Jon Stewart’s directorial debut is a tight little drama about naïve journalist Maziar (Gael Garcia Bernal) who fins himself arrested after video-taping protests against the government in Iran. Over a long period of interrogation by a government lackey identified as Rosewater (Kim Bodia), Maziar has to contend with gruelling techniques of eliciting information as well as the ghost of his own father who visits him in captivity. Stewart plays it straight, but surreal humour infects the film as Maziar enjoys a Leonard Cohen disco in his head and begins to feed ridiculous stories to his captor, turning the nature of the captivity on its head. A politically astute film, Rosewater is a welcome burst of political responsibility in US cinema, and makes an ideal companion to the same year’s Camp X Ray.
There’s not much in director Michael Schroeder’s CV to suggest he was capable of pulling off an off-beat valentine to the movies like The Man in The Chair; the director of Cyborg 2 pulled off a career high when he pulled together an accomplished cast including Christopher Plummer, Robert Wagner and M Emmet Walsh as a group of Hollywood veterans who get together to help young aspiring LA film-maker Cameron (Michael Angarano) realise his dream. Schroeder over-eggs the flashy style of the direction, but coaxes strong performances from his cast, particularly Walsh who has a nice scene in which he discovers the value of the internet in a public library. Wagner also has a strong turn as a mogul who funds the enterprise, but Plummer takes centre-stage; his performance here as Flash is arguably better than his Oscar-winning turn in Beginners.
The true-life case of the three US teenagers whose penchant for Satanic rituals made them prime suspects for the murder of three children has been well documented in Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost; whatever theories might exist about the real killers, it’s somewhat irrefutable that the letter of the law was sloppily applied. Unleashing Atom Egoyan, whose crime reconstructions featured memorably in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, on such material promises something intense, but while Devil’s Knot is a useful primer for anyone unfamiliar with the case, it’s a curiously flat film. Reese Witherspoon plays the mother of one of the boys, while Colin Firth affects a semi-convincing southern drawl as the lawyer who agrees to work pro-bono to defend the teenagers. Egoyan dramatizes many of the events perfunctorily, without addressing the many questions still pertinent, but there’s some interesting garnish; Egoyan depicts Vicki (Mireille Enos) at an orgy in an open field, then cuts to her at home watching Jack Starrett’s Race with the Devil (1975), leaving the truth of her statements muddied to say the least. While a disappointing film, Devil’s Knot does have a compelling story to tell, even if what it adds only makes uncovering the truth seem a more tricky task than before. On VOD May 9th.
John Huston belied his early promise to make some right rubbish before his 1970’s career rebirth; The Man Who Would Be King is one of his best, a rollicking adventure yard from the pen of Rudyard Kipling, a passion project for Huston who had tried to get it on screen for several decades. In 1975, he got a dream cast, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine as Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, plus Christopher Plummer as Kipling himself. The tall tale pitches the two soldiers who become gods amongst the natives during British rule in India. The Man Who Would be King questions notions of white superiority, but also finds time for plenty of star-powered entertainment; in a pre-Indian Jones world Huston’s film is about as big and brassy as period adventure gets.
Writer and director Bong Joon-ho follows up his splendid free-spirited monster movie The Host with a big budget action film set in a frozen future and with the action confined to a nuclear-powered train that smashes dramatically through snowdrifts. On board, there’s a revolution going on, with downtrodden back-of-the-coach inhabitants led by Curtis and Edgar (Chris Evans and Jamie Bell) against Mason (Tilda Swinton). Swinton’s performance is the first sign that Snowpiercer is heading off the rails; somewhat between Dame Thora Hird and Sue Pollard from British sit-com Hi-di-Hi, her weirdly comic, distracting turn indicates a fatal lack of cohesiveness about the film. Curtis battles his way up to the front of the train to confront Ed Harris as the big boss, with a few well-staged action sequences along the way. But despite an original idea and strong mounting, Snowpiercer is a mess, with a cumbersome length, uninvolving storylines and illogical incidents that provoke derisory laughs rather than thrills.
Kevin Costner’s return to the Kennedy ethos didn’t make the same cultural impact as Oliver Stone’s JFK; nonetheless, Roger Donaldson’s evocation of White House drama during the Cuban missile crisis is one of cinema’s more reflective history lessons. The strangely accented Kenny O’Donnell (Costner) is caught up in the angst as JFK Bruce Greenwood) and RFK (Steven Culp) ague about the best course of action to take, with the future of the world at stake. Thirteen Days has a couple of well-stages action scenes involving U2 spy-planes, but it’s all the stronger for being a claustrophobic talkfest; it was diplomacy that resolves the Cold war issues, and Thirteen Days is a respectful and conscientious look at one of the most startling chapters of world history.
What The Sting was to the 70’s David O Russell’s American Hustle is to the 21st century; a delightful period throwback depicting the colourful lives of hustlers pulling elaborate cons on each other with style. Everyone involved seems to be having fun; Christian Bale done a toupee and expands his girth as Irving, a low-rent con artist who gets ideas above his station when he hooks up with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams); their ability to shed their personalities for the good of the con is beautifully marked down when they canoodle in a dry-cleaners as a parade of different outfits fly by. FBI agent Richie De Maso (Bradley Cooper) steps in to involve them with the Abscam scheme, in which a fake Sheik is uses to entrap local politicians including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), and American Hustle makes a great job of keeping the audience guessing who is fooling who. The minor characters are a joy, with Louis CK, Michael Pena and Jennifer Lawrence all in explosive form; the Oscars may not be big on comedy, but for pure entertainment value, American Hustle was the best film of 2013.