RED 2 (2013)

2015 #102
Dean Parisot | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, France & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

The “retired, extremely dangerous” agents return for more of the same.

“More of the same” is all the recommendation — or unrecommendation, or disrecommendation, or whatever the antonym of “recommendation” actually is — you really need. This isn’t a sequel for those who’ve not seen the first, because no effort is made to re-establish the world or characters. And if you disliked said forerunner, there’s no reason you’ll find this more to your taste.

If you did enjoy RED (like me), #2 isn’t as good — it’s lost too much zaniness, goes on too long — but it’s a pleasantly entertaining globetrotting action-comedy nonetheless.

3 out of 5

Empire of the Sun (1987)

2015 #44
Steven Spielberg | 146 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

Empire of the SunSteven Spielberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel stars a 13-year-old Christian Bale as Jim, the son of British ex-pats in China when the Japanese invade during World War II. Separated from his family as they try to flee, Jim encounters born survivor Basie (John Malkovich) and, when they wind up in an internment camp for the rest of the war, a cross-section of the rest of the left-behind. To Jim, a somewhat naïve but capable, confident and determined endurer, the whole thing is a big adventure; we can see the truth, though: that it’s a grim slog of life and death, and most succumb to the latter. The reality of the situation gets to Jim in the end, too… but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

At two-and-a-half hours and with a plot that spans a good chunk of the war, Spielberg crafted a certifiable epic here — not his first, and most certainly not his last. Even then, swathes of material reportedly ended up on the cutting room floor, with top-billed cast members like Miranda Richardson reduced to extended cameos. Paul McGann got an early taster of how he’d be treated on Alien³ a few years later: his part is reduced to literally a single shot.

Nonetheless, some still consider the film to be overlong. It’s a criticism not without basis, even if the material included — and the intrigue of what was lost — remains fruitful. In truth, perhaps the scope and scale of the story leave it better suited to a TV miniseries, where the distinct sections of the narrative (life before the invasion; Jim alone after occupation; life in the internment camp; the free-for-all at the end of the war) could be parcelled off into individual episodes, rather than having to coexist in a single sitting.

Born survivorsAs it stands, the film is a fascinating insight into a less-often-covered aspect of the war. Even in small roles, the quality cast keep it watchable and relatable. Bale’s performance comes in just the right side of annoying — quite an achievement for a character who seems inherently brattish and prone to irritate.

On balance, Empire of the Sun isn’t among Spielberg’s finest achievements. There’s an element of je ne sais quoi in trying to work out why that’s the case — it’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with it, but at no point does it fully come together in the way his greatest movies do. Still, my theory that there’s no such thing as a bad Spielberg movie is upheld.

4 out of 5

Jonah Hex (2010)

2011 #59
Jimmy Hayward | 81 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / PG-13

Jonah HexJonah Hex is not a good film. Let’s just establish that, before I start being nice about it.

In fact, you don’t need me to be nasty about it — there are plenty of reviews that do that already. Those I’ve read are largely accurate. Despite that, I kind of liked the film, and not because I wanted to. I’ve read a few of the recent comics and enjoyed them, but this version isn’t really like those — they’re straight Westerns, whereas this iteration returns to a supernaturally-tinged version of the comics from some time in the past.

It’s difficult to know where to begin trying to praise Hex because, as I’ve implied, there isn’t much to praise. Unless you’re a 12-year-old boy, that is. Horses with Gatling guns! Giant cannons firing explosive balls! Corpses coming to life! Megan Fox’s corset-boosted cleavage! The undemanding pre-/early-teen is well catered for here. Possibly the undemanding child-minded adult too. I don’t think that’s why I enjoyed it though.

The movie is unrelentingly comic book, if one can use “comic book” as an adjective. Look at that last paragraph again: horses with Gatling guns? The physics of that boggles. But it has a certain Cool. The same for the ridiculously huge cannon that fires some kind of magic exploding cannonball. It doesn’t make historical sense, or even modern-science sense, but it is… well, it’s a Big Gun that makes things Blow Up. Awesome! A horse. With Gatling guns.Much of the film rattles on in this way. And rattle it does: 73 minutes before credits. As blockbuster running times spiral out of control, such brevity is almost welcome. It doesn’t feel exceptionally short, mind, except for when the plot occasionally jumps forward.

As the lead, Josh Brolin growls along marvellously. He deserves a better film. The character does too, actually. The President wants him to save America; he doesn’t care, except for that the person who needs stopping murdered Hex’s wife and child. Handy coincidence, that. There’s surely some drama to be wrung from that situation — grief, vengeance, all sorts — though no one involved seems to know how to go about it properly. The closest we get is a weird dreamy hallucinogenic fistfight. You’re right, that’s no substitute, but I did say closest.

John Malkovich does what he does as said villain. He’s been worse. Michael Fassbender is completely wasted as a henchman. I hope he was well paid. Megan Fox isn’t in it much. Her prostitute character, Hex’s new lover, is woefully underwritten and underused, turning up now and then to further the plotMegan Fox. Who has breasts. — usually improbably — or generally be a female. By “female” I mean “cleavage delivery device”. Considering her acting ability, her lack of presence is no real shame.

Jonah Hex isn’t good enough to be a guilty pleasure (like, say, The Transporter), nor bad enough to qualify as so-bad-it’s-good (like, say, Flesh for Frankenstein). Yet, while being fully aware it’s rubbish, I enjoyed myself. Not a massive amount, but a bit. Maybe it is one of those after all, then. It has a certain kind of B-movie charm, which is then intriguingly undercut by the A-list budget/promotion and awards-worthy cast. If it had been shot in Italy in the ’60s, a certain kind of person might just love it. Shot in America in the ’00s, however, its appeal probably lies with 12-year-old boys and… well, me, clearly.

2 out of 5

Burn After Reading (2008)

2010 #42
Joel & Ethan Coen | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

Ah, the Coen Brothers! Those indie-mainstream praise-magnets that I’ve never particularly got on with. But then, perhaps I was just too young and under-read (or, rather, under-viewed) to get The Man Who Wasn’t There when I watched it; and I did like Fargo, even if I awarded it ‘only’ four stars; and I had a similar perspective on No Country for Old Men, though leaving if off my end-of-year top ten list when some have claimed it’s the only worthy Best Picture winner of the last decade may be seen as filmic blasphemy. (On the other hand, those claimants are wrong. Not very wrong, maybe, but still wrong.) Nonetheless, the rest of the pair’s ’80s and ’90s output (bar, for no particular reason, Raising Arizona) sits in my DVD collection waiting to be got round to… but first, this: their star-studded follow-up to No Country that seemed to disappoint so many. Probably because it was a comedy.

Turns out Burn After Reading is another film I don’t have much to say about. I liked it. It’s nothing like No Country for Old Men, other than being occasionally obtuse, but that’s the Coen’s style. Still, I’m sure No Country is the better — or Better — film, but in the same way I prefer eating a bacon cheeseburger to a pile of vegetables, I think I enjoyed watching Burn After Reading more. Or maybe eating a Chinese would be a better analogy — in the same way you’re hungry again not long after, Burn After Reading is kind of unsatisfying.

You see, as two minor characters observe at the end, we’ve learnt nothing. There’s been a sporadically complex set of coincidences and accidents, some good laughs and some surprises too, but the end result is… what? But maybe that’s the point. For the characters in the film, it’s a confusing mess of a situation they find themselves embroiled in — no one has the full picture, and most don’t properly comprehend the bit they do see. For the viewer, it’s a fun bit of nothing. Things have changed by the end, certainly — most notably, several people are dead — but the events that got us there are pretty quickly forgotten.

Perhaps this is the Coens’ response to No Country for Old Men — not intellectually or artistically, but as people and filmmakers: a break from the existential seriousness of their Best Picture winner with a romp-ish bit-of-nothing, which entertains well enough for the 90-something minutes it occupies our vision but is all but forgotten before the credits have finished rolling.

3 out of 5

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

2009 #56
E. Elias Merhige | 81 mins | TV | 15 / R

Shadow of the Vampire“What if Max Schreck really was a vampire?” is the simple, thoroughly daft, and equally promising, premise of this low-budget horror/drama/comedy.

Having the advantage of such a good concept to kick things off, all starts well, but the longer it runs the more it loses it. Screenwriter Steven A. Katz seems unsure of what Shreck/Orlok actually wants or what the rules governing his existence are, leaving him little more than a threat for the sake of a threat. Still, Willem Dafoe’s performance in the role is brilliant, reveling in the chance to overact — and yet, somehow, subtly overact — as a silent movie vampire. The rest of the cast are fine; in particular, the obsessive and mildly unhinged Murnau seems to suit Malkovich down to the ground. It’s also scary in places, as it should be, because it’s a vampire horror movie that just happens to take the making of another real one as its starting point. Unfortunately, as the plot becomes confusing and ill explained towards the end, so the scares dissipate alongside the viewer’s understanding.

My confusion over the film’s third act may have an external explanation, however. The BBFC list the PAL running time as 88 minutes, but BBC Four’s showing only just hit 81. It certainly felt like there was a chunk missing somewhere in the middle — a slew of characters just disappear and there’s an unexplained leap in the plot — but I can’t think of a reasonable explanation for why or how the BBC would cut seven minutes out of the middle of a film, and the only detailed plot descriptions I can find don’t describe anything I missed.

Nonetheless, even allowing for omissions Katz gives up on any semblance of following the facts toward the end (and throughout, apparently): almost everyone involved is slaughtered, even when they clearly survived in reality, while one character is driven out of his mind, even when he clearly wasn’t… well, presumably. That said, we all know Schreck wasn’t a vampire — his life isn’t nearly mysterious enough to allow for the possibility, should you even believe in such a possibility being possible — so with that leap already taken, why not take as many others as you fancy? Perhaps because it’s not as clever, and not nearly as much fun, as fitting the preposterous tale around the known facts.

Merhige’s direction is occasionally very interesting, such as a couple of grand shots early on, but at other times is perfunctory. To be kind, one might say he goes too far in the aim of replicating silent film style — certainly the intertitles that needlessly replace chunks of the plot are a step beyond. He does manage to create and maintain a weird, unsettling atmosphere, which remains even when all sense disappears.

It’s difficult to accurately assess a film when it appears a good chunk has been lost somewhere in the middle, especially when one suspects some of its major flaws — namely, a lack of coherence at the end — may be due to this omission. On the other hand, I can’t find any evidence that something has been cut, so maybe it just doesn’t make sense? Either way, even on the evidence of what I’ve seen it feels like Shadow of the Vampire takes a good idea, runs well for a while, but winds up uncertain of what to do with it. Though it remains interesting, I won’t be rushing to see any fuller form.

3 out of 5

Ripley’s Game (2002)

2009 #67
Liliana Cavani | 106 mins | TV | 15 / R

Ripley's GameMatt Damon is back as… Oh, wait, no he isn’t — he’s turned into John Malkovich.

Not quite — there’s no reasonable way Ripley’s Game can be considered a sequel to Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley. Though it’s adapted from a later novel in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series (previously filmed as the Dennis Hopper-starring The American Friend, incidentally), the action is relocated to the present day, and it’d be a pretty hard sell to believe Matt Damon would grow up to be John Malkovich.

Despite the acclaim of Minghella’s effort just three years earlier, and a cast that includes recognisable faces such as a Ray Winstone, Dougray Scott and Lena Headey alongside Malkovich, Ripley’s Game snuck out with barely anyone noticing, including going straight to TV in the US. There are surely reasons for this, reports of a problematic shoot probably among them, but the neglect is undeserved. In 2006, Roger Ebert saw fit to include it in his Great Movies list, though other critics are less favourable (the Radio Times, for one handy example, rate it just three out of five). While Ebert is in my opinion overselling the film by including it in a list of the best films ever made ever, it’s certainly an above average, consummately made, and constantly entertaining Euro-thriller.

Perhaps the difference in opinion about the film stems from one, arguably crucial, sticking point: the Radio Times criticises the humour included in the murders and thriller sections, viewing it as a failure of director Liliana Cavani; conversely, Ebert approves of it, praising them as appearing somewhere “between a massacre and the Marx Brothers”. There’s undoubtedly more to the diverging opinions than this, but it’s at least emblematic. I’m inclined to agree with Ebert: these sequences do have tension — not the most one’s ever experienced in a thriller, but enough — but they marry the humour to it, leaving you chuckling on the edge of your seat.

For the most part the story keeps moving, twisting and turning in sometimes unexpected directions. Other films would happily take the first half-hour or so of this and stretch it to a whole feature, but screenwriters Charles McKeown and Cavani — adapting from Highsmith’s novel, of course, so the credit lies with her — take the premise further and in new directions. It’s not flawless, with the climax by far the biggest let down: Ripley and Trevanny hole up in the former’s villa, preparing for a veritable war as Ripley anticipates goodness-knows how many men to turn up. When it’s only two, it seems more believable than a whole army of mafia goons descending on the relatively insignificant pair, but it’s also distinctly anticlimactic after the hype. Still, at least the story has a final twist up its sleeve.

Malkovich may be a fairly respected actor, but to me he’s always seemed detached, flat, or mannered — often all three. Here, he’s still all three, but it suits Ripley’s unusual character down to the ground. His dry wit and incessant matter-of-fact delivery craft a quietly sinister, stalking nature, aiding the character’s believable unpredictability — that is to say, you’re never certain what he’s going to do next, but when he does it’s not surprising. I’ve never read a Ripley novel (there are five) nor seen another Ripley film (there are four), but Malkovich’s performance fits so perfectly I have little doubt this is precisely how Ripley should be played.

Among the rest of the cast, Ray Winstone is landed with a role he could play in his sleep, Lena Headey is perfectly fine as an unremarkable wife, and Scot Dougray Scott plays a none-more-plummy Brit. Unfortunately this accent sometimes seems to be the main focus of his performance, and it occasionally falters when he gets highly emotional, but it’s not really a problem… though it is rather odd to hear if you’re familiar with how he normally sounds. His character, Trevanny, is primarily a pawn in Ripley’s titular amusement, leaving Scott with only a passing hint of the character arc with which the role could have been gifted.

As noted earlier, there are numerous tales of problems on set, not least the multinational cast coping with a multinational crew in multiple nations, culminating in Cavani leaving towards the end of shooting and directorial duties being fulfilled by Malkovich. But as many have noted before, happy sets can produce dreadful movies and unhappy sets masterpieces, and while I don’t quite share the view that Ripley’s Game is entirely the latter, it certainly errs more in that direction than the other.

4 out of 5

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

2009 #30
Randall Wallace | 132 mins | download | 12 / PG-13

The Man in the Iron MaskFrom the off it’s clear that The Man in the Iron Mask is not going to go well. It’s an adaptation of a tale of the Three Musketeers, so naturally is set in historical Paris… where everyone has a different accent and very few of them are French. It is, to be blunt, a horrid mishmash — much like the whole film.

Wordy political intrigue tries to coexist with broad comedy which is squashed against swashbuckling adventure. The latter two could co-exist, but the film feels like it wants to be the former and so suffers for it. The comedy jars too much to be effective, while instances of unintentional comedy unfortunately provoke more frequent laughs. It should at least be able to swash buckles effectively — these are the Three Musketeers after all — but entirely fails to achieve this until the climax. The plot, semi-faithfully adapted from one of Alexandre Dumas’ original novels, offers a level of complexity to which the film clearly aspires, but the adaptation and acting struggle to match it.

The majority of performances are marred by overacting — John Malkovich, especially, is woefully miscast, while Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t appear to give a particularly good performance as either Louis or Philippe. In DiCaprio’s defence I suspect this is actually the script’s fault, because he manages to clearly differentiate the two when they are silent or pretending to be the other — it’s when they open their mouths that it all goes wrong. Gérard Depardieu is fine as the comic relief, though that relief is tonally misplaced, while Gabriel Byrne makes an interesting d’Artagnan — there’s nothing at all wrong with him, and yet he doesn’t feel quite right. Which leaves just Jeremy Irons among the main cast. He fares the best of the lot, even getting the occasional scene or speech that is genuinely quite good, though it’s clear he is far better than the material. To be fair, the same is also true of everyone else.

For all this, The Man in the Iron Mask is more disappointing then bad. The Bastille-set climax is occasionally brilliant and never less than entertaining, delivering on the film’s swashbuckling promise in a copious fashion. Throughout, there’s the occasional good scene — or even just a decent line of dialogue — and you can briefly understand what inspired such quality actors to sign on.

Something went wrong somewhere though, and the obvious culprit must be writer/director Randall Wallace. The story’s good, but that’s Dumas’, while the adaptation’s weak — and that’s Wallace’s. The actor’s are good, but battle the poor script — and that, obviously, is Wallace’s. They don’t seem to have been given any significant direction, they’re not helped by an uneven tone, and even the cinematography falls short, failing to make the spectacular locations and costumes look suitably beautiful on screen — and we know who’s ultimately in charge of all that too.

The Man in the Iron Mask desperately wants to be better than it is — it’s a great tale, packed with politics and swashbuckling, and this particular version has the high calibre cast to pull it off. But both are left floundering by a writer/director who isn’t up to either task — poor dialogue, a gyratingly uneven tone and lacklustre direction abound. A missed opportunity, and all the more disappointing for it.

2 out of 5