Michael Caine has proved he can play the hard man, and I justify this with his shockingly convincing role in Get Carter. Nearly forty years on, Caine stars as Harry Brown, a 70-something ex-marine who opts to push himself to the edge in a film that’s – if possible – bleaker than Carter or indeed anything else he’s ever appeared in. If you’re expecting a ride with an elderly vigilante, perhaps a British answer to Eastwood’s Gran Torino, or even an updated Death Wish, then this is far darker and disturbing than anything the US film industry has ever offered.
Harry Brown (Caine) lives on a horrifically violent council estate, where his best friend Len (David Bradley) is murdered. What ensues is an uncomfortable yet gripping drama, where Brown emerges as an unlikely survivor in the fog of a nightmarish hell. Unlike Get Carter, which uses the backdrop of early 70s Newcastle as a now iconic setting, Harry Brown appears at times to be deliberately setting-less; background images appear to be out of focus, with much of the scenes set after dark. Where Carter strode through the violent and unwelcome Northern streets, Brown shuffles around a city unrecognisable to even those who have made it their home. It’s an unsettling image of a world with all hope wrung out of it.
Caine is an actor who’s been long in the position that he doesn’t need to prove himself anymore. Where others may have made a meal of Brown’s anger and vengeance, Caine is all suppressed emotion; his performance is brilliantly understated throughout the film. But he’s ever believable; while in one scene we accept that a man with his past can easily handle a gun, we can equally accept the fact that he struggles to operate a mobile phone. It’s mentioned that his character has seen service in Northern Ireland, and he alludes to the fact that former active servicemen don’t speak about the brutalities they might have witnessed. In Harry Brown Caine’s character looks upon the violence and appalling behaviour of the estate setting with tired, unsurprised eyes.
For an actor fast approaching 80, Michael Caine proves he is still an incredibly powerful force. The supporting players in Harry Brown are also superb. Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles as the doomed police officers, Liam Cunningham in a small but shockingly memorable role and the ever-outstanding Sean Harris delivers yet another of his frighteningly offbeat performances (he’s previously played Ian Brady on television and starred in the terrifying Creep. I look forward to him in the forthcoming Brighton Rock remake). But it’s Caine’s film, surprising us again, although I’m confident he still has other great roles to deliver yet.
Putting out Fire with Gasoline
In 2007 I was fortunate so see Grindhouse in a seedy Chicago cinema. Unsuccessful in its US release, the three hour collaboration between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino was subsequently chopped into two releases, Planet Terror and Death Proof. Rodriguez’s insane zombie film and Tarantino’s chase movie received muted responses, stripped from the tongue in cheek Grindhouse concept, which offered a 70s movie feast complete with fake trailers for badly made films and even dummy adverts, the joke appeared to be lost on most audiences. Since then the two directors have followed entirely different paths, Rodriguez continuing in Spy Kids mode and directing a family film Shorts and Tarantino staying with familiar territory to deliver possibly his best work to date, the World War 2 drama Inglourious Basterds.
Inglourious Basterds exceeded my expectations, which were namely of a film featuring Brad Pitt leading a no nonsense troop of Nazi hunters in occupied France. This is of course part of the film, but like most of Tarantino’s best work, we are treated to an episodic feast and the best scenes, which consist of three of the director’s finest, do not feature Pitt at all. In many ways the band of Nazi hunters appears to belong in a different film, perhaps the Inglourious Basterds that Tarantino had planned for so long and put on hold, the one originally set to star Michael Madsen and Tim Roth that would have resulted in a different, and perhaps lesser, experience.
Christoph Waltz won best supporting Oscar for his role as Colonel Hans Landa, a role Leonardo DiCaprio was originally considered for. Waltz is so good that it’s almost impossible to imagine any other actor in the part, his two key scenes are the tensest on camera I have seen for some time. The film opens in rural France, where Landa descends on a family rumoured to be harbouring Jews. I think it is the best piece of cinema that Tarantino has made to date. We’re never sure where the scene is going, and the uncertainly lasts right up until its violent conclusion. Waltz portrays Landa with the right combination of confident authority and false obsequiousness; we never know just when he’s going to drop the facade and reveal the monster he surely is. His second scene, where he eats dessert with the girl he allowed to escape from his clutches, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), is equally gripping. I will never look at strudel again in the same light.
Inglourious Basterds contains the usual cross-references, odd themes and apparently deliberate mistakes you’d expect from Tarantino. It’s a film that invites multiple viewing just to understand some of its resonance (some things are just subtle touches like Landa’s fondness for a glass of milk that links the two scenes mentioned above, but I’d like to take a closer look at the director’s obsession with feet for example). The rich cast of characters features Winston Churchill (played by Rod Taylor) and Adolf Hitler, and Hitler is crucial to the film’s novel plot that draws several key Nazis to a Paris cinema where both Pitt and Dreyfuss independently plan to kill them all in a bomb blast or fire (it turns out to be both).
Although Waltz delivers the standout performance, Laurent and Diane Kruger (who plays movie star Bridget von Hammersmark) are also both superb, continuing Tarantino’s long line of fine female roles. And if it isn’t a contradiction in terms, Martin Wuttke also makes an agreeable Hitler. I was less enamoured with the last section of the film, which struggles with the magnitude of the final set piece. It’s a shame, because the theme of film and the role of propaganda was an excellent one. Landa, perhaps unwisely, is also turned into something of a grotesque comic figure. But the film works very well on several levels. There’s Tarantino’s usual self reference, where a scene in an underground bar turns almost into a parody of the three-way shoot-off in Reservoir Dogs. There’s also the clever use of language (the film features more German and French than English) adding much authenticity to an often fantastic series of events. And no review of a Tarantino film can conclude without mention of the soundtrack, which features some effective Ennio Morriconie-ish background music and an incongruous, although very effective, use of David Bowie’s Cat People.
As for Rodriguez, I found Shorts a failed attempt at something for children. This is an exhausting film featuring a gang of kids who find a magic stone, resulting on a series of wishes come true that include walking crocodiles and two-headed party guests. It was all too much for me, although I was overruled by my 11-year old film critic. So it does appear to work for its intended audience.
Mesrine was released in UK cinemas in 2009 and is now available on DVD. This four hour biopic of the French criminal Jacques Mesrine is divided into two parts, Killer Instinct and Public Enemy Number One. Roughly, the films cover Mesrine’s life in the 1960s and 1970s respectively and while both do differ in tone it is highly recommended that they are viewed in quick succession. Indeed, I found Mesrine so superb that I think this would be difficult to avoid. Vincent Cassel is excellent in the title role; mesmerising, frightening, sickly charming and most importantly believable as a ruthless – well, bank robber, gangster, political activist, kidnapper, cold blooded killer. Take your pick.
Beginning in 1959, when the young Mesrine was a soldier in Algiers, the films follow him until his death in 1979. I’m not giving anything away here; Killer Instinct begins at the end as it were – in 1979, where Mesrine is followed by police and assassinated in the streets of Paris. It’s an incredible opening, extremely tense, and adds much to the effect of the end of Public Enemy Number One, when these events are chillingly replayed. The opening of Killer Instinct also hints at Cassel’s ability to play a man who ages two decades; he manages to convey both the physical and behavioural changes that happen over this time.
Killer Instinct charts Mesrine’s blossoming life of crime, beginning with his early rebellion against the constraints of his middle class family, to involvement with criminal lowlife and association with a powerful crime boss (a fine cameo from Gerard Depardieu). Mesrine’s relationships with others play very heavily throughout the two films. As the soldier in Algiers, we see him forced to execute a woman who is one of a group of prisoners. Hesitating, he kills her brother instead – an early sign of his insurgency and of his attitude to women. One that’s open to interpretation. Later, when his wife questions his growing association with the underworld, he lashes out and puts a gun to her head. It’s difficult to determine if this is purely bravado in front of his friends or something much deeper. Throughout the two films Mesrine finds it hard to differentiate between prostitutes and partners; he often confuses the two. If I had one criticism it would be that his relationship with his daughter, who is only glimpsed briefly, is never fully explored. But maybe in reality her presence in his life was only this fleeting.
Public Enemy Number One catches up with Mesrine as France’s most notorious and wanted criminal, escaping from countless prisons, fleeing from one courtroom with a hostage judge and charming the jury of another, almost a Robin Hood figure although the film is smart enough to gently remind that this isn’t really true. In one section, he forces a family to smuggle him away in the boot of their car after he has burgled a casino (he’s had the audacity to pose as a policeman to do this – audacity is what made him so successful for so long; in another scene he insists that the detective arresting him share a bottle of champagne). Towards the end of Public Enemy Number One he is shown violently abusing a journalist who has had the temerity to crriticise him in an article. Like all folklore villains, Mesrine reveals that his own selfish interests lie at his heart; he may be ostensibly charming but overstep the line and you are in trouble. And remember, it’s not “Mez-rine” it’s “Merrine”. He was very touchy about the pronunciation.
Cassel is a fascinating actor to watch, although by no stretch of the imagination handsome. Where Killer Instinct accustoms the viewer to his – let’s be kind here – distinctive features, rather large of nose and thickly moustached. the second film shows Mesrine as the master of disguise he became in a life on the run. A variety of wigs and beards ensue which again lead neatly to the assassination scene (where Mesrine is fashioned with a goatee and thick curly hair). Thankfully, the films don’t overdose on period detail in a way that, perhaps, Martin Scorsese would do, and the only excess I noted was Mesrine’s brief tenure in London shortly before his death where the soundtrack plays London Calling by The Clash and we’re shown amiable bobbies in Hyde Park. But mostly it refrains from romanticising the period 1959 to 1979.
Although highly watchable, Mesrine is by no means an original film. It unashamedly takes elements from The Godfather, Escape From Alcatraz, Papillon, Goodfellas and countless other memorable examples of the crime genre. At times it looks like it’s going to lurch into cliché but somehow always manages to remain interesting. One example of this is Mesrine’s time in a high security jail. His period in solitary confiement, stripped of all dignity, will be familiar to moviegoers, as is the archetypal exercise yard scene. This is where the lead actor, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Tim Robbins or in this case Cassel, step out into the bright sunshine of the prison exercise yard. Inmates wear denim shirts. Some play basketball, while others huddle around making deals or squaring up to one another. At least one is huge, bald and bearded. Wardens watch from high towers, training their sights on troublemakers. Mesrine plays to all of these cliches but somehow manages to make this fresh and exciting. The scene where he escapes armed only with a pair of wire cutters is one of the most exciting in recent cinema, as is the section where he attempts an ill-judged rescue attempt for inmates in the same prison.
I don’t feel sorry for Mesrine, although the film concludes with an interesting point and one made by the criminal himself. So smart, so fearless and so able to evade capture, the only choice for the establishment was to gun him down. Somehow this is unjust, that the authorities gave up attempting to catch and imprison him and took the easy option, were cowardly and cheated. And Public Enemy Number One ends with the impression that the police were well aware of this failure, and would have to always live with it.
In 1969 David Bowie was inspired to write his breakthrough Space Oddity after seeing Kubrick’s 2001. For a film full of memorable themes and moments, possibly the scenes that stay in the memory are those that involve HAL, the softly spoken computer. Duncan Jones’ Moon pays some homage to 2001 with GERTY, a machine voiced impeccably by Kevin Spacey. Jones is of course David Bowie’s son, which brings our introduction full circle and gets the oft mentioned paternity of the director out of the way.
The other science fiction film that Moon reminds of is Silent Running, both in its theme of a lonely man in space and of its simple yet striking set design. Here, Sam Bell is our isolated spaceman of the future, in charge of a mostly automated mining operation on the moon. He’s been working for three years with only GERTY for company, and communicates with his family by recorded messages (he’s been told that the live communications feed is faulty). Bell fills his free time running on a treadmill and pusuing his hobby of woodcraft. He’s woken every morning by his alarm playing The One and Only by Chesney Hawkes. There is a clue in this song.
Bell’s tenure on the moon is almost up and he is about to head home. However, he is haunted by brief glimpses of a strange woman and then, during some routine work outside the base, is involved in an accident. He wakes up being tended to by GERTY in the infirmary, but things are not quite as they should be. The computer forbids him to go outside again but, after eavesdropping on an apparently live conference with Earth (remember the live feed is supposed to be broken), he gives GERTY the slip to investigate the scene of his accident. He returns carrying a casualty; it’s another Sam Bell.
But it isn’t really giving too much away to reveal that this is a movie where a man appears to meet a double of himself. And as Bell, Sam Rockwell is a revelation. He is such a skilled performer that he appears to act with himself with ease. For the majority of the film Sam Bell interacts with another Sam Bell. It’s entirely believable and although the film plays its trump card very early, it stays intriguing throughout. Once the plight of the two Bells becomes evident the film becomes very moving in parts, and the plan the two hatch to solve their riddle is very well thought out.
Moon is likely to be my film of 2009. It was a joy to watch throughout, and Jones proves that huge budgets are not what make good science fiction. The attention to small detail, such as the post-it notes stuck on GERTY and the crude “smiley” interface used to indicate his mood, are a joy. This film is intelligent, thoughtful and brilliantly acted. And, like the very best science fiction, it stays in the mind for a long time afterwards.
I admit to being a little cynical about modern films for children. This is possibly because I resent the recently introduced commandment “thou must take your kids to see anything with computer animated talking animals”. There now appears to be a further legislation stating that everyone must attend at least one screening of every new Pixar release. At least this was the outlook yesterday afternoon when we decided to see Up.
Thinking we could simply breeze into the feature of our choice at our local multiplex I was shocked to be informed by a smirking lad at the ticket booth that Up 3D was completely sold out. I was advised that we could either wait three hours (an eternity in kid time) for the next 3D showing or one hour for the next 2D version. I could see in the eyes of the smirking lad at the ticket booth that he saw 2D as seedy, scummy, not even worth bothering with. But we plumped for 2D, mainly because I’m becoming increasingly tired with the recent obsession with 3D films, especially those made by Disney/Pixar. I do not think that 3D makes a good movie, and in some cases – such as the excellent Coraline – 3D can actually spoil a film.
But the hour’s wait for Up 2D was unpleasant. Joining a line of people conveniently placed beside the pick and mix counter, being informed that we were in the wrong line but that it didn’t really matter, learning that our “VIP” tickets would get us into “the theater” first but only after forming an additional, but more select, queue. And so on. Why did I buy “VIP” seating? I don’t know. It appeared to only offer one comfort, which was in the leather backed chairs successfully muffling the heavy kicking from the brats sitting behind us.
Now I’ve got all of the extremely nasty preamble out of my system I can report that Up is a very enjoyable film. Perhaps it is because I could identify with the lead character, a grumpy, curmudgeonly 78 year old. Up is unusual in that it takes a old person as a lead, although Pixar cannot resist a cute kid and the obligatory talking animals. What makes it – and I’m sorry I cannot resist this – rise above the usual type of children’s film is both extraordinary attention to detail and emotional depth of the story. That Up is at times very moving is best proven early in the movie when the life of our elderly hero (Carl, voiced magnificently by Ed Asner) is told in a quick succession of silent scenes; his marriage to Ellie, hopes for a life of adventure slowly ebbing away as they grow old, Ellie’s death. It’s a quite beautiful moment in cinema.
Carl, who’s an ex balloon vendor, faces eviction from his lifelong home. Not a startlingly original premise for a film, but here the hero decides to escape the inevitable by floating his house away with the help of hundreds of helium balloons. He meets a stowaway called Russell (our cute kid) and together they head for South America. Here the film shifts from a visual treat of airborne scenes to the more mundane premise of another talking animal film when the two meet a speaking dog. However, Up manages to inject some originality into proceedings by making the talking dog and his canine associates rather wonderful creations (the difference is that they’re very funny and have fittingly animal characteristics – saying things like “a ball! Please throw the ball! I will run after it and bring it back!” in the eager to please way that dogs have).
The makers of Up have forced a simple plot to fit over the film’s finer subtleties, which could be seen as pressure to please the universal audience. It features a baddie (Christopher Plummer) with a longtime obsession to catch an emu like bird (who just happens to have befriended Carl and Russell). It’s to their credit that they manage to save the film from silliness. Plummer makes a fine villain and the resulting chase scenes are immense fun. Only once, where Carl’s house is hunted down by dog-piloted biplanes, did I bark gruffly that this was cynically inserted to benefit the 3D effects.
There are moments in Up that will go – I’m sorry about this – over the heads of the very young. I took it that the message of the film was how Carl believes his life to be wasted and that he’s missed adventure and excitement, only to realise that the most ordinary of lives is an adventure in itself. This is a concept a little too mature for the very young, at least the ones surrounding me yesterday. For this reason they will remember the funny dogs the most. Then this will fade and perhaps they’ll only recall the strange flying house. Quite often I judge the enduring appeal of a film by how long we discuss it on our 20 minute drive home. Although agreeing that Up was a sweet film, sad in places, with my ten year old and that the talking animals were far above average we soon lapsed into silence. I enjoyed Up a great deal but I suspect that it really isn’t a great movie; it’s an inoffensive, above average and well made film. In the crowded market of children’s entertainment that’s still something of an achievement.
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