Dead Man Down

Dead Man Down (2013), directed by Niels Arden Oplev

With one of the best trailers I’ve seen this year (although, what’s with this Dragon Tattoo, female cover of 1970s classic rock tunes motif?), a stellar cast and a chance for the director of the Swedish GWTDT to make a breakthrough into English language films, I went into Dead Man Down with high hopes.

How many reviews do I start like this? I guess I should stop getting my hopes up.

Listen, obviously I’m going to get into how the movie disappointed me, but for a change of pace let’s talk first about what this failed movie did right.

I wasn’t wrong about most of the cast. Colin Farrell is quiet and gloomy and rather good. Noomi Rapace is generally excellent, but I must say (despite my search for the positive), her character’s extreme mood swings do come off a little comical. There was a round of laughter in the cinema when, while on an innocent-seeming date, all of a sudden starts yelling at Farrell to kill a man.

As is often the case, the clear scene stealer here is Dominic Cooper. All I can say is somebody give this man another leading role because my God does he have screen presence. Sure it’s a cheesy role, as a suspenders-wearing, heavily NY accented hood. But even in such a minor part, Cooper manages to show more charisma then the rest of the cast combined.

So there’s that.

Some of the movie works rather well. The strangers across the courtyard team up for revenge plot has a solid foundation. I like the general slow-burning tone of the film, even if it’s not used to full advantage.

Where the film gets into trouble is in the execution and the script. Call me old fashioned, but I think the best approach for a revenge film is simplicity. Somebody kills Charles Bronson’s family, he gets a gun and then takes out the bad guys one by one. I watched Point Blank for the first time this weekend. Great revenge film. Lee Marvin gets screwed over by his crime partners, so he takes them out one by one.

Simple.

Here we have two revenge plots, fine, but we also have two or three characters investigating the revenge plots, while another mostly revolves his revenge around petty, confusing harassment. So there’s a bit of a whodunit, but you know whodunit so you don’t care. And there’s kind of a love story, but one half of it (at least) is so messed up it’s hard to take her seriously, so it’s hard to care about that.

And then the revenge plots are so intricate and confusing that they’re hard to care about.

Then we make a switch to all-out Raid-style action film for the last section when the original revenge plot fails and it’s time for guns to blaze. In another film the sequence may have worked (the truck part was thrilling, to be fair) but here, with all this dreary Euro buildup, it seems out of place and lazy.

Thinking back I’m not sure why I was so keen for an English language movie from Arden Oplev. Really, I didn’t care much for his GWTDT either, finding it sloppy and uneven.

Which is exactly what’s wrong with Dead Man Down. I love a good revenge flick, but this ain’t it.

Dead Man Down is in cinemas now.

Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths (2012), directed by Martin McDonagh

(I took a much needed break from horror to watch this “normal” movie. Don’t worry, I’m going to see Sinister tonight.)

In Bruges is one of my favourite movies from the past decade or so, so I have been pretty stoked to see Martin McDonagh’s followup film Seven Psychopaths, coming about four years after Bruges. In Bruges has this magnificent character-driven plot matched with a wonderful cinematic quality, larger, overarching concepts and a hilarious sense of humour running through it all. It’s a great movie.

Seven Psychopaths is not as great a movie, but it’s a pretty darn good one.

It’s about…well, a lot of things. It’s about these dognappers who steal dogs and then return them for reward money. It’s about this writer, Marty (Colin Ferrell), who is trying to write his screenplay, Seven Psychopaths, but is being slowed down by a lack of inspiration and alcohol. It’s about a killer who only kills mobsters and leaves behind a jack of hearts at the crime scene. Also there’s a part with Tom Waits and a bunny. So lots going on.

All of this is delivered with a buddy comedy type feel, splashed with intense violence, a postmodern trim and a coating of existential philosophy.

McDonagh is the type of director who can make this chaos work, and he does for the most part. Despite all the ins and outs of the plot, the film flows smoothly and makes sense. The characters are fantastic, as are the actors playing them. It has everything that makes an action comedy work, but with a little more substance to it, thanks to McDonagh’s unique take on storytelling. And, of course, what makes it all come together is the humour, which is excellent. Laugh out loud even.

I’m going to be this guy again and talk about the film’s use of racial, sexist and homophobic slurs. The film is littered with them, especially the latter two.

I had a great, real life example last night of why these things can be troublesome. Behind me in the cinema was a group of three or four college guys who were drinking a mickey of vodka and obviously felt everyone else in the theatre would appreciate their comments as much as they obviously did.

Most of their comments were just general jackass hoots and hollers and declaring the return of Chris Walken whenever he said something slightly odd (I would bet money these guys have never seen The Deer Hunter, so they need to shut the hell up and show some respect). But at one point they started to compare an older black woman in the film to Aunt Jemima (which is nauseatingly racist). And then, once Woody Harrelson’s character used the n-word they decided that must be okay then and used it too.

I myself have used the argument many times that characters in the movie using homophobic or racist or sexist slurs is just an honest reflection of their characters. I still believe that’s true for many movies. But in something like this, something designed to be “cool”, with characters that are funny and stylish, that are going to be quoted ad nauseam, a film you know is going to be a college hit, can’t we try a little harder? Isn’t there a more intelligent way to use these words? Or hey, maybe even not use them? I don’t think not having the characters use ‘f-’ or ‘bitch’ throughout the movie would have in any way taken away from it.

McDonagh is a smart man and an intelligent director. He questions these pitfalls even as he commits them. There’s a great part where Walken’s character, Hans, asks Marty why his female characters are all so useless. He says he’s known a lot of women and most of them are able to at least string a sentence together. A part I really liked too is when Hans rewrites a part of the script with a topless hooker so that she is in a pretty dress and wants to have a conversation.

It’s a bit of a cop-out because then you can do anything you want and no one can hold you accountable because you’ve pointed it out yourself. I wrote a term paper like that for a class on media studies claiming that the teacher had to either fail me or give me an A because I recognized the shortcomings of my own argument (in a nutshell). I got a B-. I deserved it.

That’s how I feel about McDonagh’s handling of the use of slurs and his depiction of women. He gets a B-. If he knows his approach is flawed, as he admits, why not try to do a better job?

But most of the film is much better than that. And at least McDonagh has the wherewithal to question these things and not just slip them in unnoticed like in most Hollywood movies.

It’s no In Bruges, but Seven Psychopaths is still one of the more interesting and entertaining movies out lately. And I’m still intrigued to see what McDonagh comes up with next, because he is certainly a talented writer and director, who I feel can do a lot better and has a lot more to offer.

Seven Psychopaths is in theatres Friday.

Total Recall

Total Recall (2012), directed by Len Wiseman

Let’s start off this review by saying that I have seen the original Total Recall but it was years ago and I barely remember it. I’ve never been a big Arnold fan (more of a Sly Stallone kind of guy) and what I do remember I don’t have any fondness for, as many people seem to. I kind of want to re-watch it, now that I have seen this one, but part of me is so discouraged about the whole concept that I’m not sure I can be bothered.

Anyone want to convince me?

So this is the remake of the 1990 film. We have Colin Farrell (who I am on the record as a fan of) taking the Arnold role, a future, post-apocalypse earth instead of mars and a string of incomprehensible action sequences for what, I can only assume given my memory, were action scenes that actually made sense in the original.

I went in to the theatre really in the mood for some junky, popcorn movie escapism, but this poor excuse of a summer film failed to meet my most basic requirements for schlock fun, namely characters I care about and action scenes I can follow and understand.

The problem with this remake is that it brings absolutely nothing new to the sci-fi genre. The sets look like the director just reused the old concept drawings from Blade Runner, the story is, of course, from the original film and the characters are all the old archetypes we have seen time and time again: the ordinary man up against the system, the power hungry megalomaniac, the resistance fighter.

And it’s not that I would even mind that if the film were competently made, or even had some fun with it all, but this is just such a drab, lifeless mess it’s honestly hard to sit through.

Wiseman is the guy behind the Underworld series of films, which somehow has managed to keep going. So he’s obviously a fan of dark, rain soaked tales of future distopia. And action. Lots of dark, flashy action.

There’s plenty in Total Recall. There’s gun fights and standoffs and a hover car chase and a cat and mouse game played out in a series of tunnels with elevators flying every which way. There’s military robots and military humans and resistance fighters. The bullets and fists fly.

But right from the start you realize that the director is going for a certain action aesthetic and that it doesn’t work. Farrell takes out a room of baddies near the beginning that is shot like a slowed down fight in a video game. I mean, not just choreographically, it really looks like a video game. In my books that’s not a good thing for a film.

Things continue on like this. As Hauser (Farrell’s character…sort of) jumps from rooftop to rooftop of the slightly offensive stereotypical Oriental urban cityscape, the scene is shot from afar, showing both Farrell and his pursuers from the side. The side. It looks like a side-scroller, I swear.

And the rest of the action, including the hover-car chase, falls into that oh-so-lamentable staple of modern action: the incomprehensible action scene. You know the ones, close-ups, quick edits, blurry flashes of action, none of it making any real sense. You’re supposed to just know that some action is happening and that it’s exciting and that should be enough. Anything more, like knowing spatially where the characters are, or having any sense of actual drama in the scene, is asking too much.

One more thing: why is it okay to make Britain the facsist ruler of the future? Why not make it America? I understand that that might not sit well with Americans, but why then turn on Great Britain? Sure, we (I’m a citizen technically) did used to colonize the world, but it’s just such a lazy plot point. And when did Australia become Asian? Why not Indian, there’s just as many of them? Having it set on Mars solved all of that nonsense.

Sorry, this is turning into a rant.

This is just simply a waste of time, resources and (some) talent. I’ve been pleased with some of the remakes this summer (Spider-Man, namely), but this is one of the worst films of the year so far.

Unless you are a huge fan of the original and need to see what they’ve done (or if you’re one of those sci-fi geek weirdos that openly gets excited at seeing a woman with three breasts) check it out. All others, avoid.

Total Recall is in theatres now.