The month is toast but there’s still plenty of January fodder out there. Here are a few that full reviews might have shortchanged.
(Steven Soderbergh, US, 2011, 93 mins)
The battle of the sexes is comprehensively settled in this retro-styled thriller, punctuated by 60’s arthouse touches including sober fistfights and a snazzy, jazzy soundtrack. Gina Carano is the formidable gun for hire, taking the fight to the men who double crossed her in the field. The story’s been done to death but not since the days of Harry Palmer has it been told with this much style. Paced with care and broken up with edgy, visceral violence, Soderbergh directs a compact, little nonsense thriller. It might have been no nonsense, but Ewan McGregor’s never-welcome American accent and the occasional use of black and white are cause for regret. A funny and perfectly judged ending might just make up for it, however.
(Clint Eastwood, US, 2011, 137 mins)
This lavish biopic of the former FBI director and proto-fascist, J Edgar Hoover, is one of Clint Eastwood’s less inspiring efforts. Competently made but content to paddle in the shallows, it’s ill-equipped to understand how this fastidious, repressed little man, came to hold such unchecked power. Leonardo DiCaprio works hard, attempting to build a character from the biographical remnants left to posterity, but that’s all we get; any ideas Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black had about Hoover fail to cohere into a probing thesis on screen. Eastwood can’t ignite the narrative and some of the worst old age makeup ever seen in a modern motion picture kills the final third. Both DiCaprio and Arnie Hammer look ridiculous under layers of conspicuous latex, with Hammer in particular the victim of an over earnest makeup artist with a liver spot fetish. The net effect, as with movies blighted by terrible accents, is to make a mockery of scenes that could and should have carried considerable weight. Isn’t it high time that Eastwood cut loose and made that third Orangutan movie?
(Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, US, 2012, 88 mins)
Following Rise of the Lycans, it’s hard to imagine anyone demanding the return of this monster mash-a-rama, yet here’s a second sequel (the last movie being a prequel) anyway. Kate Beckinsale, star of the first couple, can still pour herself into skin tight latex and thank goodness for it, because there’s little else to stimulate our feeble human minds during 88 loud and showy minutes. The setup moves the series into the near future and a Goth nightmare; the world purged of fangs and beasts by boorish, life loving humans; Coldplay fans one and all. Frozen by an evil biomedical company, or something, Beckinsale awakes, as the title suggests, to find she has a franchise friendly daughter and the war has taken a nefarious turn. You’ll note I said setup and not plot, because the forth Underworld movie isn’t big on the details. Fans who’ve come for the gore, choreographed fights and coke-head editing will not be disappointed. There’s even an Evanescence track to close proceedings, for God’s sake. Another is threatened, so completists should bite the silver bullet and make the time while they still have the strength.
(Ralph Fiennes, US, 2011, 122 mins)
Given the dramatic meat on Shakespeare’s play, it’s surprising that no one, until RSC big hitter Ralph Fiennes, made a serious attempt to adapt it for the big screen. In the event Fiennes, debutant director and lead, relocates the action to the modern day, matt, grey environs of the Balkans, evoking memories of the recent war; shorthand for the kind of regional ethnic conflict that lines the play. It’s a sombre, serious update, intense exchanges abound. Fiennes walks the tightrope between the stage and screen with some aplomb, just occasionally tipping over into conspicuous theatricality. Gerald Butler, as his nemesis, later ally, Aufidius, is superb however, while Vanessa Redgrave brings her own RSC training to bear on the role as Volumnia, mother to a murdering son. Fans of the play, for surely there are some, won’t complain about this production; others will credit Fiennes for putting enough steel and grit on the screen to keep first timers hooked.
(Joe Carnahan, US, 2012, 117 mins)
The first quarter of the year belongs to two men, one is Nicolas Cage, who’ll be along shortly, the other is the former Mr Natasha Richardson. Getting Neesoned means being up against it in unenviable circumstances. Last year’s Unknown was a damp squib, but the good news for fans of the skyscraper-tall Ulsterman is that The Grey’s harsh Alaskan locations and survivalist plot are a great match for his humourless, bad-tempered persona. This is also comfortable territory for director Joe Carnahan, who couldn’t adapt his grimy, brutal aesthetic to candyfloss like The A-Team, but is as happy as a wolf trying to break into a straw house, here. Neeson plays a suicidal oilrig worker, pining for his recently deceased wife, who temporarily finds new purpose when he and some of his “asshole” colleagues survive a plane crash and find themselves being hunted by the furry natives. Conveniently for the survivors, Neeson is the man employed by the company to protect the rig from the canid menace, so knows his foe. What follows is a tense trawl through the middle of nowhere in which Carnahan wisely finds time for character development and a few pertinent philosophical questions. A nicely judged and ambiguous ending is somewhat undercut by an unnecessary additional scene after the end credits, so for once not staying for the roll call of names is the right move.