Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Killing Them Softly Review

Under a rather misleading marketing campaign, Killing Them Softly arrives on UK screens after positive buzz at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Andrew Dominik’s previous two films; 2000’s Chopper and 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, have shown his growing prowess as both a writer and director. Here, Dominik continues to take advantage of his formidable cast in sophisticated and slick thriller that offers plenty in the way of personality and vehemence.

The film follows hired gun Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) as he is called to “rectify” a heist on Markie Trattman’s (Ray Liotta) mob run poker joint by Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). With nothing particularly unique about the story, Killing Them Softly focuses heavily on its performances and dialogue to convey the depth and temperament of the plot. In the same vein as the likes of Animal Kingdom or No Country for Old Men, the film thrives on its slow-pacing and sudden moments of intensity and ferocity. While many might become impatient with the dialogue-heavy approach, Dominik’s tight script is a rewarding one that subtly and meticulously develops each element of its story and characters. However Dominik’s rather forced attempts at adding “morality” comprising of his own interpretations of the “American Dream”being one rooted in the individual not cooperation, while makes sense, is far too regularly plastered on screen. Whether it be radio or TV recordings of McCain’s or Obama’s campaign, Dominik tries too hard to get this message across even when the script perfectly handles it.

Where Killing Them Softly particularly prevails is in its collection of top-notch performances. Brad Pitt’s recent form has seen him nominated amongst various critic circles and societies for his roles in Moneyball and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and here he delivers another sterling one that incorporates both the suave exterior of the character with the systematic yet humane logic. James Gandolfini’s washed up, paroled ex-mobster Mickey doesn’t strive far from his usual “colourful” roles. But there’s an unsettling and sinisterness to his portrayal of a broken man drinking the bar, and licking his lips while discussing his sexual fantasies. It’s a memorable performance that certainly makes an impression during his relatively inconsequential screen-time. Scoot McNairy (Monsters) offers a sympathetic angle to a young man struggling to find purpose, and proficiently portrays his collapse into anxiety and fear with Pitt on his tail. Meanwhile Ben Mendelsohn continues his phenomenal form (Animal Kingdom and The Dark Knight Rises)  capturing the unfazed tone and grotty nature of his character, whilst also adding a slither of dark humour. As for Ray Liotta, he does well in his rather minor role which sees him brutally beaten up. 
Visually, cinematographer Greig Fraser and Editor Brian Kates do a great job in creating a slick film with a dark and gritty atmosphere. Being set in New Orleans, the film remains restraint in its use of establishing shots, but still manages to incorporate a strong contrast between the drab and bitter streets, and the modern hotels and classy restaurants. Along with excellent lighting and skilful camerawork Killing Them Softly is a really nice and rich looking film. The use of slow-motion has become a cliche of cinematography, but here its used reservedly and to a beautiful effect. In one particular shootout, it’s implemented to a stunning degree with raindrops bouncing off car bonnets and the kinetic movement of the mechanisms of firearms. On the other hand, the two could be accused of slightly attempting too many stylistic choices with a drug-induced Mendelsohn drifting in an out of consciousness undertaken by a series of jarring transitions to black that quickly gets restless. In regards to the film’s sound design, Killing Them Softly is a relatively subdued with the moments of violence and brutality punctuating through the normality. 

Overall Killing Them Softly is a slow and intense exhibition of the crime thriller genre done well. While its no action-orientated or black comedy as trailers have seemingly highlighted, there’s a certain intensity and forceful personality that comes through the smart script and excellent performances. Definitely worth a watch. 


Sunday, 23 September 2012

RespawningCouch Podcast: Audio Review: Killing Them Softly

This week: Jack gives a short review on crime thriller Killing Them Softly starring Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Lawless Review

After an aggressive marketing campaign, Lawless hits screens with a rather mixed reception. An adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World, the film is essentially a “biographical” action/drama that saw itself nominated for 2012 Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or. With a star-studded cast consisting of Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman and Tom Hardy, and with director John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) at the helm Lawless showed some initial promise. Yet in reality it’s a film that struggles to build and develop its story, characters and themes in an engaging and memorable methodology.

Set during the Prohibition period of the 1930s, the film follows the Bondurant Brothers; Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), a notorious and brutal family of moonshine bootleggers. However the arrival of Special Agent Charlies Rakes (Guy Pearce) not only puts their illegal operations in trouble, but their lives. Lawless’ main problem is its writing. Nick Cave’s adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s novel lacks substance and depth towards both the film’s characters and the plot. With a story dominated and centred around the three leads, the script fails to establish anything profound about them, their brotherhood or their “war” against Rakes. For the majority of the film, Shia LaBeouf’s character arch takes precedence. Yet even his unoriginal  ascendence from whinny “rookie” to whinny, wannabe macho isn’t a sophistically told or realistically evolved narrative. The introduction of Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska merely serves to further add to some pretty faces to the sagging second act with forgettable romances that fail to develop from Hillcoat’s use of montages. On the whole, apart from the so-called “legend” surrounding Hardy’s character, there’s nothing captivating or engaging with any of the trio or the story, which is a completely no no for a “biographical” tale. 
The sheer talent on offer surprisingly culminates in no actor or actress truly standing out and impressing. Shia LaBeouf puts in his standard delivery in a performance that really requires someone with a lot more screen presence and diversity. Tom Hardy’s rather indistinguishable accent and bashful personality is the most interesting character, yet he suffers from the lacklustre nature of the script. Jason Clarke is forgettable in a role that requires little from him except his fists. Meanwhile Guy Pearce offers the polar opposite from his fellow leads in an over-the-top performance that tries too hard to fill the role of the antagonist in a film consisting of unsympathetic and unpleasant personalities. As for Gary Oldman, his top-billing culminates in approximately 7 minutes of screen time that feels rather pointless in hindsight. Along with the rising stars of Chastain and Wasikowska, its a real shame that the writing dilutes the impact of the entire cast.

Visually Lawless fails to do anything interesting with its period or Virginia setting. Hillcoat’s previous film The Road succeeded in portraying an post-apocalyptic world, desolate and deranged through impressive cinematography and set locations. Here, apart from the extreme violence, that really adds nothing artistically or thematically, Lawless lacks any visual flair, to the point that CGI is even used to enhance pyrotechnics. The environments are recycled in numerous scenes giving Lawless a noticeably small scale. Even the soundtrack can’t escape its generic nature with cliche folk songs, and rather mistimed and mismatched musical accompaniment in various scenes. 

Overall Lawless is a mildly entertaining film that is undoubtably hindered by its writing. It’s a shallow affair that fails to build on its brief moments of intensity and magic, and to take advantage of its very capable cast. Disappointing. 


Sunday, 16 September 2012

RespawningCouch Podcast: Audio Review: Lawless

This week: Jack and a disappointed Nick give their thoughts on big release Lawless.

Friday, 14 September 2012

RespawningCouch Podcast: Top 10 Favourite Films of All Time

This week:  Jack and Nick each discuss 5 of their favourite films in no particular order, and with a lot of erms and "I think"s (Apologies)

Nick: Batman Begins, Toy Story, Blade Runner, Brazil and Princess Mononoke

Jack: The Chaser, Jaws, Groundhog Day, Cure and Lost in Translation

Friday, 7 September 2012

Shadow Dancer Review

The BBC Films Production Company has been associated with some fantastic pieces of British cinema. The Damned United, Eastern Promises and Billy Elliot have been personal favourites from a fruitful list of films and documentaries. Director James Marsh has shown his strong hand at directing documentaries; the brilliant Man on Wire and last year’s Project Nim. But his direction on an episode of Channel 4‘s intense crime-drama series Red Riding, showed his growing capabilities within the crime-drama genre. Yet with the glowing 4 star reviews from the likes of The Guardian and Empire, Shadow Dancer is a very disappointing and overlong affair that never gets going. 

Set in Belfast during “The Troubles” of the 1990s and the Peace Agreement, Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) has grown up  regretting for her younger brother’s death, and is now an active member of the IRA. After being apprehended by Mac (Clive Owen), an MI5 operative, she becomes an informant for British Intelligence to keep protect her son. Shadow Dancer is a slow-burner, and not in a good way. Labelled as a “thriller”, James Marsh struggles to flesh out anything within a rather simplistic and predictable story. With a basic narrative, the film seems to forget the period and the socio-political events within Northern Ireland and the later stages of “The Troubles”, only vaguely and briefly addressing the Joint Declaration of Peace. The also film hints at various confrontations and hidden agendas within British Intelligence, yet never successfully deals with them. The ending further “craps” on whatever small semblance of intrigue by going against the entire methodology of the film, and assumes the audience has built an emotional connection with the characters for it to convey its intended “effect”. 
Leading the cast, Andrea Riseborough is either completely mis-casted or fails to recognise the emotional depth to her character. Constantly staring blankly, addressing her constant need to mind her child and crying, never makes Colette and interesting and engaging character throughout the course of the story. Clive Owen’s career has been a questionable one. For every Children of Men there’s a King Arthur or Killer Elite and to be brutally honest, his performances have never protruded  the usual monotone and miserable act he gives. The problem here is he never starts to develop into the role until the third act, and by then his character feels insignificant. The likes of Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson are underused, lacking in dialogue and substance. With such a talented cast, it’s unfortunate that nothing remarkable or striking emerges from them. It’s seems a waste and a missed opportunity. 

Visually, Shadow Dancer is your standard BBC Drama affair that tones down the colour palette with greys and muted tones. The use of natural lighting and interior details give some charm and personality, and its clear Marsh wanted a natural and subtle look to the film. Meanwhile the camerawork is nothing special, and becomes increasing frustrating due its tendency to stay glued to a particular shot for far too long. And with this being Riseborough teary-eyed face most of the time, it becomes extremely tedious. Even the soundtrack is dull and scarce, consisting of the same piano composition being played over and over again.

Overall Shadow Dancer’s high praise from film critics is rather puzzling. The film’s basic plot and characters beg for the IRA and 1990s Northern Ireland context to add substance and depth. It’s not beautifully shot, it’s not well-acted and it’s lacking the intensity and thriller elements to make it an “intense thriller”. Yet in the end, Shadow Dancer fits the criteria for an 4-part episodic drama on BBC One, and would have possibly benefited from exploring each side of the conflict; Politics, Family, MI5 and a finale. Disappointing. 


Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The Bourne Legacy Review

The Bourne Trilogy stands as a staple of modern action/thriller cinema, combining smart writing, strong performances and impressive set-pieces with a constant sense of intrigue and intensity. Matt Damon’s slick portrayal of an agent suffering from amnesia unravelling the lies and corruption within his CIA superiors, brought a sophistication within the genre that many have since tried to copy; Haywire and Quantum of Solace. Personally, I was apprehensive towards the thought of a sequel. While Tony Gilroy, screenwriter of the original three and the director of the fantastic Michael Clayton, was at the helm, the lack of Matt Damon and the fact that The Bourne Ultimatum had tied up most of its narrative threads made this venture seem pointless. So does The Bourne Legacy disappoint? 

The Bourne Legacy follows the termination of “Operation Outcome”, a Department of Defence Black Ops program, after the CIA starts to “minimise” the damages from the Bourne fiasco becoming public. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) survives as the last one of ‘Outcome’ agents, yet his quarrels don’t rest on a plot to uncover the enigmatic nature of the CIA or a path of vengeance. Instead Cross’ background uncovers his need for the medication involved in the program that improve his mental and physical capacity. His search for the super drugs brings him to Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who has also survived the eradication of her co-workers. The two set on a trail that sees them head to Manilla whilst being chased by Eric Byer (Edward Norton).

Legacy’s story maintains the smartly written and engrossing nature of the previous three. Gilroy takes a different approach to Aaron Cross’ storyline that has enough to set it apart from the Jason Bourne affair. Cross is a character that feels vulnerable and desperate as he has one primary goal in the film. Yet the major problem with Legacy is the implementation of the Bourne narrative thread within the Aaron Cross story. With footage from The Bourne Ultimatum, the appearances of characters such as Pamela Landy, and Jason Bourne’s name being slapped on news headlines and etched into beds, the film never integrates the repercussions of those elements within the film’s story. When it does start to form some semblance of cohesion it merely hints at the bigger picture, undoubtably waiting for the sequel. Consequently the ending falls flat, lacking the tempo, enigma and sense of conclusion that the Bourne series has standardised. 
Meanwhile with the high-bar set by Matt Damon’s excellent performance, Renner manages to hit similar heights with a strong performance that recognises the traits and makeup of his character. Rachel Weisz does well in her return to action cinema and offers a believable act that capably adapts to the changing pace of the film. Yet when together, the two never form an engaging relationship. The suddenness of their initial introductions and the shallowness of their shared interactions makes the third act romance seem too implausible and forced. Edward Norton is disappointingly underused mainly due to the lack of substance to his character. The hidden agendas and personal risks that made Joan Allen’s and Brian Cox’s characters perfect are none existent in the one-note Eric Byer. 

However The Bourne Legacy’s action set-pieces continue to provide the intense nature that the Bourne franchise has previously offered. From the parkour, car chases and shoot-outs, The Bourne Legacy flourishes with its hyperkinetic and hard-hitting moments. In particular, the confrontation in Dr. Shearing’s house is a perfect example of the close-quarters approach and fast-paced nature that the series is remembered for. Yet gone is the dynamic and unique cinematography and editing that Oliver Wood and Christopher Rouse masterfully implemented in the original trilogy; the smooth transitions, the multi-panel framing that added a certain style and made the confrontations and panic within the CIA relevant and directly involved in Bourne’s current actions. Legacy looks and sounds great, but Robert Elswit takes the simplistic approach to the genre’s cinematic criteria. The use of handheld cameras is limited, substituted for a more fluid and steady setup that slightly alters the temperament of the film. This isn't a flaw, but rather dampens the visual charm and "uniqueness" that we're quintessential in the previous three. 

Overall The Bourne Legacy is an entertaining piece of action-thriller cinema that manages to continue the franchise’s fast-paced and clever espionage narrative. Yet it’s ties with Jason Bourne’s actions feel frail and superficial, even pointless. Like my thoughts on Prometheus, I wonder if the film would have thrived without the Bourne name and the stipulations attached to it. 


Sunday, 2 September 2012

RespawningCouch Podcast: Audio Review: Shadow Dancer

This week: Jack and Nick review the latest BBC film Shadow Dancer directed by James Marsh. How does the "four-star thriller" really fair? (Apologies for our crap knowledge about Northern Ireland's modern history)

Podcast Powered By Podbean