More overrated actors

Last year, I wrote some posts about overrated and underrated actors and actresses. My opinions were just that of course, my own opinions. However, those posts were well-received, and did generate some debate. I promised to add more, but became consumed with posting photos, and compiling A-Z challenges, so I didn’t get around to it. Some of the choices that follow are bound to be controversial. I know in advance that I am in danger of naming some names that are currently unassailable, cinematic icons to many viewers.

But anyway, here goes nothing…

In another post, I nominated ‘Blade Runner’ as my (current) best film of all time. So, you might be surprised to find Harrison Ford on this list. But I never liked that film because of him, although it might be his best role to date. Like many other stars, including many that I really like, Ford tends to play himself, whatever the role. The problem is that he is not that interesting. Whether being an action hero in ‘Star Wars’ or the ‘Indiana Jones’ films, or the solid policeman John Book in ‘Witness’, Harrison is always Harrison, just wearing different clothes. In his romantic dramas, he still comes across as a caring cop, or someone from the Secret Service. He has certainly avoided typecasting over the decades, but it made little difference. He was and always will be Harrison Ford, whether in a film, or walking down a street.

Tom Hanks is loved by millions. He has played everything from a tough army officer in ‘Saving Private Ryan’, to a clownish cop in love with his dog, in ‘Turner and Hooch’. He has grown up in the industry, going on to play serious roles in later life, in films such as ‘The Road To Perdition’, ‘Captain Phillips’, and ‘Sully’. His name can sell a film, endorse a franchise, and make millions of people get a warm glow inside. He is the new James Stewart, the all-American down-home boy who symbolises all that is good. Many of the films he has starred in have been excellent, and I confess to liking most of them a great deal. But other than ‘Big’ (1988), I never liked any of those films because of Hanks’ acting talent. I liked them for other things in them, and for the other cast members. Who doesn’t love ‘Turner and Hooch’? But it’s the dog we love, not the humans around it. Who do I remember most, in ‘Saving Private Ryan’? Barry Pepper, as Jackson the left-handed sniper. Giovanni Ribisi, as the medic Doc Wade. Joerg Stadler, as the German prisoner who returns to kill Stanley Mellish. That’s who, and because they were acting. Tom Hanks was being Tom Hanks, playing an army officer. Sorry Tom, it has never worked for me.

This post is not just about Americans though. Britain has its fair share of duds, playing to packed houses, loved and admired by legions of fans. But like those mentioned above, it becomes debatable whether or not they are good actors, or just bankable stars. Roger Moore died this year. Best known to most people for his numerous outings as James Bond, he was known to me from my childhood as ‘Ivanhoe’, the chivalrous knight in a long-running TV series. He later went on to star alongside Tony Curtis in ‘The Persuaders’, after becoming known nationally for his other TV character, ‘The Saint’. He starred in more than forty films, and almost all of them were awful, unable to be saved by his wooden presence, and trademark raised eyebrow. He started his career as a male model, featured on knitting patterns.
He should have stayed there.

Being voted ‘The World’s Sexiest Man’, or being in the list of the ‘Top 50 Best Dressed Men’ might be something to aspire to. Also being undeniably good-looking and attractive to women doesn’t hurt. But in my book, that’s not enough to make you a great actor, not even an average one. That the British star Henry Cavill seems to have been able to use those social credentials to achieve some status as an actor is beyond my comprehension. I won’t even list the lamentable catalogue of films that have launched him into star status, but suffice to say that I have watched only one of them, ‘The Cold Light Of Day’, where he is forgettable, in a below-par film, opposite Bruce Willis. Sorry Henry, your credentials just don’t add up.

Just one more to close this particular post, but there will be more to come, I’m sure.

I will close with another controversial submission. Leonardo DiCaprio showed great promise as a child actor. He starred in two of my favourite modern American dramas, ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’, and ‘This Boy’s Life’. He seems like a nice man, and has apparently avoided the personality defects that have afflicted so many actors who started as children. However, I just don’t get him. Take ‘Gangs of New York’ as an example. He was totally unsuited to the role, and playing opposite acting heavyweights like Daniel Day Lewis, Jim Broadbent, and Brendan Gleeson, his shortcomings left me feeling embarrassed to watch his scenes. Adored by Scorsese, he was launched into films that he just didn’t sit right in, like ‘The Departed’, where he was once again acted off the screen by Jack Nicholson (who will feature later) and -almost unbelievably- by Mark Wahlbergh too.
In ‘The Aviator’, he completely failed to convince me that he was Howard Hughes, even though the film was stylish, and very good to look at. I have yet to see ‘The Revenant’, for which he won a Golden Globe. But when I do get around to watching it, that will be because Tom Hardy is in it. And he is a very good actor indeed. Sorry, Leo (and sorry Cindy…) but you are on my list.

Feel free to agree (or disagree 🙂 ) in the comments below.

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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.

Just been watching…(48)

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.

Significant Songs (139)

Praise You

The DJ/ Producer Fatboy Slim started his career as Norman Cook, part of the British group, The Housemartins. They had a big hit with ‘Happy Hour’, in 1986, but split two years later. Cook went on to form Beats International, and the rest of the band formed the moderately successful ‘The Beautiful South’, around the same time.

Norman Cook endured longer, marrying TV personality Zoe Ball, in 1999, as well as carving out a career as a renowned record producer and DJ that continues to this day. He constantly changed styles, and names, until he became established as Fatboy Slim, very much part of the British musical establishment.

I didn’t care too much for him, or his music, to be honest. I mostly found him quite irritating, and had never bought any of his records. Then in late 1999, I saw a video on TV. it was for his latest release, ‘Praise You’, and was directed by film-maker Spike Jonze. It had also reached the number one spot in the UK charts, and I found I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Cook is still working as a DJ, as well as writing and producing for other artists. In 2016, he performed at the Glastonbury Festival. But this was his finest hour, as far as I am concerned.

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.

Textual frustration

I was watching a drama on television recently. It was pretty good, and I was enjoying it. As the climax approached, the police officer received a text. It was briefly flashed on screen, but too small for me to see it clearly. She replied, and her colleague acted on that reply, which was also quickly shown on the screen. But I was left wondering what each had sent to the other, and why the colleague did what he did, as a response to her reply.

This is nothing new. No doubt attempting to reflect the trend of mobile phone use in society as a whole, text messages are becoming an important part of TV shows and films. Everything from dull soap-operas to mainstream blockbusters are having huge chunks of their plot played out on tiny phone screens. In some cases, the whole story-line is a series of ‘to and from’ texts, and in extreme examples, even the ending of a drama is only disclosed by way of a message sent, or received.

OK, I am old now, I admit that. But so is a huge percentage of the viewing public. We don’t all see as well as we once did, and cannot always react as quickly to a message flashed briefly on a screen. We all know that people send and receive texts, they are part of modern life. But do they have to feature so heavily in television and film drama? Countless films and dramas were made (mostly better ones too) before the portable phone was ever conceived, let alone invented. They sometimes relied on notes left at a scene, a letter received, a transcript from an interview, or court proceedings. But they were shown clearly on screen, and lingered long enough to read properly, without slowing down the action.

The BBC series ‘Sherlock’ dealt with the electronic age so well. Text messages, emails, and computer searches were all flashed up on the screen alongside the action in equal proportion. They were easy to read, and stayed around long enough to make sense of what they said. Surely this idea could be adapted to all TV drama, and most films too?

If this carries on, I will be at a loss to work out what is happening in so many programmes and films, it will hardly be worth my while bothering to watch anything. Anyone else annoyed about this?

No? Just me then…

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.