Tag: film reviews

About Schmidt (2002)

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A poignant film about the definition of success.

About Schmidt follows Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a veteran actuary of the Woodmen of the World insurance company in Omaha, Nebraska. Schmidt is a polite, measured man surrounded by people who are commonly quite the opposite.

There are flashes of his broad, mischievous smile and roguish charm, but Nicholson reels in his iconic charisma, he effortlessly becomes the respectable, disconcerted Middle American and is as magnetic and watchable as usual.

The film begins in a desolate office as Schmidt stares at a clock that adorns a bare, grey wall as the final minute of his interminable career ticks by. He then enters something of a catatonic state, his blank expression displaying ambiguous yet decidedly dissatisfied emotions. He attends his retirement dinner, witnessing overlong, self-indulgent speeches from colleagues both old and new. He also drops by his old office to speak with his replacement who was so very charming at the dinner yet so indifferent afterwards. Throughout these scenes Schmidt retains his composure, reserving any judgement on his rapidly changing life.

As he sits at home unsure what to do with himself, he watches an advert appealing for the viewer to sponsor an African child. He does so, and is soon funding and corresponding with a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu; it is his first letter to Ndugu that provides the first big laugh in the film. As he puts pen to paper, Schmidt boils over and rants about his cocky upstart of a replacement, his daughter’s fiancée, his failure to achieve ‘semi-importance’, his wife’s annoying habits and his somewhat emasculating subservience to her.

Soon after this letter, his wife passes away. Schmidt then begins to reflect on every aspect of his life, even wondering if his wife was the soul mate she was supposed to be.

The film is about the nature of success. Schmidt’s definition of success is leaving an impression during one’s existence, making a difference. He doesn’t aspire to be Henry Ford or Walt Disney, he draws the line far below that level of success, however he wants to be ‘semi-important’ at least.

What exactly does Schmidt mean by ‘semi-important’? By striving for something that he hasn’t precisely defined he has set himself up for disappointment. The only way in which most people make a profound difference is by continuing their lineage, creating new people and a myriad of new experiences – I think that is entirely honourable. The main objective isn’t to shake the system up but to enjoy yourself. 

Personally, I think Schmidt has been a success; his hard graft will provide for generations to come, as long as his self-absorbed, high maintenance daughter isn’t foolish. His life’s greatest flaw was his wife, he had no connection with her, they were on very different wavelengths. He could have divorced her, but that would have most likely had negative effects on his daughter; he arguably did the righteous, selfless thing by sticking with her.

Some feel the ending is bathetic, which is understandable. I thought Schmidt was being too hard on himself, but it seems he filled a very personal void in the film’s final moments, so that has to be a good thing.

I have written about these characters as if I know them, which is testament to the existential resonance of About Schmidt. 

77%

Get Carter (1971)

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‘Get Carter’ is certainly an icon of British miserablism, however my most recent rewatching left me unimpressed.

I love British films of the 60s and 70s. Everything’s very grey and very brown and the characters are thoroughly downbeat and pessimistic; there’s also vile patterned wallpaper everywhere.  The visceral kitchen sink drama is a British trademark that can still be found in later films such as Gary Oldman’s ‘Nil by Mouth’ (1997) and Paddy Considine’s ‘Tyrannosaur’ (2011).

‘Get Carter’ is an icon of British miserablism, I first saw the film on TV when I was quite young, I liked it. I’ve had it on DVD for years and always regarded it as a nasty, hard hitting classic. However, after watching it again in 2013, I was left rather deflated.

There’s no doubt that it continues to be drab and nasty. The abject horror of 60s architecture can be seen throughout the film; I think the brutalist architects of the 50s and 60s did more damage to our landscape than the Luftwaffe. ‘Carter’ really corroborates the saying ‘It’s grim up north’, as the film’s great climax shows that even the beaches can’t escape the polluted, achromatic hell of the city. (I’m pleased to see that the beach has since been completely cleaned up)

Despite this, the problem at its core is simply age, it has dated badly. The violence has no punch, quite literally; the choreography of Caine’s beat-downs on various enemies is unconvincing and in some instances just risible. The worst example of this is when Carter manages to catch someone’s fist and slap him round the face in a scene that is horrendously edited. There’s also a moment where he lunges towards a woman (who cannot act) in a café and wraps his hand around her throat in a highly orchestrated fashion.

All of this amateurism is exacerbated by how, in this film at least, Michael Caine is not an intimidating figure. In ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980), Bob Hoskins is short, stocky and has a very bad temper, however Caine, whilst cool and moody, is rather lanky and weak.

The script is also dated, it’s all ‘bloody’ this and ‘you’re a git’ that. While there’s no doubt that the British have an affinity for such words, it felt like the script was under the gaze of Mary Whitehouse (Well, someone more lenient actually, the ridiculous Whitehouse would even object to the lexicon of Get Carter)

Aside from its age, I also found the story weak. It is basic, which can be great, however as the characters and their relationships are so unremarkable, Carter’s straightforward revenge narrative suffers. I didn’t particularly care for Carter and his cause, he’s a blandly nasty character meting out justice to other equally flat characters.

Caine is fine as Jack Carter; he has moments of great anger, especially in an emotional outpour in the film’s final minutes. Outside of these moments however is a rather standard hard man stock character performance.

While ‘Get Carter’ is still bleak and perhaps captures the zeitgeist of 70s working class Britain, it is rather dramatically unaffecting. After years of thinking it was a great film, I was left unimpressed by its lack of character development, its collection of poor supporting performances and its dated action and script. The shocking climax on that foul, polluted beach and Roy Budd’s fantastic score are still high points, though.

69%

Glory (1989)

Glory_Head_ExplodeAfter this appropriately nasty image, ‘Glory’ becomes awfully choreographed.

Ultimately rather average.

‘Glory’ charts Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s (Matthew Broderick) appointment to the head of a coloured regiment through to his battles with institutional racism during the American Civil War.

As a result of familiarity and the majority of the characters being quite bland, I found Glory’s central theme of racism somewhat unremarkable. The flattest characters in the film were the troops of the coloured regiment, who should be central to the film. The problem is they’re not, which is an issue. ‘Glory’ is adapted from Robert Shaw’s letters to his mother, meaning the film is naturally focused on him. Consequently, the core subjects of the story are quite underdeveloped.

Morgan Freeman gives a very Morgan Freeman performance as John Rawlins, the measured, sensible and wise Sergeant Major, characteristics so typical of Freeman’s oeuvre. Denzel Washington is more interesting as Private Trip, an angry runaway slave who’s understandably embittered with the world and everyone in it. This anger manifests itself as bullying, he’s always provoking people who threaten that chip on his shoulder. His wrath is felt particularly by Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), an educated, well dressed man whom Trip considers an uncle tom.

Trip is a decent character and convincingly played by Washington, he conveys that pain and anger well; his Oscar winning turn is probably the best performance of the film. However Trip is, like the rest of the film, still somewhat unremarkable and overly familiar. There is one scene where Trip remarks how the regiment is ‘the only family he’s ever had’, which is so clichéd and predictable you could see it coming a mile off.

What perhaps is worst about the film are the battle scenes. While there’s a grisly headshot at the beginning and it succeeds in depicting the disgraceful death of the suicidal battle charges, it ultimately does not convince or affect. There’s far too much choreography going on, whether its soldiers exuberantly throwing themselves about under cannon fire or the almost laughable scenes of contrived mêlée where the soldiers run about rifle butting each other like in some second-rate action film.

Mark Kermode spoke of how ‘Glory’ had ‘visceral war scenes’ that were ‘long before Saving Private Ryan’. Indeed, ‘Glory’ was before ‘Saving Private Ryan’, but the latter heralded a new level of brutal realism, after its awesome 169 minutes you feel completely battered and depressed. I am very surprised that Kermode would compare this tame piece of work with Spielberg’s stark WWII epic.

Despite my reservations, I wouldn’t say ‘Glory’ is a bad film, it goes along just fine. Although I thought there should’ve been more focus on the black characters, it is Shaw’s struggle to control and maintain his new regiment that’s probably the most interesting part of the film. Although a compassionate man, he realises that he is now an authority figure, he must nurture a veneer of unwavering stoicism and power so the men respect and obey him. This means he must adhere to the rules of the time, including the ugly, violent ones. I was most engaged when watching Shaw wrestle with the officialism and racism of his regiment, however the men he commanded were trite and boring.

While it may have been more profound in 1989, I felt that the film, although competent, was rather neutered and covered well-trodden ground.

 69%

Threads (1984)

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Devastating film.

Even to those who know of Threads‘ reputation, the film still packs a punch that leaves you winded and miserable. It is a comprehensive and compelling insight into nuclear warfare that brutally highlighting the abject foolishness of MAD – the apt acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction.

The film focuses on young couple Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) and Ruth (Karen Meagher) and their respective families. Ruth’s pregnant, so they’ve decided to do the proper thing by marrying and moving in together. Of course, their plans are never realised. The cast consists of unknown actors, which is a smart move because any household names may have detracted from the reality of it.

Although it is a drama, much of the film adopts a documentary format. Informative captions are typed across the screen by what sounds like a teletyper, producing that loud, mechanical sound as it ominously details the strategic and economic importance of Sheffield and the rapidly worsening international relations. It is this documentary realism that gives Threads a disturbing authenticity that further adds to the tension preceding the inevitable attack.

When the bomb finally strikes, the preamble that has led to it ensures that it remains powerful even if the special effects aren’t spectacular. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the special effects, the image of the mushroom cloud rising above the screams and hysteria of Sheffield is haunting, albeit lacking in scope compared to that infamous sequence in Terminator 2. It certainly blows ‘The Day After’, a similar American production, out of the water.

‘In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong, also make it vulnerable.’

‘Threads’ opens with this profound piece of narration from Paul Vaughan, explaining its title and foreshadowing the abject horror that’s to come. It is after the bomb strikes that the viewer really begins to understand what it looks like when this vulnerable fabric of society is absolutely shattered. Once humanity has their veneer of civilisation destroyed, they become desperate and animalistic. Money becomes worthless, the new currency is food, food such as stale bread and raw meat, and people work frantically for it. Crops are scarce and the diminishing fuel reserves lead to the use of hoes rather than combine harvesters. Within a few years of the attack, the British population reaches medieval numbers of 4 – 11 million.

These damning facts and figures either appear in the aforementioned captions or are narrated by Vaughan, whose diction is comparable to Laurence Olivier’s in the brilliant Thames Television series The World at War.

Threads is a trenchant argument for nuclear disarmament. What an obnoxiously reckless species we’d be if we allowed nuclear warfare to destroy our planet. Imagine if some extra-terrestrial tourist with knowledge of Earth’s abundance of natural beauty, culture and technology landed on our planet only to find themselves amidst a nuclear winter, what a shameful task explaining ourselves to them would be.

We’ve all seen depressing, harrowing films, but the utter nihilism that is explored in such grinding detail here will make the idea of merely existing in a functioning, productive society seem positively Utopian.

82%

Only God Forgives (2013)

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While the cinematography and lighting regularly highlights Gosling’s beautiful blue eyes, it isn’t enough to engage you on any truly meaningful level.

This is a film that concentrates far too heavily on insubstantial metaphor rather than characters, narrative and things of true resonance.

In contrast with ‘Drive’, Refn and Gosling’s last collaboration, ‘Only God Forgives’ is very much an art film, a film that’s sheer metaphor. They’re completely different.

The film focuses on Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American drug dealer operating in Thailand who is laconic in the extreme (he speaks just 22 lines according to the IMDb trivia section.) When his sordid brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed by the father of the girl Billy has murdered, Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok seeking revenge. Her wrath brings her, Julian and their associates into the path of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an ex-cop who displays God-like abilities.

The characters are incredibly bland, as are their relationships and indeed the film itself. Its attempts at depth comprise blatant Oedipal elements that are both unoriginal and uninteresting. However seeing Kristin Scott Thomson remark about heartthrob Gosling’s inferior penis size at the dinner table is quite amusing.

The behaviour of the characters made me cringe; watching Julian and particularly Chang robotically saunter along while sporting their best moody poses became plain embarrassing after a while. Whenever a character strung a few sentences together I breathed a sigh of relief; although no line in Refn’s script is of any value, it was a welcomed development every time the suffocatingly absurd lack of dialogue was broken.

What’s even duller are its themes of religion and redemption. The irritating Chang is apparently the omnipotent moral arbiter of Bangkok, apparently he is ‘God’, whatever that means. I just thought he was a portentous prat.

Then there is the problem of the film’s violence. The violence in ‘Drive’ was explosive and shocking, it gave the film energy; it informed you of both the sheer danger of the situation and The Driver’s disconcerting readiness for extreme retaliation. In ‘Only God Forgives’ however, Refn’s violence is protracted, gratuitous and, like other areas of the film, ultimately embarrassing. Refn has admitted that he is a ‘pornographer’, and the film’s main moment of violence, a lengthy and vicious torture scene, is certainly testament to that.

‘Only God Forgives’ tries to be profound, however it doesn’t really mean anything. There is nothing real about it, it simply doesn’t resonate; the only modicum of empathy I began to experience during the film was for Julian and his complicated, broken relationships with women.

Apart from making you feel uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons, the film just does not affect. This is because the film is sheer metaphor. Symbolism and ambiguity can be very interesting and powerful, but this is usually when it is combined with good acting, strong narrative and credible, interesting characters. Unfortunately, ‘Only God Forgives’ lacks all of this.

40%

Rise of the Footsoldier (2007)

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An amusing film about obnoxious people.

Rise of the Footsoldier is a true-crime British gangster film that is both appalling and funny in equal measure. The film charts the criminal career of Carlton Leach, an Essex hardnut who was conditioned by the massive violence of the football terraces before he made his bones in the criminal underworld. Playing Leach is Ricci Harnett, who gives an appropriately obnoxious performance. His face regularly has this fixed expression of arrogance and bad attitude, and as Leach gets older and something of a veteran of the Essex underworld, he becomes so tough and smug that he can barely smile or even speak.

The initial phases of the film concentrate on Leach, but the focus later shifts to ‘The Essex Boys’, a moniker referring to Tony Tucker, Pat Tate and Craig Rolfe. Whilst Rolfe was largely just a minion, Tucker and Tate were successful and feared drug dealers, Tucker being some sort of kingpin of South East England.

They were all very profane individuals, firing a medley of Anglo-Saxon at each other every sentence. For people like this, ‘Cunt’ is a staple word even in innocuous small talk, where it appears to simply mean ‘person’ rather than anything derogatory. I don’t object to the film’s language, I can imagine the vernacular is depicted quite accurately. Indeed, the sheer vulgarity of the film’s horrendous characters is actually rather amusing.

After a brief exploration of the 1990s ecstasy scene and a routine plot of a drug deal gone awry in which there’s a lot of torture and cruelty, the film covers the most interesting element of the story – the Rettendon murders in which Tucker, Tate and Rolfe were shot to death in a Land Rover.

It’s a comprehensive account, depicting the three different accounts that have been speculated by followers of the controversial event. The director Julian Gilbey also ensured that we understand just how much blood sprayed everywhere on that fateful December evening. Indeed, the camera seems to relish the violence throughout, zooming right in on people being tortured with various instruments and headbuttings that spatter ludicrous amounts of corn syrup everywhere. While some of it is appropriately grisly and stark, like violence should be in a crime film that takes itself seriously, a lot of it borders on being comically gratuitous.

Rise of the Footsoldier made me laugh, I even bought it on Blu-ray, but it nevertheless falls into the Pooey category. There’s some competent acting, but the film fails because the whole thing is largely bereft of pathos or insight, it’s just a load of cockneys with dodgy wigs swearing and leering with frequent outbursts of syrupy violence. Ultimately, the main problem may be that the subject matter just isn’t worth adapting for the screen. However, judging by the seemingly endless stream of films based around the blasted ‘Essex Boys’, it appears that the lower echelons of the British film industry still hasn’t considered such an idea.

50%