Last Friday I saw The Gunman, a film I had hopes for, given that Sean Penn and Javier Bardem were in the cast. From the trailer it appeared to be the kind of action film I like when they’re well done. Unfortunately, this one is a cynical misfire from beginning to end. It seems to exist only to showcase endless shootouts and brutal fights. It’s empty and has no meaning whatsoever (in my humble opinion). The difference between The Gunman and a film like last year’s John Wick is one of style and the filmmakers’ enthusiasm (see my previous post on John Wick). Sean Penn seems like an odd choice for this film. Maybe Liam Neeson was busy. I can’t imagine Penn feels the need to re-invent himself as an action hero, the way Neeson has successfully done. The Gunman was directed by Pierre Morel, who previously made Taken (2008), a hugely popular film that launched the new Liam Neeson persona. Perhaps because of that connection I couldn’t help thinking while I was watching The Gunman that Neeson would have been more credible in Penn’s role. Though I doubt that would have saved the movie. I was also surprised to see in the credits that this film was based on The Prone Gunman, a 1981 French novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette that I liked very much when I read the English edition in 2002. As far as I can tell, The Gunman bears virtually no resemblance to the novel, other than retaining the main character’s last name, Terrier (though Martin in the novel becomes Jim in the film).
While this is a definite change of pace for Penn, Javier Bardem has been down this road before, though Bardem’s character here is frequently drunk and appears more foolish than threatening. Idris Elba, who in mind will always be Stringer Bell from HBO’s The Wire, is wasted as an Interpol agent with less than eight minutes of screen time. However, bright spot is Ray Winstone, an actor who brings a solid authenticity to virtually every role I’ve seen him in. The Gunman could have used much more of him.
The following two clips will tell you all you need to know about The Gunman. The downtime between action sequences in this movie exists only to get us to the next one. It’s not like there’s anything at stake.
Believe me, I wanted to like this movie, but I just couldn’t get on the ride. As a User Review of The Gunman at IMDb put it, “If you have nothing else to do and feel like throwing your money away, you might consider seeing it.”
I might not have been as hard on The Gunman if later that same day we hadn’t seen Tu dors Nicole, a terrific French Canadian film written and directed by Stéphane Lafleur. Tu dors Nicole was shown as part of New Directors/New Films, an annual series co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. When you see something this fresh and engaging, it makes a film like The Gunman just seem that much worse.
Tu dors Nicole is set in a suburb of Montreal. It’s summer, and 22-year-old Nicole is on her own while her parents are on vacation. Julianne Côté is wonderful as Nicole. She brings an interesting affect to the character, not flat, exactly, but off-kilter and observant, as though she’s an outsider taking her time trying to figure out what’s going on. Throughout the film, Nicole struggles to get a good night’s sleep (the English title is You’re Sleeping Nicole.) Nicole has a job sorting clothes in a thrift shop, but spends most of her time with her best friend Véronique (Catherine St-Laurent) as they hang out in Nicole’s house or aimlessly wander about. Nicole’s older brother Rémi (Marc-André Grondin) shows up unannounced with his three-man rock band. They move into the house and take over the living room to rehearse at high volume, complete with drum kit, guitars, amps and a lot of cable. Life goes on from day to day. Nicole and Véronique take bike rides. Nicole gets a credit card in the mail and thinks that whatever she buys with it is free. A 10-year-0ld boy named Martin has a serious crush on Nicole. Before he appears, Nicole tells Véronique that Martin’s voice has recently changed. When we first hear him speak, it’s a joke, and a very funny one. His voice is impossibly deep and mature, and the feelings he expresses for Nicole are those of a much older person. This probably shouldn’t work, but it does.
Tu dors Nicole is quirky and unexpected. If I had to make a comparison, I’d say it has a kind of Jim Jarmusch vibe at times. It’s also beautifully shot in black and white. I can’t imagine it in color. Black and white feels so perfect for this film that color would almost be an intrusion. Tu dors Nicole is a reminder that great French films can also come from Canada. It was shown at 20 film festivals last year, and will be distributed in this country by Kino Lorber later this spring. Try to see it. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
I mentioned above that Tu dors Nicole reminds me somewhat of a Jim Jarmusch film, which is true, but what it really reminds me of is a Mexican film titled Duck Season (2004), which was shown at New Directors New Films in 2005. We saw it the following year and absolutely fell in love with it. As with Tu dors Nicole, Duck Season feels totally original, though of course it has antecedents in other films from the deadpan school of filmmaking. We watched Duck Season again last Saturday night, and it’s just as good as it was the first time.
Duck Season takes place in a high-rise apartment building on a quiet Sunday from 11:00 am to 8:00 pm. Flama’s mother has just left to visit a relative, leaving Flama (Daniel Miranda) and his friend Moko (Diego Catana) to fend for themselves in the apartment. As soon as she’s gone, Flama and Moko, both 14 years old, break out Coca-Cola and fire up a video game. Power outages disrupt their game from time to time. They’re also disrupted by Rita (Danny Perea), a 16-year-old neighbor who commandeers the kitchen because her stove doesn’t work and she has to bake a birthday cake. Flama and Moko decide to order a pizza from a place that guarantees delivery within 30 minutes or there’s no charge. When the deliveryman, Ulises (Enrique Arreola), arrives out of breath from having to rush up many flights of stairs due to yet another power outage, they refuse to pay because he’s 15 seconds late. Ulises says he’s not leaving until they pay. A standoff ensues, during which time power is restored and Ulises challenges them to a soccer video game to determine if he gets paid or not. Out of this mix, an afternoon of friendship and communion develops as the film spins lazily from one incident to the next.
I’m a big fan of Warner Bros. cartoons, so the immediate connotation the title Duck Season has is with a great Chuck Jones cartoon, Rabbit Fire (1951), in which Bugs and Daffy debate whether it’s rabbit season or duck season so Elmer will know which one of them to shoot. As usual, Daffy doesn’t stand a chance. This has no immediate connection to Duck Season, though the film does share an anarchic spirit with the Warner Bros. cartoons. And there is, in fact, a painting of ducks in the apartment, the ownership of which is a bone of contention between Flama’s divorcing parents. As the day unfolds, the sources of everyone’s individual loneliness are revealed. Like Tu dors Nicole, Duck Season, directed and co-written by Fernando Eimbcke, is in black and white, which feels just right. The following trailer suggests a madcap tone, but the film is deeper than that.
Duck Season is currently available for streaming from Amazon. Be sure you watch all the way through the final credits, because there’s a great payoff at the end. It really caps the movie. — Ted Hicks