Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #115-119


universal-soldier-jean-claude-van-damme-gear
#115. Universal Soldier (1992, Emmerich) (US)

Any film with opening credits that superimpose the names of its two action stars over said action stars being zipped up in body bags has got my vote. There may have been a more streamlined way of saying that, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure it out.

Diverting in its liveliness and earnestly serious absurdities. Having Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren play machines effectively lifts the acting duties off their strapping shoulders, allowing the conceit to play into their limitations. But Van Damme has, make no mistake, seriously intuitive comic timing. He’s like a sad and unassuming lost child here, and it is peachy keen delightful to witness. I can honestly say that Van Damme is the only one from the streak of hyper-muscular action stars to come out of the late 80’s to early 90’s that I find myself crushing on. Dude’s hot.

Cat-and-mouse pattern; Lundgren catches up to Van Damme, and a small business gets obliterated in the ensuing mayhem leaving the country folk perplexed, but not without a zinger or two. Rinse, repeat; it gets tiresome. Universal Soldier outstays its welcome with that formula, but restores itself to badassery with a rousing rain-soaked finale full of methodically precise and concentrated bludgeons.

This was Roland Emmerich’s first major project, replacing director Andrew Davis. He uses the widescreen aspect ratio like he’s known it his whole life. The icy blues of the controlled laboratory are contrasted with the real world reds and yellows of the desert environment. Ally Walker’s wired yet casual chain-smoking reporter is exhausting. She throws herself into the role as best she can, but that admirable commitment only makes Veronica more difficult to bear.

What better way to end a capsule review than to plug the fact that there’s a healthy helping of Van Damme’s derriere? You can thank me later.

It’s the Little Things:
-Soooo, based on the buzz, it looks like I should see Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, huh?

The Yards 1
#116. The Yards (2000, Gray)
(US)
So I liked this so much more than Little Odessa. A return to the dual resurgence of the familial and the criminal, and within that the return of a son to those he left behind. It’s about loyalties, the past informing the present; you know the drill. The kind of intimate and heavy mid-tier crime drama that would be in fashion for 70’s American cinema but in 2000 grabbed nobody’s attention. And it’s a shame, because what a piece of work.

Everything carries a palpable weight to it, the precision of story and performance locking it all into place, making everything matter. Everyone speaks in hushed tones, the interpersonal and criminal given the same importance, one and the same. The first act, a welcome home party for the recently paroled Leo (Mark Wahlberg) should be taught in screenwriting classes. Everything is brilliantly set up with all the major characters, outside of the absent but integral Frank (James Caan), accounted for.

My favorite performances from Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, I Heart Huckabees, and now The Yards) showcase his brand of underutilized vulnerability. His Leo is observant and hesitant, one foot always in or out the door. Joaquin Phoenix makes the potentially unsympathetic Willie not only sympathetic, but kind of heartbreaking. His arc is felt every step the downhill way. Phoenix makes us feel it all slip away from him, with the inevitability of his foibles in tow, as if in slow-motion.

Can we talk about the late great Harris Savides for a second? Because this is exquisitely photographed, shot in golden musk. The scenario at hand is literally made to weigh down on these people in shadows. A sequence that sticks out for its divergence from the rest of the film is the big picture tussle between Leo and Willie midway through. Inspired by Rocco and his Brothers, we step back, as if a neighbor watching it all unfold from across the street. We’re normally so close to these characters, but in this moment we’re allowed to take in the physicality of this fight, messy and whole. All-in masculine energy.

It’s the Little Things:
This is the most attracted I’ve ever been to Charlize Theron. And that’s saying something.

cold-in-july-movie1
#117. Cold in July (2014, Mickle) (US)

Set up as a ‘meek’ (read: average) man-out-of-his-depth period slice of Americana crime horror. Sprints through a feature length of story in 30 minutes, daring us to ask ‘where do we go from here?’ The first 30 feels very much like a Cape Fear kind of story. Stalking, lurking revenge, and the ever-threatened home. And then suddenly it seems like Cold in July is gearing up for its finale. So again; where is all this going? Well, somewhere quite different from the beginning.

We first see Michael C. Hall’s (who I’m so so so glad to see in something not called “Dexter”) Richard sweatily defending his home from a burglar, and with an itchy trigger finger to boot. By the end he’s walking into a building with intent to kill, turned vigilante. I don’t want to say anything more, because one of the joys of Cold in July is moseying along with its directional shifts. Suffice it to say, Richard ends up in the literal back seat of what was at one point his story, hijacked by the more prominent and potent concerns of Sam Shepard’s Russel.

I love the way these three men (the other being swaggering Don Johnson) are cobbled together in an unlikely, weirdly lovable partnership, and a difficult situation. Even though the vigilantism supports Hall’s new-found manly energy, sustained by feeding off the presence of Shepard and Johnson, as solution to all (something that needed to be fixed apparently), in a supposition too old hat to hit.

The oversimplified dialogue in its climactic scene, and the way it plays, is genuinely moving, pushing against the destination of processed violence (though Jim Mickle always finds creative ways to keep the final act creative and edgy, even in its more overly drawn-out moments). Any sluggishness or dead end syndrome is offset by Mickle’s bravura behind the camera, and the varied trifecta of lead performances, most impressively Sam Shepard and his perpetually cocked head.

It’s the Little Things:
– I’ll sign a petition if it means Vinessa Shaw gets to stop playing thankless roles. As per usual, the wife is just sort of there. And then not.

A Heart in Winter
#118. A Heart in Winter (Un coeur en hiver)
(1992, Sautet) (France)
Both 1992 French films with ‘Winter’ in the title (the other being Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter which I’ll cover in my next post) depict love triangles with a twist. Effectively deployed one-time-only voiceover narration (something that tends not to work) at the start informs us that Stéphane (Daniel Auteuil) defines himself by his boss Maxime’s (André Dussollier) daily grind. It’s factual and routine. Maxime considers Stéphane a close friend, but the definition isn’t mutual. It’s not anything Maxime has done. Stéphane just doesn’t consider anyone his friend. He cannot, or will not, form self-defined personal connections with others even though he clearly has a rapport of some kind with several. Is he denying himself investment as a protective shield, or is he just missing warmth and the ability to truly connect?

Whichever it is, it has lent Stéphane a permanent air of superiority, above such trivialities as human connection or even having opinions in philosophical or political conversation. He goes about intellectually seducing Maxime’s new girlfriend, violinist Camille (Emmanuelle Béart), just because, or maybe because he’s unwilling to admit he’s drawn to her. So you have a very familiar illicit scenario but with an unusual player at its center, skewing all expected developments. This is first and foremost a character study about Stéphane and his reliable inability to change. He’s cruel in how far he takes his anthropological curiosities. He shows more of an intimacy with the inanimate violins he lovingly repairs.

Music is at the center, Ravel’s specifically, and several scenes of Camille playing show her intimacy with the violin (which is the shared bridge between the two) as she carries out its lyrical potential, a potential only possible because Stéphane has fixed the instrument for her. Béart, in what has got to be the only time she ever has or will have to be on the other side of an unrequited love, is magnificent, understandably tormented and confused, always achingly human. A complex film that goes into the answerable qualities and inadequacies of ourselves.

Peter's Friends
#119. Peter’s Friends (1992, Branagh) (UK)

Enjoyable even though it’s aggressively uneven and rote. Stephen Fry is always such an unbridled joy to watch. But we all knew this already. His Peter wears his heart on his sleeve as a distraction for his motivated guardedness. He watches as a happy reunion turns ends up holding critical moments for each former college buddy. Some are able to turn the curve, some, well, TBA. Very hopeful, in ways largely unearned (although I really liked the Hugh Laurie/Imelda Staunton story who sell an unrealistic marital shift wholesale). Carol (co-writer Rita Rudner) and Brian (Tony Slattery), significant others of Andrew (Branagh) and Sarah (Alphonsia Emmanuel), stretch broadness to the limits. Though Carol is allowed a nice scene with Maggie (Emma Thompson), the film can’t wait to dispatch of them, leaving us with the core group of six. Most of Peter’s Friends falls somewhere between a sitcom and bittersweet dramedy, not particularly succeeding in either. Branagh is too go-to on the long takes; sometimes it works, other times it’s lazy.

Emma Thompson’s character disappointingly undergoes the Ally Sheedy Treatment, in that she ceases to be a character once she’s had her makeover.

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