COLD COMES THE NIGHT (15)
Directed by: Tze Chun
Starring: Alice Eve, Bryan Cranston, Logan Marshall-Green, Ursula Parker
Star rating: * *
Walter White, Breaking Bad’s cancer-riddled chemistry teacher turned crystal meth-cooking crime kingpin, Bryan Cranston has enjoyed one of the most remarkable onscreen character transformations in recent memory. Stomach-churningly compelling, the basic idea of watching a protagonist gradually becoming the antagonist may be smack-your-head-simple, but the sheer hubris of the character is what makes him so endlessly rich and fascinating. Here’s a guy, for instance, who actually is smarter than the criminal element with which he’s now fraternizing and yet he’s also so blinded by that intelligence that he repeatedly fails to see that human behaviour is too unpredictable for him to be able to control the outcome of his actions with any certainty. (Not for nothing did the show’s irony loving creator Vince Gilligan have Walt choose “Heisenberg” as the name of his criminal alter ego.) That’s the beauty of American television at the moment, though: talented writers, directors and actors not only have the time, but also the inclination to explore characters in more complex ways.
Sadly, that impulse doesn’t seem to exist in Cranston’s new film, Cold Comes The Night. A wannabe gritty genre piece of the sort John Dahl (The Last Seduction) and Carl Franklin (the Billy Bob Thornton-scripted One False Move) used to excel at making in the early 1990s, it finds him playing the umpteenth variation of a bad man finding a modicum of redemption (breaking good if you will), but offers so little for him to sink his teeth into – beyond giving him a literal reason for adopting a dead-eyed stare – that he has to resort to chewing scenery with a comically thick Russian accent.
Why Russian? Who knows? There’s certainly nothing about the story that requires him to be of Soviet stock. Even his character’s name, Topo, makes him sound more Spanish than Slavic. The moniker, however, is appropriate in other ways. Spanish for “mole”, Topo has similarly impaired visual acuity, making him next to useless for his chosen career as a mob hitman. He’s managed to keep this a secret from his employers, though, which is why, despite the fact he’s also getting on in years, he’s sent on a job to retrieve a bag full of cash.
Of course nothing is that simple in these kinds of stories and nor is it here: On Topo’s way back with the loot, the driver he’s recruited – his young, reckless nephew to whom he feels only antipathy – convinces him to make a rest-stop in a sleazy motel, an error of judgment that costs Topo dearly when his nephew gets himself shot by a hooker and a crooked cop (played by Logan Marshall-Green) confiscates their vehicle and steals the money.
All this set-up is really just a way to place Topo in the path of Chloe (Alice Eve), the young single mother who runs the motel. She’s on the verge of losing custody of her daughter because a nasty woman from child services has deemed a known hangout for prostitutes turning tricks an inappropriate place to raise a kid. The fact that writer/director Tze Chun has to resort to demonising a social worker in order to get us on Chloe’s side from the off should give you some indication of the lack of subtlety in his approach.
As with Cranston’s character, Chloe doesn’t seem particularly believable, less so when Topo takes her hostage and forces her to help him retrieve the money from Billy (Marshall-Green), with whom she has an ongoing, if ambiguous, relationship.
It’s this inability to successfuly develop the characters in an interesting manner that ultimately makes Cold Comes the Night such a bore to sit through. The opening shot of money swirling around in the wind may intentionally tip us off to the fact that things aren’t going to turn out well for everyone, but if a filmmaker isn’t going to subvert genre tropes in artistic ways (as Nicolas Winding Refn and Quentin Tarantino frequently do), they should at least populate a familiar – if resilient – plot with engaging characters so it becomes more than just an exercise.
In recent years, Oscar-nominated indie films such as Winter’s Bone and Frozen River have shown it’s possible to make tough, no-nonsense genre movies in which the characters feel wholly embedded in, and influenced by, their surroundings. Alas, Chun – also a Sundance graduate (his debut film Children of Invention played at the indie film festival in 2009) – hasn’t really laid that kind of groundwork.
There’s no sense of place and so, save for a fleeting moment of greatness midway through involving Billy and his strung-out wife (played by Sarah Sokolovic), the film’s two leads end up feeling like generic archetypes dropped into a generic world. At this stage in his career, Cranston surely deserves better from cinema than this.
The Call (15)
Directed by: Brad Anderson
Starring: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Evie Thompson, Morris Chestnut
Star rating; * * *
Since winning her Oscar, Halle Berry has appeared in so many rubbish genre films that have flirted with – and in some cases achieved – straight-to-DVD ignominy that describing her latest such effort as above average might sound like a case of damning with faint praise. Nevertheless, there is something endearing about the lack of pretension on display in The Call.
Essentially an amalgam of B-movie king Larry Cohen’s script for the 2004 thriller, Cellular, with a dash of Silence of the Lambs and a spot of Psycho thrown in, it casts Berry as an emergency switchboard operator (replete with personal hang-ups) who takes a panicked 911 call from a teen girl as she’s being abducted by a suspected serial killer. From this, director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) manages to craft a terrifically taut 45-minute manhunt through the sprawling streets of LA as Berry’s operator attempts to keep the victim (played by Abigail Breslin) calm enough to help her guide the police to her abductor’s on-the-go location. It’s only when The Call attempts to progress beyond the parameters it has set itself that things start to fall apart a little – although even then the ludicrous nature of the finale proves entertainingly loopy.
Directed by: Stephen Finnigan
Star rating: * * *
Perhaps it was too much to hope that a documentary portrait of Stephen Hawking would be approached in a way that was more commensurate with this extraordinary man’s life and achievements – but was there really any need to make Hawking quite so ordinary?
Given plenty of access to its subject, Stephen Finnigan’s film may capture the daily trials The Brief History of Time author has been subjected to since
motor neurone disease gradually began imprisoning his astonishing mind in a malfunctioning body, but it’s still too reliant on mixing talking-head interviews with archival footage. Luckily, Hawking is a star who can’t be diminished – even by hokey filmmaking techniques and a friendship with Jim Carrey (who gets way too much time in the film to wax dull about what good a sense of humour Hawking has).
Narrating his own story in his familiar computer-generated tones, Hawking articulates an astonishing tale of
human endeavour in which he has constantly strived to unlock the secrets of the universe while being locked in his own near-constant race against time.
Directed by: Kim Ki-duk
Starring: Choi Min-soo, Lee Jung-jin, Woo Gi Hong
Star rating: * * *
Having filmed himself undergoing what appeared to be a mental breakdown in his pseudo documentary, Arirang, South Korean director Kim Ki-duk
returns to the realm of fiction with Pieta – a twisted revenge effort in which the pitiless world view of The Isle and Bad Guy seems to have returned intact.
It revolves around Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), an enforcer for a loan shark who makes clients take out insurance policies so he can cripple them and collect on the payout when they fail to pay the exorbitant interest rates.
A blunt but effective metaphor for the way that unregulated capitalism can crush those at the bottom, this premise takes on stranger overtones when a woman claiming to be Kang-do’s mother turns up and refuses to leave him alone. Begging his forgiveness for abandoning him as a child, she develops a weird incestuous bond with the hitherto emotionally deadened Kang-do that gradually leaves him vulnerable enough to experience the pain he’s inflicted on others.
Metro Manila (15)
Directed by: Sean Ellis
Starring: Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega, John Arcilla
Star rating: * * * *
With his third feature, Brit director Sean Ellis (Cashback, The Broken) comes good with his first foray into foreign- language filmmaking. Set in the titular region of the Philippines, Metro Manila sees him putting a social realist spin on the heist movie with engrossing results.
A classic story of desperate people forced into a terrible situation, it revolves around Oscar (the excellent Jake Macapagal), a farmer who moves his young family from the country to the Filipino capital in search of a better life. Unfortunately, things aren’t much better in a city in which everyone seems to be a paycheque away from destitution and, despite landing a job as an armoured truck driver, he becomes increasingly indebted to a
co-worker whose initial kindness towards his family has ulterior motives. Ellis is good at conveying a sense of hopelessness without wallowing in misery as he takes care to use his protagonists’ plight to create drama instead of using it to score points for being worthy. But it’s the way he subtly blends in an unpredictable action thriller element to the story that makes this really stand out, leading to a twist that’s as moving as it is surprising.
Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Starring: Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews, Douglas Hodge
Star rating: *
Oh dear. The people’s biopic presumably intended to conjure some Downton-ish opulence, but becomes mired in terminally bland and credulous territory – almost a prequel to that risible Wills-and-Kate TV movie. The misguided startpoint is to reframe Di (Naomi Watts) as a posher Bridget Jones: a bit dizzy – and clueless in the kitchen – but sensitive and yearning, qualities she would take into her covert 1995 fling with Hasnat Khan (Andrews), a worldly heart surgeon straight out of Mills & Boon.
The morbid weirdness dissipates early, after which we’re confronted with the year’s direst script, forever prioritising gabbled incident – tiffs with “Buck House”! Landmines! Dodi! – over genuine insight. Banal framing kills off its every simpering or ripe line of dialogue: Khan’s post-coital warning, “If you can’t stand the fragrance, don’t go into the garden of love” comes one minute after he’s treated Di to her first Chicken Cottage supper. In a year, enterprising drag acts will be hosting quote-along screenings everywhere. For now, it needs leaving well alone – or do you want a Fergie movie on your conscience?