Film Review: The Gunman (2015, dir. Pierre Morel)

The_Gunman_Official_Theatrical_PosterHaving struck an unexpected goldmine by putting Liam Neeson in the lead of a bone crunching, bullets flying thriller in 2009, director Pierre Morel seems now to have a vested interest in turning another aging actor from just another craggy face steeped in gravitas into a veritable action hero.

After failing quite miserably at a repeat of that success story with the bald pate of John Travolta in 2010’s From Paris With Love, Morel has placed all his chips on Oscar winner Sean Penn. It’s a bet as sizeable as the 54-year-old actor’s beefy biceps in this movie, and one that could have paid off handsomely. Particularly because Morel also stacked the deck in his favor by filling out the corners of his story with some admirable character actors: Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Ray Winstone and Idris Elba.

It seems, though, that just as he was granted a one-time-only jackpot with what was seen as stunt casting Neeson in Taken, so too was Morel apparently given one shot at a directorial success. For all its messy plotting and sometimes sloppy fight scenes, there was an undeniable charge to that film, a brash spirit that helped smooth over those dry spots. That energy is entirely lacking in The Gunman, and it’s been replaced with unsteady pacing, unnecessary plot contrivances, and a cantankerousness to match Penn’s onscreen persona.

With what he is given, the veteran actor does his level best. As Jim Terrier, a former special ops soldier turned mercenary for hire in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Penn exudes the exhausted air of someone who has seen enough bloodshed and anarchy to last a lifetime. And you feel every bit of his sorrow at having to leave behind his hope for a better future – that’d be Annie, his pretty young NGO doctor girlfriend (Italian actress Jasmine Trinca) – after he’s paid to gun down a government official.

Mostly Penn spends the movie locked into desperation mode. Eight years after the shooting, the folks involved start getting picked off and he is forced to bounce around Europe in search of answers. That it leads him to the doorstep of his former lover, now married off to the man who contracted the hit (Bardem), only adds to his panic. All of that is evident in Penn’s taut yet rumpled body and his darting, manic eyes. A potentially meaningful subplot involving him fighting off the blurred vision and headaches brought on by continued head trauma (something similar to what veteran NFL players suffer) comes off as outright silly the way it’s played in the story.

Like Penn’s character, The Gunman never seems to find sure footing. At each step forward, some odd script or editing or acting choice throws the whole affair into turmoil. Just wait for the scene where Jim and Annie reunite for real, and watch Morel, editor Frédéric Thoraval, and cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano turn a moment that could have been rich with tension and heat into half-hearted, lens-flared softcore.

Equally woeful are the work that screenwriters Don Macpherson and Pete Travis do to cut The Gunman from the same cloth of governmental malfeasance and paranoia that made for some of the ‘70s best dramas (Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View). As with the recent, equally misguided Blackhat, they try to have it both ways by showing us a character fighting against forces out of his control and then giving him a happy ending with few bumps and bruises to show for it. Our world is, in many ways, even more unsteady than in the period that Lorenzo Semple, Jr., co-scripter of both Condor and Parallax, was working. We need films that truly reflect that. We’re seeing it in full color thanks to the work of documentarians, but our fiction filmmakers are keeping things strictly black and white.

PIFF Previews #2

Here’s a second look at a few films screening at this year’s Portland International Film Festival. Hope you’ve been able to get out to see one of the 100+ feature length and short subject films they are bringing to the city this month.

7C6A4266.tif’71 (screens tonight at Cinema 21 @ 6pm)
Just as The Tribe didn’t offer viewers any translation of the sign language being spoken onscreen, the difficulty with ’71 is trying to decipher the thick Irish accents of many of the actors. Also like the Ukrainian film, you won’t be lost watching this engrossing look at the “The Troubles” that tore apart Northern Ireland. In it, a squadron from the Territorial Army is brought in to support police efforts to root out the IRA and is immediately driven away from the streets of Belfast by an angry mob. One unlucky soldier gets left behind, and we spend the rest of the film following him on a harrowing quest to get back to his barracks. There’s no deep insight into the Catholic and Protestant divide that was at the center of this rift, just an unflinching look at the violence meted out by both sides and a fine lead performance by rising star Jack O’Connell.

lg_3655Timbuktu (screens 2/10 at Moreland Theater @ 6pm)
I was excited to see the NW Film Center pay heed to African filmmakers once again for this year’s PIFF and even more so to see a film by Abderrahmane Sissako in the mix. The director doesn’t disappoint with this potent fable that contrasts the brutal regime that inflicted Sharia law on the people of northern Mali and the contented people living outside the cities. And when the two worlds collide in the guise of a farmer who accidentally kills one of his neighbors, the absurdity and terror that swirl around this ongoing conflict are brought to vivid life. It’s sour-tasting medicine, but necessary to swallow if you have even a passing interest in geopolitics.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 1.38.56 PMNuoc 2030 (screens tonight at World Trade Center @ 6pm, and on 2/13 @ 8:45pm)
As the effects of climate change start to become more extreme and our prospects of survival on this planet more dire, we’re going to start seeing more films like Nuoc 2030. The film takes place in a flooded region of Vietnam where people are forced to compete for resources against huge conglomerates and their fellow survivors, and centers on one couple that is caught in the swirl of these dual forces. It’s billed as science fiction but feels more like a terrifying glimpse of what might come to pass, especially for those poor countries surrounded by water. Even more heartbreaking is the relationship between Sáo and Giang, the couple whose relationship is torn asunder by an ex-lover and the evils of capitalism.

PIFF Previews #1

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 12.07.24 PMIt’s that most wonderful time of the year when the NW Film Center takes over a smattering of movie theaters around the city to bring you engaging, thoughtful, weird, and heartbreaking cinema from across the globe. Yes, friends, tonight kicks off the first full night of the 38th Annual Portland International Film Festival – and we here at BA headquarters couldn’t be more excited about it. The schedule, as ever, is jam packed with goodness, so that even the most jaded movie lover will have something to get excited about.

We’re going to be spending the next week or two highlighting the films playing the festival that we’ve had a chance to screen in advance, and will give you our thoughts – both good and bad – on what we see. This will hardly be as comprehensive as some local publications will give you, but that’s only because we are a very small operation with other obligations and only have so many hours in the day to watch some of the 97 features and 60 shorts on offer this year.

Still, hopefully we can help guide some of your own scheduling for PIFF as we are doing our best to pay attention to features that might otherwise get ignored in the face of big ticket events like Chuck Workman’s Orson Welles documentary and yesterday’s opening night film Wild Tales. Look for the second installment of this series to drop on Monday.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 12.11.10 PMTHE TRIBE  (screens tonight at Cinema 21 @ 8pm)
I wrote about this a little bit for this week’s Portland Mercury but will expand a bit on here. This feature from Ukraine’s Miroslav Slaboshpitsky puts viewers at a disadvantage from its opening moments. As a title card advises you, this dialogue in this film is all delivered via sign language, but Chyou’ll get no subtitle or in scene translations. Instead, you just get chilling silence and ambient sound. This works to the director’s advantage though as you are forced to pay such close attention to every moment so you can get carried forward through the plot – which follows a young man who falls in with a gang of teens running various criminal operations (drug dealing, prostitution) out of a deaf school – via body language and context clues. It’s absolutely enthralling and chilling in the mode of Harmony Korine’s Kids but free of that movie’s strange moralizing.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 12.10.53 PMTHE BOY AND HIS WORLD (screens 2/7 at Moreland Theater @ 1pm)
If I had to pick one movie that will be the talk of PIFF this year, it would be this charming and indicting animated feature from Brazil. Using simply drawn characters and richly complex backgrounds, director Alé Abreu takes us on a journey into the heart of modernity, following a little boy as he seeks out his father in the unforgiving world beyond his humble hillside home. Almost every action in it is pitched to the beat of music, the sole source of comfort for many of the downtrodden proletariats that the young man encounters along his adventures, giving the film a pulse that helps ease the swallowing of its harsh views on the horrors of capitalism and adds depth to its most heartrendingly touching moments.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 12.11.27 PMMARIE’S STORY (screens tonight at Fox Tower @ 5:45pm; 2/8 at Moreland Theater @ 6:15pm)
Based on the true life of the titular young deaf and blind woman brought out of her self-imposed cocoon by a dedicated nun, this French feature has its controls set right to the heart of crowd pleasing. To that end, if you’ve seen enough of these films following someone as they set out to beat the odds and overcome adversity, you’ll easily be able to predict scenes and plot points unspooling before you. That doesn’t make the film any less affecting, however, especially thanks to some unusually strong work from first time actress Ariana Rivoire as Marie and Isabelle Carré who plays the girl’s protector and teacher Sister Marguerite.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 12.10.33 PMSHORT CUTS 2: OREGON SHORTS (screens 2/8 at Whitsell Auditorium @ 1pm)
As they do every year, the programmers have put together an impressive collection of short subjects, including this bunch all filmed in the state or made by Oregon-based directors. The works run the gamut from deeply felt fiction to short documentaries, and, as you’d expect, vary in quality. I was surprisingly moved by Portland director Jessica Baclesse’s Roughneck, a small portrait of a former rodeo rider struggling to make ends meet and comeback after an injury sidelined his career, just as I was by a simple two minute look at the changing landscape of one small part of Bond Butte as seen through the lens of Pam Minty. I was less moved by Vanessa Renwick’s Layover, which did an amazing job of capturing the swirl of the swifts that take over the chimney at Chapman School ever year, but slathered her images with an unnecessary post-rock soundtrack, and Austin Will’s Long Way Gone, which married some lovely looks at the beautiful Oregon landscape with a formless wanderings of a man on a motorcycle.

The Rosenbaum Project #1

All_Quiet_on_the_Western_Front_(1930_film)_posterby Robert Ham

I love a good movie watching project that involves a list or guidelines to follow. And one that I’ve been wanting to dive into for some time is to see all of the entries on the great critic Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s 1000 Essential Films List that I haven’t already seen. [The full list is on my Letterboxd page.]

I really want to limit it to one calendar year, but that would require the use much more free time than I have available. Instead, I will move through the list at my own pace, and try to catch every last one.

My method will be as mad as this project. At the beginning, I will initially bounce between following it in chronological order and jumping to the films on the list that I have in my collection of DVDs/Blu-rays, but have yet to watch (The Leopard and Fellow Traveler are two that leap to mind right now; I’m sure there are others). Once I’ve exhausted the movies I have here at hand, I will work chronologically through the list with all the films that are freely available to stream online. When those are all done, I’ll start digging for the outliers. I think about this stuff way too much.

So without further ado, I inaugurate The Rosenbaum Project.

L’arrivee d’un train en Garede la Ciotat; Le Sortie des Usines (1895, dir. Auguste and Louis Lumiére)

The oldest films on Rosenbaum’s list are also the easiest to get a look at. One simple search on YouTube and they’re there for you. They don’t look very good, but there they are, in all their short, one shot, no edit glory. And because they’re so short, I could watch them a few times and really wonder at what I was witnessing. Almost all of us, in some small or huge way, long to be immortalized, to be remembered for centuries after we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. That’s right at the core of why I write as much as I do. The hope is that someone will stumble across my work in 100 years and think about what kind of person I was in my real life.

And so do I stare at the men and women in these two films and wish I could follow them on the train or on their walk/bike ride home. To get a glimpse of their day-to-day existences and what life was like for these common folk back in late 19th century France. I could read all the books in the world that tackle that very subject but it wouldn’t be the same as seeing it firsthand. Alas, I never will get that chance. Yet, for these brief few minutes, I can get a glimpse of them and their hurried walks, gaze at the small window opened up to their world, and goggle at the days of steam-powered trains. These scenes, captured on their early cameras, are going to be available to generations long after I’m gone. Amazing to consider, isn’t it?

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930, dir. Lewis Milestone)

I jumped ahead in the list as this was a DVD I had sitting on my shelf for a long time, sent to me by the folks at the NW Film Center around the time of their short retrospective of films that tackled the subject of WWI. I was unable at the time to write something about the series, which I do regret. With this project hanging on my shoulders, and this within arm’s reach, there was no reason for me to wait any longer.

There have been hundreds of films made since this tackling the absurdity and horror of combat, but the root structure began right here with this bleak, beautiful classic. You’ll see glimpses of Paths of GloryFull Metal Jacket, Coming HomeThe Best Years of Our LivesSaving Private Ryan, The Hurt Locker, and so many other classics of the genre within these two hours.

It’s as uncompromising and unrelenting as a war movie could possibly get, with scene after scene of German soldiers losing their minds and their humanity as they face the horrors of trench warfare. Even the small joys that these men receive with the occasional extra portion of food, booze, and, in one particularly devastating scene, sex are all shaded with the understanding that soon they’ll be back on the front lines. And knowing that the reason they got more food is because the cook made rations for 120, but only 80 soldiers returned.

The message isn’t a complex one, of course. And, truth be told, it can be extremely hard to listen to the wails of the men, the madness they suffer from, and the exhaustion in their eyes. But it’s also impossible to turn away from, in part because of how stunning each shot is. The combination of director Lewis Milestone’s vision and the cinematography of Arthur Edeson is breathtaking, using shadows and darkness with noir-like intimidation. Then there are those great sequences like following the pair of boots from doomed soldier to doomed soldier, the tracking shot following the three men as they try to capture the attention of three French women while swimming in a canal, and that amazing shot of the Allied soldiers leaping over the trench through the eyes of Paul (a fantastic Lew Ayres).

The classic quote from Variety‘s first review of the film bears repeating because it still holds true: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word ‘war’ is taken out of the dictionaries.” It’s a pipe dream, I know. That’s why folks like me got obsessed with films, though: every time we see a great one, we feel its impact deeply and hope that the same would be true for everyone else. Here I am, then…hoping.

Film Review: Blackhat (2015, dir. Michael Mann)

Blackhat_posterReview by Jay Clarke 

Blackhat is Michael Mann’s latest and I won’t bury the lede here—it’s just not very good. It’s the kind of not very good that keeps Mann apologists like myself awake at night. The 71-year-old director is a master technician and mood setter, a great builder of tension and a genius at hiding large, existential thorns within the soft, chewy center of a genre flick. All the cogs and uh, “Mannerisms” are there for Blackhat to be a success. What went wrong?

The movie stars Chris Hemsworth as Nicholas Hathaway, a talented computer hacker furloughed from prison to help hunt a master cyber-attacker (our titular “blackhat”) who seems to have no political or financial motivation. Hathaway is sprung by old friend, and current Chinese official, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) because Hathaway is the “only man” who can stop this baddie who is suddenly blowing up Chinese nuclear sites and inflating stock prices in Chicago with a couple keystrokes and a trusty Dell.

Hemsworth is capable enough. He smolders, runs, shoots, stabs, tosses one-liners and beds his friend’s sister (Wei Tang) mere days after jumping the big house like any great antihero would. Alas, he’s no match for a script that sets him up as a static, muscle-bound post-grad without a compelling past. I wanted James Caan to jump out of nowhere, push Thor aside to furiously type code on one of the movie’s many keyboards. All this while drinking a pretty damn good Scotch and telling Tuesday Weld everything was going to work out. No such luck. 

If you’re wondering where the authorities are in this multi-national crime spree, Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) of the FBI is along for the sky miles-inflating ride. Davis’ talents are wildly underserved here, though moments before her demise we learn her husband died during 9/11. If that seems like a loaded detail, then you should write screenplays. Does this slapdash delivered fact motivate her to stop bad guys? Does she see these cyber-attacks as a new kind of terrorism? Is she at all concerned that Hathaway, despite having some sort of shady tactical training in the past, is still a civilian unequipped to pull of this kind of operation? The bullets come a-flyin’ and we’ll never know.

Mann is anything if not a master of the final act—for a Hollywood that top-loads with concept but can’t deliver the goods, that’s no small shakes. Go back and re-watch Heat’s denouement on the tarmac, Thief’s shootout in the suburbs of Chicago, Manhunter’s frantic crash through a kitchen window. These are brilliantly staged, logical and fated climaxes. In its own way, Blackhat is no different. The too-many moving parts and clunky dialogue of the film’s first two-thirds suddenly slough off after a shocking car-bomb blast. From there, we are left with only four principles (give or take a few thugs) some magazines and a sharpened screwdriver. Interestingly, the pace during the last section in Jakarta actually slows and Blackhat becomes more tidy, forceful and focused than it’s been up to that point. It almost made up for the flabby script and my wildly stretched suspension of disbelief. Almost.

Review: A Most Violent Year (2014, dir. J.C. Chandor)

A-Most-Violent-Year-02Review by Robert Ham

Though it opens with a sequence that culminates in a moment of intense brutality, J.C. Chandor’s third feature isn’t particularly violent, despite what the title may say. Outside of a few moments of white knuckle intensity, the bloodshed is taking place offscreen, in news reports heard in the background of scenes or referred to in the abstract. The real violence is psychological or emotional, between rival owners of heating oil companies and in the lavish household of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his mob-connected wife (Jessica Chastain).

But by placing the word “violent” in the film’s title, the spectre of potential bloodshed or fisticuffs lingers over every scene. As the temperature rises in heated conversations or even something as simple as Abel jogging down the street, you’re bracing yourself for a slap to land or a bullet to get fired. Don’t be surprised if you spend the entire running time with your back and shoulders taut and tense.

In that sense, Chandor puts you right into Abel’s shoes. As the film begins, he is putting together the deal to purchase a huge storage facility that sits right on a New York estuary, all the better to expand his business. Just as he starts moving forward though, not only do some of his delivery trucks start getting hijacked, but he learns that the District Attorney’s office is getting ready to investigate his business for potentially practices. If that weren’t enough, with that legal trouble in play, Abel’s bank decides not to float him the money to finalize his big real estate purchase.

What Isaac brings out so perfectly in his performance is Abel’s pure desperation. The idea of protecting his wife and young daughters is on his mind but his chief concern is protecting his financial security. He earned his modernist manse and he’s not going to give it up for anybody. Isaac brings all this to bear through his hunched over shoulders, clipped speech patterns, and furrowed brow. You feel for him as he moves around seeking either financial assistance or answers from his business rivals. And, again, you keep expecting him to, at some point, snap and start throwing punches.

Even better than Isaac is Chastain. In a role that could have been a mess of tear-stained histrionics, the veteran actress plays it with the reserve and the barely masked menace that you would expect from a woman who grew up in a Mafia family. Her threats to bring in daddy for help and her confrontation of the DA outside of the house feel as cold and dangerous as a sharpened icicle.

The real star of this show is Chandor. He has already proven adept at bringing America’s financial crisis into stark relief and put modern masculinity into question through a feature-length metaphor starring Robert Redford with his first two films Margin Call and All Is Lost. Here, his sharp script and direction call into question the American dream as a whole. It’s no mistake that Abel is an immigrant who has been slowly and assuredly climbing the capitalist ladder. This is the bill of goods that have been sold to millions of people who have emigrated here for the past 200 years. But what the director reminds us all is just how fucking ugly it can get trying to make that dream a reality, whether it’s through the people who would seek to knock you off your pedestal or a larger system of corruption that you’re forced to navigate. The path from Point A to Point B is rarely a straight one, and Chandor has no problem taking us along every circuitous and dangerous step.

Film Review: Inherent Vice (2014, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

309431id1h_InherentVice_Teaser_27x40_1Sheet_6C.inddReview by Jay Clarke 

Inherent Vice, the film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel from director Paul Thomas Anderson, follows the bunglings and accidental revelations of one Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a 1970’s burnout PI on the hunt for his missing ex-girlfriend. To sketch any more of the labyrinthine plot would be like digging deep into the personality and motivations of Optimus Prime—it’s not the point, man. Let’s say the movie starts with the arrival of Doc’s “old lady,” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), and from there it spins out to lesbian massage parlors, Nazi biker gangs, dubious real estate moguls, wannabe actor cops, muscle-bound spiritual gurus, cult surf bands (cult in membership, not underground fandom), heroin casualties and what may or may not be a massive international crime cartel in league with the CIA. All of this churns in a tone that is equal parts Altman and Zucker, Up in Smoke and The Parallax View. In short, a slice of Los Angeles circa 1970.

Pynchon is a maximalist nonpareil and Anderson understands that in the author’s jokey, encyclopedic world, some details are pointless, some details mean everything. It depends on how you look at it. Up close, the movie feels like one long elbow in the ribs by the smartest kid in the back row of class. Wide angled and you’re watching an incredible social mix of post-Manson Los Angeles (and by extension, post-Manson America), where the freedom and hope of ’60s activism and culture has given way to sadness, paranoia, confusion, absurdity and an impossible web of conflicting groups hellbent on keeping their corner of the world alive. Or, at the very least, hellbent on scoring some primo weed.

Anderson does two things right here: his filmmaking stays out of the way of Pynchon’s pyrotechnics (Anderson’s Altman is in ascendancy, Kubrick in decline) and he casts the movie with actors who embrace this odd balance of farce and fear. Waterston is in many ways the heart of the movie. She certainly is the sexual and emotional center, a sort of sunset Aphrodite in bikini bottoms, melancholy but unable to make any changes for the better. Phoenix is his usual mumbling bumbling self; elastic and stoned silly one minute and clear-eyed savior the next. You realize as an actor just how spot-on his facial and physical control really is. There is not a moment when he breaks from being an absolute buffoon hedonist with a heart of gold.

As for the rest of the giant cast, there are moments when the parade of new faces becomes distracting and then there are scenes when specific characters elevate the film entirely. I’m thinking of expert turns by Martin Short as a drug snorting dentist on the make and Josh Brolin as Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornson, a part-time actor and cop, full time 1950s American male manqué and certainly Doc’s foil, if not his great love. Without Bigfoot, no Doc and vice versa. This odd pair is Pynchon’s and Anderson’s point in microcosm—conflicting forces (Doc and Bigfoot, ’50s order and ’60s chaos, laughter and fear, paranoia and safety, beauty and disgust) were the tenor of the times. These very times might be the Big Bang for our current cycle of fear that seeks distraction, distraction that becomes disquiet. It’s all how you look at it.

I’m not sure what the lasting influence of Inherent Vice will be. I noticed the same seat shuffling and half chuckling when I saw Vice’s gumshoe antecedent, The Big Lebowski. That movie is considered a milestone by most and a masterpiece by many. Vice is a different beast. To his credit, Anderson is dealing with one of the great American tropes here—the detective thriller—and bringing something unique and odd to the table. In the middle of an utter morass of character and event is an individual trying to parse through what seems to be acres of bullshit, but bullshit on a much wider scale than the mere corrupt police forces and crime syndicates of the past. We’re talking bullshit on a national, even international, scale here. Ask any conspiracy theorist you know—the corridors of power are secretive and vast.

Ultimately, the point of the movie isn’t that knotty and elusive. “We is Doc,” the movie seems to say. If you’re confused by the world while still trying to do the right thing, in love but not totally sure all the time where your love lies, if you’re terrified of what your country has become but you’re unable to do anything substantial about it and because of your confusion and self-doubt you ultimately settle on just wanting to get by without getting you or your loved ones killed, well then yes, you and I are in fact Doc.