Tuesday, 19 September 2017

American Assassin



Son Of A Beach

American Assassin
2017 USA Directed by Michael Cuesta
UK cinema release print.


American Assassin is a movie based on a ‘prequel novel’ from a successful series of books by Vince Flynn about a character called Mitch Rapp, played here by Dylan O' Brien and set in the world of international espionage. Now, I’ve not read the book but I understand there was at least one major change to the story settings here but, obviously, my ability to judge this movie in terms of adaptation is non-existent. But, as I’ve said so many times on this blog before, I may not be able to tell you how faithful it is to the original source material but I do know how it plays as a film.

The story starts with some poignant POV footage of Mitch proposing to his girlfriend on a beach. The POV stuff ends and the film goes into regular style footage when, as he runs off to get some celebratory drinks, terrorist open fire on the tourists and she is killed. The change to the story I was talking about earlier was, I believe, to have the girl killed in a beach shooting for this whereas, in the novel, I believe she was killed in the Lockerbie bombing. Jump to 18 months later and Mitch has been training himself up (cue long montage sequence) and is about to infiltrate a terrorist cell to start a long revenge/war on terrorism process. However, because he’s been drawing attention to himself, the CIA have been watching him and when things go a bit pear shaped for Mitch, they come to the rescue like the cavalry and eventually recruit him, sending him to train with super duper ex-Navy seal, killing machine turned instructor Stan Hurley, played here by Michael Keaton.

From here the film progresses along a familiar, somewhat clichéd but largely enjoyable story line as Hurley’s team, including Mitch, have to go after a large haul of stolen plutonium and preferably retrieve it before it can be made into a bomb. However, an ex-student of Hurley’s, who is bearing a grudge and was thought missing presumed dead, is also involved in the plot and... yeah, you get the picture. There’s nothing new here. It’s pretty much just a Western revenge story. Back in the old days the bad guys would have been red Indians. If the film had come out in the sixties it would have been changed to a cold war story and the Russians would have been the bad guys. Where we are with it now is that it’s centred around Middle Eastern terrorism to an extent but, whatever, a fairly typical film plot with just the bad guy stereotypes updated to modern times.

It also doesn’t matter though because the film is fast paced, doesn’t always rely on dialogue heavy scenes to tell its story and is actually not all that much about glorifying the violence although, it has to be said, there is rather a lot of it in here and it gets quite brutal at times (I really could have done without the extended torture sequence towards the end of the movie but it wasn’t too harrowing to watch, I guess). In some ways it’s a little bit like the other action movie I saw at the cinema a couple of weeks ago... Stratton (reviewed here) but this one seems to have a bigger budget and is a lot sleeker in terms of how thing looks. Of course it helps that you have wonderful actors like Michael Keaton added into the mix, playing somebody who he’s possibly just a little too old to play, I suspect but, because it is Keaton we are talking about here, he looks like he really could do everything he does in the movie without losing credibility and, as you might expect, Keaton knocks it out of the park. It also has a good little score by Steven Price which keeps things nicely ticking over when needed.

Some of the editing was a little bit more aggressive than I was expecting. You expect some fast, possibly out of kilter and sometimes jarring edits in an action sequence but even in the more slower paced sequences, I thought some of the ways in which shots were cut together didn’t show the most audience friendly route. Now, that might well have been because the frame designs being utilised in these sections seemed less likely to mesh without leading the eyes away from the place they were looking at in the previous shot... which is something modern directors sometimes lose sight of, I think.

Another thing which is a slight but not insurmountable problem here is that the movie, as formulaic as it is, has a tendency towards telegraphing its intentions somewhat during the course of the film. For instance, I was pretty sure that something very specific was going to be revealed about one of the characters from very early on in the film, once that character had been introduced and... yeah... I was right. However, that particular issue... which I’m trying not to talk about because I don’t want to included any spoilers here... is actually upended again later on in the film and the result of the specific twist I’m talking about is somewhat built on and realigned along a different path before the story is done... which is about as good a thing as could have happened with it, to be honest.

Ultimately, American Assassin never really rises above being a good little action thriller but, as far as that goes, that should probably be enough. It’s not one I could repeat watch or anything but it was a good evening out at the cinema and, as a bonus, you get to see Michael Keaton playing a tough as nails action hero character and, really, you couldn’t ask for much more than that. Also, the very last shot, which is pretty much a ‘break the fourth wall’ moment in the film, was the perfect way to end this one. Definitely worth a trip out to your local to catch this assassin’s ass in action.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

mother!



Writing Home

mother!
2017 USA Directed by  Darren Aronofsky
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Yeah, I’m going to discuss most of this with “big spoilers” full on and right from the outset. If you don’t want to know then please don’t read.

Sigh.

Darren Aronofsky used to be one of my absolute favourite modern directors. The first three feature films he made blew me away. They were like a triumvirate of works of genius that repeatedly hit and engaged the brain on every level from the opening scenes through to the breathtaking finales. So yeah... Pi, Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain... three truly spectacular works. Even the director’s fourth feature, The Wrestler, was a pretty cool film. True, I couldn’t watch it more than once like I could his first three, which I would be happy to leave on repeat play throughout various stages of my life but, it was still a great film.

Unfortunately, Aronofsky starting mis-stepping, for me at any rate, with Black Swan (reviewed here), which I was so looking forward to and which managed to somehow underwhelm me on almost every level. And then he brought out Noah (reviewed here) which... honestly didn’t endear me to him and made me laugh when he decided to have giant rock creatures helping Noah fight off all the pesky humans who wanted to get on his ark. He might as well have had Transformers in there, to be honest.

And so we come to mother! which I thought had quite an interesting and edgy trailer but, after having been let down by this director twice in a row now... well, I really wasn’t holding my breath to go and see this thing. However, I then got wind of a critic (via 'Twitter buzz') who had called the movie something along the lines of “the most disgusting and depraved, vile film ever to be allowed in a movie theatre” with the clear warning that audiences should not go out to support this kind of thing. So, of course, my ears immediately pricked up and I was all full on about to going to see a movie that would provoke such an unequivocally negative response and I suspect the person who wrote that review did more to get people into cinemas to see this movie than the actual trailer campaign did. No publicity is bad publicity is something I’ve always, more or less, believed but with many films, such as this one, this is a case of bad publicity being hugely more preferable and influential than any positive press could be.

To be frank, though, having seen the movie myself now... if that reviewer genuinely felt like that about mother! then, honestly, he or she needs to get out and see some more films because there’s pretty much nothing here that hasn’t been seen before. It’s not really that impressive as a movie and certainly not going to disturb anybody but the most sensitive, 'wrapped in cotton wool' souls, I would have thought. Pseudo film reviewers who say such things should maybe get a life (and stop getting my hopes up that the film is a lot more vital to the art of the moving image than it actually is).

Okay... let’s get to the good stuff first, which won’t take long.

Jennifer Lawrence is someone I’m really getting the hang of lately. She is absolutely excellent in this role and, I would say, pretty much carries the movie on her lonesome. Javier Bardem, who I first saw in Jamon Jamon many years ago at the cinema, is an actor I’m not all that familiar with but he’s pretty great here, too, as a successful writer struggling to write new poetry. And both these titanic actors are ably supported by the likes of Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer and Domhnall Gleeson... and, of course, they’re all great in this too.

Not only that but Aronofsky manages to take these pitch perfect performances and fashion a movie which, at the very least, engages some interest at the start and patiently renders his vision in a way that’s assured and leaves the audience in no misunderstanding about what is going on within the narrative... which could have got out of hand with so many of the crowded frames filled with noise, chaos and people, especially towards the last twenty minutes or so of the movie. Which really is no mean feat... Aronofsky knows how to craft a movie.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s one thing to be able to render your vision above and beyond the level of most of your contemporaries but... when the vision is a little lacking or simplistic, as I felt it was in this film, then it doesn’t matter how good you are technically, the film is not necessarily going strike true with an audience. Or at least hold their interest for the entire time.

The first thing he gets wrong here, from my perspective, is that he telegraphs the end of the movie right from the start and, once you kind of get the hang that the movie is probably somewhat cyclic in nature, it kind of becomes a dead give away that the whole thing is not necessarily to be taken on a ‘realistic’ level and that the film is merely a kind of metaphor for the creative process, with all the central characters merely prose within the writer’s wrestling imagination. And once you realise this, probably from sometime around the first half an hour, the inevitability of the nature of the ending becomes something you are just kind of hanging around to see when the characters will catch up with that concept. Of course, they never really do because, you know, they are just characters within the fiction of the fiction... um... if you see what I mean. They are the fabric of the creative process and it kind of becomes like there’s less at stake here than you might have, at first, thought.

The film is quite Buñuelian, in some ways and while I was watching the film I couldn’t help but thinking that the director had maybe seen the truly great The Exterminating Angel (reviewed here) a few more times than was good for him (which, it turns out, was a bit ‘on the nose’ because I just found out that Aronosfsky is listing it as one of his influences on the making of this film). The lunacy and chaos of the film feels like that mixed with the kind of freeform visual stream of consciousness of The Monkees’ movie Head and Fellini’s Otto E Mezzo (Eight and a Half) although, to be honest, I could watch all of those three films I just mentioned quite often whereas mother! is not something I’d ever need, or want, to bother to see again in my lifetime.

The continuous assault on the senses never really matches the madcap lunacy of, say, The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (another film this might be said to superficially resemble at a genetic level) and instead maybe drifts off into the 1960s mainstream Hollywood, bloated and relatively less interesting hijinks of movies like What’s New Pussycat? (which I still have a slight, soft spot for, nonetheless) or the Peter Sellers vehicle, The Party. The resemblance is there, perhaps unintentionally and, like those kinds of Hollywood attempts at recapturing the madball antics of earlier generations, mother! kind of falls flat on its face in terms of continuing to engage interest after the, quite compelling, first half hour ...before the languid pacing and tranquil camerawork give way to handheld chaos and an almost reactive way of tracking the action.

So there you go. I didn’t really like mother! too much but it’s not in any way extreme or too disturbing like some of the word of mouth is suggesting. I think the film’s biggest problem is that, after a while, the constant pandemonium which the director is trying to bombard you with just gets a bit boring and you kind of can’t wait for it to end so you can get some peace and quiet. Which is a shame because, like I said before, I truly believe that Aronofsky was one of the great directors of modern cinema and I just wish he would be again. This film, though, feels a little like a diluted, ‘seen it all before’ kind of experience with a simplistic story and, alas, for me... that doesn’t quite tick all the boxes, I’m afraid. If you want to see what stunning work this director can really do then check out Pi or Requiem For A Dream. Those are the two movies that are really going to hook you.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Doctor Who - The Enemy Of The World


Two By Two


Doctor Who - The Enemy Of The World
BBC DVD Region 2
Airdate: 23 December 1967 - 27 January 1968


2013 was a relatively good year for Doctor Who fans. After the initial disappointment that an alleged cache of “missing presumed wiped” episodes of the show had possibly been mostly ransacked and sold off to private collectors, the good news was that, as part of that cache, all but one episode of the missing 1967 story The Web of Fear and all of the serial that preceded it, The Enemy Of The World, were now once more amongst us. The BBC more or less rush released the two stories onto DVD with pretty much no extras at all at the end of the year and, from what I can remember, both stories languished at the very top of the DVD charts for a week or two. Not a bad chart performance for a couple of black and white Patrick Troughton stories almost 50 years old.

This marks my first screening of this story, although I had the novelisation of this one, adapted by Fourth Doctor companion Ian Marter. I remember when reading that novel as a kid, wondering how they'd managed to be able to use a word like “bastard” on a family viewing, British TV show in the 1960s and, as the existence of this recording confirms... they didn’t. Marter was adding his own dialogue to the mix and gave it a far more adult tone than it had originally, methinks.

This is a good story to have back with us, though. There are, sadly, very few Second Doctor stories surviving and this one is a particularly interesting one to have because it features my favourite Doctor, Patrick Troughton, in a dual role. Yes, I know it’s the old ‘jump the shark’ doubles plot but, already in the, then, short history of the show, this wasn’t the first time that a doppelganger of The Doctor had cropped up and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Here it’s done pretty tastefully and, believe it or not, there’s only one scene right near the end of the last episode where the two characters actually come face to face. So you don’t have to sit through too much of that split screen stuff here.

Why this is a good story to have had recovered though, is because of the versatility of Troughton’s standout performance. Yes, we’re all aware he was good as The Doctor and even non-Doctor Who fans will remember him, I’m sure, as being an outstanding character actor in films such as, for example, the original version of The Omen (reviewed by me here), where the priest he is playing gets impaled by a church spire. However, although he is a double for the title character, Salamander (the titular 'Enemy of the world'), he is only his double in appearance. The evil Salamander speaks with a kind of Mexican accent and this gives Troughton a chance to show off how he handles dialects. He also does some much more subtle stuff than this with the dual role, though. For instance, as The Doctor is working on perfecting his impersonation of Salamander so that he can find out if the tyrant of a future time in the Earth’s history, the far off year of 2018, is actually what his enemies are saying he is... he comes over as something like a cross between the two roles. Pulling it off enough to fool Salamander’s chief of security but still being different enough from his performance as Salamander throughout the serial that you can almost see The Doctor going through a learning curve.

The companions in this one are two of my favourite ones, Jamie and Victoria and, of course, age old unrealised sexism raises its head again when, to help The Doctor, Jamie makes it appear that he is saving Salamander’s life so he can get a job as one of his personal bodyguards. He asks Salamander to sort out a job for Victoria and she gets... cook’s assistant. Well, it is ‘of it’s time’ I guess and I’m not too worried about those kinds of gender stereotypes, especially when some of the episodes have smart performances by Mary Peach as a resistance fighter and Carmen Munroe as a food taster, the latter being an extremely strong role with no clear black and white division on the character who finds herself working for Salamander, even though she hates him, before eventually switching sides and... well, I’ll leave you to discover the final fate of her character here.

The music in this one is quite prominent in the mix in some places for a show of this nature in the era it was broadcast and the plot itself, while a little reminiscent of an old Flash Gordon serial in its twisty/turny revisiting of terrain and locations backwards and forwards as the narrative continues, is still quite entertainingly told... even if it doesn’t have an inhuman monster bent on the destruction of The Doctor and his companions, as many of the shows had.

As usual with the Troughton stories, there’s a lot of humour involved and one of the things that got me chuckling was when someone mentioned they should rendezvous at the old, disused jetty. “Disused yeti?” proclaims The Doctor, slyly referencing the robotic creatures from the, now sadly lost, story The Abominable Snowman. The creatures were quite popular and had made their debut only two stories prior to this one. They would make their second appearance, in updated and perhaps a bit less appealing costumes, in the very next Doctor Who adventure, The Web Of Fear (reviewed by me here).

As a lot of the earlier Doctor Who serials did in those days, the end of each story would directly cliffhanger into the next story and this one is no exception. At least, however, we are able to watch the other side of the cliffhanger in this case. At the end of the sixth episode of The Enemy Of The World, the TARDIS is in flight in space and time but the doors are open and The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria are trying to hold on for dear life in case they get sucked out and scattered in time and space (I won’t tell you why... "spoilers sweetie"). Luckily, we now have the majority of the episodes recovered for The Web Of Fear and after the prologue of that adventure, we once more rejoin The Doctor and his companions in this predicament until Jamie can get the TARDIS stabilised once more. So, in that regard at least, it’s nice that running stories were rediscovered and restored.

The Enemy Of The World is quite a nice, pacey Doctor Who adventure and it’s also better for the fact that not everybody is what they seem. The bad guys and good guys aren’t as clear cut until the final episode and doubts about the intentions of certain characters do rear themselves right from the onset. If you’re a fan of Doctor Who and the Second Doctor in particular then The Enemy Of The World should definitely be on your ‘watch list’. If, however, you are new to the programme then I suspect a more ‘monstercentric’ episode might be a better jumping on point than this. Still, hard to go wrong with Troughton in such fine form and, once again, this charming actor doesn’t disappoint. And with Donald Trump voted in as the president of the USA at the moment, the idea of a dodgy dictator such as Salamander ruling the world of 2018 with an iron fist doesn’t seem like a million miles away from the real world, to tell the truth.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Viva



Leave It To Viva

Viva
USA 2007
Directed by Anna Biller
Anna Biller Productions/Shameless DVD Region 2


It’s really interesting seeing what is, effectively, Anna Biller’s first full length feature only a few weeks after seeing her second, The Love Witch (reviewed here), because I can now pick up on the tremendous similarities between the two and, temporarily at least, assign director signature traits to her (woohoo!). It also means she pretty much demonstrates, through her various artistic choices which follow through in both films, that she’s very much an ‘auteur’ director in the sense of captaining her specific celluloid ships through the same route. If you see what I mean.

Like The Love Witch, Viva uses a slightly surreal, ‘on the surface’, over the top acting style which I personally associate with American TV sitcoms from the 1950s - 1970s. It’s more overtly signposted within the text here, to a certain extent, due to the fact that Biller seems to be trying her best to make an early to mid-1970s US sexploitation picture and, although the highly comical acting method demonstrated in Viva (and in The Love Witch, for that matter) is certainly not endemic to that genre (although obviously some movies, like Doris Wishman’s films, use it almost by default in terms of the talent of the actors and actresses available), it’s at least ‘of the time’. Biller seems, to me, a little more subversive in that, while she is, after all, very definitely making an exploitation movie - this one has tons of nudity including Biller herself as lead character Barbie/Viva - she seems, at least to me, to be very much expressing it in the same way that an episode of The Brady Bunch or Bewitched might try and portray it. Which is... you know... kinda interesting and certainly makes for the cinematic equivalent of a page turner, in this case.

The opening follows Biller’s character Barbie from the bath where she’s reading a magazine and drinking before she vacates said vessel to get made up and dressed. Roaring off in her red, open top car which, since this is an Anna Biller movie, matches the same shade as the outfit she is wearing. And, that’s another stylistic tag which I’m going to lumber Biller with here... the exceptionally groovy colour palette she uses matches what she did nine years later in The Love Witch in that everybody’s outfits seem designed to either perfectly match to, or contrast against, the decor of the set they are seen in. For example, in one scene where Barbie and her husband are visiting her best friends, Sheila and her husband - two perfect nuclear families with cracks hidden beneath their ‘beautiful people’ surface - one guy is wearing a green top and the other guy is wearing a white shirt but with trousers which match the exact shade of green of the first guy’s top. It’s pretty nice stuff and, although one might say she’s taking a page out of the era in which she’s set this film... Los Angeles 1972... that certainly doesn’t hold for The Love Witch and I think it says more about the director’s impeccable taste when it comes to pulling all the details and colours of the mise en scène together in the most exquisite way. I’m telling you right now people... I’d love to see this woman make an Italian giallo.

She also, like in her later film, uses the decor to express the motivations of her characters... often through the use of paintings which make overt their attitudes towards certain issues. It’s not an uncommon modus operandi but it’s a nice touch and I’ll add that quirk to my ever growing list of Anna Biller signature marks, if I may (at least until she grows in a different direction, as most directors do).

The scene following on from the opening where Sheila and her husband talk about Playboy and drink an alcoholic breakfast ends up with Sheila about to strip down so her good, wholesome husband can take ‘artistic’ shots of her... seems more like a porn movie but it’s incredibly heightened, with lots of fake laughter by all the actors who perform their roles wonderfully (including Biller herself), before Barbie turns up and then both girls strip off for the ‘arty photos’. Biller seems both inspired by Playboy in this movie while similarly poking fun at the people who read it (Shelia proclaims, at one point, that old chestnut “I only read it for the articles...”). It’s a brilliant little parody of the kind of ‘soft porn logic’ combined with deliberately ‘bad acting’ which really nails and telegraphs the mood Biller is going for in a very quick way. She even goes so far as to deliberately mis-match shots to create little continuity errors between them to further authenticate the delivery of her agenda. At least... I assume it was deliberate?

Of course, one of the things which this is doing, in a film inhabited by generally stupid characters, male and female, is to show the sexism and attitudes of either sex in a repressive social set up. You have the guys getting together to talk about their latest technological equipment like their new stereo or TV (actually... that doesn’t sound too different to where we are now, to be honest) and the ladies getting together for conversations which, quite frankly, don’t just fail the Bechdel test but defy it in the most spectacular fashion. One husband, for example, sits patiently for his wife to give him his pipe and light it for him. Now, I grew up in the 1970s so it’s probably harder for me to identify where these common occurrences of everyday sexism (at least as it is perceived these days) begin and end but Biller makes it crystal clear for the audience in one lovely moment when a pampered guy looks straight into the camera and says...

“There's never been a better time to be a man. The willing women. The dandy clothes. The frills. The big rings and jewellery. The open shirts. The sense of entitlement. Take it from me: savour this time. For it will soon be gone, never to return.”

As the film progressed I found that, rather than get bored by what might, at first, seem like a one joke movie, I was witness to a minor masterpiece with something new and rewarding in most scenes. There’s some great stuff in here... the stereotypical gay male hairdresser who is working on Barbie’s hair and the neighbour who comes in to ‘borrow a cup of sugar’ (both Barbie and the hairdresser get turned on by the watching neighbour’s sugar eating shenanigans), the silly songs (which are a heck of a lot more on the nose in this than they were in The Love Witch, it seems to me), the old “Give it to me! Love it! Oh yes!” rapid shoot photographer scene (I used to be a child model in the early 1970s and I can tell you now, stereotype or not, that’s exactly how some of them behaved) and the fact that when her husband is taken ill and being treated in hospital with stress because she comes home late one night rather than have the dinner waiting, she feels it’s appropriate to go to the hospital in a sexy nurse outfit to show how much she intends to care for her husband. There’s some crazy stuff in this film.

Now I was a little puzzled, as I was with The Love Witch when I saw this because, while the director is doing her best to evoke America in the early 1970s, the soundtrack sounds more like it’s been needle-dropped in from Italian composers and, as it turns out once again, that’s exactly what is happening here. However, I figured it out after a while because there were a few scenes which sounded like they were being tracked in from Piero Piccioni’s score to US sexploitation director Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000 and, by about the third time it turned up on the soundtrack in one guise or another, I was pretty sure. This is further enhanced during a big orgy scene where Viva, as the reimagined call-girl variation of Barbie is known, is being drug-raped. Biller actually uses the same differential focussing and refocussing trick, timed to the main character’s breathing, that Metzger used in Camille 2000 and which you can find fully described by me in my review of that film here. And this, coupled with the score in this scene, very specifically identifies at least one of the director’s main inspirations for this movie... albeit with a much different motivation towards the subject matter.

About that sequence... although the mise en scène in this shot isn’t nearly as accomplished as Metzger’s original version, Biller takes it all to the next absurdist level. In this one, instead of focussing on flowers, Biller focusses on apples and then, after the shot I just described, the colours posterise and the apples become animated, floating fruits licking and then continuing with one eating the others. That cartoon apple then stretches or warps out to become a load of swirling, psychedelic flowers before the blood or juice of the apple starts to shower down over the live action screen of Viva being molested. It’s almost like the artist is criticising the original scene by going so over the top with it that you can’t help but see how ridiculous it is... at least in this context. I was blown away by the shot in Camille 2000 and still am. However, it’s a great visual moment from Biller in a film which is filled to the brim with amazing stuff like this.

And that’s about as far as I’m going with this review, I think, other than to say that Viva was a total blast to watch and, with lines like (on being informed a man’s wife has got a job interview) “Will you be back in time to cook dinner?” and a parody of Just Two Little Girls From Little Rock from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the film has enough surprises and little tricks up its sleeve to keep you entertained for its considerable two hours (a fair amount longer than most of the sexploitation films the director is parodying to make her points here). A solid recommendation on this one with the reminder that you need to keep an open mind about the style of acting in this and not dismiss it until you realise how skillful the artists are being here. Now I just have to wait around while the lady in question makes another movie. Can we have a giallo next, please?

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Wind River



Huckleberry Fiend

Wind River
2017 UK Directed by Taylor Sheridan
UK/Canada/USA
UK cinema release print.


Warning: A very minor, structural spoiler on this one.

Well this is a terrific little film.

I wasn’t really that sure what Wind River was going to be like from the trailer but it looked like a high quality production and, yeah, that’s something it certainly is. I was personally more interested in the casting, more than anything. Ever since The Avengers: Age Of Ultron (reviewed here) I’d been kinda wondering how long it would be before somebody spotted just how good the chemistry was between Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye character and Elisabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch character in that sequence in the middle of the final battle, where he lays everything out for her before she makes that decision and grows into the heroine she is supposed to be. Well somebody else other than me must have noticed it after all because here they are playing the two lead protagonists in a taut thriller which pitches them against both 'murder most foul' and the adverse, icy conditions of the Wind River Indian reservation, where this film is set.

After a brief prologue of a scene which is better explained in an autopsy room later in the picture, we get around about 15 - 20 minutes of the film just setting up Jeremy Renner’s character. He has an Indian ex-wife and a son and there’s something else which connects him spiritually (at least) to the events which follow and which I am not going to spoil for you here. He is a hunter/tracker for the reservation named Cory Lambert, working hand in hand with the police as he kills wolves and whatever else is killing livestock in the area. I have to admit I was torn with being asked to empathise with someone who goes around killing animals but I am not going to get into that debate now and Renner plays the character very well. The writer, who is also the director, is sensitive enough to not let it be too much of a problem for the audience, I think. As Renner is tracking a family of lions who have been killing off buffalo in the area, he comes across the dead body of the girl from the opening sequence and, after calling the local (and very small) police force in, the FBI are informed.

Enter Elisabeth Olsen’s character, FBI agent Jane Banner, the fish out of water who needs the help of Renner’s tracking skills to investigate various elements of the case as they come to light and who is quite unprepared for the weather conditions. She does, however, prove herself to be a dab hand with a pistol and, although she is the ‘green’ out of town character with the usual dynamic which that brings for the first 20 or so minutes of her screen time, she soon proves to be an edgy and resourceful person. And she’s all the local police have got to help them because, due to the way in which the first victim dies, the coroner cannot ‘officially’ reach a decision of homicide so she needs to wrap things up in a hurry before she is pulled out of there and back to her normal ‘hunting ground’ of Las Vegas.

That’s the basic set up and it’s a real humdinger of a movie, for sure. It actually utilises a lot of hand held camera throughout but it’s used to good effect without spoiling the sharp focused, languid style of the cinematography. Hectic during such scenes as running through a snowy forest and... just a little jittery and inquisitive to heighten tension when, for instance, Olsen is trying to secure a house without knowing who is inside and whether or not someone is going to try and shoot her to pieces around the next corner. This style of shooting can either kill a film stone dead if overused or really add to the weight of the story and this one, I’m glad to say, is definitely in the latter camp.

It’s not all moving camera though. There are some really nice static shot compositions here too and one of them was so well done, not what I’m used to seeing from a big budget movie made in the last ten years or so, that I was quite staggered. It’s a scene from the earlier part of the movie where Jeremy Renner is standing out on the porch of the father of the first murder victim, talking to him. He’s kind of half blocked off by a vertical wooden slat so he is in sharp profile in the left hand side of the screen. In the middle of the screen are some more verticals and diagonals and in the foreground, completely out of focus, is the guy he is talking to, also in profile to the right of the screen. So you have three vertical splits with the right of shot like a blurry after echo of the left. Which is all pretty cool but then the director further surprised me by showing just how much he knew about designing within this kind of widescreen format for the big screen, where a jolting cut could pop an audience right out of the action. The reverse shot is taken with the camera at such and angle that Renner’s head and shoulders takes up the same left hand third of the screen with the other actor still on the right... which is exactly how you make a seamless transition without unsettling an audience in a cinema where the contents of a huge, wide canvass is leading their collective eye at any stray movement or cut. It’s text book movie making and I was glad to see it so well executed here.

Although I had no idea who the killer was in this one before the reveal (it’s not that kind of film... the reveal here is the first time you meet the character) there was a point where, quite bizarrely as it happens, where I kinda second guessed the reveal of a certain shot... well I did and I didn’t. To explain, after a certain very intense scene involving a bunch of law officers and Elisabeth Olsen, she is knocking on the door of a trailer and you are almost expecting something to happen. Then you see the person inside the trailer getting up from bed and going to answer the knocking. For some reason, I just knew that when he opened the door I was not going to see Elisabeth Olsen on the other side of the door. I kinda guessed the director was going to pull a switch in the edit and that’s exactly what he did. Where I got it wrong, though, is that I was expecting it to be Renner on the other side of somebody else’s door when, instead, the director doesn’t displace the narrative spatially at all. He instead displaces the narrative in time and it’s here that we are privy to the scene which went on before the opening sequence of the film. That being said, it’s quite a good way to do it and it kinda beats Quentin Tarantino’s way of showing the exact same thing... that is, revealing the back story to an up and coming scene by flagging it up just before it becomes really important, as he did in The Hateful Eight (reviewed here) and as this director does here. It’s a nice little moment and the pay off when we finally do get back to Elisabeth Olsen knocking on that same door is... well, it’s a good one.

At the end of the film we have a scene where the inevitable happens... Renner’s character is a hunter/tracker and he finally catches up with his prey. The nature of the punishment that he metes out is not totally unexpected and, in its ‘poetic justice’ kind of way, it kind of reminded me a little of the way Mel Gibson conducted business at the end of the very first Mad Max movie (reviewed by me here). It’s not a million miles away from that and, after the final denouement, we have two epilogues which pick up some other pieces in the story and... it all goes down very well, to be honest.

The music for the film by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (both of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fame) is quite supportive in places but did get a little too distracting in some moments. This is mainly in some passages where some lyrics are sang over the scoring and... well, I didn’t think too much of it when Hans Zimmer tried that in his score for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (reviewed here... although that makes an awesome concert piece on it own) and I wasn’t too sure of it here. I might pick up the soundtrack CD at some point and see how it holds up as a stand alone listen but, when the vocals aren’t kicking in, it seems an appropriate and supportive score, on the whole.

All in all, Wind River is a pretty fun and quite suspenseful, tension filled thriller which shows just how good Renner and Olsen are together (and they are ably supported by a whole bunch of great actors) with a more leisurely pace than most modern movies today. Which, as far as I’m concerned, just shows how the director appreciates what a slower approach can bring to a movie when the action scenes are given that kind of setting, so they will really jolt the audience in contrast when... ‘stuff goes down’. It’s edgy, has some beautiful, snowy backdrops and it doesn’t once get boring or outstay its welcome. Definitely one to get to see this year if you are serious about seeing good movies when they come out at the cinema. A well made joy from start to finish.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Stratton



Stratton ‘til Morning

Stratton
2017 UK Directed by Simon West
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Some very minor spoilerage in this one.

I always find Simon West a bit hit and miss as a director, to be honest. I hadn’t thought too much of the Stratton trailer when I saw it a few weeks ago but was willing to give it a try because I quite like Dominic Cooper and it’s rare that I actually get to see him headlining a movie... especially an action movie, no less. I loved him as the vampire turned hunter in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (reviewed here), for instance. Stratton is based on the main character from the majority of Duncan Falconer’s novels and is a bit of a stand in for Falconer himself, who modelled the character after his time in the Special Boat Service of the Royal Navy (basically the Navy’s version of the SAS). However, I don’t think this movie is based on any of the specific Stratton novels, or they would have been more forthcoming with a ‘based on’ credit at least somewhere (although I could be wrong).

Now, it has to be said that the film has had some pretty awful word of mouth and, to be fair, it does have its problems but the film is not too bad if you don’t mind the action sequences seeming a bit lacking in this one. Of course, you could argue it’s an action film but, to avoid disappointment, you might want to tell yourself it’s a secret agent film with some action sequences thrown in. Either way, if you’re going for the action you might want to have a little rethink as no reviewer, I would imagine, would call this ‘high octane’ stuff. However, like I said, it’s not too bad.

The film opens strongly with two agents, one of whom is Dominic Cooper as Stratton, as they go through an underwater tube/pipe system to penetrate a ‘secret lair’ but the mission goes horribly wrong due to incorrect intel and also the fact that “the bad guys” knew they were coming. This opening sequence, following on from some nicely designed main titles, is quite suspenseful and everything you could want it to be... up until a point. That point being when the two agents leave the tube system and find themselves in an empty complex with the object of their mission already snaffled by the bad guys, a load of dead workers and a load of gunmen standing between them and their extraction point. It’s here that the inadequacy of the budget (which I assume was low on the evidence of the resulting film) seems to sink in and things get less exciting. For instance, when Stratton lets off all the charges that he and his fellow agent have planted in the ‘is it a secret lair or... what the heck is it’ place, well... we had indoor fireworks once, when I was a kid and, to be honest, they had more of a bang than the sad, little explosion that occurs here.

And that’s the real big problem with this film... the action sequences. I don’t know if the stunts and effects work in this were affected by a terribly low budget, as I imagine it to be, or were just not very well conceived. The case could be made that the dialogue scenes leading up to and around those ‘not quite set pieces’ are actually quite good (although a little predictable) but I did think the writers did well in painting some nice little portraits of the lead character and his team.

Of course, the actors here more than pull their weight with that dialogue, with Cooper ably supported by Derek Jacobi as his ‘boat life friend’ as well as Connie Nielsen, who I’d recently seen as Queen Hippolyta in Wonder Woman (reviewed here), a role she will be reprising in the upcoming Justice League movie, by the looks of things. Here, she plays Stratton’s boss and the dynamic is like a slightly more active version of the Judi Dench version of M from the Bond films but it kinda works and I was quite impressed how the character didn’t do the obvious things like reprimanding the team for the various shenanigans that they botch up during their missions and she seemed like a really fair boss to work for, I’d have to say. Also, watch out for a lady on Stratton’s team called Aggy... she is played here by an actress called Gemma Chan and she’s one of those people who dominates the screen whenever she’s on. I wouldn’t be surprised if some director cottons on to this in future and she starts getting some major league roles (fingers crossed).

Cooper himself is okay in the lead role but I just didn’t really believe him as the kind of action man the writers wanted me to think of him as. I know Henry Cavill dropped out a week before shooting this and I wonder how tailored the role was to that actor. I do know Cooper looks uncannily like GI Joe in this one than was too close for comfort. And by that I mean the specific English character called GI Joe. To explain, as a child no kid had the internet or even much of a hint as to what was going on in the rest of the world in the same period of history other than what they caught on TV so we weren’t really aware of global, alternative brand names. In England, the American GI Joe line was manufactured by Palitoy and known over here, quite affectionately by people of a certain age, as Action Man. However, one of the 'action men' had a scruffy looking beard and that one was known as GI Joe. And it’s this scruffy beard that both Dominik Cooper and his new work partner, played by Austin Stowell, are wearing in this movie as they pursue the bad guy played by Thomas Kretschmann and... I don’t know, it was almost a ‘comedy’ beard as far as I was concerned. I don’t think it helps make Dominic Cooper look like a ‘manly man’s man’ at all and it kind of slips into the realm of camp humour at certain points. Ah well, at least his beard and moustache didn’t get better lines than he did and, despite this slight problem, Mr. Cooper still does a fantastic and believable job with his character so... not complaining too much.

The score, by the way, by Nathaniel Méchaly, is absolutely superb and plays just like the score to a modern Bond movie, only better. It seems to be used a lot in an almost inappropriately up tempo style to make the scenes somehow play faster than they actually are and I couldn’t help but think of a young Elmer Bernstein employing the same tactic to speed up the pacing of The Magnificent Seven all those decades ago. Méchaly does some really good work here and I truly think EON productions should give this one a listen and maybe give him a shot at the next Bond film because, quite frankly, he’s already doing it here. This stuff is in a way different ball park from his earlier scores for the Taken trilogy, for sure. Such a shame, then, that the score is unavailable to buy at the time of writing this review. A nice CD of this would not go amiss.

But like I said, the action is a bit of a problem here. Other action movies might end with a shoot out or chase on a cruise liner or an aircraft or with a big building going boom... this one has a double decker bus chase. Not that I’m knocking the ability of the humble double decker bus to take part in action movies, after all we’ve seen the effectiveness of said transportation in both Live And Let Die (reviewed here) and The Mummy Returns. It has to be said, though, the ending of this movie falls a little shy of spectacular and the post-action scene stab at the possibility of a future romance in Stratton’s life seems like such an afterthought that it’s a little laughable. Also, there’s a twist with one of the characters which is revealed about half way through but, even though I had no clue there should be a twist, I figured out that there would be because one of the characters seemed a little too shady. Which is bizarre but I saw it coming from the opening sequence onwards in terms of the identity of the ‘mole’ in the department so, yeah, not so well played by the writers, on that one, I felt.

All in all, Stratton is not a bad movie... just a little flat. In fact, what it reminded me of mostly was of a really great 'made for TV' movie of the 1970s where they got everything right. It’s just not what I would expect to see being touted in a modern cinema setting. More like an extended episode of The Professionals than something the big leaguers would be knocking out. That being said, I did find it quite enjoyable and diverting so I’ve really no complaints and it genuinely doesn’t deserve the negative attention it’s been getting, that’s for sure. So... see it if you like to watch the odd bit of adventure storytelling and you don’t mind if the action choreography seems a little tame in places. There have been worse movies thrust onto an unsuspecting public this year.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Limehouse Golem



To The Victorian, The Spoils

The Limehouse Golem
2016/17 UK Directed by Juan Carlos Medina
UK cinema release print.


The Limehouse Golem is another one of those movies where I looked at the trailer and thought... "Yeah, not quite grabbing me. Not sure about this." However, I then saw that the film was getting some good feeback on Twitter so I thought I’d give it a go after all and... yeah... I quite liked this one. It’s based on a novel by Peter Akroyd called Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem. The usual caveats apply here as I’ve not read the novel and so can’t be a good judge of how sound an adaptation it is. I can judge it as a movie though so... here goes.     

Dan Leno was a famous music hall performer and the film, set in the 1890s, tells of a ‘Jack The Ripper-like’ murderer, nicknamed The Golem by the press and it mixes real life characters and events in a fictional story. It follows the path of Inspector John Kildare, played by Bill Nighy, who has been assigned to the monstrous ‘Golem’ murders because his superior steps down to scapegoat Kildare since it’s a case which is very much in the press and he doesn’t want to be seen to be failing the investigation (Kildare was originally earmarked for Alan Rickman before he passed on). So Kildare and his new assistant, Constable George Flood, played by the always excellent Daniel Mays, get to work investigating this series of gruesome deaths, a case which soon crosses into another investigation where the other main protagonist of the film, an ex-music hall star called Lizzie Cree, played by Olivia Cooke, is held in prison accused with the murder of her husband. Her late husband is now a suspect in the Golem case and Kildare is so taken with Lizzie that he slants his investigation towards her husband in the hopes that finding out the truth of the matter will be a way to beat the hangman’s noose at the inevitable end of her trial.

Simultaneous to the investigation we are constantly, through eye witness accounts and flashbacks, privy to the path from Lizzie’s tragic childhood background to her rise in the music hall, first assisting and then writing/working with Dan Leno (played amazingly well by Douglas Booth) and the path which leads to her retirement from the stage and into a sexless marriage with her husband.

And it’s all very well done and holds the interest. Especially when each of the various witnesses at certain times throughout the movie are asked to provide a sample of handwriting to compare to a book filled with the writing of the killer. As each of the witnesses, including both Dan Leno himself and the famous Karl Marx, are dictated to by Kildare, we see each of the suspects in turn narrating and participating in one of the gruesome murders (well, not that gruesome, to be sure but perhaps a little more bloody than you might get in a non-horror movie like this one).

And it’s in these kinds of intrusions into the narrative and the way the format of the film is played with via the editing and various transitions to and from the flashbacks of Lizzie’s rise to fame and the various murders in the Golem case that the film really holds the interest, even as it tries to pull the wool over the eyes of the audience in terms of who the actual killer is, in this case.

Now, I have to admit, I thought the killer in this movie was obvious from the start and I have to wonder if it’s less easier to detect in the original written form than it is in a screen presentation. However, well done to the director for at least leading me up the garden path towards the end when a different person to the one I’d thought it was is seen to be guilty. They actually had me thinking I’d got it all wrong for a moment until a ‘not so surprising’ revelation moment brought things straight  back to the person I’d suspected all along. Which, in a way is a shame but, at the same time, I’m glad it wasn’t the person they originally said it was because that would have been a real clunky ending. That being said, I would have preferred to be surprised by the identity of the killer at the end but, alas, it just wasn’t to be.

However, because the whole film itself is in some ways framed as a theatrical production in terms of the way the narrative is injected into the story, it makes up for the obvious ending with a certain poignancy and it doesn’t seem to be short changing the audience in terms of the emotional impact on the part of the surviving characters that actually make it to the film’s finish without being slaughtered.

As well as the names I’ve already mentioned, you also have the impeccable Eddie Marsan as the ‘Uncle’ of the close knit group of actors and Sam Reid as the recently deceased husband of Lizzie Cree. All the actors in this film carry a lot of weight and it’s always a pleasure to see professionals of this magnitude sharing screen time to weave a tale as well executed as this. Henry Goodman is also pretty good in his short scenes as Karl Marx but, for some reason, I can’t find this famous character listed on the IMDB in relation to this movie and nor, it seems, is the actor who plays him (at the time of writing this article) visible at the IMDB either. So I’ve no idea what’s going on there.

Johan Söderqvist, who did the score for Let The Right One In (reviewed by me here in a much shorter review from my early days of writing this blog) does a fantastic job at both mirroring and enhancing the atmosphere in this one... it even reminded me a little of Jerry Goldsmith’s landmark score to ALIEN at some points, in terms of its orchestration on the percussion. Alas, it’s fallen prey to the usual travesty/crime against filmanity which seems to have become more common over the last few years in that the wonderful score is not available on CD at the time of writing and only available as a wretched electronic download. Why that is would be anybody’s guess but I’d much rather have the music released in a proper format than all this stupid electronic shenanigans, which I probably won’t have room to download onto my computer anyway. This silly download practice has got to stop (along with vinyl, 8-track cartridges, cylinders and 78 RPMs).

All in all, though, The Limehouse Golem is an enjoyable film for those of you who like watching Victoriana detective fiction portrayed, as it often is in British cinema, as authentically or, at the very least, atmospherically appropriate a way as possible. Not one for those members of the audience who are easily squeamish, perhaps, although it is only a 15 certificate and it certainly wouldn’t warrant an 18, to be fair. Perfect for those who like to spend their cinematic evening out in the company of a serial killer and an entertaining couple of hours at the very least, for most people. A sly wink of a recommendation from me if you don’t have anything better to go and see on your night out at the pictures.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Patti Cake$



Rap-ture

Patti Cake$
2017 USA Directed by Geremy Jasper 
UK cinema release print.


Just took a walk down to my local flea pit,
And took in a movie where the people were writ,
With a style, a heart, a shock to the head,
The team behind this one weren’t swingin’ the lead.

There’s Danielle Macdonald, she was really that great,
She wants to be a rapper with her double best mate,
A geezah named Jheri, he brightens her day,
Played by a cool bro named Siddharth Dhananjay.

The third in the crew is a charmer named Bastard,
Mamoudou Athie plays him, you know you’ve been mastered.
And with Patti’s wheelchair nanny, providing backing vocals,
You know this crew are jamming stuff that’s too good for the locals.

In the very first five minutes, the film had my heart,
With the Walter Mitty dreamings that give Patti her art,
She walks down the street with her headphones up to there,
As she carries on walking, she floats in the air.

The movie shows the tough times with a structure clichéd,
But with details so fresh, you need to wear your eye-shade.
The hand held camera, the slow pans and the dead pans,
This movie jumps out way ahead, some others are the also rans.

The film is anchored up with an old school aesthetic,
But don't let this fool you 'cause the pacing is quite hectic.
The rhythms, the beats, the shots aren't apoplectic,
The main man, Mr. Jasper, keeps it all quite copacetic.

Performance is key and the actors do so good,
Not a bad one in the bunch, you must see it, you should.
The tension, the heartache, the camera is all over it,
Surely for this viewer, it’s a fresher sure fire hit.

The film doesn’t stumble, not once, it’s just crazy,
And the editing so good, you know it won’t get hazy,
On transitions to real life and the dreams in Patti’s mind,
A better “rap to get out” movie? That you won’t find.

The film has the highs and lows, perhaps it’s formulaic,
But the way the thing is told here doesn’t get too algebraic.
There’s pressure, there passion, my heart filled with elations,
When Patti finally gets down to some sexual relations.

But for all the genre trappings of the structure of this show,
This movie doesn’t quite get where you think it’s gonna go.
The ending scene just owns it, sheer poetry, it’s right where,
It takes out your heart and you’re dancing on air.

Director Geremy Jasper also wrote it plus the music,
Along with Jason Binnick and the beats won’t make you too sick.
This movie it rocked me, it got me writing rhyme,
So you know I must have had myself a triple real good time.

If you want something special in your cinema this week,
You really should see Patti Cake$, ‘cos this film it is so sweet.
And Patti is a honey, you know she’ll treat you right,
If you head out to watch this one, you’ll have a great night!