Weekend Film Recommendation: Unforgiven

Some said that Once Upon a Time in the West (1968; reviewed here) left Hollywood with the feeling that Sergio Leone had done all that was worth doing with Westerns for some time to come. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that anyone would try their hand at picking up the threads Leone had left behind. In rapid succession, Kevin Costner first released Dances with Wolves (reviewed here), and shortly thereafter Michael Mann adapted Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. It was Leone’s protégé Clint Eastwood, however, who most closely extended themes featured in Spaghetti Westerns, in this weekend’s movie recommendation Unforgiven (1992).

Eastwood plays William Munny, a man “cured of his wickedness” from his days a drunken outlaw and gun-for-hire. Sobriety came ten years ago, only after his late wife and mother to his two children forced him into an honest life. But honesty hasn’t come easily to Munny; every day’s pig-farming, especially with aching, alcoholic joints like his, takes its toll. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Unforgiven”

Weekend Film Recommendation: Locke

On a good day, it takes a little over two hours to drive the M40 from Birmingham all the way to London. If you’re speeding to meet an emergency, you can make it in just over an hour and half. This weekend’s film recommendation, Steven Knight’s Locke, unfolds in real-time, as the eponymous main character Ivan Locke completes the journey along the M40 before the credits roll by the 85th minute.

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Tom Hardy plays Ivan Locke, who steps from the construction site where he works into his BMW in the late evening as the film begins. This is the only time we will see Locke outside of his car for the duration of the film, and it is the only time we will see him in the same frame as another human face. Locke is one of those films that wrings a literary conceit as dry as it will allow: It doesn’t take long before the audience cottons on to the fact that this film will end before Locke reaches London, and there will be no reprieve from the eight or so different angles from which we’ll view his face behind the steering wheel. The only other voices we hear are disembodied, played through the speaker of his car’s Bluetooth. Locke is alone. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Locke”

Weekend Film Recommendation: Exam Season

Preparing for this semester’s batch of final exams means that I will not be making a new film recommendation this week. Instead, I’m going to flag up my review from some years ago of Alan Bennett’s collaboration with Nicholas Hytner in The History Boys, which is about what happens when a few Yorkshire lads go stir-crazy prepping for exams of their own. (I thought re-posting my review of The Paper Chase might, despite also being somewhat apposite, mistakenly suggest that my preparations are progressing less swimmingly than would be conveyed by re-posting History Boys!)


Adapting a stage script for the screen is not straightforward. For one thing, learning how to navigate the differences in pace between a live theatre performance and the screen screen requires tremendous skill. Every once in a while, however, a stage script is strong enough that it can be lifted almost verbatim and will still work as a splendid film. This week’s movie recommendation, Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2006), is one such film.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 21.33.36The film is set in 1980s Yorkshire, in a small town outside of Bradford. Eight high school-age boys have done exceedingly well on their final examinations, and show some promise for university spots at Oxbridge. They are impossibly erudite, and uncontrollably hormonal. Thanks to their charming but unconventional teacher Hector (played by Richard Griffiths) they can recite the poetry of Hardy as fluently as they can procure the services of a French prostitute. While their minds are brilliant, they are also puerile. What they lack, according to the officious schoolmaster, is panache. In order to compete with the aristos against whom they’ll be pitted in the dreaded Oxbridge interviews, they must learn to rein in their bawdy schoolboy attitude. The schoolmaster therefore hires a temporary history teacher, Irwin (played by Stephen Campbell Moore), to whip the boys into shape.

The rest of the film deals with the boys’ (and teachers’) struggles with their friendships, their beliefs, and their sexualities. Those challenges play out in the context of two fundamentally different approaches to schooling: on one hand, the instrumentally-minded Irwin is focused on the ‘game’ of getting the boys accepted to Oxbridge; Hector, on the other hand, cares little for the boys’ destinations, and urges them to focus instead on the journey of learning.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 21.34.14Those familiar with Hytner’s earlier adaptations of stage scripts will notice a common theme: like his versions of Miller’s The Crucible (1996), and another Bennett play,The Madness of King George (1994), this isn’t a film one watches for the use of camera, lighting, or soundtrack. Sometimes one even gets the sense that the talented acting is being used merely as a vehicle to maximise the wit of the script. Nonetheless, sterling performances shine through on all counts. I’ll highlight Richard Griffiths in particular, only because Hytner successfully brings out in his portrayal of Hector that same quality that you notice in Nigel Hawthorne’s King George – despite all his flaws, he is instantaneously and unavoidably likeable.

The film never succeeded quite as well as the stage version. But, given that the play was one of the most well-received stage productions in the last 50 years, that isn’t saying all that much.


Weekend Film Recommendation: My Cousin Vinny

According to lawyers, there’s one film that consistently ranks among the top law-themed films of all time. It’s not hard to see why, when you have a rare narrative that portrays the lawyer as himself being the embattled underdog, who manages to overcome adversity and become the noble problem-solver and advocate for justice he was (maybe, on a good day) destined to be. This weekend’s movie recommendation is My Cousin Vinny.

Bill Gambini and Stan Rothenstein are two New York kids taking a road trip through Alabama before they begin classes at college. When their car is pulled over, they fear the worst: they believe they’re about to be hauled back to the precinct for the careless error of having unintentionally stolen a can of tuna from the local gas station. They know that justice in Alabama takes a different tenor than what they’re familiar with, so they brace themselves for trouble when their fears are realized.

But things start going really pear-shaped when they learn that they’re being booked for murder one instead of petty larceny. Just moments after pulling out of the gas station, Bill and Stan protest, others driving a similar car must have approached and committed the crime for which our tender protagonists stand accused.

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Weekend Film Recommendation: Cutie and the Boxer

This week’s movie recommendation doesn’t neatly qualify as a documentary — but then again, I struggle to call it anything else. Cutie and the Boxer, directed by Zachary Heinzerling, tells the story of the wedded Japanese avant-garde artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. The film intermittently departs from the traditional documentary format and veers toward something that more closely resembles a storyboard narrative that draws on the aesthetic found in the artists’ works. The final product moves seamlessly between biographical exposition and artistic exhibition.

For those in the know—no, I confess I’m certainly not—Ushio Shinohara rose to prominence in the late ‘60s as one of the leading figures at the vanguard of “junk art.” By applying bright, garish colors to found objects like cardboard and plastic bottles and discarded engine parts, Ushio (nicknamed “Gyu-Shan”) created enormous, colorful, and vibrant sculptures and paintings that offered commentary on traditional tropes of American beauty.

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Weekend Film Recommendation: Insomnia

After commercial success with Memento in 2000, Christopher Nolan moved on to remake a Norwegian film that would cement his place as one of the great high-concept thriller directors in showbiz. In 2002, he released this weekend’s movie recommendation: Insomnia. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Insomnia”

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Color of Money

With the exception of a few choice gems, it’s commonplace that sequels don’t ‘live up’ to the legacy they inherit from the earlier film. In this weekend’s movie recommendation, I’d like to submit that Scorsese’s sequel to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (reviewed here), in which Paul Newman reprises the role of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson to train up the young hotshot Vincent Lauria in The Color of Money, deserves to be placed among the great sequels. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Color of Money”

Weekend Film Recommendation: Only God Forgives

The director of this week’s movie recommendation, Nicolas Winding Refn, once conceded to a nonplussed audience at Cannes that this was the kind of film people would either love or virulently detest—but like the film or not, it’s indelibly memorable. It’s his 2013 thriller set in Bangkok, Only God Forgives.

Ryan Gosling plays Julian, the drug-running heir apparent to a Muay Thai boxing club that operates as a front for the family’s narcotics business. His older brother Billy is a violent pervert who, at the end of one of his depraved excursions, is caught by the police red-handed next to the corpse of a young prostitute he has brutally beaten.

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Enter a mysterious police officer named Lt. Chang, played by Vithaya Pansringarm. Chang is an emotionless arbiter of a strange—and decidedly not legal—justice. He offers the victim’s father the opportunity to exact merciless retribution upon Billy’s body of the very kind that Billy visited on the daughter. But Chang charges the fee of severing the father’s arm in return.

Now that Julian succeeds to become second-in-line to the illegal empire owned by his mother Crystal (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), she demands that he prove himself to her by exacting revenge on all those associated with Billy’s death. Thus continues a long sequence of revenges and duels that punctuate the film: in exchange for taking the prostitute’s life, Billy must die; in exchange for taking Billy’s life, the father must die; in exchange for taking the father’s life, Julian…

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Weighing all these lives in the balance, deliberating on whom to bestow mercy, is Chang. Dispelling any ambiguity about the film’s title, Winding Refn reputedly whispered in Pansringarm’s ear before each shoot “You are God.” Chang is mesmerizing as villain-cum-deus ex machina. He is not scrawny, certainly, but he is slight. He is unflinchingly blank, even when torturing witnesses for information. He requires neither sleep nor food, despite spending all day perfecting his swordcraft and all night scraping the dregs of society off his boot. And, although he may not appear as such, he can swiftly dispatch even the most trained pugilist with expert skill. He’s petrifying.

The real triumph of Only God Forgives is Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance as Julian’s mother Crystal. If one of the Real Housewives of Somewhere and Such had earned an advanced degree in sadism, she’d look and act like Crystal: her meretricious fashion sense is as startling as her language, which she uses to dismantle or manipulate all around her. It’s Crystal’s world, folks, and we should just consider ourselves lucky to be living in it.

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Which is why Julian dares not even question when Crystal demands he kill those responsible for his brother’s death. With only 17 lines of dialogue, Julian’s character is relatively hard to make out, but it’s apparent that he isn’t a feckless man; rather, his mother’s hold on him is one of such total and complete manipulation that he acquiesces to even her most emasculating and sadistic displays. Those familiar with Drive (2011), the previous collaboration between Winding Refn and Gosling, will be used to the lingering shots of Gosling’s beautiful, is-he-about-to-cry facial expression in the immediate moments before a viscerally violent outburst. All of this makes Julian’s character rather difficult to place.

Which means that between Pansringarm’s inscrutable moral code, Crystal’s fiery and wanton scheming, and Julian’s odd quietude, Only God Forgives is certainly not a strong character-driven film. It also is painfully slow at points, even for a movie as short as this (running at only 89 minutes). It is, however, an exciting experience. The frankly amazing use of color, superb soundtrack, and slick production values make for the same kind of sensational combination that made Manhunter (reviewed here) so electrifyingly engaging, and it’s a theatricality that I’ve praised in one of Winding Refn’s earlier works, Bronson. Like that film, Only God Forgives showcases a director trying something new on for style, and while it doesn’t always work, you’re glad they tried.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Four Lions

In the eight years since Richard Reid’s failure, the Underwear Bomber learned no more than to move the explosives from his feet to his groin. I still remember the fun comics had with the sheer incompetence of the plot. There’s always been an odd suspicion about just how skilled at their craft terrorists need to be to get the job done, and that suspicion forms the very heart of this weekend’s movie recommendation. In Chris Morris’ black comedy Four Lions, the picture is clear: terrorists these days must not have a brain cell between them. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Four Lions”

Weekend Film Recommendation: In Bruges

If you have to wait for further instructions, you might as well wait somewhere enjoyable. Bruges will do.

Hitmen Ken and Ray just finished a job in London, and their boss Harry has told them to hide out in Belgium until he sends further word. The snag, however, is that although Ken (played by Brendan Gleeson) is perfectly happy to soak up the sights in this beautifully preserved medieval town, Ray (played by Colin Farrell) can’t stand it. At all. This week’s movie recommendation is about their troubled stay In Bruges.

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