Raymond Soltysek's Blog

‘Black Mass’

Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on December 21, 2015

‘Black Mass’ borrows so much from true-life gangster movies; right from the off, the echoes of Goodfellas is apparent as mobsters line up to tape their evidence, flipping the narrative into a retrospective that tells of the rise and fall of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp). It’s a well kent tale of small town opportunism clashing with incompetent law enforcement and high politics (Bulger’s State Senator brother, Billy, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch), but is no less rewarding for that.

Depp has form playing real life mob parts, from the undercover FBI agent in Donnie Brasco to the 30s gangster and folk hero John Dillinger. This is, by far I think, his best performance ever, and certainly in this genre. Most of all, it’s because most movies play to Depp’s handsomeness – Dillinger especially, the suave, charismatic psychotic who women swooned over and proposed to – while this plays to Bulger’s innate ugliness. He really is repulsive, the receding hairline and the rotten teeth and the cold blue eyes like some demented cross between Gollum and a velociraptor. He’s as chilling as Joe Pesci’s Tommy – there’s even a reprise of the ‘you think I’m a clown’ scene as Bulger baits David Harbour’s Agent Morris for revealing the ‘secret’ of his family’s steak marinade – and he makes the flesh crawl, most menacingly as he baits his FBI shill John Connolly’s wife in the doorway of her bedroom. It’s a stunning performance, creepy as fuck.

Bulger’s is a story that has been told before, in Scorsese’s deeply disappointing ‘The Departed’, in which Jack Nicholson played Frank Costello, heavily based on Bulger’s blue collar Brooklyn shenanigans. That film ultimately failed, though, because it was neither fish nor fowl. A remake of the superior and stunning Andy Lau and Tony Leung Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, it was neither the straight-up biopic Bulger’s life required nor the Grand Guignol opera of the original.  The more direct approach, from director Scott Cooper who made the beautiful and underrated elegy for blue collar trash Out of the Furnace, works a treat.

The supporting cast is excellent, though the star names are pretty superfluous. Cumberbatch is included as box office bait and does little that any jobbing actor couldn’t have done, while Kevin Bacon is given little weight as an FBI boss whose myopia prevents him seeing the brazenly obvious corruption in his office. Best are the likes of Joel Edgerton, who has that perfect 70s sleaziness of the Brooklyn thug wannabe given the keys to the FBI kingdom when he hasn’t the brains to use them correctly, and, especially, Rory Cochrane as Bulger’s hitman of preference, Steve Flemmi. Cochrane is superb, a walled up cess pool of seething silence, the ruthlessness with which he despatches a mouthy hanger on providing the shackles that chain him to a course of acquiescence as he witnesses Bulger strangle his teenage prostitute step daughter. ‘Clean up your own mess,’ Bulger tells him, and Flemmi silently bends and strokes the dead girl’s knee. Rarely has a character with so few lines delivered so much.

So all in all, a fabulous film, right up there with Goodfellas or Mesrine or American Gangster as a classic true-life gangster pic. Don’t miss it.

‘Mistaken for Strangers’

Posted in film review, Gig review, Music review by raymondsoltysek on February 27, 2014

Mistaken for Strangers

The National are, let’s face it, the biggest, bestest band on the planet right now.  I’ve only seen them once, at the O2 ABC in 2007, just after ‘Boxer’ had been released and ‘Fake Empire’ had become one of my favourite horny songs ever (I mean the horn section, not sex).   I’ve got tickets to see them at The Usher Hall in July (so keen, I bought them twice); since ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is probably my favourite album of the last few years, it’s gonna be a gas

In the meantime, this documentary about their 2013 tour will have to do. Made by Matt Berninger’s brother, it’s less of a tour rockumentary than a touching portrait of two brothers’ relationship.  Berninger invited brother Tom on tour to make the film, and there’s definitely a sense of the successful big brother giving the stoner wee brother something to do to keep him out of the way of the buses.  Nine years younger, Tom is obviously in awe of his focussed, driven sibling’s success, even though he’s a ‘metalhead and thinks indie rock is shit.’

In my lifetime, I’ve met hundreds of wee boys who have been told they are the best, the most talented, the most quick-witted and funny and artistic boys ever (usually while their sisters toil their way unappreciated to success) and their lack of direction and purpose is just down to being misunderstood.  I’m no success story, but at least my mum kept my feet on the ground:  “well, you could have done better if you’d worked harder,” she said when I told her on the phone that I’d got a 2.2 in my degree.  Thing was, she was absolutely right, I was a lazy bastard –  I’d spent my final year playing pool and skipped all but a handful of lectures and tutorials – and there was no way she was letting me weave any tales about being an unappreciated genius.

There’s a whiff of that about charming, feckless Tom, who fucks up his simple job as a roadie and gets himself chucked off the tour because  he can’t seem to do anything right; but, dammit, he is so likeable you’ll forgive him anything.  He is obviously a pretty crap filmmaker if his short low budget slashers are anything to go by and, confronted by a wall of post-its, he’s obviously out of his depth; his sister-in-law is credited with joint editing.   But then again, this is a carefully constructed film, and so there are legitimate questions about the extent to which the narrator we see is a construct.

It’s well worth the watch.  The band come across as laconic yet purposeful, professional family men indulgent of the boyish camera being poked in their faces but nevertheless having clear expectations (‘I thought this was a film about the band and you were going to ask about me,’ says one of the Dessners, ‘but it seems all you want to do is talk about you and Matt.’).  There are no wild revelations –  you sense Tom desperately wants the drug-fuelled metal orgy, and it’s a lovely little touch that his big brother gives him a row for partying so hard he’s the one to miss  the tour bus – but these excesses probably wouldn’t cut it nowadays for a band that tours as hard as they do.  And I doubt the music would be so beautiful if they were stoned most of the time.

The film is followed by two local college bands.  Oakland Moor are a Americana tinged outfit who can write a song –  their opener is really listenable – though trying to cover the vocal perfection of The Civil Wars is perhaps a bit too exuberantly ambitious.  Silver Falls are 80% female and cut from the same folksy cloth,  producing some nice harmonies. However, when both bands proudly announce they’re covering songs from ‘The Hunger Games’ soundtrack, you know (a) where they’re coming from culturally and (b) that you’re getting too old.

“Gravity”: 90 minutes of 3D bungee-jumping…

Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on November 9, 2013

Bullock and Clooney in ‘Gravity’

I am a child of the space race.  I was right into astronomy as a boy, could (I thought) point out the constellations at the age of 5 (I probably made them up:  ‘look, dad, there’s the constellation Stingray’), was crazy for Doctor Who and Gerry Anderson, was allowed to sit up late to watch Moon landings and, in 1970, was beside myself with anguish over the tribulations of Apollo 13.  That really was a defining moment in the world for me:  yes, there had been other space disasters, but then we watched in real time the struggle of three men to survive in a tin can in the most hostile environment in the universe, the universe itself.

The previous year, I’d made one of my customary Saturday afternoon cinema trips to see ‘Marooned‘, a largely forgotten film that occasionally reappears on BBC on Sunday afternoons.  With Gregory Peck, David Janssen and Gene Hackman, it told of 3 astronauts stranded in orbit, and the frantic efforts to rescue them.  Watching it now, it’s long and a bit dull and oscillates between talkiness and boring sequences of silent space; at the time, it mesmerised me.  I wrote stories about the scenario, did a film review for my Primary classroom newspaper, spoke eloquently (!)  about the dangers astronauts faced to my teacher – and then, less than a year later, the whole thing played out for real.

So this topic really connects me to my childhood.  I really liked Hanks’ ‘Apollo 13‘: dull though my family at the time found it, I just loved it, for all its tension as opposed to action, for all its downplaying as opposed to hysteria.  So I just had to see this, and on the big, big IMax at Glasgow Science Centre in 3D (‘Sixty Feet Tall, Eighty Feet Wide!’ the announcer says: he might as well add ‘It leaps tall buildings in a  single bound!’).

And, generally, it’s a hoot.  Yes, it goes for the big, heart-stopping action sequences – it is a spectacle rather than a microscope (does that image work?) – and it is absolutely, breathtakingly thrilling in places.  I found myself gasping and jumping up and down in my seat and going ‘Mammy Daddy!’ at far too many points to make the guy sitting beside me feel comfortable; the destruction of a space station around Sandra Bullock (and us) is stunning (though the music soundtrack might have been better replaced by a realistic but dissociative silence).  As an action movie, it is brilliant.

It’s not particularly character driven though.  Clooney and Bullock are, of course, excellent, but the roles are limited, and the one attempt to establish some sort of connection with these as people – the uptight Dr Stone (Bullock) telling the flirtatious, wise cracking Kowalski (Clooney) about her daughter as they traverse 100 kilometres towards a Russian space station – feels bolted on.  So I don’t think it’s Oscar material for the actors, though it’s undeniable that we do invest in them emotionally: by gum, do we root for Stone as yet another thing goes to shit around her…

There are a few infelicities, I have to say.  Two scenes are stolen straight out of ‘Barbarella’ and ‘Wall-E’, and neither of them work because one of them is more than a little exploitative and because they are such blatant steals.  Neither do I find the way in which Bullock gets inspiration for how to power up the Russian spacecraft convincing:  I’ll resist the spoiler, but does a woman always need a man to tell her what to do?  Not the women I know, that’s for sure…

What it is, though, is a technical triumph.  I’m not a fan of 3D, and a trailer for the new Hobbit borefest convinces me why: it’s as realistic as one of those View-Master toys from the 1960s, or the 3D panoramas you used to make in a cornflakes box, gluing characters one behind the other.  Blurry, over-complicated, distracting – it’s just bloody awful.  There are, however, exceptions, and I think it may have to do with space.  ‘The Life of Pi’ worked because of the wide open spaces of the ocean, ‘Star Trek’ worked because of the wide open spaces of… well… space.  Here, it’s magnificent, especially as the fragile little tin buckets  man has littered space with (and one revelation of this film is just how much fucking junk is up there, and how close together it all is) bullet their way across the magnificence of blue earth or, best of all, Bullock tumbling out of control against the mammoth backdrop of the Milky Way.

So if you do go to see it – and I recommend you do – see it on as big a screen as possible and in 3D.  Then go bungee jumping afterwards – it might be the only way to come down from the high.

“Star Trek: Into Darkness”

Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on May 28, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Wow.  That was loud.

I love Star Trek.  I especially adore Jean Luc Picard, surely the most complete poet warrior ever to grace our screens.  I could watch him all day and forgive TNG for Ryker and Troi and Worf and pain-in-the-ass Geordie and anodyne android Data.  He was far, far better than James T. Kirk.  And that James T. Kirk was far, far better than this James T. Kirk.

I’m getting grumpy about characters and plots these days.  Chris Pine, while occasionally catching us off guard for a moment when he gets William Shatner just right (“Bones, will you get that off my face…”),  comes across as just too callow and unthinking.  The old Kirk, for all his hormonal imbalances, had the capacity to stop, to think, to take a deep breath and actually outwit his opponents; Pine simply bulldozers his way through problems.  It’s tempting to think of it as an age thing, to see Pine as a more youthful version: but Shatner was 35 when he first took the Kirk role; Pine is now 33, and so should, therefore, have some of those high school jock tendencies knocked off him a bit.  If you could forget the original, Pine does a good job; but the problem is, you can’t forget the original.

And I know there has been a new timeline created for this series, but the Federation now has sinister fascist overtones the orignal rarely expressed; Gene Roddenberry’s conception, brilliantly realised in TNG, was of a utopia without money, without class; reward was achieved through self-actualization and achievement, through being the best one could be.  Now, with its shining Canary Wharf skyscrapers and military-minded plutocrats and its grey uniforms, one can’t help feeling that Earth is on the knife edge of totalitarianism, which makes Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan a pretty sympathetic villain.

And of course the plot is daft, with holes you could pilot a starship through.  Just how did it happen that the nasty Admiral had  in his possession exactly the same number of torpedoes that Khan needed to hide his crew in, and how did it come to pass that they were the very same ones installed on the Enterprise?  If the Admiral’s plan was to start a war with the Klingons, why did Khan assist by fleeing to Chronos?  How come Kirk’s short-range communicator made calling from Chronos all the way to Scott in a sleazy bar back on Earth seem as simple as calling 118118 on your mobile?  And how come this whole plot feels like watching the inanities of “Skyfall” all over again?

But, do you know, I didn’t exactly hate it.   Space  looks beautiful, even in 3D, and the Enterprise is as stunning as ever (though I wish they had resisted the temptation to make this ship look several centuries ahead of the original).  And the characters are fine generally, especially Zachary Quinto as Spock and Cumberbatch, though Simon Pegg – who I think is a genius – mugs awfully as Scott and Alice Eve has a long way to go to prove she’s not just eye candy who looks stunning in a three second flash of her underwear.  It’s also undeniably exciting, the final sequence as the Enterprise drops like a stone through the atmosphere quite genuinely thrilling.

Overall, though, this was a disappointment, and I think its because it’s yet another ‘threat to Earth’ scenario.  At the end, Kirk is handed his five-year mission orders, and hopefully we’ll now move onward and outward, with the Enterprise facing hostile alien life forms out on the edge of knowledge and reason.  Those were the very best of the original and the TNG series, and I hope the next film captures that ethic.

Just, please, no bloody Q.


Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on May 6, 2013


Okay, LOTS AND LOTS OF SPOILER ALERTS here, because I’m going to give this one a doing, despite actually, well, between you and me… quite enjoying it.

It’s a movie that’s kind of crept under the radar, what with big blockbuster sci-fis like the new Star Trek and Iron Man getting all the attention.  It’s also a quiet sci-fi, attempting something more cerebral, despite starring Tom Cruise as Jack, a repairman left behind on Earth with his partner Victoria (a gorgeously porcelain blank Andrea Riseborough) to fix drones protecting sea-sucking machines that provide power to a human population forced to flee the planet after an alien invasion.

The world created is fantastic, an absolutely believable wasteland of silt deposited over skyscraper cities after the aliens destroyed the Moon, letting mammoth tidal waves  and earthquakes do the dirty work for them.  Visually, it is stunning.  Technically, too, it’s excellent: the technology is utterly believable, with nothing pushing the bounds of credulity too far.  Jack’s aircraft – a cross between a helicopter and a dragonfly – is one of those “I want one of those” movie gadgets, and the drones are chunky, threatening little monsters that might well become the sort of thing the US military deploys against Afghan tents next.

Cruise is fine too.  If you can forget (a) just how ugly he was in his spotty, dribbling earlier days (“The Outsiders”, “Legend”) and (b)  that he hangs about with dodgy cults, he’s actually a fine sci-fi action movie stalwart.  He was, of course, excellent in “Minority Report”, and I liked his everyday Joe in “War of the Worlds”, when he got to be a bumbler rather than a hero.  He delivers everything he has to here, both physically and emotionally, with some genuinely exciting, heart-stopping moments; however, there isn’t much of a spark between him and the excellent Riseborough or the woefully passive eye-candy of Olga Kurylenko, and that takes a bit of the heart out of it.

Plot wise, it follows the age old sci-fi habit of stealing as much as it can from other films from the genre.  The world created is reminiscent of “Planet of the Apes” or “Legend”,  the set up reminiscent of “Silent Running” or “Wall-E”, the ending a blatant larceny from “Independence Day” (there you are, you know the big mother ship blows the fuck up at the end).  There are lots of other echoes:  “Logan’s Run”, “Zardoz”, “Moon”, “The Time Machine”… I stopped name checking after a while.

But the holes, the holes…  stop reading now if you want to see it with an unjaded eye.

Of course, it’s a paranoid conspiracy thriller, and all is not as it seems.  The “aliens” are actually the remnants of human civilisation, while the “humans” are actually an alien machine that travels the galaxy sucking planets dry of their resources (“Independence Day” again, “V”… arrgh!) that has cloned Jack and Victoria as soldiers to invade the planet.  A few things began to jangle with me.  If an alien culture is so technologically advanced it can destroy a Moon – and the shattered orb in the sky is really effectively done – and have a capability to hunt humans with drones, then why do they need flesh and blood troops?  Why go to all that effort to clone thousands – tens of thousands – when they could surely easily crush such a puny species?

Perhaps this is their plan – save resources by turning alien species on themselves.  But if so, then why is the interior of the mother ship set up with banks and banks of pods for humans (“The Matrix”… stop me, stop me!)?  Are all alien species in the galaxy human sized, human shaped?  Hardly seems likely.

Anyway, that’s not the biggest problem.  Nagging away is that this has sneaky undercurrents of a propaganda movie.  Just as I despised “Eli’s Book” because it was so obviously an Evangelical response to the nihilism of the far superior “The Road”, I just can’t divorce this from the elephant in the room: Scientology.   This is a space opera, and it’s impossible to watch this, with plot lines filled with deeply repressed memory playing such a prominent role and Earth being a Battlefield (God, Travolta with a big head and dreadlocks!) that you just know there are subtle interpretations going on here.  Or maybe I’m paranoid.  That’s what you get when you show me paranoia for two hours.

But even that isn’t the biggest problem.  The biggest problem is the ending, which is the most dishonest and maudlin cop-out in the history of cinema since the execrable ending of what was otherwise a perfectly good movie, “AI”.  There, the makers lost their nerve and had sweet little robot boy reunited with his mother for a day; here, the implication is that girls always need a hero and, as long as it looks and sounds and smells like Tom Cruise, it really doesn’t matter if it’s the original who died 70 years earlier  or number 49 that blew up in the spaceship or number 52 that wanders the desert looking for redemption.  The look on Olga Kurylenko’s face at the end as yet another version of her husband – but it’s NOT your husband, you dizzy besom!!!! – is almost as vomit inducing as Cruise’s leer as he intones the lines “I am Jack Harper” and no doubt thinks “And the hottie’s mine, all mine”.  It really is utterly excremental, and while the possibility of doing something totally, honestly dystopian fritters away with the ridiculously easy destruction of the mother ship, this capitulation to the happy clappy middle-of-the road audience who can’t cope emotionally with anything nasty happening to the all American good guys is wholly inexcusable.

So, a movie that offers much, delivers bangs for bucks for long periods and then throws all its credibility away for one disgraceful moment of narrative cowardice.  A real pity.

“Django Unchained”

Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on March 3, 2013
Django Unchained

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx

I love a great Western.  I watch Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West – surely one of the greatest films ever – at least twice a year, partly because it is so evocative of the George cinema in Barrhead in the sixties where I spent most Saturday afternoons.  There are others that I think are wonderful  – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or The Proposition or Valdez is Coming or the rebooted True Grit.  Thing is, I’m not sure Django Unchained, while being a  great Quentin Tarantino movie, is actually a great western.

Tarantino has made a lot of the fact that this is one of the few westerns that deals with slavery, and that is true.  The question is whether or not he deals with it in a way that serves the subject faithfully enough, and I don’t quite feel it.  Certainly, the brutality of the time is adequately represented – the visceral Mandingo fight or the slaughter of an escapee by dogs are  truthful enough – but at all times there’s that Tarantino nod at the entertainment quality of violence that has become his trademark.  That’s why the camera still shies away from the stripe of whip across the back or the tearing of flesh by teeth, so that it’s hideous in a way that doesn’t actually disturb enough to ruin the fun.

And fun it is.  Of course we root for Django in his Wagnerian quest to rescue his Brunhilda, and it’s always a hoot to see inbred rednecks getting their come-uppance at the hands of the smart-talking jive-walking icon of black empowerment that is Jamie Foxx.  With, of course, Tarantino’s trademark anachronistic soundtrack pounding away, it certainly gets the blood up.

I’m easy oasy about Tarantino:  I was left mildly entertained by Reservoir Dogs, loved the operatic bloodiness of Kill Bill (part 1), rooted for Jackie Brown, gaped at the freak show that was Pulp Fiction and loathed hated detested Inglorious Basterds because of the flip, insulting way it treated those affected by a war that merely scratched the surface of American society but tore Europe apart; you just know in twenty years time, a fair number of Americans will believe Hitler was assassinated by a bunch of smart ass GIs in a cinema shoot out, and soon after that, they’ll be demanding its inclusion in Texas school board approved history textbooks.

And the history just doesn’t feel right.  I cannot believe that even a free man could possibly hope to be treated with anything like the courtesy accorded to Django – eating at the white man’s table? – since at the time freebooters frequently raided into non-slavery states to kidnap free blacks for resale in the South.   Neither do I find credible the notion that a black who had shot several white men would not be lynched on the spot, but would be sold on instead.  Okay, I’ve only read a couple of histories, and I’m sure the film makers did their research – but if it doesn’t convince, then I aint buying it, even if I am being asked to suspend disbelief for the best of intentions.

Django shares many of the Tarantino tics: there’s no mistaking it as one of his self-referential constructs.  Every movie has the stamp of his history, his ethic, his taste, on it; that’s why so many of the scenes are reminiscent of others, including Leonardo di Caprio’s character offering a “tasty beverage” in exactly the same tone as the hamburger scene from Pulp Fiction, or Kerry Washington’s ridiculous girly applause mimicking Lucy Liu’s in Kill Bill.  There’s the predictable roll call of names that that are so familiar as his clan – the weird Michael Parks, members of the Carradine tribe – along with his own cringingly awful appearance, and the inclusion of Franco Nero, the original Django and the epitome of the spaghetti western aesthetic if you can’t afford Clint Eastwood, not as a respectful tip of the hat to the man himself, but as an homage to just how knowing Tarantino himself is.

So he has a big, big ego.  That’s forgivable since he makes pretty good movies.  And there are some exceptional aspects to this film, most especially Christoph Waltz.  Already a Best Supporting Actor winner for his Loony Tunes portrayal of Landa in Basterds, here he stands out head and shoulders above the other actors in a performance that offers heart and bravery and pragmatism and humour.  He is brilliant, and, I think, the only reason to go out of my way to watch the film again.

“Life of Pi”

Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on January 4, 2013
link to imdb Life of PI

Life of Pi

Ang Lee is, I think, my favourite director. Certainly, of big budget Hollywood movies, I think he is perhaps the most consistently brilliant. I loved “Crouching Tiger…” because I think it brought a whole new genre, the martial arts epic, into mainstream and encouraged wonderful films like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” into Western consciousness. One of his less loved films, “Lust, Caution”, is red hot gorgeous, a fitting vehicle for a superstar like Tony Leung, while “Brokeback Mountain” is so poignant in the pain of its domesticity. Even “Hulk” was perhaps the one superhero movie that captured the comic book aesthetic most convincingly, “Watchmen”, maybe, excepted.

I liked Yann Martel’s novel, though not as wholeheartedly as some. Perhaps I lack the spirituality. However, it is classic picaresque, a ripping yarn with a deep and dark underbelly, and it is beautifully written. Lee, who makes beautiful films one after the other, was perfect in the chair for this, then.

The story is faithfully told in a voice that is utterly convincing (Irrfan Khan is a charismatic and seductive narrator) so that we invest in it completely – which makes the terrible truth told right at the end of the book and the film all the more awful. And it is gorgeously and breathtakingly shot. The first sequences, of Pi’s life in Pondicherry, are warm and nostalgic and perfectly staged, and the characters seem hyper-beautiful, especially Pi’s idealised mother, played by the stunning Tabu, and his handsome, wise yet distant father (Adil Hussain); it is the perfect recreation of a lost childhood.

And, of course, the scenes on the ocean are fantastic. There are gobsmackingly ethereal experiences that mould Pi, beautifully realised by newcomer Suraj Sharma. The becalmed lifeboat, resting mirrored on the reflected sky the colour of bruised peach; the ghostly evanescence of algae and jellyfish and whales; the storm of flying fish that sweep over the boat; all literally take the breath away and mingle reality and surreality hallucinogenically.

That beauty is contrasted so vividly with the carnage of the early days of the boat’s drift – I swear you will never see anything as red in tooth and claw on any wildlife documentary as you will as the natural food chain asserts itself in an orgy of fear and rage and savagery – and with the deterioration in Pi and his companion as they drift aimlessly all the way across the Pacific.

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger Pi finds himself marooned with. It is absolutely, utterly convincing at all times, whether live action, animatronics or CGI. It is a huge, growling, snorting, fearsome and fearful presence that dominates the whole cinema, never mind the boat, and we give those hearts that are in our mouths over to it completely. As it saunters off exhausted and emaciated into the Mexican jungle, perhaps to re-establish itself as king of the forest or perhaps to lie down and die, you absolutely understand Pi’s keening wail at the loss of something so magnificent. “Turn round,” you want to beg, “one last look, please.” Nothing so simple: as Pi’s father so aptly says, when we look into an animal’s eyes, we project our own emotions into them. Martel and Lee are far too clever to offer us the easy way out.

Great, beautiful, sumptuous, warm, believable and yet fantastic. I even loved it in 3D, which I usually avoid. In this case, though, the effects – a flitting hummingbird perhaps the loveliest – are subservient to the story, and that is as it should be.

In need of a doctor: “Skyfall” (and some other films)

Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on November 17, 2012

You Know Who…

Let’s get the positives out of the way: I like Daniel Craig’s reinterpretation of Bond, and he may well be my favourite. Yes, he lacks the heartless suave charm of the cruellest Bond of all, most people’s favourite Sean Connery; but Craig’s dour, blank, troubled soul is probably more appropriate to a world which understands psychopathy and post traumatic stress disorder. He’s also the most physical of all, someone whose animal indestructibility you really can believe and yet whose vulnerability – so brilliantly realised in that torture scene in “Casino Royale” – is the perfect flip side.

I also like the way that physicality has nudged to the side all the gadgets, a tendency that reached the pits with the invisible Aston in“Die Another Day”. There is a problem, though, in the anachronism of reintroducing the ejector-seated Aston from “Goldfinger” back into “Skyfall”;  just whose car is it, given that Craig hadn’t been born at the time of its first outing?

I also like the succession planning of “Skyfall”, ensuring a continuity that was never catered for in previous films, complete with the prospect of more of the lovely Naomie Harris; one can never have enough Naomie Harris in a film, I think.

As Bond films go, there are real strengths. The opening chase has rightly been applauded, and the lair of bad guy Silva – filmed on the deserted island of Hashima off the coast of Japan – is stunningly and eerily beautiful. But – in many ways – it’s the messiest Bond film for a long while, and I can’t help feeling that a visit from a competent script doctor might have saved it from some appalling weaknesses.

Firstly, there’s the baddie. Javier Bardem is a fantastic actor, but here he’s given a script that underuses him pathetically. Before we meet him, he is effectively set up by his sex slave Bérénice Marlohe as a man to be feared more than any Bond has ever met: “Can you kill him?” she asks desperately in a scene in a Macau casino that is really well done in the emotional claustrophobia it creates. So, anticipation is high.

The reality, though, is a let down, and there is never any sense of danger when he’s in the room. Silva, an ex-agent betrayed by M, is nothing more than a petulant schoolboy out for a little payback  (he calls M, “Mother”) and his motivation therefore lacks any grandeur, any sense of the operatic that Bond villains really need. “We’re under attack,” says M, an attack that consists of one slightly underwhelming explosion at the top of the MI6 building and the assassination of 3 agents. What happened to taking over the world?

In addition, nothing is made of the horror of his betrayal other than a prosthetic device he removes for a little bit of gratuitous freakery that asks us to believe that potassium cyanide has destroyed his upper palate and cheekbones but has somehow left his tongue intact so that he can speak.

But it’s the whole central section of the plot that is just preposterous. Apparently, it rests on the notion that Silva allowed himself to be caught, knowing he would be taken to an underground base in London from which he knew he could escape through the tunnels of the London Underground where he could catch a Tube train through Central London so he and two accomplices could shoot their way into the palace of Westminster to kill M. This, apparently, is a plan, Q tells us, he must have been hatching for years.

Now, even as I watched it, I found myself asking so many questions. Years in advance, how did he know that he would be taken to this location? And if he knew he would be, and if he could control computers by remote to open up his cell, why did he have to wait until M had left the building before he escaped in order to kill her? Indeed, given he can track her at will, why not attack her at a time when she’s not protected by the Secret Service and armed Metropolitan Police?

Years in advance, how did he know that M would be called before a Parliamentary committee he would have to reach via the Underground, where he has had accomplices waiting for him with a disguise? How long have those accomplices been waiting there, given that he has had no way of contacting them during his incarceration? Years?

And how did he know exactly where to plant a bomb that would threaten to drop a Tube train on Bond’s head? How did he know – years in advance, remember – that Bond would be standing right there at that precise time just as the 10.14 to Earl’s Court thundered overhead?

And if Bond was so essential to the plan, why try to kill Bond in the Macau casino? What if those henchmen had succeeded? No meeting on the island, no signal to British Intelligence, no faked capture. Indeed, it’s a plan that depends on Bond surviving being shot off the top of a moving train and disappearing for months, a plan that depends on Bond returning to and being passed fit for active service, a plan that depends on Bond being in a Shanghai skyscraper to witness an assassination and survive a fight with the killer.  This isn’t a plan, it’s a series of unfathomably lucky coincidences.

And, at the end of the day, it’s a plan that would have fallen to shit if the Tube had been on strike that day.

It’s that section that just spoils the whole film because it doesn’t treat me as a thinking adult capable of following anything like the logic of a plot; it assumes that I’ll happily disengage my brain cells for a bit of flash and noise. It’s something the Bourne series doesn’t do, and the recent “Bourne Legacy” – with the excellent Jeremy Renner, growing in stature as an action hero after his brilliance in “The Hurt Locker”, and Mrs Craig Rachel Weisz – was a model of careful, intricate plotting. If the new Bond series borrowed its physicality and sense of realism from Bourne, it needs to do something about copying its attention to plot detail.

So because the film pissed me off, I noticed all sorts of other really, really annoying problems. The Shanghai assassin is tracked down after Bond digs bullet fragments out of his shoulder for analysis: but, hey, in the opening sequence, the killer fires hundreds of rounds all over Istanbul. Was nobody in British Intelligence intelligent enough to analyse fragments from those bullets to get the same information months earlier?

And while we’ve come to expect Bond films to include disposable women, it’s getting a bit nauseous for me. In “Casino Royale” the outrageously beautiful Solange (Catrerina Murino) was tortured and slaughtered on a beach for giving Bond information; in “Quantum of Solace” (a film I enjoyed, but again was spoiled by asking me to believe that the world’s most flammable structure could make any money as a hotel – how did it get its H&S certificate?), Miss Fields is done in merely as an homage to Shirley Eaton in “Goldfinger”. Here, Marlohe’s hugely interesting Sévérine has enormous potential, but is bumped off criminally early.

So – nope, didn’t do it for me. I’d actually lost interest by the final sequence, a grand scale firefight in the Scottish Highlands involving Bond inexplicably deciding that the best way to fight the bad guys (about 50 of them) would be to go to the middle of nowhere armed only with an old shotgun and an even older Albert Finney. And, of course, an ending that relies on a supposedly hell-bent killer delaying the final coup de grace to his target to smack his lips long enough for Bond to escape the depths of a frozen lake to save the day.

It was another disappointment in film this year. I’d already been let down by “The Dark Knight Rises”, with its underwhelming villain and its preposterous plot devices (yeah, a phalanx of unarmed cops would, of course, march up a street in formation to be gunned down by machine-gun wielding bad guys) and its unbelievably schmaltzy ending; I’d been let down by “Looper”, an empty Bruce Willis vehicle that doesn’t have enough Bruce Willis in it, and which singularly failed to live up to its “The New Matrix” hype; and I’d walked out of the excrementally inept “Avengers Assemble”, a film with a great cast (Robert Downey Jnr. is always a hoot) that I just knew would be noisy, trashy, CGI-laden and, ultimately, a waste of the entrance fee.

Karl Urban as Judge Dredd

However, “The Bourne Legacy” restored my faith with its tight plot, great action sequences and interesting heroes and villains; Renner – who was in the Avengers movie – has real star potential. But, actually, the most satisfying watch of the summer was one movie that probably will never appear on anyone’s top 10 list. I loved “Dredd”, with Karl Urban, a B-movie actor who was by far the best impressionist as Bones in the “Star Trek” reboot. So simple, so mindless, so taut, it had all the fun of the best arcade video shoot-em-ups.

Fight your way up level after level, get to the top, kill the evil genius and destroy the devilish machine.

Game Over.

Yeah, that’s the way to do  an action movie.

“Killer Joe”

Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on July 17, 2012

Killer Joe

Nothing like a career-defining role that asks you just to do everything you’ve ever done on screen, only crazy-like.  Matthew McConaughey is his usual preening and pose-striking self for the camera, but here he wildly fetishises himself as the nutjob cop-come-killer in William “The Exorcist” Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracey Letts’ stage play.

The theatre origins are obvious in the stagey, self-conscious insufficiency of the language of this assorted bunch of trailer-trash psychotics.  All are utterly bereft of any semblance of humanity, sandbasted to the bone by the dust storms and rains of a Texas whose only colour is the sickly fluorescence of the signs above the diners and the lighting in the titty bars.  Emile Hirsch is a fuck up who decides to have his mother murdered to pay back his drug dealers, only for it all, predictably, to go horribly wrong.  This is not a cute, misunderstood boy: he’s a feral rat, capable of selling his virgin sister, Dottie, to the psycho killer as collateral for the work.  Thomas Hayden Church is fantastic as the father whose neurons last connected back in the 70’s, a lug who stands aside and lets himself be blown by whichever wind prevails.

Apart from McConaughey – an actor I’ve never really been able to take seriously until now, frankly – plaudits go to Juno Temple as Dottie, a totally convincing mixture of ingénue and Lolita.  The scene in which Joe seduces her is cringe-inducing in the extreme, mainly because it also manages to be extraordinarily erotic at the same time, Dottie’s nakedness so honestly presented it cannot fail to excite while the context repels.   Dottie is the centre of this drama, everything revolves around her, all the battles are over her in one way or another, and so the ending, when she has the means of controlling it all in her hands, is very special.

That final scene, the most threatening use of a fried chicken leg ever seen on screen, is pure Pinter meeting Tarantino.  The lavish violence which pervades the movie is never so convincing as in this last reel.  As a dénouement, it’s somewhere near classic.

It’s right up there with “No Country for Old Men” as a dissection of a Texas in terminal moral decline, and Woody Harrelson’s “Rampart” as a mainstream actor’s left-field star turn as a cop gone way, way bad.  A fine, fine film.

“The Hunter”

Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on July 7, 2012
The Hunter imdb

Willem Dafoe, “The Hunter”

I’m not sure what it is about Australian film makers, but they can be a gloomy lot at times.  Scandinavians, yes – Australia, with all that sunshine?  Mmm..

Though “The Hunter” isn’t strictly Australian; it’s Tasmanian, and the stark beauty of the island leaps off the stunning digital print with amazing clarity.  Into a landscape that veers from lush to moonscape-barren is dropped Willem Dafoe as Martin David, the clumsy double Christian name an obvious ploy to keep his identity a secret.  He’s a soldier of fortune sent by a shadowy corporation to hunt, kill and eviscerate for its DNA a Tasmanian Tiger, that lost, weirdly beautiful predatory marsupial that died out at the hands of man in the 1930s, a criminal act we should have known better about by then.  The premise is that the animal had a toxin that the company wants for weapons development; yeah, a bit on the far-fetched side.

There are quite a few problems with the film.  Dafoe is a reliable and often mesmerizing actor, and he’s perfect for the part of the blank slate mercenary.  However, too much reliance is put on that stoicism, with long periods of silence and repetitious tracking and setting of snares; I reckon I’ve seen enough to able to whip up a perfectly good stray cat trap out my back garden.  In addition, the transition between apparent unmapped wilderness and relative civilisation is too convenient; one minute, he’s gutting a wallaby and sleeping under the stars, the next he’s parking his 4-wheel drive outside the family home he’s billeted in.

There are a few plot developments that don’t make much sense:  however, I’ll save them, because it is a film worth seeing, and I don’t want to spoil it.  Mainly, it’s watchable for Dafoe, Frances O’Connor as the ethereal, damaged wife of a missing ecologist and Morgana Davies as her precocious daughter.  Not enough is made of the potential relationships, and so the way that plot line ends should be much more gut-wrenchingly shocking than it is, but the performances are rich and nuanced.  In addition, Sam Neill does Sam Neill as a somewhat sleazily sinister neighbour who plays all sides.

Thylacines, the Tasmanian Tiger

Of course, Tasmania itself is a star, a wonderful place beautifully shot.  It’s actually quite easy to imagine that there may well be a few remaining specimens still surviving in that hostile, primeval environment; it would be wonderful if there were, and even more wonderful if we never knew it.

It’s the ending, though, which I find quite startling.  It’s supremely nihilistic message seems to be that the only way we can prevent the world being raped long and blind by corporate greed is to put it out of its misery quickly ourselves, and then to pick up whatever shattered pieces of our souls remain and get on with the job of looking after each other as best we can.

As an environmental message, that’s about as bleak as you can get.