Two films this week made by screen legends whose careers have settled in to something a little less than their glorious past. Sidney Lumet was making television drama when it was broadcast live from the studio in the 40s and 50s, and made the first (and best) version of courtroom drama 12 Angry Men in 1957. In the 70s he made some of the best of those gritty New York stories that defined the decade (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) but his most recent work has passed under the New Zealand radar, his last twofeatures not even getting a local release. To be honest I thought he was dead and figured that I must have missed his name pass by in one of those Academy Award salutes to the fallen.
Which makes Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead a lovely surprise: a gritty, R‑rated, heist-gone-wrong picture, set in those New York mean streets we seem to know so well (but also the verdant Westchester suburbs). Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play two down-on-their luck brothers, young men whose character flaws render them inadequate to cope with the various pressures of modern living. Hoffman’s Andy is an ambitious real estate accountant (not a deal-maker but a wannabe player) with a drug habit and an embezzlement problem. Hawke’s Hank is divorced and struggling to pay the prep school fees and child support to his tough bitch ex-wife (Amy Ryan from Gone Baby Gone).
When Andy suggests that the robbery of a small suburban shopping mall jewellery store would be the answer to all their problems we are about to get one of the great set-ups for a thriller in modern memory and they are about to get in to a whole heap of trouble. Effortlessly switching perspectives and time-frames, Lumet proves that he hasn’t lost that ability to reveal human frailty by piling on the pressure. Totally recommended.
Brendan Gleason Gleeson (stretching his legs) plays self-made property developer Liam O’Leary who, under pressure from the banks and corrupt politicians, starts seeing visions of a man who looks like himself, following him around. It turns out this fellow is his doppelgänger, bent on destroying the life Liam has built for himself and taking anything valuable to be found in the rubble. The “evil twin” story is one of the oldest in literature and it makes for a pretty lumpy metaphor here. Despite all the success and riches brought by the Irish Miracle, as Father Andy who runs the homeless shelter (Ciarán Hinds) says, “for every success, someone else has to lose”. Boorman’s direction is workmanlike but he retains that annoying habit of re-recording all the dialogue later using ADR, making it sometimes seem like you are watching a poorly-dubbed foreign film.
Kung Fu Panda is a boisterous and entertaining animated flick that resembles an eight-year-old’s bedroom while they are throwing all their toys around. The story makes no attempt at originality, hoping that the voice genius of Jack Black and the thrilling broad-brush animation will provide enough energy to carry you through (and for the most part it does). Black plays Po, a panda with dreams of kung fu glory. When Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the evil snow leopard, escapes from detention bent on revenge the search goes out for a new Dragon Warrior, for only a Dragon Warrior can defend the valley from such a menace. And so on and so forth.
Finally, in the annals of pointlessness a new chapter must be written and that chapter will be titled Speed Racer. I fell asleep during The Matrix at the Embassy in 1999 so The Wachowski Brothers have never managed to work their magic on me but even so, I have rarely felt so detached from a big screen movie as I did watching this adaptation of a (supposed) cult Japanese kids cartoon. In fact, I found myself pondering the total carbon footprint of the experience if you add the appalling cost of the film to my sitting in an empty, climate-controlled, theatre on a Monday morning to watch it.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 July, 2008. Sorry for the delay in posting but somehow I managed to get pretty busy this week.
No review to post this week (only Hancock released and Will Smith will do nicely without any help or hindrance from me) and next week I’ll be putting up my mammoth Wellington Film Festival preview (cross-posted to Wellingtonista).
If, like David Fincher, you were growing up in Northern California during the early 70’s you, too, might have become fascinated and obsessed by the mysterious publicity-troll serial killer known as Zodiac. Now Fincher has turned that fascination in to a solidly constructed but overlong history of the failed efforts to identify Zodiac and bring him to justice called, with typical imagination, Zodiac.
The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the first murders in 1969, whose obsession about the case led to a book identifying the most likely suspect (and a failed marriage).
One of the problems that law enforcement had in dealing with the Zodiac was his propensity for taking credit for murders that weren’t his and the fact that his real murders occurred in three different jurisdictions, meaning that there was little or no co-ordination and important evidence wasn’t shared. It took Graysmith’s decade long perseverance to at least shine a light on a case that officially still remains open.
There are good performances from many reliable faces including Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Brian Cox. Chloe Sevigny is criminally under-used (as she often seems to be) as Graysmith’s wife (but that’s a fault with the true-life story rather than the filmmakers). In fact, this is one of those true stories you wish had been jazzed up a bit rather than treated with so much respect. The problem here is that Zodiac doesn’t do a heck of a lot so there’s no way to ratchet the tension up except with spooky blind alleys.
If you were a Zodiac-obsessed kid like Fincher, you’ll get a big kick out of the detailed recreations of the era. If you are a normal citizen like myself, by the time the film goes in to Decade (and Hour) Three, you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about.
Altogether more successful serial-killer sleuths are on display in Woody Allen’s new UK-based production Scoop. Scarlet Johansson plays Sondra Pransky, journalism student on holiday in London. At a magic show (Allen himself is The Great Splendini) she is visited by the ghost of gruff old Fleet Street hack Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) who gives her a tip: Eligible rich boy Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) is the infamous Tarot Card Killer and she has to reveal the truth and get the scoop of the decade.
With Splendini’s help Pransky goes undercover but finds herself falling for Lyman/Jackman’s charms and dropping the scent. This is minor Allen (aren’t they all these days?) but not without charms and several jokes made me laugh out loud (one of which I am stealing for myself). It seems to have been thrown together a little haphazardly and a cast of English notables gets very little to do except stand around at garden parties – former Bond and Indiana Jones villain Julian Glover gets only one line as Lyman’s father.
The beautiful Romola Garai (I Capture The Castle) plays best-friend Vivian and she will be here in September to play Cordelia to Ian McKellen’s Lear at the St James. Looking forward to it.
Finally, in a quiet week, late night tv spin-off Reno 911!: Miami is about as funny as someone standing on your corn (an image drawn directly from life, ladies and gentlemen).
Printed in the Capital Times, Wednesday 23 May, 2007.