Review: SAVAGES

October 30, 2012

A sunburnt film noir awash with the golden glow of the California coast and the crimson carnage of the Mexican drug cartels, Oliver Stone’s crime drama Savages throws a lot at the wall…and not all of it sticks.

This adaptation of acclaimed crime author Don Winslow’s novel aims to replicate the book’s jazzy, jittery prose with a cinematic approach that’s equally bold and striking.

However, it just feels a little busy, as if it’s working overtime to convince the audience of its own intensity.

But with a so-so story and a gallery of characters that just aren’t that interesting, Savages ends up wearing itself out long before a slightly tricky climax that just might erase any good will it may have accrued with its viewers.

There are savages galore in Savages, but the central characters don’t really start out that way.

Long-time friends Ben (Aaron Johnson from Kick-Ass) and Chon (John Carter’s Taylor Kitsch) are respectively the brains and brawn of the biggest marijuana operation in sun-soaked Laguna Beach.

Biology whiz Ben uses his know-how to create primo weed and funnels the bulk of his profits into humanitarian projects in Third World countries. Ex-military badass Chon keeps the peace by putting the squeeze on anyone looking to muscle in.

Shoulda stayed in Dillon, Riggins

But even Chon may be facing more than he and his well-armed buddies can handle when the Mexican cartel headed by the ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek) sets its sights on the duo’s business.

Elena and her sadistic henchman Lado (Benicio Del Toro) aren’t taking no for an answer, and to guarantee compliance from Ben and Chon they kidnap O (Blake Lively), the beloved girlfriend of both men.

Bad move. Because they’ll do whatever it takes to get O back, even if it means sinking to the same level of savagery as their adversary.

One of the main problems facing Savages is that the trio of heroes isn’t all that compelling. Kitsch has the odd flash of steely fury and Lively does what she can with a truly unworkable character but Johnson is something of a blank.

There’s more spice in the supporting performances, especially Del Toro’s loathsome Lado and John Travolta’s double-dealing lawman.

Benicio looks so evil on the surface. But underneath it all he’s probably still fairly evil

But Savages is mostly a half-empty display of sound and fury, directed by Stone with professional panache but only a fraction of the berserk passion he brought to the table in his heyday.


Remorse Code Retro: William Friedkin

October 29, 2012

Back in 2002, William Friedkin came to Melbourne to present a screening of his 1977 film Sorcerer at the Astor Theatre, and a fresh-faced (ha!) Guy Davis got to interview him. Here’s what went down.

In a South American shanty town where the air is thick with poverty, corruption and desperation, four men – all hiding from their pasts – are about to make a deal with the devil.

An oilfield run by an American company has erupted into flame, and the only way to extinguish the blaze is through a controlled explosion set off with the use of highly volatile nitro-glycerine.

Transporting the explosive over 200 miles of treacherous jungle terrain is virtually a suicide mission. For the four men who volunteer to drive the trucks full of nitro, however, the opportunity to buy back their freedom and return to their former lives is worth the risk.

That’s the story of Sorcerer, Oscar-winning director William Friedkin’s 1977 remake of the French classic The Wages of Fear.

The film was a labour of love for Friedkin, best known for intense, visceral pictures like The French Connection and The Exorcist, and it is a great showcase for his technical skills and bravura visual sense.

While Sorcerer features a number of sequences that are among the most gripping seen on screen in the last 30 years, the downbeat, character-driven and often oblique movie failed to connect with audiences when it was released in the late ‘70s.

It faced extra difficulties in Australia, where the local distributor decided to crop the first half-hour (which explains how the four main characters have ended up in such dire circumstances) to enable more screenings per day.

The Astor Theatre is currently screening a completely uncut print of Sorcerer, and this is the first time the film has been shown in its entirety in this country. Friedkin himself supplied the print, and then travelled to Melbourne to introduce it to audiences.

Readers of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind’s history of American cinema in the ‘70s, may get the feeling Friedkin is a hot-tempered, ego-driven prima donna. After speaking with him, I came away with the impression that this is a guy with a terrifically salty, no-nonsense outlook and a genuine passion for his art.

Friedkin loves to talk – most of his interviews went much longer than the allotted 20 minutes – and he is candid, opinionated and articulate. And Sorcerer remains his favourite out of the many films he’s directed over a career spanning five decades, even if it was extremely “hazardous and difficult” to make.

“We had to do everything mechanically. There were no digital opticals or effects in those days, 25 years ago,” he said.

“If I knew it would be such a hassle – that it would endanger people’s lives and my own life – and then meet the sort of fate that it met in some parts of the world, no, I wouldn’t have done it. But it is the favourite of all my films.”

Friedkin holds himself accountable for Sorcerer’s failure to connect with audiences, never believing that moviegoers simply “didn’t get” what he was trying to say.

“The only feeling is that I’ve failed in some way to communicate my intentions or to understand what the audience’s perceptions may be,” he said.

The only regret he has regarding Sorcerer is that he was unable to secure Steve McQueen as its star. While Friedkin is full of praise for Roy Scheider’s work in the lead, “McQueen was a genuine movie star who might have made the film more user-friendly.”

McQueen apparently called Sorcerer’s screenplay the best he’d ever read and wanted to be part of the project. However, he was reluctant to make the film in South America as he had just started a relationship with actress Ali MacGraw and didn’t want to be separated from her for the duration of the shoot. In a move he now calls “arrogant and stupid”, Friedkin turned down McQueen’s request for MacGraw to be made an associate producer on the film.

“I discovered years later that the close-up is more important than the wide shot,” Friedkin said. “A shot of Steve McQueen’s face is more interesting than the greatest landscape you could put on film. That’s what movies are about – iconic personalities.”

Gotta disagree with Friedkin here. McQueen’s a movie star, sure, but Scheider’s face is interesting and full of character

Friedkin came to prominence in a time when filmmakers were becoming as iconic as the stars they directed. The ‘70s saw the ascendance of Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma and many others, and the decade is increasingly regarded as something of a golden age in American cinema.

Was that really the case, however? “Compared to a lot of the crap that’s around today, sure,” Friedkin said. But he feels one big reason why the classics of the ‘70s have such resonance is that they tried to stretch traditional cinematic and narrative techniques but managed to find huge audiences at the same time.

“Today there are filmmakers who are equally if not more talented than we were, but they’re not finding an audience. Directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne and Spike Jonze. We were doing films back then that were sort of the equivalent to theirs, although we always targeted the mainstream audience.”

In Friedkin’s opinion, TV has a lot to answer for. Audiences have been conditioned by MTV’s rapid-fire editing, sitcoms with built-in laugh tracks and dramas he calls “sheer idiocy”.

“Today these young guys are making films that come from their own experiences – they’re serious and intelligent, often the audience is not.”


Review: ARGO

October 29, 2012

The career rehabilitation of Ben Affleck continues to gather momentum with Argo, the Good Will Hunting and Armageddon star’s third film as director and the best evidence yet that he’s truly a filmmaker of integrity and intelligence.

Deftly balancing drama, humour and white-knuckle tension, Argo is engrossing from beginning to end, with Affleck (doing double duty as director and leading man) and screenwriter Chris Terrio taking a top-secret incident from the annals of recent American history and spinning it into a marvellous stranger-than-fiction yarn.

And even if the film does take a little dramatic licence at times, it’s all in the service of a thoroughly captivating story.

A brief introduction outlines the turbulent history of Iran, particularly its fraught and complex relationship with the West, before plunging head-first into the 1979 takeover of Tehran’s US embassy by a revolutionary faction.

Most of the embassy’s staff were held hostage but six managed to sneak out and find sanctuary in the home of the Canadian ambassador.

With door-to-door searches being conducted, and an unpleasant fate all but guaranteed for the escapees and those harbouring them, the American government goes into crisis mode.

Every idea to extract the six from Iran has its flaws until CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) hatches “the best bad idea we’ve got” – posing as a movie producer scouting exotic locations for a science-fiction epic (the ‘Argo’ of the title), he’ll smuggle out the embassy staffers by presenting them as a film crew.

It’s risky on any number of levels – it needs the cooperation of Washington and Hollywood and requires the tired, stressed escapees to memorise elaborate cover stories on short notice – but it’s the only chance they have of making it out alive.

“DAREDEVIL? You must be thinking of another Affleck, my friend.”

There’s no two ways about it, Argo is riveting stuff. And it would work terribly well as a straight-up espionage thriller.

But not only does Affleck show supreme confidence and capability in depicting these aspects of the story, his no-nonsense style reminiscent of top ‘70s craftsmen like Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet, he also weaves dry, winning humour and layers of smart subtext into the piece without breaking a sweat.

Credit must also go to a terrific cast, with John Goodman and Alan Arkin particular standouts – the ever-reliable pair savouring their roles as the whip-smart and wryly funny Hollywood branch of the operation.


Remorse Code Retro: PRIEST review

October 29, 2012

If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that actor Paul Bettany and director Scott Stewart had joined forces with the sole aim of disappointing me.

After the squandered promise of their last collaboration, the tepid warrior-angel action flick Legion, I was naturally dubious about their next project together, even if it did sound like a concept it would be difficult to screw up.

I mean, a superhero priest (yes, really) taking on an army of vampires (yes, really) in a post-apocalyptic wasteland (yes, REALLY)?

You’d have to work pretty hard to make that a dull, uninvolving dirge of a movie.

Well, Bettany and Stewart have worked hard. And they’ve made a dull, uninvolving dirge of a movie in Priest. On the bright side, at least it runs for under 90 minutes.

One can only hope the talented Bettany has got his desire to be Clint Eastwood out of his system after playing the titular Priest, a veteran of a long, bloody conflict with a race of vampires that led to humans barricading themselves in walled cities and the bloodsuckers roaming the barren deserts.

 

“Look at all those audience members asking for their money back! Ha ha ha ha!”

Strangely enough, there are still farmers scrabbling to eke out a living in these dusty badlands, Priest’s brother Owen (Stephen Moyer) among them.

When Owen’s farm is attacked by a pack of vamps and his daughter Lucy (Lily Collins) abducted by their leader, Black Hat (Karl Urban), Priest defies the church bigwigs to go forth and kick a little butt.

Teaming up with Lucy’s sweetheart, Sheriff Hicks (Cam Gigandet), he tracks Black Hat across the desert, uncovering the evil vampire’s dastardly plan to reignite the war between the races.

There is literally nothing new here – every aspect of Priest has been cherry-picked from some other, better movie or TV series.

Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There have been more than a few entertaining trashy flicks pieced together like Frankenstein’s Monster from a variety of different sources.

But the makers of Priest don’t seem to have taken any joy or thrill from mashing up their inspirations and influences into a new beast – they just seem to be checking items off a list with all the breathless excitement of someone doing their weekly groceries.

That lacklustre approach extends to the cast, although Urban offers some tasty villainy as the bad-boy vampire making life hell for Bettany’s Priest.

Hey, at least someone’s having a good time.


Remorse Code Retro: BREAKING BAD’s Aaron Paul

October 29, 2012

When viewers of Breaking Bad last saw the character of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) at the end of the show’s third season, he was pointing a gun at a man’s face.

And then he pulled the trigger.

That was the stunning conclusion to a string of episodes that ranked among the most intense for a show already renowned for being one of the most compelling on television.

And as the fourth season of Breaking Bad gets underway, the situation, the stress and the stakes are only being ramped up even more.

It’s taking its toll on everyone concerned too, whether it’s the central character of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a chemistry teacher who initially started ‘cooking’ methamphetamine to provide for his family after being diagnosed with cancer, only to embrace the criminal lifestyle, or Jesse, the drug-using former student who first taught him the ins and outs of making and selling meth.

As Paul points out, the show has undergone a dramatic and unexpected shift since those early episodes. Whereas once it seemed Jesse was the bad influence, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that it’s the other way around.

Awww, but they seem so happy!

“When Breaking Bad began, it seemed as if Jesse was just this meth head but so many shades of grey have crept in,” said the actor.

“He’s a good kid. He messes up but he’s got a huge heart and a good soul. And you want to slap him in the face to snap him out of it or hug him and tell him everything is going to be OK.

“At the same time, Walter initially seemed so mild-mannered and now he’s becoming some kind of serpent! Meanwhile, Jesse is becoming the moral centre of the show. It’s so unusual, which is very much in keeping with Breaking Bad.”

Not many shows would have their moral centre shoot a man in cold blood, that’s for sure.

But it’s indicative of how Breaking Bad’s central relationships have developed over time that Walter is able to persuade Jesse that the killing is the only way to save themselves from certain death at the hands of Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), the cold, calculating drug lord with whom they’ve found themselves enmeshed.

“Walter has really turned Jesse’s world upside-down,” said Paul. “Once they started going down this dark rabbit hole together, it’s been a constant struggle for both of them in their own ways. And Jesse is really torturing himself this season.”

Okay, it’s not quite Ryan Gosling and ‘Hey, girl…’ but it’s a start

Paul admits that playing someone so tormented can be gruelling (“Some days are a little rougher than others,” he smiled) but the end result is worth it.

“I truly believe Breaking Bad gets better as the years go on,” he said. “I love the first three seasons but in my opinion the fourth is the best so far. It’s my favourite so far. It’s much heavier, much more intense, and it only gets darker as it goes. It’s definitely a wild ride.”

And to think it’s a ride he nearly missed out on. After all, Paul reveals, Jesse was originally not meant to survive beyond Breaking Bad’s first season.

“Yeah, Jesse was actually going to die at the end of season one,” he said.

“He would have taken Walter White into this world, shown him the ropes, and then he would have been killed and Walter would have been left there alone.

“But once we shot the pilot, it was decided that a whole different route with the dynamic between Walter and Jesse would be taken. Thank God!”


Remorse Code goes retro

October 29, 2012

Why, yes, Remorse Code is still alive and kicking. Okay, maybe it’s on life support and occasionally twitching. Regardless, it’s my intention in the coming month to add a bit of new content but also showcase some stuff from my archives as a reviewer, interviewer and commentator. It’ll hopefully provide you good people with some interesting reading material and maybe convince someone out there to exchange cash for my wordsmithing. Fingers and other appendages are now crossed.