Hae a Taste a’ This: Welcome to the Punch Now on DVD

James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Welcome to the Punch, movie

courtesy IFC Films via imdb

It’s  a safe bet that you missed Eran Creevy’s action thriller Welcome to the Punch when  it was in the theaters last Spring, at least here in the US. Luckily, it has just become available on dvd. If you’re a fan of  British crime flicks, the neo-noir stylings of Michael Mann, the frenetic style of crime thrillers by the late Tony Scott (whose brother Sir Ridley exec. produced here) or Asian crime thrillers like Infernal Affairs (Creevy made Welcome to the Punch as an homage to that film), then you’re going to want to check this out, and since one of the film’s stars (and one of our favorites), Mark Strong, is going to be on my tv for the next nine weeks in AMC’s gritty new drama, “Low Winter Sun”, it would seem now is an ideal time to talk about the movie.

Synopsis:

Former criminal Jacob Sternwood is forced to return to London from his Icelandic hideaway when his son is involved in a heist gone wrong. This gives detective Max Lewinsky one last chance to catch the man he has always been after. As they face off, they start to uncover a deeper conspiracy they both need to solve in order to survive.

Writer/director Creevy made a bold entrance with his first feature, Shifty, a minor hit in the UK produced for next to nothing and earning a BAFTA nomination. Welcome to the Punch is his ultra-stylish sophomore effort.  Taking place almost totally at night, there are several slick and violent set pieces filmed by Creevy’s Shifty cinematographer Ed Wild against the backdrop of London’s Canary Wharf and colored in various shades of blue. Visually, it reminded me of Heat and Thief (both by the aforementioned Michael Mann), thematically, it’s very much like the former.

Alongside Strong, the hyper-talented cast includes James McAvoy (who between the trifecta of Welcome to the Punch, Trance and the upcoming Filth, might finally be able to leave Mr. Tumnus* behind – at least in my mind), Andrea Riseborough, David Morrissey, Shifty star Daniel Mays, Jason Flemyng (whose apparent goal is to be in every Brit crime movie made in his lifetime), Ruth Sheen, the fabulous Johnny Harris (who looks like and sounds so much like a younger Eddie Marsan that I had to keep reminding myself that he wasn’t Eddie Marsan) and Peter Mullan, who should just be in everything. (That he wasn’t Emmy-nominated alongside Elisabeth Moss for “Top of the Lake” is pure sacrilege.)

The film opens with career criminal Jacob Sternwood (Strong) and his gang pulling off yet another high tech, meticulously planned bank heist. McAvoy’s detective Max Lewinsky is on hard on his tail, but ends up with a debilitating bullet to the knee, thanks to Sternwood, who gets away yet again.


courtesy IGN via YouTube

Flash forward three years and it is Sternwood’s son Ruan (Elyes Gabel), who sets the game in motion yet again. We see Sternwood living the life of a retired bank robber in Iceland (and keeping himself mighty fit too, thank you Giacomo Farci**). A phone call from his son shatters the quiet, if not altogether happy or content, illusion of safety he’s created.

Lewinsky, still suffering the consequences, both physical and emotional, of letting Sternwood get away, has a chance to redeem himself by luring Sternwood back to London to save Ruan, who has followed his father into the family business.

Max’s immediate supervisor, Nathan Bartnick (Mays), constantly reminds him that it was his impulsiveness that nearly got him killed. His partner, Sarah (Riseborough) wants to be supportive, but he shuts her out instead of showing her the ropes. Max’s superior and former mentor Thomas Geiger (Morrissey) appears to have his back, but then nothing is as it seems, is it?

The script may be a bit trite,  corrupt police and politicos and the little people who get in their way, but if it doesn’t necessary bring anything new to the table, the presentation is well worth your time.

The modernization of London is a theme so sharply angled construction sites overlook both sleek modern buildings like the bank in which the film opens and the rain-soaked metallic shine of industrial areas, like the container yard central to the plot and from which the film gets its name. The cool blue lighting, both inside a dim and deserted club and outside lit everywhere by neon, works with the muzzle flashes from copious amounts of gunfire to heighten the tension and add to the thrill.

This is definitely style over substance. As I said the plot isn’t going to tax anyone’s synapses too heavily. Creevy even uses Geiger to lay out the entire story for those in need of a catch-up. I will say, however, that he has given his cast a lot of credit and trusts them to do most of the heavy lifting in terms of character development.

A tilt of the head from Strong at the beginning and we know Sternwood’s assessing the risk between leaving Lewinsky hobbled or killing him outright. The fact that he leaves him alive speaks volumes about Sternwood. Even with everything that comes after, it’s not a decision that he regrets.

I actually like that we don’t know the exact nature of Max’s relationship with Sarah. Sure, they’re partners, but has it always been strictly professional? Would one or both of them like it to be otherwise? Again, it’s what isn’t said that gives us the clues.

Johnny Harris’ heavy Dean Warns could have been a mindless thug and gotten the job done, but he spits out a particularly memorable line of dialogue and from those few words, layers of the character peel away. We may see mayhem and violence, but he sees honor and duty.

Sadly, Peter Mullan doesn’t have a lot to do, but then I’m just greedy. His Roy Edwards is Sternwood’s partner in crime and BFF. He does get one of the best lines in the movie: (to Sternwood) “I can shave this {goatee}, but you’ll still look like a bag of smashed crabs”. Funny, but imagine it said in Mullan’s whisky and cigarette smoke-shrouded Scots burr.

The movie of course belongs to McAvoy and Strong. McAvoy very convincingly conveyed his desperation and determination to capture Sternwood and his frustration at being hobbled by the constraints of his superior officers as well as his physical limitations. His howl of pain when he isn’t able to literally pursue his quarry is gut-wrenching.

As for Mark Strong, it should come as no surprise that he very ably gives us a man who is both capable of cold, calculated violence and of being a worried and loving father.  We, like Max, feel his anguish and know his tears and his pain are genuine when he learns of his son’s death, as well as the guilt for having led him down the path to that morgue. What is the real treat here is that Strong is the co-lead. It’s rare that we get so much of him in one film. As his profile has increased, Strong’s film roles have taken him all over the world. He nearly missed the birth of his youngest son because he was in Morocco making Body of Lies, so he takes smaller roles which mean less time away from home. Welcome to the Punch was made in his backyard. (As far as I’m concerned, if it means we get more Mark Strong, all movies can be British movies.)

Welcome to the Punch had a larger budget than Creevy’s first film, so of course, the expectations were higher. If Punch didn’t exceed those expectations, neither did it squander Creevy’s evident potential and I look forward to his next film. In the meantime, Welcome to the Punch is a fun little thriller whose cast is so good that the movie will bear repeat viewings just to watch them work.

JMHO, but I give it 3 & ½ hobbes 2 (out of 5).   What did you think? Agree? Disagree? Let me hear it.

*Mr. Tumnus was an anthropomorphic faun, McAvoy’s character in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

**Giacomo Farci is Mark Strong’s personal trainer

Trailer or Spoiler #2: First Look at Paranoia

Gary Oldman, Liam Hemsworth, Harrison Ford, Paranoia

image courtesy Relativity Media

In the second installment of what I’ve decided needs to be a recurring series, we take a look at the first trailer for Paranoia, the latest from hit-or-miss director Robert Luketic.  It stars Liam Hemsworth, who has yet to prove to me (or most everyone else) that he’s more than just a pretty face, alongside heavy-lifters Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford. (It’s also only the latest film to be titled thusly. Imdb lists 36)

Before we take a look at the trailer, here’s a little background: When I say Luketic  is “hit-or-miss”, I mean that his biggest hit to date remains his first film, Legally Blonde from 2001 with Reese Witherspoon.  Then came negotiations to direct the rebooted “Dallas”, but instead he followed up with Win a Date with Tad Hamilton starring Topher Grace, Kate Bosworth and Josh Duhamel (in his first feature) and Monster-in-Law with JLo and Jane Fonda trying to out-diva each other.  After those two gems came a fairly well regarded drama, 21 (more on that in a moment) and a little comedy called The Ugly Truth, a film I liked for a number of reasons, not just the obvious  (remember, ARLTG*). But then he followed that one up with the execrable Killers starring his TUT leading lady, Katherine Heigl (utterly drained of charm) and the perfectly-suited-to-television-so-let’s-leave-him-there,  Ashton Kutcher.

Paranoia is Luketic’s first film since Killers and his second with ties to Boston. It’s based on the book by Boston-based writer Joseph Finder. The first, 21, with Kevin Spacey and the crushable Jim Sturges (and again Kate Bosworth – he’s like Hitchcock with those blondes *cough*), was based on a true story written by a Bostonian about MIT students taking down Vegas casinos and partially filmed here.  If it ever gets off the ground, Luketic ‘s next flick will be a thriller about jewel thieves called Brilliant. It was initially supposed to film here in Boston with Gerard Butler in the lead**.  Its current status is unknown.

Harrison Ford, Liam Hemsworth, Paranoia

courtesy Relativity Media

Having said all of that, what is Paranoia about? Here’s the official synopsis:

In this high-stakes thriller, Adam Cassidy (Hemsworth) is a regular guy trying to get ahead in his entry-level job at Wyatt Corporation. But after one costly mistake, Adam’s ruthless CEO, Nicholas Wyatt (Oldman), forces him to spy on corporate rival, Jock Goddard (Ford), Wyatt’s old mentor. Adam soon finds himself occupying the corner office and living the life he only dreamed of. However, behind the scenes, he is simply a pawn in Wyatt’s corporate game and realizes he must ultimately find a way out from under his boss who will stop at nothing, even murder, to win a multi-billion dollar advantage.

In addition to Oldman, Ford and Hemsworth, the movie stars Amber Heard, Richard Dreyfus, Josh Holloway, Embeth Davidtz, Julian McMahon, Lucas Til and Angela Sarafyan. That’s a pretty damn good cast working with some pretty good source material. The screenplay was written by Barry Levy, who wrote the underrated Vantage Point, directed by Pete Travis*, and Jason Dean Hall.

So what did they do with it? Take a look at this:

(via Movie Clips Trailers)

Now, I ask you. Was that designed merely to tease, or is that the entire movie compressed into 2 ½ minutes? Is there anything still left to learn or can you extrapolate everything you need from the footage provided by the first trailer?

JMHO, but there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before in dozens of other generic, corporate espionage thrillers. All that’s different is the technology, which was probably dated as soon as filming wrapped.  Released on a weekend typically reserved for bone-headed action films like The Expendables, getting butts in theater seats for this one, in the middle of summer, is going to depend heavily on the name brand recognition of the cast, at least in terms of adults. For the teens still out of school, there’s Hemsworth playing the wide-eyed innocent from the wrong side of the tracks (see Jim Sturges in 21). It’s not coincidence that Liam and his blue eyes introduce the first trailer as it appeared on Yahoo Movies. (Bit of trivia, Hemsworth was in The Expendables 2 last August.)

Personally, Gary Oldman is an actor I’d pay to see read the phonebook and I’m looking forward to watching him, along with Harrison Ford, make a meal out of the scenery, so I’m in. I’m also just superficial enough to enjoy the superficial joys inherent in a shirtless Liam Hemsworth emerging from a swimming pool. (Speaking of pools, that family has some seriously attractive DNA. Am I right?)

Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Paranoia

image courtesy Relativity Media

Liam Hemsworth Paranoia

image courtesy Relativity Media

Bottom line, despite the fact that there are undoubtedly NO surprises to be found after that trailer, I think what we’re left with will be entertaining nonetheless.

Paranoia will be released in the US on August 16.  What do you think? Will this one bring you out of the hot sun to sit in the darkened chill of a movie theater or has it been spoiled so badly you’ll wait for dvd or even cable?

Thanks for reading. Check out the pics from filming in Philly, July 2012, below.

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*All Roads Lead to G (erard Butler).

**Again exhibiting his propensity for recasting actors he’s worked with in the past, the role in Paranoia played by Gary Oldman, Nicholas Wyatt, was first offered to Kevin Spacey.

Stoker: The Latest Hitchcock Homage

Stoker poster - Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode

In 2012 there were two movies based on the life of master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. The first was “The Girl”, a made-for-HBO flick that focused on Hitchcock’s relationship with Tippi Hedren during the making of The Birds and later, Marnie. The second was simply titled, Hitchcock, and it focused more on the director’s relationship with his wife Alma Reveille during the making of Psycho.

Hitchcock, arguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and his work continue to fascinate audiences and influence other movie makers nearly thirty-three years after his death.

The latest quasi-homage is Korean director Chan-wook Park’s  (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) long awaited English-language debut, the ultra-creepy Stoker, which bowed at Sundance at the end of January. Reactions seemed to be generally enthusiastic with little gray area. Screeners either loved it or hated it. Variety, for one, loved it, calling Stoker a  “…splendidly demented gumbo of Hitchcock thriller, American Gothic fairy tale and a contemporary kink all Park’s own…”  The Wrap’s Alonso Duralde however, calls it “silly melodrama” and “self-parody”.  Having just seen it for myself, I think that the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Stoker is a tale of psychological as well as physical terror that follows India Stoker, played  by a brilliant Mia Wasikowska, an introverted young girl (woman?) whose personal and sexual awakening arrives with the unraveling of a macabre family mystery involving the death of her beloved father “by a cruel twist of fate” and the arrival of her seemingly charming uncle (Matthew Goode).  It’s a sort of Gothic version of “Hamlet” with India as both the Danish prince and Ophelia, since as soon as Charlie arrives he appears to start to romance her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman).

First-time screenwriter Wentworth Miller (yes, that Wentworth Miller), admits to having been influenced not only by  Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” but by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.  His script landed on the 2010 Black List*

Take a look at the first domestic  trailer:

Before we even see her, we hear Kidman’s sigh, followed by scenes of idyllic family life as she begins, “You know I’ve often wondered why it is we have children and the conclusion I’ve come to is we want someone to get it right this time. But not me.” Then we see her face, “Personally, speaking I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart,” That is one hell of a (terrifying) opening.

I think the UK trailer manages to outcreep that one.  If the domestic version made it seem like Kidman was the villainess, this one puts that into doubt and emphasizes how truly bizarre Wasikowska’s India actually is:

Park is known for gore, shocking twists and expressive visuals. A film maker as non-conventional as he is would appear to be taking a step toward the conventional with Stoker given the increased budget and big name Western cast, but it’s a baby step. The visuals, including the fast forward and stop-motion photography and the flashbacks that melt in and out of the present and the future, are impressive as well as expressive.  It’s rife with symbolism (flowers and India’s shoes, the spider that disappears under the hem of her skirt, the repeated close-ups of eggs) Park’s affinity for Hitchcock is obvious. He’s said that his interest in film making started with Vertigo. There can be no mistaking the references to not only Shadow of a Doubt, Goode’s character is “Uncle Charlie” after all, but he also bears physical resemblance to the star of Rope and Strangers on a Train, Farley Granger.  Costume designer’s Kurt & Bart had to have had not only the lanky build of both actors, but the sophisticated style of the costumes from both of those earlier films, in mind when clothing Goode. The movie looks at once modern and dated. It’s apparent that it’s set in the present, but is somehow askew. The people, places and things all seem like they come from an earlier time. The gorgeous (yet slightly crumbling) family manse is another character in the film and emphasizes the isolation and alienation of the people living in it.

There were all sorts of rumors surrounding the casting of this film. Every young actress in Hollywood was considered before Wasikowska got the role of India. At one time Clive Owen, Joel Edgerton and Michael Fassbender were attached as Charlie. Colin Firth was announced, but dropped out and Goode replaced him. I almost wish I didn’t know that as I watched the trailers. I couldn’t help but imagine what any of those actors would be like in the role. Watching the finished product however, none of them came to mind. Goode’s seductive Uncle Charlie more than made up for his lackluster Ozymandias (Watchmen). Kidman, no stranger to making eclectic films with some of the world’s most brilliant and controversial directors, beginning with Gus Van Sant (To Die For), Jane Campion (Portrait of a Lady), Lars von Trier (Dogville) to Lee Daniels (Paperboy), plays Evie Stoker as wound tighter than a drum. But while you think you know her at the beginning of the film, your perceptions will be turned on their head by the end of it.

The supporting cast is steller as well. Dermot Mulroney appears as the deceased Stoker patriarch.  Jacki Weaver, Oscar nominated for Animal Kingdom and Silver Linings Playbook is ill-fated Aunt Gwen. Alden Ehrenreich, who can be seen in Beautiful Creatures and Lucas Till from X-Men: First Class also appear.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Aunt Gwen is “ill-fated” since that’s pretty much given away in the trailer, but I will say that this movie has a high body-count. Take a closer look at that poster up top. The three attractive actors look like a prettier version of the Addams Family. It certainly emphasizes the “American Gothic” aspect that Variety mentioned. (“Do N0t Disturb the Family”? How about the rest of us?) What saves a film chock full of images including blood-spattered wild flowers, ritualistic bonfires, clandestine burials and actors who all look like they are both driving someone and being driven mad, from tipping over into the land of either full-on gruesome or parody is the feeling they’re all in on the joke.  As the tension mounts and more of Charlie’s motivations as well as modus operandi are revealed along with India’s less than typical reactions to them, the film walks the tightrope between suspense and camp mostly by virtue of the terrific performances from the three leads.

In one of the film’s best and most powerful scenes, Uncle Charlie joins India at the piano. We’ve already seen him “playing with” her mother, tentatively. She thinks she’s “teaching him”.  Charlie and India, however, play a complex and hypnotic duet that is clearly meant to suggest something besides piano playing. (The duet composed by Philip Glass for the film is stunning. Wasikowska took three months of intensive lessons to believably play it onscreen.) The next thing we know she’s out trying to seduce the local bad boy. Their date does not go well. India ends up in the shower in a scene that dissolves from Hitchcockian to DePalma-esque.

Nothing ever happens exactly like you think it will (or like the trailers and tv spots have led you to believe that they will.) The characters aren’t exactly likeable so we never really root for anyone, although I did “like” the ending. I can understand how some viewers would think the whole thing adds up to a visually exciting mess, but I can also side with those who thought it was brilliant fun. Park Chan-wook isn’t going to be everyone’s cuppa in any language (I’m looking forward to seeing what Spike Lee does with the American remake of Oldboy). I don’t think Stoker is a film I need to add to my collection, but I did enjoy it while I was watching it, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. While I don’t usually give a recommendation quite so ambivalent, I can recommend it, especially if you’re a fan of the original master, Alfred Hitchcock.

*An annual list of the best unproduced scripts circulating in Hollywood. See 2010’s here and marvel at how many you recognize as having been made since.