Monday, 29 September 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Given the enormous budgets and associated stratospheric expectations, it appears more than likely that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, parts 1 and 2, will serve as the more bombastic episodes in the staggered swan song of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Those concluding chapters of the ridiculously good Hunger Games series will undoubtedly reap huge rewards at the box office, assuring the actor of an appropriately large canvas on which to be memorialised. 

Whatever the scale of those adventures, it is unlikely that such blockbuster fare will provide for as fascinating a display of Hoffman’s onscreen omnipotence as the rumpled, cigarette-caressing Teutonic spymaster Günther Bachmann. A secondary presence in John Le Carré’s 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man, Bachmann’s importance is enhanced and brought to life here by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn along with Hoffman. The latter's death in February robbed cinema of, arguably, its greatest contemporary talent. 

As befits the famous writer’s back catalogue, A Most Wanted Man, is a masterfully constructed Euro thriller, dripping with the cold paranoia of a post-9/11 reality. That seminal event is the prism through which all actions are judged and in Hamburg — its oily waters provide the backdrop to an ominous opening title card — these considerations are especially relevant. For it was in Germany’s great port city that the landscape-altering attacks of 2001 were conceived, then planned; their genesis was hidden, goes the implication, by a proud tradition of multiculturalism. 

German intelligence is determined to cripple the ‘offcuts of a nation called Islam’ in any way that it can. Its point man in this endeavour is Hoffman’s rotund Bachmann, the hard-drinking patriarch of a small unit operating on the peripheries of its nation’s laws by sniffing out extremist cells, recruiting assets and generally engaging in the kind of high-stakes espionage with which Le Carré is so familiar. 

A wonderfully complex character, Bachmann is every inch the jaded spook. His modus operandi relies on intuition and an innate understanding of his foes, yet regardless of his ethereal tendencies he is a true believer, the tip of the spear in a war against horrifying, demonstrably destructive ideologies. 

Hoffman is simply fascinating then, deftly imbuing Bachmann’s shuffling frame with a wheezing, open-collared inelegance and a cutting turn of phrase. Early on, a petty securicrat pompously advises him that terrorists ‘hide among us.’ ‘Do they?’ say Bachmann, wryly, disgust long ago replaced by wearied acceptance of the minimal appreciation for his craft. Stalking from scene to scene, like sage warrior, Bachmann mistrusts the American partners and his own government’s hulking bureaucracy, wary of its inability to get out of his way, to let him do his job.

His intricate plans revolve around a callow Chechen immigrant, Issa Karpov (a superb Grigoriy Dobrygin), and the fortune Karpov’s father laundered through the bank of Willem Dafoe’s quietly amoral financier, Tommy Brue, whose obsession with lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) forms the thrust of the literary source material. Employing all of the means at his disposal, Bachmann intends to use the money to hook, and turn, ostensibly moderate Muslim academic Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi). 

That is the basic thrust of Corbijn’s picture but, in truth, the complexities of international diplomacy and simple human nature jostle to spoil Bachmann’s design. Even the subject of the title is unclear. Is he the man in question, with his deceptively sharp mind and the information others desire? Perhaps our focus should be on the devout Issa, haunted by a monstrous past and unaware of his place in the tangled web. Abdullah seems the most obvious candidate: urbane, safe, undeniably suspicious. 

Whoever sits at the centre of its myriad strands, A Most Wanted Man is a surprisingly straightforward thriller, lacking the coolly vacillating narrative conjured by Le Carré in the excellent, restrained Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Corbijn’s confident direction allows a dense story to breath and as the extent of Bachmann’s closely guarded scheme shifts into view, he keeps a tight reign on the action. The tension is not especially palpable by the conclusion but there is sincerity beneath that icy tone, its refined vibe never compromised by anything approaching hysteria.

This is a step up for Corbijn whose last cinematic offering, The American, was little more than a vacuous star vehicle for a game George Clooney. It ably captured the subtle beauty of an Italian winter, of course, and, as expected, the visual work here is outstanding. His Hamburg is a blue-collar cosmopolis, at once brutal and exquisite, the default location for a gritty tale of such unashamedly European stylings. The sturdiness of the storytelling, however, is a pleasant surprise considering the director — a telling waypoint in Corbijn’s progression from artist to auteur. 

Indeed, as the crucial final piece slots into place, that which could have been played for the pleasures of the multiplex stays rooted in a world forged not by Bachmann’s thoughtful precision but by the political pragmatism of unyielding CIA officer Martha Sullivan (an incredibly menacing Robin Wright). Her ever-smiling exterior is clearly an act, a tool in a game only she fully comprehends.

If this is her game, then Hoffman is surely the star player and there exists an element of genuine tragedy in the fact that we will never again see him in a film so suited to his singular brilliance. 

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

No Liam Neeson film appears to be complete these days without its solo-billed crusader growling down a phone line to the overconfident criminal who has made the mistake of crossing him. Taken (entertaining) Taken 2 (dreadful) and Non-Stop (silly) have all featured Neeson’s gravelly telephone manner and the upcoming Taken 3 will surely plough a similar furrow, for old time’s sake if nothing else.

In that respect, at least, his latest grim-faced escapade, A Walk Amongst the Tombstones, is no different. As this terrific mystery-cum-thriller hurtles towards it blood-soaked conclusion, Neeson’s Matthew Scudder, a weathered gumshoe of the old school, reaches for the handset once again. Fortunately, given the quality surrounding it, this familiar trope feels like nothing more than a simple plot device in The Lookout director Scott Frank’s muscular screenplay.

Mercifully, Tombstones is a different beast to the gratuitous action feasts so beloved by Neeson’s accountant. Intense rather than overbearing, spartan without feeling abstract, Frank directs a stylish, lean adaptation of crime writer Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel, the tenth entry in a series which goes back as far as 1976. 

Block’s protagonist is Scudder, an ex-NYPD detective who quits the force after accidentally killing a child in a wantonly carefree street battle with a gang of thugs. Working around the date of Block’s book, the prologue here takes place in 1991, with Scudder snuffing out the scumbags who shoot up the bar in which he is consuming his morning fix. Eight years later he is an unlicensed private detective, and recovering alcoholic, who prefers to keep his head down and the gun in a closet.

His lonely existence is interrupted by the overtures of strangely monikered drug trafficker Kenny Kristo — a haunted Dan Stevens, jettisoning that awfully nice Downton Abbey persona for something much darker — who requires a discreet operator to find those behind the kidnap, ransom and murder of his wife.

Scudder obliges, trawling a dank world of snuff movies and narcotics in the process. From the beginning he is a step behind a series of horrifying deaths, the connecting tissue of a case with implications beyond pure psychopathy, though Neeson excels as the dogged sleuth, leaning his broad frame into the cold New York wind as winter and the Y2K scare approach. 

Considering the nature of the leading man’s recent output, it almost seems strange to witness him eschewing gung-ho activism for more sedate qualities. Indeed, the opening scene aside, Scudder is no adrenaline junkie. He prefers brains to brawn and preaches a roughly conciliatory attitude. In one scene, faced with a dagger-wielding suspect, a mix of Neeson’s imposing height and Scudder’s quiet physicality is enough to avert what would have been a gruesome confrontation in a less considered film. 

Frank is clearly aiming for a creepier tale and employs sporadic, startling violence to build tension, to support his bleak narrative. There is hard-boiled narration also, unobtrusive and effective, which helps to keep the audience abreast of the reluctant hero’s relentless snooping. 

Unfortunately the motivations of the murderous duo (Adam David Thompson and the always superb David Harbour) remain a mystery. Their place within a web of DEA scheming should be compelling but is poorly drawn out, leaving Scudder confused along with everyone else. That said, they are an undeniably menacing force. Thompson, in particular, displays an unsettling degree of passive aggression as the taciturn partner in a vile enterprise. 

Whatever the source of their urges, these are worthy adversaries for Scudder who is, in turn, unlike the tortured souls which tend to populate these occasionally clichéd genre pieces. The Ballymena native is a perfect fit for a practical man with neither the time, nor the inclination, to entertain demons and while his past deeds may constitute a particularly unpleasant learning experience, instead of a soul-consuming shadow, Scudder is no hardened automaton. His burgeoning mentorship of a precocious street kid (Brian "Astro" Bradley) offers some glimmer of normality and Neeson can, of course, do this kind of smart ruggedness in his sleep. His American accent is still a work in progress, mind.

In truth, such minor criticisms mean little once the rainy finale arrives: Scudder descends into the foulness that characterises so many modern noirs, his 12-step program punctuating the designed chaos of the concluding reel. With its slo-mo gunplay, sombre sense of prescience and a twist that never comes, Frank’s ultimate message is not entirely clear. Neeson’s journey to that point, however, is terribly interesting. 

An edited version of this article was was first published here

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

In Order of Disappearance

When Swedish film distributors were marketing The Life of Brian in 1979, they offered a sly dig at their morose Scandinavian cousins to sell their product. Monty Python’s opus was brilliant, they said. ‘The film so funny it was banned in Norway,’ screamed the self-satisfied quip.

Norwegians have often been at the back of the queue when it comes to the Nordic-cool accolades so popular at present: not as hip as the Swedes; less refined than the Danes; sullen squares next to the zany Finns. Oil wealth, snow and serviceable footballers are about the only things we lazily associate with our neighbours across the North Sea.

As with most stereotypes, of course, this is wildly inaccurate and nothing should undermine such silly notions more than Hans Petter Moland’s outstanding In Order of Disappearance. Bleak and chilly, this revenge thriller is a bloodthirsty, snowbound noir laced with a comic thread as black as pitch.

Stellan Skarsgård plays Nils Dickman, a resourceful Swedish immigrant who drives a snow-plough out on the vast tundra where he enjoys the respect of all in his small community. Unfortunately, that humble existence is cruelly interrupted when his son is murdered by a drug baron’s underlings and the useless police believe it to be nothing other than a tragic overdose.

Nils knows different of course and within the first 20 minutes he has already customised his hunting rifle, snuffed out two bad guys and thrown their bodies over a waterfall. As vaguely ludicrous as this sounds, there is never less than a knowing smirk lurking on the edges of Skarsgård’s watchful visage and one cannot help but feel righteous as this angel of vengeance – lacking any discernible history of violence, though he is far from a bumbling hick – unleashes himself, like a cruel Arctic wind, on a criminal empire lacking any notion of his existence.

Moland has tremendous fun with this unashamedly pulpy material, ranging the largely impassive Nils, bordering on psychotic in his own quiet way, against preening chrome-plated villain Greven (Pål Sverre Hagen). The first half may invoke the ghost of Charles Bronson rather than Leslie Nielsen but, by its finale, this is clearly a film refusing to take itself too seriously. Nils ignites a mob war; the body count racks up. Throughout this anarchy Moland cheekily sprinkles in sombre title cards bearing the departed’s name and a relevant religious symbol. 

Given its icy setting and that undeniably irreverent air, Kraftidioten (to use its native title: The Prize Idiot) displays more than a hint of shared DNA with the Coens’ Minnesotan crime epic, Fargo. In the scene where Nils and his wife view the corpse of their son, there is a spartan inelegance to the manner in which their child is levered up and down on a sterile tray. The Coens would be proud indeed of such a chillingly awkward subversion of human decency. 

That said, while the American masters tend to imbue their pictures with a degree of sweet innocence, Moland has no such intention here. The cast helpfully buys into this creeping chaos; Nils is the unmoving instigator, Grieven the petulant prey. The latter is a particular scene-chewing treat with Hagens murderous vegan overlord sporting sharp suits, good hair and a burning hatred of his ex-wife (Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sørensen). 

Beyond that, Bruno Ganz pops up as the equally ruthless boss of the local Serbian mafia. Ganz has become something of a parody in recent years, thanks to his much edited rant in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, but he remains an actor of true gravitas. 

Just as outstanding is Skarsgård, a man with little to lose. The Swede, who has long straddled the worlds of European cinema and Hollywood, enjoys himself immensely in the lead role, terrorising a murky underworld for which he has only disdain. The cost, however, is high. To realise his wrath he must sell his soul and no matter how arch the tone, there is nothing amusing about that.

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

It should come as no surprise that Lasse Hallström’s latest cinematic offering, The Hundred-Foot Journey, is as replete with the Swede’s trademark visual richness and narrative saccharinity as anything else in his bulging filmography. 

Following the observant, and critically acclaimed, 1993 feature, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Hallström’s career has become increasingly defined by beautifully rendered, if overly emotive, tearjerkers. The Cider Rules was a wonderfully elegant period piece which earned Michael Caine a deserved Academy Award, but it is safe to judge that the director — a veteran of literary adaptations — has applied its formula with decreasing success in the years since. 

In some ways then, The Hundred-Foot Journey (based on Richard C Morais’s source novel) is an apogee of the modern Hallström: undemanding themes, flawless photography, flawed plotting. Enjoyable and visually gorgeous, this choppy effort is carried along on the shoulders of a capable cast and a palette as rich as its culinary treats. 

At its centre is prodigal chef Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal). Home schooled in his mother’s kitchen, Hassan and his family relocate to Europe from their native Mumbai — illustrated, just to be safe, by bustling markets and the obligatory lilting sitars — following a devastating fire at their rustic eatery. Led by the stubborn Papa (Om Puri), the Kadam clan winds up in the south of France, via Holland and Germany, where fate intervenes to anchor it in the heartland of haughty French cuisine. Both gruff and flighty, Papa spots a ramshackle restaurant for sale, buys it up and muscles in on the patch of aloof, Michelin-obsessed restauranteur Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) in the process. 

In the early scenes, Hallström is in his element, the action cavorting around the outrageously picturesque surroundings of the nameless French locale, a place bathed, apparently, in an eternal golden hue. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera soaks up a charmingly vivacious kaleidoscope of colour and it is no overstatement to label this 2014’s most aesthetically pleasing release. 

Less certain is the story itself. Far from being complex, Steven Knight’s script is coming down with stale clichés and a cloying sense of fate much removed from his earlier, gritty screenplays for the likes of Eastern Promises — Russian mobsters, sexual violence, naked shower-based knife fights — and the brilliantly tense Locke.

Indeed, the clash of cultures forms the picture’s only thoughtful element. One hundred feet separates the rival premises of Puri’s proud patriarch and Mirren’s scheming siren, though, very broadly, it also represents a chasm between two worlds. That heavy-handed dichotomy is overplayed but remains an amusingly executed running gag. It even gives way, naturally, to friendship and respect.

Beyond that, however, many of this gentle drama’s failings rest in its superficiality. What conflict there is feels forced, swiftly brushed away to make room for yet more scenery or another dollop of warm-hearted cod philosophy. While Hassan’s evolution is actually quite interesting — he embraces classical French cooking without losing sight of his equally refined roots — it is marked by pleasantly meaningless dialogue which says absolutely nothing of consequence. ‘The sea urchins taste of life,’ intones one character. ‘Food is memory,’ opines another. Okay then. 

Ironically enough, for all its keen gastronomical sensibilities — and this is a film obsessed with the workings of the kitchen — actual table-ready fare is noticeable by its absence. Save for a few snatches of meanly portioned nouvelle cuisine and delicious looking curries, Hallström appears to reckon that audiences will be excited by the mundanity of how meals are prepared and considered. As Hassan’s talents take him to Paris and a hilariously pretentious neon establishment which would not be out of place in The Matrix, food, increasingly glimpsed, becomes a chore: overwrought and expensive. It is an incredibly strange approach given the subject at hand. 

The latter arc is situated at the end of a film that seems substantially longer than its 122 minutes, a sensation undoubtedly accentuated by the myriad strands invading the foreground right up to the rolling of the end credits. Whole new plots are conjured from nowhere, each cutting off the chance to explore those other raised questions that remain hanging and unanswered. 

What do the locals think of the Indian flavours that Papa was so determined to introduce? From where in these sparsely populated surroundings are all the customers coming? Why is everyone speaking English? Minor queries they may be, but basic authenticity depends on such detail.

In spite of such obvious weaknesses, there is much to admire in an uplifting tale of family unity, one steeped in the belief that we are, to use a topical phrase, better together. 

The cast in particular is up to the task of presenting the unchallenging material with wit and enthusiasm. Puri, who gets all the best lines (‘He looks like a bloody terrorist’), is especially watchable as a bullish man convinced of his own superiority and his crackling interplay with Mirren is perhaps the best thing on the menu. Dame Helen aims for pantomime matron, sliding, often illogically, between French and English, but she is a classy a performer, incapable of cheap or nasty.

Dayal, too, possesses a greater number of layers than is initially suggested and if his romance with Charlotte Le Bon’s incredibly adorable, bicycle-riding Marguerite is laced with predictability from the beginning, the eventual iciness of their professional rivalry is infinitely more interesting. 

Ultimately, almost inevitably, Hallström’s newest project is as accessible as a curry down the high street and about as hard-hitting as the house korma. There is no kick to this dish.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Two Days, One Night

It is interesting to think that Marion Cotillard’s Hollywood sojourns, outside of her native France, should so closely resemble the offscreen persona. From Public Enemies to The Dark Knight Rises, the starlet has often been cast as the same elegantly glamorous figure so popular in glossy French gossip columns. 

In Cotillard’s more familiar Francophone surroundings, however, the Oscar winner has excelled in blue-collar tales focusing on the quotidian struggles of the working classes. Both Rust and Bone and La Vie en Rose were hardscrabble fables, wildly different in content but undeniably similar in theme, and Cotillard — playing a double leg amputee in the former, Edith Piaf in the latter — imbued these pictures with an invigorating charge of humane naturalism. She is a truly remarkable actress. 

So she proves here in the latest project from Belgian siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, filmmakers well versed in spartan and meditative portraits of the squeezed lower middle. Like Ken Loach with less it’s-grim-up-north realism, the brothers Dardennes have long practiced the art of coaxing drama from unremarkable settings. In Two Days, One Night that drama is affecting, yet low-key, as the plot delves searchingly into places of such relative insignificance that almost everyone will feel a twinge of connection to its illustration of lifes stark and ordinary practicalities. 

Cotillard plays Sandra, a woman barely clambering out of the hobbling depression that has confined her to the house and jeopardised her livelihood in the process. She is just about ready to return to her job at a local solar panel factory when she suffers another setback. Given the choice by the boss to welcome her back into the fold or receive a €1000 bonus, Sandra's colleagues have opted, predictably enough, for the money. 

It is an arbitrary conundrum, perhaps, but its cruelty is artfully played and prolonged to a humiliating degree when Sandra is granted a stay: a new, secret vote will occur after the weekend. All she must do is convince a majority of her co-workers to surrender their much-needed cash, securing her employment in the process. That is, of course, an easier prospect in theory and Cotillard is every bit the tortured soul bouncing unwillingly between doorsteps and doorways, peddling the same feeble plea, begging for mercy; that she is urging people to choose her wellbeing over their own is a cause of instant tension. 

Even with a family to feed and a mortgage on the line, Sandra’s odyssey could prove too great a task. A morbidly depressed individual, she is barely equipped to fight this battle. With each refusal, Cotillard’s broken woman retreats further into a private morass, slinking off to her unmade bed in daylight hours full of Xanax and sorrow. In these moments relief even hovers around the edges of her weary visage. Each setback is a confirmation of her own inadequacies; this swirl of familiar miseries serve as symbols of warped comfort. 

Cotillard bravely shows off the kind of layered, multifaceted characterisation with which only the greats tend to toy. She slides effortlessly between tentative highs and crippling lows, all the time masking the squall behind a choked, whispering exterior. This brilliance seems grounded in small but intimate details, where beautifully observed acts of domesticity (Sandra delicately rearranges her children’s bedroom with expert precision) sit easily beside an unheralded suicide attempt, genuinely chilling in a casual sort of way. In truth, hers is a stunning performance that will resonate long after the credits roll. 

The directors exhibit no obsession with morbidity, however. The small victories are joyous indeed, blazing shafts of light in the gloom. As those who refuse her have that right — everyone is attempting to makes ends meet — so, too, does each ally act to his or her own detriment. The courage of their solidarity is underplayed, though undeniable.

In support of Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione’s revelatory display as Sandra’s husband, Manu, is the film’s second pillar. Granted less time to shine, he nevertheless remains a rock throughout, both motivator and chauffeur. 

The unquestioning commitment to his wife’s betterment, in spite of her own doubts, could become repetitive in less assured hands but Rongione’s low-key devotion represents something profoundly touching. It is as truthful a portrayal of real-world masculine responsibility as anything depicted elsewhere. 

Ultimately, the Dardennes’ work soars, in spite of its earthy simplicity, thanks to Cotillard’s wondrous, unmissable presence. The ending offers drama and pain in equal measure, yet Sandra embraces a noble redemption of sorts. In doing so she hints at a sea change, a reclamation of self-worth once considered lost. 

An edited version of this article first appeared here