FILM REVIEW: Jodie Foster in Neil Jordan’s ‘The Brave One’

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By Ray Bennett

Director Neil Jordan says that “The Brave One” is a vigilante story that he shot as a horror film.

Jodie Foster plays an intelligent woman who discovers that she is capable not only of wreaking violence on the thugs who killed her lover and beat her within an inch of her life, but also of rendering street justice to other perpetrators.

Jordan says, “It’s the story of a woman who finds this thing inside her that she didn’t know was there. It’s like an out-of-body experience. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of justifiable payback; that the victim has the right. What interested me was the spectacle of this woman and the strange way that my sympathies never departed from her.”

Foster’s star turn will please audiences but the film cannot escape its core theme, which is that anyone is capable of becoming a killer and might just get away with it. The issue goes back to “Death Wish,” the 1974 Michael Winner film starring Charles Bronson, based on Brian Garfield’s novel.

To put the gun in a woman’s hand raises many questions that the film, as good as it is, does not attempt to answer. The film is very well constructed with New York made to look dark and threatening in Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography while Dario Marianelli’s score serves both action and intrigue effectively.

Foster is outstanding as the troubled and extremely resourceful radio reporter who picks up a gun to fight not only her demons but also those of other people. Terrence Howard is equally strong as a cop who befriends the woman and then begins to suspect what she is doing. Nicky Katt delivers some funny lines as a fellow detective and Mary Steenburgen is good as the radio boss.

 

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Intense questions in 'A Mighty Heart'

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Angelina Jolie with Dan Futterman as Daniel Pearl in ‘A Mighty Heart’

Michael Winterbottom’s searing new docudrama “A Mighty Heart,” a dramatization of the frantic hunt for American reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped in Pakistan and later murdered, did not resonate with moviegoers in the United States. It made barely $10 million at the North American box office despite gaining a 75% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes rising to 86% in its Cream of the Crop section.

The film is only now breaking across Europe before heading to Asia and South America. It opens in the United Kingdom Friday. Reviewing it at the Festival de Cannes in May, I thought it was “an expertly fashioned documentary-style drama” with star Angelina Jolie delivering “a well-measured and moving performance as the reporter’s wife.” (In my review I mentioned the kidnapping of BBC journalist Alan Johnston but thankfully he returned safe in July)

Besides being smartly made screen entertainment, the picture touches on many important issues including the use of torture in interrogations. The reporter’s mother, Judea Pearl, feels it goes too far in comparing his death to what’s been going on at Guantanamo as she expressed in an article Wednesday in The Guardian.

I am worried that the film falls into a trap [Bertrand] Russell would have recognized: the paradox of moral equivalence, of seeking to extend the logic of tolerance a step too far.

Read the article. The South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) has a full dossier on Pearl and here’s his foundation. Here’s my film review plus others and the trailer. The Washington Post has a good interview with Winterbottom and an online discussion with the director.

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Recalling … lunch with Richard Jaeckel in Detroit

By Ray Bennett

The London Chop House in Detroit, Michigan, was a favorite spot for celebrity interviews on the publicity circuit, which was how I came to share a table one day in 1973 with Jo Don Baker and Richard Jaeckel.

Richard JaeckelBaker, who later would appear in a couple of James Bond films (“The Living Daylights” and “Goldeneye”) was a hot new star with the release of “Walking Tall” and “Charley Varrick,” and now he was on tour to promote a routine crime picture titled “The Outfit.” Robert Duvall was the lead but he was busy with “The Godfather Part II” and so the young hunk was sent out on the road.

Trouble was, Joe Don at the time was as articulate as Buford Pusser, the club-wielding lawman he played in “Walking Tall” and so the distributor sent Richard Jaeckel (left), an easy-going veteran character actor from scores of films, along to smooth the way.

This all came to mind watching the new Western “3:10 to Yuma” starring Russell Crowe as a charismatic killer and Christian Bale as a desperate rancher deputized to send him for trial by putting him on the train in the title.three ten to yuma x325

It’s a good-looking piece of work with lively action and it features an impressive performance by Ben Foster (Russell Corwin in TV’s “Six Feet Under”) as a loyal but demented henchman named Charlie Prince. Glenn Ford played the bad guy in the original 1957 version of “3:10 to Yuma” with Van Heflin as the deputy.

Richard Jaeckel (pictured with Ford above) played Charlie Prince. It was one of a great many excellent supporting performances by the New York-born, California-raised actor following his 1943 debut in “Guadalcanal Diary.”

The Outfit Joe Don Baker x325What sticks in the mind from that lunch at the London Chop House is that the conversation constantly spun off from Baker  and the new picture (left) to tales from Jaeckel about the early TV Westerns he guest-starred on including “Tales of Wells Fargo,” “The Rebel,” “Lawman,” “Cimarron City,” “Wagon Train,” “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Bonanza.”

Jaeckel would tell a yarn that held me (and Baker) spellbound but then he’d interrupt himself to say, “But you’re here to talk to Joe Don, not to hear these old stories.” After a couple of questions directed at the inexperienced young actor, it wasn’t difficult to draw out the veteran again.richard-jaeckel-dirty dozen x325

Jaeckel made another fine Western with Glenn Ford (and Jack Lemmon) titled “Cowboy” (1958) not to mention such classics as “The Gunfighter” (1950) with Gregory Peck; “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (1973); and “Ulzana’s Raid” (1972) with Burt Lancaster.

He played Lee Marvin’s reliable sergeant in “The Dirty Dozen” (above) and he was Paul Newman’s brother in the Oregon logging drama “Sometimes a Great Notion” (1971, pictured below) based on the novel by Ken Kesey.

Sometimes a Great NotionNewman had taken over as director after Richard A. Colla departed the picture, which co-starred Henry Fonda, Lee Remick and Michael Sarrazin.

In Jaeckel’s big scene, his character is pinned by logs underwater while his brother attempts to save him. It was a seriously tense and moving sequence an it won Jaeckel his only Academy Award nomination.

Jaeckel did a lot more TV work in his later days, including regular roles on “Baywatch” and “Spenser for Hire.” He died in 1997, aged 70, and Hollywood lost another great character actor.

 

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FILM REVIEW: Eric Barbier’s ‘The Serpent’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Genuine thrillers, as opposed to gore fests, are few and between these days and, interestingly, France seems to be the only reliable source.

Olga Kurylenko The Serpent x325In French director Eric Barbier’s too slick but still entertaining thriller “The Serpent”, childhood prank that went seriously wrong causes a thirst for vengeance.

Based on a novel by Ted Lewis (“Get Carter”), it’s a tale of an innocent man whose life is turned upside down when he is made to appear guilty of first rape and then murder.

It’s a handsome and sturdy suspense picture that glosses over plot holes smoothly and just about gets away with an overblown climax. Yvan Attal and Clovis Cornillac star with Olga Kurylenko (pictured).

Just released in the U.K., “The Serpent” did well at the French boxoffice and should please international audiences who like their thrills served with a touch of Hitchcock.

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All about Alberto Iglesias in Almodovar’s film on stage

By Ray Bennett

Kevin Spacey’s tenure as artistic director of London’s Old Vic continues apace with a marvelous stage version of “All About My Mother” running through Nov. 24.

All About My Mother CD Iglesias x325Not least of its many charms is the film’s beautiful original music by Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias, which won him one of his six Goya Awards. Iglesias has scored the last six Almodovar films including his most recent, “Volver.”

Iglesias’s score for Fernando Meirelles’ 2005 picture “The Constant Gardener” won him the music prize at the Festival de Cannes plus Oscar and BAFTA nominations, and he picked up the music award at the Venice International Film Festival for his work on John Malkovich’s 2002 film “The Dancer Upstairs.”

Upcoming films include Marc Forster’s Afghan tale “The Kite Runner,” due for limited release in the United States on Nov. 2 and the United Kingdom on Dec. 26, and Steven Soderbergh’s two films starring Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevera, “Guerilla” and “The Argentine” due in 2008.

On Oct. 19 he will be in Ghent for a concert of his film scores as part of the three-day music event at the Flanders International Film Festival, about which more shortly. The San Sebastian-born composer’s film music places him high on the industry A-list and his themes and cues sound just as good on his albums as they do in the films.

Read my review from The Hollywood Reporter

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THEATRE REVIEW: ‘All About My Mother’ at The Old Vic

Diana Rigg All About My Mother x650

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Great movies become good remakes almost never, but Samuel Adamson’s inventive, funny and touching play “All About My Mother,” based on Pedro Almo-dovar’s Oscar-winning 1999 film, makes a strong case at the Old Vic that fine movies can make splendid theater.

The production’s big name is Diana Rigg, playing the veteran actress Huma, who also is seen as Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and doing a scene from Lorca’s “Blood Wedding.”

It’s a relaxed and diverting performance perhaps because Huma is not the lead. Rigg has great fun with the more outrageous lines – “I haven’t sucked cock in 30 years” she declares with gusto – and carries responsibility for the play’s emotion many times but especially in the final scene like the star she is.

Obviously going without Almodovar’s lyrical screen imagery and flair for capturing actors in revealing close-ups, Adamson retains the filmmaker’s time-shifting and weaving of scenes from stage and screen into real-time action.

The story of mothers and children and cockeyed families is reimagined with considerable fidelity to the original. The film’s references to Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Federico Garcia Lorca and “All About Eve” are employed in similar but subtly different ways in the play.

Almodovar’s eye-opening relish of Barcelona’s colorfully reckless, sardonic and rueful nightlife is represented fully, and much of the comedy is enhanced with the broadness that theatre allows. Sets and costumes are colourful and evocative and the show has the wonderful music that Alberto Iglesias wrote for the film.

Theatre director Tom Cairns manages the many scene changes deftly and stages crucial scenes with a good eye for the essential point. In the film, Manuela sees her 17-year-old son, Esteban, run down and killed by a car in the rain while she seeks the autograph of his favorite actress, Huma Rojo. The boy’s heart goes in an organ donor scheme to a needy father.

Manuela returns to Barcelona to find the boy’s father and befriends a young woman, Rosa, who is pregnant by the same man who fathered Esteban. She hooks up with an old friend, Agrado, a transvestite prostitute, and also seeks out Huma who is involved with a heroin-addicted lover, Nina.

It’s convoluted on paper, which says a great deal about Almodovar’s skill as a filmmaker, but also it is testament to Adamson that he is able to keep all the characters clear and amplify the key themes and vital references, which have to do with tortured love, forbearance and forgiveness.

While the son, Esteban, disappears early in the film, the role is expanded in the play and he is made narrator along with Agrado, played successfully by a man (Mark Gatiss) rather than as a woman in the film.

Colin Morgan, who won acclaim in the title role of “Vernon God Little” at the Young Vic, is an assured presence in an important role as Esteban, and Gatiss, of TV’s “The League of Gentlemen,” is a sparkling crowd-pleaser as the shrewd, caustic and sadly wise transvestite.

Lesley Manville, as Manuela, offers pleasing surprises throughout the play to compete remarkably in the imagination with the film’s impeccable Cecilia Roth, and it’s no fault of Joanne Froggatt, as Rosa, that she’s not Penelope Cruz.

Cast: Colin Morgan; Lesley Manville; Charlotte Randle; Diana Rigg; Mark Gatiss; Joanne Froggatt; Eleanor Bron; Playwright: Samuel Adamson; Based on the film by: Pedro Almodovar; Director: Tom Cairns; Set designer: Hildegard Bechtler; Music: Alberto Iglesias; Stage score: Ben & Max Ringham; Costume designer: Moritz Junge; Lighting designer: Bruno Poet; Sound designer: Christopher Shutt; Presented by the Old Vic, Daniel Sparrow, Neal Street Prods., Dede Harris and DRB Prods.

This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter

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‘The Larry Sanders Show’ is a big plus on Sky

Larry Sanders Show

By Ray Bennett

A big thank you to Sky Plus and ITV4 for making it possible to have a dozen episodes of “The Larry Sanders Show” ready and waiting after a lengthy trip on the road.

The show, which aired originally on HBO in the U.S. from August 1992 to May 1998, is unquestionably the best television comedy series ever. Even after many viewings, the writing and acting are at such an unmatched level that it’s impossible not to burst out laughing.

ITV4 airs it in the wee small hours and is to be congratulated for perseverance given that the only revenue at that time comes from dating and phone chat services.

Sky Plus eliminates them handily and it easy to enjoy the often savage, sometimes tender and always hilarious writing and beautifully gauged performances. Garry Shandling, Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor (pictured), Penny Johnson, Janeane Garofolo, Wallace Langham, and a roster of terrific performers and guest stars make up the greatest comedy ensemble on TV.

It’s a great shame all 89 episodes are not available on DVD but it appears that obtaining clearances for all the guests, especially the musical acts, has proved too great a hurdle. There are some collections available and Sony released a new edition in April. Most of the names connected with the series have gone on to good things but nothing to equal “The Larry Sanders Show.”

More about the DVD on Sony and here’s Sky

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VENICE FILM REVIEW: Brian De Palma’s ‘Redacted’

By Ray Bennett

Filmmaker Brian De Palma turns 67 on Tuesday so being handed the Silver Lion as best director for “Redacted” at the Venice International Film Festival was s timely gift.

The director faces a lot of flack for his searing docudrama about an incident involving U.S. soldiers in Iraq and critical response has been mixed and heated. The director of “Carrie” and “Scarface” explained to the festival press corps the title of his film, which screened today at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Redacted poster x325He said, “All the images we…have of our war are completely constructed — whitewashed, redacted,” and he revealed that he had found many of the harrowing images in the film, including videos and photos taken by soldiers, on the Internet: “One only hopes that these images will get the public incensed enough to get their congressmen to vote against the war.”

After the Venice screening, De Palma, said, “The movie is an attempt to bring the reality of what is happening in Iraq to the American people. In Vietnam, when we saw the images and the sorrow of the people we were traumatising and killing, we saw the soldiers wounded and brought back in body bags. We see none of that in this war.

“It’s all out there on the Internet, you can find it if you look for it, but it’s not in the major media. The media is now really part of the corporate establishment. When I went out to find the pictures, I said (to the media) give me the pictures you can’t publish…

“Everything that is in the movie is based on something I found that actually happened. But once I had put it in the script I would get a note from a lawyer saying you can’t use that because it’s real and we may get sued.

Magnolia Pictures will release “Redacted’ in the United States in November in plenty of time to qualify for next year’s Academy Awards. No word yet on a U.K. release. Here’s my review from The Hollywood Reporter.

VENICE – Veteran director Brian De Palma’s filmmaking skills have seldom been as razor sharp as they are in his sensational new film about members of a U.S. Army squad who rape and murder a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and slay her family.

Made on HD video and employing images from digital cameras, video recorders, Internet uploads and old-fashioned film, De Palma’s movie is a ferocious argument against the engagement in Iraq for what it is doing to everyone involved.

Made so expertly that it appears to be assembled from genuine footage, the film details the extraordinary psychological pressure suffered by young soldiers on checkpoint duty in occupied areas of Iraq, and then follows one unit as two of its members skew monstrously out of control.

De Palma’s screenplay is outstanding, and he draws wonderfully naturalistic performances from his youthful cast. Sympathetic to the young men who lose their way in horrible circumstances but unflinching in its depiction of the horrors that can result, the film is harrowing, but it should find responsive audiences everywhere.

A fictional story based on real events, “Redacted” distills images from an array of sources to tell its story, beginning with those captured by Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a young soldier who hopes they will buy his way into film school. Clean-cut Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney) also wields a video camera, but Salazar goes to extremes making a daily record of almost everything he sees.

That includes conversations with the other guys in the unit: Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), a doper whose name is apt; B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), a blowhard with a lot of body fat; Gabe Blix (Kel O’Neill), who likes to read John O’Hara; and two sergeants, Sweet (Ty Jones) and Vazques (Mike Figueroa). They goof around for the camera off duty and Salazar even records them on duty so that when one of them is blown to pieces by a bomb left in roadside trash, he gets it all.

By then, footage from a French documentary about the unit has made clear how the monotony and constant fear of maintaining checkpoints grinds the men down. Constantly being told they have to remain on duty for a further tour, they are drained and on edge. The docu reports that over 24 months 2,000 Iraqis were killed at checkpoints with only 60 proven to be insurgents. In one such incident, a pregnant woman and her baby are killed when her brother, taking her to the hospital, races through the unit’s checkpoint thinking he’s been waved on.

Rush and Flake are especially vulnerable to demonizing an enemy that they don’t recognize or understand. Their plan to rape the daughter of a Sunni man recently arrested comes up almost idly but then becomes one of deadly intent.

De Palma uses all his considerable talent to make clear what has happened to these young men and the performances, especially by Carroll as the callously indifferent Flake and Devaney as the conscience stricken McCoy, are first rate.

The director makes great use of Handel’s “Sarabande” in the picture, the somber tones familiar as the main title music in Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” It’s a reminder that nothing depicted in this film is new and that it’s a shame it needs to be told again.

Venice International Film Festival

Cast: Izzy Diaz; Daniel Stewart Sherman; Patrick Carroll; Rob Devaney; Mike Figueroa; Ty Jones; Kel O’Neill; Director, writer: Brian De Palma; Director of photography: Jonathon Cliff; Production designer: Phillip Barker; Costume designer: Jamila Alleddin; Editor: Bill Pankow; Producers: Mark Cuban, Jason Kliot, Simone Urdl, Joana Vicente, Todd Wagner, Jennifer Weiss; Co-executive producer: Gretchen McGowan; Produced by HDNet Films; MPAA rating: R; Running time, 90 minutes.

 

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VENICE FILM REVIEW: Ang Lee’s ‘Lust, Caution’

Lust, Caution x650

By Ray Bennett

VENICE – Ang Lee’s lugubrious spy epic “Lust, Caution” (Se jie)  brings to mind what soldiers say about war: that it’s long periods of boredom relieved by moments of extremely heightened excitement.

There’s an extended and nasty murder scene in which several inept resistance fighters make a bloody mess of stabbing a man to death and a series of sex scenes so close to the knuckle and more lubricious joints as to appear real. No wonder the MPAA has slapped an NC-17 rating on the picture, which screened in competition at the Venice International Film Festival.

But getting to those episodes, which are of dubious merit, means enduring 156 tedious minutes watching a group of not very interesting young Chinese people learn how to fight the occupying Japanese during WWII. Needlessly long and filled with albeit beautifully staged and filmed sequences where not very much happens, the film is unlikely to capture the word of mouth buzz required to overcome the handicap of its rating.

The plot is much like “Black Book,” Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s tale of a young Jewish woman who sleeps with a Nazi on behalf of the resistance, although it has none of the flair of that film. In “Lust, Caution,” it’s an idealistic young Chinese woman named Chih-ying Chu (Tang Wei) who volunteers to become the mistress of Mr. Yee (Tony Yeung), a traitor who runs the brutal secret service on behalf of the hated occupying force.

The idea is that if she intrigues him enough he will breach his supercautious regimen and place himself at risk so the others in Chih-ying’s group can assassinate him. Kuang Yu-Min (Wang Lee-Horn), who heads the group, is handsome and noble, and also attracted to the girl although he reveals that about three years too late.

Starting off as a theatrical troupe producing patriotic plays, they graduate to armed activity as part of a cell run by the organized resistance. They’re just not very good at it. Chih-ying, however, having demonstrated onstage that she’s a superb actress, takes to subterfuge like a natural-born Mata Hari.

With her shy beauty and pleasant manners, she is invited to join the mahjong circle of Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen) among the Chinese elite permitted to enjoy a privileged life by the Japanese. They are ladies who lunch and talk about the luxuries that they miss but are sometimes available from Hong Kong.

Chih-ying soon catches the eye of Mr. Yee and before long becomes his mistress. That’s when she starts really earning her resistance pay. Mr. Yee is a brutal rapist and their sexual encounters become sado-masochistic episodes in which the man shows a glimmer of humanity only at the point of sating his lust.

There’s a fair bit of that and it is well choreographed with lots of flesh on display although entirely devoid of passion. The film looks gorgeous but the plotting is clumsy and the acting is flat. It takes a long time before the idea of killing Mr. Yee gets going and by then it appears that director Lee has lost the plot and his laborious tale appears to have no point at all.

Venice International Film Festival In Competion

Cast: Tony Leung; Joan Chen; Tang Wei; Wang Lee-Horn; Anupam Kher; Director: Ang Lee; Screenwriters: James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang, from a story by Eileen Chang; Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto; Production designer: Pan Lei; Music: Alexandre Desplat; Costumes: Lai Pan; Editor: Tim Squyres; Producers: William Kong, Ang Lee; Executive producer: James Schamus; Production: Focus Features, River Road Entertainment in association with Haishang Films; Running time, 156 minutes; MPAA rating: NC-17

 

 

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VENICE FILM REVIEW: Jose Luis Guerin’s ‘In the City of Julia’

sylvia x650By Ray Bennett

VENICE – Virtually a silent movie apart from the everyday sounds of the French city of Strasbourg, Spanish director Jose Luis Guerin’s lyrical tale of forlorn love, “In the City of Sylvia,” is a treat for romantics and people watchers.

It’s a simple tale of an artistic young man (Xavier Lafitte, below) who returns to Strasbourg in search of a woman named Sylvia with whom he had a brief affair six years earlier. He spends his time at cafes in the vicinity of their first meeting, writing notes and sketching images of the people he sees. In due course he spots someone (Pilar Lopez de Ayala, above)) he thinks is Sylvia and so he follows her.

Slow moving and filled with tiny observed moments, the film is wonderfully crafted by director Guerin and cinematographer Nathasa Braier. Screened in competition at the Venice International Film Festival, it could be in line for awards and with its beautiful players and universal appeal it should do well internationally.

The anonymous young man who sits down one day at the Cafe du TNS-Theatre National de Strasbourg has the looks of Byron and an eye for human expression. The camera goes with him as he unobtrusively gazes at a range of mostly young people talking animatedly or sitting in silence; lovers kissing; couples disagreeing and individuals sitting, thinking, and staring at something or nothing.

in-the-city-of-sylvia x650It’s a full 35 minutes before anyone speaks and that’s when the young man calls out the name Sylvia. But the woman ignores him and follows a wandering course through the city’s Old Town with the man in gentle pursuit. In other circumstances, the young man’s behavior would be odd or threatening, and there comes a time when the object of his attentions makes that point.

But Lafitte is so assured in his portrayal of honest yearning and De Ayala is such a radiantly beautiful mystery that the film is more succulent than piquant. Filled with small eye-pleasing images, it’s a picture that audiences might wish to see more than once in order to relish it all.

Venue: Venice International Film Festival; Cast: Pilar Lopez de Ayala, Xavier Lafitte, Laurence Cordier, Tanja Czichy, Eric Dietrich, Charlotte Dupont; Director, writer: Jose Luis Guerin; Director of photography: Natasha Braier; Production designer: Maite Sanchez; Costume designers: Valerie-Elder Fontaine & Miriam Compte; Editor: Nuria Esquerra; Producers: Luis Minarro, Gaelle Jones; Production: Eddie Saeta S.A., Chateau-Rouge; No MPAA rating; running time, 84 minutes.

This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.

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