March 2010


Green Zone

Director: Paul Greengrass

Starring: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Jason Isaacs, Brendon Gleason, Amy Ryan.

The posters deliberately make you think this is a continuation of the Bourne Trilogy and with Damon in the lead and Greengrass (who did the last two Bourne films) directing, in some ways it is. But whilst the Trilogy is without equal as an action series, Green Zone is a much more complex shoot-em-up. Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, posted to Iraq to find the weapons of mass destruction that provided the justification for the US and Britain going to war. Miller is as tough as Bourne, obstinate and determined and it’s that determination that puts him in harm’s way as both Iraqis and some of his own side want him dead.

Greengrass is comfortable with political shenanigans – he started out years ago in current affairs, making World In Action documentaries – and used as a starting point Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s mind-boggling “Imperial Life In The Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone”. But he doesn’t allow the politics to get in the way of the action. 

What’s clever, however, is that Damon’s character is a believer – he’s not there to rock the boat. But Damon is superb at capturing Miller’s growing sense of disbelief about the corruption, incompetence and malevolence he sees in the Green Zone (the secure area in Baghdad occupied by the Coalition Provisional Authority, in case you didn’t know) .

Soon he’s pitted against Jason Isaacs badass soldier - and nobody plays villains better than the man who stole the show from Mel Gibson in “The Patriot”. Brendon Gleeson, simply one of the finest actors around, is brilliant as an ambiguous CIA man. Amy Ryan plays a disappointingly cardboard cut-out journalist. 

Intelligent action movies don’t come along that often so grab this whilst you can.


Shutter Island

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max Von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Michelle Williams, Elias Koteas

Dennis Lehane’s novels have been served well by Hollywood. Eastwood made a decent fist of “Mystic River” and Ben Affleck’s brilliant direction of “Gone Baby Gone” even overcame his decision to cast his runty, irritating brother as the tough-guy lead. Scorsese, though, is the icing on the cake. 

Like Clint Eastwood, Scorsese is having a late flurry of creative activity, although he has overall been more consistent in his output. I don’t agree he’s America’s greatest living director, as many claim – he’s been too narrowly focused for that and is pretty rubbish with female characters – but he’s been loosening up nicely. 

In “Shutter Island” he returns to the Gothic sensibility of his remake of Cape Fear. It’s 1954 and US marshall DiCaprio is sent to an offshore lunatic asylum for the criminally insane with his sidekick Ruffalo. They are there to investigate the disappearance of a murderess from her cell but DiCaprio also wants to confront Elias Koteas, an arsonist he thinks killed his wife (Williams). If that weren’t plot enough, when the two cops meet psychiatrists Kingsleyand Von Sydow they become suspicious that unethical medical experiments are being carried out on the island.

Di Caprio, who has replaced De Niro as the Scorsese muse, does haunted tough guy well. And the tricksy plot in the novel mostly makes its way to the screen. Which means that the set-up for the first seventy minutes is overturned comprehensively in the rest of the film.

Ruffalo I’ve never got. He’s one of those actors , who seems to do well without any discernible talent or charisma , that makes you think there’s some secret society at work ensuring these people have jobs. Chaz Palmienteri, Joe Mantegna and Danny Aiello are in the same boat (or society?). I jest, of course, you lawyers. These fine actors all have won their success entirely on their acting chops, I’m sure. Shame they leave those chops at home when they make movies. 

Scorsese, of course, likes to reference other films even more than Tarantino. So here there’s Hollywood B horror galore. Flashbacks of DiCaprio’s war, images of death and madness are stylised but effective. Scorsese screened two Hitchcock films for his crew and cast – “39 Steps” and “The Wrong Man”. I can’t say why because it would be a shame to give the plot away but when you see it, you’ll know. But watch out for homages too to British director Michael Powell’s “Black Narcissus”. (Scorsese’s regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, married Powell late in his life.)

Scary, suspenseful, twisty and atmospheric. Go see it.




The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Director: Niels Arden Opley

Starring: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace.

Stieg Larsson’s immensely popular “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is going to be made into a Hollywood film, possibly starring BAFTA award-winner Kristen Stewart as kooky Lisbeth Salander. But in the meantime here is the two year old, two and a half hour, Swedish film version of the mega-selling first part of the Millennium trilogy, with Noomi Rapace as Salander and Michael Nyqvist as the journalist Blomkvist.

I’ve long been bemused by the popularity of the source material, which I found indigestible and trite, even whilst it was dealing with important and shameful aspects of Sweden’s history. Salander, the pierced and tattooed wild child-cum-ace private investigator/hacker was for me wholly unbelievable. But I know there are around 23 million people in the world who disagree with me and bought into the story of the punk hacker teaming up with a disgraced journo (Blomkvist) to solve a decades old crime. 

The source novel is 500 pages long so there’s a lot to pack into the film, even at its extended running length. (The film is actually a condensation of two 90 minute TV movies. The other two parts of the trilogy have also been made into two 2-part TV movies in Sweden.) For that reason (and because it would be difficult to put on screen) much of Larsson’s comments on the misogyny and corruptness of Swedish society are lost. And, whilst the fascist crimes hidden in Sweden’s past are brought forward here, the concluding part of the film is all a bit of a rush.

The film is more whodunnit than thriller and both it and the source material owe something to Chandler (the rich man summoning the journalist to his big house to discover the truth about a past crime is, essentially, the start of “The Big Sleep”) and bits of Agatha Christie – neither of which is a bad thing.

Thanks to actress Noomi Rapace’s blistering performance, the complex, contradictory Salander actually makes more sense on screen than in the novel – I could actually believe in her as a real person for the first time. The opposite is the case with Blomkvist – already pretty much a cypher in the novel, here he is almost blank, despite being embodied by fine actor Nyqvist. In consequence, the unlikely pairing of the two in the novel becomes even less likely in the film. Not a spark flies. 

The film looks good and there’s a cool musical score but overall the film is as disappointing to me as the novel. But no doubt 23 million viewers will say I’m wrong.

[And I’ve just seen the new edition of Empire film magazine and seen that Kim Newman, whose opinion I usually value, has given it 5 stars, the top rating the magazine gives. That’s one more than the mag gives to Scorsese or Paul Greengrass. And that is just bonkers.]



From Paris With Love

Starring: John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

John Travolta, so long defined by his snake hips (even beneath the late-life pasta layers) and his luxuriant hair is really going the other way these days. First there was the tonsorial challenge of “The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3”, now he’s a bearded slaphead in this crazily enjoyable action movie set in Paris. The director also made the dodgily enjoyable “Taken”, in which Liam Neeson’s ex-CIA operative fed every American parents’ nightmare about Abroad by warning his daughter how dangerous a trip to Paris might be. When his daughter was then kidnapped and drugged to be sold into prostitution by Eastern European rent-a-baddies, Neeson was not only proved right, he was impelled into a vigilante revenge trip that made Death Wish seem like a family film. Nasty right wing stuff …that I’ve watched about a dozen times.

I realise I’m reviewing an old film rather this one because this one should be as enjoyable but the right wing stuff just intrudes too much. Of course lone cop movies were inherently fascist long before Dirty Harry came along but even Dirty Harry was nuanced compared to this. Travolta’s CIA operative is out to bust a Chinese drug ring in Paris but in doing so he tangles with every stereotypical foreign baddie you can think of, ending with a middle eastern megalomaniac.

All nasty stuff but, as with “Taken”, boys will still be thrilled by the set-piece fights, car chases and big bangs. A lot of shit gets blown up. Travolta - as over the top as only he can be and still get away with it - and Rhys Meyers, as his straight man, make an entertaining odd couple but it’s still a guilty pleasure of a film. 



Perrier’s Bounty

Director: Ian Fitzgibbon
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleason

I’m not sure why this doesn’t quite work as it has similar ingredients to those that made “In Bruges”, a film with a similar tone, such a success. Indeed, it features that film’s Gleason, having fun as a vicious, foul-mouthed mobster. Jim Broadbent is equally foul-mouthed as the father of Cillian Murphy, who is desperately trying to repay an overdue debt whilst dodging hoodlums at every corner. It’s entertaining enough and these actors are always good to watch but, in the words of George Clooney in Out of Sight, it just doesn’t have that “Thing”.




Director: Stephen Milburn
Starring: Sean Bean, Chris Hemsworth, Victoria Profetta 

A zippy low-budget film in which a suitcase full of money lands on Chris Hemsworth’s car and he and his wife set about spending it. Unhappily, the suitcase’s owner (Sean Bean) – his twin brother threw it from a van during a police chase – tracks them down. He moves into their house until they can raise the money to pay back what they’ve spent. Before you know it they’re robbing convenience stores whilst Bean keeps a tally to the last cent. 

Bean is suitably threatening, the tone of the film is a nice mix of menace and humour, there’s a pleasant enough sub-Tom Waits soundtrack and a neat little twist after the end credits have started rolling. Worth a look.



The Merry Gentleman

Director: Michael Keaton
Starring: Michael Keaton and Kelly MacDonald

Not quite a thriller but a fine directorial debut from Michael Keaton, who also plays the titular merry fellow (not). He’s a troubled hitman who develops an unlikely friendship with Macdonald - who is on the run from a troubled marriage - in the hope she can save him. As there’s a detective who has also taken a fancy to her you know there’s going to be trouble ahead.

The film has an indie feel to it: Keaton doesn’t move his camera around much, the look is relentlessly unglamorous and the pace is slow as he takes his time developing the relationship between two lonely people. Although there are murders they are mostly off-screen and this is too quiet a film to count as a thriller. Indeed, it almost goes against Mr Chekov’s famous dictum that if you introduce a hitman in the first act he has to kill someone by the end of the third – or something.

The film’s focus is on MacDonald and she is extraordinary. How the homely girl of Gosford Park turned herself into Texan trash in No Country For Old Men and now into this complex, damaged character is proof of her brilliance. And Keaton, always watchable in front of the camera, shows he has a good eye behind it. Most impressive. 


The Informant

Director: Stephen Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon

This one came and went without troubling the box office too much, which is a shame given it’s one of versatile Damon’s most compelling roles. Any film about a whistleblower is going to suffer in comparison to Michael Mann’s magisterial “The Insider” – the film Rusell Crowe truly deserved an Oscar for. Perhaps that’s why Soderbergh goes for a light touch. Damon, who piled on the pounds for this role, plays fantasist Mark Whitacre who blows the whistle on corporate fraud in a jokey spy film. Soderbergh provides his usual added value with his commentary on the extras.



Katalin Varga

Director: Peter Strickland
Starring: Hilda Peter, Norbert Tanko

A startling debut from Reading-born, Budapest-living director Strickland . Filmed on a minimal budget in the Hungarian countryside it tells the story of a young mother (Peter) and her son (Tanko) who set off across Transylvania in a horse-drawn carriage and on foot to take revenge for a past crime. Not much happens for much of the film but the landscape is stunning and the tension builds and eventually it is a powerful tale of betrayal, revenge and, of course, redemption. 
DVDextras include Strickland himself talking engagingly about the film to camera. Worth checking out.  


Worth buying for Michael Caine’s commentary alone.  It ranges far wider than this film

Loved the film, still love it on DVD - except the subtitles are tiny.




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