Category Archives: Reviews

What Just Happened (2008)

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After making Sleepers (1996) and Wag The Dog (1997) in quick succession, it would be another eleven years before Barry Levinson directed Robert De Niro again. The result was What Just Happened (2008), a movie that takes a look behind the curtain of the movie industry. While Wag The Dog featured a film producer determined to take credit for his part in a huge spin operation, What Just Happened goes to show that film production, with all its stresses, is a thankless task.

There’s plenty going on in the life of Ben (De Niro), one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, whose star power is beginning to lose its twinkle. His recent movie tested poorly with audiences and its director, despite not having final cut, is keen to preserve its artistic integrity despite the studio’s pressure to apply loss limitation by changing the ending. Ben’s forthcoming movie is also under threat, this time of never being made if its star, Bruce Willis (as himself), won’t shave off his massive beard. And if his professional life isn’t hectic enough, there’s the domestic issues to contend with also, chief among them a second ex-wife who he can’t quite split with despite her sleeping with a married screenwriter on the side.

The two weeks of the movie’s timeframe sees Ben negotiate all these issues with different levels of success. De Niro contributes an unmemorable performance, which is disappointing in the context as, with his long filmography, there must be a line of producers to take inspiration from. It may be that he keeps it all in — his first ex-wife notes that secrets seem to be the family business — and that’s why he remains practically blank throughout, although it just feels that there’s little to work with. Indeed, it’s the supporting cast that adds colour.

Stealing the show is British film director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott‘s blend of Keith Richards and Sid Vicious) who cares only for his artistic integrity in fierce opposition to the Hollywood machine, represented by Catherine Keener‘s bottom-line obsessed studio executive. Or, as he puts it: “you can make a film that has a bit more profundity to it and somehow people actually remember, or the same old load of bollocks”. John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, and, Kristen Stewart do well with their occasional appearances. But it’s the actors playing themselves that appear to be relishing their roles. Sean Penn, star of Brunell’s movie (its contentious finale showing a dog getting shot in the head), worries that the film will still have “edge” after the cut for Cannes changed the finale. And Bruce Willis relishes sending himself up while simultaneously mocking the pompous behaviour of an overpaid Hollywood prima donna.

As a comedy What Just Happened throws up the occasional laugh without really being funny and as a satire it doesn’t cut deep enough, but there’s a perfectly decent, if lack-lustre, story here. Based on the memoirs of Art Linson — incidentally also the screenwriter and producer here — this study of Hollywood politics perhaps suffers due to Linson’s overbearing closeness to the material. It certainly brings up issues of art versus money but it doesn’t quite burst the bubble that Hollywood has made for itself. There are many subtle in-jokes (such as a Jewish agent who, like many others before him, has changed his name to something more Gentile) or hints at the industry’s lust for money and the audience pandering it will do to bring in dollars. But, in the course of the movie, What Just Happened turns out to be not that much. It just shows that even those deemed powerful within the system still answer to someone.

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Mondovino (2004)

Mondovino (2004)

Every story needs its good and bad, and for one to triumph over the other. In the world of wine the good guys are those versed in the traditional ways, passed down through generations; the bad guys those larger corporations that transcend a modest few hectares in favour of homogenising wine on a global scale. In Jonathan Nossiter‘s Mondovino (2004, 131 mins), the world is not so clear cut and the truth lies somewhere between.

One of the few documentaries ever considered for the Palme d’Or, this film takes a look at the globalisation of wine by getting global itself and travelling the world to interview its subjects. From the Old World to the New; through sprawling Napa valley vineyards onto humble uprofitable patches in Argentina; and from tradition to modernity. Nossiter gets access to an excellent range of high profile interviewees and his cinéma vérité style, while a bit hyperactive at times, works well in opening up the industry and being alert to its problems.

What we see is two distinct worlds: one of class, heritage and terroir; and another of democratised brand-led wine production pioneered by the American Mondavi family, its ripples felt around the world. In this first world, Nossiter meets with aristocractic families of France and Italy, their vineyards preserved through periods of fascism by collaboration and support, something for which descendants seem happily unapologetic. And in the other world, wine as a brand is considered, where Californian wine producers have led the capitalist charge to commoditise wine — the faster, better, cheaper approach.

To see how wine has changed in the last fifty years, it’s little surprise to hear that “wine is dead” from Aimé Guibert, the owner of 40 hectares in Languedoc. Where, for millennia, wine has been about the relationship between man and nature, today it is different. What once was about terroir is now about manipulation. The patience once required in maturing a vintage can now be hastened. Guibert is one of the handful of traditional vintners featured — a dying breed in this new world of wine — who will be lost to modernity.

But what is modernity in wine when considered against a timeless culture of grape fermentation? Where one may expect it to be the unrelenting march of technology, the answer in Mondovino appears to lie in the closeness of tastemakers. As the interviews progress the name of Robert Parker comes to the fore, a writer who, with his casual — some might say American — style and easy-to-understand ratings cut through the stuffiness of prior wine writing to become the world’s preëminent wine critic. Parker comes across rather well, a victim — in so much that he’s practically deified — of his own success, perhaps. But should you, as a supposedly independent writer, stop if you could be responsible vicariously for the death of wine.? Are you really to blame for those that hang on your every word?

If Parker is a tastemaker in print, the influence of Michel Rolland is not overlooked either, and Nossiter spends plenty of time chauffeured around with him. Consultant to hundreds of wineries around the world, Rolland offers his advice and improves the fortunes of those using his services. In effect they are moulding wines to his taste. Learning that Rolland shares tastes with Robert Parker, the world of wine begins to feel smaller, more restricted. As Rolland advises in one direction, wineries adapt their wine to the palate of the one man who will sing its praises and make its fortune. A damning epiphany, although it begs the question as to where wine is headed once these men are gone.

Although Nossiter, for the most part, sticks to simple lines of questioning and allows the interviewees to expound on matters oenological, political, and geographical, it feels likely that his mind is made up and that the subjects are there to confirm suspicions that globalisation is detrimental to wine. Subtle hints come when he notices a French press attaché use the English term ‘winemaker’ in a stream of Gallic dialogue; or less subtle such as the moment when Parker talks of his “candid, democratic way of tasting” and the camera turns to underscore this with a Burger King advertisement.

At over two hours there’s so much to Mondovino that it only hints at so much else. And its no surprise to learn that, with 500 hours of original footage, there’s so much more. Fringe characters add further colour, such as the New York wine importer despondent at the changes in the industry and the Christie’s Wine Director who, with the quiet grace of a butler, pines for a return to the 19th Century where England played its part in the French wine industry. Or even the Burgundian di Montille family, where the daughter decides to quit her job at a larger rival for dishonest practices and join her father’s independent concern.

This last one is indicative of much of Mondovino. Whether it be long and morally suspect lineages or siblings working together (or against!), families are important in wine. In this ever globalising world they seem to be the one thing that keeps it human. And it seems to be the one thing that keeps them looking to the future. One of the Mondavi clan dreams of growing wine on Mars fifteen generations from now. And globalisation is bad enough, as Nossiter’s film convinces, without the threat of universalisation lying in wait.

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The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947)

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947)

In 1936 James Thurber published a short story in the New Yorker about a man whose life was so dull he took whatever opportunity he could to disappear into his own, much more thrilling, imagination where, be he a fighter pilot or surgeon, he was always the hero. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947, 110 mins) takes this premise and expands it greatly into a wider narrative.

Danny Kaye stepped into the shoes of Walter Mitty, presumably because his talent mix (acting, slapstick, and patter songs) lent themselves to a role that, come a daydream, could see Kaye do anything, be it dancing, falling over, or knocking out a tune. And this film, as a vehicle for Kaye, let’s him showcase these skills, although this occasionally bleeds into indulgence, the narrative peppered with light entertainment longueurs.

Walter Mitty is a downtrodden fellow. Dominated into adult life by his mother (Fay Bainter); stumbling headlong into an unsuitable marriage with Ann Rutherford‘s naive Gertrude Griswald (with Florence Bates as a dragon of a mother-in-law waiting in the wings); and in the employ of a man (Thurston Hall) who happily adopts Mitty’s ideas while bestowing none of the credit. With all this going on around him it’s no wonder he disappears into regular reveries, his active imagination no doubt fuelled by the pulp magazines he has, for ten years, proofread for a living.

While imaginary worlds are Mitty’s retreat from his henpecked existence it turns out to be the real world that offers him the incentive to be the hero of his dreams. A chance encounter with Rosalind Van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo) leads him into a crime caper involving a black note pad and the men (among them, Boris Karloff) who will stop at nothing — even murder! — to retrieve this MacGuffin.

While it mostly works as a story in its own right it’s perhaps debatable whether it should have retained the title given how it departs from the conceit while simply appropriating the imagination element. Admittedly, a story spanning a few pages was never going to form a script in and of itself, however the expanded story could at least have remained true thematically. Instead, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty delivers a story about a man discovering, in the real world, the ability to overcome the dreamy nature that has both comforted him and held him back. It’s a big step from the original, where, regardless of the heroics explored he was, in the end, Walter Mitty, and no amount of dreaming would ever change this dull fact.

Themes aside, it does work as a story and the film happily plays for laughs. Repetition is key, with the same situation approached time and again, each instance developed further to enhance its comedy, such as meetings at the boss’s office. And when Mitty disappears into dreams he suffers the consequences of the world going on around him, be it others’ frustration at him for not following the conversation; or the juxtaposition of dreams and reality, such as when his riverboat gambler heroically scatters a deck of cards everywhere while, following this through into the real world, the result is anything but heroic.

In Thurber’s story the only way out of such a lack-lustre life was to turn and face an imaginary firing squad and hope for something better beyond. That is perhaps a reaction to the times, the story reflecting on the years of Depression that had preceded it. However, director Norman Z. McLean, is able to bring colour and joy to a post-Depression (and post-war) world, with Danny Kaye’s Walter Mitty given the chance to enjoy life. In the movie he has a favourite song — Stephen Foster‘s Beautiful Dreamer — which closes with a command to “awake unto me”. When Walter awakes once and for all things are looking up and the likelihood is that he’ll need never dream again to live an exciting life.

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Filth (2013)

Filth (2013)

In a sarcastic reversal of Renton’s “it’s shite being Scottish” monologue in Danny Boyle‘s Trainspotting (1996), Filth (2013, 97 mins) begins with a Scottish hagiography from Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy). The passion may be there in the voiceover but the images belie the conviction. And that’s how things go through the film, with all appearances being deceiving and nothing quite as it would seem.

As cops go, Bruce Robertson is as corrupt as they come. A thread of hedonism runs through his life as he drinks excessively, takes hard drugs, and, when not indulging his hyperactive sex drive with someone, indulging it alone. If that’s not bad enough for a lawman he’s also partial to a spot of blackmail and intimidation. He knows there’s a promotion to Detective Inspector in the offing and aims to get it, whatever the costs, even if that means playing his colleagues (Imogen Poots, Jamie Bell, Emun Elliott, and Gary Lewis) off against each other in what he refers to as “the Games”. What may help him get that promotion is solving the murder we see in the opening scene.

Like Trainspotting, Filth is also adapted from a novel by Irvine Welsh, however it spends its time away from Edinburgh’s junky class and embeds itself within the establishment. The police, Freemasons, courts, and businessmen take the limelight but there’s nothing rose-tinted about this tier of society. Certainly, with DS Robertson as our guide, there’s no respect afforded it either. This, after all, is a guy pestering the wife of Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), his only friend, with obscene phone calls (in the guise of Frank Sidebottom!) while simultaneously leading the case to uncover the culprit. Situations like this drive the narrative, with Robertson having his nefarious schemes going to plan while at the same time letting them spiral out of control.

Despite the gravity of scenes peppering Filth — underage sex, prostitution, drug usage, amongst many others — it’s all served up with a thick slice of dark humour. It’s hard not to laugh at the casual disregard for everything voiced in McAvoy’s narration. In fact, as roles go, it can clearly be seen that McAvoy relishes the possibilities of DS Robertson’s sheer breadth of character. One minute he’s sneaking out a casual fart, the next he’s all Bad Lieutenant. If he’s not being nice to the boss (John Sessions), he’s furiously masturbating in a cubicle. A role that offers variety to an actor is a gift and McAvoy practically oozes enjoyment here. Making a psychotic, sex-addicted, drug-using, hallucinating alcoholic a likeable character is no mean feat but somehow McAvoy achieves it.

What is perhaps less successful is the occasional trip into DS Robertson’s psyche, personified by Jim Broadbent‘s bizarre psychiatrist with elongated forehead and exaggerated Australian accent. While Broadbent plays it comical, and isn’t to be faulted, these sections don’t quite have the payoff one would hope. What they are is an an attempt to portray an element of the original novel (substituting a tapeworm with a cartoonish psychiatrist) that deserves a high score for effort but something more middling for the result. Someone, somewhere, must have deemed it relevant rather than finding a more innovative way to portray this. A tapeworm does appear in the film, spinning around in the ever-muddled Robertson’s head but, in the film’s context, it’s apropos of nothing.

While the aforementioned cast — joined by the likes of Shirley HendersonKate Dickie, and, in one weird scene, David Soul — perform well, the movie is dominated by McAvoy shouting, laughing, snorting, and sneering his way from scene to scene. With a murder to solve and a promotion to gain, he ploughs on as his world disintegrates around him. All his vices have becomes the filth that covers the truth he would rather not face. The truth about who, under all the bluff and bluster, DS Bruce Robertson really is. And even this, as sad as it is, doesn’t escape the bleak humour that undercuts everything.

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Captain Phillips (2013)

Captain Phillips (2013)

The humble shipping container is arguably the most important invention of the 20th Century. Without it the world would be far less connected and international trade would be slower and less valuable than it is today. The container is therefore a facilitator for globalisation and a modern success story. However, while globalisation can be good — in widening trade,  breaking cultural barriers, and making the world connected — it is not without its externalities. And the conflict in Paul Greengrass‘s Captain Phillips (2013, 134 mins) sees both sides of the globalisation argument come face to face where else but on a container ship.

The Maersk Alabama, an American-flagged feeder vessel routinely sailing between Oman and Kenya, made the news in 2009 when it was hijacked off the Somalian coast. While it’s well known that piracy is rife in the region this particular hijacking was notable for the size of the ship targeted. Her captain at the time was Richard Phillips and it’s his account of the incident, as told in his 2010 book A Captain’s Duty, that sees Tom Hanks step into his shoes.

Despite its maritime setting, the film sets two stories in motion. The first is the eponymous captain’s as he gets his briefing and packs his bags for the trip ahead. En route to the airport he references the current global downturn noting to his wife (Catherine Keener) that, back in his day you could walk into a job and work your way up the ladder. Not so now, with myriad applicants chasing every job, and, on the other side of the world, we see this first hand, as Somalian gang leaders demand a ship be captured. Those willing outweigh the eventual pirates.

When both parties finally meet we get a drawn out stalemate between crew and pirates, although the latter always have something of an upper hand…and guns. Chief among them is Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a skinny wretch who, perhaps because of his scrawniness, has something more to prove and therefore doesn’t need to think twice about violence to make himself understood. The performance is both engrossing and extremely intense; a real achievement for a first time actor. The much trailered moment when he commands Captain Phillips to “look at me” a perfect encapsulation of the portrayal overall. Also debuts, the remaining pirates (Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali) show themselves as more than capable too, both in capturing the ship and in the infighting that follows.

Hanks, as Captain Phillips, is superb in so much that it’s easy to forget that the man on screen is a character being acted. His performance feels natural, embodying as he does a man who is calm under pressure at all times. How heroic one takes him in the context of a true story is a personal choice —  while the movie is based on Phillips’s account, it’s something that others involved have questioned — it works within the film because it needs to be a single hero facing off against the pirates rather than a concerted crew effort. The latter is simply not Hollywood. While support does come via the US Navy, the focus is all on the captain. Come the final few minutes, Hanks dials up his acting a further few notches, all that stoicism converted into something deeply raw, emotional, and affecting.

What really brings the movie together is the style in which it is delivered. Greengrass’s camera is restless, swinging this way and that as it hunts the action. It’s like being inside a documentary as it happens, such is its immediacy. Thankfully, away from the claustrophobic closeness to the action, he also gives us moments of air in which we can see the larger picture, of ships at sea. But even here, with a container ship’s relatively slow manoeuvring speed, we get a sense of high octane action. Days become nights and become days again, hinting at a longer duration for the story, but with no mention of days passing, time becomes compressed to ensure we remain on the edge of our seats.

Despite the veracity of his account, Captain Richard Phillips will certainly heed the old captain’s duty that he will go down with his ship. In history, at least. But it’s not who did what that should lead the debate around Captain Phillips. Instead the effects of globalisation as discussed in the movie are where the real debate should lie. Is the west, in all its capitalist glory, responsible for the poverty elsewhere that drives people to become criminals against their nature? If so, what can be done about it? While there’s no answers, the questions are posed. All a movie like this can do is educate others on how the comfortable western lifestyle as typified by Captain Phillips is not without its victims who will bite back.

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Sunshine On Leith (2013)

Sunshine On Leith (2013)

Taking a popular band and making a musical of their most popular songs appears to be a trend now. It’s worked for Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You, their popularity on stage now surpassing ten years. However, the less said about the seven month run of Viva Forever! the better. Brothers Craig and Charlie Reid, better known as The Proclaimers, may not have enjoyed the international fame that ABBA, Queen or even the Spice Girls had, but their back catalogue contains songs that have ingrained themselves in the Scottish consciousness and, more crucially, is large enough to allow the creation of a jukebox musical. In Sunshine On Leith (2013, 90 mins) Stephen Greenhorn adapted his original 2007 stage musical for the screen and the result, under Dexter Fletcher‘s direction, is a jubilant celebration of a movie with just enough underlying drama to lift it above typical musical fare.

Three relationships are at the heart of the movie, capturing the challenges of love at varying stages (hooking up, potential engagement, and silver anniversary) portrayed within a single family. Hooking up are Davy (George MacKay) and Yvonne (Antonia Thomas); he recently discharged from the army and she working at the hospital. Also fresh out the military is Ally (Kevin Guthrie) who has been dating Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor) and is considering the next steps. Then there’s Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Jane Horrocks), the siblings’ parents, their twenty-five year marriage testament to the duration of love but not without their own problems.

Despite an opening fraught with nervous uncertainty as Davy, Ally, and their crew are transported across a war zone, the happiness soon starts to infect the movie as, back in Edinburgh, we see the friends walking along the street singing their way through I’m On My Way. It’s not so much the camaraderie of these two friends or that musical thing where people spontaneously burst into song, but the reactions of the others caught on camera. A man on his phone stares at them as if they are mad. Women walking their way smile; men passing look back bemused. Only the Proclaimers themselves, in a cameo, seem not to notice. What this opening does is let us know this is a world where breaking into song is something natural.

And so it continues, moments of drama segueing into song. Jane Horrocks already has a track record apropos singing (cf Little Voice (1998)) and with the rest of the cast providing capable delivery of their vocals the songs are well-served in this regard, although they do miss the somewhat comic emphasis that the Proclaimers bring to the songs in their originals. It’s worth mentionning that Peter Mullan’s gravel tones offer up something of a surprise as he tackles Oh Jean while  a crowd dances around him.

One of the problems with such films, as opposed to a musical with original songs, is that the storyline is partly dictated by the lyrics. Letter To America, a song about the Scottish diaspora, seems an obvious candidate for driving elements of the narrative and that is indeed how it’s used. But it’s the way the lyrics are portioned off to the characters that bring a new level of meaning so as to justify the song’s inclusion in the story. There are literal interpretations juxtaposed with others more figurative, and this is true for all those songs delivered by more than one cast member. To this end it’s a pleasure to see songs used in a meaningful context and not just there as a karaoke checklist. Plus, there are moments of subverted expectations (Let’s Get Married, for example) where the songs are used in a new context.

While it’s not the sort of movie that’s going to change the world Sunshine On Leith is at least going to light it up. It would be a cold heart that sits through it unsmiling and arms crossed as there’s enough toe-tapping goodness in the songs as well as decent enough coverage of relationships’ ups, downs, and ups again. As the final shot leaves Edinburgh behind (mirroring the opening journey in) we see the movie for what it is — a slice of life, entertaining and uplifting.

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Drinking Buddies (2013)

Drinking Buddies (2013)

Romance on screen usually ends with two mismatched people discovering how made for each other they truly are. They’ll meet, hate each other from the get-go, but their paths are destined to overlap across various set pieces until the inevitable romance blossoms. The central relationship in Drinking Buddies (2013, 90 mins) flies in the face of convention and introduces us to two friends — one male, one female — who are attracted to each other from the start although see themselves as just being friends.

Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) both work in a Chicago microbrewery. Their working day — apart from work — consists of joking, chatting, and drinking beer. When the working day is over the brewers head on a busman’s holiday to the pub where they play pool and down beers. The chat and jokes go on and it seems obvious, as Kate and Luke gravitate to each other, that the stars have their future all sewn up.

The problem is that both are in separate relationships. It’s early days for Kate and Chris (Ron Livingston), who seem slightly mismatched, his serious nature uncomfortable against her free spirit. Luke and Jill (Anna Kendrick) also appear wrong for each other as their wedding plans are in the process of becoming more concrete. During one weekend they stay at a beach house where these different personalities align themselves. Platonically, of course. But it sets in motion the impetus that buzzes along in the background of this film.

There’s little cinematic about Drinking Buddies. No big explosions. No thrilling twists. Instead it feels an intimate invitation into its characters’ world where we observe their minutiae. It’s a realistic take on relationships, the conversations between friends, colleagues, and partners delving into their thoughts and worries. Throw alcohol into the mix — and barely a chat goes by without a beer in hand —  and we get a loosening of tongues that allow the conversations to go beyond where they would sober. The beer may bring crazy impulses or thoughts to the forefront of minds, but the characters are never too drunk to overstep boundaries. The silences that pepper conversations as they hold back are both reflective,  real, and weighed down with truth.

Perhaps much of the real feel comes from its lack of script. While director Joe Swanberg knew where he was going with his story (scenes, development, etc) the dialogue was left to the actors to improvise. Wilde and Johnson have an obvious chemistry as they improvise and it helps with warming to their characters. Best of all is how we gradually see the disintegration of our expectations. While we expect Kate and Luke to shake off their complications and come together what we are instead given is more information that helps us see how unsuited they actually are (Luke’s life is structured while Kate seizes the day) even if they don’t see it themselves.

While Drinking Buddies may be boring to some, it has enough happening in its story to hold interest. Although billed as a romantic comedy it plays as nothing of the sort, instead coming across as a slice of life (well, lives) at crossroads and the decisions that need to be taken, be they grasped by the characters themselves or forced by circumstance. Its focus on relationships forces us to consider whether men and woman can truly just be friends without the sexual attraction that inevitably bubbles under. That line is definitely blurred but there’s an ironic twist in that, through alcohol, things come to seem much clearer.

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Escape Plan (2013)

Escape Plan (2013)

When The Expendables (2010) was released, there was much trumpeting of how both Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, stalwarts of 1980s action movies, would come together on screen. It was going to be big; it was going to be iconic. The result, however, was a single scene in a very disappointing film. They appeared together once more in The Expendables 2 (2012), garnering plenty of screen time, but Schwarzenegger was still mostly incidental. Now, in Escape Plan (2003, 115 mins) the double billing actually sees the two both play main characters in an action movie. This could have been that iconic meeting that The Expendables promised. Alas, it’s just another meeting.

Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a man who, for his own hokey reasons, makes his money by being imprisoned and then escaping in order to point out security flaws. He has literally written the book on the subject. When the movie opens we see his skill in this domain, first breaking out from a high security prison and then recounting his escape (for the audience’s benefit) to the prison’s warden in all its convoluted, improbable glory. After that, an offer comes in that would see him enter another prison, this one off the grid, and in an unknown location. His fee is double the going rate, and he accepts.

Of course, this is a trap. Someone somewhere actually wants Breslin imprisoned. And the prison, we learn, has its design (all glass cells and no natural light) in the flaws pointed out by Breslin’s book; it should therefore be impossible to escape from. Thus Escape Plan has its premise, and Stallone quickly finds an ally in Schwarzenegger’s Emil Rottmayer. If these two are aligned, antagonism comes by way of Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel) and sadistic prison guard Drake (Vinnie Jones). What follows is a series of prison riots and reconnaissance missions as Breslin gets the measure of his new prison and works out how to escape, making use of the objects, skills, and flaws in the system that he uncovers.

With names like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Jones attached, expectations aren’t high but the movie is paced well enough and the majority of scenes come across as functional. Certainly, for all the hyperbole on the film’s two stars, the direction isn’t in awe of them. While this can be good, as story should ultimately go before the cast, it somehow feels as if more could have been made of the pairing. Not so much in the characterisation (that was always going to be thin) but in the imagination around how they are filmed. What action there was felt unmemorable. Certainly Schwarzenegger’s most memorable moment would be a scene where he rants, insanely, in his native language. Beyond that, it’s a string of limp one-liners and crazy smiles.

For all the plot and action it would at least appear as if the film has its basis in matters more philosophical. The notion of the panopticon, a prison where all captives are under permanent supervision (or at least have no way of knowing if Big Brother’s eye is on them) is a direct lift from the work of Jeremy Bentham, albeit modernised to suit contemporary technology. But a warden called Hobbes brings to mind Thomas Hobbes, who in his Leviathan wrote of the social contract. Breslin, in Escape Plan, willingly secedes from civil society and therefore finds himself in a prison that bears much in relation to a world outside the Hobbesian notion of civilised society:

…no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

But, given the content of the movie, it’s probably best not to read too deep into any message it may wish to deliver. It’s a foregone conclusion that Breslin is going to escape this inescapable prison and therefore consideration need only be given to how he plans to do it. Some elements are logical, based on observation and timings; while others, although not stretching credulity, are convenient. Sometimes, instead of knowledge, escape can be about relationships and, in that respect, crucial support comes from Dr. Kyrie (Sam Neill) and some of the inmates who riot to create distractions or take on particular favours.

At the end of the day, a movie like Escape Plan is never going to be anything other than sheer escapism and its two hours whizz by without ever seeming to drag. It has its questionable moments (e.g. Hobbes shooting a prisoner when keeping him alive is the profitable option) but works well enough as a vehicle for two movie tough guys, once standalone action heroes, to work together under a double billing. Given their advancing years, it had to happen at some point, although it doesn’t quite carry the hype that, say, Heat (1995) did in pairing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro on screen for the first time. Perhaps because in Heat, the two stars worked against each other and the question was which would come out on top. Or perhaps because Stallone and Schwarzenegger  are no longer the draw they once were. Either way, while it’s fun to see them work together, it’s hard not to think a better movie could have packed more of a punch.

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Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

Coffee & Cigarettes (2003)

In 1986 film maker Jim Jarmusch gave up coffee, presumably why he started obsessing over in it a series of short black-and-white vignettes spanning seventeen years, all collected under the title Coffee and Cigarettes (2003, 93 mins). The premise of the eleven pieces is basically that people sit down at a table and chat. Those involved are drawn from the worlds of music, film, and art; while the subjects they cover leap around, sometimes cross-pollinating across sketches, revolve around dreams, Tesla coils, and of course coffee and cigarettes.

The first, Strange To Meet You, a skit featuring alternative comedian Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni, was originally shot for Saturday Night Live back in 1986. Mismatched in the sense that one is laidback while the other is hyperactive, they are perfectly matched here as two men (with five cups of coffee!) who meet, chat a little about coffee, cigarettes, and exchange a dentist appointment. As a standalone piece — the second, Twins, wouldn’t be shot until 1989 — not much actually happens and nothing is explained. They meet, seemingly arranged, and then go their separate ways. The moment between contrasts the way that coffee affects them. Benigni’s hands shake, he asks non-sequiteurs; Wright is relaxed, if bewildered, throughout.

How can such different reactions come from the same source? Contrasts, therefore, are at the heart of these sequences. Each table shows a chessboard pattern, and the cinematography beautifully captures every instance of black and white, be it the black coffee in white mugs or the black spots on the white dice in No Problem, an intentionally drawn out scene where Isaach De Bankolé‘s repeated questioning of Alex Descas‘s situation gets rebuffed by the assurance that there’s no problem. The chessboard perhaps implies a level of competition between the people involved; the lack of pieces a permanent stalemate.

While some pieces riff on the same themes (Joseph Rigano berates Vinny Vella for his lunch consisting only of cigarettes and coffee, as does Taylor Mead to Bill Rice in the poignant closing story) and perhaps contain subtle points, there are those that are more blatant in their delivery. In Cousins, Cate Blanchett takes on two roles, a version of herself and a fictional cousin. While Cate has all the trappings of celebrity — of which her cousin will never know — she seems eager to please while feigning interest. When we see her hand over a gift of expensive perfumes, we see the irony of a world where the rich can afford everything but are instead gifted it while the poor can only hope to one day afford it.

Attitudes also play a role as the no-smoking hotel lobby where Cousins takes place delivers an unmistakeable case of double standards. These rear their ugly head again in the similarly titled Cousins?, where Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, over cups of tea, discuss their shared heritage, thanks to the former’s genealogical research. Coogan barely wants to know until Molina gets a phone call that could lead to work. It’s a wonderful scene, nicely played, and the humour comes mostly from Coogan’s disrespectful take on himself, blatantly dismissing Molina’s career while his own is in the ascendance.

Humour comes again in Delirium, with the appearance of Bill Murray, (playing Bill Murray, who else?) working in some cafeteria and not wanting anyone to know. As he swigs coffee from the cafetière the conversation with the Wu Tang Clan‘s GZA and RZA touches on the dangers of both nicotine and caffeine. On learning that nicotine is used in insecticide Bill Murray asks “It’s good if it kills bugs, right?”, his typical deadpan inspiring more laughter than it really should. Notably here the scene recalls both Strange To Meet You and the short Palme d’Or winning, Somewhere In California, where Iggy Pop and Tom Waits cover the topic of quitting one’s addictions, when a refrain about medicine and music is played again.

In Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil, we see musician Jack White do jus that and the phrase “Nikola Tesla perceived the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance” makes its first appearance. Some degree of its meaning is perhaps in the echoes that appear throughout the tales of coffee and cigarettes, bringing some form of unity. To this end the first few shorts do seem separate from the rest, no doubt because the wider picture had not yet been conceived, but the later episodes make up for this and ensure interconnectedness. The effect is one of wondering where one scene, while having no physical relation to any other, will lead.

The scenes may tackle different areas of conversation, but they all, in some way, cover how coffee and cigarettes are everyday obsessions that people seem unable to function without. In focusing on these, Jarmusch perhaps opens the world up to other obsessions hidden away — gambling, fame, and conspiracy theory, for example. We see Alex Descas confident in his dice, Steve Coogan kick himself at a missed opportunity, and Jack White note how “they” tried to discredit Tesla. These are perhaps bigger, more difficult topics that can play with the psyche and require discussion, but we ignore these as, like the conversations herein, the banal is easier to digest and it enthrals us more.

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The Pornographer (2001)

The Pornographer (2001)

In 1968 civil unrest swept across France, the useless old guard rocked by student sit-ins and workers’ downed tools. For Jacques Laurent (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the subject of Bertrand Bonello‘s The Pornographer (2001, 111 mins), his protest came in the form of making pornographic movies. What started as defiance led to a forty-film career that took him through the seventies and eighties by way of classics such as Schoolgirl Hotel and Perverse Niçoise.

It’s financial difficulties that bring Laurent back into the porno fold to direct another movie. He debates with his colleagues the storyline; he advises his stars on how they should feel; he wants love to blossom from the sex and for his female star to symbolise this by swallowing her co-star’s ejaculate. No moody music, no garish cosmetics, and no faked orgasmic screams. Laurent’s porn, while once protest, is now a means of expression.

Times have changed, however, and the artful pornography of Laurent’s heyday have since been debased, leaving hastily shot, lurid sex that is about pure titillation and quick cash. If we are to contrast the difference between these two visions, then Laurent’s bowed head and sunken heart as he sits watching his actors (real life porn stars, Ovidie and Titof) perform unsimulated sex while his producer calls the shots, captures this succinctly. The movie drifts away from him, much as the genre has.

Straddling Laurent’s professional life, there’s the personal. After years out of the picture, his student radical son Joseph (Jérémie Renier) has got back in touch. They last met when his career as pornographer was outed, the son promptly leaving in disgust. He may be of a new generation, but it’s a new generation that also dreams of protest, although their efforts languish in the shadow of 1968.  As Joseph learns, some protests are without conviction, but what his father knows, based on experience, is that each generation will reject the values of its predecessor.

The one film Laurent never got to make was The Animal, he confesses to a journalist. It would have involved men hunting a woman in a forest as if she were a fox. And through more introspective moments we see it envisioned across his mind’s eye. It looks likely that it will never be made at all. While his wife accepts his work and his son learns to forgive it, and even the industry is bringing him back into the fold, he cannot accept himself. A man of fifty who knows nothing else in life.  As he notes in a passing conversation, obscenity isn’t necessarily base. When people thing of Jacques Laurent they immediately think of his pornography; they never consider his life. And that, he thinks, is more obscene.

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