Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Homesman

This is how I imagine a realistic buddy-cop-comedy in the Wild West to be. Lots of banter, less fun, more drama.

“The Homesman”, written and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, stars said old-timer and Hilary Swank. They are however only the head of an amazing cast, with big names down to the last minor role, literally. The film revolves around Swanks Mary Bee Cuddy, who is an independent farmer, a pious woman, who consents to transport three women whom the life on the frontier has driven mad back to the east, into the hands of the church. In this endeavor, she enlists the help of low-life drifter George Briggs, played by Jones.

When this movie’s opening credits were rolling, I could not help being impressed. When I wrote that this film is filled with great names to the last minor role, I meant it. Meryl Streep is in this movie… it doesn’t get much bigger than that. At the same time, there is young talent like the amazing Jesse Plemons, Todd from Breaking Bad, or Hailee Steinfeld, a seventeen year old Academy Award nominee. And each of these people deliver. The most attention obviously goes to Hilary Swank, who knocks it out of the park. The script provides her with an interesting character and she makes good use of it. Jones’ character is slightly more by-the-book, though never boring or flat. Especially the second half demands a lot from this role and Jones delivers without failure.
To list all of the supporting cast would take too long, but damn, they’re impressive. The three women they transport are haunting, with Miranda Otto standing out among them.

All of these characters get their time, which plays into the greatest strength of “The Homesman”, after its stellar cast. The attention to detail and the ambition in depicting as much of the pioneering life as possible is impressive. The pace might be slow because of this, but it provides the movie with an immersive effect that a period film always needs.

One problem the Homesman has, though, is its story. While the basic story is very simple and easy to follow, it is embellished a lot, always with the intention to paint as accurate a picture of life in the west as possible. However, while the individual scenes all play very well, they sometimes don’t add up as well as they should. For example, a desecration of an Indian grave should create tension when our main characters later meet a group of Pawnees, but the two scenes play completely separate from each other (those two don’t necessarily should either, but it’s the best way to illustrate the point).
Adding to that, especially in the first third of the movie, the story is told in a disjointed fashion, intercutting Cuddy’s story with the suffering of the three women. While each of the scenes makes the women more interesting, it also makes the story less accessible in the beginning.

To my initial remark about buddy-cop-comedies, this really isn’t that far away from it. Jones obviously knows that where there is drama, there is also comedy. He obviously didn’t write this as a comedy, and it never is, but there is some humor derived from the mismatch between Swanks pious and sincere woman and Jones vagrant scoundrel, just in the way the buddy-cop genre does it, only if not funnier, then at least more sincere than most movies of the genre these days do. However, not to be misleading, the drama is the center of this film. And the film has a lot of emotional punch, be prepared for that.


So, in conclusion, this is a good movie. A great cast and amazing attention to detail make it a potentially great movie, but problems in pacing and story hold it back. If you like western, the thoughtful kind, this might be the right movie for you. If you are looking for shootouts, not as much.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Outside Hollywood Episode 6 - The Golden Age of Television

What makes Television so good these days that we call it a "Golden Age"? What series should you watch? What can you not afford to miss? Find out on this weeks Outside Hollywood Podcast. Also, Cinemartian and I talk about recent movie news, review "Nightcrawler" and give you an overview over what's coming up in Cinemas this week.

Once again, we changed the format of the podcast so you can either just listen to the discussion part, which deals with TV this week, or skip to the review section immediately, to hear about news and reviews.

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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Loft

So an architect, a software designer, a psychotherapist, a violent drug addict and another guy time-share a loft... already looks like a bad joke, nothing to do here for me.

"The Loft" is a remake of the belgian film "Loft", by the same director, Erik van Looy, starring Karl Urban, James Marsden and Wentworth Miller. It revolves around a group of friends who buy the titular loft together as a refuge from their prying wives... and to have sex with random women. One morning, they find an unknown woman lying dead in their bed and now they have to figure out who did it.

This is a stylish movie. Nobody can take that away from it. The movie is all about sweet interior design, sharp suits and classy parties. It's got some pretty sweet camerawork, with a lot of extreme close-ups, emphasising the mystery aspect of the story, urging you to take a closer look.

Only if you do that, odds are you're not going to enjoy it. The story is so fragmented, in an attempt to confuse the viewer through structure. It works, but not in a good way. The movie basically consists of numerous flashbacks inside of flashbacks. The outer framework is set in the interrogation rooms of a police station, where the five friends are being worked on, trying to figure out what actually happened. Then there are the flashbacks to the same morning, when they found the body and debate who did it and what to do next. And then there are the flashbacks that go all over the place, ranging all across the last year, from the first time they enter the loft up to the actual deed that got them into this pickle. Those go completely unannounced, without any idea why they are important, who's telling their story now, or is anyone?

The movie clearly goes for a "Rashomon" style, hoping that you start to question what the different characters say, start being suspicious of them. However, it does such a poor job of laying out its Red Herrings, throws out all subtlety and puts up big neon signs instead that say: "Did you see that? Might have been him... just saying."

It also never follows up on any of the suspicions it so clumsily tries to sow. So when we find out that one of the characters does not have his key on him, the movie doesn't use that to build mistrust, but instead uses it for one quick burst of anger only to move on to the next thing. This actually happens for every single one of them, like clockwork.

And that's the next point... the characters. They are shockingly one-dimensional. Everyone gets exactly one character-beat and can then repeat that as many times as he likes. There's the womanizer, the drunk, and the white knight, you get the drill. I don't even want to put any blame on the actors, because it's very clear that there are simply no good characters in the script.  The one who gets by far the most out of his character is Mathias Schoenaerts, who is an excellent actor. If you haven't seen him in "Rust and Bone", you need to check that film out, it was one of the best films of 2012. He plays the lowlife half-brother of James Marsdens character, a role that doesn't make that much sense in the setting of the story, but what he does, he does well.

My final point of contention is a bit more specific, going into the story. It's full of plot holes, but this was the worst for me. The movie features a main cast of maybe ten people. The wives hardly count, some of them don't get any meaningful dialogue at all. Instead, time that could have been spent fleshing out the characters is used on setting up this huge false lead. If you don't want to know, skip to the next paragraph, but honestly... so the flashbacks involve a lot of fancy parties, and on every single one of those, we meet either a corrupt city council member, a corrupt real estate agent or both. Might that be a part of the mystery? Well, let me save you the time, it isn't. None of it matters. And seriously, to get to that conclusion, you need about twenty minutes. By the third party, those two are set up as the bad guys so clearly that you know, if you've seen a single thriller before, that they are not guilty. But the movie goes even further than that. They aren't even involved or of any consequence at all. And that's basically the complete first half of the movie. None of it matters even one bit.

And that's about it. A stylish thriller that is not very thrilling and even less satisfying. Use the time that you could have spent on this to watch "Rashomon," a truly great movie that shows you what this movie wanted to be.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Nightcrawler

"A friend is a gift you give yourself." Sound creepy? No? Well wait until you hear Jake Gyllenhaal say it.

"Nightcrawler" is Dan Gilroys directorial debut, and boy, does he deliver. The movie follows Lou Bloom, a thief and generally unnerving fellow, who finds his calling when he observes the work of a nightcrawler, independent film crews that drive around the city trying to gather footage of accidents, violent crimes and anything shocking. "If it bleeds, it leads."

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou, who, as we quickly find out, learned his people skills exclusively from an online business course. Hell, I thought Idris Elba was creepy last week, compared to Lou Bloom, I would probably invite him in for coffee and call up Hannibal Lecter to come along too, just for good measure. Gyllenhaal has found his best role so far in this movie, and he doesn't let it go to waste. We know very little about Lou, but what we know and see is extremely unsettling, elevated by Gyllenhaals monstrous performance.

His main acting partners are Rene Russo as Nina, whom he sells his tapes to, and Riz Ahmed as Rick, a young man Lou enlists as his navigator. Both play off very well from Gyllenhaal and show the ethical sides to the business they are conducting.

Additionally, the cinematography by Robert Elswit should be noted. Los Angeles looks amazing and Elswit finds something so fascinating about the nightly streets, it completely draws you in. This effect is only heightened by a great original score by James Newton Howard, who understands the need to give this story its very own feeling.

And what a story it is. It is driven by Lous extreme dedication to the further development of his upstart business and mixes elements of thriller, crime and drama. This is done very skillfully, so that the movie never becomes boring.

Overall, this is an amazing piece of film, especially considering that Gilroy is a first-time director. I am very interested in seeing what is next from him, almost as interested in seeing Gyllenhaal show more of the truly captivating acting he has done for this character.


Apparently, box office numbers for this movie are not that great, so that might hurt its chances to get nominated for an Academy Award, but this is clearly of that material, and in the best way possible.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Outside Hollywood Episode 5 - Marvel vs. DC

It's time, guys. Finally, we tackle the big questions. Marvel vs. DC, who makes the better comic book movies? The two studios have announced their slate for the next years to come and there is a lot to talk about. What are we most excited for? Find out on the Outside Hollywood podcast.

We are also proud to present our new format. Yes, after a lot of consideration, between enjoying movie discussions so much and trying to keep the podcast under an hour, we just decided to split it, giving you about half an hour of discussion and about half an hour of news, reviews and recommendations. Today in the reviews section, Interstellar, dark thrillers, drama and an unlikely christmas movie. Listen Music - Listen Audio Files - Podcast #5 - DC vs. Marvel -... Music Hosting - Listen Audio Files - Podcast #5 - DC vs. Marvel -...

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Interstellar

Okay, no forced joke this time, more of a disclaimer. I love Christopher Nolans movies. I think he is one of the greatest filmmakers working today, maybe destined to one day be in a league with Spielberg, Kubrick and that tier of directors. Being aware of that, I am faced with an almost impossible task.

We live in a society that hands out superlatives too often. Everything is sensational, the best, the greatest. Maybe we try to upgrade our experience in that way, I don't know, all I know is that I am guilty of this too. I have lavished films with more praise than they deserve, having been swept away by the experience or just because I couldn't find a more moderate approach to make my opinion clear. (Exhibit A: My very first review for Amazing Spiderman 2. Today, that would have gotten a lower score from me.) However, I have always tried to avoid the superlative, which I hope will give the following more weight.

After seeing "Interstellar", I am faced with the question of how to communicate the greatness of this film without falling into the trap of merely appearing as a "Nolan-fanboy". I want to tell you this is the greatest sci-fi movie I have ever seen, and I honestly feel that way, but how do I make that a believable claim?

The thing is, after a quick look at the internet, I already know that my opinion of this movie is not widely held. Most people call it an ambitious but flawed movie and place it somewhere between above average and good. Did all of those people get the movie wrong? I don't think they did, their experience just differed from mine. If you watch this movie after reading these lines, which by the way I would strongly recommend, don't even wait for the actual review, don't spoil yourself by knowing anything more than you should going in, which is nothing, you may find that you do not share my view. Criticism is always a value-judgement and thus subjective.

I'm rambling on, so let me just give you a short version of all that text:

In my opinion, "Interstellar" is the best Sci-Fi film ever made. Other people disagree with that. It is their right to do so, no one here is right or wrong. As someone who hasn't seen the movie, just know that everyone praises it as a very good movie, some more than others. This means that if you watch this movie, you might see the best Sci-Fi drama you have ever seen. You might also see a movie that is not that. In any case, it is good and for the ambition in this movie alone, it is worth seeing it, just to be able to take part in the conversation about it.

After this let me try to give this movie a proper review, with as little information as I can, because I do not want to give away anything if I can help it. I might not be the right person to review it, because the strength of the experience alone makes objectivity hard, but I will try anyway.

"Interstellar" is Christopher Nolans new Sci-Fi Drama, capital Science, and stars Matthew MacConaughey as Cooper, a NASA pilot, who currently works as a farmer because in the future, the world needs food more than it needs engineers and pilots. Because Earth is dying, humanity can hardly grow enough crops to sustain themselves, having to rely on massive monocultures, which always spells trouble, because those have a tendency of being very vulnerable. Then, Cooper becomes part of a secret mission to find a new planet for humanity to live on. That's the first fifteen minutes.

First, the cast of this movie is great. Matthew MacConaughey is a perfect choice for Cooper, an uncharacteristically conventional hero for a Nolan film. He has the ability to internalize a lot, show a lot without dialogue, and that is absolutely important in this story. The most important support would probably be Jessica Chastain, grounding the storyline on earth. She gives a great performance as well, but I'm not going to tell you who she is... the less you know. I thought Anne Hathaways part would be bigger, yet it is still integral and a great performance.

The real star here, however, is Christopher Nolan himself. After the much debated and criticized "Dark Knight Rises", he is back with an original idea, and if you thought "Inception" was ambitious, well you were wrong. The ambition that this film brings to the table dwarfs anything we have seen in previous years and legitimizes the comparisons to Kubricks "2001: A Space Odyssey". Nolan shoots for the stars, literally and figuratively speaking, tackling not only an immense amount of scientific topics, requiring copious amounts of expositional dialogue, but also a level of emotion that is maybe even more unusual for him. The father-daughter relationship in this movie still shows signs that Spielberg was once attached to this project, but Nolan makes it his own. He is pushing himself as a filmmaker, harder than anyone would have thought, to tackle these topics that he has maybe shied away from a little bit in the past.

In this, apparently, he does not meet everyones taste. Some dialogue that is meant to sound clunky and insecure is seen as being clunky and insecure by accident rather than choice, in particular a speech given by Anne Hathaways character.

The visuals of this movie are absolutely breathtaking. I had a few tears in my eyes at several points in the movie, but the first time was because of the sheer joy of going to space with these characters. Nolan finds a way to put you into the ship with the astronauts, by limiting himself to a few different camera angles in the bigger FX sequences. I am sure the temptation must have been there to go full on Bayhem on the wormhole scenes, overwhelm the audience with special effects, but Nolan understands that less is more. He restricts himself in order to ground the experience and put you in the seat next to his characters.

In the end though, what made this movie so special to me, what makes this movie stand out, what made me unable to form a coherent thought after the credits had rolled, just because of sheer awe, is the message that this movie brings with it. Nolan reminds us that there is a world, bigger than our own. That there used to be a time when we would have given everything to explore that. In this, one is reminded of Ron Howards "Apollo 13", about the real Apollo mission that had become so routine that the people didn't even care about it until it failed spectacularly. We went to the moon as soon as we could, and after that, we lost interest. It is clear that this is a tragedy to Nolan, just as it should be a tragedy to all of us. A few weeks ago, ESA released a short film to explain to the world why they should be excited about the Rosetta Mission to capture an asteroid, starring Aidan Gillen, and while they don't have quite the filmmaking skills of Nolan, it hits the same vein. We should be exploring the stars. We should question our boundaries. Will it lead us to interstellar travel? Maybe it will, maybe it won't, but the possibilities are endless. That is the spirit that Nolan wants to put on the screen, and he succeeds. The world in which his characters live, a world in which schools teach the moon landing as a clever propaganda plot to make the russians bankrupt themselves by investing in "useless" machinery, is a horrifying vision to me.


So that's it, as general as possible, because I don't want to spoil anything. My review for "Interstellar". Again, I will not temper it, in my opinion it is the best Sci-Fi film. You should see for yourself.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

No Good Deed

Now that's an episode of "Luther" I would like to see.

"No Good Deed", directed by Sam Miller, stars Idris Elba as Colin Evans, a sociopathic mass murderer who escapes from prison and turns up on the doorstep of a young mother played by Taraji P. Henson. What follows is a clever thriller, very focused on Elbas haunting performance.

The life of a malign narcissist must be a hard one... an old guy tells on you during an appeal hearing, the families of your victims go on record with their story of how bad a person you are and you have to kill the only person that believed in you in order to escape from prison. That's the first five minutes of this movie. Rough stuff, a really good first act. We get to know our two main characters (obviously, Terrys introduction isn't quite as spectacular, hinting at problems in her marriage and establishing that she will be home alone with the kids for the night) and the plot swiftly puts them on opposite sides of a door in a heavy storm.

Now, this movie might not be perfect, you might say that the strong focus on Idris Elbas character leaves the supporting cast to be painted with a broader stroke than one might hope for, you might say that it doesn't show too many original ideas. But what it does, it does extremely well. That is, a great performance by Idris Elba, and to a lesser extent, Henson, who really does a lot with what little she is given, and a great second act.

The whole idea of a crazy killer coming into an
innocent persons home is not new. Yet, it works well for two reasons. First, while Colin Evans might be a cold-blooded killer and his creepiness on a completely different level from what you might know, he is also extremely smart, which makes the audience wonder: "Does he have any reason to inflict any sort of harm on this family? Not that I know of... Maybe he will just leave." This line of thinking seems pretty improbable since we are clearly in a thriller, and those don't usually end with a thank you and a mechanic picking our guy up to get his car fixed. But Elbas performance and the smart script keep the possibility open. The writers found a range of different scenarios to extract tension from this premise, which is exactly what a second act is supposed to do. It's the meat of the movie, the time in which you take your premise and find as much entertainment in it as you can. "No Good Deed" does so in a lot of different ways.

Elba gets all the help he can get in portraying the ultimate creep, be it the use of sound, the cinematography, his framing or cutbacks to his immediate past. This might seem heavy handed at times, but it never took me out of the movie.

Also, the house is a great piece of scenery. It provides more than just a backdrop, it is used to it's full potential in all its details. Most of the things you see set up some later scene, in a way that either makes you anticipate it when you first glimpse the kitchen-knives or in a surprising capacity.

Now, as I said, the movie is not completely perfect, and its reception has been mixed, because it's supporting characters are not very complex. And as is so often the case after a great second act, the finale cannot quite fulfill the promise, giving us a twist that was ultimately unneccessary and feels more like observing the conventions than an actually inspired idea. Finally, there is a change of location that I thought would hurt the movie, as it used the house so perfectly, but turned out to be okay.

One specific piece of writing, or better the lack thereof, deserves special mention. The clichéed scene that I was dreading, a character turning on the TV to immediately see the news playing a report on our man, was completely absent and in its place a wonderful replacement that I won't spoil.


All in all, I loved this movie for what it was. A straight forward thriller that puts all its weight behind its lead actor and is aided greatly by a smart script.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

A Walk Among The Tombstones

The most important thing you have to know about this movie: It's not Taken.

"A Walk Among The Tombstones" is Scott Franks second feature film, starring Liam Neeson as unlicensed private investigator Matt Scudder. He gets hired by a drug dealer to find the people that kidnapped and killed his wife. Reluctantly, he embarks on an investigation that will lead him to some dark and sinister places. And it makes for a pretty entertaining movie.

It's easy to forget what a great actor Liam Neeson is, considering his last few leading roles were rather unchallenging variations on Brian Mills, his break-out action role. Reportedly, the actor is himself very aware of that, going so far that he almost threw the script for this movie out when he read one of the key scenes that has him threaten the villains of the movie over the phone. Luckily he didn't, because apart from that, the movie bears little likeness to Taken, but turns out to be more of a Film Noir thriller, dark and dialogue-driven.

Neesons gravitas and immense presence are well-known by now and he uses all of this intensity for this role. And the effort is not wasted, Matthew Scudder being a very deep character, the star of a whole series of books. There are a lot of nuances to be found and Neeson fills the Noir archetype of the broken hero perfectly.

The two antagonists, played by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson, work just as well, clearly relishing the opportunity to go full-on creepy. The two wouldn't feel out of place if you just threw them into a horror-movie as they are now.

Regrettably, there are some weaker parts to the ensemble. Maurice Comptes drug dealer stays very much inside all stereotypes and is even upstaged in his clichéedness when we meet a russian mobster, in full tracksuit and sporting a thick accent.

My main problem however was TJ, the young homeless boy who crosses Scudders path repeatedly and then becomes an integral part to the story for some reason. The acting by Brian "Astro" Bradley is alright, but the character in itself has so many flaws and inconsistencies, it took me out of the movie at times. First, his insistence on reminding the audience that they are watching a Film Noir. He is frequently only one step away from breaking the fourth wall and telling the audience: "Get it, like in "The Maltese Falcon"." That might have been on the nose but acceptable, were it reflected in the rest of the characters behaviour. But there are almost two sides to his character. The other side is him being a normal, slightly rude boy, obsessed with superheroes and afflicted with sickle-cell anaemia, which sounds random, but it will become important later, so better remember that.
Overall, as Film Noir deal in archetypes anyway, his character in my opinion could have just been replaced with some version of a femme fatal, whom this movie desperately lacks.
My final gripe with the movie would be that, in the hands of a more experienced director, there was a lot more atmosphere to be found in the material. If you are going to be as obvious as this movie is about what it wants to be, there is no shame in reflecting that in your style. What we get is absolutely serviceable, but nothing special.

Overall, "A Walk Among The Tombstones" is a fine piece of entertainment, different from what we usually get these days, and I want to see more of it. If there are going to be sequels however, there are still areas that need improvement.