Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Next Three Days - Paul Haggis - 2010

Having made an impressive leap into the director’s chair with the Oscar winning Crash and won further plaudits for follow up In the Valley of Elah, writer Paul Haggis has now brought his unique brand of serious drama to the Hollywood thriller to create The Next Three Days, a intriguing spin on the classic prison break film. Russell Crowe plays school teacher John Brennan whose mundane existence is shattered when his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks), a high-flying business executive, is arrested for murdering her boss and sent to prison on apparently incontrovertible evidence. Crowe is superb as the unassuming teacher who becomes obsessed with breaking Lara out of prison, delivering a muted performance that registers nuances of pain and frustration with single glances where others might have resorted to tantrums. Intriguingly Haggis elects to never reveal whether Lara is actually innocent as Jon believes and so the shadow of her potential guilt turns what might otherwise be a routinely black and white thriller into something far tenser. So much time is given to Crowe's journey from teacher to escape artist that not many others get a look in but Brian Dennehy steals the few scenes he's granted as Crowe's estranged father, communicating volumes while saying nothing, the lovely Olivia Wilde neatly handles some scenes of awkward distraction from Crowe's mission and Liam Neeson uses his inimitable growl to make a bunch of cheesy lines sound exciting in a small cameo. It is here that Haggis’ style is most noticeable with his commitment to taking the time to make his characters three-dimensional proving to be refreshing after a diet of thrillers overly dependent on action, but the downside is that the film does move too slowly in the middle to retain the momentum that it seemingly wants to achieve, leading to some frustrating moments for those who are used to seeing escape plans formulated a lot quicker. However when the climax finally arrives, Haggis proves himself as an action director with a final twenty minutes that maybe almost derailed by a questionable family decision but ultimately accelerates with enough tension and pace to deliver a satisfactorily gripping ending. If Haggis can continue to fine-tune this blend of solid action and excellent character work he will go far. 

Friday, 14 February 2014

A Good Year - Ridley Scott - 2006

Best known for creating incredibly detailed science fiction or historical epics, Sir Ridley Scott is probably the least likely director to turn out a romantic comedy and yet here, a year after he laid siege to Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven, is A Good Year, a sun kissed romantic comedy set in Scott’s own backyard, the vineyards of Provence. Reuniting with Russell Crowe for the first time since Gladiator, A Good Year takes a classic fish-out-of-water scenario – an Englishman abroad – and reworks it into an excuse to shoot Provence to beautiful perfection whilst his star has fun pratfalling in the foreground. Crowe plays Max Skinner, a fast-living, smooth-talking banker who lives to make money from screwing over everyone else until a trip to France to sell the estate of his late uncle Henry (Albert Finney in typically garrulous form) forces him to reconsider his life. This is normally the sort of plummy voiced Brit character that would go to Hugh Grant or Colin Firth but in Crowe’s hands Skinner becomes someone far more interesting than another British stereotype. Quite apart from some hitherto unappreciated comic timing (most hilariously including a willingness to repeatedly fall into bushes), Crowe has the charisma to sell Max as a self-centred shit but still (helped by some delightful putdowns from screenwriter Marc Klein) make him a likable protagonist and the breezy charm to carry off the persona of a classic Englishman-abroad, but most crucially the heart and soul to make Max’s journey into something more moving than anything Hugh Grant has ever done. The French characters including Marion Cotillard’s bad-tempered but gorgeous waitress, Didier Bourdon’s suspicious vigernon (gardener for the grape vines) and Isabelle Candelier’s overly friendly maid are all bordering on cliché but Scott treats them with enough affection and pokes enough fun at the ignorant British in return that the French jokes are always funny rather than awkward. The prologue set on the London stock market feels perfunctory at best (it cannot be that easy to make money, even when not obeying the rules), whilst a subplot about winemaking and a legendary ‘garage wine’ that may hold the key to the chateau’s salvation is poorly explained, even for any vintners in the audience, but Scott keeps the film trotting along at a brisk enough pace to quickly brush over these minor niggles. It may not have the epic scope of Scott’s most popular films but as a gentle comedy about adjusting to life at a different pace, A Good Year is a treat. 

Robin Hood - Ridley Scott - 2010

Reuniting Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe for their fifth collaboration and Scott's second attempt at a historical epic after Gladiator, Robin Hood sets out to deliver a more gritty interpretation of Nottingham’s famous outlaw than anything managed by Kevin Costner or Errol Flynn. Fears that this would simply be Gladiator with archery may appear justified as the plot unfolds – opening battle abroad before a return to home turf, an ordinary man caught up in struggles against a corrupt ruler – but visually and character wise Scott is far better than that. The opening castle siege utilises lots of mud, arrows and a King (Danny Huston) gone to seed to rapidly sketch a world that is no less complex and intricate but poles apart from both the dusty plains of the Roman Empire and the camp frippery to which the legend had been reduced. Breaking with the Outlaw of Sherwood Forest tradition Scott focuses instead on the character’s origins, introducing us to Robin Longstride on his way home from the Crusades, drawing him into a battle for the crown of corrupt King John (Oscar Isaac) and having fun slowly bringing the famous characters together rather than dumping them all in Sherwood Forest from the off. As played by Crowe, this Robin is just as dour and brutally efficient as Maximus was but is not above a sly wisecrack and a gentle twinkle to lighten the mood when occasion calls. Along with his three sidekicks (Kevin Durand, Alan Doyle and Scott Grimes, Crowe’s real life friends) this Robin neatly treads the middle ground between the clichéd images of merry men (no green tights are in evidence) and the real life returning crusaders of Richard I from whom the legend became inextricably linked. Plot threads about grain shortages and heavy taxes are not notably cinematic but they bring a welcome level of detail to Robin’s world that gives personality to characters too often reduced to caricature and successfully diverts the audience from noticing there is barely any action between the opening and closing battles. Some silly business involving Marian and some child outlaws is less successful whilst an attempt to give Robin some mystery with a forgotten family connection to the Magna Carta never really rings true but Crowe’s Robin and Cate Blanchett's Marian make a striking couple (one wonders why they've never been paired before?) whose tender relationship gives heart to the movie without any need for Bryan Adams. Robin Hood may not have the mythic aura that raised Gladiator into a classic but it still delivers enough adventure, romance and intrigue to make it a worthy successor.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Under Capricorn - Alfred Hitchcock - 1949

Having scored an unexpected success with his first independent film, the experimental Rope, Alfred Hitchcock attempted to reuse the sweeping camera moves and long takes for his new film, romantic melodrama Under Capricorn, but sadly the results were less successful. Unusually for Hitchcock the film is not set in any contemporary milieu but instead recreates the prison colony in Sydney Australia in the 1830s, a land far from civilised society where relics from the old country rub shoulders uneasily with convicts and self-made men. Sadly though it quickly becomes apparent that this is not going to be the setting for any exotic adventures but rather the sort of drama that can only be caused by people having spent too much time in the sun. When he first steps off the boat the Hon. Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) is a likeable if somewhat effeminate protagonist but when he starts interfering in the troubled marriage of ex-convict Samuel Flusky (Joseph Cotten) his sympathy starts rapidly dissipating and film follows suit soon after. Cotten glowers convincingly as the brooding Flusky, another Heathcliffe always too hulking and awkward to fit properly in to the life he has made for himself, and he is well matched by Ingrid Bergman as his tormented alcoholic wife but they are let down by a trite and unimaginative script that Hitchcock fails to inject any life into. The long conversations in Rope perfectly exacerbated the tension caused by the body in the box but here, where the only potential danger is that Cotten might succumb to temptation and pistol-whip Wilding, the long meandering recollections of how great life was back in Ireland simply sap the energy from the film until it is very difficult to care about the characters, despite how good the performances maybe. Margaret Leighton does a good job as the sub Mrs Danvers housekeeper and eventually Bergman’s charisma does shine through – her radiant delight at the Governor’s ball is beautiful – and she generates some good chemistry with the tormented Cotton but its too little that comes too late to turn the film into much more than a cheap melodramatic love triangle. There are still one or two nice Hitchcockian moments that stick out, a clever shot of a ruby necklace in particular, but otherwise Under Capricorn is very much a forgettable entry in the great director’s canon.