Noir

Logan (2017)

17 years after he first snikted onto the screen, Hugh Jackman is hanging up the mutton chops in the final chapter of the complicated life of James Howlett aka The Wolverine aka Logan.

Directed by The Wolverine’s James Mangold, we’re a stone’s throw away into the future and mutants are all but wiped out. The once disgruntled anti-hero, Wolverine, is now the embittered, alcoholic limo driver Logan (Hugh Jackman). He spends his nights driving and his days taking care of fellow X-man, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Charles, suffering from a form of dementia, is prone to seizures disable him and those within the vicinity. It’s never fully explained how bad these seizures can get – Mangold chooses to keep these details close to his chest – but Logan keeps the former professor in a fallen water tower for the protection of himself and others. Logan’s only other friend is Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino superhero whose mutants appears are tracking other mutants and grumbling it would seem.

Into their lap falls Laura (Dafne Keen), a 12 mutant on the run from evil surgeon Zander Rice (Richard E Grant) and his Head of Security, Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). Laura is a pint sized enigma who, we learn early on, has similar mutant powers wrapped up in a hell of a lot rage. When Laura’s carer is found dead, Logan, with encouragement from Xavier, reluctantly agrees to take the young mutant across the border to safety whilst pursed Rice. In other X-Men movies this would be a cinch, but, in the same way Chuck’s mind is failing him, Logan’s regenerative powers are diminishing; it even hurts him to unleash the claws that made him The Wolverine.

This the archetypal superhero movie stripped of the bombastic nature of its predecessors. The citizens of New York can rest easy knowing that Logan won’t be pushing over buildings to fend off Rice’s cronies. If Logan would have his way, he’d keep his head down for as long as it takes him to raise enough money to take him and Chuck away from it all. But, now there’s Laura. The fire that reignites perhaps not the hero in Logan but, at least, the humanity in him.

It’s the kind of introspection cried out for in the genre. When its fans demand for grown up material, this is presumably where their fingers point. Characters before explosions. Dialogue before showboating. Sadly, for me, although it shoots for a lean and mean plot devoid of the dressings of ‘lesser’ superhero movies, Logan feels like a flabby feral scream into the superhero abyss. Its own self-importance sadly detracts from makes it work; What makes it stands out is also what sinks it.

It is so remarkably po-faced that its constant misery can sometimes feel like a parody. This is particularly clear when it tries to have its cake and eat it with a third act that dispenses with the subtlety and descends into Jackman growling – metaphorically and literally – in a showdown which clangs around noisily until someone says stop.

There is nothing wrong with a comic book movie for adults that wish to shake off the shackles of a family friendly certification. The recent Deadpool manages get the balance just right – anal jokes aside – for example. However, it feels at times that Logan is simply a PG-13 movie template with added swearing, CGI blood and – sigh – even a gratuitous boob shot. Yes, Deadpool has the same issues, but it was an R-rated comic fitting snugly into an adult film. Logan is a flipping square peg trying to squeeze into an f***ing round hole. It’s first series Torchwood.

And it is a shame because Logan does have some strong points. A Logan who refuses to run into battle is a great concept, which had previously been tackled in Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan (which would sadly lay the ground work for the nauseating Wanted comic book series). Let’s be honest, Jackman will always be Wolverine. Even when the character is rebooted 10 years from now, we’ll all shake our heads and agree that no one could replace the bloke from New South Wales. He can play this character in his sleep (Hi Wolverine: Origins) and It’d be petulant of me to say that he doesn’t get to play around with it a bit more here. Logan is a stark contrast to the cage fighter we saw back in 2000; He’s broken, he’s disenfranchised and maybe secretly he really does want something or someone to save him.

And whilst Xavier’s traumatic seizures are admittedly nothing more than Hollywood Alzheimer’s – in that it’s largely forgotten about till it services the plot – watching a great and good man reduced to a faded shadow of himself is heart-breaking. It reminds one of Ian McKellan in Mr Holmes, which saw the aged sleuth having to scribble the names of those he should know on his cuffs. Stewart brings his usual gravitas to a role that could have descended into parody years ago.

Deene as Laura is a staggering force of nature to watch, managing to stalk the screen whilst maintaining a semblance of childlike innocence. And some scenes she shares with Jackman show a spark of humour that managed not to be smothered by Logan’s furrowed brow. Equally, Merchant gives a surprisingly straight(ish) performance to Caliban before, unfortunately, being relegated to position of convenient plot device.

Yes, wade through the nonsense and there is some good to be found. Ultimately though, this just doesn’t feel like a fitting end to a much loved character. Yes, it’s a brave ending but it didn’t eke out as much emotion from me as it probably wants. I do hope that Logan is the final chapter. Not because I’m feeling vindictive but because to follow on from this feels like it will cheapen what Jackman and director have presented. Just because Logan isn’t for me doesn’t mean I want it diluted for others.

In a world where the MCU is becoming less and less brave in their creative decisions, here’s hoping they’ll take a page from this and Try something new in their delivery. But please, stay away from the supposed ‘adult’ tone.

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Mystery Road (2013)

Mystery Road has the potential to be the most brightly lit noir we’ve ever seen.

Set in rural Queensland, Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), a detective of Australian Aboriginal descent, is called up to investigate the murder of young girl. As Swan submerges himself into the investigation, he finds suspects in the townsfolk, the local police force and even his own family.

Mystery Road is a mutli-layered film. As well as the investigation, Swan experiences a community’s apathy towards a dead black girl and its begrudging acceptance of someone of colour having some sort of wealth and authority. There are problems closer to home as Swan struggles to rekindle the relationship with his daughter. There’s also the matter of Swan’s colleague Johnno, played by a highly strung Hugo Weaving, who has a tenacity to piss on Swan’s fire seemingly every chance he gets. All of this simmers together nicely and produces a thoroughly engaging narrative.

Taking on the duties of writer, producer, cinematography, editing and music, it’s a wonder Ivan Sen had time to actually direct Mystery Road, but by Christ he does. This is the kind of backdrop pornography most travel commercials can only dream of. The bold, all-encompassing outback contrasting rather nicely with the intimacy of the performances on display.

Not everything will get resolved in Mystery Road, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. Like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the characters’ interaction comes before the mystery. This is all pretty easy to accept in some cases. We never get a full history of everyone Swan meets, but we’re not supposed to. We’re tagging along in his reality. And just like life, no one ever talks in exposition. The brief snatches of conversation are all we’re given to build pictures and it’s all we’re ever going to get.

That’s fine.

However…

Sen seems to deliberately drop things into the mix that have no place in the film except to confuse. Maybe Sen was just a little too close to the movie whilst making it, allowing him to see the cohesion that others can’t. Throughout the film there are whispers of wild dogs, who are rarely seen but seemingly seem to serve the purpose of being a clue. Sen also seems to frame a lot of conversations around really audible eating. Really audible. Slurp, smack, slurp, exposition, slurp, smack, burp. It can be distracting and seems to serve no purpose.

Annoying as they may be, and they really are, Mystery Road is still an astonishingly good piece of work. Flitting from noir to western to police procedural, this film deserves more recognition outside of Australia.

Trance (2013)

After becoming the Nation’s favourite after directing the Olympic opening ceremony, Danny Boyle returns to the big screen with British psychological thriller, Trance. James McAvoy plays Simon, a fine art auctioneer who falls into the hands of French gangster, Franck (Vincent Cassel). Helping Franck steal a piece of fine art, Simon ends up cracking his head open and forgetting where he left the painting. Silly Billy. To help spur his memory on, Franck books Simon a session with hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson).

What follows for the next 100 minutes, is a film that frustrates and fascinates in equal measure. There’s a real feel of Boyle’s earlier work at the beginning. An opening narration by McAvoy brings back fond memories of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, whilst Boyle’s direction reminds us of the kinetic energy of Slumdog Millionaire.

The performances are all perfectly fine, with McAvoy playing Simon as man who is clearly in over his head; scared, alone and just really wanting to have a lie down. Dawson mixes up the sultry with the professional in a manner that makes us wish she had Catherine Zeta Jones part in Side Effects. Cassell is dependable as the most patient, angry gangster in the world.

And that last line hints at one of the issues we have with Trance. The script by Joe Ahearne (This Life and Ultraviolet) and John Hodge (Shallow Grave and The Final Curtain, to name but two) asks the audience to make leaps of logic in the run up to the dénouement. Returning to our original example, would a criminal, who has already been shown to be quite violent, really stay this calm for this long? Surely McAvoy would be wearing his testicles as earrings by now!

When the ending does arrive, you will either punch the air or a cat. It asks an awful lot of you, and whilst we were willing to suspend our disbelief for Side Effects, it took a hell of a lot more than a spoonful of sugar to help this medicine go down.

Trance does not have the strongest story and it’s as sexual as an episode of the Red Show Diaries, but Danny Boyle’s direction ensures that you won’t question any of this until you leave the cinema. What you make of it then is up to you.

I, Anna (2012)

In his feature film debut Barnaby Southcombe directs his mother, Charlotte Rampling, in this British noir co-starring Gabriel Byrne. Byrne is a DI investigating the suspicious death of man in an estate, the course of which see him becoming involved with Rampling’s distant and despondent divorcee.

I, Anna is an extremely atmospheric film with Southcombe subduing colours to the point of grey scale. Dialogue is minimalist as Byrne and Rampling convey their feelings for each other and those around them with poignant performances. This could have been a brilliant entry in the canon of British cinema.

However, performances aside, a film will live and die on its story and I, Anna’s is just too hard to swallow. The slow build up that’s endured for most of the film is undermined by a dénouement that threatens its credibility. When the big reveal is announced, the film rushes towards its climax, and begins to fall apart as soon as you even begin to question the logic of it. Southcombe is happy to let the viewer wallow in the film’s atmosphere for so long it’s a shame that he decided to pull the rug from under them so abrasively.

Parker (2013)

We should jump in with both feet. Far from the most annoying thing about Parker is that it SHOULD work. A talented, journeyman director (Taylor Hackford) takes on a genre revenge picture based on a series of novels by Donald E. Westlake that have been adapted into successful movies several times before (Payback, Point Blank), the current go-to hard man, Jason Statham is rounded up and joined by sassy (contractually obliged to say sassy) Jennifer Lopez, semi-reprising her best role from Out Of Sight, they are helped out by a supporting cast of grizzled toughs (Nick Nolte, Michael Chiklis, er….the drug dealer from The Rules of Attraction) and helped out by the ever popular “one big score” and “sort of a love triangle” tropes from noir 101. Works on paper for us, almost entirely fails up on the big screen.

Take a deep breath. The eponymous Parker is played by Jason Statham, he is a morally questionable thief with cast iron morals on things he thinks are important, he heads to Palm Beach to stop his former crew succeed on their next heist and kill them for betraying him on the last one. Parker is helped by Leslie, inhabited by J-Lo, a realtor who knows Palm Beach like the back of her sassy (sorry), latino hand. Nick Nolte, played by a distraught, melting, waxwork dummy of Nick Nolte, helps Parker out with information, which is interesting as Nick Nolte was the person who set Parker up with the gang who betrayed him in the first place, showing a shocking judgement of character and completely oblivious that they were “connected up the ass” in Chicago, making Parker’s attempt at revenge even more foolhardy. That’s okay though as Parker is sleeping with Nolte’s daughter, who is fine with having a stupid thief father, a silent, unsmiling, thief boyfriend who disappears for weeks on end and has more scars than the entire cast of Jaws. So that’s your plot and in skilled hands like Kubrick’s for The Killing or Soderberg’s for Out Of Sight, to pick two out of hundreds and hundreds, convolution works brilliantly, adding layers of intrigue and suspense. Here, handled by the director of The Devil’s Advocate and the writer of Man About The House it falls flat and lies there lifelessly whilst the poor editor tries to put the pieces together coherently.

Whilst Statham is poised, gruff and stares well and Jennifer Lopez is confident, desperate and clever the rest of the cast are either cardboard cut-outs, grimacing or panicking like good cow actors should or completely over the top, maniacally bad scenery chewers with indigestion. The gang who betrayed Parker are a case in point. They don’t communicate with each other, just shout or whine lines as if reading them off their co-stars foreheads. Michael Chiklis, particularly, thuds out words as if trying to start a fight with himself in a phone booth. He couldn’t be less convincing if he was fully made up in his Thing make up from Fantastic Four. In fact, the gang of four are so incompetent, snivelling, infighty and generally sociopathic that the idea of them completing one successful heist, let alone two is so unlikely that belief, like many of Parker’s enemies, crashes out of the window. Parker has precisely two good lines, one has been used extensively in the trailer and the other is so close to the end (of which there are four) that it may simply be growing relief that elevates it’s delivery by Lopez.

For the undeserved sake of balance, Parker does contain an excellent fight in a hotel room between our hero and a mob assassin (who inexplicably insists on using what appears to be a craft knife at all times). Visceral, intelligently shot, brutal and culminating in a bathroom with plenty of references to the countless other great moments of violence in bathrooms in cinema such as True Romance and Psycho to pick the obvious ones. This is everything the rest of Parker isn’t. Every blow comes through the screen and the blood splatters like only the best film blood can. It sticks out like a sore (decapitated and trod on) thumb and makes everything else seem an even paler shade a gray.

In the end, Parker is a genre flick delivered with no respect to it’s genre, no consideration for it’s audience, no intelligence in it’s narrative, not enough time spent balancing a wild script and crucially, no love for the almost set in stone rules of either it’s practically mythical legend nor the weight it holds in the pantheon. Ugly without trying.

The Whisperer in the Darkness (2011)

H.P. Lovecraft’s tale of cult and chanting in the farmlands of America is recreated with great love by the H.P. Lovecraft Appreciation Society. Like their Call of Cthulu short silent movie, the Society have once again used Mythoscope to put together a 1930’s inspired thriller that could have been directed by Hitchcock himself.

It really can’t be overemphasized the attention to detail that’s gone into making The Whisperer in the Darkness. From the grain of the film to the make up and lighting, everything about it produces the feeling on sitting in a smoky Roxy on a Saturday matinée. It’s just a shame that some CGI rendering towards the end threatens to take you out of the moment. But then the silent movie stylings of The Artist utilised real world sounds and we forgave that.

Those who know their Cthulu mythology may balk slightly at the knowledge that Whisperer fleshes out the original short beyond it’s original ending, but we feel that despite the added scenes, everything stays true to Lovecraft’s tale of the reasoned mind vs. the unthinkable.

Killer Joe (2011)

Warning: This review, depending on how you read it, contains spoilers, or at least, spoilers of spoilers. Sorry.

Texan noir has almost become a genre in itself of recent years. Starting with Blood Simple in 1984 and taking in such gritty, sweaty classics as Red Rock West (1993) and Oliver Stone’s tripped out U-Turn (1997) and Michael Winterbottom’s study of humiliation in The Killer Inside Me (2010), we now have Killer Joe from William Friedkin, a man exclusively revered in the seventies. Friedkin has directed a script by Tracey Letts adapted from his own play, as the opening credits make very, very clear. No ego driven auteurism from Friedkin here.

Lett’s story is your usual, run of the mill tale of matricide, using your young sister’s virginity as a bargaining chip, hired killers, insurance scams, heavies on motorbikes and a lot of fried chicken. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch – channeling Jack Black, badly) needs money to pay off gambling debts, he approaches Ansel Smith (Thomas Haden Church, dumb, drunk), his father, who instantly (instantly) agrees to hire a killer to do away with Chris’ mother, his ex-wife, to pick up a life insurance policy worth $50,000. Throw in Ansel’s current wife, Sharla (Gina Gerschon, introduced vagina first, as she always seems to be) and Dottie (Juno Temple), Chris’ away with the fairies, unwilling Lolita of a sister and it’s going to be a long week in Texas. Chris and Ansel hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, different from the Matthew McConaughey in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, but we’ll let SAG sort that out), a detective with a sideline in hitmannery (hitmonging?), on spec. Joe will get paid when the insurance company pay up. Until then, he reserves the right to fuck Dottie as a “retainer”. What could go wrong?

Obviously, everything. The Smith family double cross, cheat, steal and beg for mercy from each other unaware that they have little to fear from each other having invited (like a vampire) Joe Cooper into their lives, the outcome of the situation is no longer in their hands.

McConaughey’s performance as Joe is being treated as a revelation, but that feels like rewarding him for  phoning in performances in wet-eyed, first date dross for years. Every actor seems to play a psychopath at some point and this just happens to be McConaughey’s turn. Kudos to him then for playing Joe with a rare sense of poise and control. His eyes bore and he keeps his voice low, menacing yet disarming, he stalks each scene like a snake, every move deliberate, every thought hidden. His two scenes that will undoubtedly become synonymous with this film, let’s call them “the seduction scene” and “the KFC scene”, are excruciatingly uncomfortable (EBFS sat through Austrian paedophile satire, Michael, with less squirming) and credit must go to McConaughey for commiting to each scene and following through to the end.

Killer Joe tries hard to lose its stage roots, taking the characters out of the trailer (where all the good stuff happens, unfortunately) and throwing them about Texas’ blasted landscapes. However, the dialogue, undoubtedly pointed and powerful on stage, can seem high-minded and preachy occasionally, as though the characters were still addressing an audience rather than each other. Glengarry Glen Ross will not be quaking at the top of the stage adaptation pile (Yes, we know about On The Waterfront…)

It’s in the third act where Killer Joe takes on its own identity, having had their plan totally fall apart, the Smith family find themselves at Joe’s mercy inside their trailer. What had been a fairly average noir film suddenly leaps into almost southern gothic horror as the extent of Joe’s perversions become clear. Horribly violent, disgustingly humiliating and wilfully unpleasant, this denouement, contained to one location with an almost Polanski like zeal, drags the film out of the gutter to some much darker places. Finally having fingerprints of its own, Killer Joe leaves the film open-ended and the audience open-mouthed. It may be a one watch film, but it’s a hell of a watch.