Ralph’s September Round-Up (DREDD, LAWLESS, TABU, KILLING THEM SOFTLY)

DREDD

Danny Cannon, a name to send shivers down the collective spine of Judge Dredd fans everywhere.  Or if you’d prefer;  a man amongst readers of 2000AD which continues to conjure up feelings of…apprehension.

Why? Look no further than his irreverent 1995 big screen outing for the uncompromising judge, jury & executioner. Cannon’s adaptation was one of those classic forms of cinematic sacrilege, spectacularly alienating the core audience by having its leading protagonist spend more time in the company of the grating Rob Schneider than wearing his helmet – a cornerstone of the iconic creation.

Happily, there are no such issues to be found in the 2012 outing. Penned by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) & under the directorial guise of Pete Travis (Vantage Point); Dredd, whilst not exactly without problems, is more or less exactly what the average dreddhead could wish for. A faithful take on the unflinching Harry Callahan with a helmet persona; with the modest Karl Urban completely delivering in a role previously betrayed by star-power egotism. There’s no character development, there’s no emotional journey, just an unflinching brutal law enforcer with deadpan delivery & precise precision in the skill of bringing hard-edged criminals to justice –exactly how he should be. The heavy-lifting in terms of narrative engagement is predominantly carried by Olivia Thirlby’s psychic rookie – sharing some intriguing scenes with Wood Harris (The Wire’s Avon Barksdale) & clearly on a much better footing than her last turn in The Darkest Hour – one of the worst films of the year so far.

Where it falters a little, can be attributed to the frustration that we only get glimpses of arguably Judge Dredd’s most fascinating concept (the dystopian overcrowded metropolis of  Mega City One) which is never properly explored (because of budget constraints you would suspect), leaving virtually the entire plot taking place within a single tower block & resulting in an unfortunate resemblance to Gareth Evans’ gloriously violent The Raid (the violence of which was genuinely breath-taking, in Dredd, it’s merely functional). In addition, we have a macguffin in the form of a fictional drug named ‘slo-mo’ that doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose other than to show off some 3D technical marvel in the bath or when bodies fall from a great height. Worse still, anyone familiar with the Chris Morris Newsnight from hell spoof Brass Eye, will be reminded of the cake sketch – a made-up narcotic that duped celebrities & politicians into the dangers of cake-fuelled teenagers puking up their own pelvis bone, crying all the water out of their bodies or walking straight into the path of a tram, thinking they had a month to cross the street. With that in mind, taking the ‘slo-mo’ concept seriously is extremely challenging.

Thankfully though, the film itself suffers no such issues as a piece of disposable entertainment; successfully eradicating the Cannon fodder of the mid nineties. Yet regrettably, after its disappointing opening in the states, this will probably be the only instalment we’ll ever get to see from Travis, Garland & Urban. If that proves to be the case, all fans of Dredd must consider this essential viewing.

3/5

LAWLESS

 The third collaboration between Aussie director John Hillcoat & fellow countryman Nick Cave (full-time musician, part time screen-writer) is a perfectly efficient, if a somewhat underwhelming gangster thriller – lacking the suffocating emotional gravitas of The Road or the sweltering grey areas of their last project together, The Proposition.

In an unusual turn of events amongst a cast full of stars, the frequently unimpressive Shia Leboeuf shines brightest  – primarily because his character is the only one with a shred of actual development. The rest are left to dabble in roles constrained by cameo, cliché or caricature. Gary Oldman, taking equal star billing on the poster, is disappointingly underused. Its leading ladies Jessica Chastain & Mia Wasikowska don’t fare a great deal better, confined to arcs seen a hundred times before & never receiving the room to become anything other than hangers-on in this testosterone-heavy environment. Tom Hardy, impressive as he is; is in a role that’s not so much a fleshed creation, but more a personality-free vessel believing in his own urban legend. In other words, in less-capable hands, it would be a complete nothing part. Most problematic of all; Guy Pearce, whilst clinically precise, is hampered by an absurd cartoon character of a villain – frequently indulging in acts belonging in a sleazy exploitation flick rather than an idealistic & occasionally melancholic prohibition era film.

Yet, this is a Hillcoat & Cave feature, and as that goes, Lawless is not without merit. A gorgeous soundtrack sets the tone beautifully (covers of the Velvet Underground & Grandaddy being a couple of the highlights) & unsurprisingly, the look both in the production & the cinematography is period-setting to perfection. There are also individual scenes which individually, are very effective in their execution (one within a darkened bridge tunnel & another involving a knife to the throat immediately spring to mind). Yet, anyone familiar with any form of gangster rags to riches story will find it hard to be swept up by the proceedings, and given the visceral nature of Hillcoat’s previous work; one cannot help feeling a tad disappointed that this is merely passable, as opposed to exceptional.

3/5

 

 

TABU

 For anyone with a bit of love for heartfelt romanticism in film, yet could do without an indulgence in sledgehammer to the head emotional manipulation, all in the name of a “weepy” (see the preposterously vile The Notebook), look no further than Miguel Gomes’ inspiringly constructed drama. Told within two separate timelines; Tabu depicts the story of a passionate affair which blossoms under the shadow of the same-named North African mountain & the lingering effect the relationship has over the pair of star-crossed lovers in later life.

So far, so formulaic; yet what makes this stand out from the average romantic drama is the manner it develops the romance – reverting to a near silent film, juxtaposed with a poetic voice-over beautifully portraying the flourishing relationship at the expense of disposal dialogue. It is through this technique that the film sparkles, diminishing any previous reservations held over particular developments in its first half. A favourite at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival; Tabu is a unique, frequently enchanting experience that rewards multiple viewings & is without question, one of the most original romantic dramas of recent times. Highly recommended.

4/5

 

 

 

 

KILLING THEM SOFTLY

It may have a name reminiscent of a well-known Fugees song, yet the slightly dodgy title shouldn’t detract from the triumphs of Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to the marvellous (and cruelly unappreciated) The Assassination Of Jessie James By The Coward Robert Ford.

 Adapted from the novel Cogan’s Trade by George.V.Higgins; Killing Them Softly is an anti-gangster film, very much the polar opposite of the glamour of Scorseses’ Goodfellas. Not awash with cash or confidence; the New York underbelly are portrayed as desperate, world-weary individuals; crippled by bureaucratic indecisiveness, plagued by forms of addiction & reduced to blubbering wrecks in the face of confrontation. All of which is positioned in front of some very noticeable political & social commentary drawn from the effects of the recent financial crisis & the corresponding Presidential election in 2008 that followed. Entering the fray to sort out a problem the criminal fraternity are incapable of resolving, Brad Pitt is on stupendously cynical form as a hitman disillusioned with the increasingly corporate nature of organised crime & sensitive to the emotional baggage entailed when taking a life.

In a genre burdened by tiresome gangster tropes, it’s refreshing to see an example with a completely different approach. The plot is deceptively straight-forward, merely a means to facilitate the dialogue-heavy scenes (the best ones naturally all involve Pitt) & some superbly executed set-pieces (the pick of the bunch being the incident that catalyses the central conflict). Inevitably, those conformed to the ‘less talking, more shooting’ style of film-making will feel a tad frustrated by its pacing. Yet, Killing Them Softly is a lean, frequently well-directed piece containing a pitch-perfect ending – having a great deal more to say about the workings of the mafia than many of the lauded examples within the crime drama.

4/5

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