Winter’s Bone

A downbeat and atmospheric adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s bestseller, Winter’s Bone stars Jennifer Lawrence as a girl searching for her father in the bleak setting of the Ozark mountains.  As she risks losing her home and custody of her younger siblings, she ventures into unsafe territory and puts her own life at risk in an attempt to uncover the truth.

Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes

Director Deborah Granik keeps the mood sombre, making the winter in Missouri look particularly uninviting, all blues and greys and broken landscapes. In fact she overdoes it a bit, deliberately stacking the cards by neglecting the natural beauty of the area. Similarly, there’s one interlude of live bluegrass performance, the least you could expect in this setting, but the spare acoustic soundtrack is largely designed to unnerve the audience, lending thriller atmospherics to scenes that otherwise don’t earn them.

To reinforce this approach, the cast members have been chosen for their haggard and weather-beaten qualities. Lawrence is the exception, and is so good in the central performance that she hardly appears to be acting at all. There are a couple more familiar faces: Garrett Dillahunt plays the shifty local sheriff, and John Hawkes takes the honours with a performance that gradually wins your sympathy against the odds.

In the end it’s hard to recommend Winter’s Bone to a mainstream audience as its single-mindedness and meticulously created atmosphere spills over into a relentless downbeat mood, with only a couple of sly jokes to alleviate the grimness. If that’s your thing, then  you’ll find it rewards your patience fully.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★★☆

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Skyline

I first saw the Skyline trailer last year, and it looked impressive in a post-pub sort of way, so I was looking forward to its release despite it being from the Strause brothers, makers of the much-maligned AVP: Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem. However I’m now coming late to this on DVD, and in the meantime it’s picked up negative word of mouth to almost rival its antecedent.

It’s your basic alien invasion plot, and pitches you into the drama immediately as bright lights descend from the sky. I was relieved that there wasn’t going to be any of the ‘getting to know annoying characters’ stuff that scuppered Cloverfield, but before I had time to blink, the dreaded ’15 hours earlier’ card appeared.  (I don’t know about you, but I hate this sort of thing; unless there’s some clever reason for messing about with time lines, I just want to be told the story)

The characters turn out to be exactly the sort of people who deserve to be crushed under giant alien feet: the central couple (played by Eric Balfour and Scottie Thompson) spend all their time arguing about being offered a job with lots of money, which is not an endearing trait in a recession. TV veteran David Zayas comes across a bit better as the building superintendent, but the yuppie friends are cannon fodder.  Some of the criticism is correct but it’s fish in a barrel stuff. Of course Eric Balfour is better suited to quirky supporting roles than leading man roles, and most of the supporting cast don’t approach his level of professionalism.

What? Behind me?

Thankfully it doesn’t take long before the aliens bring some much-needed action to the scenario, and this is where the movie delivers.  Some surprisingly expensive-looking damage is wrought to the area outside the central apartment, and it’s not limited to shadows and badly-lit model shots. Once the dawn breaks on the morning after the invasion, we get to see some huge scaly ships and beasts decimate the cast. The effects shots are as impressive as the earlier scenes were tedious, and I expect that most of the potential audience will be happy with the balance this way round.

Dramatically it’s a bit hard to defend, but I have to admit that the action scenes put to shame movies with ten times the budget of Skyline. I would have given it a qualified recommendation if it wasn’t for the bizarre  finale, where Balfour and Thompson rediscover their love for each other and the movie goes into space and completely loses its marbles. It’s certainly memorable and I suspect the movie will be looked on more kindly in a few years time.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★☆☆

Cowboys and Aliens

Redeye, barman

If ever a title was guaranteed to get me in a cinema, it’s Cowboys and Aliens (although the strategy didn’t work for Zombie Strippers). When I was a kid, my dad was a big cowboy fan, and I couldn’t understand why he’d watch a formulaic dusty shoot-out in a one-horse town when all the universe beckoned, along with an infinite variety of scaly enemies. Forty years later, and it’s true that you  turn into your parents…

So I went into Cowboys and Aliens hoping for a 80/20 mix in that order, and this is just one of the things that Jon Favreau and the various writers get exactly right. Some reviews have criticised the movie for not subverting the genre, or doing anything to surprise the audience;  I’d argue that there are some things that you not only expect but demand from a movie like this, and deep political statements are not one of them. There’s plenty of room elsewhere for profundity.

This is not to say that it’s a deliberately stupid movie;  the tone is pitched perfectly with a slight wink but never resorting to broad comedy, and the cliches are ticked off without being hammered home. And there are plenty of in-jokes for fans of both genres. Some irony-free critics have called it humourless, and it’s their loss.

Daniel Craig is perfect as the monotone hero determined to make up for his past life and do the right thing. He looks like he’s made out of cowhide, and I found myself wishing that this was a genuine 100% western so we could see him in more punch-ups and shootouts. For the first third of the movie, the only concession to SF is the mysterious bracelet on Craig’s wrist, and the movie ambles along pleasingly, introducing a strong supporting cast: Olivia Wilde as the love interest, Clancy Brown as the local preacher/doctor with a nice line in wisecracks, Sam Rockwell as the bespectacled big city boy who can’t shoot, and Harrison Ford as the Gene Hackman character who rules the area despite the efforts of the honest sheriff Keith Carradine.

When the aliens actually appear, their technology seems to be aligned to the time, full of gears and mechanical parts – of course this makes no sense but it looks nice. The aliens themselves owe a lot to Giger’s Alien design, except when they run, adopting a crab-like stance suited to fighting men on horseback.  Thankfully the aliens are not the limp glowing Spielberg type, and want nothing else but to engage in a fight to the death, and the locals are equally glad to reciprocate. This idea seems to have offended a few critics, who seem determined to view this movie through their own preconceptions.

They kidnap a bunch of townspeople and the stage is set (sorry) for the big showdown. Along the way, Craig remembers his past, Harrison Ford learns to be a better father and to respect the native American, and Rockwell learns to shoot at the exact moment it becomes necessary. And Walton Goggins turns up, always a plus.

While none of this will surprise you, it’s beautifully made and so good-natured that you’d have to be in a bad mood not to enjoy it. It treats the goofy idea with an admirably straight face and Craig has never been this good. I expect that most people would prefer less Cowboys and more Aliens, but wait till they get older…

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★★☆

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Shalako

Largely forgotten Europudding of a western, uniting Connery and Bardot, two of the biggest stars of the time. It’s based on a story by Western veteran Louis L’Amour, although it also bears a strong resemblance to Elmore Leonard’s story Hombre, filmed a couple of years earlier with Paul Newman in the title role.

It’s your basic fishes out of water story…

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Excellent Swedish adaptation of the first in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Michael Nyqvist stars as crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, recruited to investigate the death of a young girl 30 years previously in a remote part of Sweden. Noomi Rapace plays emo bisexual computer hacker Lisbeth Salander who ends up on Blomkvist’s side in the battle against assorted evil authority figures.

Seraphim Falls

I love a good western; hell, I love a bad western. Unfortunately we don’t get many these days, but here’s one and it’s 95% good. Liam Neeson chases Pierce Brosnan across some startling scenery at the end of the civil war, from snowy mountains to desert plains, and there’s a fair bit of gory violence… Read more »

Deja Vu

Reunited with director Tony Scott for the third time, Denzel Washington plays a New Orleans ATF agent brought in to investigate the bombing of a car ferry. A shadowy FBI agent  played by Val Kilmer introduces him to the latest surveillance technology, which can look in detail at the events of exactly four and a… Read more »

Perfume : The Story of a Murderer

Long-time readers will know that I’m a big fan of German director Tom Tykwer, who has previously given us such gems as Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior. I’m less of a fan of Patrick Suskind’s gimmicky scent-based novel, which strikes me as a strange choice for  Tykwer’s first big-budget movie, especially… Read more »

Paradise Lost

Originally titled Turistas, this was retitled Paradise Lost for its UK cinema release. It’s the cautionary tale of a group of young and under-dressed backpackers who end up marooned in the Brazilian jungle. After a bit of wandering around in nice scenery, it all gets nasty  enough to make you cancel that trip to Rio… Read more »

Revenge

Just after the release of Man On Fire, I dug out an old Tony Scott movie called Revenge. It makes a very interesting companion piece to the later movie, treating a similar story as one of revenge rather than redemption. Kevin Costner stars as a fighter pilot who has an affair with Madeleine Stowe (unfortunately… Read more »