No. 179 – Warrior (2011)

Sometimes I need to remind myself that I am watching what the general public regard as the best 250 films ever made.

Because while Warrior is a perfectly acceptable way to pass two hours (and another twenty minutes), I am stumped as to how this can be seen as any kind of milestone in the history of cinema.

When Warrior was first released, I shunned it. The world doesn’t need another Rocky-wannabe so soon after The Fighter I thought to myself. Then friends who I respect (and some I don’t) wouldn’t shut up about it. Then I noticed its rating on the esteemed Internet Movie Database and added it to the high priority pile on my Lovefilm list.

And it’s this betrayal that has made me angrier every day that has passed since I watched the film. I dismissed the film and unimportant cinematic fluff, then got excited about only to find out I was right in the first place.

The basic story revolves around two estranged brothers, and their inevitable encounter in an MMA (Multi Martial Arts) tournament with a WINNER TAKES ALL $5 MILLION CASH PRIZE!

I am now going to talk about the film in a way that means I cannot help but spoil it.

If you don’t want to spoil the film for yourself then either bookmark this page and return once you have seen it, or alternatively just read on and don’t bother to watch the film. The choice is yours.

Are you ready?

Right, what annoyed me most about the film is that while on one hand it tried to be gritty and neo-realistic in places – the plot hinged on some totally unbelievable plot points that totally undermined the tone of the rest of the film. Imagine if Nil By Mouth had a scene where someone wins the lottery, and then get’s voted in as Prime Minister on a populist anti-Domestic Violence ticket. Or if in Shane Meadow’s Dead Man’s Shoes Paddy Consandine was actually a British special agent with the back-up a rogue cell in the style of Mission Impossible?

For example, the top 16 MMA fighters are really going to put their body and health on the line with the prospect of getting NOTHING in return. Sport doesn’t work like that! All of these fighters would have demanded at least an appearance fee to cover the costs of training/travel/not being able to walk again. This appearance money would have probably been enough to solve Tommy and Brendan’s assorted financial problems – which explains why the film doesn’t pan out that way.

While on the subject of the tournament, it is more than just convenient that Tommy and Brendan both manage to blag a spot in the most talked about MMA competition of all time. I just don’t buy it.

Tommy’s past as a marine is badly handled in my opinion. First we’re meant to believe he ripped the door off of a tank with his own hands. Why couldn’t it have been a more believable form of heroism? Then, when outed as a deserter not only do the military police decide to wait until the end of his participation in the tournament before arresting him, but thousands of marines turn up to cheer him in the stadium. Cheering for someone who deserted his squadron in Iraq? Really?

How he got home from Iraq to Pittsburgh is probably best left in the imagination of the writers as well – lest they decide to bring out a Bourne-esque prequel. Actually, Tom Hardy would make an excellent character in the Bourne series, but I digress. The fight sequences are pretty impressive – but if you are a MMA fan and want to see decent MMA fight sequences, you might as well watch the real thing.

I usually love Tom Hardy, but he was surprisingly one-dimensional in this role, and I got really fucking annoyed at having to keep turning up the volume to hear him and Nolte try and out-mumble each other. I was far more emotionally invested in the Joel Edgerton character, and I think a pretty decent and more entertaining film could have been made just showing his side of the journey. It would have been shorted, funnier, and overall more enjoyable in my opinion.

The film was too long, unoriginal, and took itself too seriously. I’ll trust my gut instincts a little more in future.

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No. 225 – Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby was Roman Polanski’s first US film, and is the film that launched Mia Farrow and that haircut into stardom. It’s based on a novel by Ira Levin, and apparently Polanksi followed the novel almost to the letter as he was unaware that he could take any liberties with the source material. Ah Hollywood, if only you had retained that innocence…

Farrow plays the titular Rosemary – and the film follows her and her actor-husband (played by John Cassavetes) as they decide to move into a new building (complete with horror-staple warnings about it having a spooooooky history) and deal with nosy neighbours, suicides, and Rosemary’s pregnancy and the impending birth of their child.

Without wanting to give too much away, Rosemary gradually starts to suspect that all is not right with her neighbours – and she starts to genuinely fear for her life, and that of her unborn child.

Actually, fuck it. This film has been out for over 40 years and I don’t think I am really ruining anything is I say that Rosemary thinks that her neighbours are a coven of witches and that they want her child for a sacrifice.

The genius of the film, and the reason I had a knot in my stomach for the majority of it, is that because we only see events from Rosemary’s perspective we are constantly questioning whether or not her suspicions are true, or whether they are the product of her paranoid mind. In a scene where Rosemary is trying to convince one of the few outside-parties in her life, I still found myself not quite believing her despite everything I had already seen.

Despite being billed as horror film, Rosemary’s Baby doesn’t really fit the conventions of the genre. There aren’t really any ‘jump’ moments, and most of the film takes place in very normal surroundings, and in the daylight. What Polanski does however, is just keep dripping fear and dread into every scene – like some kind of Chinese Water Torture. Towards the end of the film I felt suffocated not by unexpected shocks and frights, but by the horror of the situation apparently being confirmed to me. This was compounded by an extraordinarily performance from Farrow who not only uses her acting chops, but physically transforms before our very eyes.

Maybe this is a personal thing but despite not being a religious person I have always been most disturbed by the glut of films that appeared in the 60s/70s that dealt with the religious supernatural, and the human followers of these practices. I’m talking about classics like The Exorcist and The Omen, as well as a much under-looked ‘favourite’ of mine Race with the Devil (starring Peter Fonda). Actually, I may write a top-5 ‘Devil-Worship’ films in the near future…

I have a few minor quibbles – it feels a little dated in parts, and there’s a couple of moments in the build-up that just feel silly – an example being when Rosemary and Guy spend their first night in the new house making love (their words) on a wooden floor before finishing their dinner. But overall the screenplay is brilliant in the art of making sure that every word counts, and means something to the story – and despite being about 20 minutes too long in my opinion, there is not a lot of waste onscreen.

So, a brilliant film made by an exceptional craftsman. Then why do I feel like I never want to watch it ever again? I’m not a believer in the supernatural, but something about this film just felt wrong, and almost other-worldly. Don’t watch it just before bed.

And don’t have nightmares…

No. 175 – Drive (2011)

Released last year, Drive is the stylish, and often very brutal, neo-noir story of an LA stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. Although it is the very definition of critically acclaimed (it currently has a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), it is a film that has really divided my friends and peers.

It stars Ryan Gosling as ‘The Driver’ (his lack of a moniker arguably a tribute to Clint Eastwood’s prototype antihero) who crashes cars for a living by day, and operates like an uber-strict Taxi service for criminals at night. In the opening scene of the film we see The Driver talking to a client:

“There’s a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own. Do you understand?”

I can’t imagine The Driver telling you “I’m just coming down your road. Honestly. Two minutes tops”. Pretty sure he also wouldn’t tell you what’s wrong the country these days or answer your questions about how busy he’s been tonight.

About that opening scene though. Wow. I don’t think I have been as mesmerised by the opening 10 minutes of a film since the first time I saw Heat – which is ironic as the director Nicolas Winding Refn manages to photograph (rather than merely film – it’s all about the light) LA in a very Michael Mann-esque way. Added to the gorgeous visuals is a pumping, doom-laden synthesiser soundtrack and some small snippets of stylised dialogue. When the titles come up, I could not help think of the seminal console game GTA Vice City – and I honestly mean that as a massive compliment. In fact, I think the plot of Drive would have been perfect for Vice City (despite being the wrong city).

The performances are almost uniformly excellent. It’s great to see more of Bryan Cranston (as I have only just started Breaking Bad – very poor, I know) and Carey Mulligan can do no wrong in my eyes (see Shame). Ryan Gosling is interesting as The Driver, and at times seems almost ‘too cool’. For a start, he chews on a toothpick. Now, Eddie Izzard talks about the ‘circle of cool’ in Definite Article – and his theory is that ‘coolness’ is a circle, and that is you go too far round the circle you get cooler, and cooler, and then you go too far and you’re “back to looking like a dickhead”. He actually uses toothpicks as an example – one toothpick, looking pretty cool. But add a second toothpick.

There are moments in Drive where Gosling straddles that circle, and one of those moments actually involves a toothpick. He’s stood in the kitchen of his neighbour’s (Mulligan) flat chewing a toothpick. Pretty cool. Then he offers a toothpick to her son. Not cool Driver. Toothpicks aren’t gum. Or Tic-Tacs. Or segments of Satsuma.

I can’t find anyone who doesn’t like the first half of the film – it’s the second half that loses a lot of people. Basically, a heist goes wrong and all of a sudden the Driver is fighting to protect himself and the people that he may love, but certainly feels honour-bound to protect. And at this point the violence really takes over. It’s not long and sustained, but it is brutal and shocking – like a punch to the stomach. I personally felt the violence was justified by the situation that the Driver found himself in – and although it may appear out of character, the character that we ‘know’ is based on the actions of a man that we only have a few days history of. We don’t know his backstory, and where he has come from – which is why I personally don’t think you can say it is unbelievable.

What say we go back to mine and split a pack of toothpicks?

Nor do I think the violence was gratuitous. It is raw, and uncomfortable – but the people on the receiving end deserve it, and that is the sole justification for allowing the audience to be a voyeur of Driver’s actions. I have seen less obviously visceral violence portrayed on screen in some of the ‘torture porn’ films like Hostel, Saw, and 8mm – but they make me far more uncomfortable as I think the directors in those cases are not really ‘saying’ anything, but are offering up the violence as entertainment. I also think it’s less gratuitous than Winding Refn’s previous film ‘Bronson‘.

This is by no means a perfect film. For a film called Drive, there was only one real car chase of any substance, and a few scenes didn’t quite have the pay-off I wanted (specifically a scene on the beach at the start of the 3rd act for example).

That said, I woke up this morning and wanted to watch it again. I’ve seen people refer to it as a homage to 80s Road Movies, but to me its tone felt closer to nihilistic 70s thrillers like Get Carter, The Getaway, and The French Connection. Either way it’s one hour and forty minutes and stylish entertainment – and if you can get past the violence it is just great cinema.

No. 185 – Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good Will Hunting. You know the one. Ben Affleck & Matt Damon. Won the screenplay Oscar (and Golden Globe) even though they were, like, 20 when they wrote it! The one about maths that isn’t A Beautiful Mind. It’s so well written even the title is a play on words. I think. I never could quite work that bit out.

I didn’t remember a huge amount of the film from my original viewing. There was a blackboard, Robin Williams, and a killer Ben Affleck line. I’d forgotten Minnie Driver. That was a pleasant surprise. If by pleasant you mean that feeling when you stumble into the kitchen on a Sunday morning with a raging hangover to find there’s no milk for a cup of tea, so you drag your half dead self to the corner shop for milk, only to discover the shop burned down, and then finally arrive back home empty handed and dry mouthed to find you’ve locked yourself out.

Still, best original screenplay Oscar winner must be worth a punt. It beat Woody Allen, for crying out loud. What quickly becomes clear, however, is that this screenplay is less about the story and more about the killer lines. It’s almost like they were playing at film making. You can imagine Affleck & Damon in a writers’ room, tossing a football around and brainstorming. Fair play, this resulted in some great speeches, which made for some pretty great film scenes. It also resulted in one of them saying “Hey, apropos of nothing, we should totally have a slow motion fight scene set to Jerry Rafferty’s Baker Street!” And the other one agreeing.

Snappy lines: check. Clever speeches: check. Class commentary: check check check. Now we’ll just fill the rest with some vague character set pieces and a large amount of Matt Damon slumped on an otherwise empty subway carriage, staring into space. Will’s a thinker, you see. That’s what thinkers do. He may hang out with socially disadvantaged Chuckie (Affleck: wears a tracksuit, says ‘fuck’ a lot) and cronies (zero distinguishing features) but he’s got something special. He cleans the corridors at MIT, where some fancy professor posts maths problems on a chalkboard, and people try to solve them. For kicks! Damon mops and polishes through his mental arithmetic, to the point where no one else has much hope of standing upright on that particular piece of flooring, let alone solving a tricky batch of algebra anywhere near it. Basically, he wins by default.

In order to avoid jail for the aforementioned incident (crimes against Scottish singer/songwriters), Will is instead forced to hang out with the fancy professor, cultivating his talent for high fiving over equations and generally making maths look cool. He also gets free therapy thrown in. To sort out the fact that he’s emotionally dead inside. Indeed, although the great therapist eventually cracks him, Will shows more passion about free education via public library than he ever does to his girl.

So to the love story. With Minnie Driver. The extent of Will & Skylar’s relationship is this: one date to a fancy dress shop (she’s so wacky!), a post coital conversation in which she uses a Magic 8 ball extensively (so very wacky!), a drinking session in a Tavern where she meets his mates and tells a knob gag, and a kiss in an outdoor café which is awkward to the point of actual physical discomfort. She then compounds viewer squirming by Dick Van Dyking the line “It’s not fair, I’ve bin ‘ere for four years, and I’ve only just found you.” This character is badly written and poorly acted. Will’s breakdown and self-destruction hinges on the fact that he’s desperately in love with Skylar. Only I don’t see it. Where was it? Behind the comedy glasses in the junk store? At the end of that god awful blow job joke? For the purposes of the Top 250 challenge, I was willing to give Driver a chance. But, frankly, I find her Best Actress Oscar nomination bemusing.

Full disclosure, I won’t hear a bad word against Robin Williams. (Unless, maybe, that word has four letters, begins with ‘J’ and ends with ‘ack’.) He’s a cuddly, cardiganed, hairy masterpiece. The delivery of his speeches in this film are on par with Jed Bartlett, proliferation of the term ‘chief’ notwithstanding. It’s a fucking good job they got him. He’s great at playing a world weary academic, and you can bet Ben Affleck was screaming “O Captain! My Captain!” from his folding chair the day they filmed the “It’s not your fault” scene. Williams steals the show. Sean and his dead wife are an infinitely better love story than Will and Skylar.

Really? REALLY?!

Once he’s set up his pal with the girl, Affleck’s Chuckie barely gets a look in the rest of the film. But when his big speech finally comes, it is suitably heart wrenching. “You know what the best part of my day is? For about ten seconds from when I pull up to the curb until I get to your door. ‘Cause I think maybe I’ll get up there and knock on the door, and you won’t be there.” That’s the stuff great screenplays are made of. When he delivers this line at the dumpster, it’s angry and poetic and paints an emotional picture. But at the culmination of the film, when Affleck actually gets to act out those ten seconds? Honestly? It’s all a bit gummy. Don’t worry Ben, you’ll get another chance next year when you save the world from a Texas sized asteroid. Don’t let Bruce Willis totally steal your thunder, will you?

I know you’re not supposed to speculate on what happens after the film finishes. You’re supposed to trust the fact that Jerry Maguire got his fair share of that final 11.2 million dollar deal, that Garland Greene enjoyed his new found freedom without making any more human hats, and that Danny & Sandy’s flying car didn’t crash into a nearby power plant as the credits rolled. But I’m concerned Affleck & Damon didn’t think this one through. Will didn’t want to spend his life “sittin’ around and explaining shit to people.” And ok, Skylar has money so he’ll never need to work again. But he’ll be bored out of his amazing, genius mind. That’s not what Chuckie wanted him to do with his winning lottery ticket. I secretly imagine a Five Years Later epilogue, where he’s ditched Skylar for the screeching Brit harpy that she is, and is running some kind of academy with Robin Williams in India. One with exceptionally shiny floors.