Valley of the Gods

Josh Hartnett, Bérénice Marlohe and Keir Dullea

Valley of the Gods. What the hell was that? At around an hour in, Lech Majewski’s film starts to look like it’s developing a plot. But until then it’s been a series of scenes/scenarios/situations that don’t seem to be very connected at all.

In one we meet John (Josh Hartnett), a would-be writer trying to hash something out in the desert where the spirit of the Navajo are said to roam. In another a mute beggar on the street called Wes Tauros (John Malkovich), that rare thing – a beggar with a butler (Keir Dullea). Tauros is in fact not a beggar but the richest man in the world. In another a man called Tall Bitter Water, a spokesman for his fellow Native Americans anxious that his people come out at the right end of a deal currently being brokered by a company that wants to extract uranium from their land. And in another Karen Kitson (Bérénice Marlohe), a woman being sculpted into a facsimile of the rich man’s dead wife by a team of beauticians.

Things start to coalesce after the writer has a massive flame-out and winds up seeing a shrink (John Rhys-Davies), who suggests John start doing random things in an attempt to break his creative logjam. Which explains why John is next spotted bouldering out in the desert with all the pots and pans from his kitchen dangling beneath him on a rope. And why he is later walking blindfold backwards through a city street, where he narrowly escapes being knocked over by the same car as recently ran over the beggar/rich man, who is at this point sitting cross legged nearby and watching John’s progress.

John Malkovich
John Malkovich as the richest man in the world



John might have been called on to write Tauros’s biography, or what we’re watching might be the outpouring of his unblocked creativity, it isn’t really certain, but shots cutting back regularly to a furiously scribbling John out in the desert, shirtless, suggest something along those lines. The fact that Keir Dullea is in it, star of 2001: A Space Odyssey, immediately suggests Kubrick, and there is that definite detachment you get in a Kubrick film, though Majewski also has Paolo Sorrentino in his sights. This is a ravishing looking film with an operatic ambience, in other words, the cinematography (by Majewski and co-DP Pawel Tybora) making it worth a look alone.

Lovers of plot, forget it, this isn’t that sort of film. At one point a Rolls Royce Phantom V is launched into the night from a catapult made from drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci – that’s how rich Tauros is, and how rabid Majewski’s imagination.

For Malkovich all this sort of madcappery is business as usual, but for Hartnett it seems to be a dip back in the direction of oddball films like Lucky Number Slevin and I Come with the Rain which he started appearing in after deciding not to take the executive elevator to the Brad Pitt floor made available after the likes of actioner Black Hawk Down and romcom 40 Days and 40 Nights.

Majewski is a self-consciously arthouse director and everyone in this movie speaks in an arthouse movie way. Conversations never flow and consist mostly of non seqiturs. All apart from the Navajo, the only people who act and behave like rational human beings throughout. The land the uranium company wants to buy is called The Valley of the Gods, so it is their film, in a way.

“Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow,” quipped Noel Coward acidly when he saw the hot new talent on the set of 1965’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, but it’s Dullea who has the last laugh in this film. Almost. That privilege will probably go to the viewer who gets to the end, only to be confronted by a completely random shot of a giant baby stomping through the city and laying it waste. What the hell!





Valley of the Gods – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Wrath of Man

H with a gun


Wrath of Man is director Guy Ritchie and actor Jason Statham’s fourth collaboration since they both broke through in 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It’s a remake of the 2004 French movie Cash Truck and opens with the Metro Goldwyn Mayer logo emblazoned in orange lettering against a hazy cityscape. All very 1970s is the initial impression. And it turns out to be a correct impression since what we get with Wrath of Man is a cut and shut of two 1970s staples – the bank heist movie and the revenge thriller.

The joys of a Statham film come largely in having our expectations satisfied. He’s a trans-cinematic presence, reliably Statham, the bullethead taciturn badass, in pretty much everything he’s in, whether he’s fighting big fish (The Meg), driving fast cars (in various Fast and Furious films), or just staying alive (Crank).

He’s also very happy to play against his image, if the payback is worth it, and the early scenes of Wrath of Man sees a very subpar Statham taking a job at company specialising in the transit of money. Cash trucks.

There’s been a heist, people have been killed, and H (Statham) has been hired to make up the numbers in the security detail. H is not particularly good at shooting and backs off in when in a tight corner but he’s somehow just about squeaked the selection process. This being Statham, it can only be a matter of time before – to borrow the Unforgiven comparison – Clint straps the guns back on, right?

Josh Hartnett with a gun
No hero role for Hartnett



All is eventually revealed in a long central section explaining H’s “this time it’s personal” motivation and assembling a team of crooks for him to go up against, before the film reverts to type for its last third, a frenzy of bullets and badassery done at pace and with style.

The original French film was written by Nicolas Boukhrief and Éric Besnard, who specialise in crime, with Ritchie and rewriters Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson giving the whole thing a wipe over with a cloth drenched in raw masculinity.

Toff Guy is the name of Ritchie’s production company – he’s a posh boy and yet a geezer is the idea – and there’s a PhD somewhere to be written about Ritchie’s take on masculinity in all its big-bollocked swagger. Perhaps the lady doth protest too much, but at least Ritchie does it with a wink, I think – all his men here are dressed in black, permascowling, pitching their voices low – while the soundtrack (by Christopher Benstead) growls away and DP Alan Stewart sees how many lights he can turn off while keeping the image viable. If you see it at a cinema they’ll probably be pumping human growth hormone into the air con.

Both revenge and heist movies run on testosterone, so it makes sense. Even so, there’s a fair bit of overdoing it early on, with characters lining up like contestants in a stereotype badass competition, Statham winning with the line “Dave, you just worry about putting your arsehole back in your arsehole and leave it to me.”

The support players have also been chosen for their ability to suggest they’re endowed with particularly splendid cojones, though Josh Hartnett (edging his way back into Hollywood) is oddly cast as a bit of a whimpering wuss. Scott Eastwood, more often the hero like his dad, Clint, also plays against type and is actually very effective as the baddest of the bad.

Ritchie has dropped the adboy tics. There’s not a fast-edit montage to be seen in Wrath of Man, fanboys, and the film is all the better for it. He’s also lost a lot of the humour that has marked out his output. But he has kept his light touch, enabling the hugely digressive central section delivering oddles of backstory to be swallowed pretty much whole.

It’s much more meat and potatoes than the average Guy Ritchie movie, a lot less knowing than the usual Jason Statham movie, as if the pair of them were aiming at a remake of Assault on Precinct 13 with Charles Bronson starring. And its “more in sorrow than in anger” attitude to the loss of human life is a departure too. Maybe they’re growing up.




Wrath of Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2021







I Come with the Rain

Josh Hartnett

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 August

 

Beginning of the Philippine Revolution, 1896

On this day in 1896, the Cry of Pugad Lawin, or Balintawak, took place. It marked the opening phase of the revolution in the Philippines against Spanish colonial rule, and refers to the skirmish between the Katipunan secret society – under Andres Bonifacio – and the Civil Guard loyal to the colonising power. The actual date of the “Cry” is disputed; it used to be officially marked on 26 August but since 1963 has been officially remembered on this day, when Katipuneros gathered in the Kalookan area and tore up their tax certificate, a “no taxation without representation” moment, to the accompaniment of patriotic cries to revolt. The “cry” itself (“grito” in Spanish) refers to the act of declaration – whether it is vocal, written or even psychological – and marks the “enough is enough” Rubicon that separates a law-abiding citizen from one who is determined to act against their oppressor. By 1898, Spanish military rule had officially ended in the Philippines. By 1902, the Philippines had fought and lost a war against the USA and had fallen under a new colonial power.

 

 

 

I Come with the Rain (2009, dir: Tran Anh Hung)

This is a recommendation for a very messy film, but one packed with such tantalising ingredients that it’s really worth a look. Or feasting your eyes on, because it’s that sort of film too. And it stars Hollywood’s own Josh Hartnett – who after the romantic comedy 40 Days and Nights in 2002 seemed to decide that he’d go off and plough a lonelier furrow than the one Hollywood had in mind. Well, here it is – long, deep and windy and very lonely, a thriller by the arthouse Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, shot largely in the Philippines but set largely in Hong Kong, and starring Hartnett – one of the few Western faces – as a detective heading to Hong Kong to find an heir to a Big Pharma corporation. When he gets there he learns that the son has become a faith healer who is literally taking on the diseases of all who attend his mobbed clinic, and is breaking out in stigmatic bleeding as he does so. Can the detective find him or will a local gangster (Lee Byung-hun) looking for his beautiful drug-addict girlfriend (Tran Nu Yen Khe) get there first?
The hunt for a charismatic leader who has built a new society with himself installed as a kind of Christ, this sounds like Apocalypse Now, to a degree, and Tran goes along with the notion, throwing in Elias Koteas as a babbling madman, explaining, excusing, mythologising, muddying the plot as a serial killer anchored in Los Angeles, which surely means he has no real connection to the rest of the film. The film also is like that, deliberately messing with space, logic and timelines in an attempt to lock-step with the messianic supernatural side of things.
Don’t expect to always understand what’s going on, in other words, and you’re also going to have to roll over and accept the massive and repeated use of sheer coincidence as a plot device. But some things are abundantly clear. We have no problem knowing who the bad guys are, for instance. We also cannot fail to be impressed with the visual beauty of the film, which astonishes at every turn, almost every shot composed in terms of colour, composition, light/shade and camera movement with a meticulousness which must have been maddening for anyone other than Tran. Some of the violence is bravura stuff that has already made its way into other more mainstream films. The scene where a victim is encouraged to get into a body bag, before he is beaten to death with a hammer while zipped inside. Neat and tidy brutality, that’s the way to do it, and with a metaphysical ironic joke for fun. Then there’s the car chase – the director of the achingly lambent Scent of Green Papaya showing he’s not just a pretty scenarist with a high speed chase in reverse. The scene where a bad guy shoots someone’s dog then uses it as a cudgel to beat its owner (yes, that’s the same ironic idea as the body bag, but let’s award marks for variety).
It’s a weird film, a beautiful one and, ladies and bents, Mr Hartnett takes his shirt off a lot to add a further layer of entertainment that Tran’s camera or the Radiohead soundtrack haven’t already provided.
I’d gone into this film having heard it was lousy and was shocked at how good it is. Not perfect but messy, as I say, or “a baroque action film” as Tran describes it. Most cop movies are about the imposition of order on chaos. Tran’s not sure it’s that simple.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Hartnett on the road less travelled
  • The cinematography of Juan Ruiz Anchía
  • Gustavo Santaolalla’s soundtrack (with Radiohead assists)
  • Koteas’s mad Taxi Driver-meets-Marlon Brando performance

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

I Come with the Rain – Watch it now at Amazon