Cinema Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

15-outrageous-scenes-in-martin-scorseses-wolf-of-wall-street-we-cant-wait-to-seeGone Gonzo

“No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well…maybe chalk it off to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.” Hunter S. Thompson

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is nothing more than Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a fitted suit. Both stories retell the story through the inebriated mind of the criminal protagonist who’s in pursuit of an unreachable destination: The American Dream. Instead of the sleazy, sunburnt cascade of Las Vegas, we’re thrown into the concrete jungle of New York City– the city known for its lack of care and compassion. But which dream is it, you ask? The dream of becoming insanely rich. So rich, so quick that it couldn’t possibly be true and definitely not legal. Sell your soul for an early retirement. Why see your child when you can see your yacht? The plan is to out trick the trickster. Then when caught, deny the whole thing.

Martin Scorsese has proven his ability to transcend genres through his ability to capture his audience’s attention at every turn. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has again teamed up with his regular title-card actor, Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed (2006), The Aviator (2004), Shutter Island (2010), and Gangs of New York (2002)) for the fifth time and created his darkest comedy to date. In both The Aviator and Shutter Island, DiCaprio was tasked with playing the manic sociopath. Instead of saving his own urine or choosing to be a mental patient, Dicaprio knocks it out of the park with his bewildering and drug-enriched portrayal. Just remember that this entire story is based on fact.

Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) is a young man trying to make a name for himself on Wall Street. Not long after losing his job for a large reputable firm, he spins off and creates a new sector of investing. This sector utilizes Belfort’s greatest asset which is his ability to sell to people by tapping into a part of the psyche where people are most vulnerable – their hopes and dreams. He cons those looking for a sweet deal. The deal that is too good to be true. Those who only have a few thousand in savings and no retirement in sight. Belfort knows that people’s greed will eventually overtake their ability to think critically and when they do he will be there ready to pounce.

Once the dreams have been plundered, the fun can begin. Parties and drugs. Women and boats. At times, The Wolf of Wall Street feels more like a advertisement for cocaine use. Need a lift? Cocaine. Need to sell more stocks? Cocaine. Need something to even out your quaaludes? Cocaine. Cocaine – the miracle drug. I would say that coke should get a supporting acting credit for how much it brought to the table.

Soon enough, the drugs begin to weigh on people’s judgement and poor (i.e. more illegal) decisions continue to be made. Belfort decides to branch out. He creates a monster in his own image: a firm in Manhattan trading penny stocks. He diversifies his liabilities by opening offshore accounts. The success is publicized, but unlike Belfort’s gullible ‘investors’ the FBI knows when an investment is too good to be true and can smell the spoiled meat leftover from ‘The Wolf’.

My favorite scene is when the FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) is confronts Belfort on his million-dollar yacht for a casual discussion on why the FBI has been so interested on Belfort’s dealings. To paint the scene, once FBI agent Patrick Denham and his partner are welcomed aboard, there are two skimpily clad women, a buffet, and all the drinks you could imagine. What begins as a casual discussion, turns into a discreet and cheeky bribe by Belfort, and the ‘aww-schucks’ mentality of the FBI turns out to be part of the ploy. Belfort realizes he screwed up and loses his composure.

Still, for Belfort, the only crime is getting caught. He begins to blame others’ weaknesses and stupidity for his eventual downfall. Never once accepting the blame for evaporating millions in others’ retirement funds. His menace and straight lack of compassion is always expertly placed at the forefront. For all the credit that DeCaprio has gotten, I feel a lot more needs to go to the director.

Scorsese includes two scenes that are completely unforgettable. In their meticulous debauchery, you are unsure whether to laugh or be disgusted. Quaaludes instigate the disasters. Both scenes are as austere and unsettling as Jonah Hill’s teeth; at the same time, the scenes are so well choreographed that Scorsese’s vision shines. The energy jumps from the screen and into your lap (or up your nose).

Although the story reaches unbelievable heights, it isn’t until there’s an ill-timed drug overdose that the film manages to achieve its fever pitch. Things unravel and individuals’ true colours come to light when the money begins to dry up.

The pure insanity of the story has Gonzo in its marrow. Rising above the insanity there is a story wrestling with its morals. But you simply realize that story has no morals. There is no soul. It is nothing more than a buzzed weekend stroll through the desert and into the board room. Still, it is a drug you will not forget.

180 mins.

Cinema Movie Review: American Hustle (2013)

American-Hustle-2013-Wallpaper-1280x800Pre-meditated film reviewing adds a certain amount of pressure to a visit to the flics, writes Catherine Feore. American Hustle (2013) hasn’t yet opened in Brussels (it opens 12 February 2014), though when I woke up on 13 January, I learned that it had already bagged a few Golden Globes in the States.

Just before the press viewing it occurred to me that as a reviewer I should probably have brought a pen and paper, so I grabbed a napkin and asked the organizers if I could have a pen.

Truth be told, I didn’t take any notes – other than to write down the name of one of the ‘hustled’ politicians – so I could Google it later. Still, I made some mental notes. Somewhere in the middle of the film I made a mental note that what was happening on the screen was not plausible. Afterwards, I was trying to remember where the ‘implausible’ scene was and just couldn’t, which was great because I really enjoyed the film and frankly, complaining that some bits of it were implausible is like complaining that The Wizard of Oz (1939) is implausible once Dorothy leaves Kansas or demanding that Hollywood should only make films that reflect life’s gritty and often dull reality. Clearly, this would not be a good recipe for box-office success.

The film is loosely and sometimes not-so-loosely based on a famous FBI sting of the late 70s, Abscam. The central character of the movie Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale, is based on the conman who was used by the FBI to ‘hustle’, or some might say entrap thieves and then public figures, mostly Congressmen. The film tells the story of the scam, with flashbacks from Irving’s early life from his first scam, drumming up business for his father’s glazier business by breaking windows, through to his life as a reasonably successful conman charging fees for non-existent loans through his company ‘London Investors’. All good, until I read that the ‘real’ Irving Rosenfeld, Melvin Weinberg’s, first scam was selling footless socks (ankles only) to busy commuters and thought that maybe truth is funnier than fiction.

The film sometimes goes a little flashback mad. For example, we’re told that Tellegio (Robert de Niro) was the mobster who decided not to bury his victims, which is followed by a flashback of Tellegio killing a guy and leaving him on the street – this is a little superfluous. The leitmotif between FBI agent Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper) and his direct boss Stoddard (Louis C.K.) is good to a point, but I was waiting for the ice fishing story to reach a wonderfully funny or insightful conclusion, I don’t think it did. Did I miss something?

The acting, on the whole, is a delight. Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful. She plays Irving’s wife, a slightly warped, needy, manipulative but somehow endearing character, a Scarlett O’Hara of our times – we know we shouldn’t like her, but somehow we do, or I do, for what it’s worth. Whilst the scene where she sings along to Live and Let Die doesn’t really add much to the story, she does it with such verve, I’m glad it didn’t end up on the cutting-room floor.

Christian Bale is outstanding, I don’t really know his films because I don’t usually volunteer to go to films like Batman, I may be the last person to join his fan club, but better late than never. Bradley Cooper is also very good, though very occasionally I would like him reined in a little. The only actor I don’t think totally pulls off their role is Amy Adams as Sydney Posser; she’s good and I am nit-picking a little, but I always find her just slightly insipid when she’s trying to be ‘sexy’ in films, in Enchanted (2007) she was the perfect embodiment of the Disney princess, but she isn’t so strong in the darker regions of the acting spectrum. If she wants an Oscar she’s going to have to feel pain and show it! A slight frown won’t do it, Amy.

In the Golden Globe discussion on BBC news, there was some debate about whether the film was or wasn’t a comedy. Whilst it wasn’t Airplane! (1980), it was funny. If the showing I went to go to is anything to go by, when and why you find it funny varies a lot. In parts, I wondered what others found so hilarious, in other bits I was a lone voice laughing in the wilderness – to borrow from the film, I think it was Jesus who said that. All in all, thoroughly enjoyable, I recommend it.

138 mins.

DVD Movie Review: Millions (2004)

millionsThe root of all evil?

When Danny Boyle wasn’t making Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996) and before he went on to the genius that was Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and the direction of the audacious opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012, there was Millions (2004).

It’s pretty hard to come out straight and say I disliked it, because there were many elements that made it a quite charming, appealing and very, well, English.

Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who not only wrote some of the aforementioned Olympics ceremony stuff but also penned the cult hit 24 Hour Party People (2002) and starring James Nesbitt , Daisy Donovan and featuring a cameo from British light entertainment legend Leslie Phillips, it seems to have the pedigree to make a cracker of a movie but I’m sad to report that, although the components sat well together, it was very much more like a damp squib. A shame, as Boyle doesn’t seem to have stepped very far over line of being a talented and versatile director.

Damian (cheekily played by Alex Etel) is a boy who’s not only just lost his mother but now has to face the prospect of moving house too. Retreating into his semi-fantasy world, he builds a fort out of the cardboard moving crates, as young boys are wont to do. One day, as he is sitting in his fort, which is situated not too far from a railway line, a bag comes crashing in through his reveries, breaking some of his handiwork. As any young boy would, he opens it to see what is in there (as an adult, I’d think it was a severed head and leave it well alone). Happily, it contains large bundles of notes of various denominations. Of course, this apparent manna from heaven doesn’t necessarily bring the good luck and fortune many people suppose it will.

This isn’t what bothers me about it, though. The story itself only has one major flaw, that being that in one week the UK will convert to the euro and pounds will be useless. In reality, of course, there would be a long changeover period where both would be valid. It’s not even this that bothers me. It seems that the film’s propensity to drop into a fantasy world is used as a plot device too often. At first, I though it might be some kind of deus ex machina, there to sort out some troublesome moral dilemmas but no. It appears to me that Damian’s regular chats with saints from his favourite children’s book and the resolution of the situation (I can’t tell you too much without spoilers) appear to be story about a journey back to God, and in particular, Catholicism.

By all means have a God or a religion of yours or your parents’ choosing but please don’t use your personal choice of spiritual belief to prop up what is intrinsically a quite thin plot.

Not entirely unwatchable, but almost.

98 mins.

DVD Movie Review: God Bless America (2011)

1372305867_1385741813Let the hate flow through you

Where to begin? I suppose I should get the family tree out of the way. The guy who plays Frank in this (Joel Murray) is the brother of one Bill Murray, whom you may have heard of. I certainly don’t recall seeing Joel in a lot of things but it appears from his bio that he’s done a rather large amount of TV work. I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest he gets a few more film roles as he really is a rather nifty talent.

The whole thing is dreamed up and directed by none other than Bobcat Goldthwaite.  Who he? Well, you may recall he was a successful stand-up comedian in the 80s/90s (depending on your age) and that he took the king’s shilling and ‘starred’ in a couple of the Police Academy movies. He’s done a lot more than that, including the writing and direction of World’s Greatest Dad (2009) so we won’t hold the Police Academy thing against him, honest. It turns out he knows his way around film too.

God Bless America is, for me, the Falling Down (1993) of the 21st century; perhaps not quite as slick or understated but well worth the time. Definitely less “psst, hey, look at this” and more “over here! Look at me Look at me!” That said, it is a compelling watch and even though you’d be a bit slow not to guess how it all pans out, you always feel you’d like to go along for the ride, just to see what happens. Of course, we aren’t going to tell you right out how it goes, oh no.

The story begins with Frank laying on his bed, racked with insomnia and migraine listening once again as his inconsiderate neighbours argue, watch TV loudly and discuss the relative merits of celebrities at full volume. As he puts it a little later in the film: “I am offended. Not because I got a problem with bitter, predictable, whining millionaire disc jockeys complaining about celebrities or how tough their life is, while I live in an apartment with paper-thin walls next to a couple of Neanderthals who, instead of a baby, decided to give birth to some kind of nocturnal civil defense air raid siren that goes off every fucking night like it’s Pearl Harbor.” Frank, we can see, is not a happy man. Divorced from his wife and with a brat of a daughter who doesn’t want to see him, he soon gets fired from his job on trumped-up charges of sexual harassment. Just to top things off nicely, his doctor tells him the reason for his headaches – he has an inoperable and terminal brain tumour. What to do?

I’m not sure what I’d do, but I’m almost sure it’s not what he does. Almost. He’s sick and tired of TV talent contests, racist and/or homophobic ‘shock jocks’, people that prey on the weak and afraid and basically pretty much everything that gets my back up, which is probably why this struck a chord with me. Having seen an episode of American Superstarz in his insomniac channel-surfing, in which a man with obvious mental health issues (Steven Clark, played by Aris Alvarado) is mocked and derided by the audience and panel as he shrieks and muddles his way through Diana Ross’s Theme From Mahogany, Frank snaps. He decides to end it all, but only after teaching a valuable life lesson to the bratty reality show star he saw throwing a hissy fit because she didn’t get the car she wanted for her birthday. Long story short, it doesn’t go quite as planned and in the ensuing confusion and attempted suicide he becomes embroiled with Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr in her film debut), a runaway girl with a carefree and slightly disturbing take on life and how to live it for one so young.

A lot of criticism has been levelled at this movie, some saying its treatment of the social issues raised are too heavy-handed but I would guess those people didn’t bat an eyelid when D-FENS pulled out a rocket launcher in Falling Down.

Sometimes it does feel a little like Goldthwaite is one royally pissed off individual who needs to set a record or two straight but the underlying dark, dark humour tempers it pretty well and it never seems to get to uppity. There are some quite magical set pieces and some very good performances. If you’re a miserable old bastard like me, you’ll get a vicarious kick out of a lot of the content, particularly when Frank wins those all-important petty victories we all know and love. God Bless America may not be perfect but it’s a very cathartic little number. Give it a go.

Frank rants.

Bobcat Goldthwaite’s stand-up. (extremely poor quality)

105 mins.

Cinema Movie Review: The Counselor (2013)

The-Counselor-2013Mexican mess

Catherine Feore returns with her thoughts on Ridley Scott‘s latest.

Well, who would have thought – it is a bad idea to have any truck with Mexican drug cartels! That is certainly the message that I’m taking home from this movie.

Mexico’s drugs war is undoubtedly a very ruthless business, and the word ‘war’ is not a misnomer – it is estimated that more than 80,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico in the past seven years, some in particularly grotesque acts of revenge on whole communities.

Despite the obvious dangers, ‘the counselor’ (Michael Fassbender) finds himself up to his oxters in a Mexican drug deal that goes wrong. It isn’t terribly clear why the counsellor has got himself in this situation, other than the fact that he wants to buy an expensive engagement ring for his girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz) – we even accompany Fassbender on a trip to Amsterdam to buy the said ring. I imagine that this shopping trip was meant to be infused with deep meaning that I missed, because otherwise it should have ended up on the cutting room floor. If there is a lesson to be learnt about the dangers of consumer culture it comes from the product placement dotted throughout the movie.

The credentials of the film look promising, some good actors, particularly Fassbender, Ridley Scott as director and the great writer behind the Border Trilogy and The Road, Cormac McCarthy . Sadly, though, the film is a complete turkey. Cameron Diaz as the villainous girlfriend of Reiner (Javier Bardem) is Diaz’s best comic role since There’s Something About Mary (1998)she looks as if she’s having trouble keeping a straight face by the end of the movie, especially when she launches into a ridiculous parable about hunting, and there is an earlier scene where she ‘f**ks’ a Ferrari (please note, a FERRARI). I would tweak with the casting for the comedy remake, Javier Bardem does a good comic turn too, but maybe Michael Fassbender could be replaced by Ben Stiller. Cormac McCarthy’s script, while unwittingly ridiculous, could be redrafted for a few more laughs and I would welcome less violence.

I am of course being facetious, but more seriously, what is happening in Mexico is horrendous and deserves a better film, with a more Mexican cast.

117 mins.

DVD Movie Review: Gambit (2012)

Colin-Firth-in-Gambit-2012-Movie-ImageThe plot thins

Gambit(in chess) an opening move in which a player makes a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage.

Well, it certainly appears sacrifices were made in this 2012 production but it’s really kind of hard to pin down exactly where at first cursory glance over the cast and crew. With all the big stars illuminating the cast you’d be forgiven for believing it was a shoo-in for ‘Comedy of the Year’. The director, Michael Hoffman, is relatively less well-known but has a good few films under his belt and the writing team? Surely the deft fingers of the Coen brothers, who can do no wrong, would be able to idly tap out a major studio hit while resting from writing so many others? You’d think. And yet, this is as flat as a pancake. Based extremely loosely on the original (a belter of a 1966 caper movie with Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine), Gambit appears to lumber from ill-conceived set piece to ill-conceived set piece with no drive or passion to glue them together into a coherent whole.

I’ll flesh out the plot summary for you, as you’ll probably want to know what you’re getting yourselves into, should you ignore my advice not to see it at any cost. Harry Deane (Colin Firth) works as something of an independent art curator for his obsessive collector boss, Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman), a man he despises. Having had enough of scraping a living working for the ungrateful boss, he hatches a cunning plan with his art-forger friend known only as ‘The Major’ to embezzle his hapless employer out of a sizable fortune. The plan is to get the Major to forge a copy of Monet’s masterpiece Haystacks at Dawn, then photograph it in a place where it would be feasible it had been hidden away for years. To add to the authenticity of the story, they employ the services of cowgirl rodeo rider PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz) to pretend it has been in her trailer for years, on account of her grandfather stealing it from retreating Nazis at the end of the second world war.

I wish I could add “…and then hilarity ensues”. However, I’d be doing myself a disservice as a reviewer and you as a filmgoer by pretending otherwise. The direction is as flat as an elephant’s foot, with the cast mired in a shambles that could use a GPS to get out of. The story is a fairly linear affair but you get the impression the cast have just put on different clothes and trusted to luck. Firth is seemingly uncomfortable with a slapstick role and makes a poor fist of being a bumbling fool when he’s so used to being the light-comedic heart-throb, or the guy in the flouncy shirt. Diaz does her best at being a rowdy cowgirl living it up in the big city on Deane’s ticket but I really get the feeling her heart wasn’t in it. ‘Cold’ and ‘wooden’ spring to mind. As for Alan Rickman, the apple of Picturenose’s eye and a man who can quite probably make a silk purse from a proverbial sow’s ear is mere filler in this outing. Characteristically sneering and nasty, he spends the entire time (when not trying to get into the knickers of Puznowski) being sneering and, well, nasty. Without a strong script, this is simply not enough to carry even an on-par Rickman rant or two. Oh yes, the script. What a lot of old tosh. Poorly based on the old movie, even if ever-so slightly, it has none of the pace, nor the wit we have come to expect from the Coens, although the direction may have a hand in the lack of pace and excitement. Do I expect too much of the Coens? I don’t think so, when you consider the quality of the script they penned for the re-do of True Grit (2010).

Mostly disappointing, poorly-used talent and badly paced, Gambit is a bit of a let-down from minute one. The gag everyone finds the most base and cheap is, in fact, the funniest. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it here but you’ll know it when you see it. Although I’d urge you not to.

89 mins.

DVD Movie Review: The East (2013)

TE_01770.nefGreen guns

Director Zal Batmanglij (The Sound of My Voice (2011)) dissects the moral circumstances taken by a small group of environmental terrorists, known as ‘The East’, as they launch attacks against faceless corporations throughout the world. As The East begins to obtain global media recognition for their efforts the corporations begin to take note of The East’s antics. An independent intelligence firm (whose sole clients are the threatened entities) has just hired a new operative, Sarah (Brit Marling). Her first assignment is to locate the cell, enter their ranks, and divulge all information relating to the firm’s client base.

After a chance meeting, Sarah soon succeeds and is taken in as a trusted accomplice. The East isn’t just the type of group that hates all things consumerism and materialistic. Sarah soon learns that the group is hell-bent on revenge due to personal stories of tragedies and hardships created by the corporations that they now target. Before long, Sarah swiftly encounters her own conflicting principles regarding how The East attacks the individuals responsible for corporation’s actions and the atrocities those same corporations cause to the general population.

The East’s leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), is the supposed mastermind and implementer of all decisions made within the group. However, the amount of bite he has reminds me of the dog that shares his same name from those cheesy 1980s Disney movies. As the shifting group of misfit rebels with specialized skills conjure up demonic payback to corporations, the threat of being revealed becomes even greater with each attack. Whether it’s infecting a conglomerate’s CFO party guest’s drinks with hazardous drugs or making employees bathe in chemical waste, The East has their eyes set on revenge and nothing more.

The East comes up with good analytical conversations about ways corporations inflict damage by only focusing on their quarterly monetary goals instead of reflecting on the negative impacts they cause on the environment and local stakeholders. However, once the story moves away from the group’s wicked paybacks and tries to have a love story blossom between Sarah and Benji, the reckoning is lost. The analytical tone losses its grit. It’s as if the story slips into some Air Jordans, hops in their Hummer, and orders a Grande Frappacino from Starbucks on its way home before taking a nap.

For all of the spying and manipulating, the love story and final conclusion felt too rushed and insubstantial. It’s a shame because the build up to the recruitment of Sarah, her infiltration, and the types of revenge the cell completed set the final act up nicely for a first-rate espionage thriller. Instead, you feel like you received a large pepperoni pizza from Pizza Shack when all you wanted was an apple picked from your backyard.

116 mins.

Cinema Movie Review: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

ain-t-them-bodies-saints10Texan escape

David Lowery has created a classic within Americana cinema. After first viewing, it’s simple to think you’ve seen this film once before. The comparability of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) to that of Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) is more than apparent. Not just due to the storyline being about two young rebellious lovers, but also the use of cinematography and the amount of voiceovers to display a character’s emotions. However, after further review, Lowery is able to supply his own voice and ensure that the story remains fresh and original.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ storytelling relies heavily on the use of memories, space, and mumbles from behind mustaches to resonate a story of heartbreak, life, and outlaws which only the Texan landscape can properly provide. Bob Mulddon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are two passionate juveniles set on living their lives together, no matter the cost. Bob (a small-time crook) and Ruth (recently realizing she is pregnant) immerse themselves in the blissful blindness of young love. Due to a careless mistake by Ruth after a robbery gone wrong, Bob takes the fall for the crime and is given a 25-year prison sentence. As the two are whisked away in a heartbreaking embrace, Bob promises to return to Ruth and to meet their unborn daughter.

As years rolled through their small Texas town, Bob always tried his best to make his promise turn into fruition. Time and time again, his escapes are foiled. But, with true determination, he finally escapes prison, set on starting a new life with Ruth and their baby girl. Ruth, meanwhile, is at a crossroads in her life. Her rebellious past and responsible future have converged. Does she continue to relish in her rebellious past waiting for Bob or does she look for the best possible outcomes for her daughter? As Ruth realizes she is no longer that foolish young woman, she receives word that Bob is coming for her.

The story ultimately evolves into Bob’s ornery determination and Ruth’s decision whether or not to assist in Bob’s capture. Their story and dilemmas provides enough juicy twists and turns, but what pushes the tale to higher levels are the supporting characters. A sheriff (Ben Foster) who has watched Ruth become a mature woman and feels himself a qualified suitor, as does the protective neighbor (Keith Carradine) who has taken Ruth and her daughter in as family. Throw in a couple unfamiliar faces also looking for Bob and asking questions around town, an explosive scenario festers just as Bob makes it into town.

The film resonates with the voice as distinct as the director, David Lowery, and it wasn’t until after my viewing that I realized I’ve previously seen his last piece of work, St. Nick (2009), as it made its way through the film festival circuit. St. Nick told a meditative story about a young runaway brother and sister as they wander the Texas landscape before they try and settle in a small Texan town. There is a lot in common with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The storyline in St. Nick was broad and the dialogue was sparse, but what resonated through both projects were the gorgeous scenery, pinpoint editing, and the use of subtlety to tell the story.

What I appreciated most about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was the delicate balance Lowery gave to the different periods in the character’s lives. The regular flashbacks always provided a purpose that would shift the story or provide a different perspective. Yet, the most powerful creation Lowery was able to conjure was the feeling that all characters truly loved Ruth and they would do anything to ensure her safety.  For that, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is worth escaping to Texas for.

96 mins.

DVD Movie Review: Lawless (2012)

LAWLESSBootlegging bullseye

As a Brit who’s never visited the USA, drunk a root beer or pitched a curveball, I have a deep fondness for Americana. Films soaked in the spirit of America, often warts-and-all are my go-to movies. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Paris, Texas (1984) and even A Christmas Story (1983) have me lapping it up, so I was raring to go when Lawless (2012) hit DVD. My only issue was that it had been cast with nary a Yankee in sight; the Englishmen Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman and two Aussies (Guy Pearce and Jason Clarke) take on the lion’s share of the acting. Evidently, it appears that voice coaching has got a lot better these days. Pearce has always been able to put on a passable if non-specific American accent but the big surprise was Hardy, whose mumbling Virginia drawl was convincing enough that my good lady requested subtitles 20 minutes in.

Another fear was quickly allayed, too. The words ‘based on a true story’ never fail to make me shudder. Lawless is, indeed, based on a true story but it’s done well enough that the majority of scenarios are believable. You don’t ever get the feeling that the scriptwriters ave been playing fast and loose with the facts in order to tell a brighter tale. The Wettest County in the World  by Matt Bondurant is the book it’s adapted from, written by the grandson of one of the protagonists, and by all accounts it’s pretty close to the mark – something that makes the escapades and set pieces a little more chilling.

So, what’s it all about? It’s about bootlegging and a family whose business it is to see that the prohibition needn’t stop a healthy trade in booze. The Bondurant family (for it is they) live in an almost impossibly beautiful country setting in the hills of Virginia in the early 1930s. their trade in illegal liquor (moonshine) is well established and the ground rules as to which family sells to whom and where are firmly established. The local lawmen are, almost inevitably, embroiled in the trade and happily partake of the moonshine themselves. This piece of scene-setting is there to remind us that these sheriffs and deputies are for the most part members of the community and happy to sit back as long a all runs smoothly. All this bucolic pleasantry is soon abruptly shaken up by the arrival in town of a Special Deputy from the governor, Charles Rakes (Pearce). He isn’t there long before he starts to poke the wasps’ nest a little by gunning for the biggest family in the neigbourhood, the Bondurants. The flat refusal of Forrest Bondurant (Hardy) to bow down and pay the protection money begins something of a war of attrition between the two, leading to a spiral of violence and conflict. It was never going to end well.

While not a juggernaut of a movie, Lawless sets a fine pace and captures what is at least my idea of the pace of life, the countryside and attitude of the people of those times. The screenplay plays a big part in the atmospherics and a wonderful job was done by Nick Cave. Of course, you can’t have Nick Cave involved and not get treated to a few moody songs and tunes, so he obligingly provides a very competent soundtrack, including several songs written and/or sung by him and others. Watch out, too, for the goofiest version of White Light/White Heat you’ll ever hear over the end credits.

All in all a very watchable movie and an excellent cast – although if I had a small criticism, it’d be that there was not enough Gary Oldman for my liking.

116 mins.

Cinema Movie Review: The Iceman (2012)

michael-shannon-the-iceman-01-1280x720Cold killer

As in many cases, the knowledge of an average man being a serial killer came to his family as a complete surprise. We’re talking here about Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), a porn film lab technician of Polish descent, who in the 1960s received an offer from his mob boss and changed his career into that of a contract killer for the mafia. In The Iceman (2012), Ariel Vromen presents a portrait of a cold-blooded , emotionless man, who didn’t hesitate to kill more than 100 people, first for the mob, then, due to mafia politics, as a partner to psychotic multi-contract executor, Robert Pronge (Chris Evans). Working with Pronge, Kuklinski acquired a strategy of freezing his victims’ bodies, for which he gained his nickname, ‘The Iceman’. Looking at the shots of Shannon, however, with his empty eyes and ever-serious face, we come to the conclusion that the nickname may have a double meaning.

Kuklinski managed to present this straight face to his wife and two daughters as well, when he boldly claimed that he’d been working as a businessman through the years when he was in fact hired by the mob. His wife (Winona Ryder) and kids only found out the truth upon his arrest in 1986.

The movie altogether is quite cold and frugal in its execution. The murders are many and repetitive, but never shown up close – the mafia business is presented without unnecessary emotion, with not much being said about Kuklinki’s past having influenced his actions. An abusive father is briefly mentioned, however the extent to which he was tortured as a child, and the fact that, after leaving home, he grew up on the street, are not described. Neither is the terrifying truth that before becoming a professional serial killer, he murdered around 50 homeless people (starting with the killing of a teenage gang leader at the age of 13).

One thing that is missing, however, is an explanation of the circumstances of his arrest. Perhaps neither in reality the details are publicly known. We only know that his friend also involved in mafia’s business had something to do with Kuklinski’s final failure. Dry and factual, The Iceman gives you the shivers, and makes you wonder as to what is wrong with the world and with people, who become what Kuklinski became.

To watch the trailer, click here.

105 mins.

DVD Movie Review: The Blue Lamp (1950)

6a00d83451b77e69e200e54f807cb38833-800wiEvenin’ awl!

Picturenose is delighted to herald the return of one of our very finest writers, Paul Stump, with his thoughts on a classic Ealing crime film, The Blue Lamp (1950). Take it away, Paul, and welcome back!

I declare an interest. I was born and (at least in part) brought up in London, and so have a sympathy for movies that convey, or attempt to, everyday life there at any point in recent history. But should I let it cloud my judgement of a film’s merits and demerits? I hope not; I try to avoid it. But, ultimately, can I? Indeed, should I? I count myself unfortunate to live in a country – the UK – where the notion of homeland or roots is a culturally very strong one. Not as strong as the mythicized aggrandisement of the concepts of Volk and Heimat under the Third Reich, but on the Celtic fringes of the UK, such as Wales, it may yet assume that form.

I prefer adherence to the dictum of arguably Britain’s greatest living Modernist cultural commentator, Jonathan Meades, who declares, memorably, that ‘only vegetables need roots’. Cultural artefacts that rely upon a share of a particular complex of identifiers with specific times and places become difficult to evaluate for outsiders. As such, The Blue Lamp (1950) has become a part of British cultural folklore that is so rooted in its time and place – it is in its own way for this reason that explaining it to those unfamiliar with the milieu is no mean feat. But I shall try, because I think the effort is worth it, as are the sterling work of cast and crew.

It often draws surprise from observers when they learn that the film is a product of Ealing Studios, synonymous with its monochrome comedies of tweedy grotesques, teachers in mortarboards, eccentric spinsters and idealised little people pitched against villainous authority. It’s a policer, and rugged enough in tone to have the posters boldly headlining it as ‘The Battle for the Streets’. Ostensibly, it is about a seasoned, kindly bobby, George Dixon (Jack Warner) training a greenhorn copper, Andy Mitchell (Tommy Hanley, popular wartime radio comedian and go-to guy for cheeky chappie roles).

SPOILERS AHEAD
Mark Duguid, a cinema historian, in an excellent series of contributions to the BFI’s website on the contrasting light and dark styles of Ealing pictures analyses it thus: “The Blue Lamp’s credentials…as part of our ‘dark’ strand are strong”, and justifies this by reference to the film’s most shocking and memorable scenes in which the quietly heroic Dixon confronts teenage tearaway Tom Riley (a very young, very pretty Dirk Bogarde) in the course of a petty local theft. Riley simply shoots Dixon in cold blood, and in so doing effectively extinguishes not just a life but a whole set of moral and social values that for a 21st-century audience may seem laughably quaint but which, in the London depicted by director Basil Dearden and writers T.E.B. Clarke (screenplay), Jan Read (original treatment), Ted Willis (original treatment) and Alexander Mackendrick (additional dialogue) formed a cohesive social glue.

Even London’s criminals team up with the police to help trap Riley in a stunning final sequence at the White City Stadium, so heinous is the murder to ‘ordinary folk’ – a trope loved by Ealing movies, both light and dark. In this it has a curious antecedent, Fitz Lang’s M (1931), an Expressionist meisterwerk in which the pursuit of a child killer unites police and thieves. Dearden is no Lang – never could be – but the crisp, taut direction, unusually unaffected performances and brilliantly evocative lighting, as well as the use of a time and place evocative of nostalgia to create something that transcends both its time and its place, make this no ordinary Ealing film, and no ordinary British one. This writer always misjudged it. Did you?

84 mins.