Tag: Peter Stormare

Chocolat (2000)

Juliette Binoche changes people’s lives with sweet treats in Chocolat

Director: Lasse Hallström

Cast: Juliette Binoche (Vianne Rocher), Judi Dench (Armande Voizin), Alfred Molina (Comte de Reynaud), Lena Olin (Josephine Muscat), Johnny Depp (Roux), Victoire Thivisol (Anouk Roucher), Hugh O’Conor (Pere Henri), Carrie-Anne Moss (Caroline Clairmont), Peter Stormare (Serger Muscat), Leslie Caron (Madame Audel), John Wood (Guillaume Blerot), Elisabeth Commelin (Yvette Marceau), Ron Cook (Alphonse Marceau)

In 1950s France, expert chocolatiere Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), and her six-year-old daughter Anouk (Victorire Thivisol) travel the country following the North Wind accompanied only by Anouk’s imaginary kangaroo. If that sentence alone has too much whimsy for your stomach to take, don’t invest two hours of your time in the rest of the film. Vianne and her daughter rock up in a very traditional town, run by the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), a stuffed-shirt who won’t admit his wife has left him. The austere Comte is horrified when Vianne’s sweet goodies prove super popular with the townspeople, whose lives suddenly start to change in profound and exciting ways as the quality of the chocolate helps them discover their own suppressed desires.

As if the title alone wasn’t enough of a warning, Chocolat is almost impossibly sweet, like being water-boarded by hot chocolate. Shot in a village that can only be described as chocolate box, it’s twee, sentimental and exhibits practically all the worst elements of cosy women’s fiction. With Miramax muscle behind it, this heavy-going confection briefly persuaded the world it was some sort of easy-going arthouse picture – rather than a smug fable of cliched situations and characters, coated in an unsettling number of scenes of actors eating chocolate with orgasmic grins.

It will not surprise you to hear that Vianne’s arrival in the village is the catalyst for huge change – the sort of change a trailer would surely describe as “their lives were all starters, until she showed them the importance of dessert”. Vianne is played by Juliette Binoche channelling Nigella Lawson as a yummy mummy domestic goddess. Her shop operates with the sort of business model that only exists in escapist fiction: customers spin a sort of Rorschach wheel and whatever they see in the picture decides the chocolate they will buy (no one would dare ask “Do you just have a box of milktray?”). The whimsy is nearly as thick as the molten goodies in the mixing bowl.

The village is stuffed with esteemed actors going through the motions. Judi Dench shows Maggie Smith that she can play crusty-old-women-with-hearts-of-gold as easily as her, as a grandmother who has been refused access to her grandson by his over-cautious mother. (It’s the sort of role people love to see veteran actors do, and duly landed Dench an Oscar-nomination). With some flatly written lines, Dench provides a bit of sparkle in a role she could play standing on her head. Carrie-Anne Moss is pretty good as her daughter, a repressed fusspot, who won’t let her son have fun. John Wood plays a crusty bachelor with the hots for war widow Leslie Caron. You don’t need to be a master confectioner to mix these ingredients together into the expected resolutions.

Hallström keeps events ticking gently along, in a film so soothing it seems designed to help you fall asleep. For a while Hallström was the go-to-guy for middle-brow, unimaginatively “prestige” adaptations of middle-brow, popular novels (this was his second after The Cider House Rules – and he had several to follow – each progressively a bit worse than the one before). The closest genuine emotion comes from Lena Olin’s abused wife of bullying café owner Peter Stormare. Sure, Olin’s problems are solved in about a few minutes, but the threat to her from Stormare is an intrusion of something that feels genuinely dramatic in what is otherwise a souffle. (Olin gets the film’s only memorable line, whacking her husband over the head when he attacks Vianne with the words “Who says I can’t use a skillet”, a line that’s both rather funny and bizarrely out of place.)

Naturally, the stuffy village learning needs to learn to cut lose a bit and embrace life, love and happiness. Alfred Molina’s Comte is the sort of chap who browbeats the local priest (who loves himself a bit of Elvis) into parroting the conservative sermons he’s written for him about the virtue of being miserable. Of course, the Comte is actually a decent guy (when he finds out what a bastard Stormare is, he banishes him at once), just old-fashioned and as much in need of the orgasmic power of chocolate to heal his pain as everyone else. Did Cadburys and Hersheys sponsor this film?

Just when you thought the film’s cosy warmth and supreme heritage gentleness couldn’t get more trying, it tops itself with the arrival of a punch of whimsical Romani people even more smackably smug than Vianne. Worst of all they are led by Johnny Depp at his most lazily teenage dream-boat, sporting a pony-tail and a bizarre Irish accent. He’s even more of a free-spirit than anyone else, strumming his guitar at the drop of his hat. You’ll dream of a hole in his boat taking him to the bottom of the Seine.

It all ends as you might expect: everyone discovers lovely things about themselves and each other, everyone settles down, Depp and Binoche get-it-on (and keep the relationship going as he drifts in-and-out town), the Comte becomes a top bloke and the invisible kangaroo skips away on the North Wind. Eat a box of Quality Street instead.

Armageddon (1998)

Bruce Willis leads a group of Big Damn Heroes in Michael Bay’s abysmal Armageddon

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Bruce Willis (Harry Stamper), Billy Bob Thornton (Dan Truman), Ben Affleck (AJ Frost), Liv Tyler (Grace Stamper), Will Patton (Chick Chapple), Steve Buscemi (Rockhound), William Fichtner (Colonel Sharp), Owen Wilson (Oscar Choice), Michael Clarke Duncan (Bear), Peter Stormare (Lev Andropov)

In Michael Bay’s space, no-one can hear you scream. But that’s only because it’s so damn loud up there. It’s 1998’s other “asteroid is going to wipe out humanity” film, the one that came out after Deep Impact but grossed more. NASA recruits ace driller Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his team (including Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan and Owen Wilson) to fly up to an asteroid the size of Texas, drill a hole in it, drop a massive nuke in and blow it into two bits that will bypass the Earth. Will humanity be saved? And will the tensions ever be resolved between Harry, his protégé AJ (Ben Affleck), and Harry’s daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) who, much against her dad’s will, wants to marry AJ? Houston, we have a problem.

Armageddon is the ultimate expression of Michael Bay’s style. With the camera swooping and rotating wildly around characters on the move, the fast-editing, the assault on the ears, the green-yellow-blue hue, every shot and line of dialogue in Armageddon feels like it was made to be inserted into a trailer. It’s an overlong onslaught (nearly two and a half hours) which rarely goes ten minutes without a sequence that features explosions, furious shouting and frantic camera movements. Most of the action in Armageddon is incoherent and the film rather neatly replicates the experience of being actually hit by a meteor.

For many people this is a guilty pleasure. But there is very little pleasure to be had here. By trying so hard to top Deep Impact – a film he hadn’t even seen at this point – Bay dials everything beyond 11. So much so it becomes exhausting. Half the action sequences (of which there are many) are impossible to understand, such is the fast editing and the way all the dialogue is screamed by the actors at each other, all at once, drowned out by bangs and crashes. The only dialogue you can actually make out in the film is of the “The United States government asked us to save the world. Anybody wanna say no?” variety, built for slotting into a trailer before some more bangs.

In fact the whole film is basically a massive trailer for itself. It’s unrelenting and after a while not a lot of fun. I guess if you catch it in the right mood it might just work. Bay gives it everything he has in his arsenal. But even he can’t overcome performances from his actors that range from bored and unengaged (Willis and Buscemi both fall into this category) to over-played grasping at epic-status (Affleck and Tyler fall into this one). Billy Bob Thornton comes out best with a wry shrug, knowing the whole film is bonkers but going with the ride.

Anyway, it all charges about a great deal, even while it never knows when to stop. In every situation one crisis is never enough – it’s best to have three at once. Not only does someone need to stay behind, but the asteroid is breaking up and the shuttle won’t take off! What a to-do! The film is desperate to excite you, like a 7 year old who wants to share the BEST-THING-EVER with you and doesn’t draw breath while telling you every single detail.

Of course, scientifically the film is nonsense, but that hardly matters. How NASA can know the comet being blown in two will create two bits that will miss the Earth (rather than two impacts or a whole load of debris) is unclear. Timeline wise – particularly early on – the film makes no sense. But then who goes to Bay looking for a science lecture? It even opens with a ponderous Charlton Heston voiceover, all part of the straining for grandeur.

It’s not even the best Bay film (that would surely be the far more enjoyable but equally overblown The Rock closely followed by the first Transformers film, the only one that doesn’t make you feel soiled after watching it). Armageddon could be a guilty pleasure. But really it’s terrible. You should just feel guilty.

Minority Report (2002)

Tom Cruise messes with fate and the future in Minority Report

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Cruise (Chief John Anderton), Max von Sydow (Director Lamar Burgess), Samantha Morton (Agatha), Colin Farrell (Danny Witwer), Neal McDonough (Detective Fletcher), Steve Harris (Jad), Patrick Kilpatrick (Knott), Jessica Capshaw (Evanna), Lois Smith (Dr Iris Hineman), Kathryn Morris (Lara Anderton), Peter Stormare (Dr Solomon P Eddie), Tim Blake Nelson (Gideon)

If you could see what lies ahead for you in your future would you change it? Or would you accept what fate has clearly already decided? It’s one of many questions that Minority Report, Spielberg’s bulky, brainy sci-fi chase movie slash film noir, tackles. And the answer it suggests is: everybody runs.

It’s the year 2054, and murder in the District of Columbia is a thing of the past thanks to the Pre-Crime Division. Using three psychics, known as “pre-cogs”, permanently hooked-up to a machine that can visualise their visions of violent deaths and murders that will occur, the Pre-Crime team led by Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) arrest and imprison murderers hours, minutes and seconds before they even commit their crimes. Anderton believes passionately in the system – but his belief is shaken when the next murderer to be identified is none other than himself. Anderton is due to kill in a complete stranger in 36 hours – and immediately goes on the run to work out who this man is, why he would wish to kill him, and if there is any truth in the rumour that the pre-cogs don’t always agree, and that the most powerful pre-cog Agatha (Samantha Morton) can produce a “minority report”: an alternative vision that shows a different future.

Spielberg’s film is one that mixes searching discussion on fate, choice and destiny with the pumping, fast-moving action of a chase movie and the gritty, hard-boiled cynicism and intrigue of a classic film-noir. He frames all this in a brilliantly constructed, dystopian future where adverts and government surveillance can read our eyes wherever we go and identify us immediately (throwing personalised ads in the faces of people everywhere they step) and, in the interests of safety, people who have technically not done anything yet are imprisoned for life on the basis of things it has been determined they will do.

It makes for a pretty heady cocktail, and one which will have you questioning how much of what we decide is our choice and how much is destiny. If Anderton knows his destiny, can he change his fate? Will he have the willpower or the ability to avert his destiny? Or does knowing what will happen and where it will take place only drive him towards his fate? Put simply, does knowing the future in advance give you a chance to change or it or does it make that future even more likely (or perhaps even inevitable)? Spielberg’s film delves intelligently into these questions, throwing paradoxes and causality loops at the viewer with a genuine lightness of touch.

This works because the film balances these more philosophical questions with plenty of adventure and excitement. Several chase sequences – which make imaginative use of various pieces of future tech like driverless cars and jet packs – keep you on the edge of your seat. Spielberg tentpoles the film throughout with some brilliant set pieces, from Alderton’s race against the clock to stop a killer at the start to his own escape from the clutches of his former colleagues. 

These set pieces also differ in styles. These more conventional action sequences are sandwiched between others that are a mix of darkness, comedy, horror and slapstick. In one sequence, Alderton must attempt to hide in a bath of icy water (Cruise holding his breath of course for a prolonged period on camera) to evade a series of body-heat seeking metallic spiders, with Alderton desperate to protect his freshly replaced eyes from being exposed too soon to daylight. Later, Alderton will evade the cops thanks to the advice of pre-cog Agatha whose simple instructions (Grab an umbrella! Stand still for five seconds behind the balloons! Drop coins for the tramp!) wittily use her fore-knowledge of events to guide Alderton through a gauntlet of perils.

The horror is in there as well from those creepy spiders, not to mention the ickyness of Cruise carrying out an operation to replace his eyes to evade that all-intrusive retinal scanning. The sequence – with Peter Storemare as a sinister doctor who delights in leaving unpleasant tricks for the temporarily blinded Alderton (rotten food and sour milk being the most gross) – is a brilliantly vile, uncomfortable piece of kooky surrealism in the middle of a wild chase. And also tees up the bizarre dark comedy of Cruise – attempting to use his old eyes to break back into his former office – dropping his eyes and desperately chasing them as they roll down a corridor towards a drain. 

There are also darker themes in Alderton’s tragic background. Saddled with a drug addiction and a broken home, we learn Alderton is still struggling with the grief of losing a son to kidnappers – a loss he clearly holds himself personally responsible for. Getting tanked up at home and interacting with old home movies of his lost son, Alderton carries within a deep sadness and grief. It’s a challenge that Cruise rises to really well, his ability to bring commitment and depth to pulpy characters perfect for making Alderton a character you really invest in.

It also gives Alderton the tragic backstory and self-destructive problems so beloved of grimy, gumshoe cops of old noir films. That’s certainly also the inspiration for the drained out, greying look of the film that Spielberg shoots, with colours bleached and the future looking a confusing mix of clean, sleek machines and dirty, rain sodden streets. Alderton’s hunting down of his future victim has all the shoe leather and bitterness of classic Chandler. Meanwhile Federal Agent Witwer (a decent performance from Colin Farrell) chases him down with the determination of an obsessed cop, while also showing more than a few of the quirks of the maverick PI himself.

Minority Report is so good in so many places, it’s a shame that the final act so flies off the rails from the tone of what we have seen before, eventually stapling a happy ending onto a film that tonally has been building towards something very different. On a re-watch, there is just enough in the film to allow you to interpret this ending as a sort of fantasy or dream, but you’ll want the film to end the first time it crashes to black (you’ll know the point I mean). I prefer to believe the ending is a sort of dream – although Spielberg drops no hints to this effect in the film visually at all, in the way something like Inception does so well, to leave you questioning reality – because with that thought that final act betrays everything you have seen before in its simplicity and embracing of binary rights and wrongs.

But with that massive caveat, Minority Report is a very impressive film – and for at least the first hour and fifty minutes probably one of Spielberg’s best. It gets lost in the final act – and I know I said this but please let that be a fantasy – but until then this is a brilliant mix of genres and intelligence and Hollywood thrills with Cruise at his best. It’s exciting and its emotionally involving. Ignore that ending and it’s great. When you re-watch it, pretend you can’t see that future.

John Wick 2 (2017)

Keanu tools up for my running, jumping and shooting in genial, but perfunctory, sequel John Wick 2

Director: Chad Stahelski

Cast: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Riccardo Scamarcio (Santino D’Antonio), Ian McShane (Winston), Ruby Rose (Ares), Common (Cassian), Claudia Gerini (Gianna D’Antonio), Lance Reddick (Charon), Laurence Fishburne (The Bowery King), Franco Nero (Julius), Peter Stormare (Abram Tarasov)

It’s that age-old story: every time you think you’re out, they drag you back in. Well that’s what we get with John Wick (Keanu Reeves). Picking up where the last film stopped, Wick is approached by mafioso head Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who wants Wick to assassinate his sister, who has been promoted to head of the business over him. Eventually (after much pressure) Wick agrees – and quickly finds himself betrayed and on the run.

The first John Wick has a real charm about it, the sort of film you can really enjoy because tonally it gets itself absolutely spot on. It’s a lot of action fun, it manages not to take itself too seriously and it sets its hero up as someone very sympathetic who only goes on a rampage of violence under extreme provocation. The sequel attempts to double down on all of this and give us more of the same – but not always to the same impact.

Part of the issue is that there just isn’t the same engaging story at the heart of it. I totally understand John Wick in the first film, and completely got what it was that he was doing in the film – that essentially avenging his dog was about getting revenge on those who had taken the only thing he had left from his relationship with his wife. Here the lines are a lot more blurred – John basically saddles up under extreme provocation and blackmail and then basically spends the film killing people left, right and centre – first for someone else, then to get revenge for being betrayed back into this life (or something like that), and then finally because he’s just really pissed.

So that emotional grounding behind all the killing – and the thing that makes John Wick pretty likeable in the first film – gets lost. Instead he’s just a ruthlessly efficient killing machine – and while that is fun to watch, it’s not as immediately engaging as the first film. In fact, the second film (aiming to go bigger and better) is basically just three orgies of gunplay and violence, linked together by a few tongue-in-cheek dialogue scenes.

It’s another of those films made for YouTube clips. The action scenes can pretty much be watched and enjoyed without the burden of trawling through the nonsense plot, so you might as well hunt those down online and watch them alone. They’re really well done, extremely well shot and pretty exciting (if covered in claret). The rest of the film you can take or leave to be honest.

That’s despite all the best efforts of those involved. Keanu Reeves still brings a slacker charm to the role, even if it’s one that doesn’t stretch even his limited acting range. Ian McShane has a decent, fun turn as an influential member of a shadowy criminal organisation. We even get a rather dry Matrix reunion between Reeves and Fishburne. It’s very well directed and there are occasional good jokes.

However, it lacks a decent villain (Scamarcio as a Mafia baddie is singularly uninspiring), it goes on too long and, most of all, it’s just not quite as good as the first film. There the “world building” around the edges of the film was a fun aside from the action. Here it’s the focus – with strange councils and mystical rules all over the place – and that just doesn’t quite work as well.

John Wick 2 is fun, don’t get me wrong. But somehow it feels less charming and more bloated, something that is starting to feel itself a little too important and, in throwing more and more at the screen, means you lose the heart of some of the original.

Fargo (1996)

Frances McDormand investigates one of many pointless slaughters, in the Coen’s bleak but fantastic Fargo

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Cast: Frances McDormand (Marge Gunderson), William H. Macy (Jerry Lundegaard), Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter), Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud), Harve Presnell (Wade Gustafson), John Carroll Lynch (Norm Gunderson), Steve Reevis (Shep Proudfoot), Kristin Rudrüd (Jean Lundegaard)

Sometimes you see a film and, for whatever reason, you expected something totally different. It can throw you when something is so different from your expectations. With Fargo I had been led to expect a comedy. A comedy with dark undertones, but a comedy never the less. Fargo is in fact such a blackly, violently, grim piece of work – with lashings of dark comedy – that I was completely turned off by it. Watching it again, understanding the quirky blackness and nihilistic optimism (yes that’s right!) it contains, I appreciated it more and more as the masterpiece it is.

In Minneapolis, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a down-on-his luck car dealer, heavily in debt, who arranges for two small-time criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Storemare) from Fargo, North Dakota, to kidnap his wife, splitting the $80,000 ransom (while telling his wealthy father-in-law the ransom is actually $1 million). However, the kidnapping quickly gets bogged down in an escalating cycle of murder and violence, and events quickly spin out-of-control. All this is investigated by heavily-pregnant and relentlessly positive police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).

Only the Coens could have made film that is so nihilistic, in which life is so cheap and death so meaningless, but yet at the same time strangely hopeful and life-affirming. Because even after all the horror and casual murder that fills the film, its heart remains the warmth of Marge Gunderson. The film continually returns to the simple affection of her relationship with her husband (a hugely sweet John Carroll Lynch). Even her pregnancy (and their obvious, unshowy delight in it) suggests a hopeful new world, moving away from the horrors of this one. It’s a genuine, emotional heart at the centre of the story, which grounds all the violence and mayhem.

And there is a lot of violence. The film is punctured at several points by brutal and unexpected killings. The body count is extraordinarily high (seven people die during the film, which considering the cast is so small and the running time so tight is pretty darn high). The camera doesn’t shy away from the horrific after-effects of killing – the suddenness, and the cold grimness of the bodies left behind. The killing is often random and pointless, with several bystanders suffering: at one point the camera pans past a parking attendant, in the wrong place at the wrong time, slumped dead on the floor of his booth. And all of this over some money. Well, that and the fact that Peter Storemare’s thug is a psychopath.

All this disaster of course spins out from the feckless vacancy of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundergaard, a sad-sack loser and overtly “nice guy” who you feel has been an unimpressive, quietly resentful failure his entire life. Macy has never been better, not only making Jerry empty and desperate but also quietly bitter and frustrated. He’s never actually that sympathetic – there is an un-empathetic shallowness in him. David Thomson described him as “a scoundrel, and in the end amiability is as nothing.” Even when he’s being humiliated, you can’t really warm to him. There are several brilliant sequences where Lundergaard’s anger and resentfulness bubble under his “Minnesota-nice” attitudes – be that facing his over-bearing father across the dining room table, or furiously scraping at his car in the ice.

That “Minnesota-nice” accent and rhythm of speaking, its impeccable good manners, are the source of a lot of the films fun and warmth. Every character around the edges of the drama is sweetly optimistic, scrupulously polite and positive. It’s part of the Coens’ genius to set such a cold and violent drama within the confines of a world which is upbeat and positive. There is a brilliant contrasting comedy to the harshness of the world against the gentle happiness of Minnesota. It’s endlessly endearing and sweet.

The centre of this is Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, perhaps one of the quickest and sharpest investigators you’ll see in drama, able to compartmentalise the brutality of crime from the warmth of her home life. McDormand is simply excellent, the beating heart of the movie, despite the fact she doesn’t even appear until it is almost a third of the way in. Her gentle but astute investigation of the crime is marvellously Miss-Marple-like in its sharpness. But she extends the same shrewd and generous understanding of human nature to her personal life: there is a marvellous sequence where, having agreed to meet an old friend from college, she gently lets him down after recognising the lonely divorcee wants something very different from the meeting. That’s not surprising, considering the gentle supportiveness and love in her relationship with her husband gives the film a constant respite of humanity.

Marge may see the world of violence, she may even be able to live in it sometimes, but she doesn’t really understand it. And that’s not surprising because the Coens’ plot here revolves sort of around money, but it’s mostly around mistakes, fuck-ups and confusion. It just so happens that a number of the people involved are dangerous, proud, devoid of conscience or all three. It’s a disaster of epic proportions. But it spins out of no planning, just events going out of control. Jerry’s father in law (played excellently by Harve Presnell, a truly imposing slab of masculinity and the prototype bully) is of course far too controlling and arrogant to not take matters into his own hand by playing hardball with killers.

And those killers are both excellent. It’s a perfect role for Buscemi – scuzzy, fast talking, weaselly – with a look of panic behind the eyes. He’s a small-time hood, out of his depth, who makes some terrible mistakes and resorts to killing and violence. He’s a perfect match with Peter Storemare’s softly spoken, chillingly blank killer who goes about “cleaning up” any mess with a ruthless simplicity.

But that’s the thing about this film. It might be full of ruthless people and killers, but it ends with Marge and her husband, together in bed, spending time together. They have a future and it’s one of simple family values and hope. There may be mindless, terrible killing out in the world – senseless violence that goes nowhere and means nothing – but there is still the warmth of family relationships, the charm of simple home values. It’s a nihilistic film where life is cheap – but it leaves you with a warm and happy feeling.

It’s also of course marvellously made – if you had any doubt about the Coens’ mastery of cinema, watch this – it’s superbly edited and brilliantly paced. It’s a perfect length, short, sharp and achingly profound. It’s also marvellously shot by Roger Deakins. I hated Fargo when I first saw it. But re-watching it twice since then, it’s a marvel. A truly unique and deeply wonderful film.