Another Year is one to cherish, The Mechanic gets the job done

by Mark Burger

Mike Leigh has made several distinguished films during his career (Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy and Happy-Go-Lucky among them), racking up a slew of Academy Award nominations (seven, in all) along the way. His latest film, Another Year , is one of his best, and earned a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Alas, it was the only nomination bestowed upon this wonderful film.

Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, both veterans of Leigh’s “repertory company,” play Tom and Gerri, a content, comfortably graying couple whose home becomes an unofficial gathering place for friends throughout the year — most of whom aren’t quite as content as their hosts. Nevertheless, good times are (usually) the order of the day, and Leigh’s unobtrusive but observant approach to the story makes the viewer feel one of the family.

Over the course of one year, separated into the four seasons, there’s humor and heartbreak for Tom and Gerri’s friends and for themselves, which they try to weather with humor, compassion and good spirits. Life’s no picnic (no surprise there), but one must take the good with the bad.

The one friend who seems singularly unable to cope is Mary (the brilliant Lesley Manville), inarguably the neediest of friends. Nothing ever seems to go right in Mary’s life, a point not lost on Tom and Gerri, who understandably grow a little weary of her.

On the other hand, the couple’s son Tom (Oliver Maltman) has brought his girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez) around, and she’s a breath of fresh air. Tom’s old chum Ken (the endearing Peter Wight), the sort of old-school alcoholic who drinks wine and beer with dinner, has something of a crush, singularly unrequited, on Mary.

With no undue effort, Leigh creates an intimate (sometimes uncomfortably so) portrait of these everyday people, beautifully brought

to life by a devastating ensemble cast. There’s such an effortlessness in their interaction that it feels as if they have, indeed, known each other for years. Some of them you may love, others not so much — but they feel real.

Come Oscar Night, Leigh probably won’t take home the gold statue, but those seven nominations (two as Best Director, five for his screenplays — and all were originals) are undeniable testament to his talent. Sooner or later, the Academy will get it right. For now, Leigh’s the one who’s been getting it right, and Another Year is devastatingly right.

Before it degenerates into the standard-issue action blow-out in the third act, Simon West’s rendition of The Mechanic is not one of the better, but one of the best remakes in recent memory.

In the 1972 original, directed by Michael Winner, Charles Bronson played the veteran hit-man (a “mechanic”) who takes on Jan- Michael Vincent as his apprentice. Here, Jason Statham steps into Bronson’s shoes while Ben Foster (in a wonderfully weird turn) assumes the Vincent role.

As Statham’s Arthur Bishop takes Foster’s Steve McKenna under his wing, the new film enhances the menacing undercurrent of the original story. It’s darker, stranger and fraught with tension (some of it sexual). The relationship between Bishop and McKenna is well-realized by Statham, playing to his strengths as a calm, cool customer, and Foster’s more animated, nervy turn, which makes his character even more unpredictable — and possibly more dangerous.

The father/son angle is still present, with Donald Sutherland playing Harry McKenna, Steve’s estranged father and Bishop’s own mentor in the assassination racket. This triangle is resolved when Bishop is assigned to kill the older man, which of course puts Bishop and Steve on their own eventual collision course.

In neither version is The Mechanic a paragon of screen art, but at least it’s efficient, not unlike its principal (and title) character. Yet when this version falls back on the tried-and-true (more like “tired-and-blue”) succession of explosions, crashing cars and falling bodies, it tends to obliterate much of what has gone on before. Besides, if a “mechanic” is supposed to do his job with expediency, efficiency and secrecy, blowing up half the city tends to be noticed.

Still, if only by default, this is probably director West’s best film to date. From his big-screen bow, Con Air (1997), through such losers as The General’s Daughter (1999), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and the terrible ’06 remake of When a Stranger Calls, is it really any surprise that The Mechanic would ultimately fall back on the mechanical?

At least, for a time, he was closer than he’s ever been before.

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