Round Up: January Movies

So, the last few weeks have been a touch busy. My day job has increased, which is nice (More money!) and less nice (Three buildings! Two towns! Some commuting!) and Marguerite has successfully completed the month or so long exam-a-thon. Oh and then there are the podcasts. And the deadline surfing. And the possible imminent return to a martial art. And the sleeping.

Like I say, busy.

Anyway, as a result The Friday Film went away for a fortnight. It’ll be back this week but, in the meantime, I’ve watched some movies. Here are some thoughts about them.

Man of Tai Chi

This is Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut and he’s learned one immensely important lesson, straight out of the gate, that countless veteran directors still have yet to; don’t piss around in fight scenes. Paul Greengrass for example has directed a ton of very smart, very engaging films and I can see what’s going on in the fight scenes of, perhaps, one of them. Shaky cam is the death of fight choreography and the near death of your audience’s attention. It no longer looks edgy, it no longer looks intense. It looks like your cameraman has had 18,000 cups of coffee. Seriously, the fact that shakycam is more respected than found footage movies astounds me.

Reeves goes in entirely the opposite direction and the end result is often beautiful. He follows Tiger Chen, the only practitioner of Ling Kong Tai Chi, as he struggles to balance his dutiful home life and low paid job with his studies. What he doesn’t know is he’s being stalked by Donaka Mark, played by Reeves, an unscrupulous businessman running an illegal fighting ring. Duped into fighting for the money to save his temple, Tiger becomes very successful, but finds his path deviating from that of his studies. Tai Chi as a way of life and Tai Chi as a way of fighting are two very different mind sets and as his fame grows, he struggles to reconcile the two.

For each fight, Tiger is flown to a new location, given time to prepare and enters a converted shipping container. He and his opponent then beat the hell out of each other until only one of them is standing. During the fight, Reeves almost locks the camera off, showing the choreography off in beautiful long takes. Chen Hu, as Tiger, is both a remarkable martial artist and a surprisingly good modern take on the archetype of the reluctant monk. He also acts through his fighting style instead of it being separate to his performance. One of the film’s best strands is his gradual progress through a National Kung Fu competition and how his success in Donaka Mark’s bouts makes him a brutally effective fighter but a bad martial artist. There’s a similarly great sequence between him and his Master which is both a blisteringly fast, genuinely intimidating fight and an ideological and philosophical debate. With chi strikes. Which as we know, all the best ones have.

Unfortunately, whilst Reeves can shoot fights better than most western directors he’s not much good in one. Make no mistake he’s better than most, but the final fight is a definite step down from what’s gone before, instead of an escalation. It’s a mild bum note to end the movie on but it’s still a thoroughly worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours, especially if you’re a martial arts fan.

Robocop

Far, far better than most people expected and, it seemed, a lot of people wanted, the 2014 Robocop is a slick, often pleasingly nasty update of a beloved classic. The same beats are all here; heroic cop, horrible injury, political tool, but they’re often subverted into some new and very interesting shapes. Joel Kinnaman’s Alex Murphy is far more emotional than Peter Weller’s take and the film is at its best when it gives Kinnaman his head. An early scene where he’s undercover is especially good, as is the moment he calls his wife for the first time since the procedure. We see Kinnaman, his face blank and numb, zoom the camera further and further in so his wife can see as little of him as possible.  She, who in this version signs off on the procedure to save his life, appears and they trade hollow pleasantries before Murphy signs off. There’s multiple emotions, all suppressed, running under the scene and Kinnaman shows us all of them with little more than his eyebrows and his mouth. Likewise, a later scene where Murphy solves his own murders sees Kinnaman seethe with fiercely articulate rage. He moves with the precision and grace of a tank but in this scene, it’s an angry tank and you find yourself leaning forward waiting to see what’ll happen. He’s the heart of the movie, and every moment he’s on screen is entertaining and rarely less than good.

Elsewhere in the cast Gary Oldman excels as Norton, the scientist responsible for saving Murphy’s life. He’s morally ambiguous throughout and the subplot with him trying to look after Murphy whilst still pleasing OmniCorp is fascinating. There’s none of the broad spectrum shotgun satire of the original here, just a surprisingly grounded, honest look at cybernetic enhancement and the problems that come with it. It’s not exactly a Wired article with gunfights, but it’s much smarter in scenes like this than it’s been given credit for in some quarters.

Punctuated by a magnificent turn from Samuel L Jackson as a Bill O’Reilly-alike, the film has real spark and energy to it, especially in the first two acts. The third, to be fair, feels rushed and the film ends poorly but it’s not enough to kill the first blockbuster pleasant surprise of the year. Plus the music choices, especially the last one, are perfect. A well-pitched, well played update of a classic.


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

This is, by the studio’s own admission, a chop shop job. Originally a spec script that was retrofitted into a Jack Ryan movie it desperately wants to return the series to the life it last had way back in Hunt for Red October. I was talking to Stephen Phelan, an old friend, about this a few days ago and he remarked that Alec Baldwin is still the best screen Ryan. He’s right too; Baldwin had the perfect mix of physical presence, intellect and physical reluctance. Chris Pine, here, comes very close. The only problem is, he’s working with two half scripts instead of a whole one.

The Ryan-specific stuff is actually pretty great. The opening sequence, featuring a brief, violent appearance by the always brilliant Nonzo Anonzie, comments on the opening of Casino Royale. There’s the same brutal, desperate fight, the same emotional reaction but with an extra gear. Ryan calls in, is briefed, told what to do and continues to lose it. The voice on the other end breaks protocol, reassures him and says ‘You’re a marine, Quarterback. It’s why you’re still alive.’  It’s a clever, subtle move that not only reinforces Ryan’s military background but shows us he’s vulnerable.

There are flashes of brilliance like this scattered through the first hour. Kevin Costner, continuing to grab his revived career with both hands, is so good as Ryan’s CIA controller you find yourself wanting the movie to focus on him. An early scene between the pair of them, Ryan traumatised by his first murder, Harper outwardly calm but clearly watching all the angles the younger agent isn’t. It speaks to the sort of movie Red October was and promises a lot.

About an hour later there’s a gun fight and a car chase right after one another and you get an idea of what movie you’re really watching.

It’s a shame too because there’s nothing here that isn’t well staged. Branagh’s an excellent director and, here, a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic villain. But the script drags him, and everyone else, down again and again. From the criminal under use of Kiera Knightley to the complete emotional mis step of Wall Street as the eventual target, it’s never less than competent but rarely much more. The awful thing is that it’s the original elements that ultimately kill it. There are sections of a genuinely great Jack Ryan movie here, but they’re never enough to take your eye off the movie they’re welded onto. If we’re lucky, Pine gets another go and Costner gets a spin off. If we aren’t, then it’s time for Mr Ryan to go back to Langley for a while.


Mr Peabody and Sherman

There’s an emotional arc that kids animated movies love to follow; set up, hi jinks, cost of hi jinks, sad song that’ll be on itunes by the end of the week, reunited, more hijinks, end.

To my absolute delight, Mr Peabody and Sherman not only ignores this, it parodies it. Twice. There’s the emotional upheaval but here it’s played out against the sacking of Troy, time travel and the most endearingly frat boy version of Agamemnon ever. You still get the heartstrings plucked, but you don’t get them yanked and that goes a long way for me.

The fact the rest of the film is light on its feet helps too. Ty Burrell is fantastic as the voice of Mr Peabody, playing the know it all dog as a cross between The Doctor and Abed from Community. He’s always gentle, always affectionate and always completely in control. There’s a magnificent piece of scenery chewing from a Stanley Tucci-voiced Leonardo DaVinci, Patrick Warburton in fantastic form as Agamemnon and welcome present day support from Stephen Colbert as, basically, Stephen Colbert. Plus there are four perfectly sculpted and timed jokes in here, including two that absolutely floored me. In a movie of this running time, that’s an embarrassment of riches. Fluffy, fun, just a little subversive and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Out of the Furnace

An insanely stacked cast make this grim, rural noir story absolutely sing. Christian Bale and Casey Affleck star as Russell and Rodney Baze, two brothers, one a dutiful mill worker with a drunk driving conviction, the other a multiple Stop-Loss Iraq vet with a burning need for violence. Both struggle to make peace with their lives and as the violence escalates, neither succeeds.

The overall plot here is a revenge story. Rodney is killed following an illegal bare knuckle boxing match and Russell methodically tracks, manipulates and slaughters Harlan DeGroat, the man responsible, played with wide-eyed menace and flair by Woody Harrelson. There’s not a moment in that plot that fails and the final confrontation between the two is as gripping as it is near silent.

But the film’s real, heartbreaking genius lies in the smaller scenes. A montage of Russell and Rodney heading in two different directions with their adoptive fathers tells you everything you need to know about the two men’s fates. During a prison visit from Rodney, Russell breaks down, just for a second whilst an earlier scene between Russell and DeGroat tells you which of the two men is smart and which is dangerous.

The film’s best scene is a two hander, between Bale and Zoe Saldana as his former fiancé, Lena. They talk, awkwardly but affectionately, Russell begins to ask her to take him back and she tells him she’s pregnant. Bale looks like he’s been hit in the back of the head, babbling the same inane congratulations before breaking down and sobbing as Lena wraps her arms around him and apologizes. There’s a huge knot of emotion in there, none of it the industry standard and all of it achingly real and perfectly acted. These are two people who clearly still love one another, can never be together again and are forced to make peace with it, there and then. It’s astounding, difficult viewing and is easily the best work to date of the cast members involved.

Out of the Furnace is relentlessly bleak, tragic and fiercely well observed. It’s not easy watching but it’s definitely one of the most rewarding movies I’ve seen in a long time.

I, Frankenstein

Kevin Grevioux has one speed; full tilt industrio-goth boogie. If you liked any of the Underworld movies then you won’t just like this you’ve basically already seen it. Frankenstein’s monster is told the truth about the world; that there’s a never ending war between gargoyles (Essentially carved angels) and demons. He’s asked to help. He basically tells the Gargoyles to get stuffed.

Jumped forward a couple of hundred years and he’s clearly seen Dogma, and is now proficient in both Escrima stick fighting and rocking a duffel coat and hoodie combo. He’s drawn back into the war, continually screws up and finally reconnects with his humanity just in time to save the day and Yvonne Strahovski who is surely wondering why she keeps getting picked to stand around in movies like this (See Killer Elite where, if anything, she’s asked to do even less.)

I’m ragging on it a bit because it’s about as subtle as a brick sandwich and the gender politics are somewhere south of ridiculous. There are three female characters, including a genius and an ageless warrior queen, both of whom are kidnapped and have to be rescued, because that’s the sort of beat these films seem convinced they need to have. It’s a real shame as whilst this is as one note as it comes, Grevioux is actually very good at playing that one note. There are some nice ideas here, ranging from the dead being Frankensteined into living vessels for banished demons to the single most hilariously muscular cathedral in cinema history. Also, as I discussed with Nadine and Pablo, who I saw this with, surely the inhabitants of the small town with the gargoyle cathedral and the demon mansion less than ten blocks apart have learned to turn the other cheek. Lest, presumably, it be burnt off in an orgy of testosteronetastic CGI.

Massively silly, played at quarter speed by the entire cast especially Bill Nighy (Playing literally the exact same role he did in Underworld, just in a suit instead of robes) and relentless fun it’s the cinematic equivalent of a decent pizza. And sometimes, you just need pizza.

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