“Legend”

Legend

BIOGRAPHICAL FILMS HAVE an irritating habit of being underwhelming, even if, as in the case of Legend, you double up, so to speak, and focus on two people instead of one. There are exceptions of course––Ali, for example––but even in that case there are times when you find yourself looking at your watch. The problem is that even the most interesting lives––and the lives of the Kray twins are nothing if not interesting––have their less eventful moments, and if those moments are relevant to the story you want to tell then you risk the story descending into incoherence by failing to include them.

In Legend, it’s the story that’s the problem. John Pearson’s book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins, gave writer-director Brian Helgeland plenty to work with, and yet rather than choosing to depict, say, the rise of the twins, their glamorous and bloody heyday, or their inevitable “fall” and incarceration, Helgeland tries to tell the whole tale in a little over two hours. He isn’t the first filmmaker to do this sort of thing and won’t be the last, but the impression you get of Legend is of a film in fast-forward, with only the occasional pause for an act of mindless violence or a nice cup of tea.


Helgeland tries to tell the whole tale in a little over two hours. He isn’t the first filmmaker to do this sort of thing and won’t be the last, but the impression you get of Legend is of a film in fast-forward, with only the occasional pause for an act of mindless violence or a nice cup of tea.


At the time of the film’s beginning, Reggie and Ronnie Kray (Tom Hardy) are club owners in Bethnal Green in East London. Frances Shea (Emily Browning), who in an odd choice is the film’s narrator as well as Reggie’s love interest, meets Reggie through her brother, one of the many Kray minions who seem mainly to drive cars and stand around in pubs looking ‘ard. In her voiceover she casts Reggie as something like the more sensible, if not exactly sensitive, of the pair; Ronnie, on the other hand, is the violent paranoid schizophrenic and “one-man mob”. (Anyone who knows anything about the Krays will know that Reggie was every bit as violent as his brother, so we can put that line down to unreliable narration or creative licence or both). At any rate Reggie and Frances start a romantic relationship and soon after that, Reggie and Ronnie begin to blur the line separating gangsterism and legitimate business through the Krays’ associate, Leslie Payne (David Thewlis). Ronnie, however, doesn’t find this as appealing as his twin brother does.

Though Legend claims to tell the story of London’s most infamous pair of gangsters, it tells only half of it, and instead paints a picture of a suave and charismatic antihero whose loyalty to an unstable brother keeps his feet firmly planted in the world of the criminal. This, needless to say, has its shortcomings as well as being untrue: in an effort to portray the two twins as starkly different if not exactly opposites, the both of them grow more and more cartoonish as the film goes on. Reggie, for example, seems to mutate from a loveable rogue into, at times at least, a sophisticated London man not unlike everyone’s favourite  secret agent, albeit with a Cockney accent that M would surely never get used to. (Incidentally John Pearson, on whose book the film is based, was a biographer of Ian Fleming as well as the third official author of the James Bond series). Ronnie, meanwhile, gets more ridiculous by the scene. All this gives Tom Hardy plenty of space to flex his dramatic muscles and of course he does, but, equally, the two characters he plays are oversimplified, and an ultraviolent rags-to-riches yarn which by its nature should be gritty and involving becomes nothing more than a stage for Hardy’s undoubted talents. In Legend plot is secondary to character, and yet Helgeland still fails to offer any insight into what, exactly, made either Reggie or Ronnie Kray tick.


In Legend plot is secondary to character, and yet Helgeland still fails to offer any insight into what, exactly, made either Reggie or Ronnie Kray tick.


Helgeland’s decision to have the one-dimensional Frances narrate the film is a strange one, and her dialogue is weighed down with well-worn one-liners as appalling as: “It was time for the Krays to enter the secret history of the 1960s”. She barely if ever develops into anything more than the nagging gangster’s wife, and even when her performance is finally (and mercifully) brought to an end, it’s with a maddeningly self-satisfied farewell. It is just as irritating that Helgeland copies, or tries to copy, quite so much from the better gangster films of the last fifty years. The scene in which Reggie takes Frances to his club in Bethnal Green, to give just one example, strikes you as simply the Primark version of the famous Copacabana tracking shot in GoodFellas.

The story of the Krays is a good one, but Legend doesn’t do it justice, and wastes an excellent cast––including Peaky Blinders actor Paul Anderson, who is no stranger to playing a gangster––in doing so. Tom Hardy is of course brilliant, but even acting at his level does not make up for a weak script and––what’s far more problematic––weak direction.

Continue Reading

“Dunkirk”

Dunkirk

THE CINEMATIC PORTRAYAL of the 1940 French and British evacuation from Dunkirk was, unsurprisingly perhaps, the most highly anticipated film of the summer. It was the latest offering from Christopher Nolan, arguably the best filmmaker of his generation, and the director’s first “war” film (though it has little in common with Saving Private RyanThe Great Escape or any other film that might come under that description).

For Dunkirk, Nolan reunited himself with a cast and crew comprising those who have, in the past, proved to be part of a winning formula: Tom Hardy (InceptionThe Dark Knight Rises), Cillian Murphy (Batman BeginsInception) and Michael Caine (Batman BeginsInceptionInterstellarThe Prestige); Nolan’s wife and producer, Emma Thomas, and the inimitable, ubiquitous composer Hans Zimmer. But in this case it is not the cast and crew so much as Nolan’s own writing (his brother Jonathan has written or co-written many of his screenplays in the past), his direction and his unique artistic vision that is behind a film that I have no doubt will be considered a classic of modern cinema.

It was the cosmic setting and grand themes of time and the survival of humanity in Nolan’s near-future sci-fi epic, Interstellar, that were at the core of the film, while the characters were secondary to the point of expendability. Very few people who sat through the film will have left the cinema without the image of NASA pilot Joseph “Coop” Cooper driving away from his children seared into their retinas and their memories. But in Dunkirk, it’s the reverse. In other words it is the survival of the individual, in pursuit from a faceless and terrifying and quasi-supernatural enemy force that lies at the centre of the story and is lifted up.

Three intertwining narratives, taking place on The Mole, in the sea, and in the air, and taking place over the course of a week, a day and an hour respectively, run together. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a blank canvas of a young private in the British Expeditionary Force, flees the advancing German army to the beach at Dunkirk where, along with the seemingly mute Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), he takes up an abandoned stretcher bearing a dying man so he can slip past the soldiers queuing along The Mole and be evacuated with the wounded hundreds.


The retreat from Dunkirk in 1940, which was famously supported by some seven hundred so-called Little Ships with civilians and naval officers at their helms, is perhaps an unlikely candidate for a war film. 


Back in England, in Weymouth, so close to the killing fields of France and yet safely out of reach, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) head to Dunkirk on the Moonstone to help with the evacuation rather than allow a navy crew to commandeer their boat. Their teenage hand, George (Barry Keoghan), impulsively decides to join them and tells Peter that he hopes to impress his father by doing something to make up for his poor performance at school. As the three set sail across the choppy waters of the English Channel, three RAF Spitfires flying overhead pass them by. Aboard the Spitfires are the stoic Farrier (Hardy) and the equally phlegmatic Collins (Jack Lowden) as well as their Squadron Leader, “Fortis Leader”; they have been charged with providing air support to those leading the evacuation operation at Dunkirk, which is the target of regular aerial bombardment by Junkers dive-bombers, whose deafening screams are one of the film’s most memorable and haunting motifs. (The main gear legs of the Junkers Ju 87 were mounted with “Jericho Trumpets” specifically to inspire fear in those below).

The retreat from Dunkirk over a week in 1940, which was famously supported by some seven hundred so-called Little Ships with civilians and naval officers at their helms, is perhaps an unlikely candidate for a war film. Operation Dynamo, as it was called, was a narrowly avoided catastrophe (Churchill himself called it a “colossal military disaster”) remembered with fondness and pride only by we British, who still, occasionally, find a reason to celebrate the “Dunkirk spirit” exemplified in the deployment of the fragile little boats that helped to save four hundred thousand young Britons. It’s an extraordinarily British story for the twin reasons that no description of British culture could exclude a feeling of affection for the underdog and a belief in ordinary human decency. What better example is there, you might ask, of both?


The efforts of civilians back in Blighty form only a small segment of this remarkable film, which is dominated by the attempts of our central character (but never much of a hero), Tommy, to survive the advancing Germans, the Stuka bombings, the unforgiving sea, and the countless other forces of death that inhabit the beaches and waters of Dunkirk.


But the efforts of civilians back in Blighty make up only a sliver of this remarkable film, which is instead dominated by the attempts of our central character (but never much of a hero), Tommy, to survive the advancing German forces, the dive-bombings, the unforgiving sea, and the other forces of death that stalk the beaches and wade in the waters of Dunkirk. The film is frighteningly intense, thanks in a large part to the unending Shepard tone and sound of a ticking clock (taken from Nolan’s own pocket watch, apparently) that forms the basis of Zimmer’s anxious soundtrack. There’s no manipulation of the viewer’s emotions by Nolan––which isn’t to say the film isn’t moving at times––but, simply, a story of survival told against a backdrop of chaos and horror that’s immersive in a way that can only be achieved by a master filmmaker.

And Dunkirk is filmed masterfully: Nolan tells his story through a cold, grey-blue lens that seems to call to mind a distinct sense of death and decay. The scenes look like impressionist paintings, and elicit an acute terror that feels far more real than that found in most card-carrying films of the horror genre. Characters come and go with scant characterisation while Commander Bolton (Sir Kenneth Branagh), acting like a Chorus of Greek tragedy, supervises the evacuation. Alex (Harry Styles) is a fellow evacuee whom encounters Tommy part-way into the film, and an unnamed pale and gaunt figure (Cillian Murphy) is a shell-shocked soldier found by Mr. Dawson shuddering on a capsized hull. The performances, almost without exception, are excellent, but special praise is due for Fionn Whitehead and the characteristically superb Mark Rylance, who conveys with even the smallest movements a certain spirit and sense of duty. Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy are also deserving of acclaim in their pared-down pilot roles.

Dunkirk represents Christopher Nolan’s greatest artistic triumph to date, which is to say that his latest film does not have the mass appeal of, say, the Batman films. Dunkirk is also his furthest departure from his signature style, though his usual calling signs––a fascination with time and the nature of heroism, non-linear storytelling and experiments with perspective––make it, unquestionably, a Nolan film. Its shortcomings––and there are, of course, shortcomings––pale into insignificance in what is a taut and deeply involving film, masterfully conceived and beautifully executed, and an instant classic––never mind an Oscar contender.

5/5

Continue Reading

‘The Revenant’

The Revenant

IT IS DIFFICULT TO leave a showing of Alejandro Iñárritu’s savage film, The Revenant, without having the feeling that you’ve personally undergone some sort of violent assault.

Of course, that’s nothing compared to the battering frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) endures as he tries to find civilisation in the 800s9th century American wilderness. Man is pitched against nature in this epic revenge tale based on Michael Punke’s embellished take on the legend of the American explorer, in which Glass survives a bloody mauling by a mother grizzly bear only to see his son (Forest Goodluck) murdered and then be left for dead himself by Tom Hardy’s racist, sociopathic trapper John Fitzgerald.

What follows is a ceaseless, 180-minute macho art film in which the ironically-named Glass risks scalping and shooting and starvation in the name of white-hot revenge against the backdrop of an unspoiled Great Plains and a haunting orchestral score by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

It is, in effect, a double-chase: a roaming group of Native Americans hunt the white man who kidnapped a woman, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), and because Glass is travelling alone in the wild, he is the most likely to be found; Glass, grieving and angry, hunts Fitzgerald. The wounded Glass, both hunter and hunted, reliant on nature, yet in constant danger from it, moving awkwardly in bear skin, tearing greedily at raw fish and flesh, regresses to an animal state, driven by the very basest of emotions: revenge and the instinct to survive.

The brutality of Glass’s world is juxtaposed with the gorgeous, glorious, snow-covered Great Plains, courtesy of three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki: the landscape, filmed in Alberta, Canada and Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, is as arresting as any gory shot of Glass stuffing gunpowder into a wound in his neck. But to call The Revenant a purely cinematographic triumph, or to reduce it to a standard revenge tale, is to do it a gross injustice: it is equally a suffocating story of the physical difficulties of mere survival at the dawn of the Wild West, in which frostbite or hypothermia may end your life long before a human or animal gets the chance, and a symbolic story about man and nature, civilisation and savagery, death and rebirth.

Iñárritu’s brutal odyssey is riddled with allegory and reference to the spiritual, at times clumsily expressed, which betray his sympathy for the myriad indigenous tribes who struggled to survive French and American occupation in the 1800s. If The Revenant fails at times, it is in this area. The hunter-gatherers of the Pawnee and Ree tribes take on an otherworldly character which borders on the noble savage cliché; the imagery is, at times, almost laughably opaque––memorably during the dream sequence in which Glass sees his murdered son.

DiCaprio remarked following the release of the film that it had included thirty or forty of the toughest sequences of his career. It shows: it is an imperious performance by DiCaprio, whose bloodied Glass looks perpetually to be on the very brink of death as he tries to survive the beautiful and savage landscape of Montana and South Dakota. Meanwhile the impressive Will Poulter, as the young and naive trapper Jim Bridger, quietly steals the scenes he shares with Tom Hardy.

The symbology in The Revenant is at times heavy-handed, and the ideological hand of director Iñárritu oscillates between elevating the narrative and overwhelming it. But in spite of this it is truly a thrilling film, beautifully told, beautifully shot and beautifully acted––in  relation to the latter it is no surprise that the real-life suffering of DiCaprio for the artistic vision of his director was rewarded with an Academy Award.

What’s more, and put simply, The Revenant is the best film I have seen in quite some time.

Continue Reading

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

'Mad Max: Fury Road'

IN A DIESEL-punk dystopian desert, white-faced ‘war boys’ huff spray paint and drive weaponised coupés, tankers and bikes across the wasteland as if the most savage travelling circus ever conceived is coming to town. It’s a Shangri-La for sociopaths and sadists, and a nightmare for everyone else, and it’s here, after three decades in development limbo, that George Miller sets the adrenaline-fuelled Mad Max: Fury Road.

After a short preamble running through the various events which led to the sorry state in which the world presently finds itself, Max looks over the dusty wasteland of what used to be Australia and then bites the head off a two-headed mutant lizard. Shortly after that he’s on the move with a convoy of weaponised cars and trucks in hot pursuit, and for the rest of the film’s two-hour running time, it hardly ever slows down. Fury Road is as crazy as its haunted, hallucinating hero.


Miller shows and doesn’t tell, and just what he shows is breathtaking. Miller resists the temptation to desaturate the colours of his universe as most dystopian films tend to do. Instead he oversaturates, turning the dusty, desert wasteland vibrant orange; at night it’s a rich mid-blue.


Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a tumour-ridden warlord who holds power over a small community by rationing water and repurposing Norse mythology (‘Ride with me eternal on the highways of Valhalla!’), dispatches his best driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to Gas Town to bring back ‘guzzoline’, in this hellish world a rare commodity over which wars have been fought. But Furiosa has other plans, and soon she deviates from the route and heads for hostile territory. Among those in the automobile ‘armada’ Joe sends to bring back Furiosa is sick Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who has Max strapped to his car to supply him with fresh blood.

This insane arrangement is set up with next to no dialogue. Miller shows and doesn’t tell, and just what he shows is breathtaking. Miller resists the temptation to desaturate the colours of his universe as most dystopian films tend to do. Instead he oversaturates, turning the dusty, desert wasteland vibrant orange; at night it’s a rich mid-blue. A toxic sandstorm is an impossibly dazzling mixture of reds and oranges and bright-white lightning, and when Furiosa kills a bike-riding mook with a flare gun, the smoke seems to plume from the screen. All of this adds to an immersing, overwhelming, stimulating cinematic experience. For much of the film Miller and his director of photography John Seale take down the frame rate so that the film runs at a disorientating frenetic pace. Other times they crank it up so we can revel in colourful slow-motion explosions and grisly killings.


Tom Hardy in particular stands out because he spends the first act of the film largely unable to move and masked like he got too deep into the Bane role, but Charlize Theron is exceptional as the fierce, one-handed Furiosa, channelling Alien 3-era Ellen Ripley chic.


This sort of visual storytelling relies a good deal on the physical acting and non-verbal charisma of the main actors. Tom Hardy in particular stands out because he spends the first act of the film largely unable to move and masked like he got too deep into the Bane role, but Charlize Theron is exceptional as the fierce, one-handed Furiosa, channelling Alien 3-era Ellen Ripley chic. (It’s worth mentioning here that despite the film’s title, it’s Furiosa who provides the plot’s inciting incident and Furiosa who drives it afterwards. Max is more of a supporting protagonist). Nicholas Hoult serves up a solid performance as the brainwashed, drug-addled mook Nux (‘If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the Fury Road!’) in what’s probably his most ambitious role to date and definitely the role that required the most makeup.

Mad Max: Fury Road is high-concept, low-budget, Aussie New Wave B-movie pumped full of ephedrine and steroids. Miller mixes souped-up murder-cars, flame-throwing electric guitars and pole-vaulting junkie mooks in a manic chase sequence set against a spectacular blood-orange backdrop. Add to that heady blend a lean script and a simple, linear plot and the result is deliriously entertaining cinema.

Continue Reading

‘The Drop’

'The Drop'

APPARENTLY, THERE ARE bars in parts of Brooklyn that function as drop points for a given night’s mob money, which is bound to cause all sorts of problems for the poor souls who work there. In Michael R. Roskam’s lean and atmospheric thriller The Drop––based on Boston crime scribbler Dennis Lehane’s short story––those poor souls are owner Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) and quiet bartender Bob (Tom Hardy), who complicates matters further when he decides to adopt a beaten, abandoned puppy previously owned by a drug-addled psychopath.

The story revolves almost exclusively around Bob Saginowski, a shy and soft-spoken man who seems a little on the slow side. Bob is tending bar with Cousin Marv when a couple of masked robbers take them for five grand one night; soon he’s an object of interest not only for the gang of greasy Chechen crooks who own the bar and the faux-affable detective investigating, but the junkie former owner of his scene-stealing pit bull, Rocco. There are early hints, however, that our humble hero might be more competent than he lets on. He gets to work on the disposal of a dismembered forearm like he’s done it ‘a thousand times before’, and Detective Torres (John Ortiz) notes with interest that he never takes communion. There’s one memorable shot in which Bob, his shoulders hunched, stands in a corridor under the red lights of the bar, and it does nothing if not suggest that there might be more to the man than meets the eye.


There’s one memorable shot in which Bob, his shoulders hunched, stands in a corridor under the red lights of the bar, and it does nothing if not suggest that there might be more to the man than meets the eye.


The Drop, despite having a few grisly moments, is more drama than thriller, and it burns away slowly. Roskam, who received an Oscar nod for Belgian crime flick Bullhead, puts character development and mood at the forefront of this film, which makes those infrequent moments of action all the more forceful. His direction is neat and technical, and he owes a lot to Lehane’s lean script, which rarely gives room for an unnecessary sentence. There is depth to The Drop, but the clues are subtle and easy to miss.


Roskam’s restrained direction and Lehane’s taut script are underpinned by excellent acting performances and a natural chemistry between Hardy and Gandolfini and Hardy and Noomi Rapace.


Roskam’s restrained direction and Lehane’s taut script are underpinned by excellent acting performances and a natural chemistry between Hardy and Gandolfini and Hardy and Noomi Rapace, who plays love interest Nadia. There’s a charmingly awkward exchange between Bob and Nadia while the former is out walking Rocco in a local park. ‘Where’s a pen when you need one?!’ he says uneasily, fumbling for something Nadia can use to write down her number. Gandolfini serves up a typically solid performance as a hot-headed bar owner dining out on a degree of local fame, while Matthias Schoenaerts, Roskam’s lead in Bullhead, is suitably swaggering and sinister as the dog-abusing junkie Eric Deeds.

The Drop is in many ways a simple film that rises above similar movies thanks to a taut script and a string of rich and complex performances. Gangsters and drug-addled killers always loom threateningly in the background, and though it feels thematically vague at times, its ending is its redemption. It’s a fitting final film for James Gandolfini, who died shortly after its completion.

Continue Reading