Film review: L. A. Takedown

L. A. Takedown (1989)

Have you ever seen Michael Mann’s film ‘Heat’ (1995)?
This crime blockbuster was released to great acclaim, starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, and many more. The exciting set pieces, meticulous background detail, and a sharp script packed with memorable quotes made this into one of the big successes of the 90s. Since then, it has been regularly shown on TV, and continues to have a loyal following, as well as an instant appeal to new viewers.

But it is a remake, something you may not be aware of.

Not only is it a remake, it is a scene-by-scene retelling of a previous film that was released in 1989, originally as a TV series pilot, and later reworked into a complete film. Also written and directed by the same Michael Mann, but without the benefit of the huge star cast, packed with household names. It was also made with a much lower budget, limited expectations, and in many regions, it got a straight-to-video release only.

That’s a great shame, because it is just as good as ‘Heat’, if not better. For me, it is a superior film, for many reasons. It has a less-glossy, grittier feel. The stars are not that well-known, (at least in the UK) so it is easier to get involved in the characters, without always thinking of their previous roles. It feels more realistic, both in location, and the way the plot unfolds. It also loses some of the padding, making it a sharper and more engaging watch.

Some character names were changed in ‘Heat’, but Mann retained the name of the tough cop, Vincent Hannah, with the actor Scott Plank playing the part in the original. The part of the criminal mastermind played by De Niro in ‘Heat’ is taken by Alex McArthur, vaguely familiar from a few roles I had seen him in before. He runs with this lead role very well, imbuing his scenes with a real sense of determination and menace, despite being considerably younger than De Niro. Scott Plank carries off the sharp-suited detective with aplomb, without the need to show the world-weary obsession injected by Pacino in the later film.

I urge you to try to watch this, and to see how Mann polished the original into the well-known blockbuster that followed, with the help of a massive budget. Something totally unnecessary, in my humble opinion.

This might just be the best modern crime thriller you have never seen.

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Leviathan (2014)

Original Russian language, English subtitles.
Not to be confused with other films of the same name.

***No spoilers***

Thanks to the excellent programming decisions of BBC 4, I was able to watch this film on TV, free of charge. Winner of Best Film at the London Film Festival, it had been on my list to watch for some time.
As I have mentioned previously, being unfamiliar with the actors makes such films all the more enjoyable, as I do not associate them with any other roles.

Set in the bleak northern regions of modern-day Russia, close to Murmansk, we are introduced to mechanic Kolya, his second wife Lilya, and his troublesome teenage son, Roma. They live close to the sea in a house Kolya has built, on land owned by his family for generations. Family life is not ideal. Roma doesn’t like his inoffensive stepmother, and Lilya is worn down by everyday life looking after her husband and his son, as well as working hard in the nearby fish-processing plant. Kolya is pestered by corrupt policemen who want him to work on their cars for free, and also troubled by a long-running court case. He drinks too much vodka, and is obsessed with his self-built house. To help him, his old army friend Dima is arriving from Moscow. He has now trained as a lawyer, and is sure that he can help with the impending court appearance.

The local mayor, Vadim, has ordered the compulsory purchase of Kolya’s house and land. On paper, he is pretending that this is necessary to build a new phone mast there, something needed by the town. But behind the scenes, the corrupt mayor is planning to offer the land to a hotel company, to build a luxury coastal resort complex there. By stating it is to be used for the phone mast, Kolya would only be entitled to basic compensation, nowhere near the true value of the house and land.

When Dima arrives, he tells them he has a plan. Smart and good-looking, with his sharp Moscow ways, Lilya is immediately attracted to him, and Roma likes him too. But when Dima tries to confront all the local officials with his detailed objections, his efforts are stalled by bureaucracy at every turn. Kolya becomes increasingly outraged by his treatment, and Vadim determines to rid himself of the troublesome Moscow lawyer.

This film is a visual treat. The unfamiliar harsh landscapes of the north coast of Russia play their part in the story, as well as making it good to look at. The daily grind of modern-day life in Russia is shown perfectly too, with the lot of the average workers basically unchanged since the fall of the old Soviet Union, and their problems now added to by the corruption that exists in every part of public life. From traffic cops taking bribes to supplement their low pay, to resurgent Orthodox priests exploiting their influence over the local people, and the mayor and his cronies acting little better than gangsters.

In the midst of all this, Kolya’s frustrations reach boiling point, and Dima tries to do deals with the mayor by making veiled threats about exposing corruption. Lilya is disenchanted with her new life as Kolya’s wife, and the friends of the family have their own vested interests to look out for. The film edges towards a dramatic climax, and had me gripped from the start. A fascinating insight into life in remote regions of Russia, with completely convincing characters. Highly recommended.

Here’s an official trailer.

A You Tube find

I don’t scroll around on You Tube that much, to be honest. When researching for my Significant Songs posts, I recently came across this exceptionally clever short clip, with famous dancers and actors ‘performing’ to a modern song, ‘Uptown Funk’, by Bruno Mars. It is so well-edited, and contains a real feast of stars from the heyday of Hollywood. I couldn’t resist sharing it here.

Astaire and Rogers.
Moira Shearer.
Cyd Charisse.
Judy Garland.
Mickey Rooney.
Lucille Ball.
The Clark Brothers.
Shirley Temple.
Gene Kelly.
The Marx Brothers.
The Three Stooges.
Laurel and Hardy.
James Cagney.
Danny Kaye.
Rita Hayworth.
Donald O’Connor.
And many more…

See if you can spot the names I missed!

This is a real treat, believe me.

Just been watching…(47)

American Sniper (2014)

***This is a true story, so spoilers are already out there***

I am late to this film, obviously. I bought a used copy from Amazon for just £1, and watched it yesterday. Clint Eastwood directed this true life story of Chris Kyle, the most effective sniper in US military history. Kyle is played by Bradley Cooper, and his wife by Sienna Miller. This is a long film, so also a longer than usual review.

The film begins in the Iraq war, and immediately flashes back to the boyhood upbringing of Kyle. We see a stern yet caring father, determined to bring up his sons the right way; reflecting his values, and learning to hunt. The young Chris shows a natural talent with a rifle, but he really wants to be a rodeo star. Fast forward to Chris in his late twenties, (Cooper) touring the rodeo circuits with his younger brother, and enjoying moderate success. Then the US embassy bombings occur in 1998, and the fiercely patriotic Kyle enlists in the military, training to become a Navy Seal. Despite being one of the oldest recruits, his determination gets him through, and his skill with a rifle gets him trained to become one of the elite snipers, providing cover for troops operating in the streets below his high vantage point.

He also meets an attractive young woman in a bar (Miller) and falls for her, beginning a serious relationship which soon leads to marriage. During his wedding, the unit receive their orders to travel to the war in Iraq, and the film transfers the action there.

For me as a viewer, it is in these foreign locations where the film excels. Always convincing, with a constant feeling of threat, danger, and menace. The tension rarely lets up, even during the quiet moments, and everything from the dusty streets, to the still rooftop lairs of Kyle, are always believable in the extreme. Much of the action is seen through the magnification of his telescopic sight. We see what he sees, in real time, with decisions having to be made in a heartbeat. To fire, or not to fire? The pressure of protecting his comrades on the ground patrols, and the complications of perhaps making a ‘bad kill’, and facing the repercussions of that act. Cooper acts this stillness surprisingly well, and small facial movements show us his thought process, as he makes life and death calls every day.

Returning home to his wife and new baby son, he is a changed man. She senses the difference in him, and the distance he feels from his life back in America. He is restless, worrying about his comrades, keen to return to combat. Their relationship suffers, but endures.

Back on his second tour of duty in Iraq, he is faced with an enemy sniper, a skillful Syrian insurgent. This man is killing US soldiers at an alarming rate, and Kyle makes it his mission to try to find and stop this man. But this is not the same story as we saw in ‘Enemy At The Gates’, though the theme is similar. By now, the enemy is also aware of this effective American sniper, who has killed so many of their fighters. They put up a huge financial reward for anyone who can kill him, so now Kyle has to operate with a price on his head too.

Home on leave once again, things are not getting any better. he has a baby daughter, and a growing son. A wife who is unhappy managing alone for months on end, with children who hardly know their father. She wants Chris to come home, to stop serving in Iraq. She becomes convinced that he has a death wish, and that he won’t stop until he gets himself killed over there. But he won’t leave his comrades unprotected, and remains convinced that they have to stop the militants in Iraq, so that the war doesn’t come to the US in the long run.

So, two more tours of duty, and an eventual return home for good are covered. When overseas, Chris still hunts for the elusive enemy sniper, often getting tantalisingly close, only for the man to escape at the last moment. The cost to his own well-being is dealt with, as he constantly drifts back and forth between caring for his family, and worrying about those left behind. There is some debate about his unquestioning patriotism, and the futility of the ongoing war that sees his younger brother drawn into the conflict, as well as the loss of so many of his good friends.

The ending is done with dignity, and lack of show. It is almost the perfect ending.

So, is it good? It is very good indeed, as far as I am concerned. The action sequences are often brilliantly handled, and make for nail-biting viewing at times. But the best moments are those when we look along the rifle, through the sight with the same view as Chris. Those moments when you have to make that call; take the shot, or not. It leaves us wondering what we would do, and transports us into the heart and mind of the shooter. Taking us to a world we can only imagine, if we have never been in the military.

Eastwood got this one just right. Here’s a trailer.

Just been watching…(46)

The Calling (2014)

***No spoilers***

Susan Sarandon, Ellen Burstyn, and Donald Sutherland in a Canadian thriller about a serial killer in the small-town backwoods. This looks like one to watch. Or does it?

Weary police Inspector Hazel Micallef (Sarandon) runs the small force policing this snow-covered town in the middle of nowhere. She drinks too much, all the time in fact, and argues with her superiors. Her daily routine is dull, and she drives home to the house she shares with her mother, a retired judge, (Burstyn) to drink some more. Then a local old lady is found dead, in very unusual and gruesome circumstances. Hazel has to step up, and soon realises that similar murders have a connection to that of the old lady.

Bur she has a past, and her drinking problem is known to all. They won’t take her seriously at first, so she has to try to tackle a series of grisly crimes, helped only by her also weary detective colleague, and a fresh-faced new boy who has transferred from Toronto. Things begin to get even more sinister when a religious connection is revealed, and consulting the local priest, (Sutherland) Hazel soon delves deeper into the mystery.

The building blocks of a great film are all there. An unusual killer, some gory details of the crimes, and the religious mysticism that surrounds the case. Moody winter locations, and the different setting of small-town Canada. Then there is that top-notch cast, all getting on a bit, but reliable as ever. I started to forgive the familiar police story standbys of alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, extra-marital affairs, and has-been cops at odds with modern methods and their bosses. Deciding to give it a chance, I settled in for the long haul, and watched it to the end.

Despite some nice atmosphere, and that previously mentioned unusual story-line, and great cast, the film-makers settled for a mix of seen-it-all-before situations. Sutherland and Burstyn were simple set dressing, their talents not even scratched. Sarandon played her part in her familiar style, all aggression and boss-woman, with no softer side. The camera spent as much time focusing on her endless bottles of bourbon, as it did following the action. As the tension builds to the climax, it feels as if it is going the wrong way, and has missed out the good bits on the journey.

I was left wanting more of Christopher Heyerdahl, who plays the creepy killer, and wondering why someone of the stature of Ellen Burstyn was even in the film to begin with. A film to watch if you have absolutely, positively, nothing else to do. It’s not ‘Fargo’, that’s for sure. Here’s a trailer.

Just been watching…(45)

Good Kill (2014)

***No spoilers***

An American war film that looks at a very different aspect of modern warfare. Air Force drone pilots, operating lethal killer-drones over Afghanistan and other countries, from a remote base near Las Vegas. Recruited as much for their skill at playing video games, as for their ability to fly jets, these young servicemen and women sit in steel cabins, delivering death on demand at the behest of the CIA, or High Command.

Major Tom Egan has flown many combat tours, and proved his skill in the air. But now his beloved jets are in mothballs, as the Air Force concentrates on a new kind of war. The silent unseen drones, picking off targets at will, from 10,000 feet above an enemy that has no idea what is about to happen. He is unhappy, disillusioned, drinking too much. Although he can return to his modern house near the city every day after work, home to his pretty wife and two children, he misses ‘the fear’, the unexpected, and the feeling of being in control, up in his jet fighter.

He has a Mexican-American female partner; new to the job, she is also uneasy about they way the war is being fought, the disregard for civilian casualties, and the shady tasks carried out for the Security Services. The base commander is an old friend, Colonel Jack Johns. He is a realist. War is changing, and the way the Air Force operates is changing with it. He sympathises with Tom, but he knows that orders are orders, and they must be followed. As the missions increase in intensity, Tom’s home life spirals out of control, along with his drinking, and bleak moods.

This is a surprisingly powerful film, with an excellent cast. I must be going soft in my old age, as I am starting to believe that Ethan Hawke is a very good actor. He brings some light and shade to the character of Tom, and is convincing in his quiet withdrawal too. Bruce Greenwood is outstanding as the conflicted commander, Colonel Johns, and an unseen Peter Coyote gives a chilling turn as the voice of the CIA, heard only on a speakerphone. When they are operating the drones, the satellite footage is never less than authentic in feel, with real tension in every scene. The debates about the morality of what they are doing are not overblown, and those arguments countered by other characters who think that they are doing something necessary, and worthwhile.

I really liked this film, and highly recommend it. Here’s a trailer.

Just been watching…(44)

The Body (2012)
(Original Spanish language, English subtitles)

***No spoilers***

I make no secret of my love for foreign language films. I really like to discover new ones, those where the actors are unknown to me, and the story has an unusual slant. On first sight, this modern Spanish thriller takes a theme we have seen before, the theft of a woman’s body from the morgue. Then we see some events in flashback, setting the scene for how the body arrived in the first place. The detective in charge of the case has many familiar traits. He lost his wife in an accident, went off the rails, and has recently returned to work after therapy. Starting to sound depressingly familiar, I know.

But don’t be fooled. This is a taut thriller with superb pacing, and little is as it seems to be on the surface. The young husband of the dead woman is brought in for questioning, as the police seek some background as a reason why the body may have been stolen. He’s not a likable man, and the detective distrusts him immediately. Add to that the viewer is privy to many details seen in those flashbacks, and we have a cat and mouse game on our hands as the husband and the cop lock in a battle of wits.

More backstory is thrown into the mix. The detective’s daughter is now living in Berlin, and he hardly sees her. The husband has a young lover, one of his university students. And a mysterious unseen person seems to know everything that happened, leaving tantalising clues around the police station, much to the consternation of the increasingly worried husband. During a night of torrential rain, storms, and power cuts, the story unfolds in just the right way, never revealing too much or too little. The viewer is left in no doubt what has really happened. Or are they?

The final scene is a twist that is simply masterful. I certainly didn’t get it, and the way it unfolds is beautifully done. I haven’t seen a better ending since ‘The Usual Suspects’, so that’s high praise indeed. One of the best mystery thrillers I have seen in years, and highly recommended, if you can tolerate the subtitles. Here’s a trailer.