its principles, but had Bjork bursting into song throughout – it was, at least an interesting experiment. Dogville (2005) was another interesting experiment.  The story of a woman on the run from the mob holing up in a small town, with the twist that it was all filmed on a soundstage, where buildings were marked out with chalk outlines.  Unlike his previous efforts, though this may have been provoking to some, I found it inordinately dull. The stripping back of cinema to a theatrical medium was one step too far.  So much so, that the chance to see Charlotte Gainsbourg slice off her vagina in Antichrist (2009) wasn’t enough to tempt me to the cinema to see it.

There were enough positive reports about Melancholia to tempt me back to Von Trier.  Here, his familiar set up of a troubled female trapped amongst a group of people she cannot stand is given a sci-fi twist, with a planet (also called Melancholia) heading for a collision with Earth that will destroy the planet and all life on it.  The film is set in a large country hotel, owned by John (Keifer Sutherland) and his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Part one occurs on the wedding night of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Claire’s sister and a woman who suffers from melancholia.  The wedding reception turns into a disaster as Justine sinks into a depression .  Part two follows Claire, a few days later, as she tries to come to terms with the imminent arrival of Melancholia that will destroy the planet, and deal with Justine, now almost comatose after her calamitous wedding night.

The film opens with a prologue of shots from scenes that will reoccur later in the film, set to classical music. They are all beautifully framed, stunning computer-enhanced images, all moving in eerie slow motion. It’s about as far from the Dogme 95 manifesto as you can go. Similarly at the end, the final shot as Melancholia hits Earth is spectacular in itself. Unfortunately, much of what comes in between these striking images is quite dull.

The problem with courting controversy and seeking to provoke is that there is a fine line between this becoming irritating and annoying – like most of Dogville.  Justine, as portrayed by Kirsten Dunst, suffers from this characterisation.  Dunst, I have always found, has a certain irritating quality onscreen, that surfaces even in her mainstream roles, which may have made her ideal casting for Von Trier, as a character who purposely seems to set out to annoy anyone who knows her.  The selfishness and cruelty with which she treats everyone – her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård), her employer (Stellan Skarsgård), her brother-in-law and sister – leave little room for any sympathy for Justine, and one wonders how no one within the film doesn’t simply tell her some home truths, or end up being physically violent towards her.  Instead, she is forgiven over and over again for her behaviour – from arriving late and constantly disappearing from her own wedding reception, to having sex with a junior employee on her wedding night. She resigns from her job, having just been given a promotion. Her new husband leaves, presumably having found out about Justine’s sexual indiscretion, but seems apologetic towards her rather than angry.  This ungratefulness and selfishness are only matched by all those around her – only her new husband appears to be a genuine person, but a very weak one.  Why anyone would want to marry someone like Justine is beyond the realms of realism and a fantasy in itself.

The collection of characters within the film are so irritating that if they are in any way representative of what humans, and humanity, have to offer, then the destruction of the planet may not be such a bad thing after all.  Justine comes out of her near comatose state towards the end of the film, as it becomes clear that the Earth is about to be destroyed.  The message seems to be that the melancholics have been right all along. It’s like the ultimate ‘I told you so’ – I was right to be glum and annoying and not care because we will eventually all die – humans and the Earth are such a small part of the Universe and history that they are nothing, and there is no life anywhere else (according to Justine), we are insignificant in the general scheme of things, therefore what is the point of happiness.

It’s a depressing outlook, but the premise that humans are only a small part of the universe and history is, conversely, both a massive philosophical point and at the same time a slim point on which to hang a film on, especially without offering any relief from it. It’s a well-known fact that we are only a speck in the universe and that we haven’t been around for long, so there is nothing to dispute there. The dispute is how we, as people, acknowledge this fact and are able to carry on with our lives regardless, which is something that Justine is unwilling to do. Just because she was correct in the end with the destruction of Earth, doesn’t mean she is correct in the way she acts towards those that love her, nor does it excuse her behaviour.  Similarly, John’s cowardly suicide when he realises what is about to happen is unforgivable, leaving his wife and son to face death without him, while Claire’s naivety and whimpering also engender little sympathy.  If the film seems to back any outlook, it is that of Justine’s.  We’re screwed, so we might as well be depressed.

Melancholia is fresh in the sense that it is like the anti-Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998).  There are no action set pieces, no heroes, there is no escape for a happy ending.  This seems somewhat surreal though, the hotel is so cut off from the world that there seems no reaction to the oncoming disaster.  All we hear of the outside world is a brief mention of some crackpots on the internet predicting the collision.  Even in a fantasy world, it’s unbelievable to think the world would stay this calm if such an event was forthcoming.  There are no televisions, radios, newspapers in the hotel that give a clue to how the rest of the world is reacting.  Instead it is a character drama played out in isolation, to a ridiculous level.  Claire’s one attempt to take her son and be with others for the end, result only in failure and she returns to be with Justine at the hotel. 

Von Trier sticks to his familiar style, all hand-held camera, jump cuts and natural light, which grates for a two-hour plus film, and did give me, at least, a slight headache. There are moments clearly intended as humor, and some work – Jesper Christensen as the put upon butler gets some good moments, as does Udo Kier as the wedding planner who can’t even look at the bride who has ruined his perfect wedding.  Other moments are clearly designed to provoke, but most back fire, or at worst are pointless.  What does seeing Justine sitting on a golf green outside the hotel, in her wedding dress and relieving herself add to anything this film has to offer? Nothing. It’s needless.

Von Trier continues to provoke, and to make challenging films, but Melancholia, like others before it, is trying so hard to provoke that it forgets to try to engage the viewer, which is a shame, because somewhere there is a place for a genuine drama that looks at these issues without being so pretentious and annoying as the people dealing with the end of the world here.

Film Rating: 2.5 out of 5.