Danielnothing's Blog

Film Review: FROZEN RIVER

Posted in Uncategorized by danielnothing on January 24, 2010

The very first image we see in Frozen River, the debut feature from Courtney Hunt, is a close-up shot of the self-same body of solid water, the St Lawrence River, New York State: a craggy expanse of thick, white ice stretching off into the middle distance. A vast, hulking presence in the centre of the movie, the river serves two purposes. It’s a metaphor for lives in stasis, things that were once free-flowing and lively, now slowed and made barren by a grim, forbidding north-eastern winter. It is also the very thing that makes the events of the plot possible, a unique gift from Mother Nature to those who traffic human beings from Quebec over the US/Canadian border. Such heady, ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter might be the perfect fit for an existential action movie, something a young Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford might fashion into a vehicle for them to learn about life and the futility of violence while chasing unscrupulous smugglers across the picturesque tundra. Frozen River is as far from that imaginary movie as one could get.

For one thing, our hero is a heroine, the incongruously named Ray Eddy, played by Melissa Leo (who you may remember from the excellent Homicide: Life on the Streets). We meet Ray in the direct aftermath of catastrophe: her gambling-addict husband has vanished with all their savings, leaving her to raise their two sons alone in a small trailer. Pushing 50 with her red hair turning grey, her fingernails bitten to the quick and her tattoos getting wrinkly and faded, she looks like someone on a collision course with something bad. Repo men are after her big-screen TV, her trailer and her self-respect, and her job working at a convenience store for a just-post-adolescent asshole who won’t promote her ain’t gonna cut her any big cheques any time soon. Happening across hubby’s abandoned car by chance leads her to the middle of nowhere and a caravan occupied by Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a surly, threatening Mohawk Indian woman who coerces Ray into driving her across the frozen St Lawrence for an illicit job that pays big money. Soon Ray and Lila are ferrying two illegal Chinese immigrants in the trunk of the car across the white wasteland for a few thousand bucks. Ray narrowly avoids being ripped off, and is soon home in time to pay the TV repossession men with a smile.

Gradually realising that fate has dealt her a way to pay off her debts and begin fashioning a better life for her and her children, she is soon back at Lila’s caravan asking for another job. And so an awkward, mistrustful partnership is formed, based on mutual need (Lila needs Ray’s car, Ray needs Lila’s experience and contacts). And Lila has her own reasons for doing this dangerous work, one which she wants kept secret from her new white partner. Meanwhile Ray’s restless, whiny older teenage son TJ (Charlie McDermott), sick of popcorn and juice every meal, has started his own little phone-phishing scam back at the trailer, and there’s a kindly but stern state trooper keeping his eye on the Eddy family’s comings and goings.

All of this may scream ‘earnest Sundance award winner’, and that would be a half-fair assessment, but Frozen River goes above and beyond the remit of a lot of films of it’s genre. For one thing, the sense of place is masterfully evoked, Reed Dawson Morano’s stark, unvarnished cinematography capturing both the beauty and the horror of wintry upstate New York flawlessly. For this is a film about nothing if not environment, and how it shapes people’s drives and relationships. Character study it may be, but it is also a genuinely involving drama (‘thriller’ may be going too far) in which every revelation, small or large, is important and involving .It holds the attention like few films I’ve seen recently and makes you care deeply for characters who are at first unappealing simply by spending a little time to get to know them: unlike other crime genre movies, there are no grand schemes or dreams of power and glory fuelling these people: .Ray wants a bigger trailer and some money to provide for her family, things she speaks of with the same quiet, wistful glow that some people have when talking about a dream home or the holiday of a lifetime: Lila wants a chance to be a mother to her infant, snatched from her by her dead husband’s family out of spite . Money is an ever-present motif, coins being meticulously counted out to pay for gas, or to be placed in the hands of kids on their way to school. The double-wide trailer, the big-screen TV, the Hot Wheels car set for Christmas, these modest acquisitions take on a special aura in this harshest of all economic realities.

Midway, the film dips briefly and unexpectedly into outright thriller (almost horror movie) territory, a midnight run on Christmas Eve becoming a frantic, frightening search in the icy darkness for a duffel bag with a very special cargo, the pace and lighting recalling the dryer, crueller work of the Coen Brothers, especially, Fargo or Blood Simple. Even here, with life and limb at stake (or in the final, fateful trip across the ice that forms the films’ climax) the film never gets hysterical or histrionic. The tightness in the chest we feel as we watch is the very same gut-wrench we feel when things are coming apart in front of us in life.

If the film has any flaws they are minor. A mid-movie flirtation with magic realism stays just this side of cloying, as does the somewhat too-neatly-tied ending, and some half-hearted, late-in-the-game gunplay feels like the sort of thing a studio might impose just to have gunfire in the movie’s trailer. But these are very minor quibbles. Leo and Upham are both outstanding, the chatty Leo all running eye make-up and barely concealed nervous tension, the terse Upham as icy and unfriendly as the frozen river they drive on.  Mainstream cinema itself being something of a barren wasteland for women who don’t conform to Jessica Alba’s youth or bland good looks, it’s great to see a performer of Leo’s pedigree getting to create a character from the ground up, and to see Upham’s unconventional frame and ethnicity occupying a central place in a film where neither aspect is patronised. This isn’t the stuff of Hollywood stars uglying up, dressing down and putting a hicksville twang into their accent to secure awards, this has the genuine heft of real lives observed, of people getting on with what they have to in order to keep going.

Film Review: Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Posted in Uncategorized by danielnothing on January 24, 2010

MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT

‘No one kills me until I say so’.

Mention the name Jacques Mesrine to French people of a certain age and you’ll get instant recognition, a nostalgic frisson comparable to a Brit’s reaction to the names Ronnie and Reggie Kray. He was a loose cannon whose exploits as an international man of violence left an indelible impression on the French psyche, as he rose from the ranks of Paris’ petty con artists and burglars to become France’s oft-declared Public Enemy Number 1. Like most career criminals, his life story was begging for the lavish, big-screen treatment, and that it gets in Jean-François Richet’s Mesrine: Killer Instinct (L’instinct de Mort in it’s original French release title), the first part in a duo of crime epics detailing the colourful life (and violent death) of a man largely unremembered by the world outside of France.

Opening with a gripping split-screen title sequence that would do Hitchcock or Argento proud, it takes you several moments to realise that the paunchy, sunken-eyed figure in a red roll-neck sweater, beard and permed wig moving gingerly down Paris back streets is in fact Mesrine himself, as portrayed by France’s premier movie bad boy Vincent Cassell. Moving effortlessly between big-budget action thrillers  like Dobermann to more cerebral (L’Appartement), gritty (La Haine) or controversial (Irriversible) fare, Cassell is the De Niro or Oldman of France, a whip-smart, rake-thin attention magnet: here he seems to have filled out and shrunk, become the last thing you’d notice on a crowded street. The whole title sequence turns out to be a tease anyway, since we quickly realise that it’s a flash-forward . We won’t see how this particular episode resolves until the second movie (although if you do the tiniest bit of homework, you’ll know how this story ends all too well).

Flashing back to Algeria in 1959, we glimpse the same man in  French military uniform in shaky, grainy footage of the torture of two suspected Arab terrorists. He’s lean, young, and quick to demonstrate brutality beyond even his superiors’ control. Back in France, Mesrine is every inch the moustachioed spiv, drinking gambling and whoring his way across Paris, a man to whom nothing is forbidden, everything is up for grabs. Coming under the influence of the shady ‘Guido’ (as embodied by the always welcome bulk of Gerard Depardieu) a nightclub owner, gangster and former member of the notorious O.A.S. (far-right French paramilitary organisation), Mesrine is earmarked as someone with a bright future in the underworld. In short order we witness our anti-hero burgle a palatial suburban mansion, using his smooth appearance and charm to escape with the loot, furiously berate and take leave of his mild-mannered father for ‘having no balls’. graphically murder an Arab pimp who has scarred his favourite whore, go to Spain, fall in love with a cute chica (Ludivine Sagnier), marry, have kids, rapidly mutate from loving husband and father to loathesome wife-beater, get jailed, get released, hook up with a sultry, shades-wearing partner (in both love and crime) Jeanne  (Cecile De France)….

As you can probably tell, the main thing that suffers in this whirlwind cram session of events is pacing. Cassell is endlessly watchable as the alternately charming and obnoxious Mesrine, but the desire to shoehorn in seemingly everything that happened to him (even if only briefly hinted at) relegates everyone else to the status of cameo. Sometimes this ultra-fast forward propulsion is cleverly handled (immediately after boasting about how easy his next bank job will be, we cut to him glumly entering prison), but more often than not it leaves you wanting to know and see and feel more of what he’s going through, moment-by-moment. There’s precious little time spent observing the man in his more reflective or  playful moods: his larger-than-life antics and self-invented persona fill the screen, daring you to judge.

The closest the film comes to exploring Mesrine’s inner life is a protracted sequence of solitary confinement in a Canadian jail, shot in nightmarishly wide angles in harsh light. Here we see him broken down into his consituent parts, literally and figuratively stripped, subjected to physical and psychological torture, humiliated. It’s an utterly gripping, extremely uncomfortable sequence to sit through (reminiscent at points of Steve McQueen’s  Hunger, not to mention the classic Papillon, which starred a very different man called Steve McQueen) and makes you hope that something of  greater substance and integrity will be on the other side, that the movie may tire of all this skilful hagiography and present us with a subtler portrait. Instead it sets up a thrilling prison break, and even more jaw-dropping prison attack, masterfully executed and captivating to witness, but more the slam-bang stuff of Bond movies as opposed to the thoughtful essence of biopic.

The essential problem with Killer Instinct (I can only speak for the first part of this epic duo, since I have not yet seen Public Enemy Number 1, the second part) is this dichotomy between exciting, crowd-pleasing heroics and the odd attempt at psychological realism: between Mesrine, the witty, charming anti-hero, and Mesrine the sadistic thug who enjoys violence and forces the mother of his children to swallow a gun-barrel. Goodfellas managed to overcome similar problems of attraction/repulsion by making it’s anti-hero Henry Hill a lot more anti than hero: we were involved with his story and could even empathise at certain points, but we were never allowed to escape the essential monstrousness of the man and the world he inhabited.. Here, we are often asked to overlook the less palatable aspects of Mesrine the woman-beating sadist and criminal opportunist, and embrace the handsome joker, the celebrity bank-robber whose arrival at a Quebec airport generates the sort of media frenzy that The Beatles were afforded.

Richet is a skilled, craftsmanlike director, Cassell is never less than electrifying and this is a highly involving and hugely enjoyable movie, but there is definitely a nagging sense of something being overlooked or withheld. We are repeatedly given Mesrine the Myth on a platter: Mesrine the Man remains elusive. Perhaps part two will illuminate more of the character with harsher, less forgiving light than is found here. Not a bad film by any means, but a frustrating one. To have nearly four hours to detail a man’s entire criminal career over decades, one would think (hope) that the film makers would indulge the legend  a little less, peek behind the curtain of the public enemy a little more.

Film Review:Doghouse

Posted in Uncategorized by danielnothing on January 24, 2010

The British  horror comedy. What do those words conjure in your mind’s eye? Harry H Corbett being seduced by a smoke-billowing Fenella Fielding, while Kenneth Williams shrieks ‘FRYING TONIGHT’? A naked David Naughton trying to steal balloons from a schoolboy in a London zoo? Overwhelmingly, I’d say that the first image that appears in most reader’s  minds would be a perturbed Simon Pegg, glancing sideways, telephone in hand, surrounded by dozens of mouldering zombies in the poster for Shaun Of The Dead, an  image as recognisable now as the spooky cracked space-egg of Alien, or the silhouetted priest of the Exorcist. SOTD was a true rarity, a hyped British movie that (nearly) lived up to its rep. Sure, it’s almost totally disposable, doesn’t bear repeat viewings, half the jokes die on their arse and it loves itself way too much, but it has at least four elements that Jake West’s Doghouse, doesn’t: characters you care about, the odd laugh-out-loud gag, a genuine sense of mounting dread, and….and this is the crucial one….originality. Doghouse possesses none of those things, and hews so closely to SOTD’s model (and even large segments of its plot), that one sniffs a quickie cash-in. A quickie cash-in that was so slow to put together, it’s arrived almost 5 years too late to capitalise. Poor, poor Doghouse, because without the goodwill of erstwhile Shaun groupies, this thing is deader in the water than Robert Maxwell.

Actually, it’s unfair to say that Doghouse has nothing to distinguish it from Shaun. You could say, the secret ingredient of the newer film is misogyny. In fact, I’m just going to say that, because it’s true. It may charitably be called ‘a horror film for the Nuts generation’. What it actually looks like is the sort of thing a disturbed teenager with no access to the outside world except Nuts, Loaded, Zoo and Bizarre magazines and the odd episode of Top Gear might scribble frantically in tiny writing on the walls of his cell. We are introduced to our ‘heroes’ one by one, dealing with their various squeezes and other halves as they leave to go on a weekend of rural debauchery  to get one of their number, a sad-sack Scouse divorcee portrayed by Stephen Graham, back in the game of BEING A MAAAAAAN!. The women (and one gay partner….right on! Until you realise you know he’s gay because he’s wearing a flowery shirt and smoking a cigarette in a conspicuously gay manner) are screeching harridans and ball-busters to a man, their fellas an ethnically diverse cliché club: Graham  repping for Liverpool, Noel Clarke (the black one), Emil Marwa (gay and Asian…two birds with one stone), a wealthy new age longhair (Keith Lee Castle), a Classic Comic Book Nerd (Lee Ingleby,) and on top of the old apples and pears, it’s the pearly king Danny Dyer himself, here taking his mouthy Cockney twat persona into new realms of unbearableness.

After the briefest of Guy Ritchie-lite intros,in which we establish which stereotype each of  our heroes conform to, and the depths of their laddishness and sexism, we meet the vaaaaarrry ssaaaaaaaxxxy laaaaadeh who is going to drive them to a tiny village in the middle of nowhere (for some reason, the ideal choice for this reverse-stag weekend). Played by Christina Cole, she looks like she’s going to inject a bit of balanced female perspective to the footy n’ beer proceedings. As it turns out she doesn’t, but it’s nice to hope for 30 seconds that the six obnoxious twats we’ve just been introduced to won’t be the ONLY people we have to identify with for the rest of the movie.

Long story short, they arrive (past a couple of badly-mauled sheep carcasses) in the village of ‘Moodley’ to discover it tiny, deserted and covered in barely-perceived bloody handprints. Service at the local is terrible, unsurprisingly because the landlord’s dismembered corpse is behind the bar. In almost no time our gang are confronted by a twitching, hissing army of the undead who want their braaaaaaiiiinnnsss, and probably their soooooouuul as well. The curious thing is, every last one of the zombies (or ‘infected’’, or whatever it’s trendy to call,  zombies these days) is female: a blonde bride in a bedraggled wedding dress, a leather-clad hairdresser armed with a pair of scissors in each hand, an impressively-cleavaged  D & D enthusiast  wielding a broadsword. Even their sassy driver has started spewing black goo and turning all glassy-eyed and cannibal-y. Retreating from these increasingly desperate housewives into temporary shelter, they get the skinny from a soldier that they’ve rescued: biological warfare experiment to  turn genders against each other, yadda yadda. From this point on, the movie turns into a series of repetitive and insultingly non-frightening set-pieces, borrowing scenes and sub-plots from every other zombie movie you’ve ever seen, but giving it more than  just a hint of vicious sexism to make it ‘fresh’. The gang are attacked by every female stereotype too unsubtle for Benny Hill: a fox hunter in full riding gear, complete with crop, a lollipop lady, an old battleaxe on a zimmer frame… at one point Dyer is kidnapped and tied up by a zombie who’s distinguishing features are that she’s fat, dressed in a revealing nighty and apparently horny for some chirpy-cockney-geezer ass. It’s made to seem like we should be more disgusted somehow by her girth and revealing outfit, than by the fact that she saws off men’s finger and eats them with icing.

You  keep waiting for the double-bluff, the moment when you’re made aware that it’s all an elaborate parlour game, and it’s actually  ridiculous male cliches that are being lampooned as much as the women, but it never comes: the film makers actually seem to think that we should care about our six gormless heroes simply  because, well, they’re MEN innit?  The finale is indeed stomach-churning , but because of its naff, boys-will-be-boys sentimentality instead of the gore. I guess there are one or two genuine  chuckles  to be had, but much like it’s direct ancestor, Scooby Doo, the majority of it is just forced ,  corny  and worst of all non-frightening: when attacked by more than one female zombie, do exactly nothing, because they’ll all just start scratching each other’s eyes out over you, just like normal bloody women, eh fellas? Overall, the movie leaves a bitter taste in the mouth worse than all that black goop. If you only make it out to see one moronically sexist and embarrassing  Brit-horror movie this year….actually I wouldn’t bother seeing Lesbian Vampire Killers either, if I were you. Just rent a DVD of An American Werewolf in London, THAT manages to be damn funny AND damn scary, and best of all, not a Danny Dyer in sight.