Monday, 21 January 2013

Unit One ("Rejseholdet") Season 1 Review

Created by: Peter Thorsboe.

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Charlotte Fich, Lars Brygmann, Waage Sandø, Erik Wedersøe, Trine Pallesen and Lars Bom.

Synopsis: Based on actual, real-life crimes, Unit One follows an elite mobile police force as they are dispatched to assist local police in solving some of the most complex and high profile cases Denmark has ever seen.

Due to the popularity of recent "Nordic Noir", re-releases of Danish television series are cropping up habitually. One such re-release is Unit One ("Rejseholdet"), a police thriller that ran from 2000 until 2004. It follows an elite police force that are sent to help with various cases. Its cast, as advertised, appear in a number of Scandinavian shows including Borgen, The Killing and Wallander. The notable star is Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen, with top billing despite him only being a supporting character. The star of this show, even with it seeming an ensemble piece, is Charlotte Fich.

Unit One is based on real cases that happened around Denmark over 20 years, bringing a bleak, gritty edge to the programme. It's not always so dark and the lighter moments (such as quips between the team) play out equally well. It's tone will appear perfectly common thanks to our own ITV drama The Bill and US imports such as 24 and CSI. The theme tune, one of the first memorable elements, has a similarly frustrating jingle to The Bill and could put you right off, as pathetic at that seems. Get past the laughable music (theme tune and poor soundtrack) along with some quite boring episodes and it may have you hooked.

With 9 episodes, each just under an hour long, Unit One's first season is not a grade-A piece of drama though by episode 7 it begins to grip you, as the cases become more intense and the characters start to seem familiar. Each character gets the detail they need in order for you to feeler obliged to follow and care about them, some more than others. Fich as the team leader, Ingrid, gets the most screen time but understandably so; a woman high up in the ranks with a quaint home life sounds dull but is magnified and altered from time to time in interesting ways.

Mikkelsen as Fischer and his best friend/partner La Cour are the next best inclusions to the group, with the latter regarded highly for his "sensitivity" and someone you always want to learn more about. Mikkelsen is a fantastic screen presence but has only the basic story-lines to play with (bar one in which the case becomes warped with his domestic life). The rest are merely standard extras to the team, yet Johnny Olsen stands out as a refreshingly abnormal crew member.

Most episodes revolve around a stand-alone case and these are not always so thrilling. The two-parters, notably 8 and 9, give reason for your attention and, more so, your willingness to continue on with seasons 2 to 4.

It's a distinctly average first season, although it matures into something more special in the final three hours of collective runtime. Give it that time and you may earn yourself a new foreign favourite. For those not especially enamoured by the first 2 or 3 episodes, save your time for more deserving titles (perhaps the other Nordic Noirs or maybe the seminal HBO series The Wire).

Show: ***

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth

House of Lies Season 1 DVD Review

Creator: Matthew Carnahan

Starring: Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz, Josh Lawson, Donis Leonard Jr., Glynn Turman, Dawn Olivieri, Griffin Dunne, Richard Schiff

Synopsis: Marty Kaan and his three associate consultants are brought in by companies to help solve problems in business. They are often tactful, intermittently rash, and always successful – but life isn’t always so slick, as the four continually find out.

Thanks to Showtime’s lenient censorship rules (mostly in part to its premium cable licensing), programmes like Dexter, Californication and House of Lies are allowed to contain a lot of nudity. Gratuitous or not, sometimes a little skin adds to the entertainment factor. Sometimes.

House of Lies’ first episode begins with a nude Don Cheadle lying - arse up in the air - on top of a naked beauty. Striking for a first scene, it still gives you a good idea about what type of character Marty Kaan is. The next 12 episodes contain at least one incident similar to the pilot’s opening though they rarely develop characters or plot, appearing to be there purely because they can be. Nudity becomes just one of the distracting and detrimental factors to the narrative advancement.

Plot does not appear to be the show’s primary concern; instead, nifty visuals and a post-modern handling of exposition are clearly where the writers’ and directors’ priorities lie. Much like Hiro stopping time in Heroes and walking through the frozen environment, Marty Kaan has the power to halt any proceedings and talk to the audience as time stands still. The first few examples of this dynamic are exciting and fresh but you soon come to realise it’s merely a way to side-step going in to complete detail. While you’re dazzled at the image, Kaan explains some consultancy jargon that you needn’t feel implored to listen to. Due to this, many stories involving a new client are instantly forgettable and the only thing keeping you watching is the play between the four main actors.

The cast is arguably where its strengths lie. Recent Golden Globe winner Cheadle (robbing Louis C.K of the more deserving win for Louie) has a charisma perfect for this type of role. He eats up his scenes though is perhaps too clear-cut (a straight up egotistical, job-obsessive, sex-crazed shark) to make a real impression in the contemporary television circuit. The character’s more fascinating quality is his relationship with his son, a 10 year-old with a confused sexual-orientation. It occasionally doesn’t help Cheadle that his supporting cast (mainly those working with him in the firm) are brilliant to watch. Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson steal the show in every episode, whilst Kristen Bell’s Jeannie is written and acted with a lot more fervour than most of the men. The comedy of House of Lies rests squarely with the main four’s dialogue and interaction. It frequently makes you laugh out loud and keeps the light-hearted nature of the show always in mind. When seriousness strikes it is horribly noticeable, making the characters react unnaturally in comparison to their regular behaviour.

Such tensions arise with the “Rainmaker” and Galweather characters (Griffin Dunne and Richard Schiff – two great actors miscast for this). Their scenes are laced with lots of consultancy conversations and heavy exposition making the two wonderful actors a sight for sore eyes. As Galweather and the Rainmaker have considerable influence on the firm you would imagine their part in the programme wields some force. Despite this assumption the writers drearily introduce some conflict in relation to the firm’s owners leaving it as a boring cliff-hanger to the season’s finale.

Season 2 may be right around the corner but House of Lies has not done an awful lot to keep its audience ardently wanting more. If there is any type of hankering it will probably be for a Virgin America/Atlantic flight, a part of the show’s product placement that is never subtle. Had House of Lies been more lucidly devised it could have been a thrilling show. It sets out to present a dramatic and often humorous look at the world of slick consultancy yet struggles to maintain a consistent tone.

Show: **
DVD Extras: Cast interviews, features on characters, costume and consultancy, and commentaries – none all that interesting but interviews do have some funny moments **

 By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Samsara Review

Director: Ron Fricke

Synopsis: Samsara casts a beautiful light on 25 countries and the stories and landscapes of each.

Nearing the first hour of Samsara director Ron Fricke shows us a series of assembly-lines. Disturbing in some senses (the sheer monotony of the job or the slaughter of chickens, cows and pigs), they are also hypnotic sequences. They are followed with an ironic look at supermarket shopping and fast-food consumerism and subsequently by presentations on the body, surgery, air-dolls and then strippers. It highlights the structure of the documentary in its awareness of universal parallels. Furthermore, from shining a light on the minutiae of life, it implores you to look at the art of it.

In its entirety, Samsara is a glorified screensaver (by no means a negative) – a series of moving pictures that are there purely to be looked at. If cinema is based on the notion of watching, this film embodies that concept better than most. For one hour and forty minutes Fricke presents the most striking features about the world around us. Some shots come and go without you taking much notice but the majority of what has been shot on the 75mm camera warrants every bit of your attention. 

There are too many to list although special mention must go to the Chinese formations and synchronised prayer rituals photographed with as much meticulous detail as the group movements themselves. Much like the assembly lines, there is an allure to the uniformity. Some parts are quite disturbing, like one showing a man transform himself into a creature closely resembling that of the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth. On the whole, however, it is a suitable feature for families – an educational and eye-opening depiction of life.

Some viewers may switch off after only a few minutes, realising there is no narration or narrative and only the image and soundtrack to dictate any emotion/impetus. Nevertheless, ignore for a brief amount of time the conventions of regular cinema and you will be transported into numerous cultures, all with their own eccentricities and beauties. There would also be many reasons for revisiting the documentary after its initial viewing; trying to work out the locations for each segment is not an easy task but certainly an interesting one.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth

Gangster Squad Review

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Writer: Will Beal

Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Nolte, Josh Pence

Synopsis: Based on a true story, Gangster Squad follows an off-the-books team of LAPD officers trying to take down a ruthless mobster, Mickey Cohen (Penn), in 1949 Los Angeles.

There is an eternal air of interest in the mob story. Back in the 1930s and ‘40s the gangster genre was a booming success at the box office. Citizens (mostly those in America) still tackling the crippling debt of the Depression found some odd solace in watching an anti-hero take what everyone wanted – money. The likes of Scarface (the Howard Hawks version), Little Caesar and The Public Enemy highlighted this new breed of man - they were exciting, taboo and fresh. As cinema changed so did the crime film, constantly changing focus from police to the thieves. Gangster Squad is the latest attempt at cashing in on cinemagoers fascination with cops and criminals and, more specifically, the familiar flashes of Tommy-gun shots and Art Deco backdrops of the City of Angels.

Visually the film is dazzling – exuberant colours, varnished sets and alluring costumes. Director Ruben Fleischer has clearly studied the aesthetic of these films (from the early classics, the Hollywood Renaissance’s Chinatown to the early ‘90s masterpieces such as L. A. Confidential) and brings a stylish showmanship to the project. Some issues arise in how much Fleischer enjoys brandishing said style; a superfluous Snyder-esque obsession with slow-motion and “interesting” camera angles/set-ups often distract from the story at hand. The scenes that play best are the static shots showing pure violence. If the 1930/40s films had to shy away from brutality and sleaze, Gangster Squad in the 21st Century takes great pleasure in its freedom to do just the opposite. When the butt of a gun is pummelled into a mobster’s face or a round of ammo pounds through a goon, it makes an impact, in frame and out. However, presenting these moments in slow-mo (as Fleischer habitually does) extracts that visceral element and implants a feigned quality.

Buying into the plot is never difficult, though there are moments where capturing the essence of that era requires outdated dialogue. For some these may prove too jarring for a contemporary audience, not wholly aware of the meaning behind such lingo. What’s more, the sheer bravado on show may, at points, appear laughable; a montage scene midway through that boasts unbridled masculinity seems both fun and funny.

Sean Penn as the villain suffers the worst of the script, with lines such as “back home I was a gangster, now I'm GOD”. Despite getting the short end of the straw with the screenplay, Penn does a fantastic job at playing the hot-headed hustler. With sunken eyes that appear to blacken completely, like a great white ready to kill, Penn comes across as a truly malicious figure. Characterised as a man with an army of henchmen, there has been some effort put into the presentation of his men, too. Troy Garity as the snake-like Wrevock earns enough attention to make the Cohen troupe very formidable.

The villains are strongly outfitted, perhaps more so than the leading men – the eponymous Gangster Squad. Josh Brolin as the protagonist has no faults; he fits into the world with perfect ease. His rugged, grizzled manner makes for a great contemporary Bogart. Less can be said for his company, predominantly made up of cliché stock characters. Ryan Gosling, Hollywood’s main man, whilst providing a pretty face to the picture, and some decent quips, meanders through the narrative with a two-dimensional character. The remaining players, such as the token black guy (a charismatic Anthony Mackie), the Mexican half-wit (Michael Pena), the nerdy wire-tapper (Giovanni Ribisi, imbuing the film with some humanity) and the crotchety sharp-shooter (Robert Patrick, still a commanding presence), are given little-to-no introduction and are left with the dreaded omen of “which one will become the victim that pushes these guys to fight for all their worth” hanging over each of their heads. A final mention must go to Emma Stone who blazes up the screen with a fiery magnetism, though sadly that’s all she gets to do. Her chemistry with Gosling is still potent (see Crazy, Stupid, Love for the previous example) but the two share very little screen-time together.

Very glamorous though sometimes tawdry, it has sincerely exemplified the quality of the classic gangster film. Whilst characterisation and script are poorly executed, Gangster Squad is an entertaining piece of cinema. More of a guilty pleasure, it’ll never garner the praise of Fleischer’s muses (unabashedly hinted at throughout, including one scene literally lighting up the frame with a “Chinatown” sign), and will doubtfully gain those films’ immortality.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth

Django Prepare a Coffin Review

Director: Ferinando Baldi

Writers: Ferinando Baldi, Franco Rossetti

Starring: Terence Hill, Horst Frank, George Eastman, Jose Torres, Pinuccio Ardia

Synopsis: After the cold-blooded execution of his wife, a lone gun-slinger, Django (Hill), becomes a vigilant for a town at the mercy of his wife’s murderer.

With increasing publicity of the Spaghetti Western genre (specifically those with the name “Django” in the title) thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, there has never been a better time to seek out the 60’s classics. It is worth noting that despite being advertised as a sequel to the Franco Nero-led Django, Django Prepare a Coffin seems more like a prequel with only a few corresponding features.

Django (recommended viewing before this film) has the essentials of many popular cult films – a cheap yet pleasing tone. Likewise, Ferdinando Baldi’s sequel/prequel is rife with dozens of embarrassing nuances though enjoyable nonetheless. Sound effects, acting and editing are noticeably shoddy, yet are balanced out with entertaining action, a captivating lead and some great set-pieces.

Franco Nero was a brilliant Django though put his and Hill’s films side by side and you can barely tell the difference between the two actors. Seeing the film as a prequel aids the notion of chronology from one film to the next - Hill great as a slightly younger Nero. The character shares a few similarities with the infamous Joe/The Man with No Name figure in the Dollars trilogy (an icon created by Clint Eastwood), he is mostly silent, chews on a cigarillo and knows how to handle a gun. Much like the Leone’s leading man, Hill is incredibly watchable; a believable hero who gets as many victories as he does defeats.

The villains he faces may not remain in your memory like Lee Van Cleef or Henry Fonda (from Leone’s other Spaghetti Western, Once Upon a Time in the West) but he does have a comic side-kick in the form of Pinuccio Ardia and his parade of pet birds (much like Eastwood did with Eli Wallach). It’s mostly how Django goes about killing the baddies that stays in your mind; without giving too much away, a blazing fire in which an actor is licked by flames from all sides (with obvious disregard to Health and Safety) is astonishing to watch and a terrific scene in a grand set-piece.

Without being as special as Django (that, with its success, spawned numerous Spaghetti Westerns that included the name Django in them for mere commercial purposes), Django Prepare a Coffin has its moments. Gun fights and horse-back chases are where the obvious strengths lie – competently executed despite the B-movie class.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth

Friday, 4 January 2013

Berberian Sound Studio Review

Director/Writer: Peter Strickland

Starring: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Susanna Cappaellaro, Layla Amir, Eugenia Caruso, Antonio Mancino

Synopsis: Gilderoy (Jones), a sound engineer for a UK television and film industry is mysteriously hired to work on a psychological thriller in Italy. There in the Berberian Sound Studio Gilderoy’s mind starts to slip and he becomes more involved in the production.

The effect of sound in a horror film is, quite often, the determining factor in the movie’s ability to frighten you. The experience of Berberian Sound Studio is electrifying in its manipulation of sound and the resulting psychological outcome. It does not play on the tried conventions of violin shrieks or symbols clashing to have you jumping out of your seat. Instead, director Peter Strickland takes the audience through a very introspective analysis of sound effects and the jarring nature of their engineering.

Toby Jones’ Gilderoy, a mild-mannered, quiet sound-mixer, is the perfect figure to magnify the horror that emerges around him. Having a reserved protagonist secures empathy with a wide audience whilst making the events around the “average Joe” appear distressingly chaotic. As Gilderoy becomes an intrinsic part of the diegetic film’s creation, it is understandable to see how his daily intake of what we imagine to be distressing content haunts him to no end. Strickland never shows the audience the “Equestrian Vortex” film that Gilderoy is working on but one can gather that from the sounds and descriptions we hear, it is very traumatic. Jones does a terrific job at playing the various levels of distress that Gilderoy undergoes. The perky, slightly confused employee at the start soon evolves into a tired, jittery wreck – all masterfully expressed by the British character actor.

As Jones has mostly been seen in bit-parts and numerous supporting roles it is refreshing to see him at the forefront of a film (also note Infamous and the upcoming Hitchcock film, The Girl for Jones in the lead). His supporting cast are relatively unknown though all provide Gilderoy with enough foils, love interests and collaborators to make his experience in the Berberian Sound Studio all the more interesting.

As Gilderoy first walks through the bland-coloured corridors of the studio, echoes of a woman’s screams fill the ether – it is the beginning of wanting to find out more about this place as well as providing the film with an immediate omen of dread. Out of all the film’s triumphs it is the sound that is most impressive. Now on DVD/Blu-ray, the purchase or renting of Berberian Sound Studio deserves a surround sound system to enhance all the nuances of the film’s glorious noise. As much as the story itself stays with after the film ends, it is the notion of sound and volume that keeps Berberian Sound Studio in your mind long after you’ve finished watching it.

Strickland’s clear knowledge of the genre, along with particular muses (Lynch and Argento), gives the film a perfect pace, well-crafted characters and a captivating narrative. Harking back to the analogue engineering of sound effects, the 70s movie enterprise is lovingly recreated by Strickland and his set design team, adding to the feel of authenticity in the film. It is not the average slasher/paranormal/exorcism horror that regularly litters the cinemas, but a brilliant psychological voyage into sound and stress. 

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth.

Top 10 Films of 2012

Clue's in the title.

10. After Lucia
A frank, gut-wrenching look at bullying. Some may criticise After Lucia for it knowingly tugging at your heart strings and using a few clichés primed for plot development. Nevertheless, events that transpire in the narrative are unforgettably upsetting and hard to watch, resulting in a powerful film. Alejandra, played with tremendous poise by Tessa La, is a modern tragic figure to a very believable extent. How Alejandra’s story, the bullies’ and Alejandra’s father’s arcs meet is one of the best thread closures of recent cinema. 

Read After Lucia's review here

9. Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai

Elegant, classic filmmaking perfectly on show in Takashi Miike’s latest. Partially showing two sides to a story (a-la Rashomon), Hari-kiri focuses on two samurai suicides and the reasons behind each. Shot with magnificent depth in sets wonderfully constructed, it is a beautiful film to behold. Performances, especially Ebizo Ichikawa, are phenomenal, bringing about a poignancy rarely witnessed in mainstream cinema. 

8. End of Watch

Cop dramas are a dime a dozen though when one comes along that is critically successful it is worth taking note. The likes of The Untouchables, L.A Confidential and Heat rank among the best of the genre though End of Watch could easily stand alongside them. Occasionally the camera work and representation of the villains desires scrutiny though it is the relationship between Jake Gyllenhaal’s Brian and Michael Peña’s Mike that awards the film it’s acclaim. 

Read End of Watch's review here.
7. Argo

Ben Affleck’s hat trick in directing has been completed with his latest, Argo. The unbelievable yet true story about the escape of American hostages in Iran after a coup d’état is thoroughly gripping. As well as being a taut thriller (the finale promoting Affleck’s undeniable skill calling the shots), Argo has wicked moments of humour amongst the drama that makes it a highly entertaining film. Another mention in this list – Scoot McNairy, whose part in this film often steals the limelight. 

Read Argo's review here
6. Killing Them Softly
Andrew Dominik’s cold, satirical and biting image of Obama’s America didn’t fair well in the US for obvious reasons but it does not detract from its overall success. Artistically it’s sublime, with music and cinematography creating a compelling atmosphere. Pivotal scenes will not go unforgotten – brutal yet beautiful set pieces to punctuate scenes of heavy (though brilliant) dialogue.
Featuring two up and coming stars, Scoot McNairy and (slightly more known) Ben Mendelsohn, alongside heavy weights such as Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins and Ray Liotta. From Pitt producing to his re-teaming with Dominik, you can tell that this a passionate project of their's, which never fails to shine through. 

5. Martha Marcy May Marlene

An indie hit at festivals, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a memorable, chilling portrayal of a cult. Less stylistic than The Master that similarly dealt with such topics, but arguably a better film. The direction, writing and acting are are wondrous (notably Olson and the fantastic John Hawkes), leaving you thinking about the film months after you've seen it. 

4. Liberal Arts

Second entry to feature Elizabeth Olson, highlighting how much of a new talent she is. A mature, sweet rom-com from writer/director/actor Josh Radnor. With a terrific supporting cast including the lovely Elizabeth Olson, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney and a surprisingly good performance from Zac Efron. Liberal Arts looks at the quandary of dating someone slightly younger than yourself and the moral implications of that. Played with expert wit and fused with charm and geniality, Liberal Arts was not only one of the best rom-coms of this year but of the last decade. 

Read Liberal Arts' review here

3. Polisse

A hidden gem of this year with only a limited release, Polisse is the film you have to seek out. Advertised as similar to The Wire, there’s not much that can detract from that comparison – Polisse is every bit as engaging, dramatic and educational as the seminal HBO series. Based around the lives of a child protection unit, Polisse is often disturbing but never fails to provoke emotion. It’s not often that a film could do with a TV spin-off but Polisse’s characters and narratives arcs are deserving of hours more exploration. A stunning portrait of the police and the difficulties of the job. 

2. Skyfall

Many comparisons have been made with Skyfall and Christopher Nolan and whilst this may irritate certain people, it is true that intelligent blockbusters have been helped by Nolan’s last 3 films. The latest Bond outing is a triumphant, mature cinematic treat. Helped by three great writers, the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, and sophisticated director Sam Mendes, Skyfall not only entertained but had consistent artistic merit.

Read Skyfall's review here
1. Untouchable

One of the greatest buddy movies of all time and certainly one of the funniest and touching films of of the last few decades. A simple (and true) story of a quadriplegic and his aid with more than one conflict of interest. Sounds relatively lacklustre but an opening set piece involving a car-chase, a jovial dance scene, a majestic skydiving moment and numerous incidents of top-class, hilarious quips between Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy make it very special. An absolute must-see.

Read Untouchable's review here
By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms