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Monday, 1 February 2016

Monday Night Roundup #12

I've been busy at Apocalypse Later over the last couple of weeks:

I celebrated the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe by reviewing a lesser known adaptation of one of his short stories, Mystery of Marie Roget (1942).

I commemmorated the 130th anniversary of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by reviewing four silent versions of the story, all called Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: the 1912 version with James Cruze in both lead roles, the 1913 version with King Baggot, the famous 1920 feature version with John Barrymore establishing himself in no uncertain terms and the shorter 1920 version with Sheldon Lewis.

I also remembered Dan Haggerty by covering the two films he selected from his career for me to review for my Make It a Double project back in late 2014: Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013), a classic tall tale reinvented as a slasher movie, and The Capture of Grizzly Adams (1982), the TV movie that wrapped up his run as his most famous character after a 1974 feature and a 1978 TV show.

Here are brief reviews of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

Crime Spree (2003)

Director: Brad Mirman
Stars: Harvey Keitel, Gerard Depardieu, Johnny Hallyday, Renaud, Said Taghmaoui, Stephane Freiss, Albert Dray, Shawn Lawrence, Joanne Kelly, Richard Bohringer and Abe Vigoda
January 2016 has been a really tough month for film fans, with the loss of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Angus Scrimm, Dan Haggerty and now Abe Vigoda, who at 94 has finally left us after decades of false news reports. He died on the 26th in his sleep.

I never saw him in his most famous role, as Det Sgt Phil Fish on the sitcom Barney Miller and its spinoff show, Fish, but I’ve seen him in films as varied as The Godfather, Cannonball Run II and Joe vs the Volcano. To remember him here at Apocalypse Later Now!, I pulled out a picture that I hadn’t seen but which looked like a whole bundle of fun, riffing comedically on his many serious gangster roles. It’s Crime Spree, a Canadian/British co-production from 2003 which pits a number of French legends against American gangsters. It turned out to be a really good choice, because I laughed aloud for a majority of the first half and some of the second.
The picture begins in French, with Gérard Depardieu and a couple of cronies trying to steal a painting from an art gallery in Paris. They fail because they’re utterly inept. While they did buy a flashlight, they neglected to buy batteries, so they use a cigarette lighter to help them see. Once they’ve cut out the painting from its frame on the wall, one crook gets burned by the lighter, which he throws across the room, setting the curtains on fire. He uses the rolled up painting to put out the flames. It’s ruined, of course.

Now, at this point we might expect a Pink Panther sort of story, but that’s not where we’re going. In fact, the boss’s henchman highlights that well by mixing up the Pink Panther with the Black Panthers. That’s not where we’re going either, but America is. The boss wants them to go to Chicago to steal jewellery from the bedroom safe in an empty house. Even these morons can’t get that wrong, but just in case, he sends his right hand man and they add a professional assassin and someone who used to live there and owes them money.

The team ends up as six people. Depardieu is Daniel Foray and his two partners in crime, Julien Labesse and Raymond Gayet, are played by Stéphane Freiss and Albert Dray. I didn’t recognise either, but both looked familiar and they make a great trio with their better known leader. The two professionals arrive in the legendary forms of two of France’s biggest rock stars: Johnny Hallyday, as Marcel Burot, and Renaud, as the killer, known only as Zéro. The final man is Sami Zerhouni, a young Algerian portrayed by Saïd Taghmaoui, who was César nominated for his role in La Haine and is now starring in a host of Hollywood films as varied as GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Conan the Barbarian and American Hustle. His arrival in this film is when the dialogue mostly switches from French to English.
While these half dozen French hoods are not equally inept, they’re all hilarious and the comedy in this script was priceless. I don’t recall the last time I laughed this much out loud at a movie. It works this well partly because of the situation comedy conjured up by writer Brad Mirman, who also directed, but also because of the supremely serious way in which all of them, but especially Hallyday and Renaud, do everything. I enjoyed the odd culture shock scenes, like when they go to a café and attempt to smoke and order wine (‘What kind of country is this?’ asks Zéro), but it’s the utterly serious way that they do utterly ludicrous things that works best. And, while we could have done with a lot more background on each of these characters to bring them to more effective life, how they conduct themselves is enough to make us laugh as they dig themselves into progressively deeper holes.

How deep a hole, I hear you ask. Well, over in Chicago is a mob guy called Frankie Zammeti. He’s tough enough that he has his men break his own brother Vinnie’s arm because he can’t pay back the $20,000 he lent him. Later, he has them send him flowers and a get well card, but he sticks to principle. Frankie is a big deal and he’s played by Harvey Keitel, who can play mouthy gangsters in his sleep. So when these French hoods show up at the address they’re given, find that it isn’t as empty as they were led to believe and tie up the occupant and break into his safe, it won’t be too surprising to discover that that’s Frankie Zammeti in his underwear that they’ve duct taped. Uhoh!
Anyone who laughed aloud at the idea of inept French crooks robbing Chicago gangster Harvey Keitel by mistake will absolutely adore the first half of this film and they may well stay with it as it starts to get a little more serious. The laughs never go away but they die down somewhat as we realise that nothing is as simple as it seems. Of course, nobody could be this unlucky; this botched robbery was a set up. But who’s setting up who? We have a large and capable cast who all have their part to play in this story that reminds of the work of Guy Ritchie, in its levels of complexity and number of characters, but doesn’t aim for the same sort of style. Let’s just say that these French fish out of water are soon on the run from the FBI, the Chicago mob, a local Latino gang (after they steal their getaway car while they’re busy robbing a convenience store) and the Chicago police department.

The cast are excellent. The French criminals aren’t given the background they deserve but the actors do their jobs and some get a good opportunity to grow throughout the film. Their boss, Laurent Bastaldi, is well cast too: the highly experienced Richard Bohringer does exactly what he needs to. This could have played out as an entirely French film without any of the additional complexity and it would still be great fun. However, we have a whole American side to the story too.

Keitel is exactly as you expect but thrown into surreal situations that impress; there’s a shootout in a bar that ends in a fantastic way, for instance. At least he got an establishing scene with his brother. He’s a major player but he’s not the boss; that role goes to Abe Vigoda as Angelo Giancarlo. He has a lot of fun here too and watching Keitel and Vigoda reprise what they do best while the script conjures up laughs around them is an absolute blast. This applies to their men too. One of the funniest sections is when the tied up and duct taped Zammeti rings Joey Two Tons with his nose and the latter thinks it’s a dirty phone call. The Frenchmen’s contact in Chicago is Sophie Nichols, in the form of Joanne Kelly, six years before she’d become Myka Bering on Warehouse 13. I love that show but I liked her better here, where she isn’t as stuck up. Shawn Lawrence also gets plenty to do as FBI Agent Pogue and he keeps evolving with the film too.
The story is massively complicated but it’s easy to keep up with what’s going on because it’s episodic; each reveal serves to explain one plot device and then set up the next one. There are some interesting shots: one uses split screen in an odd way with different pauses per section to highlight who’s talking in a conversation, while another has Hallyday and his men shoot their way through a series of rooms to get out of a hotel trap, all shot from above. I loved the pregnant pause in between records on the jukebox in the bar shootout scene too but that’s less original.

The downside is surely in the odd consistency of the film. It starts out as a comedy but ends as a drama; while the entire film is both, the laugh factor decreases consistently throughout the film and the serious side grows just as consistently. This makes us wonder if the hilarity of the first half was part of the actual plot rather than the film and, if we start to believe that, the occasional humour in the second half feels a lot more out of place. It also means that the first half is much faster paced than the second; we spend half a film building up complexity then the other half tying up all the many loose ends.
What I’d like to do is watch the film again now that I know where it goes, because I want to see if it’s just as funny with that foreknowledge or even funnier because I’m not trying to figure out where it’s going. I especially wonder about that second half, when the French hoods we know little about become the folk we’re totally rooting for. Early on, we don’t have much connection. ‘Why do you work with these morons?’ Bohringer asks Depardieu. ‘These morons are my friends,’ he replies and that’s about all we have then. Later on, we care because we’ve got to know them better. These morons become our friends too and so does the film.

Sure, it’s an odd picture in many ways. The pace isn’t remotely consistent. It’s an English language film with a lot of subtitled French dialogue. It changes from being a serious comedy to being a funny drama. The ensemble cast meas that some characters don’t get the opportunities they should and we deserve more background for many. But I like laughing out loud and this film got more of that from me than any I can remember in quite a while. I’ll definitely be showing it to other people for that reason alone.

Now, we’re almost into February. Hopefully Death can calm his scythe down a little and leave us some of our legends for a little bit longer.

RIP, Mr Vigoda.

The Revenant (2015)

Director: Alejandro G Iñárritu
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Duane Howard and Arthur Redcloud
It takes a director of the calibre of Alejandro González Iñárritu, the writer/director of Amores Perros, Babel and Birdman to create something as empty as this and make it rivetting, absorbing and emotional. The Revenant runs over two and a half hours, unfolds in a snowy wilderness shot in natural light and features very little dialogue, most of it from Tom Hardy, who mumbles his way through the film. We’re not even told where or when we are, though the future Dakotas in 1823, as Wikipedia tells us, is completely believable. We’re left to figure out quite a lot, though the story itself is a simple (but never easy) tale of revenge.

What we don’t get in story or dialogue, we get in cinematography, as a group of trappers, led by Captain Andrew Henry, try to escape an Indian attack with whatever they can take with them. This is the most gorgeous picture I’ve seen in a long while, courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki, who won the last two Oscars awarded in this category, for Gravity and Birdman, and could easily make it three in a row with The Revenant, his eighth nomination. Nobody’s ever done that before and it would take something very special to beat him.

His camera roams, floats and turns but rarely cuts. Stephen Mirrione does a solid job as the film’s editor but he makes less cuts than I can remember seeing in a feature. There’s a shot where the camera follows the trappers onto a boat to leave, under fire from the tribe attacking them, then works back around to see the shore, now very differently populated. We’ve changed focus a few times and perspective a few more, with intricate choreography to make it all viable, but it’s all done in one single, utterly amazing shot. And this isn’t the only one. It’s one in a bundle of a dozen early on. It wouldn’t surprise me if my jaw wasn’t hanging open at this point. These early scenes are what cinema is for.
The trappers leave their haul in the safest location they can think of, so they can escape but return at a future point in time and hopefully recover it. We follow them for a while, but then the scene that will go down in cinematic legend comes along and things change completely. Hugh Glass, the party’s guide, is attacked by a grizzly bear who is protecting her cubs. This is an utterly brutal scene, once again shot in a single take, and it’s not an easy one to watch. The bear is CGI but Leonardo DiCaprio, who throws himself into this role like you wouldn’t believe, could have fought a real bear and it wouldn’t have been any more realistic.

Glass manages to kill the grizzly but is horribly mauled in the process and close to death. Realising that they can’t carry him back over the mountains to their home base at Fort Kiowa, Capt Henry promises a bonus to any volunteers who will stay with Glass until he dies and then give him a proper burial, before following the main party. And here’s where things really get interesting.

One of those volunteers is John Fitzgerald, who’s the Donald Trump of the party, in the sense that he says what everyone else is thinking but also goes much further to boot. Having previously survived a scalping attack which left the skin on his head disfigured, he’s already biased against Glass, who has a halfbreed Pawnee son called Hawk. He’s also selfish and unscrupulous enough to do whatever it takes to get ahead, so he takes the $100 bonus to stay with Glass and promptly tries to murder him, using witchfinder logic: blink if you want me to do it. When the dying man’s son interrupts him, he kills him in front of Glass’s eyes, an especially tough moment for a man of action who’s utterly unable to move. Then, with Indians closing in, Fitzgerald drags Glass into a makeshift grave and leaves him for dead.

However, with Glass too tough to die and now burning for revenge, the main thrust of the film begins: the march of the many, followed by the two, followed by the one, followed by a Native American tribe looking for the chief’s daughter, Powaqa, who has been stolen by trappers.
What Hugh Glass endures in this story would be hard to put into words yet retain the impact and I don’t want to spoil the film anyway. What Leonardo DiCaprio endures in this film as he plays Glass is just as mind-boggling. He’s said that ‘I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.’ As with Iñárritu and Lubezki, it’s hard to imagine DiCaprio not picking up the Best Actor Oscar for this performance, especially as Academy Awards are often awarded politically and he’s been overlooked enough already, with five nominations for his acting but no wins so far. And, of course, he’s already won the Golden Globe for this role. What’s most amazing is that he hardly speaks, initially because he knows that silence is the best policy in hostile company and then because his dire condition prevents the very possibility.

As Fitzgerald, Tom Hardy is almost as good but in completely different ways. He actually reminds of Jesse Ventura here: the hunch, the headgear and the attitude. He gets most of the dialogue in the film, and I’d love to find out the percentage, but he’s rarely clear. I was annoyed initially as I missed lines, but then I realised that this approach fits the character well. Fitzgerald is a lazy soul who doesn’t care if anyone can understand him or not and we all get the point, even if we don’t hear the words.

These two would dominate the film, if not for Lubezki. Even with what he shows us early on, there were points where Iñárritu’s script calls for something else nigh on impossible to deliver and Lubezki promptly delivers. The entire film was shot on location, in harsh terrain, under snow and storm and cold. The lighting is almost never overt, the majority of the film lit naturally with campfires or odd glimpses of sunlight from over the horizon or through the trees. Light is a precious resource in this film for us, as it would have been for these trappers in real life. While we see characters up close often enough, there are many shots that are very long and wide to emphasize how small man really is in these surroundings. The trappers struggle against the land even more than they do the pursuing Indians, who are dangerous enough on their own.

There are others in support of DiCaprio and Hardy and they’re strong too, if with much less opportunity. Domnhall Gleeson, enjoying an insanely good year, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina and Brooklyn also to his credit in 2015, plays Capt Henry, a principled man who merely isn’t the outdoorsman that Glass and Fitzgerald are. Will Poulter is Jim Bridger, a young and idealistic trapper who volunteers to stay with Glass for nothing, only to fall foul of circumstance and Fitzgerald’s scheming. Both are solid but eventually become props for the two leads to use.
Seventeen year old Forrest Goodluck is quiet, moody and resonant as Hawk’s, Glass’s son, but he’s overwhelmed by the leads and doesn’t have the presence of the older Native Americans with screen time. Arthur Redcloud impresses as Hikuc, a philosophical Pawnee who Glass stumbles upon on the trail and who assists him in a number of ways. Duane Howard is a major presence in the film as Elk Dog, the chief of the Arikara, searching for his daughter. He gets few lines but clearly doesn’t need them, as his powerful final scene underlines. Melaw Nakehk’o is effective as Powaqa too. It’s great to see a Native American cast playing Native American characters.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this film is that it’s a true story, or at least close to one. Some of these characters didn’t exist or had other names and some of the situations are conjured up for the film (or taken from the novel it was based on), but Hugh Glass was a real man and he was really mauled by a bear and left for dead by his comrades, only to survive alone in hostile country and struggle 200 miles back to Fort Kiowa even with a broken leg, exposed ribs and festering wounds. In real life, he set his own leg and used maggots on his wounds to avoid gangrene. Friendly Native Americans sewed a bear hide onto the skin of his back to cover his wounds. So, while Iñárritu and novelist Michael Punke gave him a little too much credit at points, there are others where they don’t give him enough.

There have been other film versions of this story. Richard Harris played Zachary Bass in 1971’s Man in the Wilderness and Dewitt Lee played Sam Glass in the 1975 western, Apache Blood. I’m interested in seeing both, especially the former, but surely neither will hold a candle to this one. The Revenant was nominated for twelve Oscars. In less than a month, we’ll find out how many it wins.

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