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Inside Man

dir: Spike Lee
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This would have to be the most conventional film Lee has made in his career, and of his recent films, one of his most successful.

Lacking the elegiac tone of The 25th Hour, it’s still another love letter to New York in the shape of a crime thriller with more stars than it has work for. Really, it’s too many. I’m sure Jodie Foster doesn’t really need the extra money.

Lee’s not as prolific as Woody Allen, but fellow New York spruiker Spike Lee does pump the flicks out. He has a bigger cast than usual, and a script written by someone else for once, alongside a bigger budget probably than many of his other films combined.

It’s unlikely that the racial and class themes permeating his earlier work have been abandoned. Here, they’re mostly put on hold in order to deliver a mainstream heist flick with a high wattage cast that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and, though profoundly unlikely in its conclusion, doesn’t make me want to punch random strangers in the crotch.

Rating:

Matador, The

dir: Richard Shepard
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For a low-key comedy made up mostly of two and then three people chatting, this is a surprisingly enjoyable flick. Also, as part of the done-to-death genre of hitmen and the people that love them, this flick manages to rise above the common morass and actually represents an amusing and entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

It surprised me, and I am rarely surprised, not counting the last time the cops knocked on my front door. No, Officer, I don’t know anything about anything. No, Officer, I don’t know anything about those death threats sent to Humphrey B. Bear, but if you ask me, the bitch had it coming.

There are only three roles of note in the flick, with Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis assaying those roles. Each of them does decent work in a talky flick with characters that seem simple but really needed to be nuanced in order to be memorable and sympathetic, which at least two of them are.

Julian (Brosnan) is a middle-aged hitman at the end of his professional tether. Though he’s enjoyed a lifetime of professional success, he finds he is losing his ability to perform at the crucial moment. As you might expect, such a person doesn’t really have an overly stable personality, and tends to live somewhat outside the norms of standard contemporary human behaviour.

Rating:

Sin City

dir: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, Quentin Tarantino and a bunch of circus monkeys on rollerskates
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Take the very essence of film noir, the constant smoking, the femme fatales, the violent goons, the black and white universe (especially). Distil it down to its purest elements, devoid of any pretensions apart from delivering the most violent, sleaziest explosion of trashy entertainment possible, and you have Sin City in all its vile glory.

And it is glorious. Glorious and unrepentant trash. It is the first movie adaptation of a comic book that looks exactly like the comic book (sorry, graphic novel). It is essentially a moving comic, animation with ‘real’ people in it. Of the recent crop of films where the only real thing in the scene is the people, Sin City is the most accomplished and best realised (on a slender budget), because it really achieves what it sets out to achieve. And at a fraction of the price.

Rating:

Election (Hak Se Wui)

dir: Johnny To
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First off, this isn’t a review of the Alexander Payne flick of the same name from 1999. Reese Witherspoon does not star in this as an annoying overachiever who gets involved in a titanic struggle with Matthew Broderick.

This is not exactly a rare entry in Hong Kong cinema. More than half of the films made in Hong Kong since at least the 70s have been about the triads and their wicked ways. Election wants to go a little further than the usual, and tries to depict a story where the political machinations of the behind the scenes power struggles are more important than the machete fights and the slapping around of prostitutes. It also delves into the history and customs of the triads, making them seem as wholesome and long-standing as your local Rotary club or Masonic Hall.

Rating:

A History of Violence

dir: David Cronenberg
[img_assist|nid=947|title=Under the gun|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=666]
Two men casually prepare to leave a fleabag motel in the morning. They are unhurried, a little drowsy, probably thinking about the long drive ahead. We don’t sense that there’s anything wrong until everything is so wrong that even I was surprised by their brutality.

In the next scene, a father comforts his daughter, who’s had nightmares about monsters in her closet. He keeps telling her repeatedly that monsters don’t exist, despite our recent evidence to the contrary. It is so overplayed that you know it’s not meant to just be foreshadowing. It’s meant to be Ironic.

There are monsters out there, but they’re not always the ones we expect them to be.

David Cronenberg, Canadian auteur and primary exponent of the ‘body horror’ genre, makes films too infrequently for my liking. All of his films, including the ones that don’t entirely work, are worth watching, His weakest films are better and more interesting than the best work most other directors are capable of.

Rating:

Collateral

dir: Michael Mann
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Collateral is genuinely an excellent film. For what it is. And it may
just be an extended episode of Miami Vice. I might be projecting
substantially, but much of what I saw over the film's two hour length
kept taking me back to the era of people wearing loafers without socks
and suit jackets with pastel t-shirts. Ah, sweet, sweet memory, what
an affliction thou truly art.

If you ever catch any episodes of Miami Vice on cable you might notice
that they look incredibly dated now even more than they did then, and
that's not just because of the clothes and hairstyles. As television
it really wasn't that different from any of the other cop based dramas
that preceded it. It wasn't a million miles away from Starsky and
Hutch
or Hawaii Five O or any other cop show where two cops with very
different styles aggressively pursue criminals and maintain that thin
tissue of lies and self-interest we call the fabric of society.

Rating:

Pusher II - With Blood on My Hands

dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
[img_assist|nid=952|title=We all have blood on our hands|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=410]
The second part of the Danish Pusher trilogy continues the slide down the human evolutionary scale by showing the mundane lives of Danish petty criminals as the shit-soaked nightmares that they might truly be.

Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) returns as the main character in this one, previously in a supporting role in the first flick. He’s fresh out of jail and dumb as always. A skinhead by preference, he has the word ‘respect’ tattooed across the back of his head, yet, amazingly enough, this inspires little respect in the people who see the tattoo.

You see, Tonny is pretty dumb. He’s dumb even for a petty thug. But he is not as unrepentantly evil as some of the people around him, and nowhere near as vile as his former friend Frankie who the first Pusher flick focussed on. In fact, many of Tonny’s problems may date back to a horrific beating he survived at Frankie’s hands which has left his memory scattered.

He could just be simple. He doesn’t have the mental wattage to think through any of the stuff he does, and he lacks the viciousness and ambition of his criminal compadres. Also, he’s grown in up the shadow of his crime boss father, the Duke (Leif Sylvester), who loathes him and wants nothing to do with him.

Rating:

Good Thief, The

dir: Neil Jordan
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Doing a remake of a classic by one of the renowned masters of the cinematic art form takes a lot of balls, or ovaries, as the case may be. Jean Pierre Melville is that master, and Bob le Flambeur is that classic. Of course from a commercial point of view few potential audience members are going to care, but the wizened ye olde film reviewers will stroke their beards and tut tut loudly if it doesn’t sufficiently honour or even surpass the original (which let’s face it never happens). I’m not one of those beard stroking pipe smoking crones, but it makes me sit up and take notice when someone has the gall to embark on this type of endeavour.

Audiences don’t care on the most part. Although if, as often gets bandied about like the Sword of Damocles, they decide to do an official remake of Casablanca starring some guy from a boy band as Rick and co-starring someone whose last name is Hilton as Elsa, you’re going to have ugly, angry mob riots on your hands. Theatres being burnt to the ground. Celebrities being hunted in the streets. Colourful language.

Rating:

Dark Blue

dir: Ron Shelton
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This film succeeds where Training Day dismally failed. Which is good, because it means that in peddling the same script twice David Ayer gets to double dip and earn twice the money that he deserves. But all the same, second time lucky, eh? This time they got it right. Or at least they got it more right than in the terribly overrated Denzel vehicle.

Rating:

Narc

dir: Joe Carnahan
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Narc was one of two outstanding recent police-focussed dramas that came out recently, both of which were criminally ignored by audiences and deserved more respect: The other was Dark Blue, but that’s a different review. What they both had was a healthy distrust of the nobility of the boys in blue, and an eye to putting some otherwise decent, hard-working lads in a situation which shows just how much of the law they are willing to break in order to get the job done.

Jason Patric, well, he owns the film. Yeah, so it’s hard to stand up to Ray Liotta, seeing as Liotta always looks like he’s only a second away from biting your face off, but he more than holds his own over the duration of the running time. He is the film’s protagonist, Liotta is, well, we’re not sure what exactly he is, because he is clearly a chameleon whose purpose changes as the story progresses.

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