Monday, 31 May 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

Midway through a stakeout, when a wonderfully deranged Nicholas Cage starts hallucinating iguanas on his coffee table, it becomes clear that The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is no ordinary neo-noir. Indeed, with idiosyncratic Bavarian oddball Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo) at the helm, it's not so much the work of an auteur as a brilliant hive-mind fusion, between an eccentric, brilliant director and his equally eccentric, fearless star.

It's a terrific return-to-form for Cage, who, having already got Kick Ass under his belt this year, deserves to caper like a loon all the way back to the top of the A-list. For an actor who has spent much of the past decade suffering po-faced ignominy in dreck like The Wicker Man, it’s wonderful to be reminded once again what he’s capable of. Much of this of course is down to the presence of Herzog, clearly relishing another bosom-buddy partnership with a brave, committed star after his often violent union with Klaus Kinski ended. Throughout, the two men are so clearly on the same page that the unique, existential essence which is bottled is quite remarkable.

Kudos must also go to the supporting players, who boldly underplay their equally spaced-out roles in order so the focus goes entirely to Cage, the ‘bad lieutenant’ of the title. On the beat in a post-Katrina New Orleans, Cage’s Terence McDonagh, against the advice of his partner (Val Kilmer), decides to take a chance on rescuing a prisoner from a flooded cell. However, this act of compassion gives way to an act of chance: McDonagh puts his back out, resulting in an addiction to prescription meds, something which subsequently interferes with his investigation into the murders of a Senegalese immigrant family, the relationship with his prostitute girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes) and the credit rating with his bookie (Brad Dourif).

No mere synopsis though could possibly describe the unpredictability and philosophical weirdness of Herzog’s film; after all, this is a man who had dozens of extras drag a boat up a mountain. It’s a film that indescribably his, yet one that also collides brilliantly with noir conventions (Mark Isham’s jazzy, jangly score), becoming at once a familiar genre piece while a burgeoning existential crisis looms in the ether. Sound familiar? Throughout his career, Herzog has always grasped for that wavering glimpse of what drives a man; the allocation of these themes within the lovingly shot New Orleans locales makes Bad Lieutenant a fantastically odd experience, transcending the printed page to touch something indescribable, even spiritual... It also helps deflect the inevitable comparisons with Abel Ferrara’s Harvey Keitel starrer from 1992; this Bad Lieutenant belongs so utterly to its author that any such comparison is instantly redundant.

And, in Cage, he may likely have found his new Kinski. It’s a perfect outlet for the actor’s madness, where a hunched back and even his much reviled hairpiece join together beautifully in crafting one of the most memorable anti-heroes of recent cinema, one who thinks nothing of threatening little old ladies with a Magnum. As a self-described meditation on ‘the bliss of evil’, it’s unlikely we’ll see a more unique piece of mainstream cinema this year. Do fish have dreams?

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

It's less an unwritten rule, more scripture, that movies based on videogames are rubbish. With two Tomb Raiders, Doom, Silent Hill and more largely sold down the drain, uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer clearly is setting his sights higher in light of his Pirates success. After all, if he can spin gold out of adapting a Disney ride, it seems unfair to dismiss Prince of Persia outright as a bankrupt cash cow. He’s even got a respected British director (Mike Newell) and unusually classy cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley) on board, so the signs are good right?

But of course, expectation is a dangerous thing. And Persia lacks that vital diamond in the rough (quartz in the hourglass?) that arrived in the form of Johnny Depp. Persia is content to play the formula a lot safer, sticking closer to its creaky source (Jordan Mechner’s 2D Apple platformer). Yet it clearly derives even more inspiration from the recent, glossier X-Box adaptations of the same name, lending a plasticized, charmless gloss to an otherwise handsome production.

Hence, the pedigree is often cast into a hectically-paced CGI-wind, with a potential action-star performance from Gyllenhaal underwhelming in spite of his likeability. He stars as the eponymous hero, Dastan, orphaned into the Royal Family of King Sharaman of Nasaf. Along with his brothers Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell), and shady uncle Nizam (Kingsley), he launches an attack on the city of Alamut under seemingly fabricated allegations of weapon smuggling (any subtext ends right there). When Dastan is framed for the King’s murder, he is forced on the run, along with the beautiful Princess Tamina (Arterton), and the mysterious, time-bending dagger that could shape the course of the world…

It’s a strange beast, with Newell’s brisk direction undercut by swooping, CG-enhanced shots that cut far too close to the source material and sever our emotional involvement. It’s an odd blend of the physical and the fabricated, a buffed up Gyllenhaal impressing us with his stunt work one minute, while the next we’re faced with an obvious avatar leaping off towers in the style of the games themselves. Likewise, the forced love-hated banter between Gyllenhaal and Arterton lacks the zip of Bruckheimer’s Caribbean jaunts, forcing us to derive intermittent pleasure from those in the wings: Coyle’s charismatic ruler-in-wating Tus, Alfred Molina’s ostrich-racing wheeler dealer and an enjoyably shadowy Kingsley who will at some point be unveiled as the dastardly antagonist.

The gimmicky, dimension-shifting dagger also disappoints in its incoherent presentation, coming off as all flash and no substance. In fact the pedestrian plotting fails to exploit anything interesting out of the time-travel premise…That is, until an unexpectedly gripping final 20 minutes that moves the film out of pixellated and into cinematic territory, bravely re-writing not only the narrative but, cleverly, our own emotional response. It’s an audacious, imaginative end to a major blockbuster but one which, tellingly, only comes when it has the guts to cut the apron strings. Ultimately though, the film boasts all the shape of a sandstorm itself, and is as memorable as the remains scraped out of one’s shoe after a trip to the beach.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Robin Hood

Russell Crowe glowers; Ridley Scott directs; light shines through the boughs; Marc Streitenfeld’s ethereal score conjures up memories of a certain Hans Zimmer/Lisa Gerrard collaboration…

The comparisons between Robin Hood and its forebearer, the trendsetting Gladiator, are however as off the mark as they are inevitable. Yes, Scott knows how to shoot a historical battle better than anyone, Crowe gets to do the macho chest-bashing yet soulful act that has marked his best roles, and the production boasts a typically awesome attention to detail. But the devil’s in the details: Robin Hood is a far more intelligent, plot driven beast than the po-faced marketing and posters make out. Maybe even more so than Gladiator itself…

But then, with LA Confidential writer Brian Helgeland on script duties, this was surely a pre-requisite, although, given the film’s notoriously difficult production history, how much of his work ended up on-screen is debatable. Both his and Scott’s delight in weaving potent mythology (there’s no point in denying the tale's romanticized nature, regardless of whether it's true) with a plausible kind of historical fiction (likewise, it’s a bit rich to call it historical fact per se), is plain to see, although it slavishly adheres to the currently in-vogue trend of ‘origin stories’, finishing where others would start. Kevin Costner would be a mere glint in Alan Rickman’s malicious eye at this stage.

The pleasingly multi-stranded narrative traverses both sides of the Channel. Robin Longstride (Crowe), a lowly archer in the army of Richard the Lionheart, witnesses his conquering ruler being cut down with an arrow at the end of the Crusades. Racing to return the crown to England and name petulant womanizer Prince John (Oscar Isaac) as king along with his merry men, Longstride is also charged with returning a sword to the Loxley family of Nottingham, presided over by Marion (Cate Blanchett) and Walter (Max von Sydow), struggling to live off the land under tax incursions. In the midst of all this is Mark Strong’s ambivalent, ahead-of-his-time double agent, plotting with the French for nefarious purposes…

Those expecting the pop thrills and frequent, gory battles of Gladiator will be disappointed; in comparison with the bewitching dovetail of fiction and (almost) fact, Scott clearly sees these as small fry, leaving them, in their arrow laden, thrilling glory, to the start and end of the film. There’s also a kind of gripping comparison to be made with Crowe’s Robin, a lowlier character than Maximus Decimus who doesn’t embrace destiny but more or less collides with it, suffering under a dodgy accent sounding like Scunthorpe by way of Swansea. Elsewhere, Isaac’s campy John is certainly a stoop to Hollywood villainy but puts a face on an overlooked ruler while Strong is no mere villain, bewildering a French soldier at one stage with his divided loyalties.

Throughout, there’s a constantly fascinating series of ‘what if’ scenarios where history and myth blur together. One especially wonderful aerial shot picks out the Tower of London alongside a forested River Thames; the next moment, an unexpected bit of character driven spite will accidentally set in motion the later, more romanticized events of the Hood legend we know and love today. It’s also a funnier film than the largely snotty reviews have given it credit for, with the trio of merry men (Scott Grimes; Kevin Durand; Alan Doyle) and Crowe’s light chemistry with a typically earthy Blanchett offering pleasant, naturalistic asides.

It doesn’t beat the 1973 Disney version, though.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street

'One, two...Freddy's coming for you...' So went the chilling rhyme for one of cinema's most iconic boogeyman, Freddy Kruger, back in 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street. Boasting an unusually classy literary quality in its focus on a dream-invading serial killer, Wes Craven's original arguably had, and still has the brains to back up the familiar blood and guts quotient.

Which immediately puts its 2010 remake in an unfavourable position. After all, why remake something that is as potent and dramatically satisfying now as it was when first released? The answer is, inevitably, commerce: it’s the latest in a long line of remakes from Michael Bay’s hack label Platinum Dunes, one which has seen Texas Chainsaw and Friday the Thirteenth get a going over. None are especially badly made…but neither are they made with a sense of artistic integrity.

The cast, all of whom look like rejects from The O.C, are as glossy and forgettable as all other aspects of the narrative, one which frustratingly fails to move the story in new directions. Although there’s a degree of unpredictability in who will be dispatched next, the reliance on jump scares robs it of any dramatic tension, as does the frequent cheating taken in hallucination scenes that put Freddy on-screen too often.

This of course was why Craven’s original was so terrifying, boasting a kind of fairy tale unpredictability that saw Robert Englund’s Kruger sealed as a horror icon for the ages. With Samuel Bayer at the helm, it sinks into a series of queasily lit, slick set pieces familiar from the Platinum Dunes oeuvre. It’s perfectly competent but uninspired. Likewise Earle Haley’s is certainly more sadistic than Englund’s interpretation but remains planted as a dimension bending thug, lacking the appealing razor wit of old.

The sharpest deviation from Craven’s formula is the literal minded approach to its central villain. In today’s age, the word ‘subtext’ may as well be in Latin; now, a formerly cryptic, mysterious monster is transformed into something more distasteful and archetypal, a change that both bores and reviles in its presentation. Someone should explain to today’s horror filmmakers that less is always more.

Hot Tub Time Machine

Hot Tub Time Machine by rights should coin a new style of movie: the Ronseal movie, saying all that needs to be said in its very title, rendering all expectation redundant. After all, even without seeing it, one knows exactly what to expect from Hot Tub: a symbol of 80s decadence will allow 4 losers to escape back to the era of Reagan and leg-warmers, an undeniably witty idea that is sadly stretched too thin over a 90 minute narrative. It's the very embodiment of a one-joke concept.

Said losers comprise of John Cusack (also producing) as Adam, whose girlfriend has just run away with his television; Craig Robinson's Nick whose job is helping dogs with their digestion; teenager Jacob (Clark Duke); and heavy drinking, vulgar Lou (Rob Corddry). Lou's early attempt at apparent suicide prompts the lads to pack up and spend a weekend at their favourite ski resort, which of course has transformed into a boarded up hovel, as has their hotel, at which they've shared many an acid-fuelled memory.

One drunken binge in the eponymous hot tub later and they find themselves somehow transported back to 1986 (unaware at first, in one of the film's better sequences, of all the lurid purple suits of their fellow skiers). The race is then on to repeat the events of the past, at the risk of changing the future/present, Back to the Future-style. There may even be a chance to introduce a bit of rnb to the glam rock crowd...

Of course, a film with a one-joke title shouldn't be denied its chance at an audience; The Hangover did brilliantly last year. But it's undeniably disappointing that, with Hot Tub, that's all there is to offer, a nifty, charmingly outmoded notion that the 80s, with all their problems, were the hallowed times for the film's leads. There's even a fab idea, sadly undercooked, that sees younger Jacob threaten to vanish altogether, given his imminent conception is under threat from the changing course of events. Even Chevy Chase pops up in a canny piece of casting as the mythical tub repairman (where has he been?), as does Crispin Glover in the film's funniest gag as the bellhop who at some point will lose his arm in a dreadful fashion.

However, that's all it remains as: a concept. Certainly a treat for 80s kids who will relish the retro soundtrack, period details (cassettes; Commie suspicion) and bad hair, the descent into mindless gross out gags elsewhere drags it down. It's a real shame given the credentials of indie king Cusack who nevertheless anchors the narrative with his usual hangdog charm. It ultimately boasts all the effect of a real hot tub: tickling while it lasts but it doesn't linger in the memory. Its most intriguing by-product is an unintentional one: that it arrives this year as part of a batch of 80s nostalgia flicks and remakes, ones that celebrate a kind of lurid cinematic heritage from the era of the Rubik's Cube, the ghetto blaster and Black Box. Ride on time, indeed...

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Seminal Scores: The Bourne Supremacy (John Powell, 2004)

'James who?' was the phrase on everyone's lips at the close of The Bourne Identity, 2002's sleeper hit adapted (loosely) from Robert Ludlum's novel. Directed by Doug Liman, it was, and still is, a taut, gritty affair, lent a soulful edge by the presence of Matt Damon in the title role of the amnesiac superspy, one which, unexpectedly, transformed him into an A List action hero. Stealing the limelight from under 007's nose (Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli were surely making notes for Casino Royale), this was arguably the first action flick of the new decade to take the genre in a new direction.

However, the sequel that followed in 2004, The Bourne Supremacy, was even better. Changing hands from Liman to Bloody Sunday’s Paul Greengrass, the pacing was amped up, the mystery enhanced, the action made more intense through the claustrophobic shaky camerawork; what we received was an instant classic of action cinema, a white knuckle ride with a moving human core in the form of Damon’s Bourne, a man compelled to live on the run for reasons he doesn’t understand. Unbelievably, both Greengrass and Damon were able to up their game once more in The Bourne Ultimatum, which has justly been recognized as a masterpiece of action cinema in its own right.

Yet it was with Supremacy that the series arguably began to find its own voice and style, chief among who was composer John Powell. Alumnus of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control stable, Powell spent the early part of his career alternating double-acts with friend and fellow composer Harry Gregson-Williams (Chicken Run; Antz), and offering distinct, rhythmically charged efforts for lackluster films such as Paycheck. With Bourne however, and especially in Supremacy, Powell was to develop a new sound for the noughties action movie: a galvanizing blend of electronics, live and sampled percussion and a sizeable string orchestra, all of which zips around the screen as quickly as Damon’s hero is able to scale a tall building.

It’s a potent, exciting mix that continues to be imitated, as much a character in the films as Oliver Wood’s cinematography or Dan Bradley’s exceptional second unit work. What’s remarkable is the thematic backbone Powell deploys: rather than clutter the score with relentless noisy motifs, he instead centers the score on Bourne’s journey, from which the action arises. The hauntingly melancholy theme underscoring Bourne’s crisis of identity opens the album in ‘Goa’, where it’s also put through its paces in a charged arrangement for tropical percussion and strings. The first piece of proper action music then follows in ‘The Drop’ where Powell’s signature staccato strings and drums build in intensity to a thunderous climax.

Key to Powell’s ability as a dramatist is his careful mixing of the louder sections with the more poignant moments, here evidenced by ‘Funeral Pyre’, as Bourne laments the loss of his girlfriend, Marie (Franke Potente) and the beautiful oboe-led central theme in ‘New Memories’. Crucial also is the sound Powell has honed in the films, a contemporary mix of electronic beats and the orchestra in tracks like ‘Nach Deutschland’ which bring the spy genre kicking and screaming into the modern age. Then there are the enormously exciting stand-alone action pieces ‘To the Roof’ and ‘Berlin Foot Chase’, bringing all the seemingly disparate elements together in a furiously intense, forward thrusting style.

The standout however is the sensational ‘Bim Bam Smash’ accompanying the awesome climactic car chase through Moscow, and one of the most impressive pieces of cinematic action music to appear in the decade. Here, Powell pulls out all the stops in underscoring the desperate final showdown, with the first half given over to an electronic/orchestral combo before the full orchestra builds relentlessly in the second half to a heart stopping climax. It is here that Powell’s action voice appears at its most original, undiluted and rhythmic. We are then allowed to catch our breath in the climactic ‘Atonement’ as Bourne’s theme gets a lovely reinstatement on mournful strings, ending the score on a thoughtful, mature note and setting us up for Ultimatum.

John Powell is one of the most exciting new composers around at the moment and efforts like The Bourne Supremacy are landmarks in his still youthful oeuvre. Very rarely can it be said that a composer defines a sound for a particular genre but Powell has done exactly that, doing just as much as Damon, Greengrass and Liman in updating and overturning tired clichés of the action movie in order to introduce them to a new audience.

Iron Man 2

Let's get the groundwork out of the way first: Iron Man 2 isn't an improvement on the terrifically entertaining original, but is, at least, it’s equal. Guilty (inevitably) of trying to have its cake (or ten) and eat it too, there’s far too much to work through this time, threatening to turn a light soufflĂ© into a stomach bothering carb fest. Not content with its central hero-villain axis adding Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko and Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer to the mix, now there has to be conflict coming at Robert Downey Jr’s impossibly chipper Tony Stark from all angles, be it the shifting loyalties of best friend Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terence Howard), a redundant dead father angle and the attentions of SHIELD agents Sam Jackson and Scarlet Johansson (as Black Widow).

However, there are numerous saving graces, not least of which is director Jon Favreau whose deft storytelling keeps the balls juggling in the air much better than Sam Raimi did with Spiderman 3, keeping the tone light in spite of Justin Theroux's overstuffed screenplay. It’s also tremendous fun, just like the first, never shoving a moral sermon down our throat when Downey Jr’s delightfully anarchic hero can instead get drunk in his own suit as a way to solve his issues. Favreau is also a helmer who knows how to use effects, well, effectively, blending smooth CGI with a loud (but not aggressive) sound design to bring Marvel’s hotrod hero to life.

But while he may be fine on the side of the good, there’s a sense he’s less interested in the Dark Side. With Downey Jr such a show-stopping swirling vortex, inevitably Rourke’s vendetta-led, bird-loving Ruskie feels swept aside, odd as he’s the crux of the main plot. Seeking vengeance on Stark for the disgrace done to his father (who worked with Tony’s father, only to be extradited to Siberia) amid US Senate calls to hand the suit over to the military, he’s soon creating chaos in Monaco with an electric whip before teaming up with Rockwell’s incompetent weasel, always a step behind everyone else. Meanwhile Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts (still enjoying crackling chemistry with Stark) is elected major responsibilities of her own, Johannson’s notary has her own agenda, and Cheadle has ideas of his own for Iron Man. Oh, and Stark is being poisoned from within by his own technology, forcing him to search for an alternative.

It’s less too many cooks spoil the broth than too many rivets ruin the chasse: a more earthbound, somewhat heavier sequel that comes with built-in franchise expectation, more exposition to wade through and more set-pieces to knock out of the park. It is though as good looking, shiny, sleek and energetic as ever, bolstered by a muscular John Debney score. Performances also register excellently despite the screentime wavering drastically between each character. Rourke is intimidating as an undercooked villain; Rockwell fares much better on that front as the slippery, useless flipside to Stark; while Paltrow and Cheadle (facing a thankless task) offer great alternate romantic/comic relief. Only Johansson feels like a cipher, a set-up for the third act, and Jackson's appearance inevitably leans towards the same.

Yet Favreau’s main attention is, ultimately, on his hero and Downey Jr. not only more than validates his casting as the man in the iron mask: he is by far the most interesting thing about the whole film, an inspired piece of counter-casting that has worked dividends, a mumbling, energetic anti-hero who more often than not shrugs off his troubles in order to save the day. It's the man inside the suit (whom Favreau pleasingly cuts to often in the midst of the carnage) who draws our fascination the most. More, please