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JACK REACHEROh Tom. I’ve got to take my hat off to you, it’s a tough ask to deliver lines like ‘You think I’m a hero? I am not a hero. I’m a drifter with nothing to lose’ or ‘I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot!’ with a straight face (particularly when that face is more than a little prone to an eye-twinkle or a shit-eating grin). Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher is full of risibly macho but entertainingly daft lines like this, many of which were presumably lifted from or inspired by Lee Child’s Reacher novel One Shot, which served as the literary base for this debut cinematic outing.

For the uninitiated, Child’s popular character is the subject of 20 bestselling novels to date, as well as several short stories; I’ve never felt curious enough to read one, but a friend tells me they’re not bad as airport novels go, which I guess is meant as praise. Anyway: Reacher’s a hard-as-nails ex-US Army Major who has effectively taken himself ‘off the grid’, and he spends his days drifting around the country using aliases while taking on various criminal investigation jobs. Oh, and he’s supposedly 6 ft 5 inches tall, meaning that the employment of Tom Cruise as the safe bet to kick start a Reacher film franchise wasn’t appreciated by a number of vocal fans, who felt the actor was too slight to convince in the role.

Cruise has plenty of polished action flicks like this under his belt, though, and as per usual thanks to a combination of innate confidence and favourable camera work he manages to pull it off without ever appearing to struggle, though this is one of his more uncomfortably leery performances: when he’s not doing battle with the various henchmen of glass-eyed Russian crime lord The Zec (Werner Herzog in a spot of hilariously on-the-money casting that sends up the director’s public persona) he’s usually standing uncomfortably close to defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who can do little but try and match the veteran actor’s intense flirt-gawping with some boggle-eyed glares of her own. The intention, presumably, is to develop the illusion of a little chemistry between the two characters, but all too often it looks like a stare-off in which neither participant is willing to back down.

Rodin has a seemingly impossible task on her hands in defending ex-military sniper James Barr (Joseph Sikora), who has apparently shot and killed five people in Pittsburgh (a sequence that McQuarrie uses to open his movie, though there’s little quite as gruesome or as uncomfortably enthralling in the two hours that follow). Facing the death penalty Barr cryptically writes ‘Get Jack Reacher!’ on his confession statement; no-one actually knows how to do that but thankfully Reacher simply shows up on cue anyway, and thus the investigator becomes involved in the case, quickly casting doubt on the pile of evidence collected by Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo).

Jack Reacher is a typically sleek Cruisian crime thriller. I was expecting a feast of fights, gun battles and car chases, but it’s more like a vaguely disappointing brunch, with a huge dollop of the star’s overflowing stash of smarm ladled on top. We see Cruise’s Reacher regularly besting his opponents, verbally and in combat, but really there isn’t much here to enable either the film or the character to stand out from the pack; it’s just Another Tom Cruise Character doing things very well indeed, and it’s difficult to distinguish Reacher from Ethan Hunt, the actor’s long-running Mission Impossible government agent. Really, anything would have helped. Pet chihuahua? Grafted-on roller blades? Lapsed interest in mahogany furniture?

Meanwhile talented actors like Pike, Oyelowo and Robert Duvall (who plays the owner of a shooting range) are wasted as they struggle to wring interest out of their dull archetypes and credibility out of the intermittently dodgy writing, while Herzog’s ridiculous criminal overlord (who once chewed off all-but-one of his fingers in a Siberian death camp) only gets about five minutes of screen time. It’s an absurd cartoon villain, but at least the German director provides the film with several flashes of camp entertainment, so it’s a shame not to see more of him; unfortunately this means that The Zec’s inevitable comeuppance at the end of the film feels as flat as a wet fart on a Wednesday in Worthing.

Though it is mostly safe and predictable, with characters that are hard to care about and generally unmemorable, Jack Reacher isn’t a complete duffer. McQuarrie’s a good writer on his day – The Usual Suspects is all the evidence you’ll ever need – and his script contains a decent gag at the expense of a shirtless, buffed-up Cruise, while occasionally there’s a zip to the dialogue that makes good use of the star’s buttery slickness (witness, for example, the quickfire insults he fires at a gang of fools in a bar that mistakenly single him out for a scrap). Though they’re very much by-the-book the action sequences are enjoyable enough, too, even though nothing truly dazzles; ultimately it just feels a little lazy, a fact perhaps best highlighted by the presumably-unintended but insidious racism surrounding its typically-Hollywoodian villains (Russians, the only black character in the film, yawn yawn yawn).

Unfortunately I suspect that in a month or so I’ll have completely forgotten about most of Jack Reacher, save perhaps for the opening sequence and Herzog’s bizarre appearance; the rest of it will be a blur of shootouts, predictably duplicitous characters and The Cruiser’s face as his Reacher smugly tells various people that they’ve got something wrong. The actor isn’t as bankable as he once was, but a worldwide return of $200,000,000 isn’t to be sniffed at, and unsurprisingly a second outing is in the pipeline. I’m sure that too will make a wedge of money, but unless there’s a serious improvement I’ll probably pass.

Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie.
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie. Based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog, Jai Courtney, Joseph Sikora, Robert Duvall.
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel.
Editing: Kevin Stitt.
Music: Joe Kraemer.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 130 minutes.
Year: 2012.
Rating: 4.6

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selma002-679x350Selma arrives on these shores having already attracted significant criticism in the wake of its US release (mainly regarding the historical accuracy – or rather inaccuracy – of some important elements of Paul Webb’s screenplay) and also having been controversially snubbed in several of the high profile Academy Award and BAFTA categories. Ava DuVernay’s film, an outside bet for Best Picture in the upcoming Oscars, details the historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches in Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, Jr, who is played with consummate skill by the British actor David Oyelowo. It’s a stirring, emotional dramatisation of this recent and shocking period of American history, and Webb and DuVernay’s joint examination of civil rights, discrimination and prejudice has been hailed for its timeliness, given that the film highlights police violence and the subsequent lack of culpability in the 1960s; President Obama’s administration has, of course, recently been contending with riots in the Midwest and demonstrations elsewhere resulting from similar ongoing problems with law enforcement agencies today.

Oyelowo, arguably, is the person involved who has been most wronged by the Academy’s voting, though it’s worth iterating that such trivialities detract from, and really pale into insignificance when compared with, the subject matter of this film. His magnificent performance is the bedrock of Selma, and he is entirely believable whether depicting King’s struggle with private doubts and concerns, his discussions about them with family and advisors, his rousing, defiant public speeches or his involvement in a series of strong-willed showdowns with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Oyelowo captures the style and manner of King’s orations although the real speeches – which incorporated several lines that have become iconic in the ensuing years – are not used here; King’s estate had already licensed them to a different studio, reportedly to be used in an as-yet-untitled Steven Spielberg project. Unfortunately no agreement could be reached, and DuVernay’s unenviable task of re-writing them has been carried out with considerable skill, keeping the message and the emotional punch intact. The words certainly feed Oyelowo’s showreel moments, which are numerous and powerful, but just as impressive is the actor’s ability to bring a man to life on screen, rather than a refuelling of a myth. As the review for Selma in Sight & Sound magazine pointed out last month, there have been surprisingly few depictions of King on the big screen to date, and for decades the general perception in the media has been of a Gandhi-esque figure, or simply of a more appealing alternative to Malcolm X (an idea briefly riffed on in Selma). One of the main achievements of DuVernay’s film, and of Oyelowo’s performance, is the creation of a credible suggestion of the person behind the speeches and the soundbites: a man not necessarily racked with self-doubt, but certainly thoughtful, occasionally uncertain and often concerned about the effects of his decisions and infidelities.

In keeping with this, when first see King, uncomfortably accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he is clearly more concerned with the fight looming on the horizon as well as the way in which his appearance in Oslo will be perceived by his peers. At his side is his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), who spends most of the film in a largely supportive role to her husband that arguably diminishes her own real life achievements. The next scene, deliberately emphasising the irrelevance of the Prize at this juncture, shows the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama, which took place a year earlier. Then we see Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) being denied the right to vote in Selma, a key factor in the identification of the town by King’s SCLC as the ideal battleground to draw attention to their cause.

The film’s moving and harrowing scenes cover the violent incidents that subsequently occurred in and around Selma, first showing King and the SCLC marching with local residents to the courthouse to register to vote, where a confrontation results in numerous arrests. A night march ends in tragedy when police officers, supposedly under orders from Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth, struggling throughout), violently beat the protesting, peaceful crowd and the young activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) is murdered. Then the marches from Selma to the state capitol Montgomery take place: for the first King is advised not to attend, and more state trooper brutality occurs, this time on the Edmund Pettus Bridge under the watchful gaze of the media. For the second the marchers are joined by white Americans for the first time, many from different religious denominations and most spurred into action by the scenes they have witnessed on TV as much as King’s plea for help. Wallace is unmoved, and though the troopers offer a way through, King believes it to be a trap and turns around; a third march is needed.

The blot on the copybook of this otherwise excellent film is that the relationship between King and Johnson is warped for dramatic effect (this is a drama, admittedly, but it is otherwise apparently truthful), and their confrontations are designed to sit a little too conveniently next to those mentioned above; the two men do not enter into brutal clashes, of course, but their conversations are mini-conflicts, with Johnson clearly portrayed as an obstructer, and one of the villains of the piece. Critics of Selma have been dismayed that Johnson only acts when public pressure becomes so great his only option is to overrule the defiant Wallace, something the character does with reluctance. This fictional version of the President is more concerned with his own legacy, and how he will be perceived 20 years later, rather than the real issue at hand. Wilkinson – who captures a powerful, confident and authoritative figure well enough – is even required to spit ‘Get me J. Edgar Hoover’ down into a telephone receiver at one point, which is a ludicrous return to the ‘Get me the Pentagon!’ and ‘Get me the President!’ chomping of movie days of yore. (Hoover, incidentally, is the far more obvious choice for villain, if such a role must be occupied. He is largely a background figure here, played by Dylan Baker, though his obsession with King’s private life and movements is constantly referred to by DuVernay, who flashes up short, de-classified FBI status reports on screen, a device that I found suddenly jolted me ‘out’ of the film.)

The depiction of Johnson has riled so many because, in reality, this particular President had a commitment to social justice that has rarely been matched before or after by any occupant of the Oval Office. Serving during a period of intense change, which incorporated the start of the Vietnam War, race riots and the space race, his supporters have quickly pointed out that he was the first American leader in nearly 100 years to arrest and prosecute members of the Ku Klux Klan, following the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, and was apparently keen to work with King in enacting the Voting Rights Act, identifying it as a priority when he came into office.

Unfortunately the furore has detracted attention away from the film’s main character to a certain degree. While the media is partly responsible for this disappointing turn of events, which has seen significant column inches spent on the examination of a portrait of a Caucasian leader, DuVernay and Webb don’t have to search too far if they’re looking to apportion the rest of the blame. It is something they could have avoided.

There are some choices made that I’m not too keen on, though my usual dislike of modern songs during or at the end of period films didn’t stop me from at least appreciating the relevance of ‘Glory’, the main theme by John Legend and Common (who also appears in the film as James Bevel), even if the song itself is god awful. However I do feel a certain ambivalence toward the slow-mo used during several of the beatings and killings that occur in the film; some of it has been widely praised, such as the violent, smoky scene on the bridge during the first march, but for me DuVernay’s decision to add a touch of visual flash is unnecessary and ostentatious. I wonder whether showing these scenes in real-time would be more in-keeping with the look of the rest of the film, while perhaps also emphasising the experience of those watching live on TV in 1965.

Despite a few problematic elements Selma demands admiration as a confident piece that is successful in identifying and detailing the key moments in this long struggle, and as a study of Martin Luther King it is indeed every bit as fascinating as you would expect it to be. With one or two exceptions the supporting performances are good – I haven’t mentioned him above but Henry Sanders stands out as Cager Lee, the grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson – but the film’s clear highlight is the performance of Oyelowo. I don’t want to go on too much about the whole Oscar thing, as it’s all been said elsewhere, but how this hasn’t been identified as one of the five best performances of the year is a mystery to me. As great as Keaton is, as great as Redmayne is, as good as all the others are … this would be my Best Actor winner, for what it’s worth.

The Basics:
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Common, Oprah Winfrey, Keith Stanfield, Wendell Pierce, Lorraine Toussaint, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding, Jr, Colman Domingo, Ruben Santiago-Hudsen, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Martin Sheen
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 127 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.3

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A-Most-Violent-Year-8Sadly some excellent films disappear quickly from UK cinema screens during the months of January and February. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the recently-adopted tradition of rushing through the award season heavy hitters in the new year, an industry-wide decision that has seen BirdmanAmerican SniperWildThe Theory Of EverythingFoxcatcherWhiplash and more released within a period of 21 days here, with the likes of Selma and Inherent Vice still to come. (Funnily enough all of these serious nomination-earning dramas have been trounced at the box office by the critically-panned Taken 3, which is a) quite a sobering thought, and b) not a particularly pleasant one to dwell on.)

I’ve been going to the cinema two or three times a week all month and I’ve still struggled to keep up with the post-Christmas glut, let alone independent releases I’d like to see (although it’s not as if anyone’s holding a gun to my head and I probably ought to be celebrating the quality on offer rather than moaning about it). But there’s no two ways about it: each year good films are slipping through the cracks as a result of this intense scheduling.

An interesting example of a film suffering during this period is A Most Violent Year. J.C. Chandor’s anti-gangster crime movie has earned plenty of praise in the media, but it failed to receive any Oscar nominations and its low profile has resulted in takings of less than $2 million to date, roughly 10% of its budget. Admittedly the film hasn’t been released in some countries yet, and presumably many UK and US cinemas haven’t actually shown it, but it looks set to be a flop in financial terms, which is a shame. At the time of writing The Guardian’s website includes a disappointing single comment under one of its reviews, and that comment actually relates to an entirely different film, linked by cinematographer. To labour the point: I went to see A Most Violent Year in my local multiplex on a Monday night, only three nights after it was released, and I was the only person in the audience; and yet this 10-screen cinema serves a large town and several smaller ones, too. It seems as though the film hasn’t registered with the public for one reason or another, but the most likely explanation is that December is an expensive month for most people and regular cinemagoers are just picking and choosing. And also, as much as it pains me to say it, the majority of people are picking and choosing Taken 3.

In a way I can understand why there is a general lack of enthusiasm: this is a slow-burning, downbeat drama set in the middle of an icy winter, and its mood is both aided and summed up perfectly by an elegiac organ score that brings to mind funeral services, first and foremost. Chandor’s story – set in 1981 – tentatively sidles up to the oft-explored world of New York criminality but keeps a wary distance and commendably refuses to adopt most of the usual cinematic gangster clichés; the Mafia, for example, are alluded to but never seen. The focus is instead on an honest man struggling to remain decent under considerable pressure when his heating oil transportation business and family are targeted by unscrupulous crooks. Because the man in question – Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) – is a camel coat-wearing Colombian immigrant, we are conditioned, to an extent, to expect the character to crack and become a variant on Tony Montana or another of the numerous immigrant gangsters found in The GodfatherOnce Upon A Time In AmericaGangs Of New YorkThe UntouchablesGoodFellas et al. It is somewhat refreshing that Chandor takes an abrupt left turn and presents us with something entirely different. This feels like a gangster film throughout, partly because we see plenty of familiar gangster film imagery, such as cars rolling into empty car parks for business meetings or nervous characters talking outdoors to avoid being caught by wiretaps, but there aren’t actually any gangsters in it.

The film’s title refers to the fact that crime statistics for the city peaked in 1981, and it hovers with quiet menace over the entire movie, with unrelated news reports offering regular reminders as they spill from Abel’s car radio. Chandor creates a strong sense that crime was / is somehow unavoidable for anyone choosing to live and / or work within the five boroughs at this time, as if it’s as much a part of daily life as breathing or eating. But the film isn’t overly concerned with the city as its subject: the action is largely confined to Brooklyn’s lesser-known industrial zones and freeways, even though the familiar Manhattan skyline looms large in the distance (with the World Trade Center represented by a blurry, out-of-focus smudge that makes a subtle, ghostly impression during one or two scenes).

Morales – an entirely relevant character name if ever there was one – runs his company with the input of accountant wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who happens to be the daughter of a mob boss, and weary lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks). Together they are attempting to buy a large patch of land on the Brooklyn waterfront that will allow the business to expand rapidly, but their drivers are regularly targeted by hijackers and the company’s salesmen are intimidated when encroaching on territory ‘held’ by rival firms. One of these opposing companies, which is buying the stolen oil cheaply before selling it on, even dispatches a gunman to Abel and Anna’s new house at night.

Despite the robberies and the intimidation tactics, and against the wishes of Anna, Abel refuses to fight back. Instead he appeals to David Oyelowo’s DA for help, but it soon transpires that the DA has his own political agenda, which involves investigating all companies involved in the heating oil business for financial irregularity. It transpires that Abel and Anna’s company was previously under mob rule, and therefore the books were cooked for a number of years, which doesn’t really help their current predicament. If this wasn’t enough Abel must ensure that he has the money to follow-through with his waterfront purchase, and must sooth the mounting concerns of the Teamsters, who want their drivers to carry guns for protection; this leads directly to the film’s less-interesting sub-plot, in which a truck driver named Julian (Elyes Gabel) becomes embroiled in the violence.

Though light on action the film offers a few bursts of energy, but really the tension is built slowly and methodically by the mounting pressure on Abel, who seemingly cannot catch a break and cannot rely on anyone for help (or even honesty). He must keep it together while being emasculated at home by Anna, who gravely warns that she will take matters into her own hands if her husband refuses to, while the heads of other companies circle like vultures, keen to take advantage of his situation.

Isaac is very good, veering from exasperation to calm, assured decisiveness. Chastain is even better as Anna, revealing the ‘benefits’ of her mob-related upbringing by displaying a cool nonchalance in the face of the authorities and her husband’s protests. She is a powerful character who keeps her power hidden for the most part. They share some excellent scenes and there’s an easy, believable rapport between the two leads; apparently Isaac and Chastain have known each other for a number of years, and though it’s impossible to tell that solely from their performances, it must have helped them when establishing the dynamic of this strained-but-functioning marriage. There’s good support from Oyelowo and Brooks, too, though their characters are firmly secondary concerns.

I have not seen either of Chandor’s first two films but, based on this, I am keen to check out All Is Lost and Margin Call at some point soon. A Most Violent Year is a stately, measured work, and although it requires a degree of patience at times it is an extremely rewarding crime drama. Perhaps, if anything, it lacks that something special: there’s nothing in this film that would stand up to comparison with the wit and zip of Scorsese’s finest moments, the weight of Coppola’s most gripping scenes or the set pieces of De Palma’s best work, but those are rare filmmakers who have made rare works of excellence within this field and within this genre, broadly speaking. Despite commendably approaching the crime film in a way that feels fresh today this sits just below the peaks reached by those directors, but on the plus side that puts it miles above the likes of Taken 3, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be ignored.

The Basics:
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 125 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.4

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