The Blind Leading The Bland

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THE BLAND LEADING THE BLAND
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character was a semi-regular fixture on the big screen from 1990’s Hunt For Red October until The Sum of All Fears over a decade later in 2002. Three actors played the part (Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck) but since Hollywood is allergic to new ideas, they have decided to resurrect the now-deceased Clancy’s CIA operative in another attempt to bring back the franchise. 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has Chris (Star Trek) Pine in the lead role and director Branagh has brought it up to date, beginning with the 9/11 attacks. Ryan gets seriously injured in Afghanistan and is forced to reinvent his life. He is recruited by CIA handler Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who tells him he can continue to serve his country as a covert agent for the CIA. Ryan marries his doctor, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) but their marriage and her life is put in jeopardy when Ryan starts to investigate evil Russian Viktor Cherevin (a very unconvincing Kenneth Branagh). It’s not necessarily that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a bad film, although Knightley is awful (but at least she is consistent) and Branagh shows that a director should’t play the villain, it’s that it’s so telegraphed and predictable. The Bourne films raised the bar significantly on Hollywood action films but Jack Ryan feels like a clunky throwback to a more unsophisticated age. Pine is competent and Costner is easily the best thing here although he is totally wasted. It is possible that we may see another Jack Ryan film as it will probably do okay at the box office especially at this time of year with little competition, but they need to up their game if they do. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a perfunctory but ultimately forgettable film…

For Folk’s Sake

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The Coen Brothers are very patchy in terms of quality control. The last film they directed (True Grit in 2010) was competent but ultimately rather pointless whereas its predecessor, A Serious Man (2009) was quirky and brilliant. Inside Llewyn Davis starring Oscar Isaacs as the folk singer struggling in 1960s Greenwich Village unfortunately is too elliptical for its own good. The Coens rarely offer us a sympathetic character and Llewyn Davis is no exception: a directionless bum, he spends much of his life couch surfing from friend to friend and he appears to have made his friend’s girlfriend (Jean, played by Carey Mulligan) pregnant. So he spends the film searching for some sort of meaning in his life, falling in briefly with junkie jazz singer Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his laconic driver Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and taking a trip to Chicago to see club owner Bud Grossman (F Murray Abraham). We think there is an epiphany here but the Coens are just sending us down another blind alley. The casting can’t be faulted and Isaac is very good as is former Coen staple Goodman but the world that Davis inhabits is far too hermetically sealed to ever connect with the audience. Very few of their films have satisfying conclusions but here, this is a trick that really frustrates. It looks beautiful but it sometimes feels like they are more in love with the setting than the characters on screen here. It is possible that Inside Llewyn Davis may have made a better novella or short story, as it feels like one of the duo’s most literary films. Annoyingly, you are left with a film that doesn’t answer any of its questions and you leave the cinema shrugging your shoulders. It doesn’t mean that they won’t come up with the goods again but their latest effort is cold, detached and ultimately pointless…

Taking Stock

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In recent years, Martin Scorsese’s output has been very patchy. His last film, Hugo, fell between the stools. It was halfway between a children’s film and one aimed at cineastes, so it didn’t really work. The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the book by Jordan Belfort, is a warts and all look at the career of Wall Street trader Belfort, played by regular Scorsese collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio. He began his career in a huge broking agency but then it all turns pear shaped when Black Monday hits. The rest of the film shows how Belfort built himself up by creating his own company and the film has been criticised as a celebration of the man’s life (which included lots of drugs, women and drink). However, if you watch it, you can see that, like Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street is all about Belfort’s hubris, which eventually proves to be his undoing. It is very long, clocking in at three hours, but it doesn’t drag as the director has lost none of his deft touch for action and drama. DiCaprio is excellent as Belfort, holding everything together with an omniscient narration reminiscent of Goodfellas. Support from Jonah Hill as Belfort’s second-in-command Donnie Azoff and Jon Bernthal (formerly of The Walking Dead) as Brad is very strong and Scorsese manages to inject the film with enough comic moments to keep the pace rolling along. Screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) also manages to display his sureness of touch with characters that has become his trademark. It isn’t quite as exceptional a piece of work as Goodfellas, as its running time could have been cut without sacrificing anything dramatically and sometimes what is happening is unclear to the layman viewer but it is definitely the most impressive Scorsese film since Casino back in 1995. Also, some of the more graphic scenes don’t add that much to proceedings, although perhaps it could be argued that Scorsese has set out to make a film that matches the craziness of the time and the behaviour of the people on Wall Street. During this time of year, when so many weighty dramas and significant films are released, it is obvious that the director is trying to make a serious point here and his ambition should be applauded. The Wolf of Wall Street shows that Martin Scorsese has lost none of his cinematic nous even this late in his career.

Dramatic Tensions

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London-based film director Steve McQueen has made a name for himself through intelligent films over the past few years (Hunger, Shame) but 12 Years A Slave, already winning accolades and likely to grab a number of Oscar nominations in this year’s list, will lift him into the big leagues. The veracity of the film, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as freed man Solomon Northup who finds himself sold into slavery, has been questioned but regardless of how true it is, it is a very powerful story. We are introduced to Northup as a well-regarded man who lives in Saratoga in New York State who gets duped into joining a couple of men on a journey to Washington where his life is turned upside down and he is sold to a number of different sadistic masters including the most sympathetic of them, Master Ford (played by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch), who is forced to sell him on when one of Ford’s men decides that he doesn’t like Northup and is out for blood. Northup’s final master, the insane Epps (Michael Fassbender), is perhaps the most dangerous of the lot as it seems that his mercurial temperament could lead to the end of Northup’s life. Ejiofor is excellent as Northup, renamed as Platt in his new predicament, and 12 Years A Slave is like the flipside to Tarantino’s disjointed, uneven mess, a weighty drama with some exceptional performances. McQueen manages to strip away the layers of the civilised Northup and show a man brutalised by circumstance. Fassbender is also very good, displaying a complexity to Epps, a man who is a monster but very occasionally shows flashes of humanity. Slavery is a subject that has been covered before in Hollywood but this is arguably the most powerful portrayal of it in recent times. McQueen refuses to flinch from the difficult aspects of this story and with the significant help of Ejiofor, he has created a sympathetic and credible central character in Northup/ Platt. . Sometimes it’s not easy to watch but 12 Years A Slave is a compelling drama with some exceptional performances and one of the high points of a year that has so far lacked quality cinema, a film that will be remembered for posterity…