April 11th: Tonight, He Comes…

hancock

86. Hancock (Peter Berg, 2008)

This is the third film I’ve watched this year that has been directed by Peter Berg (the others were Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom). Unfortunately Hancock is comfortably the weakest of the three. Existing in script form since 1996 as a 226 page beast called Tonight, He Comes this film has been through the development wringer in a big way. There are comparison pieces all over the net but if you are interested in the process between what is supposedly the initial script and the final film then the best is probably Rob Hunter’s article from Film School Rejects.

The final product is a film riven in two by a large plot twist. The first half of the film has the eponymous super-powered chap tear-arsing around from boozy night to botched rescue causing havoc and managing to befriend a PR guru and his family. It’s funny, irreverent and well paced. The second half of the film is none of these things. It has plot holes all over and crowbars an unlikely villain into the piece in an attempt to contrive a conventional resolution. A massive wasted opportunity and I’d have positioned it as a mis-step in the career of a promising director but Hancock has Will Smith box office levels and managed to easily make its money.

March 25th: Black gold blues

77. The Kingdom (Peter Berg, 2007) 

Expectations were low for this, I needed something action oriented to see me through a late night. I got what I wanted, frenetic panicky action with great spatial awareness, but I got a lot more too. I really enjoyed Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights, it had a style and outlook that I really admired and something that is rarely seen in a sports film. There is a definite continuation of this style in The Kingdom but we have a much different story. The film starts with a startling and brilliant sequence which explains the history of Saudi Arabia (The Kingdom of the title), as far as condensed history lessons go, this is superb. It traces from the formation of the state early last century through to the modern day and the crucial relationship with the United States in a story drenched in thick black oil. And it manages it in less than two minutes. After I finished the film I watched this again – a higher recommendation I cannot give. The story then takes off, an American oil company housing estate in Saudi Arabia is attacked and American citizens die. The FBI are immediately on hand suggesting that they ‘put US boots on Saudi soil’ to find the killers. They are rebuked by every other arm of government, but they eventually find a way in. They have 5 days to find the killers with the help, or hinderance, of the Saudi security forces.

The Kingdom is slick intelligent film-making from the hands of a very talented writer and director. I’ve mentioned the quality of the action and the way Peter Berg manipulates space to create tension – the climactic scenes convey genuine panic and exhilaration successfully. Part of this is also down to the characters who aren’t spectacular but are sympathetic and human enough to engender reasonable sympathy. There is one stand out though, Ashraf Barhom as Colonel Faris Al Ghazi. Here lies the true heart of the film. His performance as the man trapped between two divergent worlds is superb as he balances his patriotism with his desire for justice. The political aspect of the film is finely balanced too, there aren’t any easy answers on display. Whilst it doesn’t approximate the complexity of the true situation it doesn’t condescend either. An unusually intelligent action film for the post 9/11 audience.

January 29th: Thursday Evening Stars

37. Friday Night Lights (Peter Berg, 2004)

 In 1988 the economically depressed town of Odessa in Texas once again wound itself up for the start of another High School American football season with the expectations being firmly that their team would win the state championship. This film follows their season as Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) struggles to live up to the expectations of the entire town and guide his young charges through the most difficult period of their lives. Friday Night Lights may well be the finest sports film I have ever seen (I’ve not got round to watching Hoop Dreams yet so it may be a placeholder). This true story may not be the most fascinating in the genre, Coach Carter and Remember the Titans vie for that honour also, but it is by far the best presentation. And whilst the other films present social issues in conjunction with their sporting story they fall guilty of cliché far too easily and allow the story to ride roughshod over any attempt to create something more than a simple plot procession. By contrast Friday Night Lights is crafted with an altogether more intelligent hand. Peter Berg uses his now trademark ‘over-the-shoulder’ style for the character interaction which captures the studied intensity of the performances, Lucas Black’s self-doubting quarterback especially. For the games Berg leads in with beautiful, almost abstract, soaring camera shots of the stadia backed by the excellent score courtesy of Texan group Explosions in the Sky. The build up is matched by the action of the matches themselves as crunching tackles mix with huge hopeful ‘Hail Mary’ passes all framed against the sprawling open air pitches.

There’s much more to say about this film and I could go on but I think I’ll draw a line under it there but not before one more special point. The scene where star running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) breaks down to his uncle was probably the most moving in any film I’ve seen so far this year. Really very upsetting in its emotional context.

Note. Special thanks to Nathan for recommending the film and waxing lyrical about it at every opportunity and to CEX for selling it at the ridiculous price of £1.50.