Category Archives: 2012 Releases

Amour (2012)

Amour (2012)

Dir: Michael Haneke, Aus, Fr, Ger, 127mins

Cast: Jean Louis-Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert

A succinct exchange between retired music teachers Georges (Jean Louis-Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) during Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s Amour deftly gets to the heart of the matter. The gravely ill Anne, paralysed down one side and confined to a wheel chair, asks why she should carry on living and that she is a burden on her husband. Georges denies this and says that the same fate could befall him. “But imagination and reality have little in common” Anne counters.

Reality is something Haneke never lets the audience escape throughout Amours two-hour running time. Terminal illness on the big screen can often be sentimentalised, a well-meaning but trivialised course in “life lessons”. Tearjerker’s Love Story (1970) and Terms of Endearment (1983) use it as a device to repair dysfunctional families. In comedy The Bucket List (2007) Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson’s cancer patients embark on a road trip to fulfil long-held ambitions. Amour is poignant but unflinching in its depiction. No tearful last-minute reunions or wishes finally granted, simply the truth and a film that tests the limits of its title.

We leave Georges and Anne’s Parisian apartment at the beginning for a concert they attend but remain inside for the remainder of the film. One day at breakfast during conversation Anne suffers a stroke and remains silent for a few minutes. Georges assumes she was playing a joke on him but when Anne comes to she is unable to recall what has just occurred. From this point onwards Anne’s health rapidly declines. Georges cares for her largely by himself, a doctor intermittently calling in to administer medication. The only other visitors to the apartment are their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who desperately wants Anne to be admitted to a care home, and pianist Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), an ex pupil.

This is deceptively simple filmmaking which forces the viewer to confront the scenario by refusing to leave it. Camera movement is minimal; a score is non-existent. The static, contemplative tone allows the two magnificent central performances to breathe. Riva is simply heart breaking in what is an open and physically demanding role. For the majority of the film Anne is mute and struggles to communicate. To see the vitality she exhibits in the opening scene and then subsequent disintegration is painful and humbling to witness. By the end state of mind is conveyed through her eyes, an astonishing fête of acting. Trintignant is an admirable foil as Georges, putting on a stubborn yet optimistic front despite the strenuous demands placed upon him whilst internally battling against the inevitable.

Haneke’s clinical, cool style has been a sticking point for some critics over the years. They argue that he lacks sympathy for protagonists who are one-dimensional which makes identification with them limited, a “pawns in the game” approach. At times such sternness can prove nigh on unbearable. Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon (2009) is a morality play set in a village which alludes to a growing fascist ideology pre World War One. It is a masterfully realised vision, grandiose but art house cinema at its most alienating.

Alternatively Funny Games (1997/2008 US remake), where a middle class family are held hostage and tortured by two young men with no motive, explores screen violence and its consequences forcing the viewer to confront the horror of what they are watching, a riposte to the blasé US portrayal. Playing with conventions and the audience are the primary agenda here but the impact of random brutality, particularly a wonderfully considered scene halfway through, reveals the director’s humanity for his subjects, albeit in a subversive framework.

Amour finds Haneke at his most exposed in what is clearly a very personal film (I believe the death of a close relative inspired him). In this case his style and pacing immerses rather than distances, an emotional, sobering experience. This is gruelling viewing which makes a strong case for the legalisation of euthanasia but yet doesn’t resort to open debate on the subject or for that matter religion and notions of an afterlife. Despite the pervading tone what is absolutely crucial is the relationship between Georges and Anne, their memories of a full, happy life lived together and a bond that can’t be broken despite the severity of what is faced.

Amour is that rarity, a genuinely important film, raw yet tender and honest. Rarely have love and death been contemplated to such a degree on film. Haneke makes you question your own mortality and how many film-makers do that.

Argo (2012)

Argo (2012)

Dir: Ben Affleck, US, 120mins

Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman

On paper Argo is a high concept Hollywood dream. It is the type of film studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) would have green lighted in The Player (1992). In Robert Altman’s droll satire we catch the end of a test screening for screenwriters Andy Civella (Dean Stockwell) and Tom Oakley’s (Richard E. Grant) opus, a worthy awards bait drama set on death row called Habeas Corpus. As prisoner Julia Roberts is gassed and all appears lost Bruce Willis’s attorney busts through in the nick of time. “What took you so long?” she asks. “Traffic was a bitch” he replies. Argo, thankfully, does not resort to ridiculous jumps in logic. It is based on a true story but with a premise so ludicrous it could have come straight out of La La land, which it did to an extent. Before I confuse matters any further let me explain.

Argo is based on what has become known popularly as the “Canadian Caper”, a CIA operation declassified during the Clinton era. In 1979 the US embassy in Tehran was raided by revolutionaries displeased by American asylum for corrupt Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Personnel were held hostage, a stand-off that lasted until early 1981. Six fled and took shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador. The CIA hatched a plan to get them out of the country but hit a wall on how to go about this in such a hostile atmosphere. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), an expert on such scenarios, who put forward the idea of location scouting for a film as cover, creating new identities and passports for those trapped. Given the all clear Tony heads off to Hollywood to hook up with make- up artist and old contact John Chambers (John Goodman) to find a script, the Star Wars (1977) rip off of the title, for this audacious hoax.

Affleck has stuck to his South Bostonian roots for previous efforts away from acting. He won an original screenplay Oscar with Matt Damon for Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997), where he also starred in a supporting capacity. Directorial forays Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010) were both Dennis Lehane adaptations also set in “Southie” as it is known to locals.

Moving outside this comfort zone he brilliantly conveys the anxiety of the situation. The taking of the embassy is shot in a loose, jagged cinema verite style, seamlessly mixed in with documentary footage, as the jostling crowd amass whilst inside a growing unease develops leading to a frenzy of document shredding. Scenes with the six are claustrophobic and as cabin fever sets in personalities clash. There is a genuine air of peril and despondency but also camaraderie. It is testament to the actors portraying these roles that they do so much with so little and give the audience an authentic interest to invest in. In fact so absorbing is this human drama that come the final airport scenes knowledge of the outcome is temporarily forgotten and displaced by a clammy, knife edge tension where all bets are off.

This is mainstream film-making and historical liberties are taken. The Canadian influence in organising the rescue mission is far greater than shown here. However, Argo does smartly nod to American meddling in the Middle East, adopting an apologetic stance. An animated introduction elegantly conducts a brief history lesson with, unsurprisingly, oil top of the agenda. This is not an overriding concern which sacrifices the films tempo. It doesn’t go into the detail of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), which shrewdly mapped out connections on a broader canvass. Accusations could be made that it resorts to the cliché of the “foreign other”, faceless hordes with no voice or characterisation, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) the most disturbing example. The airport guards are atypical of this but a brief scene at the finale demonstrates a greater understanding. Sahar (Sheila Vand), a house keeper aware of the Americans location, crosses the border to Iraq, cutting through western self congratulation.

On a lighter note Argo mines a keen satirical vein as Mendez embarks on setting up his fake picture. From creating a production company, taking out ads in trade press Variety and a script reading which brings out an exuberant array of sci-fi nuts, the absurdity of the industry is sent up with Mendez baffled in the background. Chambers brings in veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), actually a composite, who guides him through the process. Arkin has great fun with this grizzled role which reminded me of Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman, mimicking the legendary Robert Evans) in Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog (1997), also an industry satire with Motss asked to create a bogus war against Albania for presidential spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro). Arkin, Goodman and Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss head up a strong supporting cast, one with numerous faces you recognise but can’t quite put a name to.

The appearance of the 1970’s Warner Brother symbol at the start of this film is reassuring. Personally this evokes memories of Klute (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Night Moves (1975) and All the Presidents Men (1976), sharp, vibrant film-making from Alan J Pakula, Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn. Argo takes its cues from this era, although it would struggle for a place at the same table. This is pure entertainment but smart, considerate and a welcome anecdote to a dirge of summer blockbusters that generally flattered to deceive.

The Master (2012)

The Master (2012)

Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 143 mins

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

Controversy and mystery have surrounded Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master since its conception in late 2009. Unsurprisingly word of the film’s religious cult foundations drew inevitable comparisons to Scientology, well renowned for its Hollywood A-list advocates. Rumour has it that Anderson held a screening for Tom Cruise, who starred in his sprawling, soapy Magnolia (1999), to a mixed reaction. Although connotations are implicit The Master is a very different animal from what was anticipated. This is a stylistic continuation from There Will Be Blood (2007), less ambitious but somehow more elusive in content.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a world war two veteran lost in 1950’s America. He drifts from town to town holding down jobs briefly. One evening seeking refuge he stows away on a yacht. When discovered he is taken in by its owner Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the head of a new movement known as The Cause. Freddie stays with the group travelling along the East Coast and becoming Dodd’s right hand man but his erratic behaviour and close friendship with Dodd causes friction within the group particularly Dodd’s wife Mary Anne (Amy Adams).

Direct lines can be drawn but a dissection of Scientology this is not. Dodd’s undoubtedly shares similarities with L Ron Hubbard, himself an oddball fantasist. The Cause and its new age methods of past life regression have some roots in Hubbard’s dianetics methodology but Anderson’s agenda is not to take a scalpel to this influence. If anything The Master follows a long-held fascination with sons and father figures, generally surrogate. This is most notable in porn drama Boogie Nights (1997), a film essentially about family, with director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) but can be traced back to debut Hard Eight (1996) and is evident in Magnolia and There Will Be Blood.

Quell is a bundle of neurosis: traumatised by war, haunted by lost love, sex obsessed, alcoholic and prone to random bouts of violence. Dodd bonds with him over a love of alcohol, Freddie being a dab hand at producing his own toxic brew. The central fixation revolves around how Dodd will attempt to reprogram him and these scenes are as taxing in their repetition on Freddie as they are the audience (surely the point). Freddie refuses to buy into The Cause’s ideology and this comes to a head in a stand out scene where both men are thrown in jail and opinions are explosively aired. Despite this Freddie is loyal to Dodd and physically attacks any vocal detractors. Dodd in turn finds in Freddie someone who is a reality check but also indulges his eccentricity and sense of adventure, the latter being subdued by his figure head status. Their relationship revolves around power play as much as it heals and nourishes and in this sense the background of The Master offers a perfect platform for this recurring Anderson theme to be put under the microscope.

This is Phoenix’s first film since he “quit” acting to turn rapper which was documented in I’m Still Here (2010), an extended practical joke and bizarre career deviation. His return is searing and certainly the performance thus far of his career. He is that rare quantity who can seemingly alter his entire physicality. Think of the bulked up alpha male roles in James Grey’s crime dramas The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night (2007) and then the limp, fey villain of Gladiator (2000). Here he is hunched over, all mannerisms and facial tics, one side fixed in a permanent squint. It makes for compulsive viewing and despite his flaws Freddie is as innocent as he is damaged and volatile, a difficult trick to pull off considering the extreme nature of the character.

Most had anticipated Dodd to be the showier role but Hoffman compliments in a surprisingly calmer capacity. Dodd becomes more ill at ease as the film progresses, trapped and expected to continually advance his theories which always lay on shifting ground. The power behind the throne is Mary Jane. A bathroom scene where she admonishes Dodd for drinking demonstrates the authority she exerts over him. This is a coiled performance of inner machinations from Adams. A scene where she stares at Freddie across a crowded room during a gathering cuts right through the joyous, bohemian atmosphere.

Anderson’s first two films marked him as heir apparent to Martin Scorsese. Hard Eight could be a distant cousin to Mean Streets (1973) with its grubby, noir inflected setting, albeit minus the seamlessly incidental structure and complete immersion into locale of the latter. Boogie Nights seemed to be the clearest indicator yet that this would be the case, a whirling dervish of a film punctuated with punchy camera and editing techniques blazed through with period music ala Goodfellas (1990). Romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love (2002) is an anomaly. A change of tact, light and playful but ill-judged falling between the mainstream and experimental not helped by the inclusion of Adam Sandler.

The Master has the measured, epic grandeur of There Will Be Blood. Mihai Malaimare’s cinematography is exquisite as is Terence Malick collaborator Jack Fisk’s production design. Certain shots burn into the psyche: Freddie lying atop the crow’s nest of a boat, framed by the ocean or Freddie bolting from the farm across a field into the mist (perhaps a visual metaphor for his life). However, unlike Anderson’s predecessor it is hard to pin down. There Will Be Blood knitted together its historical setting with religion and capitalism in eternal conflict granting it a modern context. The Master lacks this level of insight. It maintains a Kubrickian distance throughout, flawless but slightly removed. In this respect it reminded me of Thackeray adaptation Barry Lyndon (1975), frame by frame of visual perfection but difficult to crack the exterior. Admittedly the psycho drama on show here makes for a pivot more gripping than Ryan O’Neal’s rise and fall but the overall sentiment still remains.

Despite this I am still contemplating the intricacies of The Master weeks later. It demands a repeat viewing which, like some of Kubrick’s back catalogue, I sense will bring further reward. It continues to mark Paul Thomas Anderson out as a unique voice in American cinema and where he goes next will be highly anticipated. Immaculate in design, glacial in execution, but an enigma well worth trying to solve.

Shadow Dancer (2012)

Shadow Dancer (2012) ½

Dir: James Marsh, UK/Ire, 101mins

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson

James Marsh’s second feature film Shadow Dancer takes place in Northern Ireland. After a failed terrorist attempt on the London tube system Collette (Andre Riseborough) is arrested by MI5. Placed in a holding cell she is handed a dossier and given two options by handler Mac (Clive Owen): a lengthily jail sentence or to turn informant. Fearing for the welfare of her young son Collette agrees to work undercover.

The politically fraught nature of The Troubles has often presented a backdrop for thrillers on-screen. Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) is the most notable example asking questions of national loyalty alongside love and gender as Fergus (Stephen Rea) attempts to escape his past after the botched execution of soldier Jody (Forrest Whitaker). Real life figures have been portrayed such as Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day Lewis) in In the Name of the Father (1993), a member of the Guildford Four incorrectly implicated for pub bombings in the 1970’s. Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) depicted the final months of Bobbie Sands (Michael Fassbender) in a gruelling account of the 1981 Maze prison hunger strikes that stays long in the mind after the final reel. Innocent victim of police corruption or a man willing to die for what he believes in, either way the weight of history bears down on both.

Whilst watching Shadow Dancer I could not help but draw comparisons with Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008) which is near enough identikit in terms of plot albeit based on the true story of Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess) who later disowned this version of events. This film was flashier and more generic in approach, notching up the tension as McGartland climbs higher up the pecking order. Shadow Dancer adopts a more languid pace, sometimes overly so though there are virtues to this.

Marsh’s background is in documentary. He won an Oscar for Man on a Wire (2008) and his last output was Project Nim (2011), both well worth checking out. Here his cameras sits back and scrutinises the cultures of the IRA and MI5 with a bleak, pared down palette similar to that adopted in his part of the Red Riding Trilogy (2009). We find secrets and lies in each camp, both coldly results orientated where lives are put second to making a mark on the political landscape. Collette’s failure to carry out her task adds to an already paranoid melting pot bringing suspicion not only on her but those close. Meanwhile Mac battles against boss Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson) to protect Collette and uncovers information that leads to consequences that cut deeper.

The relaxed pacing allows for a thorough sense of time and place to be rendered. We spend most of the films running time within Collette’s community and become immersed in this microcosm, a tightly knit group like many others, steeped in tradition where family is everything, but frayed with internal conflicts. The supporting cast add to the naturalistic feel of these sections of the film particularly Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson as Colette’s brothers Gerry and Connor. At times this slow burner could do with an injection of adrenaline but this would distract from the level of detail which marks this film out from many of a similar ilk.

The film rests on Riseborough’s shoulders as Owen’s character is a stock type and never fully fleshed out perhaps due to the covert nature of his profession. As the pivot her performance is low key but engrossing, a hardened exterior with inner resolve blackmailed into a scenario where the duplicity towards those closest eats away at her. The opening scene points to childhood guilt that has driven her into this faction, an almost preordained way of life that would have occurred even if she had not been arrested. Family ties are an important factor here, the bond and need to protect counterbalanced against political sacrifice and this becomes even more relevant come the finale. It is also to be respected that when events do threaten to resort to convention the script smartly swerves away, something I didn’t see coming and which opens up a revision of what has happened previously in what is more a perceptive drama than taut thriller.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Dir Christopher Nolan, USA, 165 mins

Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Marion Cotillard

Christopher Nolan’s reputation for producing classy, complex mainstream genre pictures has remained intact since breakthrough Memento (2000). This sophomore effort, the ultra low budget Following (1998) was his debut, starred Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, an amateur sleuth hunting for his wife’s murderer. Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia (an inability to retain short term memory) and tattoos his body with clues as he delves deeper into a murky world whose characters motivations are never concrete. The increasingly fragmented plot replicates his state of mind and pushes the audience to re evaluate every scene as we skip back and forth surveying what was or maybe wasn’t. It is a film that after many viewings can be perceived differently each time and a unique, tragic twist on film noir.

It is Nolan’s willingness to develop his own screenplays (generally in collaboration with brother Jonathan) that has enabled a quality control resulting in thriller Insomnia (2002), in this one case a remake of a 1997 Norwegian original, and sleight of hand mystery The Prestige (2006). Inception (2010), literally a subconscious heist film, is perhaps his greatest achievement alongside Memento.

Resuscitating the Batman franchise potentially seemed an ill fit but with Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) Nolan tailored the superhero genre for his own purposes. His Gotham City is set in a realistic social context and as each film has progressed he has built in an epic tale.  At its core these films deconstruct what the superhero represents as an entity and query ethical conundrums on a political level. We have come a long way, thankfully, since Batman and Robin (1997).

The Dark Knight Rises is the concluding part of this cycle and is set eight years after its predecessor. After taking the rap for the death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has hung up his cowl and is now a recluse. Crime has significantly lowered in the city due to the introduction of the Dent act. A break in by cat burglar Selina Kyle, aka Cat Women, (Anne Hathaway) revives Wayne’s interest and sets forth a wave of conspiracy taking in board room machinations at Wayne Enterprises and the introduction of the gargantuan Bane, who has his own agenda on a grander scale.

After a cracking, Bond esque opening as a plane is hijacked mid air, Nolan quickly settles into spinning multiple plot intrigues that have characterised this set of films. It is the merger of these strands as a whole that never makes the mammoth running time seem a chore, a breakneck pace ensures that this remains absorbing. The weight of decisions made in The Dark Knight also loom over this film, white lies made for best purposes at the time are exposed and questioned in the public arena adding weight and depth to the plot. Set pieces are expertly orchestrated with panache, a highlight being Bane’s takeover of Gotham’s stock exchange and the torment he dishes out to the bankers. By the stage where Bane’s plan is fully in action a way back seems implausible.

Bale holds the various elements together at centre stage. Here we find Wayne a broken man, physically and mentally, whose self sacrifice for a greater whole has brought personal loss and isolation, a contrast to his youthful endeavour in the original. It is great to see him finish off the arc of this character in a genre where such talk is usually redundant.

Hardy’s Bane is not as wickedly appealing as Heath Ledger’s Joker but a fitting adversary. If the Joker possessed a mental rivalry with Batman, Bane’s is physical. Hardy relies on his hulking physique to emote (his mouth is obscured by a contraption throughout the film) and he works wonders with so little. The voice, which caused some concern on an early release of footage, is decipherable although at times distracting (think a more fluid Stephen Hawking crossed with Merchant Ivory gent).

Bane’s reason for his “reckoning” upon Gotham does provide the one murky aspect of the film. In this post 9/11 world, fear and terrorism, in turn, each formed topical subtext for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight Rises equivalent would be revolt; the Occupy protests an obvious influence. Bane’s rebellion has more fascistic overtones, turning Gotham into a police state with ghettos and kangaroo courts. He uses capitalism against the consumers to achieve this goal so maybe this can be viewed as the ultimate in revenge fantasy, taking matters to their natural extent of implosion. This is entirely open to interpretation, just an intriguing footnote in what is of course pure entertainment.

There are minor quibbles. A major twist during the finale feels entirely unnecessary and there are other plot points which are simply implausible, one cruncher especially. Out of the supporting cast Hathaway is fine as Cat Women, although her character does flitter in and out of the film, more attractive addition with cursory function. Caine, as faithful servant Alfred, and Joseph Gordon Levitt as cop John Blake are standouts. Blake unexpectedly occupies a lot of screen time, particularly once the people of Gotham take responsibility on to their own shoulders.

The Dark Knight Rises does lack the finesse and clever plot turns of The Dark Knight. Having said that it wraps the series up in style, some may say with a bow on top, but there is enough ambiguity in the conclusion to deter accusations of implicitly selling out. After the disappointment of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus it is reassuring to see summer fare that is epic in scope but more substantial than its expensive parts. Let’s just hope the same can be said for the inevitable, unnecessary reboot.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The-Amazing-Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)   

Dir: Marc Webb, USA, 136mins

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field

After The Avengers (2012) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Marc Webb’s reboot of the Spider-Man franchise always seemed destined to be the poor relation in this oversubscribed superhero summer. Both counterparts at least offered something fresh, or, at least, as fresh as this fare gets. Marvel orchestrated the hype, preparing an audience with Iron Man (2008/2010), Thor (2011) and Captain America (2011) before the unveiling of their trademark team. The much anticipated latter saw the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, an abject example in how to reboot a franchise successfully, smuggling onboard topical subtext to probe deeper questions and adding a layer of realism.

Rebooting the Batman franchise was understandable, particularly after Tim Burton left and Joel Schumacher took over, hideously substituting gothic for camp. Nolan also built from the ground up tackling character origins in more depth. The question with Spider-Man is a little more difficult to comprehend as Sam Raimi has already tackled the origins story. Admittedly this came with mixed success; the first was serviceable if overly preachy, the second a highpoint, darker with Alfred Molina excelling as villain Doc Ock, and the third an overblown mess with too many villains spoiling the broth. Although The Amazing Spider-Man works, and at times surpasses, in its own right an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu is all too apparent.

In this version Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a high school student in the care of Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) after his parents mysteriously go on the run (an issue never tackled but surely to be elaborated on in further instalments). Peter discovers that his father worked with Dr Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans). On a covert visit to Oscorp labs to see Connors he slips away to a high security area and is bitten by a genetically modified spider producing obvious results. Meanwhile Connors is working on a serum (with lizard DNA) to regenerate limbs, an affliction he himself has dealt with since birth, and after some self experimentation begins to undergo his own extreme transformation.

Other than minor plot tweaks this stays close to Raimi’s 1997 original, one part origins tale, one part hero-villain face off. We still go through the same beats but without the heavy handed “with great power comes great responsibility” sermonising that proved so irritating. This sentiment is still included but toned down considerably. Early action scenes are small scale, witty and decidedly old school in their execution with a vibe not dissimilar from the 1970’s TV series. Webb has a lighter touch overall even if we have seen it all before.

Garfield is also superior to Maguire in the pivotal role. Parker here is re-imagined as a cool, skater boy outsider with smarts in contrast to Maguire’s weedy, photographer, geek. This may well be a cop out to pander to mainstream crowds but nevertheless character trajectory remains the same. The exception is that Garfield can mine more emotional depth out of the material, particularly in scenes after the shooting of Uncle Ben. By contrast he also displays some arch humour as Peter adapts to his new abilities. The chemistry between Garfield and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey actually manages to create much more out of something that is all too frequently mundane and is surely the reason Webb was brought on board after indie relationship dramedy 500 Days of Summer (2009).

The second half doesn’t so much fall off the wheels, just follows the blueprint religiously which makes proceedings a little drab. Rhys Ifans Connors feels like an uninspired villain and the CGI creation of The Lizard, a major issue in post production, is clumsy in rendition. Connors is a walking tick list for comic book villains. Afflicted genius who wants to do good for others? Check. Becomes a guinea pig and hatch a crackpot plan? Check. Crackpot plan equates to heavy CGI and the final scenes are nothing we have not seen before time and time again. Other than some first person shots from Spider-Mans perspective swinging through the streets of New York there is little invention in the grand finale.

As an origins tale The Amazing Spider-Man provides the set-up required in an easy going fashion, entertaining if uninspired and instantly forgettable. If a sequel is to be developed the two leads will be essential to maintain a modicum of dramatic spark.  Technically it is difficult to criticise. It does what it say’s on the tin so to term it, or rather creates a shiny new label for the tin.

Killer Joe (2011)

Killer-Joe-Matthew-McConaughey-02

Killer Joe (2011)   

Dir: William Friedkin, USA, 102 mins

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Templeton, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church

As part of the New Hollywood set that blew apart the studio system William Friedkin first rose to prominence with cop thriller The French Connection (1971). Detective ‘Popeye’ Doyle’s (Gene Hackman) obsessive pursuit in closing down a drug smuggling ring transporting heroin from France, was a game changer for the genre. Raw and gritty, enhanced by loose, free flowing camerawork, with an antihero protagonist, it’s after effects are still felt, though never matched, in the vast sway of procedurals we see today. After winning a best director Oscar follow up The Exorcist (1973) cemented his reputation. Although my agnostic beliefs never enable me to fully engage with the film, the conflict played out is devastating and an assault on the senses.

After the financial and critical debacle Sorcerer (1977), a remake of Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), Friedkin entered a “Cimino esque” state, directing every few years but never hitting previous form. A rare high with To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) soon led to mediocrity although I would like to highlight underrated basketball drama Blue Chips (1994), a spiritual companion piece to sublime documentary Hoop Dreams (1994). Bug (2006), a chamber piece taken to dizzying, paranoid extremes, showed that there was life in the old dog yet.

Bug was written by playwright Tracy Letts and Friedkin has turned to him again for his latest Killer Joe. Set in a small, trashy Texan town we are first introduced to Chris (Emile Hirsch), a schmuck in severe debt to loan sharks who devises a plan with father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to kill his mother, now Ansel’s ex partner, for life insurance money. To, literally, execute this plan they contact Detective Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who specialises in hitman work as a sideline. Issues become complicated when Cooper demands Chris’s sister, the Lolita esque Dottie (Juno Templeton), as a down payment.

Friedkin takes this staple noir plot and transplants it into a grimy trailer trash locale. He revels in the sweat and grime, spit and sawdust bars and strip joints bathed in midnight blue. The easy going, tumbleweed town of The Last Picture Show (1971) this is not. Despite the noir element you could barely call this a thriller. The plot, perhaps due to its stage play origins, unwinds at a leisurely pace and the twists and turns will be familiar to anyone use to this genre. Any sense of tension is cut short by the limited intelligence of the characters. The supporting cast appear to have great fun here playing hick stereotypes to the hilt, particularly Haden Church as the monotone, luggish Anson and Gina Gershon as his brash, tacky wife Sharla. In contrast Juno Templeton’s nuanced performance adds an unexpected layer to Dottie.

Of course it is never a case of getting from A to B, more how you get there. Tarantino would be the touchstone for films of this ilk but his films have great dialogue, characterisation and a fresh spin in terms of plot (or at least the editing of plot), shot through with a rich black comedic vein. Killer Joe has the latter, something it takes to absurd levels in the guise of McConaughey’s Cooper.

McConaughey is, frankly, terrifying in this film. Yes, you did read that correctly, that nice bloke from the romantic comedies, terrifying. In a clever piece of casting Friedkin has taken his Southern gent persona and skewered it beyond recognition. For most of the film he is still, polite but with deeply sinister undertones, always on the edge of losing it, a time bomb waiting to go off. This eventually unveils itself as outright sadism to back up his twisted moral code, best typified in one scene that will have you seriously questioning your next purchase of the colonel’s finest.

Maybe Friedkin intended for Cooper to be some perverse moral crusader against a right wing, red neck America riddled with diminishing ethics, an extreme leftie in joke possibly. A family dinner choreographed by Joe, which is more akin to a scene near the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), would best represent this argument. This is probably a stretch but if it is the case it smacks of shooting down easy targets and if not it veers into territory that is nasty and misogynistic, shock tactics for little point or reward. Killer Joe is notable for McConaughey’s performance but there is little here that you will have not seen before. Well, apart from the one scene at the end. But that is by no means a recommendation.