Runner Runner (2013)

2015 #23
Brad Furman | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

Runner RunnerSometimes, films are so maligned that you feel you just have to see for yourself. Or I do, anyway. Crime thriller Runner Runner, with its 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is one of those occasions.

Set in the world of online gambling, it sees Justin Timberlake’s college student and gambling expert being scammed by a casino website. After flying down to the site’s Costa Rican HQ to confront its owner (Ben Affleck), he finds himself with a job that entangles him in the business’ illegal activities. FBI agent Anthony Mackie wants Timberlake to turn on his new employer, under threat of punishment himself, while he learns from Affleck’s right-hand-woman and love interest Gemma Arterton that he’s being set up to take the fall for everything. However will he extract himself from all that?!

More importantly, will you even care? Well, no, because the film gives you no reason to. It’s fatally marred by flabby storytelling, which substitutes voiceover and aimless montages for plot, with a pace that’s shot to hell — some of it rushes by, too fast to comprehend, but then later it just drags on. Director Brad Furman, who previously helmed excellent thriller adaption The Lincoln Lawyer, has tried to make a con thriller, indulging in the genre’s schtick of keeping characters’ plans hidden purely to play their success as a series of twists later. Unfortunately, it just feels like the film’s failing to elucidate necessary information. That includes all of the gambling rules and concepts, which are simply poorly explained — if you don’t know the world already, parts of the film will run away from you instantly.

Everyone in this photo deserves better than this film. Yes, even him.Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s screenplay is packed full of dreadful dialogue, which isn’t helped by phoned-in performances from all the principle cast, in particular Affleck. I guess he needed a payday between his Oscar-winning directorial efforts. I’ve seen some assert that the dialogue and delivery are meant to be mannered and stylised, but I just don’t buy it. Unless the style was meant to be “cable TV cheapie”, anyway. The Puerto Rican filming locations are quite prettily shot by DP Mauro Fiore, at least, but that’s scant consolation when everything else is so woeful.

There can be entertainment found in poorly-reviewed films: sometimes, they’re an undiscovered gem; sometimes, they’re just quite funny; but sometimes, they really are trash. There is no quality to be found here, though. If there’s such a thing as a lover of gambling-related thrillers, I guess they might find some enjoyment from the mere fact this film even exists. Otherwise, avoid.

2 out of 5

Runner Runner featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Argo: Extended Cut (2012/2013)

2015 #13
Ben Affleck | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Persian | 15 / R

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
7 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing.
Nominated: Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.


Argo: Extended CutArgo is probably the most traditionally entertaining from 2012’s crop of Best Picture nominees. I know a lot of people awarded that honour to American Hustle, but David O. Russell’s film left me largely cold, and, even with OTT performances and funny lines, I think it is actually a very awards-y kind of film.

Argo, on the other hand, is a straight-up espionage thriller. Based on a true story that you’d dismiss as too ridiculous if someone had made it up, it tells the tale of CIA extraction expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), charged with rescuing six US officials who escaped the 1980 attack on the US embassy in Iran and are hiding at the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Tony’s plan is to fake the production of a Star Wars-style movie, fly in to Iran on the pretence of location scouting, and simply fly the officials out posing as his crew. To make the story look genuine, he enlists Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to all but set up the movie for real. Then all Tony has to do is pop over to a country where Americans are despised and fly their six most-wanted fugitives out on a commercial airline flight.

I think Argo is a winner — with audiences, that is — because of its deft mixing of humour and tension. It begins with the latter, showing the siege in Iran in accurate detail (the end credits contrast photos of the actual event with the film’s recreation, lest you were in any doubt). The US public are concerned about the dozens of embassy employees held hostage — there’s wall-to-wall news coverage, plenty of gung-ho vox pops, etc. The US government, meanwhile, flounder about what to do about the escapees — in very-need-to-know secret, of course, because if news gets out… well… With no good plans, this is when Tony cooks up his Hollywood idea, and he jets off to California to set it up and prove it can work.

HollywoodThis is where we get the humour, mainly directed at the movie industry. Some say this is why it won the big awards: Hollywood loves a look at itself, and here it’s both satirical (“So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot, without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!”) and congratulatory — after all, the plan goes ahead and so (spoilers) Hollywood saves the day. The film creates just the right balance between taking the mick out of Hollywood and bigging-up its role in saving some lives, while also not spending too long on this section that we forget the perilous situation on the other side of the world. After all, once all the fun and games in Tinseltown are over, it’s back to the serious business in Iran.

When we return there, lives are very much at stake, under genuine threat from the Iranian militia if the six are discovered. The latter sequences where Tony sets about actually extracting them are loaded with unease, particularly when, to maintain their cover, they actually have to go on a location scout, complete with government guide. These six embassy employees — secretaries, effectively — are of course not trained spies, but nonetheless must know and be convincing within their cover stories. They have overnight to learn complete identities in case they are quizzed, knowing that even the slightest mistake could spell their capture, and their capture would inevitably lead to their death.

As director, Affleck’s one arguable misstep during all this is the OTT climax. (Spoilers follow, naturally.) In some respects it’s an awkward case: in reality, Tony and the rescuees boarded their flight home with no problems — their tickets were pre-booked and the flight left at 5:30am, so there weren’t even any guards on duty. That would make a bit of an anti-climactic ending to a Hollywood thriller, though, so of course it needs to be jazzed up. The sixThat’s just artistic licence, really — it’s not as if these people were safe, they just had a damn good plan; and, as I said, you need a dramatic ending for a thriller. However, all the “chasing them down the runaway” stuff is a bit full-on and action-movie-ish. It’s not even accurate to how it would go in real life, if it had happened, because the militia’s cars would need to be travelling phenomenally fast to keep up with the plane, and they aren’t seen to be affected by its jets either. For me, the rest of the climax — the guards checking the ‘crew’ out, phoning the LA office, later running up to the control tower, etc — all works; assuming you accept the film is still a Hollywood thriller, not a fact-bound documentary, and so needs a suitably dramatic climax. It’s a shame they didn’t leave it at that, but not a deal breaker either.

This extended version adds about nine minutes of material, primarily in the form of a subplot with Tony’s wife and kid, which from what I can tell was all but excised entirely from the theatrical cut. It’s a humanising subplot rather than an essential part of the narrative, but I also didn’t feel it got in the way of what else was going on, and was surprised to learn it had been removed so thoroughly. There are also a variety of little moments reinserted, plus some alternate shots and takes used, often for little apparent reason. For the interested, it’s detailed in all its infinite intricacies here.

Argo is perhaps an unusual Best Picture winner in the current era. It’s the kind of film that would have been a mainstream hit back in the ’70s or ’80s, back when adults still went to see adult movies rather than solely committing themselves to comic book effects extravaganzas. (A fact I stumbled across the other day: Kramer vs. Kramer earnt over $100 million at the US box office. Serious movieThat was in the ’70s — adjusted for inflation, it comes to over $350 million. For a drama about a couple divorcing and arguing over custody of their kid! Today, it’d be lucky to earn a tenth of that, even if it was up for Oscars. But I digress.) It’s a surprising Oscar pick these days because it’s a genuinely enjoyable watch, rather than a gruelling look at something-or-other serious.

Occasional slips aside, it’s a well-made, highly-entertaining, real-world spy thriller. Was it the best picture of 2012? Maybe not. The best movie? Maybe.

5 out of 5

Good Will Hunting (1997)

2014 #125
Gus Van Sant | 126 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Good Will HuntingI’d say Good Will Hunting is famous for two things: one, being written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck when they were young actors after some good roles; and two, Robin Williams’ Oscar-winning supporting actor performance. Such is the power of these two facts that I didn’t even know what it was about until I actually watched it.

Damon is the titular Will Hunting, a 20-year-old from South Boston who works as a janitor at the prestigious MIT, hangs out with his friends (who include Ben Affleck) and sometimes gets into fights for no good reason. He’s also an undiscovered genius, adept at all kinds of maths and philosophy, to a “beating students in arguments in bars” level. Undiscovered, that is, until an MIT professor (Stellan Skarsgård — didn’t even know he was in it) puts a maths problem on a blackboard for his super-intelligent students to solve over the next year, and Will solves it over night.

Williams enters the equation as a therapist, who Will is legally required to meet with. Their initially antagonistic relationship evolves, as the very troubled young man comes to deal with his issues. For all its appearances as a movie about an uncommon maths prodigy, then, Good Will Hunting is really about a messed-up young man trying to deal with his issues — not least intimacy problems that threaten to ruin his relationship with MIT student Skylar (Minnie Driver).

Williams and DamonThe film is perhaps most enjoyable as an acting showcase. Damon and Williams have numerous incredible scenes together; encounters that feel like genuine slowly-evolving therapy, rather than the simplistic and implausible series of repeated revelations and breakthroughs that such treatment is often reduced to on screen. They run the emotional gamut, too, being not just instances of soul-searching but also moments of wider insight, or intense humour — that’s what you get when you have Robin Williams at your disposal, of course. His Oscar is well earnt.

There’s also the relationship between Williams and Skarsgård, college roommates who have fallen out of touch but are now almost the angel and devil atop Will’s shoulders — and, of course, each believes they’re the angel. That’s to simplify it, though, as their relationship is not so straightforwardly antagonistic. These are friends, but friends with a very different view of what’s best for their young charge.

In that role, Damon is equally excellent. It’s rarely a showy part, instead full of understated feelings, buried beneath the surface but keenly felt. Here is a kid with great potential and hope, but who won’t act on any of it for fear of failure — not that he’d admit that, even to himself. Not initially, anyway. It’s a narrative that strikes me as having a great deal of truth about intelligent kids from impoverished backgrounds, brought into sharp relief by this one being not just intelligent but a genuine world-class genius. It’s also affectingly felt through his relationship with Driver, for once appealingly likeable rather than faintly irritating (is that just me?) Driver and DamonTheir promising relationship suffers through inexperience and, to be frank, unwarranted daftness, lending it a melancholic air (or is that just me again?)

Of the leads, it’s Ben Affleck who has the least to show off with — strange, considering he co-wrote it as a chance for some work. That’s not to say he has nothing to contribute, but he’s very much a supporting role — I’ve arrived at him fifth because that’s essentially where he sits in the pecking order of significance. More memorable is his younger brother, Casey, playing another of Will’s friends. Apparently Affleck the Younger frequently improvised lines on set, and there are some great brotherly looks that seem to say, “what the hell are you doing to my screenplay?!”

Affleck the Elder is afforded at least one moment of Proper Acting, though. At one point he tells Will about the best part of his day: when he arrives at Will’s house to pick him up, the ten seconds where he walks up to the door, and there’s the possibility that his friend — who he knows is a genius but hasn’t acted on his potential — has just gone, without word; left for a better life. As the viewer, we know instantly how this is going to pay off later, so when the moment does come (spoiler, sorry), we know what to expect: Affleck will walk up to the door, he’ll knock, there’ll be no answer, he’ll grin like a loon. Except that’s not what happens: Affleck does walk up to the door, he does knock, there is no answer… so he knocks again. Frustrated, he knocks more. He peers through the glass. Now he begins to realise — Will’s gone. Then there’s a long, unbroken shot of his face, as he considers and contemplates. It’s not confused, exactly, but he’s seemingly unsure what to make of it. Affleck and beerThen, slowly, almost imperceptibly, a slight wry grin curls his mouth. Yes, Will has actually done it; and yes, it is what he wanted. It’s all good. Only then does he turn around, and simply announce to his waiting friends that Will isn’t there. It’s a pretty subtle moment, massively over-explained here, but it’s so much more realistic a reaction than the almost-clichéd one we’re expecting to see. In a film full of incredible, powerful performances, speeches and moments, it’s one that stood out to me.

I guess we should also thank director Gus Van Sant for that. This is the man who remade Psycho shot-for-shot “just because”, and made the interminably dull Elephant too. Here, his Artistic predilections are reigned in to just the odd moment — some shots of the friends driving around Boston staring out the car window, that kind of thing. Most of the time, he unfussily shoots the actors doing their thing. For my money, that makes this far and away his most successful movie (that I’ve seen, anyhow).

Apparently some people label Good Will Hunting predictable or implausible, with associated implications of it being twee and sugary. I don’t really think it’s any of those things. Maybe a little, but no more than so many other movies — the vast majority of stories are “predictable” because we all know how narrative works nowadays, for example. There are many worse examples than this.

Damon and mathsBesides, it’s the characters and the performances that shine. It’s no surprise that a pair of actors wrote an “actors’ movie”, but it is an achievement that they wrote one that displays genuine people and genuine emotions, rather than just showy performances. Credit to an exceptional cast — and, this once, an exceptional director — for bringing that so beautifully to life.

5 out of 5

Good Will Hunting is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm. It’s followed by Good Morning, Vietnam, which I’ll review tomorrow.

Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

State of Play (2009)

2009 #20
Kevin Macdonald | 127 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

This review contains minor spoilers.

State of PlayState of Play is one of my favourite TV series of all time, a densely plotted thriller that packs every minute of its six-hour length with clues, characters, twists, revelations, humour and moments of sheer brilliance. It introduced me to James McAvoy and Marc Warren, both of whom are now leading men to one degree or another (and their appearance together in Wanted gave me a bizarre frisson of fanboy delight that’s unusual outside the realm of sci-fi/fantasy), and Bill Nighy, who was surely known before but has since gone on to even more. And that’s to ignore the fantastic performances of John Simm and David Morrissey, two of our finest actors, carrying Paul Abbott’s beautifully convulted plot through all its intricate twists to an inevitable but powerful conclusion.

Much imitated, though the imitators have either fallen short (The State Within) or been flat-out dismal (The Last Enemy), it therefore seems inevitable that State of Play has followed in the footsteps of Traffik and headed for the US big screen. In the process, it squishes six hours down to two and replaces the Simm/Morrissey dynamic with the filmfan-pleasing reunion of Brad Pitt as brilliant-but-troubled reporter Cal McAffrey and Edward Norton as wunderkind politician Stephen Collins. Y’know, in their hands, it might just work!

Except Pitt walked and Norton followed, hastily replaced by the unwaveringly grumpy Russell Crowe as Cal and the offensively inoffensive Ben Affleck as Collins. Oh dear, it’s not off to a good start…

Fortunately, State of Play: The Movie quickly turns out to be a good case for not judging a book by its cover — or, literally, a film by its cast. To be blunt, none are as good as in the original, but that’s the nature of the beast here — even a Pitt/Norton pairing would have struggled to achieve in two hours what Simm/Morrissey could in six. Helen Mirren fares best as editor Cameron, the Nighy role, though doesn’t have the screentime to make it her own. Crowe, Affleck and Rachel McAdams (in a beefed-up role as young reporter Della Frye) are all above average, but none come really close to the originators. Jason Bateman’s appearance as Dominic Foy is probably more than decent — certainly, other reviewers clearly unfamiliar with the original have hailed him as Best Supporting Oscar-worthy — but is as nothing compared to Warren’s creepy wimp in the series. When Collins breaks his cool and attacks Foy, the Affleck/Bateman version packs none of the punch of the Morrissey/Warren original.

But the real focus of this screen-to-bigger-screen translation is that complex six-hour story, condensed from 340 minutes to just 127. This three-fold reduction has been well handled by a trio of screenwriters, and perhaps their most noteworthy achievement is crafting a film that feels entirely like its own entity without sacrificing anything significant from the primary conspiracy plot. The relocation to the politics of Washington is unobtrusive, apparently not encountering issues like the Law & Order: UK writers did in converting across justice systems; as is the focus of Collins’ investigation, switched here from an oil giant to an arms contractor. Both quickly help give the film its own identity, while the latter also makes some plot points more straightforward — with such a shortened running time and so much plot to cram in, this is completely forgivable and works seamlessly. Unsurprisingly some of the depth and nuance of the six-hour version is lost in such an abbreviation, the adaptors choosing to cut characters (Cameron’s son, as played by McAvoy on TV, is a glaring omission for fans) and subplots (Collins’ wife barely features, but again only by comparison) rather than significantly abridge or rush the main narrative. It moves fast, but in a pleasant way — this is not an under-plotted or ponderous thriller.

In all this talk of the plot, original writer Abbott should not be forgotten. While the film’s writers have naturally changed things substantially, much of it is surprisingly cosmetic: the essential cut and thrust of the main conspiracy plot remains, and that’s all from Abbott’s brain. Some of the series’ most memorable moments are intact too, though naturally they don’t quite stand up to comparison — the already-mentioned Collins/Foy beating, for example. Others are sadly lost entirely — my favourite bit of the whole series is when Cameron stops the presses to publish the best opening half-dozen pages of a newspaper ever (so good you would never see something so bold in reality), but that’s nowhere to be seen here. Equally humour is light on the ground, but a few intended laughs do stick through. Their number is quite well-balanced, and all pleasantly natural — aside from a few of Cameron’s one-liners there are no enforced “comedy scenes”, just amusing lines and moments that would be equally unobtrusive in real life.

Macdonald adds his own flourishes to the tale beyond the relocation and business focus. Aside from a slightly unusual obsession with shots of helicopters over the city, his most significant addition is a thematic strand on the potential demise of the newspaper in the face of TV and the Internet. As the story breaks, the explosion of news snippets — from TV, blogs, YouTube — are wonderfully handled, indicating the countless ways we consume news today — and how quickly a lie can spread once someone’s reported it as fact. Sadly these montages fall by the wayside as Cal and Della get deeper into uncovering the complex truth, the movie no longer having the time to indulge them. It’s a shame, because continuing this through every plot twist would’ve helped raise the film’s quality and individuality that little bit extra. Instead, some of the mood and tone they served to create slips a little as the story moves on.

Some reviews have criticised the ending, many going so far as to say it loses all its quality in the last 10 minutes with a dodgy final revelation. This worried me going in, but in fact it remains true to the series’ plot throughout. Perhaps some reviewers need reminding that they’re watching a thriller — you can’t really end with someone confirming what we’ve known for the past half hour, you need a twist. The one that State of Play provides is possibly surprising (I say “possibly” because there will always be those ready to cry “I knew it all along!”) and makes more than enough sense to justify itself. It doesn’t undermine what’s gone before in the slightest; in fact, if anything, it makes it that bit more plausible (unless you really believe huge 24-esque conspiracies are plausible) and casts new light on everything that we’ve seen. Just like the TV series did. It’s not going to be remembered as one of the great twists of all time, but it’s fit for purpose.

For me, the biggest misstep was an incredibly trivial one: the closing credits sequence. Shot in a bright style with relatively jolly music, it totally jars with the increasingly dark thriller just witnessed. The basic conceit of it — the printing of a paper — ties perfectly to the “death of the paper” theme, but its execution is lacking. Of course, when the credits sequence is the only major flaw in a movie (well, aside from the odd spot of clichéd dialogue, and a few moments when Crowe’s hair seems to be auditioning for a L’Oréal advert), you can’t complain too much.

As a fan of the original series, my thoughts ultimately come back to that. It’s a comparison the movie version would always have suffered under, and it’s to the credit of all involved that they’ve managed to create something that exists independently. Even to someone who loves the TV series, watching the film doesn’t feel like a highlights reel or awkward plot summary — it’s the best abridgment one could hope for, uncompromising in not dumbing down the plot, and still managing to add significant elements all of its own. If you remove the TV series from the equation, State of Play stands by itself as an above-average, intelligent and compelling thriller.

Just like the original series, it’s exactly the sort of thing I wish they made more of. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, Abbott will be inspired to revive State of Play 2

4 out of 5